Photographing the North Carolina Outer Banks with the Pentax 645Z

In early May, before the mosquitoes, heat, crowds and tropical storms descended on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I packed my gear and headed to the coast. My longtime friend and colleague from Illinois, Ron Basinger, joined me for the week. Ron’s an excellent photographer and has an outstanding gallery of lighthouse images on PBase. The North Carolina Outer Banks is one of my favorite travel destinations. It’s a photographer’s paradise, with wildlife, eye-popping sunrises and sunsets, lighthouses, beach scenes, and harbors to fill several days of shooting. The seafood ain’t bad either!

For this trip, instead of packing my Sony α7RII, I decided to go medium format and took a recently acquired Pentax 645Z. The 645Z is a digital medium format camera based on the Pentax 645D body and incorporating a 50MP Sony sensor. The camera body form factor is basically a “D”, chunky and relatively heavy. There are a few modern Pentax 645 lenses designed specifically for digital and for the higher resolution sensor. However, I’ve found that some of the legacy Pentax lenses perform quite well. My go-to lens for this trip was the Pentax FA 645 45-85mm f/4.5 zoom, an autofocus zoom covering approximately the 35mm-70mm range in 35mm film terms. A good copy of that lens, when stopped down, produces sharp images corner to corner. And with a 50MP camera, there’s considerable latitude for cropping if the corners or edges are soft.

The “Z” produces outstanding results, with excellent color and contrast. In my opinion, the dynamic range exceeds that of the Sony and the tonality is exceptional. Rarely have I encountered shadows or highlights that didn’t show considerable detail.

Despite my affinity to the medium range zoom lens, I took a full bag of gear including:

  • Pentax smc FA 645 45-85mm f/4.5 Lens
  • Pentax smc FA 645 35mm f/3.5 AL [IF] Lens
  • Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5 Lens

After using the 645Z for this trip, I’d summarize its positives and negatives this way:

  • 50MP medium format image quality at a price that doesn’t require a second mortgage (compared to other medium format alternatives)
  • Large, easy-to-read rear LCD and convenient controls
  • Inexpensive legacy lenses that produce excellent image quality if one shops wisely (and stops down)
  • Comprehensive feature set, much like professional DSLRs
  • Good autofocus speed
  • Weather sealed (when using newer lenses)


  • Heavy, chunky and difficult to hand-hold for a lengthy period of time (Hint: pack a tripod)
  • Significant vibration due to mirror “slap” (Hint: use mirror lock-up and self timer)
  • Modern, weather-sealed, lenses are expensive
  • Newer lenses designed for digital, and specifically for the 645Z, are heavy and large/bulky
  • Too many buttons, dials and wheels to remember

Finally, below are several photos from the trip. More images are in my Outer Banks gallery.


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