Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
I've been a Pentax 67 user for many years now, and in response to the
inevitable "what's it like?" queries, here's a long-promised review (as first
published in the Medium Format
The Pentax was my first non-35mm camera. After several years of 35mm
photography, I was dissatisfied with the grain and overall quality of 35mm when
used for streetscapes, landscapes, buildings, and portraits (35mm's grain can,
however, be quite a plus for portraits and street scenes). I wanted a camera with
interchangeable lenses that I could lug around the place but still use hand-held
if I had to. After renting several medium format cameras from Gasser's in San
Francisco I decided I prefered the 6x7 format to 6x4.5 or 6x6 (6x7 seemed to fit
my standard print sizes with less cropping than 6x6, and 6x4.5 always seems a
smidgeon too much like 35mm for me...).
I decided on the Pentax mostly because 1) the price was right (much cheaper
than its competitors at the time, the Mamiya RB and RZ systems, or the Bronica
SQA); and 2), it felt easier to use hand-held than the Mamiyas or the Bronica
(but more on this later...).
If, on the other hand, you want a versatile studio camera that can also be
used outdoors, I believe you'd be better off with the Mamiya, Hasselblad, or
Bronica systems. Similarly, if you want a medium format camera for mostly
hand-held work, you're probably better off with a good rangefinder - the Pentax
is surprisingly bad at hand-held shots, despite its looking like the proverbial
35mm on steroids.
Pentax 67 6x7 body with mirror lockup (MLU)
Pentax 55mm/f4 lens
Pentax 90mm/f2.8 lens
Pentax 165mm/f4 lens
Pentax non-metered prism finder
Overall Feature Review
The P67 body looks, of course, like a large 35mm SLR, and comes with mirror
lock up (MLU), focal plane shutter with electronic shutter timing (1/1000 to 1
second, B, T with fiddling...), and flash sync outlet. Both metered and
non-metered prisms are available, as is a waist-level finder. The body takes 120
and 220 film - there's a backplate switch for this which also affects the winder
and frame counter. Several different viewing screens are available, including
split, plain, and grid.
A large variety of lenses is available for this camera, including the usual
fisheye, shift (75mm), long lenses (the longest is 1 metre, corresponding roughly
to a 500mm lens for a 35mm camera), and at least one lens with a leaf shutter
(one of the 165mm lenses).
Mechanics & Mechanical Quality
The Pentax has now survived the usual treatment, having been dragged around
and through the mountains and deserts of California, Nevada, Arizona, the streets
of Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville and San Francisco, and nothing has ever broken
or gone wrong.
I haven't done any scientific tests (and never will), but assuming a system
mounted on a good tripod (I use a Bogen 3036) and the use of MLU and a cable
release, optical quality with the 55mm and 90mm lenses is excellent on prints of
16x20 or 20x24. Several of these prints come close to 4x5 quality; all of them
are much better (in terms of tonal range and lack of grain) than corresponding
35mm cameras. Side-by-side comparisons with the same shot using similar
Hasselblad gear shows no detectable difference for the sort of work I do
(however, this means little about the results with things like close-ups or
long-exposure photography that I don't do, so take this with a pinch of
salt). Both lenses work best at about f/11, of course, but shots taken at f/16 do
not show any easily-detectable distortion or lack of sharpness. Contrast appears
to be high on both lenses.
I'm less sure about the 165mm lens. Results seem to indicate that this lens
(or at least my version of it) has a softer contrast and overall sharpness than
the other two. I'm still fairly happy with it - it's produced a few great-looking
shots in the mountains - but I have to admit that I often end up using my 4x5
with the 300mm lens for landscape shots I would otherwise have used the 165mm P67
lens on. Having said this, it's a great lens for portraits and people shots.
Film flatness has never been a problem for me with this camera; I have yet to
hear of it being a problem for any P67 user. I suspect the design makes it harder
for the film to bow than for other cameras, but this is only a suspicion....
Several people on Usenet have complained about shutter (as opposed to mirror)
shake with this camera with shutter speeds between about 1/30 and 1/2 second, but
I haven't found this to be a problem with the shots I do (I usually work in full
daylight with speeds above 1/30). The shutter is certainly large, and I can well
believe it can cause problems, but with a good tripod I suspect it's not a big
This was where the Pentax turned out to be a bit of a disappointment: despite
its looks, this is not an easy camera to use for hand-held shots - but it can be
The most obvious problem is the mirror. The mirror is huge, and without
a tripod, if you don't use MLU the camera has a tremendous and very obvious
turning moment with shutter speeds slower than about 1/250. Of course,
"hand-held" means you aren't using a tripod, and MLU is tricky at best
hand-held (see below).
There are two ways around this problem:
1) Use faster film; or, 2) Learn to use MLU hand-held where possible.
Faster film certainly helps - if you can get the shutter speed up to 1/250 or
1/500, the mirror's effects are usually not a problem (but still noticeable if
you really look); this is fine for certain shots. In any case, ISO 400 shots at
6x7 certainly look as good as ISO 100 shots at 35mm.
Using MLU hand-held is tricky, but doable. The obvious approach is to frame
the shot, fire the MLU, hold the camera as steady as possible for the next few
seconds, then fire the shutter. If you can do this reliably, good luck to you -
the rest of us probably get the desired shot about 25 - 50% of the time, the most
usual problem being camera "wander" rather than any shake. Over the years I've
sort of got this down rote, but it's still hardly an exact science.
Another potential problem with the Pentax for hand-held work is that it's not
exactly a small camera. The body and a full complement of (say) three
lenses take up a lot of room, and this is not the best or most compact camera for
things like backpacking, or, indeed, trying to walk through a city looking
The obvious alternative is to buy a range finder... (the
Mamiya 6 comes to mind for some reason).
Some of these are obvious, but they probably still need to be said:
Always use a tripod with this camera. This is obvious, but modulo the
comments earlier about hand-held shots, this camera, like most medium format
cameras, cries out for a tripod. And not just any tripod - a heavy, steady
tripod, with a good head on it. Don't skimp on the tripod - you'll pay for it
later in overall picture quality.
Use mirror lock up whenever possible (the P67 makes this easy). Again, this
might strike oldtimers as obvious, but MLU (with tripod) is essential to coaxing
technically good shots from this camera.
It's cheap! Even with the latest price increases, the Pentax 67 is still one
of the cheapest medium format SLRs around. It's still true that the body can be
bought for the price of a single 120 Hasselblad film holder, and that lenses cost
considerably less than their Mamiya, Bronica, or Hasselblad equivalent. You can
also find good gear second hand at swap meets or reputable shops for pretty good
High quality. This is a pretty basic system, but what's there is usually high
quality. Sure, it looks kinda clunky and doesn't have Zeiss glass, but the
results I've seen speak for themselves.
It's a system. Apart from lacking a few things like motor winders, this is a
complete system - there's a full range of lenses and accesories available for
It's widely used. This is not an obscure camera, and it's possible to buy
lenses and bodies on the used market at reasonable prices. People are pretty
familiar with it.
No motor winder: this camera has a manual winder only, a limitation that can
be critical in a studio.
As sold straight out of the box, the Pentax's MLU uses the battery - the MLU
is fired and held by solenoids, meaning that it uses battery current whenever MLU
is on. This won't be a problem for most users, but if you're doing the sort of
work (like astronomy) where MLU needs to be on for more than a few seconds at a
time, Pentax can modify your camera to keep the mirror mechanically locked
The highest flash sync speed is 1/30 second. This is OK for some studio work,
but quite unnaceptable for things like flash fill outdoors. This has never
bothered me, but it's quite a limitation for certain types of photography.
No removable back. This is a pain - there's always a time when you want to
switch films half way through a film - but two observations here:
Film is cheap - just change it and be damned!
Pentax 67 bodies are (relatively) cheap - they cost about as much as a
Hasselblad film back, so go on, buy two bodies.
Neither of these is ideal, but the lack of a removable back turned out to be
less of a limitation than I'd suspected.
No cheap polaroid back. Coupled with the above limitation, there's no cheap
removable polaroid back for this camera. Yes, you can get a polaroid back, but it
involves mods to the body, and isn't cheap.