Is Pentax’s Pixel Shift Technology Worth Using?

We were pretty impressed with the Pentax K-1 when we got our hands on it last month, and one of the most-hyped inclusions was Ricoh’s Pixel Shift technology. The feature isn’t entirely new, debuting on the Pentax K-3 II in mid 2015, but it’s been improved for the K-1, and it’s got a lot of people talking.

First of all, a quick rundown of how Pixel Shift works. In short, the K-1 will take four exposures in rapid succession (usually taking a second or two in our tests) and will then process those four images into a single image.

If the wind blows through the trees or a bird flies across the sky while successive shots are being taken, the camera will detect the movement and ignore it

With the K-1, Ricoh has upgraded Pixel Shift to include a motion tracking feature which virtually eliminates motion blur (assuming you’re shooting with a tripod), ignoring any motion in the frame after the first shot. This means that if the wind blows through the trees or a bird flies across the sky while successive shots are being taken, the camera will detect the movement and ignore it.

@ 77mm, 1/640s, f/5.6, ISO 100

During a traditional single exposure, each pixel on the sensor is either red, green or blue, and is best optimised at capturing that colour, essentially having to approximate colour values for the remaining two based on what its neighbouring pixels record.

Our Pentax K-1 Review

With Pixel Shift, the sensor moves very slightly after each shot is taken, meaning that every single pixel has a chance to record its own spectrum of colour. That results in better colour resolution and sharper images, or so Ricoh tell us. The algorithm behind Pixel Shift does most of the heavy lifting here, and it appears to be producing some pretty stunning results.

In our tests, we found that Pixel Shift shots did indeed improve clarity and colour resolution. However, much of the improvements aren’t as noticeable as you might think, and are most obvious when zooming in by 100% or more.

The results are pleasing to behold, but it’s important to note that Pixel Shift won’t save you if your colours are way off, or correct any distortion your lens may cause.

Noise reduction is significant when using Pixel Shift, as our tests show.

If you’re using a tripod you may think that Pixel Shift is the obvious choice, but there is a downside. Due to the four exposures, Pixel Shift RAW files take up almost four times the space of a normal RAW, 45MB compared to 175MB respectively. You can convert Pixel Shift files in JPEGs, but that essentially negates the use of Pixel Shift in the first place, as the details are irreparably compressed during the conversion process.

This is certainly something to bear in mind when using Pixel Shift, as you may find yourself running low on space sooner than you’d anticipate.

Overall, Pixel Shift is a nice feature to have, and will work well in certain scenarios (landscape and product photography, particularly), but it’s something plenty of users will never need. It’s a classic example of a feature that looks great on paper, but in reality will have few real-world uses. For example, the noise reduction is great, but if you’re using a tripod you won’t generally be shooting at high ISO anyway.

In any case, the K-1 is an excellent product, and innovation is rarely a bad thing. You do you, Pentax.