Review: Pentax 67 6x7 SLR Camera And Lenses

An informal review by Hamish Reid.

Review Copyright © 1994, 1995 Hamish Reid. All Rights Reserved.


Introduction

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 Digest).

Background

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...).

Summary

If you want a relatively cheap 6x7 SLR with a wide range of good-to- excellent quality lenses, and you do the sort of work where motor drives, fast flash sync, interchangeable backs, and / or hand-held work are all unimportant, then this is a great camera. For things like landscapes, "natural" portraits, streetscapes, etc., this is an excellent camera when used properly.

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.

Equipment Reviewed

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 overall mechanical quality of this camera and the lenses I've used is excellent -- they're reliable, tough, and the body is surprisingly light (compared to, say, an RZ67...). The camera and lenses fit together well, every part has always worked exactly as advertised, and nothing about this camera is hard to use. Changing film is straightforward and relatively easy.

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.

Optical Quality

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 problem.

Hand-Held Work

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 done.

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 inconspicuous.

The obvious alternative is to buy a range finder... (the Mamiya 6 comes to mind for some reason).

Tips

Some of these are obvious, but they probably still need to be said:

Advantages

Disadvantages