Pentax K-1: The new Pentax K-1 is the first time Pentax has ever made a 35mm full-frame digital camera. That’s amazing considering Canon and Nikon have been at it for years but also explains why Pentax has lagged behind for so long.
Pentax K-1 II Review:
The Pentax K-1 II is an upgrade to the first Pentax K-1 DSLR from 2016. Like its predecessor, it features a 36-megapixel full-frame sensor, in-body 5-axis image stabilization, and a rugged design. It gains extended high-ISO shooting, a hand-held version of the pixel-shift mode, and promises faster autofocus. It costs $1299, body-only.
When the first Pentax K-1 appeared a little over two years ago, it garnered a lot of excitement. Not only was it the first DSLR with a full-frame sensor to sport the iconic Pentax brand, but at $1600, it also offered remarkable value for money. Its 36-megapixel sensor had only previously been seen in substantially more expensive cameras such as the Nikon D810 and Sony Alpha 7R IV, and it included useful features such as 5-axis in-body image stabilization and an unusual flexible-tilt rear LCD.
Of course, the market hasn’t stood still since the K-1’s launch, but the Mark II still stands up very well in comparison to its closest competitors, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II and the Nikon D750, both of which cost almost exactly the same. However, there’s a new kid on the block, in the shape of the mirrorless Sony Alpha 7 III, which has redefined our expectations of what a sub-£2000 camera can offer. Compared to these redoubtable foes the K-1 Mark II still offers higher resolution and maximum ISO settings, but is this enough to keep it relevant?
Pros and Cons
- Enough weather sealing to last a lifetime
- Rock-solid build quality
- Easy to read LCD Screen
- In-Body Image Stabilization / Pixel Shift
- Gorgeous 100% coverage viewfinder
- Excellent image quality
- Dual SD Card slots
- Great battery life
- That little light above the lens mount
- Only 33 focus points
- Autofocus system won’t win any races
- Extremely heavy
- No touchscreen
Pentax K-1 Key Specifications
- 36.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor with no anti-aliasing filter
- 5-axis image stabilization rated to 5 stops by CIPA normal testing
- 100% pentaprism viewfinder with 0.7x magnification
- 33-point AF system (25 cross-type)
- Extensive weather-sealing
- 1/200 sec flash sync speed
- 14-bit Raw recording (DNG or PEF)
- AA filter simulation
- Multi-shot Pixel Shift Resolution mode
- Built-in GPS with electro-magnetic compass and Astrotracer function
- 4.4 FPS continuous shooting (6.5 FPS in APS-C crop mode)
- 1080/30p video
Pentax K-1 II – Features
In most respects, the K-1 Mark II offers the same feature set as its predecessor. At its core is a 36.4-million-pixel full-frame CMOS sensor, which forgoes an optical low-pass filter to deliver the maximum possible detail. This usually comes with a risk of imaging artifacts, but Pentax has a unique solution. Enable its AA Simulator mode and the camera can use its in-body IS system to slightly blur the image projected onto the sensor to combat aliasing and moire, with a choice of strengths. If you’re not sure whether you need this anti-aliasing effect, the camera can shoot a set of exposures with and without.
Core photographic features are pretty solid, if unspectacular. The Mark II can shoot at 4.4fps at full resolution, with a 17-frame raw buffer; if this isn’t fast enough then switching to the 15-megapixel APS-C crop mode enables 6.4fps with a 50-frame buffer. Metering employs an 86,000-pixel RGB sensor, with multi-segment, center-weighted and spot modes available.
Autofocus is provided by the 33-point SAFOX 12 module, which includes 25 cross-type points towards the center of the frame. The focus points cover about half the image width and a third of its height, which is reasonable for a full-frame SLR but trounced by any mirrorless camera (or indeed most APS-C DSLRs). Switch to live view, and the K-1 Mark II offers contrast-detection AF covering 75% of the frame width and height.
Shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/8000sec, with 1/200sec flash sync. The mirror and shutter mechanism are pleasingly quiet and well-damped, and in the usual Pentax fashion, enabling the 2-second self-timer mode automatically engages mirror pre-fire to further reduce any risk of blur from mechanical vibrations. Delve into the menus and you’ll find a silent electronic shutter that enables more discreet shooting in live view, although the camera isn’t completely noiseless due to its mechanical aperture operation. Based around the Pentax K mount, the K-1 Mark II is compatible with a huge range of lenses dating back to 1975. It’ll work best with autofocus lenses, of course, but will also be perfectly happy with manual-focus KA lenses that have electrical contacts to pass aperture information to the camera.
It can even be made to work with purely-mechanical K lenses, but only in manual-exposure mode using stop-down metering (which is best achieved by pressing the green button on the camera’s back). So if you have a cherished collection of film-era lenses, the K-1 Mark II will make the most of them. Some optics won’t resolve all the detail the sensor is capable of capturing, but that’s no reason not to use them – it just means you can’t expect to display or print your photos as large.
However, it’s the in-body IS system that delivers most of the K-1 Mark II’s best tricks. Most obviously, it promises sharper images at slow shutter speeds with almost any lens you can mount on the camera, giving up to 5 stops stabilization. This means it works with lens types that aren’t usually stabilized, such as wide-angles and fast primes. It’ll even work with old, purely mechanical K-mount lenses: turn the camera on after changing lenses and it will prompt you to select the focal length for the IS system to work properly.
The Mark II also includes the Pixel Shift Resolution mode seen on many recent Pentax cameras. In its conventional form, this requires the camera to fixed to a tripod and makes four exposures while shifting the sensor precisely one pixel between each. This allows it to capture full-color information at each point in the image, giving visibly higher detail. A Motion Correction option is also available, which aims to reduce image artifacts with subjects that move between exposures. But brand new on the Mark II is a hand-held pixel-shift mode, which I’ll examine in detail later.
Other clever features enabled by the stabilization system include Astrotracer, which works with the built-in GPS unit to move the sensor for capturing sharp long-exposure photographs of star fields. It’s also possible to use the IS mechanism to fine-tune your composition when shooting from a tripod. Last but not least, there’s a rather brilliant function that can automatically level your images during normal hand-held shooting.
The K-1 Mark II’s rugged body is positively bristling with advanced features. Dual SD card slots are found behind a door on the handgrip, and you can either record to them sequentially, back up files to both simultaneously, or record raws to one and JPEGs to the other. There’s a built-in GPS unit; in addition to geotagging your images, it can record a log of your travels during the day. It’s turned on and off using a small button on the side of the pentaprism.
A receiver for an infrared remote control is built into the front of the handgrip; more unusually, and usefully, there’s a second on the back from when you’re working from behind the camera. If you prefer a wired release, then the standard Pentax 2.5mm port is found on the side of the grip. A chunky rubber cover on the other side of the camera protects HDMI, USB, and power-in ports, while earphones and microphone sockets are found above. Finally, there’s a PC flash connector on the side of the prism.
Other features include high dynamic range shooting; independent shadow and highlight tonal range adjustment; in-camera lens corrections; a multiple exposure mode, and an intervalometer with a huge range of programmable options. In-camera raw development is available for re-processing your images after shooting, and built-in Wi-Fi allows you to copy images to your smartphone for sharing, or control the camera remotely using the Pentax Image Sync app.
Naturally, video recording is on board, but at Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution and 30fps with purely contrast-detection autofocus, it’s a long way behind the 4K-enabled Alpha 7 III. You do at least get both microphone and headphone sockets, along with full manual control of exposure. Essentially it’s there if you need it, but it’s clear the camera’s focus is fundamentally on stills photography.
Pentax K-1 II – Build and handling
Pick up the Pentax K-1 Mark II and you’ll immediately find it’s a hulking brute of a camera; indeed at 1010g, it’s marginally heavier than even the pro-spec Nikon D850. Its body is relatively narrow for a full-frame DSLR, but also unusually deep, measuring 86mm from the front of the prism to the back of the LCD. This reflects the need to house the in-body image stabilization unit, along with the bulky screen articulation mechanism. Pentax has a reputation for rugged, weather-sealed bodies, and the K-1 Mark II offers the kind of build quality usually reserved for more expensive cameras. Its magnesium alloy body feels absolutely rock-solid, indeed the quality of its (over)engineering is demonstrated by the fact that you can pick up the camera by the articulated LCD screen and shake it around, with absolutely no ill-effect. The large handgrip is coated with thick, textured rubber and provides a very secure hold.
Almost every available surface of the body is covered with buttons, dials, and switches. Unlike other DSLRs, the K-1 Mark II has three dials you can use for changing exposure settings, rather than two: Ricoh has cottoned-on to the fact that you might want equally quick access to ISO and exposure compensation as to shutter speed and aperture, a revelation that has so far escaped Canon and Nikon. You can configure the front and rear dials to your own personal preference separately for each exposure mode, and then change the function of the top-plate dial on the fly using the adjacent selection dial.
Pentax K-1 II – Image quality
While the Mark II’s image quality isn’t obviously changed from the original, it’s still the very fine indeed, and overall the best you can get for the price. Indeed with static subjects amenable to pixel-shift mode, the K-1 Mark II will outperform any other full-frame camera, aside from the $3200 Sony A7R III. At low ISOs, the sensor delivers superb detail and dynamic range, while high-ISO image quality is pretty good too, with quite acceptable results at ISO 12,800. But I’d avoid going much higher than this, and found the newly-added ISO 409,600 and ISO 819,200 settings to be completely unusable.
- Resolution: At low ISOs, the K-1 Mark II can resolve an impressive level of detail, with our resolution chart showing the clean separation of lines at up to 4600 lines per picture height. At this point, aliasing becomes apparent, while false detail is rendered at higher frequencies due to the lack of a low-pass filter. Resolution is maintained well as the sensitivity is raised, with over 4200 l/ph still measurable at ISO 1600, and very nearly 4000l/ph at ISO 12800, which is as much as any of its 24MP competitors can achieve at best. Even at ISO 102,400, it registers around 2800 l/ph, but everything falls apart at higher settings. When looking at the 100% crops below, multiply the numbers below the lines to get the resolution in lines per picture height (ph)
- ISO and noise: When set to its lowest ISO 100 setting, the K-1 Mark II delivers extremely clean, detailed images that surpass almost anything else at its price point. The noise only starts to become visible beyond ISO 800 when examining images close-up, and detail is still maintained very well at ISO 3200. After these things progressively degrade, with ISO 25,600 losing all fine detail and suffering from reduced color saturation. By ISO 51,200 files are barely usable and just like the original K-1, higher settings should really be avoided. The top two ISOs seem to be little more than a marketing gimmick, giving extremely noisy images in which the subject is barely even recognizable.
Pentax K-1 II – Viewfinder and screen
The K-1 Mark II is unashamedly a traditional DSLR, designed to be used primarily with the optical viewfinder. Fortunately, the finder is very good, with a magnification of 0.7x and almost 100% coverage of the scene. The image is reasonably bright, and there’s just about enough ‘snap’ to focus manually with f/2.8 lenses. What you don’t get, of course, is the accurate preview of exposure, color, white balance and depth-of-field that’s offered by a good electronic viewfinder. The viewfinder is the 3.2in LCD, which is mounted on one of the most complicated articulation systems ever devised. The unit is attached to the camera via four metal struts, allowing it to be tilted up, down, left or right. An additional hinge at the top of the support mechanism enables the screen to be set horizontally for waist-level shooting.
This flexible-tilt screen is particularly handy when shooting in live view with the camera on a tripod. Unlike the tilt-only screens on the Nikon D850 and Sony Alpha 7 III, it continues to be useful when you’re shooting in portrait format, although here the maximum tilt angle up or down is rather limited, at less than 45 degrees. So it’s not as flexible as the fully-articulated unit found on Canon’s EOS 6D Mark II (or indeed the Pentax K-70), and the mechanism adds considerable bulk to the back of the camera.
Why you buy the Pentax K-1 II?
With the Pentax K-1 Mark II, Ricoh has taken its flagship full-frame DSLR and added a few small improvements. The results turn out to be a minor update, but a timely reminder of the K-1’s qualities. I’m sure this camera would be much more highly appreciated if it had a Canon or Nikon badge on the prism…
Indeed with its rugged body, extensive controls, and excellent image quality, the K-1 Mark II can lay claim to being the most capable sub-$2000 DSLR on the market, unless you specifically need high-speed shooting and rapid autofocus tracking. It would be a great choice for landscape photography, for anyone prepared to cart around a 1kg body and a set of lenses.
However, almost anyone thinking of buying a $1299 camera will already be heavily invested in a favored brand. But it makes little sense for Canon or Nikon users to switch systems, especially as the range of full-frame Pentax lenses currently available new is quite limited. Third-party lens support is diminishing too: it’s a sign of the times that Sigma now makes its latest Art primes in Sony E-mount, but not Pentax K. So in reality, the market for the K-1 Mark II is pretty much limited to existing Pentax users. But for anyone using an APS-C DSLR, it’s a really significant upgrade, both in terms of image quality and functionality.
For anyone who has a suitable collection of K-mount lenses and wants to make the step up from APS-C to full-frame, the Pentax K-1 Mark II is very easy to recommend. But I don’t think it’s worth upgrading from the original K-1; there’s too little extra to justify the cost.