The Pentax K-01 is a bit of an odd duck. When you consider that all the variations on a "mirrorless" camera have been uncomfortably stuffed under the heading of "compact system cameras," the K-01 stands apart. Indeed, the K-01 has no mirror inside, but it's hardly compact, designed by renowned industrial designer Marc Newson to be something different entirely: a work of art. Whether or not you feel the camera is successful at that goal is subjective (isn't art always?), but at the end of the day it's still a camera, and its potential performance shouldn't be ignored because of its unique design. The camera is only slightly smaller than Pentax's K-5, houses a full APS-C image sensor, can use almost any K-mount lens, and comes with a 40mm f/2.8 prime kit lens that is razor thin. The camera will be available starting in March in white, black, and yellow, for a body-only price of $749 ($899 with 40mm kit lens).
The validity of the modernist design of the Pentax K-01 is something that is sure to be discussed in photography forums and blogs for much of this year. It's body is designed by industrial designer Marc Newson, and it certainly stands out from a crowd of compact mirrorless cameras. The camera has a rather basic geometric shape with clean lines and well-spaced controls.
The body of the camera is mostly a large rectangle wrapped in etched rubber that offers grip. Where the right hand grasps the camera is a small protrustion that juts slightly out from the body for the fingers to gain purchase on the body. The controls are simple plastic mechanisms, with a large mode dial, power switch/shutter release, control dial, exposure comp button, and red and green function buttons rounding out the top plate of the camera.
The back of the camera is likewise quite simple, with a rear LCD, four-way directional control pad, and four keys for playback, menu, exposure/focus lock, and info. The layout of the camera's menu and live view are very similar to the Pentax K-5 and K-r digital SLRs, with only a "K-01 by Mark Newson" splash page indicating that the camera is anything but a run-of-the-mill Pentax DSLR.
The rubber sides of the camera have small inserts that can be pulled away from the body, revealing the camera's input and output ports. On the left side is a small rubber inset that hides a built-in mic port, while on the opposite side a larger rubber flap is pulled away to reveal USB/AV, HDMI, and SDHC memory card ports. Altogether the camera is largely without ornament, though its blocky size profile is a bit of a reversal on the "form follows function" ethos—especially when compared to the comfort and utility of shooting with a camera like the Pentax K-5.
The menu on the K-01 is laid out in tabs that are aligned horizontally along the top of the LCD. These tabs are then divided into pages, such that no vertical scrolling is required to quickly see all the options under that tab. The tabs include shooting, video, playback, system, and custom settings, and scrolling between pages requires a simple left/right button press.
The menu on the K-01 is cleanly designed and is practically identical to the company's menus on their DSLR cameras, with only a low opacity K-01 splash page set behind the options. As with other Pentax cameras there are a great deal of custom settings for the user to alter at will (16 in total, with multiple options within many of these), to go along with a high level of control available in the shooting and video tabs as well.
Compared to most modern interchangeable lens digital cameras—Sony's NEX line perhaps excluded—the K-01 is quite sparse in its control layout. The camera's controls are well-spaced and clearly labeled, making it easy to pick up and learn where individual controls are. The only buttons that are not labeled and somewhat confusing are the green and red function buttons on the top plate of the camera. These buttons assume functions depending on what shooting mode you are in, though that function is only indicated when you first change to that mode.
The camera's best feature for usability's sake is a familiar one for Pentax users: the INFO readout. Pressing the info key while shooting brings up an on-screen grid of 14 options, including all the major shooting options on the camera such as compression type, quality, image size, focus method, metering mode, digital filters, and color mode. This quickly lets you make a variety of adjustments to the K-01's shooting parameters without having to delve into the more complex menu system.
The official word we received from Pentax regarding the K-01's design as a mirrorless camera was that it was not meant to be a more compact camera, but that being mirrorless merely facilitated the wishes of the camera's designer. That seems to have been carried through, because you'd be hard-pressed to call the K-01 a compact system camera. It's roughly the same size as the Pentax K-r or K-5 DSLR, though its tiny lens and lack of large protruding grip does take up less depth in a bag by comparison.
The camera itself doesn't handle poorly, but we'd hardly call it an ergonomic wonder either. The rubber coating around the periphery of the camera is very nice, but the shape of the grip (while obviously larger) is similar to the Pentax Q: it has a rounded hump, but it doesn't make any specific accommodations for the peculiar shape of a human hand. The result is a camera that has very clean lines throughout the camera, but that doesn't particularly appease the shape of the shooter's hand.
On the control side the camera doesn't present much of a problem, as the control dial, mode dial, and shutter release offer a proper level of resistance such that accidental activation of any of them is rare. The on/off switch is rather comically large, but it's probably the least essential of all the physical controls on the camera.
The one complaint we can register is the placement of the green, red, and exposure compensation buttons. The worst is the placement of the exposure comp. button, which is located just beside the control dial that affects it. Thus the only way to press the button down and turn the control dial is to contort your right hand (while supporting the camera entirely with your left) so that your index finger can activate the button while your thumb turns the dial. It's an altogether awkward proposition to say the least.
The Pentax K-01 is a full-fledged DSLR, with the kind of control that puts it alongside the company's mid-range cameras such as their K-r and K-x models. The camera has a physical mode dial located just besides it's built-in flash, which allows the user to easily switch between shooting modes. The on-dial modes include proram auto, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual exposure, bulb mode, auto mode, scene mode, high dynamic range, video mode, and a flash off shooting mode.
The camera's automatic mode will take control of most of the major exposure settings, and it makes the camera actually quite easy to use. It's highlighted in a green color, making it easy for novices to find on the physical control dial. Most of the camera's modes actually incorporate some sort of automatic functionality, with the camera taking over and adjusting exposure depending on lighting conditions.
The Pentax K-01 features a dedicated video mode, though in many modes the red button on the top plate of the camera also functions as a dedicated video record button. The camera records full 1080p, with frame rate options of 30, 25, and 24 fps. The camera also supports 720p with frame rate options of 60, 50, 30, 25, and 24, with VGA shooting in 30, 25, and 24p. In the movie tab of the menu you can select video exposure program (including shutter/aperture/program auto/manual modes, capture settings (resolution and frame rate), image stabilization type, audio record level, and even interval movie shooting.
The K-01 is quite speedy, with the ability to capture at up to six frames per second (JPEG only) in continuous hi mode. That is bumped down to three frames per second in continuous low, though it can better capture focus and exposure information between shots. The camera can also capture single shots, use a two or 12 second self-timer, be activated via IR remote, capture between two and nine consecutive exposures automatically, or be used to capture a timelapse of shots taken at an interval. The camera can be set to take shots at intervals as small as one second or as large as 24 hours, with up to 999 shots possible. Theoretically this would let you could set up a K-01 to take one shot a day for nearly three years automatically if you could keep the camera powered up for that long.
You can enter playback mode on the K-01 by pressing the button marked "PLAY" on the back of the camera. From here you can zoom in on a single image (up to 16x), zoom out to view up to 81 thumbnails at a time, play back movies, view image or video information, and even save RAW data from a JPEG (if it's still in the buffer). You can also select and delete any image (or multiple images), view shots in a slide show, or edit your image.
The camera allows users to edit shots by rotating, resizing, cropping, protecting, cross processing, applying digital filters, inverting colors, or altering color and tone. You can also edit videos, though options are limited largely to just trimming the beginning and ending of clips.
The camera includes a bevy of digital filters, including monochrome, extract color, toy camera, retro, high contrast, invert color, sketch filter, watercolor filter, and more.
The K-01 shoots at a maximum of 16 megapixels with its APS-C image sensor. The camera can shoot in RAW (.DNG fomat), JPEG (three quality settings), or RAW+JPEG. The sensor is a native 3:2 aspect ratio, but 4:3, 16:9, and 1:1 ratios are available, though they're cropped from the original 16-megapixel size. The camera has three sizes at every aspect ratio, with the native 3:2 offering the aforementioned 16 megapixels, along with 12-, 8-, and 5-megapixel options.
The HDR mode on the Pentax K-01 is quite useful, and it's located directly on the physical mode dial of the camera. The HDR mode takes multiple images at different exposure levels and will combine them in order to maintain a larger tonal range than is usually possible with a single image. The HDR mode saves images as JPEG only, with an auto version along with three levels of potency that the user can choose from.
The Pentax K-01 uses contrast detection autofocus that is fairly quick, though not quite as fast as some of the other mirrorless cameras we have seen of late. The camera's contrast AF was significantly faster with the 40mm f/2.8 kit lens than a K-5 with a 35mm f/2.4 lens that we had handy, requiring much less hunting in average lighting than the K-5. The K-01 can focus in a variety of methods with this system, including single AF (with AF lock and a focus release priority option available), face detection AF, subject tracking AF, and manual focus options.
The AF system is somewhat limited in sensitivity compared to a phase detection system, with an effective range of just 1-18 EV. The camera has 81 focus points that the user can select, or the camera can utilize just the center point or choose itself from across the frame. The camera also includes a dedicated LED for autofocus assist in low light, with an AF autozoom of up to 6x and focus peaking functionality.
The K-01 features a through-the-lens metering system, with a sensitivity range of -1 to 21 EV at ISO 100, with a multi-segmented automatic metering layout with 1024 zones. The camera can also meter with a center-weighted average priority, or with a user-selected single point in the frame. The camera allows the user to adjust exposure on a +/- 3 scale, in 1/3- and 1/2-stop increments. Exposure locking and bracketing is also available, with a maximum bracket of 3 frames up to +/- 3 stops in 1/2-stop increments only.
The camera is capable of shutter speeds as fast as 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds, in 1/3- and 1/2-stop increments, with a dedicated bulb mode also available right on the physical mode dial. The camera's aperture is lens dependent, though the $150 kit lens is a 40mm f/2.8 lens, with aperture controllable in manual, aperture priority and program mode by the rear control dial.
The K-01 has a native sensitivity range of 100-12800, from which the user can adjust ISO in whole, 1/2- and 1/3-stop increments. ISO is expandable up to 25,600, as well. The user can manually specify ISO, or let the camera decide based on the lighting conditions, with the ability to set an automatic ISO range in the menu so that the camera doesn't push things too high by accident.
The K-01 can capture white balance data manually, saving a custom preset setting, or the user can select from one of eleven different white balance modes. The modes available are automatic, daylight, shade, cloudy, four types of fluorescent lighting, tungsten, flash, or custom color temperature entry. The camera allows users to also make fine adjustments to any of the presets, which is very useful if you find yourself photographing under the same lighting conditions often.
The K-01, like most Pentax cameras, opts for in-camera sensor-shift image stabilization. The stabilization functions in both still and video recording. The system is rated to improve stabilization due to camera shake at a maximum of up to four stops, though we'll have to get the camera into your labs to prove the veracity of that claim.
Like many Pentax cameras, the K-01 includes a blinding amount of digital filters and options for finely tweaking the look and feel of your images right in the camera. The camera includes scene modes, digital filters, "custom image modes" (color filters), and the ability to apply multiple filters to the same image, resulting in a nearly limitless amount of options for altering your shots.
The custom image modes can be applied in just about every shooting mode and include bright, natural, portrait, landscape, vibrant, radiant, muted, bleach bypass, reversal film, monochrome (including film filters, infrared, and sepia), as well as a random cross-processing option.
From there the user can also apply digital filters at capture, including extract color, toy camera, retro, high contrast, shading, invert color, and color adjustment. Once in playback, all the same capture filters are available, but the user can now also add monochrome, sketch filter, watercolor, pastel, tone expansion, miniature, posterization, soft, starburst, fisheye, slim, and base parameter adjustment filters.
Oh, and any of those filters and modes can be applied in the camera's many scene modes, which include portrait, landscape, macro, moving object, night scene portrait, sunset, blue sky, forest, night scene, night scene HDR, night snap, food, quick macro, pet, kids, surf & snow, backlight silhouette, candlelight, stage lighting, and museum. And you thought we were exaggerating when we said "limitless."
Red and Green Top Buttons
The top plate of the K-01 includes two curious unlabeled green and red buttons, which stand out from the rest of the camera. These are dynamic function buttons which take on different controls depending on what shooting mode you are currently in. The function of the buttons is indicated when you turn the mode dial, though that explanation quickly disappears after a few seconds. The buttons primarily work to do things like adjust exposure in specific ways, though the red button frequently becomes a dedicated video record button.
Describing the Pentax K-01 as a mirrorless camera doesn't do much to help you categorize it in any meaningful way. The camera is mirrorless because its designer dictated that it should be, which technically makes it something other than a digital SLR, as it has no reflex action inside. It's not really a compact system camera either, as it's rather large and has a K-mount with the same depth of any of Pentax's modern DSLRs like the K-5 or K-r.
That depth allows you to attach any K-mount lens to the camera, meaning it comfortably slots alongside any of Pentax's full-size DSLRs, even if its actual construction somewhat defies conventional description. The K-01 includes a full 16-megapixel APS-C image senor with an ISO range of 100-12800 (expandable to 25600), which should give it similar image quality to the company's DSLR lineup. The best thing about the camera, however, is the 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, which is probably the first pancake lens that truly deserves the title. Even if the K-01 is a startling failure, the 40mm f/2.8 XS lens will stick around for some time.
The rear LCD on the Pentax K-01 is a 3-inch TFT color LCD with a resolution of 921k dots. It has an approximately 170 degree angle of view, and the viewfinder is nice and bright. The focus peaking on the LCD is nice and clear, though it's a white color which doesn't always stand out on bright subjects and we didn't see an option to change the color. The LCD is fixed into the body itself, but the angle of view is fine for shooting at odd angles. The screen is quite reflective though, so we did notice issues with glare on the trade show floor and can imagine this being a problem with bright daylight.
The K-01 includes a built-in flash with a motorized plastic catch that locks it into the body. This means that the flash cannot pop up from the body when the camera is off, so it won't pop out accidentally when the camera is being stored in a bag. The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, with a 28mm angle of coverage.
The flash can be deactivated, fired automatically, fired automatically with redeye correction, forced on, forced on with redeye correction, in slow sync, slow sync with redeye correction, or in trailing curtain modes.
On the right side of the body a large rubber flap gives way to reveal the camera's SD/SDHC/SDXC memory comaprtment along with a proprietary USB/AV port (same as on their other DSLRs, such as the K-5), and a mini-HDMI port. On the left side a very small rubber flap hides a dedicated mic port, while on the top of the camera sits a standard powered hot shoe.
The K-01 uses a Pentax D-Li90 rechargeable, removable lithium-ion battery, which slots into a dedicated battery compartment on the bottom of the camera. The battery is rated to approximately 540 shots, though that falls to 500 shots by CIPA standards (which use a flash 50% of the time). When reviewing images the battery life allows for around 320 minutes of functionality. While recording video the camera only allows a 25-minute maximum, though this seems to be due to power rather than heat issues, as on other cameras. There's an AC adapter available for the camera, though it's optional.
The K-01 uses standard SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards that slot into a dedicated compartment on the right side of the camera. The camera specifications don't list a maximum capacity, so any SDXC memory card should function. The K-01 is also compliant with new UHS-1 speed card standards, so all newer cards can be used as well.
In a world of ever-shrinking interchangeable lens cameras, the mirrorless Pentax K-01 stands out from the crowd with a unique design that eschews the idea of a compact mirrorless camera. The camera defies conventional classification, as it's technically neither a DSLR nor a compact system camera. That leaves it out on its own, seemingly destined for the island of misfit cameras.
In truth the K-01 is roughly the size of a DSLR, with an APS-C image sensor and the ability to mount any of Pentax's K-mount lenses. It's not going to fit in your pocket, but we get the feeling that those who will pick up the Marc Newson-designed camera aren't planning on hiding it once they do; it's a piece of modernist design, created as much as an expression of Newson's creative philosophy as a photographer's tool.
Ignoring the aesthetics, the camera is a potent performer with a shockingly thin 40mm kit lens. Regardless of how well the body is received, we won't be surprised to see the 40mm XS lens attached to all manner of cameras in the near future. We have some qualms with the functionality of the body design (some questionable button placement seems to shirk ergonomics altogether), but it's got all the guts of a mid-range DSLR in a body slightly smaller than a K-5.
Whether you feel the camera is a work of art or a piece of work, the K-01 is a capable camera that can fit alongside any DSLR in Pentax's current lineup. It doesn't handle particularly well, but it's a technically capable camera that is more powerful than the K-r and less potent than the K-5.
That it sits between those two cameras in terms of price is no accident, and it's a gap in Pentax's lineup that has been crying for a new entry for some time. We're not sure the K-01 is the ideal camera to fill that role, but it will certainly turn heads and keep people talking—which was probably Pentax's aim all along.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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