The Pentax K-1: Where objective and subjective meet.

Opening Disclaimer:

This camera is primarily a stills camera. If you are ok with that proceed. Otherwise you will likely be better off shopping elsewhere. I will note that with the $1,000 or more you save over similarly spec’d stills cameras (Talking sensor format and MP count only since I do not know of a DSLR that has all of the K-1s features. Plus many have no better video specs.) you could buy yourself a very nice video friendly camera. Same can be said for those looking for a high FPS sports camera. If top notch stills are your aim then read on.

Preface:

I love logic. Crave it even. Objective over subjective always. Warm and fuzzy are the enemy.Gushing prose not welcome here. But with the Pentax K-1? Houston we have a problem. I have delayed writing anything about this camera. Why? Glad you asked. Seeing myself as logical I was concerned that my immediate and ever growing… ok, love for this camera would be perceived as the uncontrolled, unchecked ramblings of an overzealous Pentaxian (Pentaxite, Pentaxlandian..?). There. I said it. I love this camera. Hoo, that is freeing. Case in point just recently I took pictures that moved me, dare I say to near tears. Not that the pictures themselves were so marvelous (although they kinda were)…

Portrait of my better half @narcisaiwoods #raleigh @ricohpentax #pentaxk1 @tamronusa #tamron2875mmf2_8

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#raleigh @ricohpentax #pentaxk1 @tamronusa #tamron2875mmf2_8

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but more accurately I was moved by the fact that I had actually acquired a camera so much better, with so much more potential than I ever thought I could have afforded. And this day I was using a $50 used film lens. At this point two weeks in I know I have not even scratched the surface of what this camera can do. This is one of those cameras that you do not flip to try another brand or climb a lens system hierarchy. This is one you faithfully use for years and then put on a pedestal shelf to be taken down for a spin every once in a while…. like my Dad’s dearly departed ME Super. Wait, more on that in a bit.

Now mind you I come at this not only having used a string of crop sensor interchangeable lens cameras in the last few years (E-P5, E-PL5, D3300, NX300, NX30, RX-100ii, K-3ii, NX1 and a full frame A7 somewhere in the middle for giggles).

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Nothing wrong with them, but these mortal digital cameras are tools of convenience and practicality. I cannot afford to develop as many film rolls as I desire to take during a given week. I cannot simply sling a Mamiya around my neck and go walkabouts like I would with a mirrorless or DSLR. Trust me I tried that once at Duke Gardens and came away with a cramped left hand and blown out pits.

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Mamiya RZ67 at Duke Gardens

Not a good look. That being said I LOVE film. The process. The wonderful noise made by the faint whine of early circuitry and the clack of metal and glass slapping about. The tedious zen of loading and unloading and occasionally ruining  film. Even the not knowing what is to come. I fully cop to loving film. Have always. What format or brand? Yes.

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The film crew.(Click photo for film gallery.)

The Holga? Fun and cheap medium format. The old Pentax power zoom? Bought it new ages ago and still hang on to it. The Polaroid One Step? Purchased to add to the crew since a One Step was my first camera that my father bought me to beat me off of his beloved SX-70. The Minolta? Gift from a friend familiar with my love of cameras. The Canon? Came as a package deal with the Hasselblad. The Hasselblad? Literally dropped in my lap by a friend for a price that I could not refuse. The Mamiya? Sat at the camera store calling me every time I stopped through. The 35mm cameras are very good and I shoot film with them mostly. The medium format cameras? Good gravy. Briefly had me plotting for a digital back or lightly used 645D (645Z way out of my fiscal depth. Other medium digital brands give me high price temporary blindness.) until I snapped out of it and they ruined me for crop sensors and the one digital full frame I had. Until now. Since acquiring the K-1 the film crew, beloved medium format brick (Hasselblad) and cinder block (Mamiya) included, has sat unused for 2 weeks straight and I cannot remember the last time that has happened regardless of what digital camera I have purchased.

Let’s get the sentimental warm and fuzzy out of the way.

Subjective:

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Dad.

Exhibit A) My love for my Dad knows no bounds and while he gifted me his love of photography in general, he specifically taught me how to shoot on an SLR with his Pentax ME Super. There. I held it together so far.

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Exhibit B) Further until a few years back I never owned a ‘real’ camera of my own. Enter the Pentax ME Super again. While following a friend who had been recently bitten by the film SLR bug to Southeastern Camera I was struck with the thought, I bet Dad still has his ME Super within reach, while my friend Anthony picked out a film SLR of his own from the selection there. Called Dad from the shop and sure enough when I stopped by my folk’s house later that day to pick up the kids there it was sitting on the counter in what appeared to be, but wasn’t, a freshly Armor All’d bag. That is how Dad rolls. I ran a roll through and as soon as I saw the photos I knew I was hooked all over again. After years of suffering through a string of point and shoots my wife instructed me to stop denying myself and buy a real camera. Love that woman.

Exhibit C) Last year I encouraged my Dad to take his ME Super with him when he and my Mom went on a trip to celebrate their 49th wedding Anniversary that included a stop through the Grand Canyon. He managed to get a few shots off before the ME Super finally gave up the ghost after many years of dedicated service. After Southeastern Camera diagnosed the problem (mother board packed it in) and that the repairs would likely cost twice the camera’s value I decided it was time to usher Dad in to the DSLR age by gifting him a mint condition Pentax K20D w/ grip that came with a kit AF zoom and played nice with his existing lenses.

Ok, this is the end of the line for the subjective, warm and fuzzy piece… mostly. More on that later.

Now I will try to get back to Spocks-ville.

Objective:

By this time I was in the Sony A7 phase of my system churn odyssey and it hit me. While playing around with Dad’s K20D and an old SMC-A lens from the ME Super I realize I like the handling of this years old Pentax better than my A7. This has image stabilization?… and wait.. is the center focus point lighting up when in focus while I focus manually? Water sealed, including the grip? What the? I’ve been sleeping on Pentax. Yadda, yadda, yadda and the next week I had a Pentax K-3ii.

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Loved it, although after an odd series of events followed by what can only be described as a bad call I strayed and continued the system churn odyssey. Hindsight is crystal.

Then ‘it’ happened. Having cataloged the repercussions of my bad call in detail already I provide a link here and will move on. Suffice it to say I needed a new system stat. This my friends is when we had ourselves a convergence. The same day I went to trade my gear, while the getting was good, was the same day that the Pentax K-1 was to be released. (Had been tracking the progress of the K-1 since I owned the K-3ii.) My thought was that I would pick up a K-1 on trade day one. Simple right? Nope. Wildly optimistic? Definitely. But in the end not too far off of the mark. As a result of astonishing timing and Chris…

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Chris the day of K-1 pick up taken with the K-1 and the SMC A 50mm f/1.7. Balloons from the party store across the street were discussed to mark the occasion, but we got distracted.

the manager of Southeastern Camera Carrboro, I found my traded in gear back in the hands of it’s original owner and a K-1 on pre-order directly from the factory in the Philippines to the camera shop in a quantity of 1 specifically for me by the local Pentax rep. Service on 11. All while the online retailers have exactly none available even up to the writing of this post. That worked out nicely.

With a constant track of “Is it here yet?” playing on loop in my head I tried not to drive the folks at the shop or everyone I know crazy. I think I succeeded. My Dad graciously lending me his K20D helped immensely,

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Dad’s K20D with the legacy glass I purchased before the K-1 arrived.

but towards the end that did not help so I reverted back to my film cameras. Then it arrived…

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In typical Pentax fashion there was no fanfare box wise. In fact except for the model number on the box one would be hard pressed to tell the box from the one that my previous K-3ii came in. No penny spent where it has no real impact. I like that. But when I took it out of the box there it was, that familiar feeling that this is a camera that could be used to hammer in a railroad spike should the need arise. I pored over videos, reviews, and had already downloaded the instruction manual so there were no real surprises controls wise, but the feel of the switchgear was impeccable. First thing up? To start I will list the perks available on many or most modern Pentax bodies.

Pentax perk 1) Vintage Pentax lens mount compatibility. Exercised the vintage compatibility chops by slapping on the 50mm SMC A f/1.7 I picked up for $50 while waiting for the K-1. Lenses dating back to the mid 70s up through current lenses are compatible with Pentax digital cameras.You will need to activate use of the aperture ring in the customization menus.

Pentax perk 2) SMC-A lenses (like the 50mm I had that was produced between ’84 and ’89) link to the camera’s aperture controls for fully functional aperture priority mode. To meter with SMC lenses (no A mode) you can either leave them wide open and use aperture priority mode (except for harsh sunlight or when I want to increase the depth of field I shoot legacy glass wide open) or go full manual and press the good old green button on the back. SMC lenses stay open by default to aid in framing I believe. To meter when the green button is pressed the camera stops down to the aperture set on the lens and meters.

Pentax perk 3) Manual lens focus aids. Activate catch in focus in the customization menus and make sure focus peaking is active in live view. Focus peaking in live view will be familiar to anyone who has used mirrorless and allows the use of the tilt screen to frame and focus the picture including being able to zoom in and pan around. Nothing objective about, I love catch in focus. By default the center focus point will stay hot and light up/beep when in focus. Handy, but catch in focus goes one step further. I do not understand why all cameras do not have this available. Once activated set the camera to AF, hold down the shutter while focusing at the center point and the camera will take the shot. This essentially gives vintage lenses rudimentary AF functionality  where you are the focus motor. I believe it was designed to act as a trap focus for a fixed camera but with the next perk it works handheld as well. Every lens now has access to the AF system including my decades old $39 135mm f/2.5 lens.

Pentax perk 4) In body image stabilization. I repeat in body image stabilization (5 axis in the K-1). Let that sink in for a moment. Sure Olympus and now Sony offer mirrorless cameras with this feature, but what other DSLR at any  price has this? Last I checked 0 no matter how much you spend. Works with manual lenses as well, you just need to tell the camera the focal length. And the camera asks you for this once it senses a manual lens. This has so many benefits that are practical and fiscal.

  1. Every lens now has image stabilization from my decades old $39 135mm f/2.5 lens up to my Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom and beyond.
  2. Potential for lighter, more compact lenses. Like my previous experience with Olympus this moves the stabilization in to the body reducing complexity and weight for the lenses.
  3. Makes perks 9 and 10 listed below possible.
  4. Saves a ton on lenses. Two lenses I desire greatly, but often cannot afford, are 1) wide-ish to short tele f/2.8 constant zoom and 2) short to long tele f/2.8 zooms. Image stabilization is critical, especially for the tele zoom. Canon and Nikon image stabilized factory options are beyond my comfort level cost wise as well as most brands. When I finally did cough up for these lenses with a system I was burnt badly… Another story. That is now in the past. But not only are the factory lenses less than most for Pentax (owing to not having to include image stabilization I imagine) the non image stabilized aftermarket variants (both Tamrons in this discussion. Sigma made one also I understand, but it had redundant image stabilization, appears to no longer be in production, and cost more new likely owing to having redundant image stabilization.) are a steal. Mine were more so since I was able to buy back the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 for relative peanuts.

Pentax perk 5) Top notch weather sealing (when used with Pentax WR lenses). Above run of the mill rain I have had times at the beach and in some caverns during vacations where I took the fewest photos where I wanted to take them most for fear of ruining my gear. Nice to know that with weather sealed lenses this need not be a concern anymore.

Pentax perk 6) Lenses are generally lower in cost than most. I touched on this above, but I believe this deserves to be listed as a perk by itself. Counting the zooms mentioned above and my 3 vintage primes all in for 5 lenses I have spent $899 so far… For 5 lenses. 5 great lenses at that.

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Pentax perk 7) Fabulous control layout and ample customizations available. Feels like an honest to goodness camera. Some cameras I have owned felt like light capturing electronic devices roughly shaped to resemble a camera, but Pentax cameras feel like actual cameras updated to the digital age.

Pentax perk 8) Awesome image quality and AF. The K-1 even more so due to being full frame, but from my father’s K20D to the K-3ii I had Pentax produces wonderful images. Further AF was never an issue on the K-3ii.

Pentax perk 9) Built in GPS w/ Astrotracer feature shared with the K-3ii I had.

Pentax perk 10) Pixel shift high resolution mode shared with the K-3ii I had.

Pentax perk 11) Value. My K-3ii stacked up well against DSLRs of similar (but fewer) specs from major competitors. More on that below.

May add some more general Pentax perks later, but suffice it to say I really like Pentax products in general.

The K-1

So what about the K-1? Let me sum it up this way.

Regardless of spec sheet, format, or pedigree there is not another single stills camera I would have over the K-1 at any price, film or digital.

Just that simple. More than that nothing comes close. This is not a camera that is ‘good for it’s price point’. Remove price from the equation and it still stands in a class of one. Why? In addition to many of the features above not being offered by other companies at all let’s look at K-1 specific perks.

K-1 perk 1) Stellar spec sheet on par with the best full frame cameras available today. Getting the well knowns that separate it from the rest of the Pentax clan out of the way in one perk. 36MP, full frame, 1/8000s shutter speed, and improved 5-axis image stabilization. Few cameras operate in this company.

K-1 perk 2) To add on to the Pentax perk above it has to be said again. Price. Until the K-1 was released the full frame camera I wanted most was a Nikon D810. No more. At $1,000 less not only does it match the D810 spec sheet it keeps going offering features no other DSLR I know of offers regardless of price (Cameras like the Leica SL baffle me what you get for what you pay wise, but much respect to those who can afford them.) like GPS and image stabilization and…

K-1 perk 3) Built in WiFi. Above not only many of it’s siblings, many other DSLRs like the D810 either do not have or require a dongle for this. Of note the D750 has WiFi, but priced above the K-1 it has 24MP, no IS…

K-1 perk 4) 3rd control wheel of many purposes. Agreed they went crazy with the choices, but that control wheel has been fantastic in use.

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K-1 perk 5) A ‘unique’ tiltable screen. I will be first to admit that it seemed wonderfully over engineered to me initially (I am an Industrial Engineer by degree you understand). But in use this is what it is about.

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My preference is flip down/up screens (E-P5, E-PL5, NX300, NX1, RX-100ii for instance) and central to the K-1 screen is this type of mount. No sideways motion with those above however. Side 180 degree swing out and swivel screens (NX30 for instance) are less discrete when used as a waist level viewfinder and have an inherent single point failure point where the screen meets the camera. So what if you want a bit of sideways view action, but with more anchor points? Mount the up/down tilt mechanism to the camera using an interesting rods with sliding ball socket mechanism that works as billed. No 180. No big. No selfie zone.

K-1 perk 6) LED access lights. Brilliant. Why has no one else done this?

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K-1 perk 7) Full frame. Unique to the K-1 this makes the K-1 so much more usable with the 28-75mm and 70-200mm ranges of the 2 Tamrons mentioned above. On the K-3ii the crop factor was not a plus making the 70-200mm too tele for in a pinch walkabout use.

K-1 perk 8) Low noise and image quality on par with the best cameras out there. This cameras performance far outshines the full frame film and digital cameras I have used and my only real IQ comparison can be made with my 2 medium format film cameras. And I am talking about normal mode. Pixel shift mode provides even greater results where the shooting situation allows. The image quality is that good.

I may add perks if more come to me, but these are more than enough in my book. It is my sincere hope that Pentax can get these in to as many hands as possible. It may not convince die hard brand loyalists to switch. I understand. A lot, emotionally and fiscally, goes in to choosing and building a system. But if you have only APS-C bodies and lenses you owe it to yourself to take a look if you have been thinking of moving to full frame. Same applies if you are looking to start off new with a full frame. If you have found yourself with a full frame body, but like I did you now realize you cannot bring yourself to spend the astronomical sums companies, factory and 3rd party, are asking for primes and image stabilized constant aperture zooms consider this: Backwards legacy lens compatibility and the availability of non-stabilized 3rd party constant aperture zoom lenses means I have spent $100 less for a new K-1 ($1,799), 3 legacy primes ($149), and 2 used zooms ($750) combined than the current new price for a D810 ($2799) body alone. A trade could go a long way is all I am saying.

To close I simply restate my assertion from above and add a gallery. More photos here and will be updated.:

Regardless of spec sheet, format, or pedigree there is not another single stills camera I would have over the K-1 at any price, film or digital.

-ELW