Rumors have abounded for so long about a full-frame Pentax dSLR — almost 15 years! — that you could be forgiven for considering it the Loch Ness camera. The company says it had to choose a development priority between medium-format and full frame, and it went with the former. I don’t think anyone would argue that was a mistake; the relatively inexpensive 645D has been quite popular, or at least as popular as medium format gets. But now, the moment has arrived: the Pentax K-1 is here.
I had a chance to shoot with an early-firmware model for a few hours (somewhat unpleasantly during a bout of frigid weather in New York City) and liked it quite a bit. I think Pentaxians will find it everything they expect it to be, and it looks like it will be a solid choice for an inexpensive full-frame dSLR for enthusiasts who have no brand allegiances to Canon, Nikon or Sony.
Pentax plans to ship the camera in the US in April, with a body-only price of $1,800. I don’t have overseas details yet, but that works out to about £1,260 and AU$2,500 at current exchange rates. It will launch with two new lenses, the fast, wide-angle HD Pentax-D FA 15-30mm F2.8ED SDM WR ($1,450; directly converted, £1,015 and AU$2,040) and a more consumer-focused, less expensive HD Pentax-D FA 28-105mm F3.5-5.6ED DC WR ($500; directly converted, £350 and AU$700).
Based on the preproduction model I used, JPEGs looks OK through ISO 3200 but I really wouldn’t use them above ISO 6400. I managed to get better results up through about ISO 51200 by processing the raw files. It also seemed to have a reasonable amount of recoverable detail in highlight and shadow areas.
That’s pretty good; and it’s also unsurprising since it uses a 36.4-megapixel Sony sensor without an antialiasing filter to blur edges, based on its specs it’s likely the same one that was in the original A7R. Despite being over two years old, that camera’s sensor still ranks as one of the best available, at least per DxO’s tests. However, camera-specific image-processing software can make a big difference for that, too, so my conclusions await more thorough and formal testing.
While the video looked pretty good, I believe the sensor-shift shake-reduction system produces wobble that we shouldn’t be seeing in 2016.
The K-1 performs pretty well for its class, and the new 33-point autofocus system felt fast for both single-shot and continuous AF during continuous-shooting. The latter isn’t exceptionally fast, but its 4.4fps-rated frame rate is fine for moderately fast action, with a reasonable hit rate on in-focus shots. And there’s no lag while reviewing images or changing settings immediately after shooting, which you can see with the higher-resolution full-frame models.
I don’t think Pentax’s sensor-shift shake reduction works as well as either the optical image-stabilization systems in Canon and Nikons or Sony’s sensor-shift, even though it’s been updated to 5 axis; I think I saw some shake at reasonable shutter speeds. You only have an on/off option, which means you can’t manually set it to just fix vertical shake, and I think it was fighting me while panning. Its contrast autofocus while shooting video is also unexceptional.
It also has a relatively short rated battery life at 760 shots, though that’s practically infinite compared to the miserable life of Sony’s A7 series.
Design and features
This is where Pentax really shines, bringing some new design elements and the company’s unique features. Most practically, it uses the same K mount for lenses as its APS-C cameras; at launch there will be 12 full-frame lenses available (though only 7 of those were designed for digital cameras, as indicated by the “Pentax-D FA” nomenclature) and it will be able to automatically crop to APS-C. It remains to be seen how well many of the preexisting lenses can resolve to the sensor, since it’s Pentax’s highest resolution ever.
It also incorporates a cleverly designed LCD mechanism which allows you to angle it left, right and other shallow angles in addition to tilting up and down. Plus, Pentax put LEDs behind the LCD and above the lens mount for discreet illumination of the right-side controls and lens mount in dim light.
In addition to essentials like a weather-sealed body, dual SD card slots, a large, bright pentaprism optical viewfinder with 100 percent coverage, and Wi-Fi support, it also includes GPS. The GPS plus the sensor-shift mechanism enables its Astrotrace mode, which allows you take exposures up to five minutes without star trails, since it moves the sensor in tandem with the earth’s rotation, a feature that Pentax has offered in the past with an add-on GPS. The camera offers Pentax’s Pixel-Shift resolution mode, which microadjusts the sensor by fractional pixels for four sequential shots, then combines them to eliminate the moire you get without the AA filter.
Another novel aspect of the K-1’s design is the top quick-set dial, which provides persistent access to some frequently used settings in conjunction with a third dial on the body. In other words, if you select ISO, the dial is dedicated to adjusting that. I had my doubts at first, but discovered it comes in really handy when you need to constantly adjust a specific setting. It’s even more convenient than the usual button-press-with-dial-rotation.
And, as you’d expect, the K-1 includes all of Pentax’s unique features, such as Sensitivity-priority mode (Sv, which automatically adjusts shutter and aperture settings based on ISO sensitivity setting) and Shutter-and-aperture priority mode (TAv, which which automatically adjusts ISO sensitivity based on user shutter and aperture settings). Its in-camera HDR has a lot more options than I’ve seen elsewhere, including the ability to save your custom settings as presets, although it’s limited to three shots. It also offers five user settings slots on the mode dial, where most cameras max out at three (on the dial).
While it has some useful video features, including microphone input and headphone jack with the ability to control the gain for individual channels, and the variable-angle LCD, it lacks clean HDMI out, video-specific tone curves or even a direct record button.
Though Pentax compares the K-1 to far more expensive cameras like the Nikon D810, Sony A7R II and Canon 5DS R, I suspect that’s because they all have AA-filter-free sensors with relatively high resolutions. But I think it’s really more a direct competitor to the less expensive, more general-purpose class of cameras just below that, most notably the Nikon D750. It offers a ton of features with potentially excellent photo quality, but it also has one of the least-sophisticated autofocus systems and the slowest continuous shooting. It certainly looks like it will be a great deal for Pentax fans and provide a solid alternative to older and slightly less expensive models like the Canon EOS 6D. I look forward to doing more definitive tests — and warmer-weather shooting — with it.