Announcement Review : The Pentax K-1

For those of us with some "tenure" in photography, the Pentax name will always evoke memories.  Whether the ubiquitous M42 screw mount, or the tack driving Super Takumar lenses, to the monstrous and wonderful Pentax 67, that brand is bound to the history of photography.  The advent of digital, along with financial challenges looked to be putting the boots to the once famous name, but a strategic acquisition by Ricoh has pumped new blood, and financial stability into the once damaged brand.  Now, after years of rumours, Ricoh has announced the Pentax K-1, the first full frame Pentax branded digital SLR.

I accept right off the bat, that most photographers or aspiring photographers in the digital age do not think of Pentax first.  Those with a desire for a larger sensor know that Pentax has been doing digital 645 medium format cameras for years and also know that you cannot beat them on return on investment.  Many former film customers maintained a strong loyalty to the brand in the transition to digital, but sadly, the lineup while excellent, as not been a leader in innovation and has never surged with the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony.

It would be easy to say too little too late as some reviewers already have done.  I have not seen the K-1 and I may have a coloured perspective because of very positive history, but I think it's fairer to not make a call based on the past, but to look at the K-1 as what it is, something brand new.

The K-1 starts with a new 36.4MP sensor without an Anti-Aliasing filter.  AA filters were used for years on CMOS sensors to combat moire.  Today, with more powerful processing and more sophisticated algorithms, this concern has diminished.  We see many manufacturers dropping the AA filter in favour of adding back sharpness that was otherwise lost in the AA filter.  I for one, am perfectly ok with this.  You may get a different position from a professional who deals predominantly in fashion as different fabrics are more prone to moire.  The default top end ISO is 204800.  That's a pretty big number for a full frame sensor of that high a megapixel rating.  As megapixel count goes up, the number of photoreceptors increases while their size decreases and this usually results in more digital noise.  It will be interesting to see how the K-1 performs at high ISOs.  The camera can also, like many Nikons, be configured to shoot in an APS-C crop delivering 15MP resolution.  That's not a flaw, it's math.  The surface area covered by APS-C is quite a bit less than full frame.  The body is weather sealed.

The K-1 takes the same approach as Olympus does in the OM-D lineup to counter vibration.  Instead of putting stabilization in the lenses, Ricoh has opted to put 5 axis stabilization in the body.  Olympus has proven that this is a very good solution, except on the longest lenses, so this will keep the cost and weight down on the new Pentax full frame lenses announced with this camera.

Also like the Olympus line is the addition of pixel shifting technology.  This methodology makes four images at the same time, each image shifted by one pixel in body.  This allows for micro adjustment for even greater sharpness in images.  It sounds a bit "Buck Rogers" (if that means nothing, look it up) but has been proven to work very well.  There is a built in GPS as well that is further refined with an Astro TRACER mode designed to improve success in astrophotography.  Combine this with the announced megapixel rating and high ISO and we have a new candidate for "go-to" astrophotography body.

Many manufacturer's have figured out that a moveable LCD is a benefit.  Ricoh has added one on the Pentax K-1 that tilts and flips but can also go diagonal, all while maintaining orientation to the axis of the lens.  I think that this means it does not have a selfie mode, and as I personally believe that selfies are a harbinger of doom, I'm not upset.  The 3.2" LCD has a tempered glass top that uses a gapless design to reduce the problem of internal reflections.

The K-1 employs a 33 AF point SAFOX AF system with 25 points being cross-type.  In today's market, this may sound like a behind the times count. but being one of those people who uses only one AF point 95% of the time, I worry less about the count, but about how you use the points you have.  The SAFOX system is designed for optimal focus on really fast lenses where depth of field becomes super shallow.  The AF system uses phase detection to determine focus.

Ricoh has continued to enhance automated operations with ongoing development of the algorithms that drive the automatic exposure functions.  They, along with their competitors, will typically analyse millions of exposure scenarios to build their program and semi-auto curves.  This means an extremely high probability of exposure success when using automation, drastically reducing the need to go into manual mode, increasing capture rate and accuracy.  The in camera metering system is of the TTL type with excellent low light capability having a range of -3EV to 20 EV.

Images are stored to SDXC type cards.  There are two slots designed to the UHS-1 specification.  File formats supported include JPEG, PEF (Pentax RAW) and DNG (hoorah - forward thinking!).  There is no built-in flash, but the K-1 will accept a Pentax branded TTL flash system.  There are ports for USB 2.0, remote control, HDMI out, X-sync, microphone in and headphones out.  USB 2 is a disappointing choice given how old and lousy it is, with USB 3 being so much better and widely available.  There is also 802.11 bgn wireless networking built in.

The K-1's viewfinder is designed to provide nearly 100% angle of view coverage.  This is absolutely a demand deliverable for serious photographers who want to know what is and what is not in frame, and not have to chimp every image to see what they got.  The vertical electronic shutter can deliver shutter speeds of 1/8000 to 30s plus Bulb mode.

I am very excited to see the addition of small LED assist lamps to help you find buttons and dials when working in the dark.  The lights appear to be white, and while my preference would be for red LEDs to save night vision, I would be happy with the white lights over not being able to see anything at all without resorting to a flashlight.  This may sound like a little thing but for those who shoot in the dark a lot, this will be a real boon.

Video recording is built in of course and it delivers the table stakes for 2016, FullHD at up to 60fps.  Nothing spectacular here, but nothing really awful either.  At this price point, I would have preferred to see a 4K 30fps option, but Ricoh has to pick their shots and probably made the right choice given the still lousy adoption rate of video capture amongst DSLR shooters.

There are both single and continuous shooting modes, with a top rate of 4.4fps.  This is not bad for such a high density sensor, but probably isn't going to be fast enough for action sports.

The big question regarding lenses has been answered.  The body can accept K, KA, KAF, KAF2 and KAF3 mount lenses to the KAF2 bayonet mount.  Ricoh has announced three new Pentax branded lenses in conjunction with the K-1.  While details are not crystal clear, supposition is that only the new lenses, or those with the D FA designation will deliver sufficient image circle size for full frame imaging.  Ricoh states that the D FA lineup is compatible with Pentax film cameras, so they would have to deliver a full frame image circle.  The lenses are:

  • Pentax HD D FA 28-105/3.5-5.6ED DC WR
  • Pentax HD D FA 15-30/2.8ED SDM WR
  • Pentax HD D FA 24-70/2.8ED SDM WR
 28-105

28-105

 15-30

15-30

 24-70

24-70

The propensity for manufacturers to throw a bowl of alphabet soup at their lenses to define them makes my teeth hurt.  Ricoh is really pushing that bowl as you can see.  Here are translations as best I can tell.

  • HD - Pentax proprietary multi-coating
  • D FA - Full frame image circle
  • ED - Extra low dispersion glass
  • SDM - Supersonic Direct Drive Motor
  • WR - Weather Resistant
  • DC - Motor Type

The Pentax K-1 is expected to ship in April 2016 with an MSRP of $1799.99 USD.  The K-1 looks like a very good offering.  Is it enough to draw clients away from the more prosperous names?   Time will tell, but Pentax loyalists will be very pleased.  There is enough choice in D FA mount lenses already that buyers will not be artificially constrained (the mount has existed for some time, and Ricoh already has a lot of full frame proven glass available) including two macros and a 150-450 zoom.  Ricoh will face strong competition in the full frame space from Canon, Nikon and Sony, but there is a cachet to that Pentax brand, and there has never been a glass quality issue with Pentax glass.  Where the challenge will lie is that the buyer is pretty much relegated to all Pentax branded gear.  The Pentax kit is excellent, but the buyer is not going to find a wide range of third party lenses or flash units.  For some buyers, that will be an issue, for others, not at all.