Pentax K-1 Conclusion

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Full-frame: For years now, it's been the endless topic of discussion among Pentaxians. When would it arrive -- if ever -- and how would it compete with rivals once it did? And if it created a full-frame camera, would Pentax be able to repeat its success in the sub-frame segment of the DSLR market, where its flagship K-7, K-5 and K-3-series cameras have rightly earned a reputation for good design and a rich feature set at an affordable price-point?

With the arrival of the full-frame Pentax K-1, we finally have an answer to all of those questions. It's a landmark product for Pentax and its brand-owner Ricoh, and one which finally plugs the sizeable gap between the company's impressive APS-C cameras, and its mighty 645-series medium format models. And doubly so because it finally unlocks the potential in countless full-frame Pentax K-mount lenses which have been released over the decades, bringing full-circle a product line which has long been known for its impressive backwards-compatibility.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

105mm, 1/250 sec. @ f/13, ISO 800

The Pentax K-1 has an excellent, high-quality body with great handling

From the very beginning of our review, it was clear that Ricoh and its Pentax brand were taking the full-frame market seriously. Rather than simply shoe-horning a bigger sensor into one of its existing bodies, the company built a new design from the ground up. The result is a truly excellent body, with superb build quality and for the most part excellent ergonomics.

If you're coming from a consumer or enthusiast-grade APS-C DSLR, you may initially find it just a little on the heavy side, but not unduly so. And while its a bit bigger than Pentax's sub-frame flagships, when compared to its full-frame rivals the weather-sealed Pentax K-1 is still impressively compact. There are more compact full-frame cameras out there, sure, but not with the comfortable handling and feeling of attachment to your subject that you get with a full-frame DSLR like the K-1.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

100mm, 1/2,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 200

Well-considered controls, although there's some duplication in the new Smart Function dial

For the most part, Ricoh has done a very good job with the control layout of the Pentax K-1. Most of its dials, switches and buttons are very well positioned and comfortable to use, and the overall control scheme is extremely intuitive. Photographers who're new to Pentax will doubtless appreciate the Smart Function dial in particular, as it makes it very quick to access and change a number of settings.

More experienced Pentaxians will realize that in some respects it simply duplicates existing controls, though, and may find themselves wishing for a larger top-deck status LCD and an extra button or two instead. But that's a relatively minor gripe, as the existing status LCD still manages to convey a fair bit of the most essential information.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

80mm, 1/100 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 3200

The Pentax K1 has a roomy, bright viewfinder and rugged articulated display

As you'd expect on a full-frame camera, the Pentax K-1 sports a really great, roomy and very bright thru-the-lens optical viewfinder. Its new on-demand grid overlays are a great addition which we've not seen before in a Pentax-branded DSLR, although the backlight for these is a bit on the dim side for nighttime shooting.

The unusual lunar lander-style struts of the newly-articulated rear-panel LCD monitor are extremely eye-catching. Once we got hands-on with the Pentax K-1, our initial concerns about durability of this design evaporated. Although in some respects we'd have preferred a more commonplace side-mounted tilt/swivel, there's no denying that in some shooting situations Pentax's Cross-Tilt mechanism offers its own advantages.

Really, it's hard to call one design clearly better than the other; we're just glad that a flagship Pentax DSLR finally offers up an articulated screen at all!

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

58mm, 1/100 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 200

Ricoh packed the K-1 with plenty of features, but we do miss the popup flash

No question about it, the Pentax K-1 is an exceptionally well-specified camera. Much like Ricoh's APS-C flagship DSLRs before it, the K-1 is packed to the gills with tech. In fact, there are so many great features we simply haven't room to mention them all! The lengthy list includes in-camera GPS, compass and tri-axis orientation sensors for geolocation, in-camera Wi-Fi for quick-and-easy sharing, and an uprated five-axis image stabilization system to fight blur.

And of course, there are dual card slots to provide ample storage, although sadly these aren't compatible with the highest-speed UHS-II cards. That's one of a very limited number of omissions, though. The other main ones are the absence of a built-in flash, something which we regret simply because it means you'll need an extra strobe for wireless flash setups. And sadly, the USB 3.0 connectivity of the most recent APS-C flagships is replaced by more commonplace USB 2.0, meaning wired file transfers will take a bit longer to complete.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

43mm, 1/500 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100

The on-demand body lighting system and outdoor view control are pure genius

Perhaps the coolest of the K-1's features, though, are brand-new inventions. The on-demand body lighting system -- which illuminates not just the top-deck status LCD, but also the lens mount, rear panel controls, card slots and some connectors -- is one of those things you just don't want to live without, once you've gotten used to using it. It really makes things more convenient when shooting in the dark, saving you fumbling for a flashlight while changing lenses, flash cards, settings and more.

And while it won't get nearly the attention of that brand-new feature, the addition of a dedicated outdoor view control for LCD brightness is equally well thought out. It's details like these that tell us this camera was made for and by photographers. Never again will we have to shield the monitor with one hand while blindly stumbling around a barely-visible menu system in search of the hidden brightness setting!

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

43mm, 1/400 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100

Battery life is only fair, but we're adding bonus points for its excellent backwards-compatibility

One area in which the Pentax K-1 doesn't quite live up to its rivals is in the battery life department, perhaps because of the liberal amount of tech that Ricoh has managed to fit into this camera. Be that as it may, though, when shooting through its optical viewfinder the K-1 will long outlive full-frame mirrorless cameras in terms of battery life.

And again, the fact that Pentax has continued to use the exact same battery pack across all of its flagship DSLRs since 2009 tells us that the photographers are getting their say in the design process. If you're shooting a full-frame K-1 alongside a sub-frame Pentax DSLR -- and we'd imagine many K-1 owners will be -- you'll really appreciate not having to deal with multiple incompatible battery packs and chargers. We know we did!

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

68mm, 1/100 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 12,800

Good burst performance and generous burst depths

For a high-resolution full-frame camera, burst performance of the Pentax K-1 is fairly good, even if it lags just fractionally behind the nearest competition. It actually bests its manufacturer-rated performance claim by a little bit, which isn't something we get to say too terribly often.

And while it does lag cameras like the Nikon D810, Canon 5DS R or Sony A7R II by some 0.2-0.5 frames per second, it's also a much more affordable camera than any of these. Compare it to its nearest-priced full-frame rival, and you'll find that Pentax is actually performing well, given its much higher resolution. Buffer depths are pretty good, too, especially in JPEG mode, although we'd like to see Ricoh work on faster card clearing times, as these can be a bit on the sedate side.

Of course, truth be told, even though the Pentax K-1 and some of these rivals can shoot even faster in APS-C crop mode, none of them are really aimed at sports shooters -- and for that reason we'd say that the K-1's performance is more than sufficient for its target market.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

43mm, 1/60 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 12,800

Very good autofocus performance, especially in low light

We found ourselves very impressed with the uprated autofocus system of the Pentax K-1. Phase-detection autofocus speed is very good, and in real-world shooting, it's also pretty reliably accurate. And while contrast-detection AF is a good bit slower, it's fast enough to be usable with many subjects, too.

Where the K-1 really astounded us, though, was in its low-light performance. Again, this noticeably bettered Ricoh's own manufactured-rated figures, being able to focus a good bit below the -3.0EV spec even with our low-contrast focus target, and even further with a high-contrast target. And that was borne out in the real world as well, with the phase-detect AF system being able to work with subjects which were dark enough that it was difficult to even frame them in the viewfinder!

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

43mm, 1/60 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 6400

Excellent image quality and a very generous usable sensitivity range

Perhaps the most important attribute of a camera like this, though, is in the image quality it can provide. And the good news is that we found the Pentax K-1 to provide great image quality, especially if you're willing to invest the time to shoot raw and post-process for the best results. (Even in JPEG mode, though, we felt image quality to be very good.)

The Pentax K-1's images are absolutely packed with detail, and better still, it offers a very broad range of sensitivities which we would consider to be usable. For the best results, you'll want to avoid the very highest sensitivities where possible, though, especially if you're shooting JPEGs. Personally, I'd consider up to ISO 12,800 qood enough for daily use, and up to ISO 51,200 as worthwhile in a pinch.

That's equal to the entire range provided by the Nikon D810 with extended sensitivities enabled, by way of comparison. With that camera, I didn't feel the full range to be usable in the real world, so the K-1 has an edge here.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

43mm, 3 sec. @ f/1.9, ISO 100

Pixel Shift Resolution is great for relatively static subjects, and now handles some motion gracefully too

And for relatively static subjects, Pixel Shift Resolution allows even better image quality if your lenses are up to the task. Of course, you'll have to be shooting on a tripod to take advantage of the function, but that's hardly surprising. (And it's true of Olympus' rival High-Res Shot mode, too.)

The addition of a motion compensation function to Pixel Shift Resolution is very handy for things like people, animals or vehicles moving within your scene, but struggles more with subtler motion like foliage on a breezy day, or ripples on water. It's not a magic bullet, then, but it will definitely make Pixel Shift Resolution easier to use in real-world shooting.

Pentax K-3 II review -- Sample photo

105mm-equivalent, 1/250 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 25,600

The Pentax K-1 is highly recommended, and surprisingly affordable as well

All things considered, the Pentax K-1 strikes us as one heck of a camera, and an incredibly impressive first entry in the full-frame segment from Ricoh. Doubly so when one considers that it has arrived at a very aggressive pricepoint, as well. Its nearest competitors in the full-frame DSLR space are significantly more expensive, and while full-frame mirrorless cameras can be had at this pricepoint, they lack the comprehensive feature set of the Pentax K-1, not to mention its superb viewfinder and handling.

No question about it: The Pentax K-1 comes very highly recommended, and is a no brainer for a spot on our Dave's Pick list as well. If you're a Pentaxian and want to enjoy the advantages of full-frame, you'll definitely want to get your hands on the top-notch image quality and generous performance provided by the K-1. And if you're not already tied into a rival system, or you're willing to invest in replacing your existing glass, perhaps now is the time to consider moving to Pentax.

Hands-down, the Pentax K-1 is the most exciting digital camera that Ricoh has ever made!

 

Pros & Cons

Image Quality

  • Great image quality, especially from RAW files
  • Very good high ISO performance in JPEGs (except in red channel), excellent in RAW files
  • Terrific dynamic range in RAW files
  • On-demand AA filtering lets you decide how to tradeoff per-pixel sharpness against aliasing artifacts
  • AA filter bracketing saves you having to choose ahead of time
  • Superb detail, reduced noise and improved dynamic range with Pixel Shift Resolution mode
  • Pixel Shift Resolution mode can now handle larger moving subjects gracefully
  • Relatively low resolution when shooting in APS-C crop mode (but the same is true of rivals)
  • JPEGs can look a bit soft at default settings
  • Default JPEG contrast is high leading to easily blown highlights, but D-Range helps
  • High ISO noise reduction too aggressive in red channel, even when turned "Off"
  • Warm Auto white balance indoors
  • Motion compensation function for Pixel Shift Resolution struggles with more subtle motion like foliage, water ripples, etc.

Performance

  • Very quick autofocus when using the optical viewfinder
  • Able to autofocus in very low light, easily exceeding Pentax's -3.0 EV spec
  • Fast single-shot cycle times
  • Decent burst speed for its class and beats its manufacturer rating at 4.6 fps. That's just a touch below average for full-frame, but faster than any full-frame model which isn't significantly more expensive or lower-resolution.
  • Performance improves to 6.5 fps (manufacturer rating) in APS-C mode
  • Generous JPEG buffer depth of over 70 frames
  • Fair buffer depths with RAW and RAW+JPEG (17 and 13 frames respectively)

  • Sluggish power-up
  • Slow buffer clearing (and no UHS-II card support)

Video

  • Full HD video capture with fairly good image quality (so long as you avoid interlaced capture)
  • Microphone and headphone jacks for external audio and levels monitoring
  • No 4K video capture
  • No high framerate video at Full HD resolution
  • No clean HDMI output

User Experience

  • Pretty compact for a full-frame DSLR
  • Excellent ergonomics with comfortable handling
  • Smart Function dial is very intuitive (although it does duplicate some functions already available with existing controls)
  • Superb build quality with not a hint of flex or panel creak
  • Comprehensive dust/weather-sealing and coldproofing, including for optional portrait grip
  • Provides the low-light, wide-angle and shallow DOF advantages of full-frame, but works with (and automatically crops for) sub-frame lenses too
  • Sub-frame crop can be disabled, if your chosen optic has a large-enough image circle or you're willing to live with potential IQ issues towards the corners
  • Rugged LCD articulation mechanism allows tilting in every direction, and even rotating a little
  • Clever on-demand lighting not just for top-deck status LCD, but also for lens mount, rear panel controls, card compartment and some connectors
  • Outdoor View setting makes it quick and easy to boost LCD brightness
  • In-camera five-axis stabilization with panning detection
  • In-camera GPS, compass and three-axis orientation sensor for geolocation
  • In-camera Wi-Fi wireless networking
  • In-camera AstroTracer to freeze star trails
  • Built-in HDR mode
  • Dual card slots
  • Shares the same battery as the company's APS-C flagships
  • Available portrait / battery grip can double your battery life with a second pack, or allow use of AA batteries if you can't find somewhere to charge up


  • Quite heavy compared to Pentax's APS-C DSLRs (but not unduly so)
  • LCD articulation mechanism only provides a 90-degree tilt upwards, not downwards or sideways
  • Top-deck status LCD is small and less informative than those on APS-C Pentax flagships
  • Below average battery life for a prosumer/professional DSLR
  • No USB 3 connectivity

Optics

  • Bright, roomy and accurate viewfinder with numerous helpful on-demand overlays
  • Viewfinder illumination is rather weak
  • Not available in an official bundle with lens at discounted pricing

Flash

  • Can combine external flash and GPS in a single shot, unlike APS-C models that rely on the hotshoe-mounted GPS accessory
  • No built-in flash (which also means you need an extra strobe for wireless flash control)

 



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