I got my Pentax K-1 last night and have spent the entire day with it, shooting and getting a feel for the camera. I thought the Pentaxians in the crowd might be interested to read a real world review of Pentax’s newest camera and first full frame offering.
Please note that you won’t find any test charts or shots of the same scene at different ISOs… there are lots of those out already but I wanted to do a more holistic review. The “how does it feel” type of review.
My Gear and Type of Photography
Before today I shot with the K-3 and the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 (24-70mm equivalent) and DA* 50-135mm f/2.8 (70-200mm equivalent). I’ve shot with the K-3 since it came out and have used it for many hours and tens of thousands of shots. I know my gear, how to push it and how hard.
Pentax K-1 and various lenses
My new girlfriend and my favourite children
In my arsenal I’ve also accumulated the Three Amigos (the FA* Limiteds… 31mm, 43mm and 77mm) and fell in love with the sharpness of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 (even if you have to be in the next county to get a full body shot) and the wonderful 100mm f/2.8 macro!
My K-1 Test Shooting Situations
Today was a busy day. As I write this it’s past midnight in a pizza joint in Surrey and I’m shooting hip hop artist Snak The Ripper. Today I have the K-1 in three distinct shooting situations for my testing.
1. Visiting a friend in the NICU (infant) unit of the local hospital. Testing sharpness and clarity in a “normal” situation. Nothing crazy here.
2. A portrait session. In a house, setup in strobist style with flashes and softboxes. This sees how the sensor works in optimal conditions. Sharp lenses, lots of controlled light, lost ISO. Basically the best case scenario.
3. Walking around downtown Surrey and taking a few photos of buildings.
4. A hip-hop show, in a pizza joint with crappy lighting vaguely resembling a black hole. Basically the worst-case scenario. This tests low light, auto focus in low light, fast-moving subjects and high ISO response.
I’ll go through some of the specifics of each situation after I go through some general thoughts on the pros and cons of the new body.
The New Design
While the K-1 looks and feels a lot like the K-3 and will be immediately familiar and usable by anyone who is comfortable with Pentax gear, the K-1 has some subtle and not so subtle changes.
First of all let’s get the big ones out of the way. It’s bigger and heavier, but not crazily so. If you’re looking for a lighter travel camera you need to look at Fuji or the M43 lineups from Olympus, Sony and others. If you’re comfortable with a K-3 or K20D this will be a little bigger, but not back-breakingly so.
I’m going to go through some of the changes below, mentioning each one and how it affects me. If there’s something not mentioned, chances are I haven’t noticed it, don’t care, or it’s such a small thing that it doesn’t warrant much comment (like the new font and look for the menu system… nice, but barely worth mentioning). Beware, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
This is most important, and this is the last part of this review I’ve written, mostly because it’s almost a given that they are big and beautiful. And they are. Here’s a 100% crop from the headshots I did with Shaun. Sharp as a razor and huge on my monitor. Nothing like zooming into an eye on a 27” monitor. Images come out at 4912×7360 pixels, with DNG files weighing in at just under 50MB per image.
Here’s a portrait sample with only basic adjustments.
And the 100% crop.
More interestingly, and I thought this was just me until I saw DPReview talking about the K-1’s impressive dynamic range, but the ability to pull the exposure up from an underexposed image was, in a word, impressive. The amount of shadow noise was low, and I know it’s hard to quantify (at least until I saw the DPReview article), but the files felt “fat” in terms of the data that was there. In fact, DPReview says
In conclusion, the K-1 gives one of the best Raw dynamic range results we’ve ever seen, when shooting in single shot mode and absolutely outstanding results in circumstances where you can use the pixel shift mode.
I knew that going to full format was going to give some advantages in terms of being able to push files farther, but I didn’t realize that Pentax was going to blow past the competition in this respect.
I’ve been looking forward to this forever. Hearing Zack Arias talk about how cool and easy it is to shoot dangerous things by using remote triggering, or Derrick Story and his Nimble Photographer philosophy and ability to pull data right off the camera and post from your smartphone sounds great.
So far — mostly — so good. The first time I connected it the camera froze up hard, so hard I had to pull the battery out to get it to turn off. Not sure what was wrong, but when I tested it more, connecting with the Image Sync app, it worked with no issues at all. I could use the remote trigger function to focus and take shots, and the image sync to pull photos from the camera into my iPhone’s camera roll to then edit and share. I’m still a bit worried about the lockups I had, but I’ll chalk it up (for now) to first day jitters.
New Function Dial
Probably the biggest surprise and change is the new Function Dial and Setting Dial. This is a third control wheel available for your right hand while shooting. Using the Function Dial you can select from a series of settings such as ISO, EV +/-, HDR, Bracketing, WiFi, or Crop mode. Then you use the Settings Dial to adjust that setting.
Some of these settings make sense. This gives you the option of having a dedicated ISO dial or a dedicated EV dial, which makes complete sense, but other settings, like WiFi, doesn’t make as much sense. If you look at it as a shortcut to getting into a few levels of menu it does make more sense, but the options available seem mostly to be things that you don’t need instant access to.
And while it does seem silly to have two ways of setting the ISO so close to each other (either holding down the ISO button and rolling the rear dial, or using the Setting Dial with the Function Dial set to ISO), I did use it while shooting the Hip Hop show, where the spotlight gave a 2-4 stop difference in light if the performer moved a foot or two right or left. I got used to it surprisingly quickly and it felt pretty good.
The downside is for the ISO setting it didn’t seem to always work. I’d click it up or down and it wouldn’t always change the ISO, and I’d have to move it again. Also for some functions there’s no feedback for settings. For example for bracketing you’re just enabling or disabling the setting, the sub-settings (number of EV steps and number of images taken) still need to be set through the rear controls. Same with WiFi… The only indication that the button is doing anything is the blue wifi light goes on and off. Other settings there isn’t even that. The function dial has small writing and no illumination as well, so if you’re in a dark club and are trying to set it to change ISO, you better have a flashlight.
Smaller Top LCD
The downside from the addition of the new dials on the top of the body is the top LCD panel got shrunken considerably. Not a huge deal, the main important information (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, battery, etc) is still shown, but you lose a lot over the K-3. Flash settings, bracketing / remote / timer setting, capture formats, metering mode, AF point settings, and more are now all relegated to having to be checked in the info menu on the back screen or in the viewfinder.
Here’s a comparison between the information from the K-3 and the K-1, taken from the manuals for each camera.
The pure amount of feedback you lose here kinda sucks. A lot of the previously mentioned complaints about the lack of feedback for the function dial would be addressed here easily.
However I think this is an “I’ll get used to it” change for me, with the exception of losing the EV bar scale. I used this a lot, and it made it very easy to do things like check your exposure in manual by simply pointing the camera at pavement or grass and seeing what your exposure was like. Now you can’t check your exposure any way other than holding the camera up to your eye.
It also seems harder to quickly see the settings in the LCD. Might be my eyes are getting older, but the half-as-big LCD display will definitely decrease the “glanceability” of your current settings.
“Bloody Spectacular” is my completely off the cuff review. In the hip hop show the lighting is, as I mentioned before, horrible. I was shooting at ISO 20,000 and to me it looks as clean (or cleaner) than 8000 did from the K-3. I’d very seldom push the K-3 past 6400 if I could avoid it, as that was about the limit for digital noise that I could get rid of with some noise reduction. Beyond that things got bad and I’d only push it that hard if I absolutely had to. Looks like this gives me another 2 stops (or more) of acceptable noise.
Here’s a 100% crop of the shot above. Settings are 1/100th, f/2.0, ISO 20,000, with no noise reduction in Lightroom. Other than pumping up the shadows a bit, nothing additional has been done. You’ll probably say “but it’s got noise in it”, and you’re right, but this is also about the same (or better) than what ISO 6400 on the K-3 looks like.
This might be another case of me being hyper aware of every tiny difference, but I found the shutter button to feel, for lack of a better term, “mushy”. I wanted the very first shot out of the K-1 to be of my friends new baby. New camera, new life, symbolic right? But this is the very first shot I took with the camera:
Out of focus because when I half pressed to take the shot I was a tiny bit close and the FA 77mm f/1.8 didn’t focus that closely, yet I still managed to fire the shutter. It’s almost like the resistance going from “half press to focus” and “full press to fire” is just a little less. I’d chalk it up to me, as I got used to it very quickly, but someone in the Pentaxian Facebook group mentioned they had the same thing.
Luckily I was pretty happy with shot 0002.
I tend to touch the shutter to wake the camera up or turn off the preview on the LCD, and I’m finding I’m taking more photos accidentally because of this. I’m planning to go to the store to compare my copy against others to see if this is something only my K-1 has or if it’s how the new design has made things. If it is just me this might be something I’ll trade mine back in for, as it’s right on the edge of being annoying. Here’s a really terrible diagram of what I mean if it’s not clear as mud already.
The New Viewfinder
One of the other big changes in the K-1 is thew new viewfinder. Previously the viewfinder used LEDs to show focus points, and a LCD display along the bottom for settings display. Now the K-1 has a LCD overlay, meaning that it can, among other things, show multiple focus points at once. Other new tricks is the grid line overlay can be changed by changing a setting in the menu (or quick access through the Setting Dial).
I did find it a bit hard to see the focus point sometimes in darker environments. Because it’s not a bright red LED flashing the display of where you’re focused is a bit more subtle and may take time to get used to.
That Funky Rear LCD
I almost forgot to mention this. It does kind of fall in the “meh” category. It’s super-cool, but unless you’re doing video or holding the camera at odd angles while shooting it probably won’t affect you. I did use it taking this photo of my friend Shaun’s cat “Shadow” though, definitely made that easier.
The decision to not put it on a traditional hinge mechanism is a very Pentax thing to do though, even if it does make it so there’s no selfie mode.
Other Little Changes
Here’s a quick list of other details or new little tweaks and things I’ve found or noticed.
- Finally Pentax users can enjoy a flash sync speed of 1/200th, compared to the 1/180th or 1/160th that we had before. It’s not a huge change, but at least puts sync speed on par with Canon’s latest offering (though still behind the Nikon D810’s 1/250th).
- GPS works as advertised. One quick button press to turn it on and Lat / Long / Height / Angle data is written to your RAW files automatically. Of course it will decrease your battery life if it’s on constantly.
- There is no pop-up flash anymore. I never used it myself as a flash, but it was nice to have a commander mode for other Pentax flashes in a pinch. Most of the time now I’m using Cactus V6 remote triggers to fire off my flashes, but once and a while I would forget and would have to use the pop up.
- Another new button showed up on the left of the lens mount, a lock button, which you can press to keep settings (you can choose from two different sets) from being changed. Seems an odd thing to dedicate a button to, but handy I guess if you are handing the camera to someone, or want to be sure you don’t accidentally change any settings. I guess.
- The Raw/FX button on the side of the lens can no longer be set to quickly activate bracketing mode. A bit of a bummer, as it was a handy way to quickly get to HDR mode, but now I guess there’s the Function Dial to do that.
- The K-3 had an odd mode in addition to AF-S (single auto-focus) and AF-C (continuous autofocus) called AF-A (autofocus auto, where the camera tried to figure out if/when you needed one or the other). This is something that I never had work and in this body it’s gone.
- The strap lugs now have little plastic bits in them instead of the faux leather bits.
- Another “only Pentax would do that” change is adding a series of small LED lights around the body to help with things like putting lenses on in the dark or seeing which way your SD card goes in. It’s small, but another “holy crap this is handy” change, especially when trying to swap lenses in a dark club.
- Autofocus speed may or may not be improved. I haven’t done any testing and can’t be sure if it feels faster just because it’s new, like my car seems to perform better when it’s just been washed!
- Overall performance is great. The dreaded “I just took five shots in a row and want to see the last one really quickly but it’s just sitting and showing me the hourglass” situation seems to be mostly gone. I can view images almost immediately even after a burst. No more telling a client “just hold on a few more seconds” when trying to show them a photo.
I think that the Pentax K-1 is a high-end and capable camera that any current Pentax user will be very happy with. It will be immediately familiar but has some subtle, and not-so-subtle, design tweaks that will augment the fantastic new sensor. If you have a collection of FA glass you will be very happy. If not, you’ll probably want to find some used, or (and mostly if you’re a wedding shooter for example) invest in the new DFA lenses (15-30mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm) to get the most out of your camera (I can hear my own wallet crying right now).
- Great sensor and image quality
- Ergonomic and familiar design
- Older FA lenses are fairly easy to come by
- Many new options and features to enjoy and enhance the shooting experience (tilt-y LCD, GPS, WiFi, Pixel Shift technology, etc)
- New Function Dial opens up some new possibilities
- High ISO improved by 2 or more stops
- DA/DA* lenses will only give you 15 megapixel images and you’ll have to frame through the viewfinder with the crop overlay
- Limited number of new full frame (DFA) lenses available
- Smaller top LCD
- Some possible issues with WiFi and the shutter feel
- Slower FPS than the K-3 (4 vs 8.3 in full fame mode)
This is not a complete no-brainer. If you have a K-3 or K-3II, unless you need (and I’m the first to I admit that I didn’t need to get this camera) the more megapixels and full frame, the question of an upgrade is a bit of a push. It’s the best price for this size of sensor on a DSLR (about $1,500 less that the competition), but at $1,799 it’s still a hefty chunk of change. Also if you don’t have many, or any, full frame lenses, the benefits go down as well. If you do have full frame lenses and a bit of cash burning a hole in your pocket, go for it!
The Pentax K-1 is for…
- Users with Pentax FA lenses
- Landscape photographers looking to eke out the highest quality images possible
- Portrait shooters (especially with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 or the Pentax FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited…. mmmm… that bokeh…)
- Pentax users who have been waiting for an amazing new camera to light up their lives
- People who care about the “zen” of the camera, not a pure numbers checklist of feature tick boxes
The Pentax K-1 is not for…
- Sports photographers (lets be honest, Pentax has never been for sports photographers)
- Users with no full frame lenses
- Video shooters (I didn’t really go into this, but Canon and Nikon offerings have more for video people I’m told)
- Folks on a budget
More Sample Photos
About the author: Alan Bailward is a wedding, portrait, music, and event photographer based in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter. This article was also published here.