Just a few days ago, I wrote that there was not much happening in terms of new camera releases to get me excited. And there still isn’t, but there has been a release that makes me especially excited for other people and it’s the Pentax K-1. In this case, the manufacturer (Pentax being owned by Ricoh) has not produced an update to one of their APS-C DSLR models. Instead, they have released their first Full-Frame (FF) digital SLR with a number of unique qualities and I would be lying if I said it has not piqued my interest.
My interest is not only in specific camera models, however. I am also interested in the camera market and competition between manufacturers, because it makes for an interesting contest governed by canny strategy, technical innovation and targeted communications. In fact, you could argue that it is analogous to warfare, only without the obvious downside! In this case, Pentax threatens to make a serious impact on the FF DSLR market. In recent years, it has been entirely dominated by Canon and Nikon (with Sony barely registering). Considering Pentax’s long history with SLR cameras from the consumer to highest professional echelons (35mm, 6×4.5cm and 6x7cm), Pentax certainly can’t be dismissed as ‘irrelevant’. This is even more the case in light of the general migration of full-frame sensors into ever cheaper models and the importance of the average consumer in terms of market share (compared to professionals).
Why do I think the Pentax K-1 is ‘exciting’ or ‘interesting’? You can read some of my thoughts in the article Pentax Full-Frame DSLR: Bombshell? Now that it is here with its specifications fully confirmed, I think that word is fitting and that Canon and Nikon may have cause for worry. Here is why:
File Quality: The Pentax K-1 is likely to provide comparable file quality to the Nikon D810/Sony A7R i.e. the market leaders (I will get to the A7R II in a minute). I say this, because it uses a 36.4 MP Sony sensor. Despite the base ISO being 100 and not 64 (as per D810), I would urge readers not to get to excited by that small difference, because the Pentax K1 has more up its sleeve (see below paragraph). On the subject of Pentax’s technical acumen, as observers of the medium format market have long been aware, Pentax obtained astounding performance from the 51MP 44x33mm Sony sensor in their 645Z. In fact, pretty well everyone felt they had done a better job in terms of file output quality than medium format gurus Hasselblad and Phase One. For these reasons, I think we can fully expect that Pentax will make this 36MP sensor shine too.
Shake Reduction ‘With Benefits‘: This is Pentax’s name for image stabilisation and in the case of the K1, it is ‘in body‘ as per the K3 II, which has numerous benefits:
- Lenses do not require in lens stabilisation. This makes them easier and cheaper to make, lighter and also reduces the variables and compromises that can degrade image quality.
- Legacy lenses still benefit from stabilisation and we know Pentax has a vast stable of vintage lenses that can be used on the K-mount. In this case ‘vast’ means ‘staggeringly large’. Second-hand shelves around the globe are awash with old K mount lenses, often being sold for peanuts.
- The on sensor stabilisation can be used to do clever things: see next point.
High Resolution Mode: The Pentax K-1 utilises the image stabilisation feature on the sensor to move the sensor by one pixel width for each of four sequential frames. These four exposures are then reprocessed by the camera, resulting one ‘super-frame’ with lower noise, better colour, no moiré and more resolution. This process essentially negates the limitations of the RGB bayer array that sits on top of the sensor. You therefore end up with subject matter at given location in the frame being ‘seen’ sequentially through each of the colour filters (RGB) and so there is no ‘guessing’ what colour the subject matter actually is. The reduction in resolution that come from a Bayer sensor’s output being ‘interpolated’ is also negated, meaning that the 36.4MP Pentax K1 should produce resolution akin to a 36MP monochrome sensor (which does not utilise a Bayer array), such as the Leica M9 based Monochrom and the current M246 Monochrom. The K1 has twice as many pixels as the 18 MP M9 based Monochrom, which is/was a seriously impressive performer (I own one).
I am going to guess that in high-resolution mode, the Pentax K-1 will comfortably compete with a 50MP conventional FF sensor in basic resolution terms, while still holding the mentioned advantages in terms of colour, moiré etc. For what its worth, the 24 MP APS-C Pentax K3 II gives the D810 a run for its money with static subjects in terms of sheer image quality, so I am not entirely guessing in the dark here.
Another advantage of the high-resolution mode is that it should, in theory, be a little less demanding on lenses than a true 50+ MP camera. We will soon see!
I almost forgot: the SR unit can also be used to gradually move the sensor around inside the body to track moving stars, using GPS data to predict the movement of the cosmos. That’s clever enough to make my head hurt.
Price: Wow. In the US is it around $1799 and in the UK, £1599 at release. By way of comparison, after three years on the market, the Canon 5D III is still selling at £2200 at major stores and the Nikon D810 for £2350! The Pentax K-1 has been priced extremely aggressively, as the medium format 645Z was, and is likely to be in the region of £1000 cheaper when prices have settled. That’s a lot of camera, for a lot less money. However, I do wonder if this will just be a ploy to get people to invest in Pentax FF lenses and accessories, after which the K-1’s successors will be priced much higher? I wonder; however, as of now, the K-1 is priced close to the Nikon D750. While that camera is a superb all-rounder, it has nowhere near the build quality of the new Pentax K-1 and is comparatively light on features.
So what are you getting for £1599 and how does this relate to the competition in real world terms?
Top quality weather sealed build (Pentax is well known to be excellent on both counts). It’s a 1kg camera, so a touch more than the D810 or 5DS, but it looks to be a tank with some of the same rock solid dials and design features of the 645Z. In terms of build and professional ruggedness, it would seem to be right up there with the more expensive D810 and 5D III and 5DS and 5DSR. Easily. The most rugged feeling DSLR I own is indeed my 645Z…
Frame Rate: Due to the sensor’s electrical architecture and processors, it was never going to be a fast camera (there is a wall in terms of the amount of data the 36.4MP sensor can offload). Nonetheless, it is a touch slower than the D810, managing 4.4 fps compared to the Nikon’s approximate 5 fps. This is not a big difference, but it may be a factor for some. Should a wedding photographer shoot Nikon, they can opt for a D810 and a D750 (or D4S/D5), enjoying the higher frame rate of the latter models. With Pentax, if you want to shoot FF, you are stuck at 4.4 fps, which is fairly slow these days. For landscape, scenic and many travel photographers, this will be a non issue.
Limited Modern Lens Options: This is a big one. Compared to Canon or Nikon, Pentax is miles behind in its modern full-frame lens line up. Nikon and Canon have brought out a whole raft of new and impressive lenses in recent years and this gives the buyer the option to shoot whatever they want with up to date digital optics. However, Pentax does at least have some core lenses available, or very soon to become available: 15-30mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8. This essentially means that a new wedding photographer is already off to a solid start, but it’s not as simple as that. This is because only the last model is designed and made by Pentax. The first two appear to be derived from existing Tamron designs. Sadly, the new Pentax pro lenses are far more expensive than the Tamron equivalents available for Canikon. In the case of the ‘true’ Pentax 70-200 f2.8, this is even more than expensive than either Canon or Nikon’s own branded equivalents. The end result is that if you compare apples to apples, the savings made by opting for a K-1 body (rather than, say, D810 or 5D III) are lost when you buy into the Pentax lens system.
The Pentax 24-70mm f2.8 D FA HD ED SDM WR (yes, it’s name really is this absurdly long) seems to be a rebranded Tamron 24-70 f2.8 Di VC, but without the in-lens stabilisation. I have seen current UK prices for the Pentax version at £1150 and the Tamron at £680. Pentax will need to have done more than remove the stabilsation and add a green band to justify it costing an incredible 70% more. I have read some suggestions that there may be a very slight change in the optics, but I am yet to be convinced. If by tossing out the stabilisation (and the design limitations it surely brings) they have been able to change an element or two to bring optical performance up to a significantly higher level, then fine. If not, I think we will need something better to really make the 36.4MP sensor on the Pentax K1 shine. The Tamron 24-70 f2.8 Di VC is a very good lens, but it is not quite up to the standard of the Canon 24-70 L II and even that lens falls well short of what is needed to dazzle a the edges of the frame at very high sensor pixel densities.
What about the new Pentax 15-30mm f2.8 (left out the silly long name)? Well, this model is also a derivative of a Tamron lens: the 15-30mm f2.8 Di VC. Although the Tamron is superb and a worthy competitor to the Nikon 14-24mm, it is also a 1Kg lens that cannot take front filters or adaptors and costs 65% more in Pentax form (Tamron £849 street price, Pentax £1399 release price), without the in-lens stabilisation unit. A 1kg fast ultra-wide zoom is arguably not the most generally desirable lens, but at least Pentax has chosen a model which sets a very high optical standard.
This brings us to the Pentax 70-200 f2.8 ED DC AW D-FA* HD (<— Pentax, please spare us!). Unlike the other two, it is a Pentax design with the coveted ‘*’ designation (which is reserved for their best designs). Optically, this lens tests out very well indeed, but it costs a bit more than either the Canon or Nikon versions(£300+ more than the Canon, £100 more than Nikon) and weighs 300g more. I’d like to see Pentax bring prices in line with Canikon when they start selling K-1 bodies in volume.
Lens Bottom Line: Buying a Pentax K-1 with 15-30mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8 costs about the same as buying a D810 with Tamron 15-30, Tamron 24-70 and a Nikon 70-200 f2.8 VR II. The Pentax set up is also about 400g heavier and cannot be reduced; however, the Nikon shooter could swap the 15-30 Tamron for a Nikkor 16-35 f4 and the 70-200 Tamron for a 70-200 f4 Nikkor, save money over all and shed over a kilogram. So, even for new buyers looking to save money, it is not quite as clear cut any more. At least Pentax has a reasonable spread of native lenses available form the get-go (unlike Leica’s latest big release – see Leica SL: Titan or Titanic). But read on…. it may get much better, very quickly….
Third Party Lenses: One suspcts that Tamron will be bound into a non-competition agreement, which will prevent them from releasing cheaper Tamron branded optics competing with the more expensive rebranded Tamron-Pentax versions. Nonetheless, I would expect prices on the Pentax lenses will fall after the initial flurry of ravenous early buying, because they will need to! But why?
Some time along the way, Sigma will simply adapt existing lenses to the Pentax K mount and voila! An instant line up of some of the finest modern optics on offer for any mount. I do not think this is an ‘if’ but only a ‘when’. Reasonably priced top quality optics of all shapes and sizes will happen and it will happen soon. This too will force Pentax to get real on their rebranded Tamron lens pricing, because if they don’t, they won’t sell any when Sigma’s ART lenses are released in K-mount. Tamron may also be allowed to produce prime lenses and other optics not covered by whatever agreement may be in place. At £1599, Pentax will make sales. People will take risk at that price point, but may not have at £2599. This will convert into sales volume and the third party manufacturer’s cost analysis of swapping some mounts around and possibly putting a fixed lens assembly in place of a stabilised group should be fairly simple. Click Below for Next Page….