Pentax K-1 II Field Test Part I

Return of the king: Ricoh's full-frame flagship is back and better than ever!

By | Posted:

70mm, 1/500 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 200

When Pentax launched its now-dormant Q-series mirrorless line in mid-2011 -- and as a then-relatively new Pentax shooter myself -- I learned an interesting little piece of trivia about the company's long-running K-mount.

I knew that the bayonet design which Pentaxians know and love dates back to 1975, when Asahi Pentax (as the company was then known) replaced its earlier screwmount design for the K2, KX and KM film cameras. What I didn't know was that the new bayonet's initialism was a play on the logo for Asahi Pentax, as the brand was then known. The logo included a crown, and the letter K stood for "king". (The subsequent Q-mount, of course, was the "queen".)

For a couple of years now, the K-mount throne has been occupied by the very capable Pentax K-1, a full-frame camera which answered years of pleas from Pentaxians for just such a product. But late last spring, Ricoh -- for some years now the owner of the Pentax brand and its legacy -- announced a new ascension to its full-frame throne, as the K-1 stepped aside to make way for the brand-new Pentax K-1 II.

An old friend returns with some new features and a cool proposition.

The newer camera is very closely related to the earlier model, with only a couple of notable changes. And while those changes are well worth having, some Pentaxians and reviewers alike seemed confused by (or dismissive of) the new model because of its similarity to its predecessor. But this camera isn't aimed at K-1 owners, or at least not directly so -- more on that in a moment -- and so I think it's a little unfair to give the K-1 II short shrift.

70mm, 1/320 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 200

After all, the K-1 was itself an award-winning camera, and the K-1 II brings further improvements to the table at roughly the same pricepoint its predecessor occupied. Potential buyers get more camera for the same money: What's not to like? And in an industry first which I can't applaud loudly enough, these new features are also available to K-1 owners courtesy of a paid upgrade program which essentially turns your camera into a K-1 II. Ricoh even extends a six-month warranty to the upgraded camera, and adds a "II" logo in place of the "SR" logo to indicate that the change has taken place.

(As an aside, this also means that secondhand buyers down the road can easily distinguish between upgraded K-1s and factory-fresh K-1 IIs, since the latter retain their SR logo and instead have the "II" as part of the screen-printed model name.)

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

Significantly improved noise performance and a hand-holdable high-res mode!

So what's changed in the K-1 II, whether factory-sealed or newly-upgraded? Most importantly, Ricoh has promised a two-stop improvement in noise levels, meaning an even broader, more useful sensitivity range. There's also a new, hand-holdable version of the Pixel Shift Resolution function first introduced back with the sub-frame K-3 II in 2015.

70mm, 1/800 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 100

Now that I've had a little while to shoot with the Pentax K-1 II, it's time to get the ball rolling on my review. And because of the available upgrade program for K-1 owners, as well as the relatively minimal nature of the K-1 II update, I'm going to be doing things a little differently to normal.

For this first field test, I want to put aside the new features for a moment and focus on taking a second look at the overall design and what it's like to shoot with, as well as anything further that's occurred to me since my K-1 review went live a couple of years back.

68mm, 1/640 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 200

I'm also planning two further field tests, although I'm not currently certain in which order they'll arrive. One field test will look at the uprated, handheld-capable Pixel Shift Resolution mode, and also provide some side-by-side examples shot with the K-1 and K-1 II using identical settings and lenses, with the goal of helping K-1 owners decide whether to splash out on the upgrade program while they still can. (The program is currently slated to end in just a few weeks, on September 30, 2018 now over.)

The other field test will look at night shooting and movie capture, both areas where I'm expecting to see a big step forwards on the image quality front thanks to the improved high ISO noise levels.

But enough preamble. Let's get right down to the nitty gritty in my real-world Pentax K-1 II field test!

Side-by-side with the APS-C flagship K-3 II

As I mentioned at the outset, I've been a Pentax shooter myself for close to a decade now. I first made the leap to the K-mount with the launch of the Pentax K-7, way back in 2009, and have long loved the superb body design of Pentax's sub-frame flagships, which has remained relatively intact through four or five generations now. (Precisely how many depends upon whether you consider the K-3 and K-3 II to be variations on the same camera, or separate generations since they launched a year apart.)

As an owner, over the years, of the K-7, K-5 and K-3 II, I'm intimately familiar with that body design now, and I'd wager that so are most of the Pentaxians at whom the K-1 II is aimed. With that in mind, it would seem to make sense to start off with a side-by-side comparison of the full-frame flagship K-1 II alongside its APS-C flagship sibling, the K-3 II, which as of the current moment is still available in the US market, although it has now been discontinued globally.

The Pentax K-1 II (left) is noticeably larger than the K-3 II (right), especially with their optional portrait / battery grips installed, but its not unduly so. (And if you're a DSLR shooter in this mirrorless world, you're probably not so worried about size, anyway.)

Just as beautifully (and solidly) crafted as ever!

The K-3 II was already a beautifully-crafted camera, but the K-1 II manages to feel even more solid in-hand, with not even the slightest hint of panel flex or creak anywhere. The only noise on moving and handling the camera comes from the controls you're using, from the sensor mechanism shifting if the camera isn't powered up, and from the little metal D-rings with which Pentax secures its shoulder straps.

And also like the K-3 II, the Pentax K-1 II is comprehensively weather-sealed, as is its optionally available portrait grip. I've not shot much with the K-1 II in the rain thus far, but I've done so extensively with past sub-frame flagships -- even in direct, fairly heavy rain a few times -- and have never had the slightest of issues. Do note, though, that you'll want to be using weather-sealed accessories, too. As a brand which caters to fans of the great outdoors, you'll find not only weather-sealed lenses, but also two all-weather flash strobes and a waterproof remote. When it comes to the degree of weather-sealing for lenses, Star-badged is best, then AW-badged, and finally WR-badged gives the lowest level of protection

When seen from above, the difference in the two cameras' size isn't so noticeable. The K-1 II (left) adds a Smart Function Dial and Set dial on the top deck, allowing quicker control of a third exposure variable. The K-3 II (right) instead provides a much more generously-proportioned top-deck LCD info display.

Noticeably larger than recent APS-C flagships, but not unduly so

Since I had grips available for both cameras, I mounted both to give a good idea of the size differences between both models. At 6'1" tall, I have larger than average hands but find both cameras equally comfortable with or without the grips mounted. I do prefer shooting with the grips attached most of the time, though, both for greater battery life and because I like having easily-accessed portrait shooting controls. Of course, if you like to shoot light, the difference in size between the two cameras will be lessened a little. As you can see in the comparison above, the K-1 II is certainly noticeably larger than its APS-C sibling, but the difference isn't as significant as you might expect.

APS-C crop: 306mm-equiv., 1/250 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 800

Look at the top-down shots above, and you'll see that in terms of their width and depth, there's really not a lot to choose between the two cameras. That's logical, since they both share the same full-frame mirror box even though the K-3 II uses a smaller APS-C sensor size. The mirror box largely determines the depth of the camera body, while the mount and handgrip are largely responsible for its width, and they're all much the same on both cameras.

A relatively shallow learning curve for APS-C flagship owners

There are a few user interface differences to come to grips with, but they're all relatively quick and simple to get used to. The primary controls -- the mode dial, power and focus mode switches, and front and rear dials are all identically positioned. So, too, are the shutter, AF mode, raw/Fx, exposure compensation, ISO, metering, AF, AE Lock and green buttons. (The latter, for the non-Pentaxians amongst us, is used to instantly return the camera to its default metered exposure after using the Program shift function to bias the exposure towards a brighter aperture or a slower shutter speed.) And the four-way controller array is near-identical too, complete with the adjacent Info and Menu buttons.

The biggest changes from the K-3 II are to be found on the top deck, where there's a new Smart Function dial which, in concert with an adjacent "set" dial can be used to quickly change various options such as burst speed, bracketing mode, shake reduction, sensor crop mode and more which are usually hidden in menus or behind multiple button presses.

The Smart Function dial saves time, but sometimes duplicates efforts

I quite like the Smart Function dial, although I don't think all of its options are well-chosen, and I'd like to see some customizability. The ISO position in particular makes little sense to me, because there's already an ISO button on the top deck which is comfortably within reach of your index finger. It's easier to hold this down and then spin the rear dial than it is to reach up to turn the Set dial. And the latter has a much stiffer click detent, too, making it unlikely that you'd want to adjust the ISO using it while keeping your finger over the shutter button anyway, as it's just not comfortable to do so without accidentally tripping the shutter.

The LCD articulation mechanism in action. This animation was shot with the K-1 for our review of that earlier model, but the Pentax K-1 II's screen is identical.

Together, the new controls take up quite a bit of space on the camera's right shoulder, and so the LCD info display is of necessity relatively anemic compared to that on the K-3 II; there's just not space left for a larger one. It does still hit the high points, however, and it's really nice that you can now manually control its backlight, so as not to disturb night vision and to draw attention to yourself less in low-light shooting.

The lunar lander returns, as rugged as ever

On the rear, the Pentax K-1 II's articulated LCD panel is still mounted on an unusual articulation mechanism which allows it to be pulled rearwards about three-quarters of an inch (2cm) from the camera body, extending four lunar lander-like struts beneath it as it does so. These struts allow the screen to be tilted upwards, downwards or sideways, with +/-35 degrees of side-to-side adjustment and +/-44 degrees of vertical tilt adjustment available. On top of this, you can flip up a secondary hinge behind the LCD panel, allowing it to be pointed upwards 90 degrees for shooting from the waist. You can even rotate the whole screen assembly around 15-20 degrees in either direction.

The size difference is more noticeable once again when looking from the rear of the two cameras. As you can see, though, the control layout is very similar indeed, with differences mostly in the positioning of live view / movie related controls. The articulated screen of the K-1 II (left) is significantly more versatile than the fixed-position screen of the K-3 II (right).

Good daylight LCD visibility, especially with Outdoor View modes

In photos of the camera -- especially with it powered off -- the screen itself looks a good bit larger than the unarticulated panel on the K-3 II. The display itself is no larger, though; it just has rather chunky bezels, especially at the bottom. And that's no bad thing, as it gives you something to grip when adjusting that screen angle without smudging the screen with your fingerprints.

65mm, 1/400 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200

Speaking of which, although the K-1 II's screen is quite easily smudged (and could, to my mind, use a better oleophobic coating of some kind), the backlight is strong enough to shine through the smudges even under bright sunlight. That's especially true if you crank up the brightness to the maximum with the Outdoor View settings.

Shooting APS-C alongside full-frame can lead to playback button confusion

I'm a little mystified as to why Ricoh decided to move the Playback button from its traditional location at top left of the rear deck, which is where all of the company's sub-frame flagships since the original K-7 placed it. This is probably the most jarring change since earlier models, and although I'm mostly used to it now, it does occasionally cause a brief moment of confusion when switching back and forth between shooting a K-1 II and K-3 II body. The playback button has jumped across the LCD panel to sit above the four-way controller, right where the K-3 II placed its live view mode switch.

The separate live view / movie record button that the K-3 II tucked to the right of its viewfinder has now replaced the playback button at top left, taking over a location that I personally preferred for the playback button as I found it quicker to locate by touch when quickly chimping between shots. The live view mode switch that sat in the playback button's new location, meanwhile, has jumped to the top deck and now sits beneath the new Smart Function dial.

The lock button is a great addition that could be even better

And there are two last exterior changes of particular note. A lock button has been added, which allows you to prevent use of camera controls to avoid accidental changes to configuration. It sits somewhat near where the GPS button was located on the K-3 II, just beneath the left side of the pentaprism hump. (The GPS button on the K-1 II sits on the opposite side of the viewfinder.)

Curiously, the new lock button allows you to either lock the front/rear dials, plus the exposure compensation, ISO, green or AE-Lock buttons, or the viewfinder point selection, four way controller, OK and menu buttons, selected through a custom function, but you can't have it lock both types at once.

The Pentax K-1 II really begs to be paired with premium glass. Of course, making the most of its abilities with better lenses likely means still more added heft beyond that of the body itself. Since it only needs cover an APS-C sensor size and isn't as bright either, the HD PENTAX-DA 16-85mmF3.5-5.6ED DC WR lens shown mounted on the K-3 II (right) is significantly smaller and lighter than the HD PENTAX-D FA 24-70mmF2.8ED SDM WR on the K-1 II (left), despite its broader zoom range.

A future firmware opportunity in waiting, perhaps?

I'd like to see Ricoh expand this in a firmware update to allow locking of all controls, perhaps with the exception of the shutter button in case of an unexpected photo opportunity. It's a nice, quick way to ensure things don't get changed by mistake if you've got the camera swinging on a strap, need to loan it to someone else momentarily, and so on. And it's equally quick to disable, more so than waiting on the camera to power back up after being powered off to prevent control changes.

Full-frame means larger lenses too, not just bodies

Of course, it's important to note that it's not just the body size that varies for full-frame. Typically, full-frame specific lenses will also tend to be a bit larger and heavier than their APS-C specific equivalents, even when they're still using what's historically a full-frame mount. Not the size difference you'd expect to see between mirrorless and DSLR lenses, necessarily, but noticeable. And a camera this good really begs to be paired with bright, quality glass, which again means more size and weight.

The difference in size of these two lenses is more obvious from this angle. The 24-70mm on the K-1 II (left) is about 0.6 inches shorter and 0.4 inches less thick than the 16-85mm on the K-3 II (right). It's the weight difference that really stands out, though, with the K-1 II's constant-aperture, full-frame zoom tipping the scales at around 60% heavier than the variable-aperture, sub-frame lens. But believe me, it's worth it to extract the most from the full-frame Pentax flagship!

To give you an idea of what you can expect in this respect, I've included a couple of shots above with the closest comparison I could find between the full-frame and sub-frame lenses I had to hand.

65mm, 1/400 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200

A quick full-frame vs. APS-C lens comparison

On the K-1 II, I mounted the full-frame HD PENTAX-D FA 24-70mmF2.8ED SDM WR lens. On the K-3 II, I chose the sub-frame HD PENTAX-DA 16-85mmF3.5-5.6ED DC WR lens, which provides a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 24-128mm. The former is a constant-aperture zoom with a bright f/2.8 maximum aperture, where the latter has a variable aperture that starts off at a fairly bright f/3.5 at wide-angle, but falls to f/5.6 at wide-angle.

Neither of these are Star-badged lenses, but they're both solidly built, weather-sealed and equipped with HD coatings. And both offer pretty decent image quality for their class, too. Yet despite offering almost 1.8 times the zoom range, the sub-frame optic's smaller image circle and its narrower, variable maximum aperture mean that it's a good half an inch shorter and slimmer, and weighs a little under two-thirds as much.

That modest size increase is more than worth it for the full-frame image quality

And if the full-frame optic had the same 24-128mm focal range but retained its own bright, fixed aperture and full-frame image circle, that difference would have been much more significant. At the end of the day, though, that's the price you have to pay if you want the image quality and aesthetic of full-frame, and can't make do with sub-frame instead.

And I have to say, while the Pentax K-1 II is a good bit heftier than the K-3 II, I was more than happy to live with that difference for the results it was able to give me. As we'll see in a second, I continue to find myself very pleased with the K-1 II's image quality thus far. For this field test, I'm focusing on shooting in good light, of course. We'll come back to low-light and night shooting in a subsequent field test, as I mentioned earlier.

140mm, 1/250 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 200

Great daytime image quality and bucketloads of detail

Towards the lower end of the sensitivity range, the Pentax K-1 II offers really great image quality. Exposures are packed with detail, and noise is very well-controlled and film-like all the way up to ISO 3200, and even ISO 6400 was very usable indeed. I've not shot enough beyond that point to render further judgement on noise levels, but am very satisfied on that front thus far.

Exposures are metered very accurately, with only a relatively small fraction of my shots needing any exposure compensation. (For those few which did need a touch of compensation, it was under conditions which would prove challenging to most any camera's metering system -- predominantly very dark or light scenes.) And the K-1 II yields great color, too, with accurate daytime white balance and pleasing results which -- albeit a tad oversaturated, as Pentax cameras tend to at default settings -- are very true to life.

140mm, 1/500 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200

This isn't really a sports shooter, but it will work in a pinch

Obviously, with a manufacturer-claimed burst rate of 4.4 frames per second, the K-1 II isn't a camera which is aimed at sports shooters. Within Ricoh's Pentax ecosystem, the company's 8.3-frames per second sub-frame K-3 II is currently the most sports-oriented model. It's discontinued in some markets, though, leaving the 7.0 fps Pentax KP as the swiftest alternative. However, the K-1 II can *almost* match the KP for performance if you switch it to its APS-C crop mode, with a manufacturer-claimed 6.4 fps. (Our own in-house testing found that the K-1 II bettered its manufacturer claims by about 0.1-0.2 fps both for full-res and APS-C shooting, incidentally.)

Although I didn't shoot sports specifically, I did give this APS-C crop mode a bit of a workout shooting images of my son getting some exercise at the nearby Fountain City Park, just to get an idea of its performance. Not surprisingly, it didn't turn in as many keepers from the shoot as my K-3 II would've done, capturing about 1.6 frames fewer every second and occasionally losing focus to foreground or background instead of my subject, it still turned in a pretty decent performance, all things considered. If sports is your main focus, you'll want to seek out a K-3 II or perhaps consider another brand, but if you want an all-rounder with the ability to shoot some occasional light sports, the K-1 II should be more than up to the task.

19mm, 1/250 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200

Autofocus coverage isn't the most generous, but the viewfinder's a joy

One thing to note, though, is that the K-1 II's autofocus points don't cover as much of the image area as they do in the K-3 II. For tracking autofocus in particular, that can be a bit of a pain, as it's easier to slip off your subject and lose your tracking. (That's likely what happened with the misfocused frames of my son on the jungle gym, as I was shooting with a longer tele to get rid of background distractions and stay out of the way myself, but that made it quite tricky to keep an active, moving subject beneath the AF area at all times.

One area where the K-1 II definitely bests the K-3 II in turn, though, is in the viewfinder department. That on the K-1 II is a joy to use; it's significantly roomier than the K-3 II's finder, and far more capable. For one thing, it has an on-demand viewfinder overlay which means that you can enable or disable the grid overlay using the Smart Function Dial or through the menu system. With the K-3 II, changing the grid display in the physical viewfinder is a bit of a chore, requiring you to swap the physical focusing screens.

200mm, 1/320 sec. @ f/3.2, ISO 200

On-demand overlays let you dispose of viewfinder clutter

And it's not just the grid display which is optional. The K-1 II's viewfinder also allows you to separately enable or disable the autofocus and spot metering frames, as well as the locations of autofocus points which have achieved a focus lock. And when you enable or disable the APS-C crop mode, a bold line is overlaid in the viewfinder indicating the outer limits of the APS-C image frame. You can still see what's beyond that area, though, as the remainder of the full-frame image area is not entirely blacked out.

I'd love to see an option to black out everything beyond the APS-C image frame in a future model, to help focus on the active image area better, but for some subjects it can be handy to be able to see them shortly before they enter the frame. But with that slight quibble aside, I really love the K-1 II's viewfinder and its handy ability to get rid of all the clutter until you actually need it.

108mm, 1/400 sec. @ f/5.0, ISO 100

Power consumption has risen, but a second battery pack should suffice

One last point I want to address quickly is that of battery life. Here, the Pentax K-1 II looks to be at a significant disadvantage compared both to its predecessor and the K-3 II, according to Ricoh's official, CIPA-compliant battery life figures. Where the K-1 was rated as good for 760 frames on a charge, and the K-3 II for 720 frames, the Pentax K-1 II is said to manage just 670 frames on a charge.

None of these three cameras feature flash strobes, and while all three support Pentax's historic power zoom lenses to some degree, they won't have been tested that way. (The company no longer makes power zoom lenses, and even if it did, the CIPA testing standards wouldn't require them to be tested for battery life.) So these figures should be pretty valid for comparison between the three cameras.

70mm, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100

CIPA's outdated battery testing standard just isn't relevant here

So battery life is certainly reduced from the previous models, both sub-frame and full-frame. There's no question about that, and the reduction is likely a side-effect of power draw from the new accelerator unit which Ricoh has introduced in the K-1 II. But is this a concern in the real world? I'd have to say no, and here's why. The now 15-year old CIPA testing standards (which you can read for yourself here) are woefully out of date, and just don't come close to reflecting how DSLR cameras are typically used in the field. For one thing, the standard dictates that frames are captured one at a time, at 30-second intervals. For another, it requires the camera to be power-cycled after every 10th frame.

And as if that wasn't already plenty, the standard also requires that the LCD monitor remain active at its factory-default brightness throughout the process. (The standard actually states that it must be in live view mode unless the results are specifically flagged as having been shot through the optical finder, but I'm pretty certain manufacturers are no longer abiding by that requirement any more.) For my money, the CIPA standard should be read these days as an absolute worst-case scenario. With a DSLR in real-world use, you should expect to blow these figures out of the water, just as I did. You'll want to pack a second battery pack, especially if you plan on chimping a lot or using live view regularly, but that should suffice 90% of the time. (And the battery packs are small enough that you can slip a couple of spares in a bag or pocket, completely unnoticed until you need them.)

100mm, 1/125 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

Watch this space for more to come soon!

And that, for now, is where we're going to wrap things up for this field test. Watch this space for Part 2, coming soon with a look at the new handheld-capable Pixel Shift Resolution mode, as well as a side-by-side comparison against the original Pentax K-1. Part 3 will follow with more information on low-light and long-exposure shooting, as well as video capture. Got any features you want to see tested, or questions you need answered? Sound off in the comments below!

In the meantime, I'm going to end this field test with something I'd normally avoid -- an edited image. Typically, I share images straight out of the camera because that's what I'm reviewing. My Photoshop skills aren't what you're here for, after all. But for this last shot of a red-tailed hawk that I spotted in the trees over a downtown cemetery, I've cropped in significantly.

200mm, 1/400 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 200
This image cropped to 470mm-equivalent in Adobe Photoshop. Click for unedited original.

I only managed this one frame before the hawk departed, and even though I had the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens mounted and zoomed in all the way, the relatively tiny hawk was lost in the trees. He flew off right as I was switching the camera to APS-C crop mode for a second shot, but honestly even at 300mm-equivalent he'd still have been tiny. I was rather pleased with his watchful pose, though, so I cropped down much further, taking advantage of the K-1 II's high 36.4-megapixel resolution to get a nicer composition. My cropped shot above is still around 6.5 megapixels -- enough for a smallish print -- and would be somewhere around a 470mm-equivalent focal length.

And that's all for this field test. Continue the story now with part two of my field test!

Editor's Picks