First Impressions of the Pentax K-1

This page may take a while to fully load; the files I have uploaded from the K-1 range up to 37 MB in size. Equally, it may take a while for the full-size images to open if you want to look at those. 

Introduction

It’s been a little over a month since my Pentax K-1 arrived. In that time, I’ve used it as often as possible. The total frame count is now sitting between 1,400-1,500, so I feel that I have spent enough time shooting with it to provide some relatively informed first impressions of the camera.

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My Pentax K-1, fitted with a Sigma Art Series 35 mm f/1.4 lens. A fantastic combination, but due to the lens, not a very weatherproof one – that’s why this photo was taken on the dashboard of my car.

Originally, my intention was to provide a concise outline of its performance with the lenses I have used on it. However, due to the number of lenses I have used with it, I will have to make a series of separate posts – this post would be too long otherwise. That being the case, this post will be divided into design and handling considerations, and my thoughts on the overall image quality of the camera.

Design and Handling

The aesthetics of the K-1 owe a lot to the Pentax 67II medium format film SLR, especially in terms of the shape of the pentaprism housing. However, everything else, from the shape of the grip to the control layout, is very similar to the recent high-end Pentax SLRs I’ve seen. This makes it an easier upgrade path, as it will seem more familiar to existing Pentax users.

Construction quality is fantastic: the buttons and dials have very positive feedback, and the whole body feels like it has been made to very fine tolerances with good quality materials. Due to the lack of a weather sealed lens, I haven’t taken it into any extremely wet environments, but from what I have experienced so far, the weather sealing throughout the body is effective. Weather seals in the SD card and battery compartment doors are hefty, as are the rubber covers for the ports located down the left hand side of the camera – no moisture finds its way in here. The robustness extends to image backup – it has two SD card slots, allowing me to have a spare copy of my RAW files in the event that one card fails.

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Gold-tinged clouds over Ravensbourne, as viewed from Highcliff Road in Dunedin. Taken with a Pentax K-1, using a Sigma Art Series 35 mm f/1.4 DG lens. 1/20 s, f/11, ISO 320.

In the hand, it feels solid, if a little hefty (it weighs a little over 1 kg without a lens fitted). However, the weight means that it balances quite well with larger and heavier lenses, without needing to resort to a battery grip. The controls are well spaced out, and easy to identify by feel – as I’m becoming more familiar with the control layout, the camera is spending less and less time away from my eye in the field. There are only two issues I’ve encountered with the control interface thus far: the top screen seems a bit small and doesn’t show as much shooting information as I’d like; and the grip is large enough for me to train my fingers a little when reaching for some of the control buttons. Something I was very glad to see was the inclusion of the venerable Pentax “green button”. This button is customisable, but it’s commonly used for stop-down metering in manual mode. Since manual lenses don’t provide any aperture information to the camera, this is the only way to meter with them at anything other than wide open aperture. In practice, it is only a fraction of a second slower than an automatic lens. With an automatic lens fitted and the camera in manual mode, the green button reverts to the chosen program exposure line – this is excellent for finding a starting point for manual exposure, or moving into quite different lighting.

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Salt spray and clouds ablaze at sunset in Dunedin. This view is looking over Tomahawk, Lawyer’s Head, and Blackhead, from the Tomahawk Battery. Photographed with a Pentax K-1, fitted with an SMC Pentax 300 mm f/4 lens. 1/800 s, aperture not recorded, ISO 320.

Similar to recent Olympus and Sony offerings, the camera features 5-axis in-body image stabilisation. I have found it works quite effectively – with good bracing, I can get around four stops of stabilisation, and perhaps a fifth if I were to accept a slight loss of sharpness. Unlike the Olympus offerings, the Pentax will record a manually entered focal length (say, for using an adapted or fully manual lens) in the EXIF data of the photo, making it much easier to keep track of which lens you used for which photo. The only downside to this comes when using zoom lenses (I set the image stabiliser to the longest focal length of the lens and hope I can remember which lens it was), or forgetting to change the focal length when changing lenses. With time, I will invariably address the latter.

One of the most unique features of the K-1 is the rear screen mechanism. Rather than the traditional articulating screen (which is hinged on one side) or a screen that only tilts, Pentax have chosen to mount a tilting screen on a platform supported by four sliding struts. These struts allow the screen to be moved more than a traditional titling screen would allow. The entire mechanism feels robust, and is very smooth in operation. Although the screen doesn’t have as wide a range of movement as a fully articulated screen, I haven’t found myself needing more movement than is offered.

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Lawyer’s Head, basking in early evening sunlight. Photo shot with a Pentax K-1, using an SMC Pentax-M 85 mm f/2 lens. 1/250 s, aperture not recorded, ISO 100.

A couple of neat touches to the user interface are a “smart function” dial on the top plate, and a brace of LED lights placed in key areas of the body.

The smart function dial allows you to customise a second thumb dial on the back of the camera. Functions include ISO, continuous shooting mode, exposure compensation, and auto bracketing. In use, it is effective, although it duplicates a lot of other controls. It would have been good if at least one user customisable position had been included – for instance, I wouldn’t mind using it to change the focal length for the image stabiliser when using manual zoom lenses. There is  a strange anomaly concerning its exposure compensation mode when the camera is set to manual. In manual mode, the normal process of pressing the exposure compensation button and turning the rear thumb dial doesn’t work. However, in manual mode, the exposure compensation mode of the smart dial is fully operational, and affects the meter reading made by using the green button. The green button, and smart dial, allow manual lenses to be used in aperture priority with exposure compensation – this is a very useful feature, and one which I have made a lot of use of.

LED lights have been placed above the lens mount, in the SD card slots and remote control socket, and on each corner of the rear screen. These lights have proven to be very useful in the dark, having allowed me to change lenses without fumbling, and rapidly locate control buttons when the camera is mounted to a tripod. The lights are controlled by the back-light button for the top screen, and you can customise which LEDs are activated in the menu. Rather than being an afterthought, it is obvious that the LEDs were an integral part of the design process. If they are switched on, and you trip the shutter, they switch off immediately until the end of the exposure – they will not influence low light exposures in any way. In a further nod to how integrated they are, the lights in the SD card slots, remote control socket, and above the lens mount, will function with the camera power turned off – useful for packing up, or swapping cards without corrupting them.

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Moonlight across the water at Deborah Bay, Dunedin. Taken with a Pentax K-1, fitted with an SMC Pentax-M 85 mm f/2 lens. 69 s, aperture not recorded, ISO 100, tripod mounted with wireless release.

Only one major negative has stood out to me so far – the SD card writing time. I am currently using SanDisk Extreme Pro 16 GB UHS-II cards – the fastest SanDisk cards available – and the camera is writing slower than my E-P5. Admittedly, the E-P5 has just under half the resolution, but it is also running a much slower card. The K-1 SD card slots are not fully UHS-II compatible, which may account for some of the lack of speed. However, I have also tried UHS-I cards (which are fully compatible), and found them to be quite slow to write, too. The only other explanation I can think of is that it doesn’t like writing RAW files to both cards. Still, I think it’s something which could do with some serious improvement – hitting the playback button too soon results in having to jab the button until something happens; and hitting the delete button too soon results in the camera locking up for around 15-30 seconds or more. At this stage, it looks like I may have to learn to live with waiting until the writing process has definitely stopped.

Image Quality

There is a significant difference between the image quality of the K-1, and the Micro Four Thirds cameras I have used for the past few years. This was to be expected, due to the larger sensor size, but I never fully realised how much better things like dynamic range and low-light noise control would be.

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A pollen-coated macrocarpa nestled amongst the sand dunes at Long Beach, Dunedin. Taken with a Pentax K-1, using an SMC Pentax-F 24-50 mm f/4 lens. 1/125 s, f/5.6, ISO 500.

I am shooting with the flat image profile in the camera. Originally, I had it set to auto, but I found that the files I was seeing on the computer screen were nothing like the files I was seeing in the camera – it appears to Capture One Pro 9 reads all the RAW files as flat, whereas the camera applies a profile to the image preview on the back screen. Besides the typical contrast adjustments that I perform on all of my photos, I have found that the K-1 files often need to have the saturation increased – the flat profile really is quite flat.

Colour rendition differs from the Olympus cameras I’ve used. The hues themselves differ, and they are generally more subdued, although they may also be every bit as vibrant. Most of the variation comes down to the lens being used – each lens I’ve tried has a unique colour signature, and handles mixed lighting in different ways.

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Early evening sun filtering over the headland near St. Clair beach through clouds and salt spray. Captured with a Pentax K-1, and an SMC Pentax-M 200 mm f/4 lens. 1/1000 s, aperture not recorded, ISO 100.

Noise control is not as good as I had expected, but that is undoubtedly due to me over-hyping it in my mind. Depending on how well exposed the photo is, I am consistently getting between 2-3 stops better noise control out of the K-1 than out of the E-P5 (my best Micro Four Thirds body for low light work). I would say that the K-1 is routinely usable at ISO 12,800, and with careful post-processing and exposure, that may be extended up to ISO 25,600. I am yet to try the higher ISO settings – with the same caveat of care being taken over the exposure and during post-processing, I suspect that they will also perform respectably.

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Stars galore above the Otago Peninsula, as viewed from Aramoana. Captured with a Pentax K-1, fitted with a Sigma Art Series 35 mm f/1.4 DG lens. 15 s, f/1.4, ISO 6400, tripod mounted with wireless release.

Dynamic range in the K-1 is clearly ahead of the Micro Four Thirds files which I am used to handling. One interesting observation has been that the K-1 seems to struggle a little more with detail retention in highlights than my newer Olympus cameras. I haven’t performed any direct comparisons to confirm whether or not this exists – again, it may be a case of my expectations exceeding reality, although it could also relate to my familiarity with the K-1. Shadow recovery in the K-1 files, though, is far ahead of what I could do with Micro Four Thirds files; I am recovering more detail, and more cleanly, than I have been able to in recent years. I am yet to make any direct comparisons to quantify the difference between my Olympus cameras and the K-1. About the only thing I have compared is the time taken to post-process photos taken under difficult lighting conditions – the K-1 files take a couple of minutes, and the Olympus files often take up to half an hour. Below is an example of a before (left – no editing) and after (right – post processing for contrast, saturation, highlights, and shadows) shot under difficult lighting with the K-1.

Image quality wise, the only issues I have had are a lack of sharpness with some lenses, and the level of chromatic aberration seen with older lenses. I have traced the lack of sharpness to focusing and lens aperture – it has only affected manual focus telephoto lenses, especially when they are used wide open. The chromatic aberrations are no different to what I have seen when using legacy lenses on Micro Four Thirds – the worst performing lenses are generally correctable when the aperture is closed down one or two stops.

Conclusion

After the K-1 arrived, it took a few weeks before I picked up an Olympus camera again. Pentax have made the K-1 a very comfortable camera to use, and although heavier than any Micro Four Thirds offerings, when fitted with a smaller prime or zoom lens, it hasn’t felt unduly heavy to carry around all day. Added to that, the image quality has been superlative.

Although I’m using my Olympus cameras again, I still find myself reaching for the K-1 more often – it’s a well thought out camera, with fine handling and excellent image quality. Little wonder, then, that it still appears to be on back-order.

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