Category Archives: Musings

I am a Pentaxian Again

Introduction

Just over four years ago, I sold my last Pentax D-SLR: a K-7 with fewer than 10,000 shutter cycles, which had suffered a broken shutter button as the result of a fall onto asphalt. Shipping that camera overseas marked the end of an eight year period in which (save for a brief dalliance with a Leica R4), I was a proud Pentax user. During that time, I reached three photographic milestones: my first SLR, my first DSLR, and the discovery of a good independent retailer. Over the course of tens of thousands of frames, including a lot of photography for my high school, I also developed considerably as a photographer.

Recently, I have felt that I have hit the limit of what I can get from my Olympus gear for landscape work. It still delivers excellent results, but I have had a hankering for more resolution, more dynamic range, and more depth of field control. For the past year or so, I have been discussing my options with my local retailer, and last month, settled upon ordering a Pentax K-1. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it is a DSLR with a 36 MP full 35 mm frame sensor. It represents the pinnacle of the Pentax K-mount system; the best potential image quality, and something which proudly goes toe-to-toe with 35 mm full frame offerings from other manufacturers.

This post is a look back at the aforementioned milestones, a brief outline of my departure from the Pentax K-mount system, and an explanation of how returning to Pentax with the K-1 fits in with my extensive collection of Olympus equipment.

My First SLR

I still remember the day I got my first SLR. It was late in the afternoon on a weekday in 2006. We headed out to Musselburgh Pharmacy, at the other end of town, to look at the second hand SLRs on offer. A second-hand MZ-5n in silver, with a silver 28-80 mm lens, caught my eye. Sure, the popup flash was broken, but to my 13 year old self, it was the greatest thing ever. It looked very sophisticated (in my mind), especially with its analogue dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation. It was purchased, and served me for around six months, including a school camp, and a trip to Cambodia. After six months, I decided that a Leica R4 would take better photos because it was a Leica – the power of branding in action.

The MZ-5n was given away, which I came to regret over time – the Leica was heavier, and regardless of how hard I tried, the images were not noticeably better than those I had been taking with the Pentax. In hindsight, this should have taught me that it is the person behind the camera, not the camera itself, which makes the biggest difference.

My First DSLR

Like the day I got my first SLR, I can quite clearly remember when I got my first DSLR. It was mid-2007, and again, took place at Musselburgh Pharmacy.

I had read all of the reviews that I could, and decided that the Pentax K10D offered the best value for money of all the DSLRs on the market; it had features like weather sealing from mid-range DSLRs, yet at the time, cost about the same as an entry-level Canon or Nikon. When I tried it out in the flesh, I found the grip to be a good fit for my hands, and the whole unit felt quite robust. I got a quote for a kit, then went away to think about it for a couple of days. Nothing persuaded me to change my mind, so I wound up getting the camera with: the Pentax 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, D-BG2 battery grip, a 52 mm circular polariser, spare battery, and a snoot case (which would not hold the camera with the battery grip fitted).

Being my first truly capable camera, it was a bit of a baptism of fire; most of the time that I owned it was spent learning about the technical aspects of photography, and continually pushing myself to eke out every last bit of capability that the camera had. The fact that the reviews I read suggesting shooting the camera in RAW helped; it was a new challenge, and the reason why I largely avoid the JPEG format to this day.

I found myself acquiring extra lenses to expand the range of situations I could comfortably handle. A couple of those lenses, such as an ancient SMC-Macro-Takumar 50 mm f/4, and an smc Pentax-A 100 mm f/2.8, opened my eyes to the fact that lenses are the critical component in the technical quality of the final photograph. This realisation led to the purchase of a Sigma 17-70 mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom lens to provide a higher quality alternative to the 18-55 mm kit lens which I had been reliant on.

After a trip to Cambodia at the end of high school, I felt that I had reached the limit of what I could do with the K10D. It had been my primary camera for three years, and in that time, had handled everything from landscapes to rugby games in an exemplary manner. Shortly after my return from Cambodia, the K10D was traded in on a Pentax K-7 at Musselburgh Pharmacy. In many ways, I regret parting ways with the K10D; I was very familiar with it, and it had been a very reliable camera. In all honesty, if I had cleaned the sensor and upgraded the lenses I had for the K10D, I would most probably still be using it, and quite likely would not have bought into the (Micro) Four Thirds system. If it is any indication of the level of regret that I had for selling the camera, I sourced a mint condition one a month ago. This newly acquired K10D has a permanent home in my collection – I will not be making the same mistake twice.

Leaving Pentax

The K-7 was a camera I had a real love-hate relationship with. I liked the ergonomics, the speed of operation, and how accurate the metering was compared to the K10D. On the other hand, the images always seemed soft, it got very noisy at high ISO, and to get nice shots out of it always felt like more hassle than it was worth. With hindsight, it has become obvious that I needed to work on my technique far more, and should have spent a lot more time learning how to use the equipment properly, rather than blaming it for my own deficiencies.

Against that backdrop of frequently negative sentiment towards the K-7, I started using it for night photography. At first, this went very well, and I was suitably impressed with the performance of the camera in this situation. Sadly, after a few months, it all went horribly wrong.

On a winter night in 2012, when shooting at the beach, I had two of the tripod legs at full extension down a steep bank, with the third leg only half extended. I took a few photos, then finished up. Rather than pack the camera and tripod up on the side of the road, I decided to walk back to the car with it still on the tripod. When I went to retrieve my keys, I had to take my gloves off. To do so, I stood the tripod up, then shortly after letting go of it, heard the sound of metal bouncing on asphalt. I looked over to my right, and saw the tripod lying on its side, with the camera still attached. Hurriedly, I packed everything up and returned home to assess the damage.

There was a dent in the vertical shutter release on the battery grip, and a chunk of metal had been chipped out of the camera body at the top of the hand grip on the right of the camera. Curiously, the shutter button in the battery grip, which had taken a direct hit, was undamaged; the shutter button in the camera was completely non-functional. Attempts were made to find a New Zealand-based repairer to fix the problem, but unfortunately, at that time, that level of repair work was not able to be performed on a Pentax in New Zealand, especially as the full extent of the internal damage was unknown. That left me the options of sending the camera to Japan or the USA for repair, or selling it for parts. Ultimately, I decided to sell it for parts, and shifted my focus to building a Micro Four Thirds system to fit my needs. While I have no regrets about moving to Olympus, I do feel guilty about having damaged a camera through my own sheer negligence – I should have levelled the tripod legs before standing it up, or gently laid it flat on the road behind the car. Needless to say, I am far more cautious now than I used to be.

Finding a Good Independent Retailer

As often as possible, I shop at independent stores. In my experience, they are more committed to serving the customer’s best interests, and more likely to have the expertise required to assist a customer in choosing the best solution for their specific needs. It is also good to be able to discuss a prospective purchase in person, rather than relying on company websites and online forums.

When I got the MZ-5n back in 2006, I had no idea that I would still be dealing with Musselburgh Pharmacy a decade later. The core elements in my continued patronage are their level of customer service, and photographic expertise.

Over the past ten years, Musselburgh Pharmacy have taken the time to get to know me – Hayden, their optics specialist, knows the kinds of photography I enjoy, what I look for in equipment, and the brands that I tend to favour. Combined with his product knowledge, this makes the ordering process much easier; he can direct me to something suitable right away, or steer me away from something I want to order which will not actually suit my needs. When new products which I might be interested in are announced, Hayden will send out an e-mail with the details of them; when I need a price on something, he will e-mail it through very promptly, and if he is unable to source it, will direct me to someone who can.

Naturally, when I felt like acquiring a larger format digital camera, I went into Musselburgh Pharmacy. We had been talking about the Pentax K-1 since its announcement, but had also discussed the medium format Pentax 645Z. Hayden kindly kept me up to date with pricing and availability during these discussions. Ultimately, I settled on the K-1, as it was more affordable, and offered as much as I needed out of a camera with a larger sensor than I had grown accustomed to. Orders were placed for the camera body, a couple of lenses, and the requisite accessories. Everything, bar one lens, has now arrived; the camera body arrived a month earlier than expected, which has made me very happy.

It has taken time to build my relationship with Musselburgh Pharmacy, but it has been worth it. Even though they can not carry too much stock, as they are a small store, their recommendations have never failed me. Above all, it is nice to support a local business who genuinely cares about its customers. The fact that I can build my first aid kit in the same place as I buy my wildlife photography kit is just the icing on the cake.

Going Full Frame

The major drawcard of full-frame was potential image quality. Although I have been very satisfied with the image quality from my Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses, and traditionally have not seen the point in getting a full-frame camera, I felt that the time had come to make the move. Major factors for me were dynamic range, and low light performance.

Dynamic range is something I have always appreciated in digital files; the more chance I have of recovering lost highlight detail or boosting shadow detail in post-processing, the closer I can get to the photo I had in mind when I pressed the shutter button. The Olympus gear has been quite good in this respect, especially considering the sensor size, but there is no escaping the fact that cameras with larger sensors tend to have greater dynamic range. Theoretically, this would result in: richer tonal gradations; improved detail retention; and should I get the exposure very wrong, an improved chance of recovery from the RAW files. In that respect, there is a clear benefit to moving up to a larger sensor.

No matter how many advances there are in noise control for smaller sensors, the simple fact is that larger sensors tend to have much lower noise levels. This comes into play both when recovering shadow detail, and when pushing the ISO higher to keep the shutter speed in a hand-holdable range or to allow one fast enough to freeze motion. Since I frequently find myself boosting shadow detail, or cranking up the ISO, it makes sense to have a camera that does not incur as many image quality penalties in these situations.

There are some secondary issues, such as potential print size, due to typically higher resolution sensors, such as the 36 MP one of the Pentax; and depth of field control, for which full frame cameras offer clear advantages over Micro Four Thirds. However, these are of no real importance to me, as: one, the largest size I normally print to is A3, which is handled quite well even by up-scaled files from the 5 MP Olympus E-1; and two, my shooting style means that Micro Four Thirds generally offers enough depth of field control – having more is not critical, but could open up more options when shooting.

I did consider medium format systems, but ruled them out fairly promptly based on price, and software limitations. For instance, the Pentax 645Z costs more than three times as much as the K-1. Sure, it offers better image quality than the K-1, but after reviewing sample files from both cameras, I could not see any differences great enough to persuade me towards the more expensive camera. The 645Z is also incompatible with my preferred software, Capture One Pro 9 (C1P9), due to the fact that Capture One’s makers, Phase One, make medium format cameras and will not support competitive products. While I think that is a fair corporate policy, it does mean that I would have to learn a separate software package for a medium format camera, unless I bought a Phase One camera, which is significantly more expensive than a 645Z – no matter how good the camera is, if it costs more than a brand new car, it is a no-go for me.

Full frame offers clear advantages over Micro Four Thirds in terms of dynamic range and noise control, both of which I find important. It also comes in at a lower price point than medium format, and allows me to continue using C1P9 for RAW file editing and management. That being said, the Olympus cameras have served me well, and offer a more compact and lightweight package compared to the majority full-frame cameras. Since I am heavily invested in Olympus equipment, I will not be selling any of it, especially as I know that, like the Pentax gear I sold, I would regret parting ways with it. In light of this, I will be running both systems side-by-side: a compact yet high quality Micro Four Thirds system for day-to-day use, wildlife, and travel; and a high quality Pentax full-frame system for use in low light, portraiture, and any situation where I want the best quality I can get.

Why the Return to Pentax?

There were four full-frame systems vying for my attention: Canon, Nikon, Sony full-frame mirrorless, and Pentax.

To get the features I wanted in Canon or Nikon would have been cost prohibitive, unless I bought the entire system second hand. Although I am generally a huge fan of buying second hand, I do not know enough about either system to make well-informed decisions, and for something as expensive as a full-frame camera, I would rather get things right first time. Sony’s full-frame mirrorless system was a serious contender, but I felt that their native lens range was a little limited, and cost prohibitive at the top end. That left Pentax.

I have maintained a degree of familiarity with the Pentax system; it is hard to forget that many years of acquired knowledge. Moreover, when I switched to Olympus, there were a number of Pentax accessories that I had difficulty selling. That meant that technically, all I would need is a full-frame camera body: I already had a fully compatible lens (with a matching film SLR body), a remote release, SCA adapters to fit my Metz flashguns to a Pentax, and even a spare battery. That was the pragmatic side of the decision; the other side was sentimental. My first SLR, and my first DSLR, were both made by Pentax, and both were supplied by Hayden at Musselburgh Pharmacy in Dunedin; it seemed fitting that my first full-frame DSLR should be made by Pentax, and supplied by Hayden at Musselburgh Pharmacy, too.

The K-1 itself has a lot of features which I like, especially the dual SD card slots, and strategically placed LED lights to assist operation in the dark. User reports were very favourable, often citing the image quality, and build quality of the camera. I was quite impressed by the samples files which I had seen, so I thought it would be interesting to see how well it could perform in my hands.

First Impressions of the Pentax K-1

Since its arrival, I have tried to use the K-1 in a variety of situations with a range of lenses. In that time, I have not found any major issues with the camera: the handling is superb, and the image quality has generally been excellent. Things have been improving as I have been getting more accustomed to using it, and I can see a lot of scope for things to improve further with time.

I have only encountered two issues with the camera thus far: the time taken to write RAW files to the two SD cards, and the output quality from the proprietary software.

The write speed is simply a consequence of trying to write an approximately 40 MB RAW file to to different cards in succession. The write time is much longer in Pixel Shift mode, which generates files that are around 140 MB in size. Still, since I will primarily be using the K-1 for landscape work, a slower write time is more of an inconvenience than anything which gets in the way of taking photos. It writes to the card much faster than either my Olympus C-8080 or E-20N – the K-1 is a decade newer, so you would hope that this would be the case – so I should not really complain about this too much.

Pentax software, namely Digital Camera Utility 5 (DCU5), is a necessary step when handling Pixel Shift RAW files. C1P9 does not support Pixel Shift files, and Phase One have indicated that they are unlikely to add support for these files in the future. So far, I have noticed a subtle but perceptible improvement in sharpness with Pixel Shift files compared to standard RAW files. However, the colours in the files from DCU5 are less appealing to my eyes than those from C1P9. I might spend some time over the summer trying to see if I can improve the colour output from DCU5, but until then, I am most probably going to shoot standard RAW files and use C1P9. One thing that spending more time with DCU5 will probably not address is the general lag when using the software; that being said, I will still try to find some way of improving it.

Later this week (and probably spilling over into next week), I will be posting some more detailed first impressions of the K-1, and the lenses which I have used on it so far.

Conclusion

A large part of my photographic journey has been with Pentax, and it feels like things have come full circle. From my first SLR, through my first DSLR, and now my first 35 mm full frame digital camera, Pentax have made the products which have suited my needs, and helped me grow as a photographer. Deciding to get a full frame camera was not a decision I made lightly – it has taken the better part of a year to finally reach that decision. Over the course of the past year, the patience, expertise, and service I have received from Musselburgh Pharmacy has been integral to the process. Since receiving the K-1, I have been very satisfied with its performance. Based on what I have seen so far, it should be a very capable performer once I have grown accustomed to using it, and refined my technique to a point where I am not holding the camera back.

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