It’s a fact I reflected on as I waited for more than an hour to get my hands on the brand-new Pentax K-1 (MSRP $1,799.95) at CP+ 2016 in Yokohama. And if the crowds clamoring to spend a little time with the brand’s new flagship are any indication, the wait may have been worth it.
The K-1 is the culmination of 15 years of waiting. It’s the first full-frame Pentax DSLR to debut since the ill-fated MZ-D prototype broke cover back in 2001, and it’s by far the most advanced camera Pentax has ever produced. In typical Pentax form, it eschews some popular contemporary technologies—you won’t find any 4K video here—in favor of unique features and a strong value proposition. In short, it’s exactly the full-frame Pentaxians have been trained to expect.
But how does it feel to actually use this mythical beast? Well, come along and I’ll tell you.
Like most Pentax DSLRs, the K-1 makes a great first impression (let’s agree to forget about the K-S1). It’s a handsome beast, with a pentaprism hump that brings to mind classic film-era Pentax SLRs without slipping into full-on retro pastiche. It’s also incredibly well-built, with a grip that’s second to none. Pentax ergonomics have been our gold standard since the K-7, and the K-1 may be the most refined take yet. Notches are carved out for optimum grip , the depth is just right, and the angle of the front dial is perfectly pitched.
The refinements continue up top, where the Pentax engineers added a third control dial and a selector so you can choose what it controls. (Choose one of nine options on the selector, then change the selected feature using the control dial.) With three dials for discrete settings, plus five User modes on the mode dial, you’ll basically never have to go into the menus to change a setting—once you’ve got all those custom modes set up, anyway.
The menus are attractive and fluid. They’re functionally identical to the menus Pentax has been using since its earliest models, but a new processor and higher-res screen have combined to create an experience suitable for the smartphone age (though it’s not a touch-sensitive panel). The 3.2-inch screen itself swings out and swivels on a sort of insane looking set of struts unlike anything ever used on a camera before. It can tilt up, down, and side to side, and also rotate. It looks pretty delicate, but in a demonstration at the Ricoh booth a company rep swung the camera (and the beastly 60-250mm lens) around by the screen without any apparent ill effects. There are even LEDs on the back of the screen that can be turned on to illuminate the rear controls when shooting in the dark. Pretty nifty!
Autofocus has always been a pain point for Pentax DSLRs, but the K-1’s new SAFOX 12 AF system seemed quick and confident, even under tricky show floor lighting. It should be noted, however, that the company only paired it with DC and SDM lenses in the hands-on demo—we can’t say for sure how it would feel with older screw-drive glass.
The pentaprism viewfinder (nearly 100% coverage, 0.7x magnification) is large and clear, though it seemed a bit dim in the gloom of the trade show floor. (Maybe we’ve just gotten too used to EVFs.) Optional grid lines—a setting on the third control dial, believe it or not—are a nice touch.
Image quality is tough to judge outside of a controlled shooting environment, especially without files to look at off the camera. It’s also highly lens-dependent, especially on a 36-megapixel sensor. With all those caveats out of the way, shots from the K-1 looked pretty good on the big, high-res display. We shot with the new 28-105mm kit lens, the 24-70mm f/2.8, and the 70–200mm f/2.8, and each delivered a smooth experience.
Though it offers plenty of unique touches and innovative features, the K-1 comes up short in a couple areas that will frustrate many users.
While other brands have multiple full-frame cameras filling various niches, Pentax has a lone gun in the K-1. In opting for a 36.4-megapixel sensor, the K-1 more or less rules out high burst shooting rates in favor of high resolution. Nikon’s D810 does the same, but Nikon shooters can opt for the D5 if they want to shoot at 12fps. Pentax full-frame users are stuck with 4.4fps, which is perfectly fine for the sensor class, but a disappointment if you’re into fast-moving subjects.
Pentax has never put too much effort into video features, and the trend continues here. Resolution tops out at 1080/30p, and while there are headphone and mic jacks, a lot of other videography-oriented features are missing. You’ll be able to grab quick clips for sure, but this won’t be anyone’s first choice if moving pictures are a priority.
It’s no slam on the K-1 itself, but I’m also a bit skeptical of Pentax’s ability to deliver a robust lens system to support serious full-frame shooters. Sure, the big two zooms are already there, and the FA Limiteds are fantastic, but modern primes—especially affordable ones—are in short supply. And yes, you can use decades’ worth of legacy K-mount glass with this camera, but who knows how well your grandpa’s Pentax-M 28mm f/2.8 is going to hold up against a 36MP sensor?
The K-1 is a landmark for Pentax and parent company Ricoh. Not only is it a competent full-frame DSLR, but it innovates and excels in areas rivals don’t even attempt. For example, we haven’t yet mentioned the camera’s five-axis in-body image stabilization or its “Real Resolution” sensor-shift shooting mode, which produces Foveon-like results with incredible clarity. There’s real reason for the Pentaxian faithful to be excited about this camera.
More importantly, given how late Pentax is to the game, the K-1 arrives with a very aggressive $1,800 price tag. That makes it the least expensive full-frame DSLR on the market by MSRP, and $1,000 cheaper than the next 36-megapixel model. For value shoppers, that’s a very attractive proposition.
Many will be pulled away from the K-1 by Canon and Nikon’s more complete lens systems, or by Sony’s flashy, cutting-edge full-frame mirrorless options. But for old-school photographers—those who care about still image quality, ergonomics, and a fluid shooting experience above all else—there’s plenty of reason to give this camera a hard look.
Meet the tester
Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.
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