Pentax K-1 review: (Original hands-on first look)

So finally, it’s here: the first full frame Pentax DSLR, in the shape of the all-new K-1. It’s been a long time coming: parent company Ricoh first put out an announcement confirming that the camera was in development over a year ago. Finally the finished product has been revealed, and we were able to get our hands on it at a pre-launch event held at Ricoh’s London HQ.

With Canon having launched its first affordable full frame DSLR, the EOS 5D, way back in 2005, and Nikon and Sony following suit in 2008 with the D700 and Alpha 900 respectively, it’s always been a surprise that Pentax hasn’t moved more quickly. Aside from anything else, the perceived advantage of an upgrade path from the APS-C format will surely have tempted many former Pentax users across to other brands in the meantime. So the question is whether the K-1 offers enough to keep the brand’s existing fans loyal, and maybe even tempt users of other makes across to Pentax? Or is it now just too little, too late?

It's unmistakeably related to the APS-C K-3 design, but the K-1 gains even more controls

It’s unmistakably related to the APS-C K-3 design, but the K-1 gains even more controls

Well, fear not, Pentax fans, because on paper the K-1 is a powerhouse of a camera that offers a very impressive specification at a compelling price point. It has a 36-million-pixel full frame sensor, with built-in 5-axis image stabilisation to help keep pictures sharp. This works with every lens that can be put on the camera, which includes a huge range of K-mount lenses made since 1975. The tough, weathersealed magnesium alloy body positively bristles with buttons and dials, and on the back there’s a novel 3.2in ‘flextilt’ LCD monitor. So the K-1 stacks up very well against the likes of the Nikon D810 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III, but with a body-only price of £1599.99, it’s much cheaper than either. Let’s take a closer look at what it offers.


The Pentax K-1 is built around a 36.4-million-pixel full frame sensor

At the heart of the K-1 is a 36.4-million-pixel full frame CMOS sensor, which we assume is closely related to those in the Nikon D810 and Sony Alpha 7R. It offers a sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 204,800, thanks to the new 14-bit Prime IV processor and improved noise reduction algorithms. Raw files can be recorded in either Pentax PEF or Adobe DNG formats, with the latter being back-compatible with many older processing programs, meaning you won’t necessarily have to buy new software to use them.

To keep pictures sharp, the sensor is mounted onto a 5-axis in-body image stabilisation mechanism. While previous Pentax DSLRs could correct for tilt, yaw and rotation around the lens axis – the main causes of camera shake in most shooting – the K-1 can now correct for up/down and side-to-side movements of the camera relative to the subject, which become important for close-up shooting. Ricoh claims the system can provide an impressive five stops of stabilisation.

The K-1 uses Pentax's long-running K mount

The K-1 uses Pentax’s long-running K mount

Autofocus uses a brand-new SAFOX 12 module with 33 focus points, of which the central 25 are cross-type. The AF sensor is specified as being sensitive down to -3EV, in effect allowing autofocus by moonlight. Metering is handled by an 86,000 pixel RGB sensor that also feeds subject recognition information to the focus system. Continuous shooting is available at up to 4.4 frames per second, which is respectable enough given the sensor resolution.

Video recording is available at Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution and frame rates up to 60 fps. While some people might be disappointed that 4K recording isn’t available, Ricoh representatives were keen to stress that the K-1 is primarily targeted at stills photographers. It is possible to create 4K timelapse videos in-camera, for aficionados of this kind of work.

Aside from this, the K-1 has managed to fit in almost anything we might hope for in a modern camera. Built-in Wi-Fi allows connection to a smartphone or tablet, for sharing images and remote control of the camera with live view. A Lightroom plug-in will also allow tethered shooting controlled from a computer. There’s GPS for geotagging, including a digital compass. About the only thing missing is a touchscreen.

Viewfinder and screen

The unique 'flextilt' monitor can be set to point in different directions

The unique ‘flextilt’ monitor can be set to point in many different directions

The K-1’s pentaprism viewfinder offers 100% coverage and 0.7x magnification, and while this is pretty standard for a full frame DSLR, it provides a much-improved experience compared to APS-C models. New to Pentax is an information overlay that can project gridlines and a dual-axis electronic level display onto the focusing screen. An LCD display shows an unusually comprehensive display of exposure information, including metering and drive modes and an auto-bracketing indicator.

The rear screen is 3.2in, 1.037-million-dot-LCD, with a novel articulation mechanism that allows it to pull out on four struts and tilt up, down, left or right. It’s easy to see what Pentax is trying to do here: it has the speed of operation of a tilt-only screen, but should also work as a waist-level finder when shooting stills in portrait format. However our first impression is that the sideways tilt may be a bit too limited to be really useful, so we’re looking forward to assessing its real-world usefulness in our full review.

Potential buyers might well be worried that this flextilt mechanism could be too fragile for real-world use, but impressively it can support the full weight of the camera with the vertical grip and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens attached. You can see this in our hands-on video – it really is surprisingly strong. How well it will hold up to long-term use remains to be seen, of course.

Build and handling

The K-1 has more external buttons and dials than almost any other camera

The K-1 has more external buttons and dials than almost any other camera

We’ve become used to Pentax’s high-end DSLRs being robustly built, and the K-1 follows on this tradition with a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body. It has no fewer than 87 seals in the camera to guard against dust or water getting into the body, and 47 on the accessory vertical grip. Pentax touts it as ideal for landscape photography, although you’ll have to match it with a weather-sealed lens of course.

It’s a weighty beast though, at 1010g with battery and card, even before adding a lens. With dimensions of 136.5mm wide x110mm tall x 85.5mm deep, it’s unusually shaped too – quite narrow, but tall, and deep front-to-back. Much of this is likely to be due to the in-body IS system. The grip feels rather chunky, although not uncomfortably so; however users with small hands may find the bulk a bit too much.

The top plate has a couple more dials than most cameras

The top plate has a couple more dials than most cameras

While the K-1 has all of the dials and switches we’d expect on a camera aimed squarely at serious photographers, it also has some useful additions all of its own. The mode dial has no fewer than five user-customisable positions, along with the signature Pentax Sv and TAv modes. The former denotes sensitivity priority, with the camera using the specified ISO and adjusting shutter speed and aperture to match, while TAv is the opposite; you set the shutter speed and aperture and the camera adjusts the ISO accordingly, also taking into account any exposure compensation you may have set. Once upon a time this was unusually useful, but many (although not all) cameras now do much the same using Auto ISO in manual mode.

More interesting is the pair of top-plate dials adjacent to the LCD status panel. The two work together, with the one beside the pentaprism defining the function of the other. So if the function dial is set to ISO, for example, the top-plate electronic dial controls it directly. With separate front and rear dials that can be used to set shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation, this gives an unusual level of direct control.

LED operation assist lights aid shooting in the dark

LED operation assist lights aid shooting in the dark

For shooting in the dark, Pentax has also added another unique feature. Several LEDs are arrayed around the camera body, and can be turned on to assist operation. Four on the back of the LCD assembly can light up the rear controls, while one under the pentaprism helps with changing lenses. Meanwhile the twin SD card slots and remote release sockets can also be lit up. It’s the kind of clever touch that leaves you wondering why nobody has done it before.

Other features

The flextilt screen is held in place by four deceptively strong struts

The flextilt screen is held in place by four deceptively strong struts

Thanks to the in-body IS system, the K-1 has a number of additional unique tricks. The sensor has no optical low-pass filter for maximum detail capture, but the IS system can be used to minutely vibrate the sensor, to provide an anti-aliasing effect in situations where image artefacts such as aliasing and colour moire could become problematic. We’ve found that this anti-aliasing simulator works well on existing Pentax DSLRs, so it’s good to see it included here.

There’s also a pixel shift resolution system, similar to that seen on the Pentax K-3 II. With the camera mounted on a tripod, this takes four exposures, moving the sensor around in a square motion by a pixel each time so that all four pixels of the Bayer-pattern RGBG colour filter array are used to produce a full-colour measurement for each pixel in the final image. This results in visibly-improved pixel level detail and colour gradation. On the K-3 II the system has problems with moving subjects that change position between the four exposures, so new on the K-1 is motion detection processing that detects where objects have moved between exposures and only uses a single frame to process them. While pixel-level detail in these locations might be lower quality compared to elsewhere in the image, it should still be preferable to the ghosting artefacts that the K-3 II could produce.

There’s also Pentax’s unique Astrotracer mode. This is designed for long exposures of the night sky, and uses data from the GPS unit to determine how stars will move across the frame during the exposure. The in-body IS unit is then employed to move the sensor to compensate. The result should be a more detailed view of the sky with the stars rendered as points, rather than the star trails that conventional cameras record. This allows users to experiment with astrophotography, without having to invest in an expensive equatorial tracking mount to do the same job.

Lens compatibility

Six weather-sealed full frame lenses will be available at launch: a new 15-30mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, new 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6, 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6, and 100mm f/2.8 macro

Six weather-sealed full frame lenses will be available at launch: a new 15-30mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, new 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6, 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6, and 100mm f/2.8 macro. Together these cover most core applications.

Following the transition from film to digital, Pentax concentrated on building up an impressive range of APS-C dedicated lenses. But the flipside of this has been a gradual loss of the full frame lens range, so over the past year or two new owner Ricoh has had to build it up again. With two new lenses announced alongside the K-1, a 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 and a 15-30mm f/2.8 (both of which are weathersealed), there will be 12 compatible full frame lenses at launch.

Of these, six are recent weather-sealed designs (shown above), while six are older film-era primes. The new 15-30mm f/2.8 is, like the 24-70mm f/2.8, clearly a rebadged Tamron lens with essentially the same specification and optical formula, but lacking optical stabilisation as it’s no longer needed due to Pentax’s in-body stabilisation. Both of the original Tamron lenses are excellent, so K-1 buyers who want to use a set of top-notch fast zooms look like they should be well served.

Apart from Pentax’s own lenses, plenty of third party options are available, including Samyang’s excellent value manual focus primes and Sigma’s superb ‘Art’ lineup. So while Canon and Nikon still have the edge for own-brand options, particularly with fast primes and specialist optics, it’s still possible to get most full frame lens types to fit the K-1.

Users who have a collection of APS-C Pentax DA lenses will find these will still work on the K-1, with a 16-million-pixel 1.5x crop mode. A frameline in the viewfinder indicates the image area. One advantage of crop mode is that the AF points cover most of the frame.

First Impressions

We got hands-on with the K-1 at Ricoh's pre-launch event

We got hands-on with the K-1 at Ricoh’s pre-launch event

We’ve been waiting so long for a full frame Pentax DSLR that there was always a risk it might feel like a let-down. But we’re pleased to say that if anything, the opposite is true – we’re pleasantly surprised by just how much Ricoh has managed to fit into its Pentax K-1 while maintaining an unexpectedly low price point for its specification. It looks like Canon and Nikon suddenly have seriously strong competition to contend with, indeed at first sight, the K-1 looks like it offers unprecedented value for money for a full frame DSLR. We’re certainly really looking forward to getting our hands on one when production models start shipping in April: look out for our full review around that time.

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