Pentax K-1 II Field Test Part II
Pentax K-1 II Field Test Part II
A second look at one of our favorite cameras of 2018
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 01/07/2019
It's been a little longer than planned since my first field test of the Pentax K-1 II, as life's been something of a rollercoaster for your humble editor of late, and I'm only just now digging my way out of a backlog. That's been entirely down to me, though, (sorry!) and isn't a knock on the camera itself in any respect.
It's official: The K-1 II is an award-winner, too
In fact, we've been impressed enough with the Pentax K-1 II that we recently named it a Camera of Distinction in the Best Professional Camera category of our 2018 Camera of the Year awards. So believe me when I say that, when I've managed to get out and shoot with it, I've continued to greatly enjoy the experience of using this camera. (For still images, at least; it's not really aimed at videographers as we'll discuss in a moment.)
When I filed my first field test, I'd intended to follow up with two more. The second would look at the newly-overhauled Pixel Shift Resolution System II (which adds handholdability to the resolution-boosting multi-shot function's capabilities), and would also make a side-by-side comparison with the original K-1, both for Pixel Shift Resolution capture and for single-shot stills across the sensitivity range. Then the third field test was to focus on low-light and long-exposure shooting, plus video capture.
In the end, though, I managed to get everything else I've needed shot first, so I'm going to flip that order on its head. (And since the awesome upgrade program which allowed the K-1 to be converted to a fully-fledged K-1 II for a modest fee has now reached its end, I'm also going to move some of the K-1 vs. K-1 II comparison to this field test, saving just the Pixel Shift Resolution discussion for the final field test.)
A side-by-side sensitivity shootout with the original K-1
With that housekeeping out of the way, let's get right down to my second field test! Since the bulk of my shooting this time around was to be in low light or at night, it makes sense to calibrate our expectations quickly with a side-by-side against the original K-1. I headed to downtown Knoxville, Tennessee to gather some comparison shots against the earlier model.
Below, you'll find both an overall view of the scene I shot with both cameras, and a series of 1:1 crops from the same area of the image with each camera at one-stop increments across their respective sensitivity ranges. (The area I selected for the crops is outlined in yellow in the overall view.)
There's a definite improvement, but you'll need to dial up the ISO to see it
And with that, I knew to expect only minimal if any differences at sensitivities below ISO 6400, with a significant improvement coming only at ISO 12,800 or higher. With that knowledge under my belt, I shot with the K-1 II around downtown from sunset clear through the end of the blue hour and into full darkness, almost exclusively shooting handheld.
You'll find the results of that shoot throughout most of this field test, or at least as much of it as I could reasonably fit in. Take a look in the gallery section of this review for all of my gallery images from throughout my time with the K-1 II, and spanning its entire sensitivity range under a variety of conditions.
It's harder than you'd think to find subjects which need such high ISOs
What also quickly became apparent to me, though, was that it's not actually that easy to find subjects requiring sensitivities as high as ISO 12,800 and above under typical city street lighting. In fact, the only relatively interesting subjects I could find around downtown which required my sensitivity to range so high were on Knoxville's Art Alley, a narrow back alley that's a bit grimy, but is jam-packed with bold, colorful and extremely eye-catching graffiti artworks. (And as of my most recent visit, a couple of metal sculptures, too.)
With the exception of that one alley and a few ISO sensitivity ramps I shot elsewhere around town for my own use, I just couldn't meaningfully take advantage of the higher sensitivities. I could already reliably get a hand-holdable shutter speed at lower sensitivities anyway, thanks to the K-1 II's light-hungry full-frame image sensor and the bright, quality lenses it begs to be paired with.
If you were using less-bright consumer-grade glass then yes, you might find yourself wanting access to higher sensitivities while street shooting after dark, but consumer-grade lenses just aren't going to take advantage of the image quality this camera can potentially provide.
Good image quality at all but the very highest sensitivities you'll seldom use
But while finding dark enough subjects was tough elsewhere, in the intentionally rather dimly-lit Art Alley, I was able to coax the K-1 II all the way up to ISO 102,400 without having to stop down or choose a faster shutter speed. In doing so, it made graffiti shots captured almost in the dark appear as if they were taken in the daytime.
I have to say, I found myself very impressed with the results. Shots as high as ISO 51,200 were very usable indeed, and even at ISO 102,400 a reasonable level of detail remained for smaller print sizes. Beyond that point, noise levels were very high, but then I couldn't really find any meaningful street-shooting subject that would require such a high sensitivity in the first place.
Attractive photos with great color, especially at ISO 6400 or below
And if I stuck to ISO 6400 or below, which honestly was pretty easy to do even shooting handheld well into the blue hour, image quality was not just good but great. What little noise there was had a fine, tight, pattern reminiscent of film grain, and boatloads of fine detail survived the noise reduction process. That was also true of the earlier K-1, of course; the K-1 II only shows a very slight improvement over its predecessor at or below ISO 6400.
White balance was pretty decent even at very high sensitivities and when presented with a complex mixture of different light sources. (Just about every camera I've tried struggles at least a bit to yield entirely pleasing color in Art Alley at night.) Contrast levels remained pretty decent to ISO 102,400 as well. And just as I found with the earlier K-1, the K-1 II's low-light autofocus chops were pretty decent as well, with quick and confident AF locks consistently achievable in low-light for all but very low-contrast subjects.
Incidentally, the rugged, optional handgrip is well worth the money
One other quick thing I wanted to mention quickly, as I suddenly realized it wasn't covered in my previous K-1 review while making my ISO sensitivity comparisons with that model. When I first reviewed the original K-1, the optional portrait / battery grip accessory wasn't available to me. While I've been shooting with the K-1 II, though, I've had access to the grip the entire time.
I've found that much as with its equivalents for the sub-frame K-3 series cameras, I really rather like it and find myself shooting with it attached most of the time. Sure, it adds a fair bit of heft and bulk to the body, but were I primarily worried about size and weight I'd be looking for a full-frame mirrorless camera instead.
The grip's portrait controls don't quite match those for landscape, sadly
The grip itself is weather-sealed to the same standard as the K-1 II body, and it makes the camera significantly more comfortable even just for landscape-orientation shooting in my (admittedly, larger than average) hands. It also adds a second grip and set of controls for portrait-orientation shooting, and while I do find it mildly frustrating that the control layouts for the two don't entirely match, I've long since become used to those inconsistencies which were also found on the equivalent grip for the sub-frame K-3 series flagships and their predecessors.
The grip is often available for free in a bundle with the camera body, so many of you will actually be able to score one for free. If you don't, though, I highly recommend picking one up anyway. (It lists for US$250, but is frequently available for US$200 or perhaps a little less.)
Enough of stills, what about the videos?
All of this brings us to the end of my look at the K-1 II's low-light and high ISO still imaging performance. One last area remains for discussion before I wrap things up for this field test, however. And unfortunately, all of this is going to sound pretty familiar to K-1 owners.
The Pentax K-1 II is rather outdated and outgunned by the competition when it comes to video. As we've learned in past discussions with the company, brand owner Ricoh just doesn't see video as a terribly compelling feature for its target customers. That leaves us in a situation where the K-1 II is noticeably lacking on the video front, just from a quick glance at the specifications.
In fact, I'm just going to give you the tl;dr version right now: Yes, you can shoot reasonably good-quality video with the K-1 II if you only need the occasional Full HD clip and don't need autofocus, but if video's a significant concern for you then you'll want another brand's camera alongside (or in place of) the K-1 II. Now, let's take a look at some video shot with it.
As you can see above, there's a choice of three capture rates at Full HD resolution, which is still the highest that's offered by the Pentax. That was already a disappointment when the original K-1 launched in early 2016. It's doubly so in 2019, when every single major competitor -- that's Canon, Fuji, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony -- offers a 4K-capable interchangeable-lens camera at its flagship level, and sometimes even in more affordable models too.
The highest 60 fps capture rate is still interlaced, too, which both reduces resolution and introduces unsightly artifacts. If you want the highest-quality footage possible, you'll need to limit yourself to shooting 1080p footage at either 24 or 29.97 frames per second.
As you can see above, the 1080i60 interlaced capture rate is especially prone to moire and false color artifacts in areas of repeating fine detail like brick walls. It can be really unsightly, but dropping the frame rate to 30p and foregoing interlacing resolves the problem.
Much as in the daytime, night footage shot at 24 or 30p capture rates with the K-1 II has reasonably good quality by Full HD standards, but pales in comparison to the 4K footage everyone else is offering. With the best will in the world, there's just no way that a 2.1-megapixel image is going to rival an 8.3-megapixel one.
Just as disappointing if not more so is the lack of full-time autofocus capability. Even though Pentax was the first to demo autofocus in a DSLR with the original pre-production K-7 way back in 2009, a decade later the company still offers only a slow and easily-confused single-servo AF function during video capture in the K-1 II.
Realistically, you'll want to pull focus manually or try to avoid focus changes during capture when shooting video with this camera. The single-servo function is useful only if you have the time and patience to edit focus transitions out of your footage in post, rather than stopping and restarting capture for every use of single AF. (And honestly, just focusing manually will likely still prove easier.)
Although the K-1 II features a built-in sensor-shift stabilization system, it's effectively disabled in video capture mode, being locked in its central position throughout recording. Instead, Ricoh continues to rely on software-based shake reduction that, while it can be somewhat helpful with modest amounts of motion like reasonably careful, steady footsteps, can also introduce unsightly jello / distortion effects of its own into your footage.
In other respects, the Pentax K-1 II's video-capture capabilities are reasonable, but not stellar. There's no clean HDMI output for external recorders, and nor do you get much control over encoding compared to more modern cameras. But you can shoot under manual or automatic exposure control, and can use focus peaking to help you get your manual focus adjustments in the ballpark prior to capture. You can also connect an external microphone and headphones if you wish, as well as being able to manually control audio levels. But checking these boxes off doesn't really help too much when you're stuck with sub-30 fps Full HD video when rivals offer higher frame rates, 4K capture and full-time AF.
But as we've said, none of this is a surprise. Ricoh just doesn't place the importance on video capture that its rivals do, and so it isn't putting the development dollars that they are in this area, reserving them instead for features it sees as being more appealing to Pentaxians. And as a stills shooter alone, I continue to find this to be a really great DSLR.
My final field test, available here, includes a closer look at Pixel Shift Resolution on the Pentax K-1 II, how it can improve the resolution of your (mostly static) subjects, and also how the new hand-holdable variant of the mode operates in the real world. Continue the story now in part three of my field test!