Pentax 67 Review – It’s a Big Camera

The first time I used a Pentax 67 was in the winter of 2016. Contrary to the majority of my fellow professional camera-likers, I found the Pentax 67 to be too big, too heavy, too manual, and too unreliable. I hated it. I again tried to force myself to like the Pentax 67 in 2018, but again I found it unwieldy. It didn’t help that this time the mirror locked up after every few shots (a common fault on some models). The Pentax 67, it seemed, just wasn’t for me. 

And so it was with some reluctance that on a blustery day in early August of this year I decided to once again shoot the Pentax 67. I walked out my door with the incongruous wooden handle of the Pentax 67 twisting my wrist inexorably earthward, lowered myself onto the seat of my borderline geriatric BMW, twisted the key to awaken the reluctant burble of exhaust, and began the drive to the city. The distant sky to the north was dominated by clouds, grey and ominous.

On the seat next to me sat the geometric metal bulk of the Pentax 67. At just under 5 lbs, the camera would be heavy enough to set off the passenger seatbelt warning chime of a modern car, and the absence of alarm noise added itself to my long mental list of the joys of old vehicles. 

My mind wandered through orchards of thought during the monotonous drive northward. Of particular dominance was the realization that this would be the first time I’d visited the city to shoot photos (something I’d done nearly once per week over the previous five years) since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic more than five months earlier. I felt the creep of depression and stamped the accelerator. The car was too old to stream music from an iPhone. If it could, Katsuhiro Hayashi’s Outride a Crisis might’ve been appropriate. 

The Pentax 67 was loaded with an unusual film. Expired in the year 2002 and gifted to me by my friend Cheyenne Morrison, the roll of Agfa Agfacolor Ultra 50 had reportedly been cold-stored since new and Cheyenne advised me to expose it as if it were still 2002. I believed him and took his advice, setting my Keks light meter to 50 ISO, even if conditioned experience told me to expect imperfect or useless photos from this ancient film. Still, I mused, If I didn’t like the uncertainty and the challenge (suffering?), I’d not be shooting film cameras in 2020. 

In the Seaport district of Boston there’s an enormous asphalt-covered pier known as the Fish Pier, which was first constructed in 1910. Running the length of the pier are a pair of identical low-slung buildings which house numerous fish-related businesses. At the end of the pier, in pride of place, there’s a stout building containing the New England Fish Exchange which historically held fish auctions, but which now serves as a conference center. This is where I parked after my half-hour drive to the city, and it’s where I shot the first photos in my most recent attempt to fall in love with, or to appreciate, or understand, or respect, or maybe even just tolerate the Pentax 67. 

What is the Pentax 67

The Pentax 67 is loved by many, and most film shooters these days know this legendary camera on sight. But if you’re new or have simply missed the crest of the 67 popularity wave, these few brief paragraphs will bring you to speed. 

The Pentax 67 (and subsequent models in the 67 family) is a single lens reflex medium format film camera first introduced in 1969 and produced in various iterations until it was discontinued in 2009. The Pentax 67, like many smaller professional-spec SLRs for 35mm film, is a system camera which features a body to which lenses, prisms, and accessories can be interchanged by the user. The typical Pentax 67 kit features a standard lens (around 105mm), a viewing prism (eye level, waist level, or with a metering head, typically), and a big-honkin’ wooden handle which can be removed or placed on either side of the body. 

The camera uses 120 film and exposes images on a 6 x 7 centimeter area (hence the name). The camera was able to use 220 film as well, though this feature is now moot as 220 film is no longer manufactured. 

There are four models in the Pentax 67 range. The first, identified by the “6X7” marked on its right hand side, was made from 1969 and was superseded by the second version in 1976. This improved model was also marked “6X7.” It featured a mirror lock up function, and can be easily identified by the presence of a sliding switch on the right hand side, just behind the lens mount. This switch locks the mirror up prior to firing the shutter, thus eliminating mirror-slap vibration for low light and long-exposure shooting. 

The third version, the Pentax 67, was introduced in 1989. Though virtually unchanged in specification from the previous model, it does show minor cosmetic updates, including the new branding “67” as opposed to the earlier “6X7.” It is compatible with all previous model accessories, lenses, and prisms. The greatest improvement in the 67 (besides some reliability fixes which we will touch upon later in the article) was the improved metering prism, which swapped the old CdS cell for the more responsive silicon photo diode. Metering range, however, remained identical. 

The fourth and final iteration, the Pentax 67II, was released in 1998 and it’s easily the most capable of the bunch. Major improvements include a rigid right-hand grip to supplement the optional left-hand grip of earlier models; inclusion of a modern Pentax 5P flash connector; improved long exposure capability; and an LCD panel to display ISO, film frames, battery status, shutter status and flash status. The 67II also brought other improvement to the range including a self-timer and a multiple exposure mode.

But the greatest functional improvement which the 67II brought is certainly the AE finder, which allows us to shoot in aperture-priority semi-auto exposure mode. In addition, this advanced finder also allows three metering modes; center-weighted, spot, and multi-segment metering. In addition, the AE finder displays pertinent info such as shutter speed, aperture, metering mode, exposure compensation setting, and flash status, as well as displaying metering info via LEDs as opposed to the earlier cameras’ needle system. This AE finder is not compatible with earlier Pentax 67 models, and the 67II is not backward compatible with metering prisms from earlier cameras.

Reliability Concerns

As touched upon, I’ve owned and tried to love quite a few Pentax 67s. Most of them have needed repair (all but two, in fact). Mirror lock up issues, film transport issues, battery drain issues – the Pentax 67 has given me fits. Because of this, the 67 has been a camera which for years I’ve struggled to recommend. These reliability issues are also a big part of why this review has taken me four years to write. 

In preparation for this article, I reached out to Eric Hendrickson, who is arguably the foremost authority on Pentax camera repairs in the USA. He’s been servicing Pentax equipment since 1969 (incidentally, the same year that the 67 debuted), first as an employee of Honeywell Inc., then Asahi Optical Co., and finally with Pentax Corporation. After this he opened his own repair shop, which operated from 1992 until 2005. Now he works a one-man shop, servicing Pentax cameras for clients all over the world. 

Since there really is no substitute for hands-on experience, I asked Eric for his opinion on the reliability of the various Pentax 67 models. He was kind enough to provide direct information broken down by model type, which I present here to our readers as Eric wrote it.

Non Mirror Lock Up 6X7

First let me outline the non MLU units. These units are getting old. A lot of people are using them and a lot are being sold from Japan. These units are almost considered “Prototype.” They were the first ones off the assembly line and now they’re developing a variety of problems, and as a technician they are becoming a nightmare to repair. Every unit needs updating or modifying to bring them back to good working order. I usually refuse to work on them or will charge $500, plus parts. 

The major problems range from film not being pulled through the camera due to a bad winding clutch, the mirror locking up, transport locking up, and the shutter not charging for the next shot. 

There are several ways to identify these units [presumably Eric means so that buyers today can try to avoid the troublesome first model]. The obvious one is the missing switch for mirror lock up which later models have. Then inside the back there is a rubber roller where the improved models have a steel roller. The lens release tab is silver, as is the battery holder, and the knurled thumb film release at the bottom instead of a flipper lever.

Mirror Lock Up Units

These are the units to look for, and the more modern ones have their serial number in black and engraved on the top cover. Of course there’s also the mirror lock up switch. I’ve had excellent success repairing these units. I can still get parts for them and they hold up over years of use if handled with care. In good condition (barring sand, water, or impact damage), the cost of repair ranges from $250-300, plus parts.

The units marked 67 (as opposed to 6×7) are the most current of the original 67s. The number one problem with these is battery drain. What happens is the battery holder tension spring inside the holder is too tight on the battery and can disconnect from one contact or the other. The next most common problem is the clutch. Here I believe (but can’t prove) that the customer, instead of releasing the film by the tab, just pulls the film from the spool causing the clutch to wind backwards, which damages the film clutch. 

TTL Units

Most TTL units can be repaired. They either need foam bumpers of the viewfinder system inside breaks away making it impossible to see the meter. Also, the chain for the metering system connection in the body can snap easily. This is caused by the customer removing the TTL finder first, before removing the lens. Removing the lens first will loosen the tension and prevent the chain from snapping. 

If you’d like to talk to Eric about repairing your Pentax 67, or for other camera-related inquiries, please contact him via his site. 

Shooting the Pentax 67 in the Real World

As I walked the pier toward the Fish Exchange building, the sounds of gulls and the rhythmic clank of boat parts providing a decidedly maritime soundtrack, two thoughts were continually following one another around my mind. 

Damn, those fish smell terrible. 

Damn, this camera is heavy.

I can already hear fans of the Pentax 67 taking offense. “Do you even lift, bro?” Well, yeah, I exercise and the Pentax 67 is still too heavy. The foam padded neck strap which kept the camera on my person in a cross-body configuration had caused muscle pain in my shoulder and back and neck within twenty minutes of walking the streets of Boston. Holding the camera in my hand helped ease that pain, but within another fifteen minutes I found myself beginning the 67 shuffle. Camera in the left hand, camera in the right hand, camera around the neck, camera on the ground while I sat for a minute. There’s no way to escape it – the thing is just heavy. 

And it’s chunky, too. The Pentax 67 isn’t just large. It’s comically large. It’s like a camera version of that giant cell phone prop from Trigger Happy TV (some of you will be too young for this reference, so here’s a link). The 67’s mimicry of the standard 35mm SLR design makes its sheer enormity even funnier. It’s a blown up Pentax Spotmatic. And there’s something about that which makes me laugh, but it also makes me cringe.

Like the conspicuous giant cell phone in the above-referenced sketch comedy show, the Pentax 67 gets way too much attention. There’s no way to use this camera surreptitiously. And even if we’re not necessarily using the 67 as a street photography camera, its visibility still impacts photos. Landscapes in the city were plagued by wide-eyed passersby staring blankly into the lens. It doesn’t necessarily ruin a shot, but it certainly breaks the fourth wall. 

Mirror slap is, in keeping with the theme, thunderous. Releasing the shutter of the Pentax 67 is sure to elicit a few glances from the folk around you. When I use it to take pictures of my kids, they actually flinch. When I brought the camera out to shoot some family shots with the in-laws in-house, it was actually laughed at. “Ho, ho – are you sure that camera’s big enough, Jim?” 

That giant wooden handle that everyone seems to love? I think it’s silly. Okay, it looks interesting in an agricultural way, like the wooden parts of an AK-47. But I don’t like AK-47s, and other camera companies have shown that there were plenty of ways to stabilize a big camera without slapping a wooden handle onto it. And, yes, it can be removed. But doing so transforms the hard-to-handle Pentax 67 into the impossible-to-handle Pentax 67.

It’s hard to argue that the size and weight is a requirement for making 6 X 7 images. We’re only gaining a centimeter over the many smaller, lighter, and more elegant Hasselblads (3.4 lbs with lens) and Rolleiflex SLR cameras (4.4 lbs). Fuji’s medium format rangefinders weigh about the same or less than the Pentax 67 and we can get 6 X 9 images out of those. Zeiss Ikon’s classic folding 6X9 cameras are pocket-sized by comparison (I used one of these for a full day at Disney World without any inconvenience). And to be honest, the Pentax 67 doesn’t make better or more interesting images than a full frame digital camera, if we know how to edit RAW files in a way that evokes the essences of Portra, Ektar, 400H, and all the rest. 

I guess I just have a hard time seeing the obvious benefit of the Pentax 67. The shutter is limited to 1/1000th of a second, on the speedy side. This doesn’t bother me, but there will be some shooters for whom this maximum speed just isn’t fast enough to make the type of images he or she wants to make. The prisms are fine, and they make focusing relatively easy even if the throw of most lenses is quite long. Ideally I’d use the AE version on the 67II, but to get that we have to spend some real money. The shutter won’t fire without film being loaded, or without doing some finger gymnastics with the open film door and the film frame counter. Loading it is fiddly until the twentieth time. It’s an expensive camera to use. 

About an hour into my day out with the Pentax 67, the ominous grey clouds which loomed on my drive northward decided to burst. The first time I’d gone out to shoot photos in five months, and there I was, getting soaked, sitting atop slick, granite blocks perched above the lapping froth of Boston Harbor. I shot through the rest of the roll, my glasses fogged by the unseasonable cold and my own breath directed inconveniently by the mask covering my breathing organ orifices.

Finishing the expired Agfa Agfacolor and flinging the anchor of a camera onto my least achey shoulder, I began the twenty-minute walk back to the car. I’d shoot the Fuji Neopan some other time. It was, by the standards of 2019, a failure of a photo trip. But this was 2020.

It sounds like I hate the Pentax 67, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t. I find it slow to use, hard to hold, a bit clumsy, yeah. And I have other medium format cameras which I’d choose to use every time over the Pentax 67. But my not getting along with the Pentax 67 has as much to do with the way that I engage with photography as anything else. I take pictures while out and about. I take pictures of my family and kids when we’re doing activities. I walk the streets of the city and look for interesting light. The Pentax 67’s weight and size make it a poor choice for these types of photography.

If I were a studio shooter, someone making photos of models with controlled light in a controlled environment, where a tripod’s always handy, the Pentax 67 would make a lot more sense. If I were a dedicated landscape shooter it would fit as well. A friend of mine uses his 67 in these ways and makes beautiful photos with it effortlessly. But I’m not necessarily that photographer.

All of this said, there’s admittedly one area in which the Pentax 67 is truly phenomenal, and possibly unbeaten by other medium format system cameras. In this one area it’s the best camera I own. And it’s this one factor that comes closest to changing the way I feel about the camera. 

[The studio-shot images in the gallery below were made by my friend Sean Goss with an MLU Pentax 67.]

The Lenses

Pentax’s 67 lenses are simply fantastic in every way. Every lens that I’ve used for the system produces stunning results. They’re smooth to focus, impeccably built, finished beautifully. The SMC coatings do their job perfectly. Their optical performance is second-to-none. I truly love the lenses I’ve used with these cameras. 

And the selection of lenses available to the Pentax 67 user is similarly impressive. From an extreme wide angle of 35mm, to 1000mm, with fish-eye lenses, aspherical element lenses, ED lenses, macro and zooms, the Pentax 67 lens system is one of the only medium format camera systems which can truly go head-to-head with pro-spec 35mm systems. 

If glass is the ultimate measure of whether or not a camera is good, the Pentax 67 is certainly very good. Possibly even ideal. Even if it’s far less than ideal (for me) in plenty of other ways. 

Final Thoughts

The Pentax 67 is a very good system camera. It’s just not my kind of camera. I prefer small cameras. I prefer semi-auto exposure and exposure compensation, and only the 67II offers that. I’m not rich, and can’t afford to shoot the volume of images I want to make on 120 film. I’m frail and pathetic, and my neck hurts from using the 67 in the way that I use cameras. It’s just too damn big. 

That said, I do genuinely like all of the images that I’ve made with the Pentax 67, and I personally know plenty of photographers who make simply amazing work with their own Pentax 67s. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Maybe another couple of years of shooting the 67 will convert me into a fan. Maybe a few more years of weight lifting. If my relationship with this camera changes at any time in the future, I’ll be sure to let you readers know.

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