camera review

What I learned shooting #005: Pentax 6x7 (MLU)

What I learned Shooting #005: Pentax 6x7 (MLU)

I deeply resent that I have to write this article. I deeply resent the fact that I paid 200 dollars for a broken Pentax 6x7, and then had to throw another 100 bucks to get it to work. I resent the fact that the Pentax 6x7 is the it-girl camera (or at least, it sure seems like it) in medium format right now, alongside the Mamiya 7ii, the evergreen favorite.

I know your first instinct as a reader will be to ask “why bother writing it if you hate doing it, or that you have to do it” -- and to that my response is simple: reviews, specifically camera reviews for in-demand cameras get website traffic. Likewise with film reviews for permanent favorite emulsions, ie your HP5+, your Portra 400, your Ektar, your Fuji Pro400h Reviews. I’m not above a little commercialism, I’d even argue it’s healthy.

That aside, The Pentax 6x7 (MLU) or non MLU is a great camera, and I do really like it, a lot. Some of the images I’ve gotten from it, like the glassy more-than-real, but still organic images it produces when I’m shooting at the heights of my abilities (not trying to be egocentric, it just seems like the highs that come out of this camera are really, really really high). I’m probably never going to sell it, if for no other reason, than I could probably never afford to buy the dumb thing back.

To save you the trouble of reading *another* fawning. Pentax 6x7 review:

The Pentax 6x7 is a big clunky steel machine with no frills. The lenses are my favorite general look of all the medium format systems that I’ve seen, or had access to so far. It’s capable of taking some really amazing photos that would be very very hard to replicate in 35mm. I think the best examples currently posted up on my website are the photos in Feature #4: Apocalypse Gulch. I think my (current) flagship Editorial Homecoming (Mourning) is great, and it shows off the optics, but not quite as clearly as the Salton Sea photos.

For a slightly different perspective, I think this review by Daniel J. Schneider is probably more helpful to an actual potential buyer than my post/review/essay this is going to be.

My Best/Worst about the camera, with brief explanations:

Here’s my top five favorite things about the camera:

  1. The Lenses, and their rendering. I know in terms of pure sharpness the Zeiss lenses on the Hasselblad probably blow the Pentax 6x7’s to shit, as well as the painfully sharp Mamiya RB/RZ or Mamiya 7 series glass; but I think the Pentax lenses have tend to have a certain (still super sharp/high resolving power, if that’s your bag) human look that suits my own particular need/style of photography really well.

  2. The Viewfinder is kinda magic. Not like it makes you better, but just having a giant bright image makes it really nice to compose and shoot on. I guess I have some (minor) complaints about the focusing because the depth of field tends to be super thin, but overall, the viewfinder (ground glass) just shines. I haven’t had a chance to use a dedicated waist level finder or chimney on the Pentax 6x7, but when I’ve just stared down through the ground glass it’s pretty amazing.

  3. The Aspect Ratio. The Pentax 6x7 has a nearly perfect 4:3 ratio, which, for what it’s worth makes it pretty perfect for darkroom printing on the common sizes, ie 8x10, 11x14, 20*24. Beyond that I think the the boxy, relatively even aspect ratio also lends itself to a more thoughtful, slow composition style, as opposed to the more dynamic ratio of 3:2 (ie 35mm). I know cropping is always an option, but usually the way the box or viewfinder

  4. It’s Imposing. I know I typically tout the Minolta XD-11’s nice compact feel in hand, and the form factor is small, so this may come as a surprise. But I like that the Pentax 6x7 is a big, gnarly, imposing camera, that makes a loud-ish, clack, when the shutter fires. It makes you, and to some extent, the subject (if you’re doing portraiture) take the camera seriously. It feels like an event, when you shoot and work with the camera, but maybe not as involved or static as one would when shooting and setting up a large format.

  5. (hypocritically) Flex Value. I’ve pissed and moaned a lot about price here (or if you keep reading I will), but there’s something kinda nice about owning an expensive piece of gear, and one that seems to be retaining it’s value, or even increasing it. I typically scoff at the Leica community, more for the idolatry of the red dot and the flex around it, but it’s kinda nice to brag that you got a deal on your (now expensive) camera, and show it off some. But not too much, nobody likes a rich prick.

Here’s some stuff I don’t love about the camera:

  1. It’s heavy. Not so heavy that it’ll break your back, or do permanent damage right off the bat, but the thing is definitely very heavy, and after a long day of hiking with the thing, you’re not going to feel great. I don’t actually care that the camera’s big or (relatively) loud -- I’m not really a street photographer, or at least what I do in street photography is so irrelevant to disturbing people that the noise and physical size/threatening look of the Pentax 6x7 don’t really matter that much.

  2. It’s expensive, and the price of replacement is just going to keep going up. A big reason why I’ve never even bothered to experiment with another system is that I don’t think I’d get enough money back selling whatever else I tried to buy back my original equipment if I didn’t like it -- and the camera’s good enough for what I use it for that I guess it doesn’t matter, but I still don’t like the thought of paying another 500 dollars to shoot the camera.

  3. The Eye level finder only covers 90% of the frame. It’s a perfectly nice finder/prism, but missing 10% of your image can be kinda tough, or like easy to forget about. Usually the image is pretty much exactly what I shoot, but that extra 10% has definitely snuck up on me before, requiring me to go back and crop back in, which overall is fine, but definitely a little demoralizing or frustrating.

  4. The flash sync speed kinda sucks. There’s no real good way to shoot flash with the camera, handheld, even with the specialized leaf shutter lenses, it’s still a pain and a lot of button clicks to get everything right, and not really anything you’d want to do handheld. I’m not a huge flash shooter or anything but this is admittedly, a significant border to entry for me.

  5. I’m now part of the medium format community, or like, if I want to share something (like this or one of my features/editorials) on facebook to a group to kinda get more eyes on it, I have to wade through the sea of shit that is the group of dumb, stubborn, fucks with no discernable taste who see fit to constantly criticize anything they neither understand nor like for not meeting their narrow, boring, and tasteless criteria of good photography, that seems to reek of being a professional hobbyist who approaches photography as an engineering question than an art. On top of that, the belief that they could be wrong is so foreign to them, that they refuse to try to see anything in a light that doesn’t favor them. There are plenty of perfectly nice people in the groups, but I get burnt out pretty quickly from the constant trolling, or dickish “criticism” which contains no palpable or helpful criticism that tends to hang over the board. (If this is you, you can kindly fuck right off my website, thanks.)

That brings me to, the eponymous section of the review/column:

So, what did I/have I learned shooting the Pentax 6x7:

  1. It’s probably way overpriced for what it should be, or like, I remember looking into buying one three to five years ago (I wasn’t ready for one) and it was like 200 bucks, maybe 300-400 with a lens. Tops. I know the whole film market has grown, and I should be happy, but as someone who’s been a (relatively) long-term film shooter, it kinda chaps my ass that all these johnny come lately kids are (un-intentionally) jacking the price of gear way the fuck up. I guess I should just be glad I don’t give a fuck about premium point and shoots.For a point of comparison, and SEO ranking, even the price of my beloved Minolta XD series cameras, have shot through the roof. Five years ago, when I got my first one, it was basically in mint condition, and I paid maybe 50 bucks for it. To get one of a decent quality, now, it’s something like $150 -- and even then the internal guts of the thing are a crapshoot. Additionally, it’s not like there’s a lot on the US used market either -- so you’re stuck gambling on Japanese eBay, which isn’t totally unreasonably priced, considering convenience of being able to just order the camera, but it’s always 30-40% over whatever budget I have for a camera or lens. Paralleled to the Pentax 6*7, even when I was buying mine, I remember the market being about 400 for a body only, with an unmetered prism, if you’re lucky. All this should probably be couched in “Andrew is an aggressively cheap bastard when  any purchase over $100 dollars is involved -- and his sense of value is way way stunted.”

  2. I like the camera and love the images it produces but I have yet to really bond with the camera in a meaningful way, or build a real relationship aside from “this camera is a tool, a really good tool.” My only real hypotheses are that 1. I haven’t gotten Stockholm syndrome’d by the camera yet -- it’s only been a year and some change, which leads into 2. The weight and expense of the camera, ie the price of 120 film (development and scanning, too), having repairs and CLA’s done (the big name Pentax guy charges $300 bucks for just a CLA -- I’m sure it’s basically a rebuild, but still, it doesn’t sit well with me -- see “I am a cheap bastard” above.), and just the dead weight of lugging the Pentax 6x7 (with lenses) around is prohibitive to me shooting enough with it to really gel with it beyond “camera make photo.”

  3. Right now, I really only take the camera out when I do “serious project work” -- and even then, because I seem to have a nasty habit of accumulating (and shooting) 100 foot rolls of 35mm film, I still seem to end up using the Minolta XD-11 for a good chunk of my projects. That being said I do lug the Pentax 6x7 with me to do landscape photography when I travel -- and it’s definitely been good or great for that -- I have some stuff coming up to show that off, I’m almost done re-scanning all my photos from one specific trip to show that off.

  4. Bracketing is for chumps. Admittedly I haven’t fully incorporated this lesson into daily practice all the time, but typically, the amount I bracket shots has radically decreased way down. Typically (with limited exception) I tend to fall into the category or thought pattern of “first shot, best shot” and it’s borderline madness for me to re-shoot something better the second time when I’m overthinking it, but traditionally I still do or have a lot. Having only ten frames on a roll definitely cuts way down on the amount that I’m tempted to re-do something, if for no other reason than budget.

  5. Having a bigger/better camera doesn’t make your work better. I know this is something I say a lot, but I definitely have gotten some better shots out of the Minolta XD-11 than the Pentax 6x7, on the same day, just because I wasn’t working hard enough at getting the Pentax 6X7 framing right, or I just flat out didn’t have the right/wide enough lens for it. You can’t always make your new fancy toy work out for everything, as much as you want it to.

Thanks for reading this! If you’ve enjoyed this content, please buy a zine in the shop, or commission a print. It helps keep the website up and running.

What I Learned Shooting... #3: Minolta XD-11 -- A Tribute

I’m gonna switch topics from film to cameras and lenses here for the next couple weeks while I wrap up my 2 100ft rolls of Agfapan APX 100. (I’m at #17/36 as of posting this)

I have pretty much all the gear I could want or reasonably need. I have a full shooting set of lenses (and a few extras) in Minolta SR (the actual name of the mount, not MC/MD -- so help me god if I hear one more person call it that...), and in Pentax 6x7 for medium format.

Over the last five years I’ve shot a Minolta XD-series (XD, 11, and 7) camera with near slavish devotion. I’ll test out a new camera now and again --mainly an SRT 102 (seriously underrated), and the Minoltina Al-s (also critically underrated).

I may switch to a compact rangefinder (say a CLE with Rokkor 40/2) now that I tote a Pentax 6x7 around for most of my “serious” work, and use 35mm as a bts/quick journal camera, but I’ll never get rid of my workhorse(s). Also if I end up doing more portraiture or editorial work, and it wasn’t on Medium Format, I’d happily shoot it on my XD.

Let me put a few things out there right now:

  1. I love these cameras so much, when I had all four break on me, I nearly got their serial numbers tattooed onto my ribs (I didn’t -- a friend pointed out that that was kinda Holocaust-ey, and maybe I should avoid that -- thanks Jake.)

  2. I’ve always been a “Minolta guy,” my first camera, at age 15 was an XG-M, the repair guys at my local repair shop Walter’s Camera Repair -- http://www.walterscamerarepairs.com/ -- Call me “the minolta guy.” (not a paid endorsement, seriously, if you’re in LA and need honest repairs done at a fair price and pretty quickly, they can probably help you out.)

  3. Either by gross overfamiliarity or closemindedness, I really don’t like most of the other 35mm camera brands’ SLR’s from the pre-autofocus era. I hate the Canon AE-1, I think it’s a bad camera with a backwards meter, honestly Canon SLR’s on the whole before AF are just straight garbage. Most of the Nikons are nice but badly designed, clunky, or flat out backwards -- good lenses though. I guess Pentax is okay (for 35mm -- Medium Format is a whole different story). I don’t know shit about Olympus -- people who shoot them seem to really like them.

  4. I think most reviews of this camera kinda miss the point of it. Or at least haven’t run  give or take 400 rolls through the the thing. It’s always “Leica this, Minolta that.”

  5. My complaints on reliability are a little bullshit. I probably ran +/- 75 rolls through the damn thing this year. I don’t think most people run that much through their cameras or tend to flat out abuse or over-carry their equipment the way I tend to. I’ll probably keep stricter track next year.

After nearly a page of disclosures and complaints here we go:

Here’s why I love this camera:

  1. It feels really nice in the hand. -- It’s a relatively compact design, but all metal, and it’s weighted really evenly with the 50 1.4 MC, which is the lens I use most as of writing this. I realize this is probably a dumb thing to vaunt as it’s best feature, but it makes it much more enjoyable to use regularly.

  2. It has a quasi-mechanical vertical shutter. While it lacks a really fast sync speed -- like a Contax g2 or a leaf shutter camera -- it can do 1/100th of a second, mechanically. I can shoot any lens I regularly use with it, safely, and mechanically if I have a battery failure. Also 1/100th of a second is fast enough for *most* uses. I know HSS is a hot commodity, but 1/100th is usably fast for me. Also, for an SLR, assuming you get a good copy of the camera, it’s really quiet.

  3. It has three modes in order of usefulness, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority. It’s not easy to accidentally switch between the modes, and they’re all pretty reliable --- the camera actually has a hidden program mode which double-checks your exposure and fixes it -- steplessly.

  4. The meter is good down to EV 1 -- Which basically has you covered in most situations you’ll ever run into, unless you’re a hardcore night photographer, or shoot mostly backlit.

  5. Kind of a no-brainer, which is why it’s #5 on my list, but Rokkor lenses.

Complaints:

  1. It’s a hard camera to fix. My normal shop can do a bunch of fixes on it, but they can’t fix everything -- apparently the circuit board is kinda janky, or not an easy one to fix because of how early-primitive it is in its technology.

  2. It’s not nearly as reliable as a standard mechanical camera. I put way too many rolls through my camera, but I still probably have to send it out once a year for maintenance.

  3. People have started to get in on the camera, and the price of them keeps climbing. Also the number of Black Minolta XD’s keeps shrinking. And if you’ve seen the black finish, you know how great it is. The silver is fine, but the black finish is just better.

What’ve I learned shooting it?

A lot.

I’ve had one (of four) basically since I showed up in Los Angeles five years ago.

Basically, with the XD-11, I’ve used it to shoot everything: friends, the city, my drive across America, my first fashion editorial --- which I’m pretty sure never got released --- and every project I’ve done in 35mm. If you look at my instagram or any 35mm feature or story on here, it was most likely shot on the XD11.

It also showed me what I like and dislike in a camera, and it’s now what I bench my expectations around.

Anyway -- Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this -- please consider buying a zine in the shop. It helps me keep the lights on here.