Pentax K-1 Image Quality Comparison

Below are crops from our laboratory Still Life target comparing the Pentax K-1's single-shot image quality to its latest APS-C sibling, the K-3 Mark II, as well as to a number of high-resolution full-frame cameras: the Canon 5DS R, Nikon D810, and Sony A7R Mark II. And for good measure, we've also included Ricoh's superb Pentax 645Z DSLR, giving a comparison with a medium-format camera that is still our current resolution benchmark.

To see how the K-1's Pixel Shift Resolution feature compares to single-shot mode, as well as to other cameras, please visit our Pentax K-1 Pixel Shift Resolution Mode page.

NOTE: These images are from best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction and using the camera's actual base ISO (not extended ISO settings). All cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses. Clicking any crop will take you to a carrier page where you can click once again to access the full resolution image as delivered straight from the camera. For those interested in working with the RAW files involved: click these links to visit each camera's respective sample image thumbnail page: Pentax K-1, Pentax K-3 II, Canon 5DS R, Nikon D810, Pentax 645Z and Sony A7R II -- links to the RAW files appear beneath those for the JPEG images, wherever we have them. And remember, you can always go to our world-renowned Comparometer to compare the Pentax K-1 to any camera we've ever tested!

Pentax K-1 vs Pentax K-3 II at Base ISO

Pentax K-1 at ISO 100
Pentax K-3 II at ISO 100

Here we compare the 36-megapixel full-frame K-1 to the 24-megapixel APS-C K-3 II, to show you some of the advantages of stepping up to the full-frame K-1. The Pentax K-1 easily outresolves the K-3 II as expected, but it also produces a cleaner image even here at base ISO. Color, contrast, saturation and sharpening are all very similar, and both show some aliasing artifacts (AA filter simulation was disabled for maximum detail and per-pixel sharpness in single image mode).

Pentax K-1 vs Canon 5DS R at Base ISO

Pentax K-1 at ISO 100
Canon 5DS R at ISO 100

It's almost the reverse here, with the 50-megapixel 5DS R resolving noticeably more detail while producing similar noise levels. Sharpening halos aren't as obvious from the Canon, and it produces more accurate colors, though saturation and contrast aren't as high.

Pentax K-1 vs Nikon D810 at Base ISO

Pentax K-1 at ISO 100
Nikon D810 at ISO 64

Both the Pentax K-1 and Nikon D810 are 36-megapixel full-frame DSLRs and as such capture very similar levels of detail, but Nikon's processing produces a crisper looking image. Contrast is noticeably higher from the D810, especially in our red-leaf swatch, as is aliasing in the form of moiré patterns, though fainter patterns can still be seen from the K-1 (however the Pentax has the option of enabling AA filtering which the Nikon does not). Colors are arguably more pleasing from the Nikon, especially the pink fabric which the Pentax renders too magenta.

Pentax K-1 vs Pentax 645Z at Base ISO

Pentax K-1 at ISO 100
Pentax 645Z at ISO 100

The 51-megapixel medium-format Pentax 645Z captures significantly more detail than the K-1, but noise levels appear similar. And because both cameras are from Ricoh/Pentax, default processing is also quite similar, although sharpening halos appear a little less obvious from the 645Z.

Pentax K-1 vs Sony A7R II at Base ISO

Pentax K-1 at ISO 100
Sony A7R II at ISO 100

The 42-megapixel Sony A7R II is able to capture more detail than the 36-megapixel K-1 here at base ISO, while at the same time producing far fewer sharpening artifacts, lower noise, and more accurate color in the pink fabric.

Pentax K-1 vs Pentax K-3 II at ISO 1600

Pentax K-1 at ISO 1600
Pentax K-3 II at ISO 1600

The 36-megapixel full-frame K-1 still easily outresolves the 24-megapixel APS-C K-3 II at ISO 1600, however both images contain similar noise levels. Noise reduction artifacts are stronger from the K-3 II, a sure sign it's working harder to keep noise in check. Interestingly, the K-1 produces only marginally better detail in our tricky red-leaf swatch, and turning off high ISO noise reduction doesn't make much difference for either camera, unfortunately.

Pentax K-1 vs Canon 5DS R at ISO 1600

Pentax K-1 at ISO 1600
Canon 5DS R at ISO 1600

The Canon 5DS R continues to capture significantly more detail while displaying noise levels that are similar, and in some areas, actually a little lower than the K-1's here at ISO 1600. The Canon's image also has better color, fewer sharpening artifacts, and much better detail in our troublesome red-leaf fabric.

Pentax K-1 vs Nikon D810 at ISO 1600

Pentax K-1 at ISO 1600
Nikon D810 at ISO 1600

Noise levels appear a touch higher from the K-1, with a coarser "grain" pattern in flatter areas here at ISO 1600, and the D810 retains a lot more detail in the red-leaf and pink fabrics. However apart from that, image quality from these two rivals is pretty similar except for color.

Pentax K-1 vs Pentax 645Z at ISO 1600

Pentax K-1 at ISO 1600
Pentax 645Z at ISO 1600

As expected, the medium-format Pentax 645Z still captures noticeably more detail at ISO 1600, with slightly lower noise levels as well. The 645Z still smears the red-leaf fabric, though not as much as the K-1, retaining much of the thread pattern. The 645Z also holds on to much more detail in the pink fabric.

Pentax K-1 vs Sony A7R II at ISO 1600

Pentax K-1 at ISO 1600
Sony A7R II at ISO 1600

The Sony A7R II continues to capture more detail than the K-1 here at ISO 1600, with lower noise levels and better color as well.

Pentax K-1 vs Pentax K-3 II at ISO 3200

Pentax K-1 at ISO 3200
Pentax K-3 II at ISO 3200

Here at ISO 3200, the advantage of a full-frame sensor is still apparent, with the K-1 capturing better detail in most areas, while displaying significantly better noise characteristics. Interestingly, though, it's the K-3 II that does better with red-leaf swatch, however both cameras struggle to produce any detail at this sensitivity.

Pentax K-1 vs Canon 5DS R at ISO 3200

Pentax K-1 at ISO 3200
Canon 5DS R at ISO 3200

The Canon 5DS R continues to capture and retain more detail than the K-1, though noise levels are quite comparable at ISO 3200. Even though the Canon blurs our tricky red-leaf swatch heavily, it does better than the K-1, while producing more accurate color overall as well.

Pentax K-1 vs Nikon D810 at ISO 3200

Pentax K-1 at ISO 3200
Nikon D810 at ISO 3200

The Nikon D810 appears to suppress noise in flatter areas better than the K-1 at ISO 3200, while at the same time producing much better renditions of the red-leaf and pink fabrics. Contrast is also somewhat higher from the Nikon, and colors are more pleasing as well, giving the Nikon the edge here.

Pentax K-1 vs Pentax 645Z at ISO 3200

Pentax K-1 at ISO 3200
Pentax 645Z at ISO 3200

The 645Z still manages to produce a better image at ISO 3200, with noticeably more detail especially in our challenging red-leaf and pink fabrics, while producing slightly lower noise levels and similar color.

Pentax K-1 vs Sony A7R II at ISO 3200

Pentax K-1 at ISO 3200
Sony A7R II at ISO 3200

The higher-resolution Sony A7R II continues to capture more detail here at ISO 3200, while producing a crisper image with more accurate colors, however noise reduction artifacts are more visible making its noise "grain" look less like film than the K-1's, as well as distorting fine detail. The Sony does much better in the red-leaf and pink fabrics.

Pentax K-1 vs. Pentax K-3 II, Canon 5DS R, Nikon D810, Pentax 645Z, Sony A7R II

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
K-3 II
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 64
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Detail comparison. High-contrast detail is also important, pushing the camera in different ways, so we like to look at it, too. The full-frame Pentax K-1 does noticeably better here than the APS-C K-3 II in both detail and contrast, however the other full-frame cameras in this group as well as the medium format 645Z retain more detail and/or produce higher contrast. Interestingly, the Pentax models produce more false colors within the striped lettering than the others.


Pentax K-1 Print Quality Analysis

Excellent 30 x 40 inch prints and larger at ISO 100/200/400; a good 24 x 36 inch print at ISO 1600; a nice 8 x 10 inch print at ISO 12,800.

ISO 100/200/400 images printed at 30 x 40 inches are simply stunning. The level of fine detail and "pop" in these prints rivals most any model that's passed through our test lab. Wall display prints are possible at larger sizes, until resolution catches up and individual pixels become noticeable, which given the 36.2-megapixel files would not be until very large prints indeed.

ISO 800 prints are quite nice at 24 x 36 inches. Crisp, fine detail and rich colors are still present at this size, and only the faintest trace of noise is evident in flatter areas of our test target. There's also a typical softening in the red channel, common on most all digital cameras to varying degrees as ISO begins to rise.

ISO 1600 yields a 24 x 36 inch print that almost passes our "good" grade. There is now a bit more noise evident in the shadowy areas of our target, although it's more akin to film grain than mottling as some cameras produce, but enough to warrant only using this size for less critical applications. A reduction to 20 x 30 inches does the trick and allows for good prints at this sensitivity.

ISO 3200 is capable of delivering a very nice 16 x 20 inch print, with only minor issues such as a trace of noise apparent in flatter areas of our target. Also, all contrast detail is now lost in our tricky red-leaf swatch, a fairly common theme as ISO rises, but otherwise the print still shows good fine detail and color reproduction is still quite good.

ISO 6400 tends to be the turning point for most full-frame cameras in terms of image quality, and the K-1 is no exception. While the 13 x 19 inch print is not bad, and certainly usable for less critical applications, a reduction in size to 11 x 14 inches is required in order to tighten the prints up enough to warrant our good seal. There are only minor issues similar to the ones mentioned above, but otherwise a nice print. Anything larger introduces too much noise in some areas to make our good grade.

ISO 12,800 prints a nice 8 x 10, which is still a very useful size for such a high sensitivity. It's only been in the past few years that we've awarded a few cameras with larger prints here, with a few Nikon and Sony bodies that have scored an 11 x 14 inch rating.

ISO 25,600 produces a 5 x 7 inch print similar to the 8 x 10 at ISO 12,800. There's still plenty of fine detail and full color reproduction, with very few issues to speak of. Not a large print, but it's nice to know you can achieve a good 5 x 7 at such a lofty gain setting!

ISO 51,200 images show just a bit too much noise in the 4 x 6 inch prints to call good, but they're fine for less critical applications. Still, this setting is best avoided for printing.

ISO 102,400/204,800 do not produce worthwhile prints at any size and these settings are best avoided.

The 36-megapixel full-frame Pentax K-1 abounds with the potential to deliver stunning prints at the lower ISOs, and your printer will love you for it. As the gain rises the K-1 continues to offer the ability to produce large prints all the way to a 16 x 20 at ISO 3200. After that, the camera becomes a mere mortal again but still delivers about as good as most other full-frame models we've tested, though not as good as some of them. However when employing PSR mode you'll gain even more resolution and lower noise, and can therefore produce even larger prints. Given the excellent single-shot printing performance up to ISO 3200, we give the Pentax K-1 high marks in the print quality department.

About our print-quality testing: Our "Reference Printer"

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer, which we named our "Printer of the Year" in our 2015 COTY awards.

The Canon PRO-1000 has a lot of characteristics that make it a natural to use for our "reference printer." When it comes to judging how well a camera's photos print, resolution and precise rendering are paramount. The PRO-1000's more than 18,000 individual nozzles combine with an air feeding system that provides exceptional droplet-placement accuracy. Its 11-color LUCIA PRO ink system delivers a wide color gamut and dense blacks, giving us a true sense of the cameras' image quality. To best see fine details, we've always printed on glossy paper, so the PRO-1000's "Chroma Optimizer" overcoat that minimizes "bronzing" or gloss differential is important to us. (Prior to the PRO-1000, we've always used dye-based printers, in part to avoid the bronzing problems with pigment-based inks.) Finally, we just don't have time to deal with clogged inkjet heads, and the PRO-1000 does better in that respect than any printer we've ever used. If you don't run them every day or two, inkjet printers tend to clog. Canon's thermal-inkjet technology is inherently less clog-prone than other approaches, but the PRO-1000 takes this a step further, with sensors that monitor every inkjet nozzle. If one clogs, it will assign another to take over its duties. In exchange for a tiny amount of print speed, this lets you defer cleaning cycles, which translates into significant ink savings. In our normal workflow, we'll often crank out a hundred or more letter-size prints in a session, but then leave the printer to sit for anywhere from days to weeks before the next camera comes along. In over a year of use, we've never had to run a nozzle-cleaning cycle on our PRO-1000.

See our Canon PRO-1000 review for a full overview of the printer from the viewpoint of a fine-art photographer.

*Disclosure: Canon provided us with the PRO-1000 and a supply of ink to use in our testing, and we receive advertising consideration for including this mention when we talk about camera print quality. Our decision to use the PRO-1000 was driven by the printer itself, though, prior to any discussion with Canon on the topic. (We'd actually been using an old Pixma PRO 9500II dye-based printer for years previously, and paying for our own ink, until we decided that the PRO-1000 was the next-generation printer we'd been waiting for.)


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