Yesterday we got our grubby paws on the long-awaited Pentax K-1, which has been teased throughout the year in furtive hints online.
One almost imagines that the Ricoh headquarters in which the K-1 was developed would have had guardian sharks armed with laser guns, and a mastermind villain with an appropiately sadistic nature waiting in preparation for the eventual arrival of a spy.
In fact, that’s what happened when we arrived to the press conference armed with our usual equipment for filming. We were almost immediately waylaid, accosted and questioned by one of the Pentax staff, who demanded to know:
“Are you here from Sony?”
Nevermind that our a7S II had a Canon strap attached, or that our Chinese editor Elton was using his 5D Mark III, or that I was holstering my trusty X-Pro II. No, our somewhat erroneous reputation as Sony fanboys preceded us, and for sure we were sent by Sony to spy on the K-1 release…
But on to Pentax.
Once we eventually managed to fight through the lusty throng of local media who were once again crowding around the tireless model hired for the event, we got to try out some of the Pentax lenses brought along with the K-1.
These lenses, and the backwards compability of the K-1, are one of the big advantages of the system, which did have some rather welcome surprises.
It’s hard not to gawk at the angular contours of the Pentax K-1, which stand in hard contrast to the more rounded designs that Nikon and Canon favour.
Ergonomically this isn’t necessarily better or worse, and aesthetically it’s definitely a matter of taste, but Pentax engineers have mentioned that they borrowed a lot from previous models such as the 645z and K-3.
While the pentaprism harks back to the golden age of Pentax and makes no difference to the feel of the camera, the grip did feel a little too shallow in my hands, due to the thick camera body. It’s not for the light-hearted, and weighs in at 1010g, which is marginally heavier than the D810 at 980g, and quite a bit chunkier than the 5D Mark III at only 860g.
When coupled with the pro-level Pentax lenses like the 15-30mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8 (both are generally accepted as rebranded from Tamron), the whole system felt unbalanced and very front-heavy. These high-tech lenses are glass-heavy; coupled with the bulky K-1 they offer a very comprehensive but weighty package. A camera this heavy seems intended for tripod usage rather than handheld work.
With all this considered however, the camera is still very compact for a full-frame DSLR, and is absolutely built to weather a storm. Photographers can be assured that the K-1 won’t let them down in the field, as the camera seems properly weather and dust sealed. The new LCD screen too is highly flexible and functional, but hardly elegant. It is worth mentioning though that it’s extremely sturdy, and can even support the entire weight of the camera (if you only hold the LCD).
But first, let’s talk about the buttons, where the K-1 offers an overwhelming number of options. I understand Pentax want to provide the professional photographer with flexibility, but the huge amount of modes and dials makes the user interface feel disjointed.
Case in point: they have 14 selectable modes on their mode dial, and many of them are superfluous. On the other side of the top panel, you have two dials—one for selecting useful options like WiFi, HDR or Grid, and the other for toggling on or off. It almost makes me want to grab the head Pentax designer by the scruff of their neck and force them to stare at Fujifilm’s dials, which are far more intuitive.
Right beside the Wi-Fi dial is a dedicated Wi-Fi button, and if you search around some more you’ll find the exposure compensation dial, and then the ISO dial. This duplication doesn’t help anyone, and is a serious flaw on what is quite an impressive camera.
While it does help photographers escape a digital labyrinth by essentially replacing the menu, it clutters up the body. Again, more features don’t hurt the camera—but the dials on the right really don’t help that much. It would have made more sense for example if they were used for selecting shutter speeds.
Impressive? Did I just say that, after the long gripe about the design?
Yes, despite the crudely medieval design job, the Pentax K-1 has some tricks up its sleeve which are mainly related to their innovative shake reduction technology.
The K-1 has a built-in 5 stop image stabilisation system that works with all of Pentax’s legacy lenses. Nikon’s pro DSLRs do work with their legacy lenses, but the F-mount relies on lens stabilisation rather than body stabilisation.
The technology that Pentax are relying on to capture the attention of potential buyers is all related to this image stablisation system, with three main distinguishing points: AA filter simulator, Pixel Shift Resolution System, and Motion Correction function.
The AA filter simulator uses the vibrations from the image stabilisation to minimise moiré and false colour, simulating the AA-filter effect while still actually remaining AA-filter-free for greater resolution.
The Pixel Shift Resolution System is a bit of tech invented by Ricoh, which uses the image stabilisation system to shift the image sensor by one pixel during a four frame burst, which takes roughly a second. During this burst, four images are recorded of a scene instead of just one, and then they are combined together. After that, the processing takes an additional two seconds to process and stitch the images together.
Due to the time required for the shoot, Pixel Shift can only be used with a tripod or on a stable surface. Each time an image is captured, the K-1 records four colour pixels instead of just one. The result is more accurate colours and enhanced details. But the downside, which Pentax failed to mention in their marketing, are the canvas-like artifacts scarred on the image. It’s not super noticeable from far away, but upon closer examination, images from Pixel Shift have a very serious issue.
So even though Pentax also have a feature called Motion Correction, which minimises the motion of the subject during a Pixel Shift shoot, the mode is a little flawed. Regardless, this is how Motion Correction works: if a bird flies across the first frame, and then moves during the subsequent frames, Motion Correction will record the bird in the first frame and freeze that image for the final stitching. So photographers don’t have to worry about a sudden movement ruining their landscape.
There are two other features that suggest the K-1 is excellent and deliberately geared towards landscape photographers such as Horizon Correction, which automatically rotates the sensor if you are a little off-level, and the Astrotracer system, that can use its GPS and the sensor’s movement to cancel-out the effect of the Earth’s rotation when taking images of stars.
For the full list of specs, you can refer to a previous article on the K-1. Our impressions are that while it’s not the most powerful camera on the market, photographers won’t have much to complain about in terms of resolution. The 36.4 megapixels packed on the sensor sit nicely between the 50-MP cameras and the 24-MP cameras crowding the market right now, and will already be a huge upgrade for any existing Pentax users.
However, the K-1 absolutely falls flat in terms of its burst capability and autofocus. It has a 33-point AF system (25 cross-type) and only 4.4fps in continuous shooting. While in practice the AF was decent, this seems destined for studios or the great outdoors—but nothing requiring any speed.
If we assume that many K-1 buyers will be equipped with old Pentax glass though, it’s worth mentioning Pentax’s Catch-In-Focus mode, which uses the AF system to automatically take photos when the MF is on target.
We did a quick ISO test, which shows a loss of detail starting from ISO 800. The noise seems smooth up until 12,800, but then over-aggressive noise reduction dominates the ISO 25,600 frame.
Our first impressions turned out to be a bit longer than expected, but then again, the K-1 certainly has a lot to ponder over. It’s meant to immediately appeal to existing K-mount users wanting to switch to full-frame, which is fine as long as they don’t want to shoot action.
Regarding Pixel Shift and all the other innovations that are included in the K-1, it remains to be seen how useful they will actually be. In particular, the artifacts from Pixel Shift images seem to be very hard to accept, which may mean that at the moment it’s more of a curious gimmick than an actual game changer.
The K-1 overall looks to be geared towards a very specific kind of shooter. Many of the new functions are aimed at helping landscape photographers and astrophotographers, who won’t mind working with manual focus lenses, a generally hefty system, and a lack of 4K video.
While the K-1 offers Full HD 1080/30p video capability, it’s clear that videographers aren’t their target market. And with such a basic AF and burst capability, they aren’t aiming for action photographers either.
Neither of these are deal-breakers, because as we mentioned above it’s quite clear the K-1 isn’t for everyone. People who own existing K-mount lenses will find much to love, while new full-frame enthusiasts may become quickly entranced by the attractive US$1,800 price.
For you Pentax fanboys out there, look out for our video of the press conference with Lok and Warren, and our full review once Pentax send over a model for us to spend some quality time with—and no, we don’t mean the girl at the press conference…although we wouldn’t mind.