Pentax reshapes medium-format camera future

Don't expect Canon and Nikon to flinch, but Pentax's forthcoming 645D medium-format digital camera could change Pentax's fortunes.

The medium-format market is mostly an obscure niche of the digital-camera industry. Prices are high, customers must have lavish budgets, and optics and sensor technology is different from the SLR realm.

Heck, most people hadn't heard of the brand names involved. Until now: This time it's Pentax that announced its entry into the market with a product called the 645D.

Pentax's upcoming 645D medium-format digital camera.
Pentax's upcoming 645D medium-format digital camera. Pentax

It's not going to rewrite the rules of photography. It'll be available only in Japan, at least for starters when it ships in May, it needs its own lenses, and it costs 850,000 yen--about $9,200. But there are enough interesting developments here that it's worth noting.

Medium-format cameras have been niche items for years, distinguished from SLRs chiefly by their larger of a film frame. Now that digital sensors are in and film is out, though, the comparative costs of medium-format cameras have surged, because making a large sensor is a lot more expensive than making a smaller one. Pentax's model uses a 40-megapixel Kodak sensor measuring 44x33mm, larger than a "full-frame" SLR that uses the 36x24mm frame size of 35mm film and a lot larger than the sensors in mainstream digital SLRs.

To go a bit beyond the press release, I recommend reading Luminous Landscape's interview with Pentax's Yasuyuki Maekawa about the 645D. It triggered a number of thoughts about medium format and Pentax's effort.

• Pentax doesn't have a full-frame SLR line it has to worry about cannibalizing. Nikon and Canon are going after medium-format photographers--often the types who shoot lavish spreads for fashion magazines and sumptuous houses for architecture magazines--leading with their full-frame models such as the 24-megapixel Nikon D3X and 21-megapixel Canon 1Ds Mark III. Pentax only has smaller-sensor SLRs, and they're not terribly likely to compete with medium-format models or vice versa. The 645D could put Pentax in a new, higher-prestige class.

• Pentax has a lot of experience with mass-market cameras. It has good experience with metering, autofocus, ergonomics, durability, shutters, image processing, and other basic but essential and by no means simple camera technology. This could help distinguish its products from other medium-format offerings. The 645D won't offer live view through its LCD, something I could see some medium-format photographers appreciating, but don't rule it out for future models.

• The company said it secured lower component prices by banking on higher unit shipment volumes. This is a bit of a gamble, especially given the rocky history of medium-format cameras in the digital era, but if it pays off it could mean a virtuous cycle of comparatively low prices and comparatively high shipments for Pentax that pressures other medium-format companies.

• Pentax is pitching its medium-format model primarily at landscape photographers. This is a smaller slice of the medium-format world, but a more realistic one for Pentax to penetrate. Its 645D has weather sealing that's useful, but more significantly, Pentax would have a hard time convincing fashion photographers to offload tens of thousands of dollars' worth of Hasselblad, Mamiya, and Phase One medium-format equipment.

• Pentax plans more medium-format models in the future. This is something of a no-brainer, but it does telegraph some commitment to the marketplace that's welcome given Pentax's on-again, off-again plans for the 645D. I do wonder if they're aiming for higher-end models or lower-price models.

• The 645D has an integrated sensor and camera body. This differs from old-school medium-format cameras, which had detachable film backs, and from the current Mamiya-Phase One approach with detachable digital backs. But it's similar to Hasselblad's newer integrated approach. From a business perspective, the integrated design means a camera maker doesn't lose business to a digital-back maker like Phase One. Pentax justified its approach based on technology matters--durability and positioning the sensor with precision, though.

• It's smart to start in Japan only for now and to cater to older film-based 645 customers, given Pentax's desire to keep within its existing support and appeal to its earlier medium-format customers. It also makes it easier for the company to declare victory with such bounded ambitions.

• Pentax gives an unreserved endorsement to Adobe's Digital Negative (DNG) format for recording raw images taken from the sensor without in-camera processing, a change triggered by support for compression that Pentax missed earlier with DNG. This file format makes life easier for Pentax, since it doesn't have to work as hard on persuading any number of software companies to support its raw format.

• It's nice that Pentax is bringing modern amenities such as dust-removing sensor shaking to the medium-format realm, but digital brings other complications besides pesky flecks of dust. One big one is lenses; film-era lenses need updating for digital cameras. One issue is that image sensors don't like light that doesn't travel perpendicularly to the lens, a non-issue with film, and another is that sensors reflect light back out, making ghosting and flare a worse problem. Pentax announced a new 55mm lens and in the interview said it's planning a wide-angle model.

Overall I'm encouraged by Pentax's move. Medium-format cameras can provide a lot of image quality, even if mostly only higher-end professionals and wealthy hobbyists use them. Pentax has the potential to keep medium format alive in the 35mm SLR era--perhaps even to give crucial suppliers such as sensor makers a shot in the arm. I doubt it will dent the dominance of Canon and Nikon, but it holds the potential to help some photographers and give Pentax some high-end cachet it currently lacks.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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