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Pentax Q Review

by Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview posted June 23, 2011

Review posted April 26, 2012

It wasn't long ago I had the pleasure of running around town with one of the largest interchangeable lens cameras on the market, the Pentax 645D. It was big, but handled well, with excellent optics and a very high-resolution sensor. Today the contrast was dramatic, carrying the very tiny Pentax Q, a small interchangeable lens camera. The experience was very different, but it was still a Pentax, a company that's pushing beyond lots of boundaries lately. The Pentax Q has smaller optics and a smaller, lower-resolution sensor. Indeed, it's so small it fits in a pocket and conceals easily in a palm--or behind an iPhone. It could even hang--as our illustration demonstrates--from a keychain, were it not worthy of better daily care than that.

Although its smaller 1/2.3"-sized sensor can't compete with comparably priced SLRs and CSCs, we're impressed with the execution on the Pentax Q. It's easier to make a case for comparing it to quality enthusiast cameras like the Canon G12, where its image quality fares better by comparison, albeit at a $300 price premium for the luxury of interchangeable lenses.

Build. With all of its latest digital SLRs, Pentax has demonstrated its ability to build a high quality camera, and the Pentax Q's magnesium alloy build feels more serious than a simple pocket camera, despite its Lilliputian stature. Pentax's impressive line of Limited SLR lenses, in particular, seem to be echoed in the quality of the 8.5mm Standard Prime kit lens. Both the lens and mount are steel and have a tight, precision fit.

Dials and buttons, too, are of good quality, with firm detents on the dials, and audible, tactile clicks on the buttons: an important feature with such small buttons.

Most surprising is how natural it feels to use the Pentax Q. It's smaller than the average pocket long zoom, but still feels about like using one, thanks to the small finger and thumb grip. In something of an optical illusion, the lens seems to be closer to the grip side of the camera than the other, but it's actually about two millimeters to the right.

Ultimately, the Pentax Q is built more like an SLR, but it feels as familiar as a quality pocket camera.

With the lens off, you can see the small sensor that allows such a small camera and such small lenses. It's somewhat surprising Pentax didn't choose a 1/1.7" sensor, as are used in the Canon G12 and competing designs. But the 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor is backlit, which should offer better performance in low light, and lower noise overall.

The front view of the Pentax Q shows an IR remote sensor embedded into the grip, an AF-assist lamp, the lens release button, and two holes for the stereo microphones. The peculiar dial on the right of the lens is used to quickly select among a selection of Smart Effects or other available filters. Via a menu, you pick which filters you want to have at each setting; returning the dial to the white dot turns all filters off.

Though the flash looks like any other built into a pocket camera, it is anything but ordinary. It doesn't just pop up, it swings up and over to the right (see photo below) to help minimize red-eye and to clear larger lenses and lens hoods. Someone deserves an award for this bit of engineering. Here's hoping Pentax makes a wad of cash licensing the design to other companies. The flash will also fire from its nested position.

A look at the top of the Pentax Q shows the 8.5mm lens (47mm equivalent), called the 01 Standard Prime. Its knurled ring makes mounting and removal easy, and the front focus ring does not offer physical control over focus, instead feeding ring position data to the focusing system as you turn it. Unlike many competing fly-by-wire designs, focus tracks the ring's movement very well, making it relatively pleasant to use.

The small popup flash is released via the slider just behind it. It takes a little practice to release the flash without your fingers getting in the way. Next to that is the Playback button, something we'd have preferred to see on the back, but admittedly there's very little room on the Pentax Q. The hot shoe looks relatively massive on the Q. It's compatible with Pentax's current line of flashes, but the size and weight of larger strobes will present handling issues. Five holes mark the position of the speaker. The small power button is right of that, and the gunmetal shutter button rises fairly high from the camera body, offering a very soft half-press with a clean break at full press for a very good feel.

The Mode dial sits atop and dictates the shape of the small fingertip grip, just as the Rear dial describes the shape of the rear thumbgrip. Strap lugs are molded into the top plate of the Pentax Q, presumably also of magnesium alloy.

Tightly fitted into the small chassis is the 460,000-dot, 3-inch TFT LCD with a 170 degree viewing angle. Unlike the Sony NEX-C3 and Panasonic GF3, two cameras also pushing the size barriers for interchangeable lens cameras, the Pentax Q doesn't take the minimalist approach to the camera's interface to eliminate buttons. Instead they take the approach that's worked for pocket digital cameras for years: small buttons; no scroll wheels, soft buttons, or touchscreens. I can see some objecting to the use of such small buttons, but those who don't like small buttons have no business looking at a camera this small to begin with. Most of the buttons are recessed and stiff enough to avoid accidental activation, yet they yield to gentle, inward pressure with a soft click. The four outer navigation buttons are beveled upward from the center out for easier tactile differentiation from the other buttons, which are admittedly quite close.

Magnesium alloy. The Pentax Q feels very solid thanks to its magnesium alloy body.

Most of the buttons are marked, and so self-explanatory. The markings are small enough that those with poor near vision might have trouble, but they would also have trouble with the interfaces on the C3 and GF3, so I think Pentax has made a good choice here. Just above the Exposure Compensation button is a secondary IR remote port, compatible with the same remote control units as are the company's larger SLRs.

It's when I look at the cavities necessary to house the battery, memory card, pop-up flash, and sensor that I marvel at the electronic engineering required to pack the circuit boards and processors into such a small remaining space. Internal space is further constrained by buttons, dials, the LCD, ports, and even the tripod mount. It is an impressive achievement, even if the sensor is quite small.

Getting back to that pop-up flash, it is a bit of a marvel itself, demonstrating that there is a way to get built-in flashes a little further from the lens through the application of clever engineering. First, with a slide of the mechanical release, a springloaded plunger rises from inside the Pentax Q's body, then opposing sprung levers both lift the flash and level it again in its final resting position. A simple downward press puts all back into place, quite well concealed and compact.

Size and Weight. Dimensions are 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 inches (98 x 58 x 31mm). Weight with a memory card, battery, and lens is 8.5 ounces (241g), and 7.1 ounces (202g) with the lens removed. That makes the lens about 1.4 ounces (39g) light, at least a partial answer to the question of why you'd make an interchangeable lens camera with so small a sensor.

Connectivity. The Pentax Q includes USB 2.0 High Speed data connectivity, as well as both NTSC / PAL composite standard definition video output, and a Type-D Micro HDMI high definition output; both of these are accessed via a small rubber door on the bottom of the camera. Impressively, given the size, the Pentax Q also includes infrared remote control receivers on both the front and rear of the camera, ensuring the remote works whether you're behind the camera or in front of it.

Storage. The Pentax Q accepts Secure Digital storage media, including the newer, higher capacity SDHC and SDXC types. Images are stored as 12-bit .DNG RAW files, or 8-bit JPEGs in one of three quality levels. Movies are stored as .MP4 files. The door is released with a slide to the rear, after which it swings open toward the front of the camera under spring pressure.

Power. A proprietary D-LI68 lithium-ion rechargeable battery allows the Pentax Q to provide for 230 shots on a charge to CIPA testing standards (50% flash usage), or 160 minutes of continuous playback. This door also opens with a firm pull to the rear, followed by a springloaded swing toward the front.

 

Pentax Q Technical Details

Sensor. The modest size of Pentax's Q compact system camera has been achieved largely thanks to Pentax's choice of a 1/2.3"-type image sensor, where the company's main rivals have all chosen to use significantly larger sensors in their interchangeable-lens models. Compared to a Micro Four Thirds camera, the Pentax Q's imager has just slightly less than 1/8th the light gathering area, while APS-C models have an advantage of closer to 13x.

That decision has proven to be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has allowed Pentax to craft a camera which it can confidently claim to be the world's smallest, lightest interchangeable-lens digital camera body. On the other hand, all other things being equal it also leaves the Pentax Q unable to challenge its compact system camera rivals in terms of high ISO noise performance, and nor can it rely on lens aperture control to provide the same shallow depth of field for creative effect. On the plus side, it matches or betters its main small-sensor rivals--enthusiast fixed-lens cameras like the Canon G12--and there's certainly something to be said for the importance of size and weight in camera design. If your camera gets left behind when you're out and about, the best image quality in the world is of little use when an unanticipated photo opportunity presents itself.

Aiming to achieve the best high ISO noise performance possible with its chosen sensor size, Pentax has selected a backside-illuminated, 12.4 effective megapixel CMOS image sensor for the Q. The backside-illuminated design places circuitry on the rear (non-illuminated) side of the sensor, allowing the greatest possible area on the light-gathering side to be devoted to photodiodes. Total resolution of the Pentax Q's chip is 12.75 megapixels, and the maximum dimensions of output images are 4,000 x 3,000 pixels. The sensor has a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the Pentax Q also offers cropped 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1 aspect modes. ISO sensitivity ranges from 125 to 6,400 equivalents in 1/3 EV steps, and can be controlled automatically or manually throughout the entire range.

Lens mount. Accompanying the Pentax Q's image sensor is a new stainless steel lens mount that's significantly smaller than the K-mount used on Pentax's digital SLR cameras. Dubbed the Q-mount, this has an outer diameter that's almost one-third smaller than that of the K-mount, allowing a reduction not only in camera body size, but also in the size of attached lenses. Like other compact system cameras, with no need to accommodate a bulky mirror box, optical viewfinder, dedicated autofocus and metering sensors, etc., Pentax has been able to reduce flange back distance--which relates closely to body thickness--by a whopping margin of close to 80%. Flange back distance for the Pentax Q is just 9.2mm, around half or less than that of the Sony E-mount (18mm), Micro Four Thirds mount (20mm), and Samsung NX mount (25.5mm).

As an aside, there's an interesting back story behind the names of Pentax's lens mounts. With the introduction of the K2, KX and KM film cameras in 1975, the company--then known as Asahi Pentax--decided to replace its venerable M42 screwmount with a newer, easier-to-use bayonet type. Dubbed the K-mount, the new mount's initial stood for "King"--an indication of Asahi's belief in their product which also happened to dovetail nicely with their marketing efforts. (At the time, the Asahi Pentax logo included a crown, while their cameras appeared in advertisements alongside a deck of playing cards, with a king card shown prominently.) Every king needs his queen, and with the debut of the Pentax Q camera, the new Q-mount assumes that role.

Optics. Alongside the camera's launch, Pentax revealed its first five Q-mount lens models, split into two distinct groups, which Pentax Japan refers to as the "High-Performance Series" and "Unique Series" respectively. High Performance lenses feature metal mounts and Pentax's SP (Super Protect) lens coating, offer 40.5mm filter threads, and include both a built-in ND filter, and an in-lens shutter mechanism that allows 1/2,000 second flash sync with the internal flash. Unique-series lenses are aimed at lower cost, and replace the metal mount with a plastic one, much like the company's DA-L lenses on K-mount cameras. They also drop autofocus capability, the in-lens shutter mechanism and ND filter, don't include filter threads, and--with the sole exception of the Fish-Eye lens--don't feature the Pentax SP lens coating.

The High Performance series currently (Feb 2012) includes two lens models. The PENTAX 01 Standard Prime kit lens, which ships with the camera itself, has a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 47mm, and an f/1.9 maximum aperture. The sole zoom lens, and the only High Performance-series lens available for separate purchase, is the PENTAX 02 Standard Zoom. This offers up a 35mm-equivalent focal length range of 27.5-83mm, with a maximum aperture that varies from f/2.8 to f/4.5 across the range.

The Unique series lens lineup currently includes three models, all of which are manual-focus only. The PENTAX 03 Fish-Eye is the sole model in the series to include an SP coating, and has a 17.5mm equivalent focal length, a 160° field of view, and a pan-focus design. The remaining two lenses are intended for creative use, and will likely appeal to fans of lomo photography. Dubbed "toy lenses," the Pentax 04 Toy Lens Wide and Pentax 05 Toy Lens Telephoto equate to 35mm and 100mm lenses in the 35mm format, respectively, and each introduces various aberrations into final images.

Stabilization. Despite the huge reduction in body and mount size compared to its K-mount cameras, Pentax has still left sufficient room within the Q-mount's image circle to allow for it to include its sensor shift image stabilization mechanism. Like that used in its SLRs, the Pentax Q's Shake Reduction system is said to be good for a four-stop correction, and thanks to the in-body design, it's available for all Q-mount lenses.

Dust reduction. The Pentax Q also includes the company's DR II dust reduction system, similar to those used in its flagship K-5 / K-7 and 645D digital SLRs. Based around a piezoelectric element, this system represents a worthwhile step up in efficacy from the sensor shift-based systems used in many consumer DSLRs.

Performance. In its Continuous Hi-speed burst shooting mode, the Pentax Q can capture images at a swift five frames per second, although burst depth is limited to just five JPEG frames. By switching to the Continuous Lo drive mode, the burst speed falls to 1.5 frames per second, but the buffer depth can be extended to a much more useful 100 JPEG frames.

Display. On its rear panel, the Pentax Q offers up a roomy 3.0-inch LCD panel with a total resolution of some 460,000 dots, commonly known as HVGA (half VGA), where each pixel comprises adjacent red, green, and blue dots. The Pentax Q's display is said to offer wide 170-degree viewing angles both horizontally and vertically.

Viewfinder. The Pentax Q doesn't offer any form of built-in optical viewfinder, and unlike some compact system cameras, it can't accept an external electronic viewfinder either. Pentax does offer a shoe-mounted O-VF1 optical viewfinder accessory, but it only includes guide marks for the 47mm kit lens, and this combined with its $250 price tag will correctly persuade most photographers to instead rely solely on the Q's LCD display.

Focusing. Like its main competitors, the Pentax Q uses contrast-detection autofocusing, operating on data streaming from the main image sensor. The Pentax Q's 25-point autofocus system has both single and continuous-servo operating modes, and includes a face detection function. Of course, it's also possible to focus manually if desired.

Exposure. As you'd expect, the Pentax Q includes the usual selection of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual exposure modes. There's also an Auto Picture mode that can automatically select between Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Night Scene Portrait, Night Scene, Blue Sky, and Forest shooting modes as the camera deems appropriate. For those who want a modicum more control without the need to understand basic exposure variables, there's also a Scene mode that offers a healthy selection of modes: Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object, Night Scene Portrait, Sunset, Blue Sky, Night Scene, Night Snap, Food, Pet, Kids, Forest, Surf & Snow, Backlight Silhouette, Candlelight, Stage Lighting, Museum, plus three JPEG-only modes, Night Scene HDR, Quick Macro, and HDR.

Mechanical shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to 30 seconds are available, and are controlled with an in-lens shutter mechanism in the Pentax 01 Standard Prime and Pentax 02 Standard Zoom lenses. The Fish-Eye and Toy lenses all lack an in-lens shutter mechanism, and since the camera body itself doesn't include a mechanical shutter, this necessitates use of an electronic shutter when these lenses are attached. Electronic shutter speeds range from 1/8,000 to two seconds, and the electronic shutter can be enabled in the Custom Setting menu to get a combined range of 1/8,000 to 30 seconds with shutter-equipped lenses. The Pentax Q also offers a bulb position (not supported with shutterless lenses) in the Manual exposure mode, and this lowers the maximum sensitivity from ISO 6,400 to 1,600 equivalent. Three metering modes are available: Multi-segment (no info yet available on how many segments), Center-weighted and Spot. The Pentax Q offers 3.0 EV of exposure compensation, in 1/3 EV steps. There's also a three-frame bracketing mode, plus an exposure lock function which can be tied to either the Shutter or Green buttons.

Flash. The Pentax Q includes a built-in five-mode popup flash strobe with a guide number of 7 meters / 23 feet at ISO 200. At first glance it looks to be fixed in place, and it can in fact be fired in the lowered position if desired, but it also includes an unusually tall articulation mechanism that allows coverage sufficient for a 28mm-equivalent wide angle lens. There's also a full-sized hot shoe compatible with all of Pentax's current flash strobes, although larger units--we tried the AF540FGZ, for example--prove very unwieldy, when paired with the Pentax Q's impressively compact body. The internal flash provides a red-eye reduction function, and operating modes include Auto, Auto + Redeye, On, On + Redeye, Slow Sync, Slow Sync + Redeye, Trailing Curtain Sync, and Off.

When using the internal flash strobe, X-sync is possible at 1/2,000 second, but only if the attached lens includes an internal shutter mechanism -- something true only of the High Performance lens series. X-sync falls to 1/250 second with an external flash strobe, and plummets to just 1/13 second for Unique-series lenses that must rely on an electronic shutter. Flash exposure compensation is possible within a range of -2.0 to +1.0 EV.

HDR imaging. Like all of Pentax's recent DSLRs, the Pentax Q includes in-camera high dynamic range imaging, which automatically blends three shots in-camera to yield a single frame. As with the company's DSLR HDR mode, the Pentax Q can automatically microalign the source images, allowing the HDR mode to be used handheld.

Creative. A particularly unusual feature of the Pentax Q is its Smart Effect functionality, which offers up a selection of Brilliant Color, Unicolor Bold, Vintage Color, Cross Processing, Warm Fade, Tone Expansion, Bold Monochrome, Watercolor, and Vibrant Color Enhance effects. Each can be assigned to the dedicated front dial to provide five-step control (1-4 and Off) over the strength of the effect. Alternatively, the dial can be set to switch between user-selected effect types. There are also a variety of capture-time digital filter modes, as seen in past Pentax SLR cameras. These include Toy Camera, High Contrast, Shading, Slim, HDR, Invert Color, Extract Color, Color, Watercolor, Posterization, and Fisheye. Finally, a JPEG-only "Blur Control" mode attempts to simulate reduced depth of field, mimicking the look of images shot with larger-sensor cameras.

User modes. Pentax Q shooters can also store a handful of key camera settings--white balance mode, custom image mode, and digital filter--into one of three User modes, allowing quick recall of these settings for use in a specific shooting situation. Unfortunately, you can't store and recall other settings at the same time.

Full HD. 1,920 x 1,080 30 fps movie. Click image to download 18.3MB MOV file.

Video. As well as still images, the Pentax Q can capture 1,920 x 1,080 pixel high definition video (commonly called 1,080p or "Full HD") at a rate of 30 frames per second. If storage or bandwidth are more important than resolution, you can also select from high-def 1,280 x 720 pixel (720p) and standard-def 640 x 480 (VGA) at the same rate of 30 fps. Unlike Pentax's digital SLR cameras, the Q uses H.264 AVC compression, which is far more efficient in terms of storage space, albeit with a greater requirement in terms of processing power to edit the resulting video on a computer. Visit the Pentax Q Video page for sample clips and more details.

 

Pentax Q size comparisons

Pentax Q vs Pentax A110

Arthur Etchells, IR's Director of Strategic Development, jumped in his time machine and acquired this pristine Pentax Auto 110 Super, circa 1982, for comparison with the Pentax Q. Its lens mount was even smaller, as the photos show. It was a true SLR, complete with pentaprism. Its relatively squat profile was allowed by the small stature of the 110 film cartridge, while the Pentax Q's size is dictated partially by the 3-inch LCD. The Auto 110 did not have a hot shoe, though it is less than a millimeter taller than the Pentax Q.
From the front with the lenses off, you get an even better idea of how small the Pentax Auto 110 Super's mount is. The two-bladed shutter inside the Auto 110's lens mount makes the film size seem smaller than it is. The Auto 110 was unusual in featuring a combined leaf shutter / aperture diaphragm in the camera body, while the corresponding lenses had a fixed f/2.8 aperture. Between exposures, the shutter / aperture mechanism was held partially open to allow image framing through its optical viewfinder, while the mirror beneath provided a light seal when lowered to prevent film exposure. An interesting side effect of this design was that full-aperture imaging was only available for exposures 1/30th second or longer. The view from the back with the film door open hence gives a better comparison of the Pentax Q's 1/2.3" sensor to the 110mm film size of the Pentax Auto 110.

Pentax Q vs Panasonic GF3

Now of course we realize that the Pentax Q goes up better against the Canon G12 in terms of sensor size, but it also competes in the Compact System Camera market, and it compares quite favorably to the latest small entry in that category, the Panasonic GF3. Both have pop-up flashes and a smallish grip, but the Pentax Q has a few more controls, and no touchscreen. The GF3 also has a Movie record button that the Pentax Q lacks, while the Q has a hot shoe that the GF3 discarded.

Pentax Q vs Sony NEX-C3

Neck and neck with the GF3, the Sony NEX-C3 is also larger than the Pentax Q. Where the Sony C3 uses soft buttons and a dial for most controls, the Pentax Q goes for more conventional small buttons with bold labels. It's arguable that Pentax's approach will be more readily understood by most pocket digital camera users. The Q's built-in flash makes the camera seem smaller when compared to the NEX-C3 with its accessory flash mounted.

 

Pentax Q Shooter's Report

by Mike Tomkins

On first acquainting myself with the Pentax Q, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it handled. This is a small camera--really small, by interchangeable-lens camera standards--and at over six feet tall, there's no getting around the fact that I have pretty big hands. I was expecting things to feel rather cramped, and while they're certainly compact, I actually found the Q very comfortable to shoot with, overall. It helps that the Q's lenses are equally small, and hence the overall package is well-balanced. That's not to say that it's perfect ergonomically; I personally found the ISO / Up Arrow button slightly uncomfortable to press, due to its proximity to the thumb grip bulge at the top right corner of the rear panel. Moving the four-way arrow pad a little closer to the LCD would have helped The Menu button also felt uncomfortably close to the corner of the camera body. Given the space Pentax had to work with, though, I think they did an excellent job with the Q's ergonomics, not to mention the aesthetics. (The retro styling is very attractive, bringing more attention around town than I can remember in quite some time. I quickly got used to people coming up and asking me about the Q.)

One feature did feel like something of a missed opportunity, though. The Quick dial on the front panel is a great idea, but the list of features which can be assigned to this dial is very brief, and really only of interest to JPEG shooters: Smart Effects, Custom Image settings, Digital Filters, and Aspect Ratio settings. My workflow is pretty-much exclusively RAW-based these days, and I'd have loved to see a greater selection of features available via the Quick dial. My ideal would have been for it to provide access to complete settings groups, much like the User Mode function on Pentax's digital SLRs. (In fact, my heart skipped a beat when I discovered the User 1 to User 3 option via the Quick Dial's Smart Effects function, but that hope was dashed when I realized that these 'User' options store only the White Balance, Custom Image, and Digital Filter settings.)

Default Brilliant Color Unicolor Bold
 
Vintage Color Cross Processing  
The Quick Dial defaults to selecting one of four Smart Effects, which combine Custom Image and Digital Filter functions into a single effect, as shown above.

I was fortunate to have a very complete Pentax Q kit on hand for my review, including not just the camera, but all current Q-mount lenses, the O-VF1 viewfinder accessory, and a 40.5mm polarizing filter that works with both the 01 Standard Prime and 02 Standard Zoom lenses. They even included a small case that I believe was actually intended for one of Pentax's Optio W-series digicams, but happily consumed the entire kit with space left over. That should tell you just how portable the Q is -- you don't feel in the least bit weighed down bringing the entire kit everywhere you go. My daily shooter is a Pentax K-5, and so I also had access to the relevant remote controls, flash strobes, etc. to see how the Q fit into the larger Pentax ecosystem. (And take it from me, the Q looks decidedly odd with a large AF540FGZ flash strobe mounted in the hot shoe. I try these things so you don't have to be the recipient of strange looks in public when you try it yourself!)

There's lots of detail in this shot with the 01 Standard Prime Lens, but even at just ISO 250, some noise (and noise reduction smudging) is starting to become noticeable.

Both High Performance-series lenses were a pleasure to shoot with. They feel just as high quality as the Q's body itself, their metal mounts click into place reassuringly when mounted, and although they're fly-by-wire, focusing manually is easy and accurate. It's a nice touch that both lenses share the same 40.5mm filter threads, allowing you to simply swap filters and lens caps between the pair. It's a pity that the prime's 8.5mm focal length is one already covered by the zoom, though. I found that because I'm not typically a prime shooter, and I could already achieve the same focal length with the zoom, I had to consciously remind myself that the prime was in my camera bag. It tended to go unused unless I really needed the wider f/1.9 aperture, or I was shooting a relatively static subject that gave me more time to think about switching to the prime, and framing with my feet. I'd have preferred to see the prime coupled to a more telephoto zoom, and it looks like that wish may come true later this year.

The Unique-series lenses were interesting, but they weren't really my cup of tea. I'm not the target audience, clearly: while I can see the appeal of the lo-fi look with the right image, I prefer to shoot a high-quality photo and then play with effects in post-processing. That way, I still have a high quality original if I decide to change my mind about the lo-fi look. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the typical cellphone-toting Instagram or Hipstamatic fan, nonetheless. The near impulse-buy pricing of the Unique-series lenses is a clear bonus, as is their extremely light nature. You can slip them in a pants pocket and literally forget that they're even there. They also still feel reasonably good quality, despite the price and greater usage of plastic in their designs. Unfortunately, they bring so many limitations--no autofocus, no in-lens shutter, no ND filter, fixed aperture, extremely slow 1/13 second X-sync, a very short manual-focus throw, and no filter threads--that shooting with them invariably took me out of the moment, as I tried to remember which features I could or couldn't use, and how I'd need to work around those limitations. At the price, I'd probably still pick them up, but I have a feeling they'd end up little-used once the novelty wore off. That's where I found my first real problem with the Pentax Q, and it's one that may resolve itself as more Q-mount optics are released: right now, there may be five lenses available, but I have a feeling all but the 02 Standard Zoom would spend most of their time languishing untouched in my camera bag.

Of the Unique series lenses, the most fun for my money is probably the Pentax 03 Fish-eye, but all lenses in the series have some pretty major functional limitations.

Pentax's O-VF1 optical viewfinder accessory likewise left me feeling a little conflicted. It's beautifully made, and yields a very bright, sharp view, as you'd expect given the hefty chunk of glass at its heart. It's a little tight to slip on and off the hotshoe, but with use I imagine a little wear would make it less fiddly to mount and remove. It's surprisingly expensive, though: double or more the price of competing system camera viewfinder accessories, and there are no front or rear caps to protect its optics. That made me rather nervous leaving it mounted when I wasn't actively shooting with it. It also blocks the popup flash, preventing it extending, and while you can at least use the flash in its retracted position, that's likely to increase the chances of redeye. Nor can you use an external flash strobe with the O-VF1 mounted. Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that it only includes framing guidelines for the 01 Standard Prime lens. Of course, on the plus side it uses no battery whatsoever, and there's that gorgeous, bright view. If you plan on shooting almost exclusively with the standard prime, the O-VF1 might be worth considering, but otherwise I'd pass on it.

My Remote Control F and Remote Control O-RC1 both worked perfectly with the Pentax Q. Given that the Q's body isn't weather-sealed, the latter is overkill, though. If you don't own either, I'd suggest picking up the Remote Control F, which is so small you could forget it was in your shirt pocket. I didn't have access to any of Pentax's external strobes except my AF540FGZ, and while they worked just fine together, the combination was extremely unwieldy, as I've mentioned. Given that the Q's autofocus system can't take advantage of the AF assist function of larger strobes, I'd probably recommend staying with the AF200FG, if you really need an external strobe. (And you probably will, if you need to do much handheld, low-light shooting; the onboard flash has a very clever extension mechanism, but even by compact system camera standards, it's relatively weak.)

Bump the ISO sensitivity up nearer the maximum, and things start getting pretty blotchy and smeary, as in this ISO 3,200 shot. That said, there's still quite a lot of fine detail left in the bridge railings.

As I've said, I had a lot of fun shooting with the Pentax Q thanks to its camera-like feel. There were, however, a couple of flies in the ointment. Like I said, I'm typically a full-time RAW shooter, but while reviewing cameras I usually switch to RAW+JPEG, so that I can provide out-of-camera images as well. That can be a bit painful with the Pentax Q, because from a reasonably handy 5.3 frames per second in JPEG-only shooting, burst performance and depth falls off a cliff as soon as RAW capture is enabled. Even at just 1.2 frames per second, I could shoot roughly four RAW+JPEG frames, and would then have to wait ten seconds for the buffer to clear. Autofocus likewise felt sluggish, and while I didn't use it very much--this isn't a camera I'd choose to shoot sports with--the tracking autofocus seemed rather hit and miss, frequently forgetting what it was tracking even with a fairly high-contrast subject, and wandering off around the frame at random.

Back home, I found my shots a little disappointing for a camera at this price point. Although the Q's images had the fairly punchy, Pentax look which I rather like, they tended to be rather on the soft side, and that's at or near the camera's base ISO sensitivity. Push the sensitivity a bit, and rather heavy-handed noise reduction starts to rob images of detail. Personally, I found myself trying to stay under ISO 400, but having grown accustomed to regularly shooting at ISO 3,200 or even ISO 6,400 with my Pentax K-5, that felt very limiting. Of course, the Q didn't do badly compared to other cameras at this sensor size, but that's the point: its main mirrorless rivals don't have to contend with a sensor of this size. Even on a bright, sunny day, that sensor still brings drawbacks, most notably in the difficulty of achieving a shallow depth-of-field effect. Pentax's Blur Control function aims to answer this shortcoming, and in some situations it works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, it's rather hit and miss, though: the effect occasionally looks very artificial, and even blurs the edges of your subject into the background. It's also a shame that since it's a standalone mode, Blur Control can't be combined with other functions, meaning many Q owners will simply forget it's available to them.

The Blur Control function can yield some reasonably convincing results with the right shot, although even here, the illusion falls apart when inspected more closely. Note the dark halo around the antennae on the model trams, and the fact that the closer tram's antenna is more blurred than the one behind it, when the reverse should be the case.

I'm conscious that it probably seems I'm being rather hard on the Pentax Q. Perhaps that's partly down to the fact that I've found the company's SLR cameras so great: you could offer me significantly more expensive cameras, and you still wouldn't pry my K-5 out of my hands. Sadly, as much as I wanted to love the Pentax Q for its tiny, take-anywhere body and quality feel, I found myself leaving it at home entirely too often. Not because it's too big, like most other interchangeable-lens cameras, but because there always seemed to be another camera on the shelf promising better image quality. As much as ergonomics, feature set, and quality are an important part of the shooting experience, the quality of the images is key for me.

Were it a straight fight against compact cameras with a similar sensor size, the Pentax Q would win hands-down. Sadly, its pricing pits it against compact system cameras with much larger sensors, and while none of them come close to the size of the Pentax Q, you can argue that they're at least small enough, compared to the typical SLR. In terms of image quality, pitting the Q against the mirrorless competition is playing it against a stacked deck: it simply can't win. For me, the Pentax Q just isn't the right camera, no matter how much I wanted to love it. For you, it might be--but only if size and weight are your top priority.

 

Pentax Q Image Quality

The crops below compare the Pentax Q to a couple of premium Point & Shoots (the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100), and a few Compact System Cameras (Nikon V1, Olympus E-PM1 and Sony NEX-5N). Though we normally start with ISO 1,600 here, we thought we'd start with base ISO to show the best each camera can do.

A note on diffraction limiting: We initially shot the Pentax Q Still Life scene at f/5.6, which produced disappointingly soft images. Shooting it at f/2.8, though, yielded sharper images near the center, though corners were softer. (Selecting an aperture for lab shots is a tradeoff between sharpness, field curvature, depth-of-field, and available shutter speed.) Because the Pentax Q uses a smaller sensor with more pixels than the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100, for example, diffraction limiting sets in at above f/2.8. We shot the G12 and P7100 at f/5.6, but the same calculations show the lens to be diffraction limited at that setting; the cameras may look slightly sharper at f/4. Of course, we can't determine that without re-obtaining the cameras in question and re-shooting them, which we don't have the time to do. Just bear these factors in mind when looking at the images below.

Note also that these images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. Each camera was shot with the sharpest lens on hand, though we have no reference lens for the Pentax Q system yet, so we had to use the Pentax 8.5mm f/1.9 Standard Prime for it. The point-and-shoot cameras we've included here obviously used their fixed zoom lenses.

Pentax Q versus Canon G12 at base ISO

Pentax Q at ISO 125
Canon G12 ISO 80

Our initial test images with the Pentax Q were noticeably softer than this, taken at f/5.6 with the 8.5mm Standard Prime. Changing to f/2.8 yielded better results, though we have no way of telling whether the G12, shot at f/5.6, would do significantly better at f/2.8. That significant variable told, the 12-megapixel Pentax Q does fairly well, better than the 10-megapixel G12 on the mosaic label, but not quite as good on the red leaf swatch.


Pentax Q versus Nikon P7100 at base ISO

Pentax Q at ISO 125
Nikon P7100 at ISO 100

Also up against the 10-megapixel Nikon P7100, the 12-megapixel Pentax Q does a little better with the olive oil bottle shot and mosaic image, but not quite as good at the red leaf swatch. Pentax's rendering of the pink swatch is also decidedly more magenta.


Pentax Q versus Nikon V1 at base ISO

Pentax Q at ISO 125
Nikon V1 at ISO 100

Though its sensor is even larger than the Nikon P7100, the 10-megapixel Nikon V1's results are similar, with lower performance in fine detail, but better performance in the red leaf swatch when compared to the Pentax Q; and that's exactly what we'd expect given the Pentax Q's smaller sensor size at a higher resolution.


Pentax Q versus Olympus E-PM1 at base ISO

Pentax Q at ISO 125
Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 200

Finally finding a match in resolution against the 12-megapixel Olympus E-PM1, the Pentax Q fares surprisingly well. (Bear in mind that the E-PM1 was shot at f/8, yet with a very sharp lens.) The Olympus show more sharpening, but also more detail, especially in the pink swatch, where one can see the gaps between threads. It's a pretty close competition, one in which the Pentax Q does better than expected.


Pentax Q versus Sony NEX-5N at base ISO

Pentax Q at ISO 125
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 100

The 16-megapixel Sony NEX-5N (shot at f/8) shows what can be done with our still life target, standing as one of the highest quality compact system cameras available for the money. Still, there's more evidence of sharpening halos in the Mas Portel bottle (top) than in the Pentax Q image. There's more detail in all the other elements, though, including the mosaic image, the red leaf swatch, and the pink fabric. Given its APS-C sensor size and higher resolution, though, it's no surprise that the Q couldn't quite rise to the challenge.



Most decent cameras produce very good results at base ISO, so we like to see what they can do at higher settings. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there still are cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1,600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Pentax Q versus Canon G12 at ISO 1,600

Pentax Q at ISO 1,600
Canon G12 ISO 1,600

We argued pretty heavily at its introduction that the Pentax Q's primary competition was the G12 and P7100, not other compact system cameras with larger sensors. So the above results are instructive. The Q does slightly better with the Mosaic image, but the rest is pretty equally soft. Contrast and color are better from the Q, though, and the Mas Portel label at the top does look a little better. Still, both cameras struggle a lot at our first benchmark ISO 1,600 test.


Pentax Q versus Nikon P7100 at ISO 1,600

Pentax Q at ISO 1,600
Nikon P7100 at ISO 1,600

Color is again the differentiator between the Pentax Q and P7100, and the Q also retains more high-contrast detail than the P7100.


Pentax Q versus Nikon V1 at ISO 1,600

Pentax Q at ISO 1,600
Nikon V1 at ISO 1,600

Despite its larger sensor, the Nikon V1 doesn't do as well against the Q as we'd expected. It's pretty close to a draw, with slightly richer color from the V1, but also more blotchy chroma noise, particularly around the olive oil bottle.


Pentax Q versus Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 1,600

Pentax Q at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 1,600

The Olympus E-PM1 resolves a bit more high-contrast detail, and does a lot more processing on the image. It may look a little more artificial onscreen, but it results in a larger print.


Pentax Q versus Sony NEX-5N at ISO 1,600

Pentax Q at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 1,600

Few words are required to show the differences here. The advantage to a larger sensor could be illustrated clearly with these crops.



Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.

Pentax Q versus Canon G12 at ISO 3,200

Pentax Q at ISO 3,200
Canon G12 ISO 3,200

There's surprisingly lower image quality in the Canon G12 images, with more blotchy noise and less color retention than the Pentax Q manages. Note that the Pentax Q's aperture was f/4 at ISO 3,200, because of the 1/2000 second shutter speed limit.


Pentax Q versus Nikon P7100 at ISO 3,200

Pentax Q at ISO 3,200
Nikon P7100 at ISO 3,200

The Nikon P7100 fares far worse at ISO 3,200 with both blotchy luminance noise and noticeable color loss. We prefer the Pentax Q's output.


Pentax Q versus Nikon V1 at ISO 3,200

Pentax Q at ISO 3,200
Nikon V1 at ISO 3,200

The Nikon V1 retains more detail and color than the Pentax, showing a better sense of all elements, including the mosaic and even the red leaf swatch, a different outcome from the ISO 1,600 results, where the Pentax Q seemed to have an edge.


Pentax Q versus Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 3,200

Pentax Q at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 3,200

The E-PM1's extraordinary efforts still look odd onscreen, but print larger and better, thanks to contrast and detail retention, though some colors are faded.


Pentax Q versus Sony NEX-5N at ISO 3,200

Pentax Q at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5N at ISO 3,200

The NEX-5N is naturally sharper with more detail and better color.



Detail: Pentax Q vs. Canon G12, Nikon P7100, Nikon V1, Olympus E-PM1, and Sony NEX-5N

N/A
Pentax
Q

ISO 125
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon
G12

ISO 80
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
P7100

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
V1

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Olympus
E-PM1

ISO 200
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sony
NEX-5N

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. High-contrast details are often sharper as ISO rises, so they're worth a look as well. The Pentax Q's detail is superior to the 10-megapixel contenders in this test, but only just enough for color demosaicing errors to appear in the fine lines in our Pure Brewed label letters, a fairly common error among Pentax sensors in particular. As ISO rises, detail blurs more dramatically, though the aperture of f/4 at ISO 3,200 and f/5.6 at 6,400 contributes to the softness. Still, it's easy to see that the larger sensors in this comparison do better by default at higher ISOs.

 

Pentax Q Print Quality

Great 16x20-inch images from ISO 125-400; ISO 1,600 makes a good 8x10; ISO 6,400 shots are a little too soft at 4x6.

Diffraction limiting affected the Pentax Q so dramatically that we had to reshoot our Still life shots at f/2.8 to get a sharper image, because the Q's original print quality assessment showed a disappointing 11x14-inch maximum print size for images shot at f/5.6. The new prints show considerably better performance.

ISO 125 shots look quite good in the detail department when printed as large as 16x20 inches. Unsurprisingly, reds are a little soft at this size, but we think most folks would accept the output as quite good.

ISO 200 images are also very good at 16x20 inches.

ISO 400 images are good at 13x19, but the red detail is a little softer, such that we prefer it printed at 11x14 inches.

ISO 800 shots look very good at 11x14.

ISO 1,600 shots are quite good at 8x10. Reds are soft, but that's not surprising for the sensor size. What's surprising is the good quality 8x10 at ISO 1,600!

ISO 3,200 images appear a little smudgy at 5x7; the color is there, but the detail seems too soft. Reduction to 4x6 results in a more normal-looking print.

ISO 6,400 images have the color, but not the detail again. The lack of noise is pretty remarkable, but it comes at the cost of detail. We'd call it usable, but not stellar.

Overall, though, the Pentax Q shot at f/2.8 performs very well, redeeming itself somewhat in our eyes from our first impressions. Diffraction limiting makes smaller apertures less useful for sharp images, but that's just a fact of digital photography, especially with small, high-resolution sensors.

 

In the Box

The Pentax Q ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Pentax Q Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Compact body is in a class of its own compared to other mirrorless cameras
  • Great build quality and good ergonomics considering the size
  • Shoots like a real camera, not a gadget
  • High Performance-series optics match the camera's build quality
  • Sensor-shift shake reduction
  • Good dynamic range for such a small sensor
  • Fairly good continuous burst speed in JPEG mode
  • Bright, vibrant color and fairly good exposure yield pleasing shots in good light
  • High detail possible in good shooting conditions
  • Tiny body still finds room for remote sensors both front and rear
  • Clever popup flash design, and still works when retracted too
  • Accepts the same flash strobes, remotes as full-sized Pentax SLRs
  • Generous selection of in-camera creative options
  • Lens selection is very limited so far
  • Unique-series lenses are very limited in terms of capability
  • Shallow depth-of-field is hard to achieve, Blur Control function is hit and miss
  • Need to use large apertures for maximum sharpness; diffraction-limiting sets in above f/2.8
  • 8.5mm kit lens has some soft corners
  • High ISO performance lags other compact system cameras (but does well against most fixed-lens cameras)
  • Pictures tend to be quite soft except in ideal conditions
  • Very warm Auto white balance indoors
  • Mediocre AF speeds and quirky tracking
  • Weak flash even by compact system camera standards
  • Quick dial feels like a missed opportunity
  • Very sluggish burst shooting with shallow depth if you shoot RAW or RAW+JPEG
  • Relatively expensive compared to cameras with similar image quality
  • Optical viewfinder accessory is very expensive, blocks popup flash
  • Terminal cover blocked when tripod-mounted

 

When Pentax announced the tiny Pentax Q compact system camera in the middle of last year, it instantly polarized opinions. Some loved it for its truly compact proportions, fulfilling a promise that they felt other mirrorless cameras had failed to truly deliver upon. Others decried its much smaller-than-typical image sensor, and the constraints this would bring in terms of image quality, especially in the areas of high ISO noise and shallow depth-of-field effects. Here at IR headquarters, we likewise found ourselves conflicted. On the one hand, we admired Pentax's ability to take a bold step in its own direction, offering a camera that truly stood out from the crowd. On the other hand, we understood the Q to be bound by the same laws of physics and the same optical constraints as any other camera, and hence our enthusiasm was tempered by concern as to whether image quality would be sufficient to make the tradeoff worthwhile.

Having finished our review, we admit to still being conflicted. There's a lot to love about the Pentax Q, without question. It manages to demonstrate perfectly what Pentax has shown itself to be best at: making a really small camera that feels like a genuine photographic tool, not a computer with a lens strapped to the front. In the right conditions, the Pentax Q is a really fun camera to shoot with, and despite its trim proportions, it manages to be pretty comfortable even for photographers with large hands. Were it priced competitively with the fixed-lens cameras that share a similar sensor size, the Pentax Q would be a no-brainer, but unfortunately, it's not. Its pricing is similar to that of compact system cameras that, while significantly larger, are also capable of providing far superior image quality, especially when you're not shooting in ideal lighting conditions. Compared to those cameras, the Q's smaller sensor also brings another significant drawback: at apertures smaller than f/2.8, you're already diffraction-limited, meaning that you have to stay at f/2.8 or larger if you want to get the maximum detail. That does rather restrict one's options, but if you can take account of the diffraction limit and stay at a lower ISO sensitivity, you might be surprised by how much detail the Q can hold onto.

It's simply not fair to compare the Pentax Q with cameras that are so much larger than it is, however. When you place the Q alongside even the smallest rival compact system cameras, the difference in size is dramatic--especially when you take the size of the optics into account. And so, we find ourselves returning time and again to a comparison with the small-sensor, fixed lens cameras that seem to provide the most realistic basis for comparison. Here, the advantage should be clear: the ability to switch lenses, and all the versatility that brings. Unfortunately, the Q-mount lens selection at launch is underwhelming. All but two current Q-mount lenses have major limitations that reduce their appeal. Of those remaining two lenses, your choices are either a prime or a short 3x zoom , both of whose focal lengths overlap each other. That situation should improve in the future, but we can't say when, and in the meantime, the Pentax Q buyer remains limited to shooting with what's currently on offer. In a nutshell, you're buying into a 3x zoom, small-sensor camera with a promise that one day it might be so much more, for significantly more than you'd expect to pay for a 3x zoom, small-sensor camera.

For some, who are focused on having the smallest camera possible, but without sacrificing the versatility of an interchangeable lens, that's a deal worth making. For the rest of us, though, while the Pentax Q certainly has a lot to offer, it's not a camera we can recommend at the current list price, and with the current lens lineup. (Note that we're discussing list pricing here; we've seen some occasional price discounts over the last few months that do make the Q a rather more attractive option, and if you can manage to pick up one of these, it's a much easier camera to recommend.)

 

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