Pentax interview: We’re open to working with third-party developers


posted Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 11:47 AM EDT

Pentax's John Carlson. Image copyright© 2012, Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.Next up in our 2012 Consumer Electronics Show interview program, Imaging Resource publisher Dave Etchells sat down with John Carlson, Senior Manager of Sales and Marketing at Pentax Ricoh Imaging Americas Corp..

The interview covers some of the challenges faced over the last year by the photo industry, and the changes seen at Pentax since its recent acquisition by Ricoh. Also covered are the tiny Pentax Q compact system camera, Pentax's future plans for its camera and lens lineup--and whether full-frame might fit into that picture--and on the state of play with respect to tethering software, a function no longer officially present in the company's current lineup.

Dave Etchells: 2011 was really a hard year for the camera industry, with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and floods in Thailand, and those on top of the sluggish world economy. As far as we know, Pentax's own facilities weren't directly affected by either event, but with many parts suppliers impacted, to what extent has your camera production been affected? If there's been any negative impact, when do you expect the situation to return to normal?

John Carlson: It has impacted the interchangeable lens cameras, definitely. However, it seems like everything's back up to speed, so we're not running into any issues with product supplies at this point.

Pentax's John Carlson. Image copyright© 2012, Imaging Resource. All rights reserved. Click for a bigger picture!DE: That's great. So as far as your own supply chain's involved, everything seems to be back to normal at this point?

JC: Yeah. There was definitely a couple month period there where it did have an effect, but it seems we're back up to normal, at least for the product we're getting in here in the U.S.

DE: Last October, Pentax Imaging Systems was acquired by Ricoh, a company best known their office equipment in the U.S. market. While they've had some very interesting offerings, they've not managed to gain a lot of traction with their camera line in the U.S. to date. There's also some duplication between Ricoh and Pentax's product lines, particularly among compact cameras. How do you see your product lines fitting together - will there be unification under one brand at some point, or will the two brands continue with their own identities?

JC: Right now that strategy is being determined, although the indication is that Ricoh will continue as a product line, and Pentax will continue as a product line, but obviously merge our resources to become a stronger company. Ricoh acquired Pentax for the Pentax brand, and the Pentax brand is a product category within the Ricoh company; just like you would have CyberShot to Sony.

DE: What advantages do you see the acquisition bringing for Pentax and Ricoh, and was the development of future products able to continue unabated during the transition from Hoya to Ricoh? In other words, were there any hiccups in the R&D as a result of making that transition?

JC: Not apparent to us; however, we definitely think it will be a good thing because we have the Pentax resources, and then obviously the Ricoh resources. They are interested in growing and expanding the Pentax brand.

DE: When the Pentax Q was announced last June, it provoked quite some debate among the Pentaxian community. Looking at the U.S. market specifically, system cameras in general haven't yet achieved the same popularity as in Asia, and to a lesser extent, Europe, where the public seem to be more sensitive to camera size and weight. Now that's been available for a few months, have U.S. market sales met your expectations, and do you feel the photographers are embracing your message about the Q's advantages over competing system cameras?

JC: I think there is better understanding of the camera now that it's available and people can see the image quality, and that has become less of a concern. When it was first introduced, the question was, "Can you get good image quality out of that size sensor?" Now that it's out there in people's hands, and it's not just Pentax saying, "Yes, you can, there's decent image quality," I think there's better acceptance. However, we still need to get that message out there that a small camera with a combination of a high quality sensor and a high quality lens is going to give you better results than a compact camera where it's all combined together.

DE: One thing we noticed is that the Q's lens line-up is that there's a very clear line, with sort of the very high end lenses and the toy lenses. The latter, the toy lenses, are almost at impulse buy prices. What's been the customer response to the toy lenses? What do you see the typical Q buyer going with?

JC: I would definitely say more sophisticated, the tie ratio of lenses to the camera body is definitely higher with the zoom lens. The standard kit includes the prime lens, and then the zoom lens is being matched up with it much more frequently than the toy lenses. But still, with those toy lenses, it's decent.

DE: So you've seen a decent attach rate?

JC: Yeah, because they're definitely very affordable. While it may be an impulse buy, it's not an expensive impulse buy, so it's very easy to pick up those lenses without making a huge investment.

DE: One thing we're seeing in the market is now a whole range of fixed lens cameras with larger sensors. Fuji's getting a lot of attention with their X100, and Canon just announced a camera with a 4:3 sensor that's much closer to the APS-C size. Do you think there's a demand from customers to increase sensor size in fixed lens cameras? If so, is this a market you'd like to see Pentax competing in?

JC: It's an interesting market, where if you look at the market data, there's a bit of strength there. It's not contracting like the low-end camera market. Whether that's attributed to the sensor size or the photographer's looking for that type of camera as a back-up camera, that I wouldn't want to hazard a guess. I don't necessarily think it is directly related to sensor size, although that is definitely a concern we saw with the Q. Even though since it's been out, we've been able to show that you can get a 17 by 19 print out of the camera, and it looks excellent. That's a kind of difficult question, but I don't think it's all sensor size; I think it's the quality of the output of those cameras.

DE: Kind of going to the other end of the spectrum here. There's been a vocal segment of the Pentaxian community that has long-requested that you come out with a full-frame DSLR. You've got a number of DFA and FA lenses in your line-up that are compatible with full-frame image circle, but no bodies to put them on. What's your sense about full-frame? Is there enough demand there to justify developing a body for it? Or is full-frame really kind of going away, so on one hand you've got the 645D and on the other, you've got APS-C sensor?

JC: I wouldn't say it's going away. However, Pentax has made a commitment to both the APS-C and 645. Whether we have the resources to do something in between those, I'm not in a position to say. I think we're pretty confident with our current direction with the APS-C and the 645, because we're addressing the consumer market as well the professional market.

DE: We've been hearing rumors for awhile that the K-r is being discontinued, and Pentax Japan no longer lists it as a current model. This is a question that you may not be able to answer, but can we expect to see a replacement in the near future, or do you feel the Pentax Q effectively fills the gap left with the K-r's departure?

JC: That's one where the production is finished with that product. I hesitate to call it "discontinued," because there is still product in the channel. Obviously, there's material or product available out there, and it's still a great camera. It's still a very capable camera. As far as a replacement to that, I can't address that. I wouldn't call the Q a replacement for that.

DE: It's a different product.

JC: Yeah, definitely - totally different part of the line for us.

DE: Looking at your K-mount lens line-up, are there any particular gaps you'd like to see filled up in the next year or so? Perhaps a weather-sealed 55-300mm, or something else with a bit more telephoto reach? Or is it maybe time to go back to the drawing board with teleconverters? They kind of fell off the road map a few years ago.

JC: If you look purely at what we're hearing from customers, there's a lot of demand for longer focal lengths. Something like 300mm f/2.8, something like that. As far as what's on the road map, it's not something that I'm able to share. That's where it seems the most demand is for us, is with the longer focal length. You just look at what we have available, that's definitely where I would say we have a hole that I hope we explore.

DE: Same question with the Q. Wondering if maybe a stronger telephoto's called for there; the standard lenses stop with the 83mm equivalent tele, and the longest lens is the 100mm toy lens telephoto. Would you have the same answer there?

JC: I think with that one, it's not necessarily a fixed, longer focal length lens, but a zoom that continues on beyond our current equivalent to 28-80mm, something to complement that lens I think would be well-accepted.

DE: How about the 645? We're super-impressed with the 645D body, but there's currently only one available new production lens, the 55mm f/2.8. Is there any projection for when the 25mm f/4 should begin shipping in the U.S.? Are you planning to offer other models? Do you think that the typical 645 owner already has a stock of historic lenses they use?

JC: I think that was our advantage with the 645, that there were a lot of photographers who were film 645 shooters, had the lenses, and we maintained that compatibility. Then there's a lot of lenses available on the secondary market because of the popularity of the older camera, of the film version of the camera. I think that is definitely a big part of the strategy, is those existing owners of those lenses. As far as the 25mm is concerned, the indication is that it will be available, I believe, in March.

DE: Great, okay. With those earlier lenses, too, some of them, there's just some really spectacular glass out there for that, and it really shows off that body very well.

JC: Yeah. We work with one photographer in particular, Kerrick James, that has been a Pentax shooter for years and has the 645 lenses and the 67 lenses he uses with the adapter, and the quality of the images you see out of his shots is just kind of spectacular.

DE: Yeah, when we had it in the lab, we called them the "telemicroscope."

JC: (Laughs) Yeah!

DE: What can you say about features on video in your--either SLR or system camera lines--you were really the first to offer manual aperture control during video capture, but our sense is that since then, you've lagged a little bit on features. Things that are becoming common elsewhere, such as full-time auto-focus or manual audio level control. What would you like to see come to product line in terms of video?

JC: I think there's a couple of things I've seen with our competitors that are very compelling, like auto-focus during video, and more manual controls of exposure during the video. However, I think what's important is to realize that while that stuff is... would be nice to have, it's not absolutely necessary. We've worked with some producers that have done some great videos that we have on our YouTube channel, that definitely show even in pretty complicated lighting situations, you can effectively use a camera like the K-5 to get good quality video. Using things that you may not think of, like the exposure lock button that will essentially let you set the exposure, things like that. Just watching some of these professional cinematographers using the different lenses to their capabilities, and realizing these guys don't use auto-focus anyway. The true advanced cinematographers out there are doing it all manual, and planning your shot, and really thinking it out. I think you consider those things, and our cameras are definitely very capable.

DE: What's your sense for how customers are using the video capabilities of the system cameras? This is one thing I have a question about, is how many of them are still photographers that are becoming video enthusiasts, or how many are like, you know, I'm a still photographer and I'd like to take an occasional video snapshot?

JC: You definitely see a lot of the traditional photographers almost questioning why you need video, but then you have the people that have kind of expanded their repertoire of what they can do with a camera, by realizing that you add a little movement to an image and it can add a lot. Definitely in the nature photography, you know... A still image of a snowstorm is okay, but you get a moving image of a snowstorm, a video, and it adds something totally different to it.

DE: In our interview at CES last year, we briefly discussed tethering software, it's something you used to offer with all of your flagship cameras, up to the K20D. At one point, Pentax Japan suggested it was working on tethering software with the 645D, but we've seen since that's been removed from the Pentax Global website. What's happening with tethering software for Pentax cameras?

JC: My understanding is that they're working on software for the 645, but it's a matter of resources, where we want to do it for the cameras that definitely need it. As far as when something's going to be released for the 645, I'm not sure. I believed they showed it at an event in Europe.

DE: They showed a beta version?

JC: Yeah.

DE: That sounds like at least under development, and on the way.

JC: Yes.

DE: On the APS-C cameras, do you think we'll see tethering software come back at some point? Is there really a shift, like there was in demand for it?

JC: Yeah, I think it was a matter of not much demand, and I think what we'd like to do at least here in the U.S. is explore third-party options that will work with our products.

DE: Do you have some efforts underway, working with third-party folks?

JC: Not currently, no.

DE: But you're open to it if someone came to you.

JC: Yep, definitely.

DE: Well, it's pretty much down to the last question, which we're asking everybody every year. What do you think is happening with the economy, seeing it's a tumultuous time with all the world changes, and who knows what's going to happen with the Euro, and the U.S. seems like it's coming back a little bit. What's your projection for this next year?

JC: Well, you definitely see signs of hope every once in awhile, and I like to remain an optimist, and I think it will turn around - just for everyone's sake, you know, my own included! (laughs) I would say I'm cautiously optimistic, especially for certain categories like DSLRs, like the water-proof cameras, things such as that where they've still--I don't want to say they're growing tremendously, but they are still growing. There's definitely opportunities out there.

DE: Great. Well, that's it. Thanks for your time!

JC: No problem.