Pentax K1 - the 35mm legend returns...
It's fair to say that the Pentax K1 is probably one of the most anticipated cameras of all time. Pentax provided the first steps into photography for so many people with cameras like the K1000 and ME Super that they have a special place in the hearts and minds of many photographers - even those who have now moved on to shoot with another camera brand. Pentax have always been a slightly unusual company who do things differently. They put their stabilisation in the body not the lens. They build lenses in utterly unique focal lengths like 31mm, 77mm and 43mm that have never been manufactured by anyone else. They have used the same bayonet lens mount - the 'K bayonet' since 1975 when T Rex and ELO dominated the charts, mirror sunglasses were cool and being a 'dancing queen' meant you were a girl. The Pentax K1 has been years in the making and is a ground zero design manufactured without compromise and targeted at a rabid Pentax fan base who have been working themselves into a frenzy of excitement about it for over fifteen years.
The history of photography is littered with famous names, some of whom survived and prospered: Nikon, Canon, Fuji and many that perished: Kodak, Contax, Minolta. Between these two extremes lie a handful of other brands such as Olympus and Pentax whose fans have experienced an emotional rollercoaster in a way that perhaps only England football supporters can truly understand. In fact the heyday of Pentax coincided with the supremacy of English football in 1966. In the 1960's Pentax utterly dominated 35mm film camera production - theirs were the SLR's personally used by all four Beatles, David Bailey shot the most legendary fashion shoot in history (Jean Shrimpton in New York) on a Pentax and he used a Pentax or a Rolleiflex for all of his most iconic fashion shoots throughout the swinging sixties. Don McCuillin probably the greatest war photographer of the century used Pentax cameras to cover the Vietnam war for some of the most intense photographs ever committed to film. From the streets of New York to the miniskirts of swinging London and into the jungles of the Far East in their heyday Pentax cameras reigned supreme in a way that no camera manufacturer has approached since.
Ringo was always an enthusiastic photographer and keen Pentax user
As was Paul McCartney
Pentax's journey to SLR supremacy had its foundations in their pioneering refinement of the single lens reflex camera. They took the early German single lens reflex designs of the Ihagee Kine Exakta of 1936, the Contax S of 1949 and the pioneering work of Praktica and designed the first Japanese 35mm single lens reflex - the Asahiflex 1 in 1951. The Asahiflex used the Zeiss/Contax S screw mount which later came to be known as the Pentax screw mount. It wasn't until the Asahiflex IIb of 1954 that Pentax really caused a sensation however by eliminating the viewfinder blackout that blighted SLR's until their development of the instant return mirror. This invention ended the supremacy of the rangefinder and ushered in the era of the single lens reflex. Pentax remained the biggest selling SLR camera until well into the 1980's as a review of their lens line-up in the late 1980's will attest. The Pentax lens range at that time was the most comprehensive range of optics ever offered by any manufacturer in history. The catalogue listed no less than four 50mm prime's at f1.2, f1.4, f1.7 and f2.0 and four 135mm lenses at f1.8, f2.5, f2.8 and f3.5. All extremes of focal length were catered for from the 15mm f3.5 fisheye through the 20mm f2.8, and both f2 and f2.8 versions of the 24mm and 28mm lengths. At the telephoto end you could buy 200mm lenses at f2.8 and f4, 300mm at f2.8 and f4.0, 400mm at f2.8 and f5.6, 500mm at f4.5, 600mm at f5.6, 1000mm and 1200mm both at f8 and a range of catadioptric telephotos at both 1000 and 2000mm. It's worth noting that nobody in the photographic world even makes such lenses anymore. Not only that but Pentax went on to design the cult 31mm, 43mm and 77mm limited lenses posessed of such stellar optical quality and build they were widely regarded as perhaps the finest lenses ever made for a 35mm camera.
The stellar Pentax 77mm f1.8 Limited, widely regarded as one of the finest portrait lenses ever made
Combine that with the fact that Pentax had pioneered the development of the world's first lens multicoating to reduce reflection and refraction in lenses in 1971 with the seven layer SMC (Super Multi Coating) process. This achievement was initially proclaimed by Nikon as impossible because at the time their lenses were coated with from one to four layers of coating and even that was pushing the technology of the time to its limits. After the announcement of SMC, Nikon, Canon and Zeiss elected to pay Pentax a license fee to use the Pentax process which made multi-layer coating commercially viable for the first time. Alongside the ubiquitous Pentax 'K bayonet' mount which was practically an industry standard and was used under licence by several other manufacturers Pentax were also marketing a full range of 645 and 6x7 cameras and associated medium format system lenses to accompany them. In terms of accessories there were multiple motordrives, databacks, bellows units, ringflashes and the like to cater for even the most obscure photographic need. The range was as lavish and extravagant as the haute couture it frequently photographed. During the seventies the Pentax corporate calendar was shot by the great Sam Haskyns in locations spanning the globe and on sets worthy of a Bond movie. Such indulgence for a mere corporate calendar would be equivalent today to an organisation hiring Steven Spielberg to direct its latest TV commercial.
Sadly Pentax pre-eminence was not to last and the late 1970's saw the rise of Canon who successfully used Nikon's strategy of enticing professional photographers to use their equipment and in doing so they created a halo around their brand very successfully. The Canon camera you bought with some cheap consumer lenses bore little relation to the professional grade Canon F1 that the pro's were shooting on Wimbledon centercourt at the time, but people wanted to be seen shooting what the pro's were using and in marketing terms that was enough to swing the market in Canon and Nikon's favour. Pentax were late to that particular party with the professionally orientated Pentax LX of 1980. It was an amazing film SLR and often cited as arguably the most capable professional 35mm film camera of them all but it was too little too late and Pentax failed to get it into the hands of enough top line pro's to make a difference.
The magnificent Pentax LX
In 1975 Steven Sasson an engineer at Eastman Kodak built the world's first digital camera but it wasn't until the the mid 1990's that the technology became mainstream with a range of compact digital cameras marketed by Sony, Konica, and Fuji amongst others. The sensors in these early devices were far smaller than 35mm film because the technology to build a full frame digital sensor did not exist. Pentax saw an opportunity to develop the world's first full frame digital SLR and embarked on a project with Phillips to develop what became the Pentax MZ-D. The resulting camera was first shown at the 2000 Photokina show where it caused a sensation as the world's first full frame digital SLR - years before Nikon and Canon attempted the same feat. The project was however cancelled before launch because Pentax were unhappy with the performance of the Phillips sensor. Contax pressed on with the same sensor and launched the Contax N1 the world's first commercially manufactured full frame DSLR but it didn't perform particularly well and essentially led to the closure of the Kyocera Contax imaging division and the end of an iconic camera brand. Pentax retreated from professionally orientated digital cameras licking their wounds and left the field open to Nikon, Kodak and Canon which further eroded their market share.
Pentax MZ-D - world's first full frame DSLR
It wasn't until 2002 - a full two years after the Pentax MZ-D that Canon and Kodak prototyped a full frame digital SLR. Canon showed their EOS 1Ds and Kodak followed with the Kodak DCS Pro 14N released in 2003. How different the market might have looked now if Pentax had taken the market by storm with the MZ-D in 2002! Canon and Nikon probably owe their professional and consumer market dominance in the 21st century to the fact that Pentax withdrew from full frame digital at the dawn of the millenium. Nikon went full frame with the D3 of 2007 while Pentax released their first crop format DSLR the bizzarely named 'Ist D' in 2003 and continued to market only crop/APSC format cameras throughout the first decade of the 21st century. This reluctance to develop a full frame digital SLR frustrated many of Pentax's most loyal fans. Those who wanted to upgrade to full frame digital for its superior light gathering potential plus the ability to use their lens collection to the full were forced to defect from Pentax and move to Canon or Nikon making the expensive decision to sell their prized Pentax lenses in order to start again with a different system.
It was sad to see a once great camera brand losing its way, facing declining sales and disappearing from many high street stores. Eventually Pentax was purchased by Hoya in 2007 who wanted the medical imaging division. Under Hoya Pentax imaging division saw its main production plant in Tokyo closed and many of its engineers were laid off. The merger did produce some fruitful endeavour however and the Pentax K7 and K5 series were developed and launched during that time and were warmly welcomed as fine examples of the APSC breed. Pentax also launched the medium format digital 645D which caused something of a sensation as a relatively affordable and excellent medium format professional camera. Having failed to make any serious inroads into Canon and Nikon's market dominance Hoya decided to sell Pentax imaging to Ricoh corporation in 2011 and a new exciting chapter in Pentax history began.
Ricoh is a true giant of the imaging business employing 110 000 staff worldwide in a diverse range of business areas primarily concerned with office technology and imaging. In many ways its nearest equivalent is Canon who also have a large office technology business. Ricoh enjoys the largest market share in most territories in office equipment whereas Canon cameras out-sell Pentax in most territories worldwide. Overall the Canon group are slightly larger than Ricoh but both dwarf Nikon who lack a similarly diverse range of businesses and whose primary activity is camera and lens manufacture. In short Pentax are now owned by a powerful global organisation with ambitious plans and crucially they have retained many of the original Pentax engineers and employees. This will ensure continuity and makes them a very credible force again in photography.
It's important to understand a little of this background to appreciate the significance and origins of the Pentax K1. Pentax are a company who have frequently pioneered radical technology and design approaches and have a unique perspective on what is needed to take great photographs. Their bodies are the toughest, best weathersealed and most ruggedly built of any camera manufacturer. We live on a planet where rain is commonplace (I should know - I'm British!) but few Nikon, Canon and Sony bodies or lenses are weathersealed - and arguably those that are don't reach Pentax standards in this regard. Pentax in common with Nikon use Sony imaging sensors because they're the best in the world but then tweak them and often manage to get better perfomance out of them than any SLR using the same sensor. Pentax bodies and lenses are smaller to store and transport than any other competing SLR system and don't bother looking for any equivalents to the Pentax limited prime lens range because you won't find them anywhere! On a Pentax camera the shake reduction is built into the body not the lens which means you get the benefit of stabilisation on every lens you ever use - even vintage ones and the lenses are both cheaper and lighter too. As an example of why I like in body stabilisation: Canon don't offer an f2.8 stabilised lens in the critical 24-70mm focal length range. This is precisely the lens that a wedding pro might use in a dimly lit church or a fashion photographer might use in low light location shoots. The K1 has a plethora of other useful technology too - the body is the first SLR in the world with on board illumination to assist any photographer shooting during the hours of darkness - and lets face it 'night' is a popular photographic subject! Aside from looking like the docking lights on the USS Enterprise which is insanely cool, it's a feature of great use too when shooting at gigs or shows when the house lights are dimmed. After all Volkswagen don't market cars without headlights so why expect a photographer to see in the dark? What do the other manufacturers do - advise their customers to eat more carrots?
In short the Pentax K1 has more technology built into it than any other DSLR on the market. None of this is technology for technology's sake though - the articulated screen is an utterly unique solution to the problem that photographers often have when shooting macro or landscape which is that nobody really wants to have to lie down in mud or on filthy pavement to compose a ground level shot. It also permits waist level shooting in studio and facilitates candid portraiture too. Want to record the location of your shoots so you can always return to a favourite poppy field you found three years ago?? Me too - and I bet there are lots of photographers out there who'd love to be able to do that. If you shoot rival full frames presumably at that point you take out your quill and ink and log the position or draw a map like Christopher Columbus did when he discovered the new world! If you're lucky enough to have a K1 though you just turn on the GPS function and the K1 will automatically append the latitude and longitude to the EXIF data. If you're shooting a (fairly) still life for an advertising billboard poster where quality is critical simply turn on pixel shift mode and the K1 will shoot 4 pictures moving the sensor by one pixel width for each one and will then composite them together instantly to build a picture file which comfortably outperforms even the best medium format designs. Think of it as a (4x36) 144 megapixel sensor and you're on the right track.
Shooting MimiG with the Pentax K1 and HD D-FA 24-70mm f2.8 SDM
Have you ever wanted to take pictures of the night sky or stars but have found them smeared across the sky in your long exposure photographs? Well now there's a way without needing to spend £2000 on an equatorial telescope mount - the K1 combines its pixel shift technology and GPS position to compensate for the movement of the stars. What is so exciting is that Pentax have looked carefully at what photographers do on a daily basis and looked for ways to make it easier for them to accomplish those tasks. The K1 is nothing less than a ground up re-examination of the design goals of a serious camera system. The K1 is a landmark creation, nothing less.
Let's turn then to image quality. Pentax have a long track record of taking Sony's best of breed sensors and getting the highest performance out of them. I've been shooting the K1 for the past three weeks on a wide range of different subjects but especially models in studio and on location. I have found the image quality and clarity nothing short of astounding. When you zoom into a subject's eyes in Lightroom you will find every single eyelash clearly delineated with no grain visible. As a tool for professional portraiture this camera is second to none in the full frame field and the early reports from various review sites such as DPReview confirm this. One of the key things I have noticed since shooting the K1 is that it renders the shade and quality of light in a way I have only previously seen in medium format images such as those from the 645Z. Here's an example:
Shooting Jade Armitage in the forest - Astonishing rendering of light and shade points to class leading dynamic range
For portraiture I use the K1 gripped with either the new Pentax HD D-FA 24-70mm f2.8 zoom, the Pentax FA 77mm f1.8 Limited or the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 and had outstanding results with all three. The new 24-70mm has the fastest and most reliable autofocus of the three lenses and in fact focuses so fast that it's as quick at focussing as your own eyes are - to the point of feeling instantaneous. The 77mm is a little more noisy but locks on securely and the 70-200mm Tamron is a revalation. I thought it was good on the K3 but it's even faster to achieve focus on the K1 and I can only assume that perhaps that's due to a software change or due to a more powerful body motor. I haven't really had much opportunity to try motion tracking yet although if it matches the K3 I will be happy as that proved a very capable camera for fast moving subjects including running dogs, children and aircraft.
Sensibly Pentax have elected to target the K1 at the pro and serious amateur market and the launch lenses reflect that. The holy trinity of zooms 15-30mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm are all available from Pentax at f2.8 and in addition there are full frame primes at 31mm, 43mm, 50mm, 77mm, 100mm, 200mm, 300mm and 560mm including macro options. There's an ultra telephoto pro grade zoom spanning 150-450mm and many other options available from Sigma, Tamron and Samyang to name but three. The obvious missing gaps are a 14mm fisheye and the classic 24mm, 28mm, 85mm and 135mm primes. The future lens roadmap indicates most of these gaps will be filled in 2017 and in any case you can buy third party if you really need them now. In addition Pentax is unique amongst camera manufacturers in providing compatibility with all its existing legacy glass so the K1 will take any of the Takumar screw mount, K-bayonet mount, M, F, FA, DA and even medium format lenses Pentax have ever made if you'd rather pick up a Pentax lens secondhand.
The astonishing Pentax FA 77mm f1.8 limited weaves magic spells with light
This legacy support means I am still using the SMC M series 50mm F1.7 lens that came with my ME Super in 1981 and shows Pentax commitment to thorough engineering excellence - it's more evidence of 'the Pentax way'. While other camera firms have revamped their lens ranges several times over the years leaving those with extensive lens collections using them as paperweights, Pentax have continued to refine their K mount in order to support their users and I deeply respect that sense of loyalty to the customer. The K1 incidentally uses the same batteries that the last three generations of Pentax DSLR's used and so with each new camera body I have gained a fully compatible battery - it's a nice touch. It's the polar opposite of those electronics companies who change their chargers and interconnects with every model iteration leaving their customers with a box full of unused chargers at home.
So Pentax have built probably the best full frame DSLR in the world fourteen years after they built the first full frame DSLR in the world. The Pentax faithful have been (finally) rewarded for their patience. The price is sensational - £1599 in the UK undercutting the Nikon D810 and Canon EOS 5D by hundreds of pounds and the 5DS by over £1000. That's not a bargain price it's a declaration of intent to recapture the ground they have lost in the past twenty years and return the brand to its former glory. Clearly with that price and specification the K1 will be a rip roaring success with existing Pentax users but the real question is whether Pentax can swing some of the competitor's market share their way too. Realistically it going to be hard to convert existing full frame Canon and Nikon users with large glass collections but I can see a real opportunity to capture the APSC shooters from other brands who are now looking to move to full frame. That's because those users are faced with scrapping their existing lens collection - you can't even mount a Canon crop lens on a full frame body anyway. The costs of moving to Pentax rather than Nikon or Canon are considerably lower simply because the body and lenses are generally cheaper.
K1 £1599 EOS 5D Mk4 £3499 Canon EOS 5D SR £2888 D810 £2137
Pentax 24-70mm f2.8 £1149 Canon 24-70mm f2.8 £1369 Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 (VR) £1733
Pentax 70-200mm f2.8 £1799 Canon 70-200mm f2.8 £1499 Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 £1579
Pentax 15-30mm f2.8 £1499 Canon 15-35mm f2.8 £999 Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 £1299
If you buy the K1 rather than the Nikon D810 and trinity lenses you'll save over £1000
If you buy the K1 rather than the EOS 5D Mk4 and equivalent lenses you'll save £2000
Bear in mind too that these Pentax products are all still at RRP because they are new products so expect the gap to widen further as discounts apply. I have friends who shoot excellent pictures on rival systems including Canon's venerable EOS 5D Mk3 and before the K1 existed it commanded a retail price of around £2300 for 22 megapixels of Canon full frame. Canon have a commanding market share and some truly lovely lenses but the world is changing and the K1 and Pentax 645Z are now stalking the Canon armada like a pair of hunter killer submarines: stealthy, deadly, technologically superior. In short the Pentax K1 may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened for Canon owners if it forces a re-appraisal of their pricing strategy and stimulates them to innovate more.
In wider market terms it's hard to understand how a company with the pedigree and heritage of Nikon can have suffered so many product launch issues and one has to ask whether Nikon are rushing products to market to try and compete with the huge market share of Canon? In many ways the dominance of the big two (Canon and Nikon) in recent years hasn't been good for photography. Canon with their over 50% market share have become lazy - their sensors for years have been no match for the Sony derived ones Nikon, Pentax and Sony use and their products are frequently more expensive than rivals and rarely particularly innovative. Nikon in an effort to try to unseat Canon as market leader have seemingly rushed many of their recent releases and suffered a string of botched launches and product recalls on nearly every recent camera. Sony have built some very interesting mirrorless cameras with state of the art imaging quality but due perhaps to their lack of camera engineering heritage their user interface and design has held back their adoption in the marketplace. The emergence of a revitalised Pentax and Olympus can only be good for the market and realistically even as a pro the choice is no longer merely between Canon or Nikon.
Perhaps most importantly though if you buy a K1 and join the Pentax system you will own a camera that will inspire you to take better photographs in a way that only the best cameras can. The K1 is so good that since owning one I have found my photography has improved. It's no different to playing tennis, when you start playing with a better opponent you are forced to raise your game. I have raised my game since shooting with the K1. My last two model shoots have both involved me pushing my technique to its limits and the last one which was on location was by far the most technically complex shoot I have ever attempted and I am delighted with the results.
With multiple wireless flash (gelled), smoke pyrotechnics, a princess and a K1 there are no limits to your creativity
So welcome back Pentax, in the K1 you have created a camera that has set a new high water mark in full frame digital. The K1 simply is state of the art in ergonomics, build, features, weatherproofing, stabilisation, image quality, low light performance and value for money. It seems somehow fitting that the company that started the SLR boom in the 1950's and that contributed so much to the last century of photography has built one of the defining cameras of its era. In the words of the 1977 Bond theme from the company's heyday Pentax - 'nobody does it better'.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the mighty Pentax K1
Great article with some interesting facts that even as a dedicated Pentaxian I didn't know. The K1 is a great camera, and has joined my trusty LX and a mountain of M and A series lenses that I have picked up on Ebay for a song over the past few years.
The question now...whether to splash out on an upgrade to the K1 ii ?
What other camera manufacturer rewards its loyal customers with an upgrade path to the latest technology? Another great Pentax innovation!
Your website is really cool and this is a great inspiring article
Nice article, but please (please!) do something about the colors of your site; it is not very pleasant reading..
Wow! You got me. Sounds amazing
This is a great article. Thanks for all the information on the k1.
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