The Pentacon Six System
by TRA

Is the Pentacon Six too big?

Someone wrote to me, “I didn’t expect the Pentacon Six to be as big as this.”

Is it too big?

Well, if you must have a small camera, the Pentacon Six is not the one to go for.  Nor is the Hasselblad 500 series.  Nor the Pentax 67.  Nor many other leading film-based medium format cameras.
But if you want a camera that will give you maximum quality at a sensible price, then the Pentacon Six might be right for you.

We have recently got used to tiny cameras or even to using our mobile phone (US: cellphone) as a camera.  This can be great for certain purposes, such as:

However, you won’t find a wedding photographer, a news photographer, a landscape photographer – or any professional photographer – using a mobile phone for their normal professional, money-earning photography.

Most of these have switched to digital – although you might be surprised at how many still carry a film camera as backup, and indeed how many landscape photographers, for instance, still shoot using film.

What sort of digital camera will these professionals use?  For most of them, most of the time, the minimum is a full-frame DSLR.  This means, a digital SLR with a sensor size of 24 × 36mm – the same size as the film frame in an “old-fashioned” 35mm film camera.  The best of these can produce images that seem to approach the quality of a medium-format film camera, so long as the image is not enlarged too much.  (Photographers producing images for point-of-sale, which might be printed several meters high, will need to use at least a medium format DSLR, such as the Hasselblad H4D-200MS, which is currently, in January 2013, on offer in the U.K. for only £26,395.00, body only – lenses extra, a lot extra!)

But here I am not comparing the Pentacon Six with a medium format digital camera, but with the digital equivalent of a 35mm format camera, a “full-frame” DSLR.  So in the contest to see which is smaller and lighter, the digital camera should win “hands down”, right?  Wrong!

I have chosen here the Sony Alpha A900, but full-frame DSLRs from each of the other major manufacturers (principally Canon and Nikon) will be of similar size and weight.

The Sony A900 with the most commonly-sold lens for it, the 24-70mm Carl Zeiss zoom.
The Pentacon Six with its metering prism and standard 80mm Carl Zeiss lens.
One of the surprises is that the sizes are so similar,
even excluding the lenses.

Working view of the two cameras, although of course, like all digital cameras,
the Sony A900 also has numerous controls on the back.
Having a zoom lens may add flexibility,
but it also adds a lot of bulk and weight.
Vertical grip

One of the advantages that we mentioned (here) of a square format camera is the avoidance of compromises about the best location of controls.  Manufacturers of digital SLRs realise that holding their camera rotated for vertical images (so-called “portrait mode”) may be uncomfortable and it may be difficult to operate that way round.  For a professional who works hours with a camera day after day, this can even result in muscle problems for the wrist.  (Think of news photographers, most of whose shooting is done hand-held.)

The solution has been to produce a grip that enables the camera to be used rotated, replicating some or most of the controls.  One of the best of such grips is the one produced by Sony, with the principal controls being located in the same equivalent position as the standard controls on the body itself, when it is held horizontally.  (But check out the cost of the vertical grip.  It’s likely to be more than the cost of a Pentacon Six in mint condition!)

Sony also made a major design slip-up with this grip: illogically, it has a tripod socket on its “base”, i.e., on the right-hand edge when it is used in the orientation for which it was designed!  Logically, the tripod socket should have been on the left-hand vertical surface of the grip, which becomes the new base when the camera is used in vertical format.  If you are exploring a digital system with a vertical grip from any manufacturer, it would be worth checking whether the tripod socket is in the correct place for tripod-based portrait shots, which must be another major usage envisioned for the camera in “portrait mode”!

Battery life

Another purpose of these grips is to increase the time that the camera can be used without needing to change or re-charge the battery.  This Sony grip takes two standard Alpha 900 batteries, which are automatically used one after the other.  Some grips from other manufacturers take standard battery cells.

Of course, all functions of the Pentacon Six perform normally without batteries, and in my experience the battery in the metering prism lasts for at least two years, though with daily professional use, it would probably need replacing sooner.  However, if you use the camera that much, you are likely to know the shutter and aperture combinations that will give you the results that you prefer, so you can go on shooting with the Pentacon Six, even if the meter stops working.

The Sony A900 with its vertical grip/battery holder

The vertical grip/battery holder of the A900 adds greatly to the height (and weight) of the camera.  The standard zoom lens also makes it front-heavy, so for this picture I put a spare A900 battery under the front of the lens.

The side that faces the photographer.
The Sony Alpha A900 with the vertical grip is clearly a lot larger than the Pentacon Six.

Looking straight at the back of the two cameras, photographed side by side,
gives a clear indication of the comparative sizes.

Perhaps the Pentacon Six isn’t so big, after all

If you are looking for a camera that will give you:

you are likely to end up with a camera that is at least this size.  It will not fit in your coat pocket for that unexpected situation.  It is not a camera that you will casually carry with you everywhere.  It is a camera that you will get out and take out when your objective is to create great photographs.  Whether you go for a Pentacon Six, a full-frame digital camera, a medium format digital camera, or another brand of medium-format film camera will depend on your requirements and circumstances, including the amount of money you wish to invest or are able to invest in the camera and the system.  On this criterion, the Pentacon Six is likely to win out against both the whole range of “full-frame” digital cameras and most if not all professional-quality medium format film cameras, not to mention the medium format digital cameras!

So don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too big; it’s as big as it needs to be to do the job.

To return to the Frequently-Asked Questions, click here.

To go back to the introduction to the cameras, click here.


© TRA  January 2013
Revised March 2014