The Pentax 6x7 has been one of the most sought after, coveted and loved medium format cameras to date! So much so that I went to all the effort of importing one from Japan just to write this review and release it into the wild once again! But not before putting 20-30 rolls of film through it as my primary, serious, photograph taking tool. Especially for portraits and landscapes. Is it just a tool however? Is there more to the camera that meets the eye? Hopefully I’ll answer the questions for you in this review and bring the legend to life. This particular set up features three lenses to boot; the 75mm f/4.5, 105mm f/2.4 and 200mm f/4.0, all of which are truly astounding performers. These lenses really show off the incredible depth of field achieved by this camera whilst keeping everything in the focus-plane tack sharp with a beautiful colour rendition across all aperture values.
Starting with the camera body, the utilitarian yet bold and stylish design of the Pentax 6x7 is metaphorically massive, yet firm and precise. Built like a tank and clad in leatherette paneling with chrome detailing it’s simply breath taking. The viewfinder is removable and sports a large “ASAHI PENTAX” logo in silver on the front above the lens mount. There are other viewfinders available for the system including a metered head, which I have used and meters as well as any centre-weighted system (I have a light meter and prefer to take reflected spot readings where possible) and a waist level viewfinder. The latter is great for street work and being discreet with the Pentax 6x7. In knowing the camera, this statement is laughable. Very laughable. But I do love waist level viewfinders and if it’s not too quiet street photography is entirely possible with the 6x7! The body isn’t necessarily designed to be discreet though, or be used to “run and gun”. The camera can be a serious precision tool and yields breathtaking results if used in a more considerate manner. 120 film will give you 10 exposures at 6x7 in ratio. Although that’s considerably less than 36, that’s FOUR TIMES as much film surface area exposed in a single exposure when compared to 35mm film. Holy f***ing shit. Ergo, ridiculous depth of field and insane image quality. And when I'm taking my time to consider each shot, 10 feel like a lot! When all of this is paired with the simply fantastic super multi coated lenses made by Pentax Asahi, I have seen very few medium format image making machines that give as clear and full of character images as the Pentax 6x7. Especially in the field of portraiture. The body’s SLR design is familiar to essentially every photographer that has ever held an SLR, but in this instance it’s just gigantic. Shutter speeds of 1/1000s - 1s plus B are selectable on the dial to the left of the viewfinder and above the battery test button, of which does exactly that and lights up a little red LED if the batteries are good.
Size and Shutter Slap
The shutter itself is loud, not quite a star imploding supernova but certainly louder than a small squadron of fighter jets flying low enough to take your roof tiles off. Joking aside. It’s loud. This is almost definitely not a problem when shooting with this camera, as there are countless wonderful leaf shutter medium format cameras that have a comparable image quality and similar or lower prices than the 6x7 that can be used for quiet reportage and street photography. This is industrial in culture. Portraits all DAY son. And it certainly delivers in robust reliability. It does make the camera rather heavy though, almost as if you were holding three Nikon F5s together at once. Get a thick strap or plan on taking it in and out of bags all day. The body and three lenses weigh a lot. I can just about fit the body with 105mm attached, 75mm in a compartment and the 200mm in an external Avea 5 on a Billingham Hadley Pro. That’s the smallest set up I could fit it in! And you are absolutely not taking sandwiches with you. Other than the “shutter slap” debate coming up, that’s about all that there is to comment on regarding the body, there’s only one other button below the 6x7 lettering and that’s to reset the mirror if it gets interrupted whilst travelling e.g. battery failure. Nothing else needed, we can promise you that. Long exposures? Threaded shutter release. Self timer? Not a selfie camera. Aperture priority system? Aperture priority is for wimps. (I kid, I use AP all the time for travel photography!) But seriously, simplicity is key and this camera will not let you down. For this review I did not have the wooden grip. So I decided to review the camera anyway and focus more heavily on the lenses. But the grip can make the camera far more easily useable if you’re not the strongest of photographers or don’t have large hands.
And now for the part you have all been waiting for! Does the mirror slap make this camera difficult in shooting low light / slow shutter speeds? Will it be impossible to shoot neon-lit fashion or long exposures on a tripod? In short: no. To give a longer answer, kinda, it depends. With 99% of the photographs I have taken, after breaking the camera in, or rather, IT breaking ME in, I didn’t find it to be an issue. In the first week or so of shooting it was, I just had to learn how to handle a new type of tool. To expand on this, when shooting 1/60s or below using the 105mm you really do have to hold it well, whatever works for you, for me, exhaling and shooting half way through the breath whist standing like a crab with the camera almost overly supported in a firm grip, seems to do the trick. You do have to take your time with it and make sure everyone, yourself included, is ready to create a piece of art. Not a flippant point-n-pray type of shot unless you’re very lucky. With this all in mind it’s really easy to shoot the Pentax 6x7 in challenging light. If you need to be critically sharp, easily doable in good to fair light with speeds at 1/125s or greater with no worries at all. The P67 on a tripod was a serious issue at first, every single time that I tried to shoot anything at all on a tripod beneath 1/30s the results were awful. Even with a shutter release cable. Eventually we tried the “hat in front of the lens” long exposure method and the problem became very apparent. The tripod we were using was not a very well built tripod however, and simply not well built enough for the P67 and the 200mm lens attached. Since upgrading to an even stronger tripod designed for old movie cameras, no issue at all. Still, wouldn’t want to cart that all up a chuffing mountain.
75 / 4.5
What makes the system are the lenses, and the lenses make perfect sense when I consider the origins in Asahi Takumar lens pedigree from the 50s. Rumour has it that many lenses were made at a loss in the early days of the company just to beat western market alternatives and to demonstrate the technical superiority of Japan post war. The exceptionally well made lenses have continued being designed and have evolved for both 35mm and medium format into the 60s, 70s and beyond. During these decades the lenses reviewed here in this review were developed and have the “Super Multi Coated” designation that gave them superior contrast and sharpness and less flare than their predecessors. I have pretty much nothing bad to say about any of the lenses. The garden scene was captured by the 75mm stopped down to f/11 and shows beautiful tonal renditions and colour saturation. Detail in the closest flower beds and most distant rooftops are captured perfectly and can be printed at ludicrously large sizes. The limit there will be the ability of the scanner or enlarger rather than the camera lens in most cases. This 75mm is a 35mm equivalent if converted to the field of view of a 35mm SLR.
The lenses control flare remarkably well considering their age and can give the photographer great contrast in the most challenging of lighting conditions. The photograph of the foggy avenue was taken with a large amount of flare in the viewfinder using the 75mm lens but upon scanning showed far more “together” results than expected. This was shot at f/11. Wide open the lens delivers an enveloping image that seems to make you part of the photograph, the separation is incredible and bokeh smooth and confident. Overall this 75mm lens is sharp as hell, gives wonderful tonal range, and is full of character wide open, but behaves itself when you need something that can deliver world class performance in the realm of analogue medium format photography when even slightly stopped down. It’s friggin’ huge mind. So watch out for that. Seriously, you could pop it in a sock and beat someone down to a soup with it with little to no resistance, go back for seconds, and still be able to pop it back on the camera and shoot it with no issue immediately afterwards.
105 / 2.4
The 105mm is an absolute portrait diamond, with incredible bokeh, great resolution wide open and a warm tone due to its aged optics multi coating yellowing (that apparently is also a little radioactive!) I very much enjoy shooting with this lens and found to use it around 60% of the time, with the 75/200 20% of the time each depending on what was required. Almost every portrait in this review was captured with the 105mm and it pretty much speaks for itself. In fact, this was one of the primary reasons I spent so much time tracking down the perfect lot to import. F/2.4 is really fast when used on a 6x7 format camera and gives the image a distinct 3D effect that simply has more character than most 35mm lenses, even considerably faster ones, and can not be replicated in any other way than owning one yourself. The 105mm lens is the lens that, in my opinion, made the system.
EDIT: Since writing this review in early 2020, I have actually found the 134/4 Macro to be an extremely good portrait lens, example immediately below.
One huge detail that doesn’t seem to be too often mentioned is the fact that f/2.4 is plenty fast enough to shoot low light hand held with your new and improved P67 handling techniques and some medium to high speed film. We haven’t yet put a roll of 3200 through it yet, or P3200. EDIT: Kodak have now released P3200 again! Happy days!
Another consideration is focussing using the prism viewfinder. Observing a pattern here, at first I found it quite hard to use the micro-prism centre spot that is all sort of spangly (is that even a word?) until the subject enters focus and the spangly bits go away. What an awful description, apologies. As I gained knowledge and became more familiar I found that relying on the entire focus matte and taking your time was always the best course of action when shooting the 105mm wide open. I actually found it easier to see over the entire frame and more reliable than missing spangly bits. In the portrait of my good friend Abdel, the centre of the brim of his cap, or just in front of the tip of his nose was actually where the plane of focus resides. This leaves his face a little softer than desirable although still delivers and acceptable portrait.
200 / 4
The 200mm is a great workhorse lens for larger subjects, group shots and with the included macro attachment, a great macro lens. Good sharpness throughout the aperture range and astounding contrast and colour rendition in line with the previous two lenses mentioned. The lens is fairly long and about the girth of a pint can of beer. Or two and a bit inches, let’s call it three. A bit bizarrely the lens has a pretty poor minimum focussing distance for what one would consider portrait territory but with the macro attachment can be used for very close up portrait work. It's perfect for families or full body portraits with great subject separation. When this lens arrived with us the aperture pin had been damaged in transit. I as able to remove the part and reset it in a vice before replacing the part and testing it to ensure aperture blade accuracy and reliability.
In summary then, I find that the Pentax 6x7 deserves its venerable reputation as the king of all medium format SLRs and is perfect for studio / portraits / fashion shoots that require premium lens quality and a reliable platform for advanced amateur commercial photography. The lenses are all special in their own way and deliver superb images full of life and character. This camera can define a look or complete an ethos of a portfolio and is designed to be a photographers partner in crime, not a simple tool of reproduction and documentation. This camera has a soul, a mind, a heart and will go on in history as the most prolific time that Pentax absolutely smashed it out of the park in the medium format market. This is by far one of, if not my most favourite medium format camera I've seen to date ! And there have been a LOT of cameras.