Pentax K-1 II Conclusion
Pentax K-1 II Conclusion
A minor -- but worthwhile -- update to an already-great camera!
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 06/24/2019
It's been a few years now since I reviewed the Pentax K-1, Ricoh's first offering in the full-frame digital camera market. Almost exactly two years after that camera first launched, the company has followed up with the K-1 II, a camera which truth be told is more of a refinement than it is a successor. Aimed at photographers who're new to Pentax full-frame -- at least, in the digital era -- rather than at existing K-1 shooters, the K-1 II should be judged more against the competition than against its predecessor.
The K-1 II shares basically everything that made the K-1 a great camera
And what a camera the original K-1 was, which is great news for would-be K-1 II owners since they're so closely-related. As I said in my review of that camera -- which you should definitely read after you finish this conclusion, because it shares so much with the K-1 II -- the K-1 is a no-brainer choice for Pentaxians who want to enjoy the advantages of full-frame.
The K-1 and K-1 II have both been priced affordably, and have an extremely solid and high-quality build. They also share an amazingly rugged, articulated LCD monitor and a superbly bright, roomy viewfinder with on-demand information overlays when you need them, and a clutter-free view when you don't.
Great image quality and decent performance for its class
Image quality is great, and while the K-1 II and its predecessor are by no means sports shooters, per se, they offer enough performance for most other shooting situations they'll likely face. And if you can live with an APS-C crop, performance edges even closer to sub-frame flagships like the now-discontinued K-3 and K-3 II.
Autofocus, too, is swift, confident and accurate, even in low-light conditions, although autofocus point coverage is rather modest when shooting full-frame. (All 33 autofocus points lie well within the APS-C image frame, and none even come close to the edges of the larger full-frame shooting area.)
Mostly great controls, but the Smart dial and Lock button could still be improved
And like the K-1 before it, the Pentax K-1 II is also absolutely jam-packed with dedicated (or in some cases, customizable) external controls, which really helps keep you out of the menu system once you've familiarized yourself with the layout. Most controls are very well-positioned and easy to use, and I really only have quibbles with a couple of them.
Ricoh's unique Smart Function dial is one of these. While I find it's great at surfacing more exposure variables for quick adjustments, I still think some of its options could have been better-chosen, and that it might be better as a user-customizable control instead.
I also find that while I really like the lock button, which makes it very quick and easy to prevent accidental settings changes, I am still not a fan of the way in which it functions. As-is, it allows you either to disable either the front and rear dials plus several exposure-related buttons, or buttons related to the menu system and focus point selection, but not both. A third option to disable all but the shutter button and to enable / disable locking would really be welcome.
Like its predecessor, still no UHS-II, USB 3.0 or built-in flash support
The K-1 II also shares a few other minor shortcomings of its predecessor, which isn't surprising given that in most respects, the hardware is identical. For example, it still lacks support for the high-speed UHS-II standard, meaning that its dual SD card slots are slower than need be, and buffer clearing times are therefore longer than typical these days. Although with that said, buffer depths are pretty good, and you'll not likely be kept waiting too often in the real world. (And as we've already noted, this isn't really a camera aimed at sports shooters.)
Other features which some may miss if switching from the earlier APS-C flagships, the K-3 and K-3 II, are their much faster USB 3.0 connectivity, as well as the K-3's popup flash strobe.
Outdoor view and on-demand lighting are still great features
But there are more than enough goodies elsewhere to make up for these occasional shortcomings, and there are a couple in particular which we've found to be gems. The outdoor view button might seem like a tiny thing, but it can prove a lifesaver on sunny days when you find you can't see the screen well enough. And equally, when shooting at night you can use it to really dim the screen backlight, then turn everything red with the night vision LCD mode to protect your night vision.
And even cooler still is the on-demand lighting system, which debuted with the earlier K-1. I found myself using this regularly to help me see the lens mount when changing lenses at night, in particular. The flash card compartment light was also handy at night, even if I needed to change cards far less frequently than lenses.
It was nice to have the lights beneath the articulated LCD panel, which are used to cast light on the rear-panel buttons, too, even though I am a long-time Pentaxian who's pretty familiar with the control layout of recent models by now. Newcomers who're still getting used to the layout will certainly appreciate these lights even more than I already did.
Battery life is a weakness that's not such a big deal in the real world
Knowing as I did that it was so closely-related to the K-1, my only real area of concern going into this review was for battery life. I knew that while in every other way that this camera would equal or better its predecessor, its battery life was rated significantly lower by Ricoh than was the K-1. This is almost certainly down to the need to power the extra accelerator unit, but it's a bit of a shame given that the K-1 itself already had below-average battery life.
On the plus side, spare batteries are fairly small and at least reasonably affordable, so it's easy enough to just pack one or two extras. Use the accessory portrait / battery grip, and you can even put two in the camera at once to get excellent battery life. And while, yes, I did burn through batteries a bit faster on the K-1 II than on the K-1, in the real world I found myself getting far more shots than the CIPA ratings predicted, and honestly never felt limited by the battery life. I think it's more a case of the CIPA ratings standard being outdated than of battery life being an issue, honestly.
Noise levels are improved at the bottom end, but the highest ISOs aren't meaningful
So the K-1 II is a great camera, because it's nearly identical to an already-great camera. That much we've established. But how do the improvements in the K-1 II compare to the original K-1? The answer is going to depend somewhat upon your usage and goals.
We'll get this out of the way right, first of all: No, the much higher upper sensitivity limit of the K-1 II is not really a meaningful improvement. Although noise levels were visibly lower at the highest sensitivities -- predominantly due to more noise reduction -- we still found that nothing above ISO 51,200-equivalent yielded print-worthy results, just as in the K-1.
But while the improvements in noise handling weren't noticeable in prints, we did notice some improvements in the K-1 II's noise levels (and noise reduction performance) at the lower end of the scale, both in the lab and the real world. If you shoot much in the region of, say, ISO 800 to 6,400 or thereabouts, you'll appreciate that edge, even if it's only slight.
Pixel Shift Resolution is still great on a tripod, and now usable handheld too
The other main advantage for the K-1 II is in its newly hand-holdable Pixel Shift Resolution function. And now that I've had an opportunity to test it both in the lab and the real world, I have to say that I'm rather impressed with how well it manages, even if I'd still recommend using a tripod whenever possible.
Clearly, the best results for Pixel Shift Resolution are still to be found when you're using the original variant with a reasonably sturdy tripod. But even shooting handheld, I found that Pixel Shift Resolution can come fairly close to matching its tripod-mounted equivalent, with a little practice.
While handheld Pixel Shift Resolution would sometimes fail to improve upon single-shot detail, it also rarely delivered a worse result than did a single-shot capture. (And for the less active subjects it's intended to capture, chances are that you have time to grab a separate single-shot exposure too, just to be on the safe side.)
Not an upgrade for K-1 owners, but highly recommended for Pentax full-frame newbies
So yes, I think Ricoh has made some worthwhile and noticeable improvements in the K-1 II, even if they're not enough to justify upgrading if you already own a K-1. (For the cost, though, they were certainly worth taking part in the company's unique and laudable upgrade program, while it was still available.)
But really, K-1 owners were never the target for the K-1 II, even if Ricoh did them a solid by allowing them to upgrade. The K-1 II has always been about enticing new users to a full-frame Pentax camera, whether they're existing Pentaxians shooting sub-frame DSLRs or film cameras, or they're considering the leap from another brand.
In an increasingly mirrorless world, if you're a fan of shooting through a bright, clear optical viewfinder instead of an electronic one, we highly recommend taking a close look at the Pentax K-1 II. No company has committed to SLRs quite as has Pentax brand-owner Ricoh, and in many respects the K-1 II stands unrivaled in its class. It's a clear Dave's Pick, and an extremely enjoyable, capable camera that will really make the most of your lenses.
Pros & Cons
- 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)
- Lock button prevents accidental changes (but needs an "all functions" option)
- 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
- Bright, roomy and accurate viewfinder with numerous helpful on-demand overlays
- 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 image 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
- Dual card slots
- Shares the same battery as the company's APS-C flagships
- Great image quality, especially from raw files
- Very good high ISO performance
- Lower high ISO noise levels than its predecessor (but see related Con)
- Excellent dynamic range in raw files
- On-demand AA filtering / bracketing lets you decide how to trade off per-pixel sharpness vs. aliasing artifacts
- Outstanding image quality from standard tripod-mounted Pixel Shift Resolution mode
- New Dynamic (handheld) Pixel Shift Resolution mode can improve image quality over single-shot mode (but can't match tripod equivalent)
- Built-in HDR mode
- 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
- Generous full-res JPEG buffer depth (77 frames)
- Fair buffer depths with DNG and DNG+JPEG (17 and 13 frames respectively)
- APS-C crop burst mode at ~6.7 fps with deep buffers
- Can combine external flash and GPS in a single shot, unlike APS-C models that rely on the hotshoe-mounted GPS accessory
- Optional handgrip is comfortable, doubles battery life, and is a worthwhile addon
- Quite heavy compared to Pentax's APS-C DSLRs (but not unduly so)
- LCD monitor is too easily-smudged
- 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
- No USB 3 connectivity
- Viewfinder illumination is rather weak
- No built-in flash (which also means you need an extra strobe for wireless flash control)
- Relatively low resolution when shooting in APS-C crop mode (but the same is true of rivals)
- New top ISOs aren't really usable in the real world
- NR performed on raw data at higher ISOs (which can't be disabled) leads to slight detail loss and can produce subtle artifacts
- JPEG high ISO noise reduction too aggressive in red channel, even when minimized
- JPEGs can look a bit soft at default settings
- Default JPEG contrast is high, leading to easily blown highlights, but D-Range feature helps
- Default JPEG colors are vibrant, but could be more accurate
- Warm Auto white balance indoors
- Motion compensation function for Pixel Shift Resolution struggles with more subtle motion like foliage, water ripples, etc.
- Sluggish power-up
- Slow buffer clearing (and no UHS-II support)
- Modest full-res burst speed (4.6 fps)
- Below-average battery life for a prosumer DSLR, and worse than for the K-1
- No 4K video capture
- No high framerate video at Full HD resolution
- No clean HDMI output