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Can the world's smallest interchangeable-lens camera handle a demanding pro assignment?
Fashion photographer and Adorama contributor Sandy Ramirez field-tests the Pentax Q under very demanding circumstances. If it can handle New York Fashion Week, it could probably tackle many other photographic assignments.
When I first heard of the Pentax Q, I was immediately intrigued. I have a love for small cameras, and this certainly fit the bill. With a 1/2.3" sensor that's smaller than that of a Canon G12 or Nikon P7000 (both of which have 1/1.7" sensors), what was Pentax thinking, bringing thiss mirrorless solution into a competitive market that contained Micro Four Thirds and APS-C options by Panasonic, Olympus, Ricoh, Sony, and Samsung? As seen in the family portrait above, the Pentax Q is not much larger than it's ancestor, the Pentax Auto 110, still the smallest SLR ever produced.
Every year, I photograph New York Fashion Week and this year it happened to coincide with the first delivery of the the Pentax Q and, fortuitously, I got my hands on one. I spent the entire 9 days posting daily reports as I field-tested this little unit under one of the hardest conditions one would expect to use this little camera. (Editor's Note: If this looks familar, it is because this report appeared, in serial form, on the Adorama Tech Tock blog during Fashion Week. But there are some extras in this version so read on!) Here are my daily observations as I put the Pentax Q through its paces in what may be its ultimate stress test!
Day 1: Getting to know Q
The camera is tiny, but actually feels comfortable to hold. The build quality actually feels great. Though small and light, the Q feels very solid in the hand. It may look like a toy, but, perhaps thanks to its magnesium alloy build (the same material used in my Canon 7D) it certainly doesn't feel like one. The control layout and menus are logically placed. So much so that with but 30 minutes with the manual I feel confident that I I could easily change any parameter with ease. I don't have to dig very often into the menu. The controls make sense and allow for quick operation.
The camera is quickly wowing me with it's ease of use, and for me something I didn't expect: fast focus in very low light. Only when I was in a very dark room did the focus assist beam even bother turning on. It may not be as fast as an Olympus EP-3 but it is very close, with a performance that's comparable to the Canon Rebel T3i.
The images shown here are all straight from the camera JPEGs, no adjustments, ranging from ISO 320-6400. The focus tracking easily kept up with models walking a runway during the walk-through. Best yet, it automatically goes into focus tracking when is face detection mode following the briskly walking models with a good rate of keepers (8-9 shots out of ten in excellent focus). I'll try the burst mode today. The camera has so impressed me I'm today that I'm leaving my 24-70/2.8 behind to lighten my load and replacing it with this. let's see how it all handles.
Day 2: The show kicks into high gear...and the Q saves the day
Friday was the day the IMG shows begin at Lincoln Center. I'm backstage at the first show, Nicholas K. I bring both the Pentax Q and my 7D with a 17-40/4 L with me. I also shoot parts of the Candela and Porter Grey Presentations with the Pentax Q. I'm fully impressed with the quality the Pentax Q is generating. The Q came to the rescue at Candela when the flash tube on my Metz 54 MZ-4i exploded on me! I finished the presentation with the Q, and my editor liked the photos quite a bit.
The Q is getting a lot of positive attention from my fellow photographers. a few ask for my SD card and pull up the files on their laptops and are excited and want to buy the camera! I don't blame them. I am going to be very sad when I turn this camera back in.
Now comes a real test: low light fun out on 5th Ave on Fashion's Night Out. Henri Bendel's, Sak's Fifth Avenue, Versace, Diesel and Rockefeller Center, the Q handled the situations well. I feel very confident with it. Tomorrow I'll stop by Adorama and grab that prototype wireless flash controller and use it with the Q and my backup Metz to do some front row, all presentations and lobby shots.
Day 3: The Q meets a potato masher flash
About my only complaint so far is that the images don't auto rotate in the computer. The color balance when set to tungsten is a little cool as well, but not really too bad. I stopped off and picked up the prototype transmitter from Tobias at Adorama. I fitted it to my Metz, then the Q.
Setting the flash to auto, I began shooting it in the Lobby and shot two presentations. Again the Q drew a lot of attention and a lot of admiration. Many of my fellow photographers read the 1st day's installment and like what they saw. They've expressed interest in buying a Q when they become readily available. I think Pentax has a hit on their hands! I shot entirely using flash today, getting a shot of Jessica Stam in the lobby. The Q seems capable of doing the job.
Day 4: Playing with Filters, testing the limits
Day 4 was the heaviest on my schedule with little time for testing the Q beyond the limits I already had. I played with a few of the Custom Image filters similar to the Art Filters found on Olympus Micro Four Thirds units. I liked the high contrast black and white best. Again the Q did well getting lots of attention. I'm discovering that people in the front row relax a bit more when they see me with a little camera. About all I really had a chance to shoot with it was a little behind the scenes material such as the video crew doing their white balance and a few shots in the garden lounge between shows.
Day 5: Q&A: Can the Q work with wireless flash? What about video?
Day 5 was a little lighter schedule-wise—11 hours instead of 13. I started out just shooting a few of my fellow team members for the outlet I'm shooting for. After that, into the lobby where I got Patrick MacDonald to pose for a quick shot. Again, all these shots along with the presentation of Gwen Stefani's line, L.A.M.B., were accomplished using the prototype Flashpoint wireless transmitter fitted to the hotshoe of the Q and my Metz 54 MZ4i with a Gary Fong Light Sphere powered by a Quantum Turbo SC.
For fun I decided to test the 2nd Curtain sync on the Q and even with the simple transmitter it worked perfectly as seen in this 1 second portrait of my friend Bruno shot in the photographer's pit at the Custo Barcelona show. By now I had configured the Q just as I liked it, taking advantage of the Quick Dial using positions 1-3 to preconfigure the camera to typical shooting settings for each venue and setting position four to High Contrast B&W.
I now really wanted to put the Q to the test. I've shot a couple of walkthroughs with the Q and knew the tracking focus and burst could in theory actually keep up with a model. It did fine in the various walkthroughs I've shot with it. However shooting an actual show with it would be a different matter with several hundred photographers crammed together jostling for that perfect shot.
For my first actual show to be shot with the Q I chose the Tommy Hillfiger show. Instead of my usual center line spot, I chose one off to the side to better use the FOV of the lens Pentax had provided me. Finally I found something the Q did not do well. Granted, it tracked the models perfectly and the burst mode ensured the classic two feet down shot. That said, however, runway photography is about extremes. Only two types of shot are ever published, the classic long telephoto shot isolating the model and the extreme wide angle shot. The normal lens Pentax provided just didn't have the FOV needed to create a dynamic still shot. I can't really blame the Q here, more the fact that this is a very young system, and currently available optics just aren't there yet. Hint to Pentax: The Normal Zoom looks really nice. Add a 2.5-5/3.5 and a 17.5-52.5/3.5 set of zooms and this system would be perfect.
However, the normal prime was the perfect FOV for video in my mind. Quickly turning the mode dial to movie, I shot a video of the last three minutes of the show. Since I'm not really a videographer to say it was a complete, but fun disaster would be an understatement. The default settings were not what I hoped for as far as exposure as the high contrast scene of a runway show fooled the auto exposure system, alternating between over and under exposure. The tracking focus did work perfectly, however.
The next show was Timo Weiland. I changed to a fresh SD card, gave my 7D to another team member to shoot stills, and dove into the movie menus of the Q. I quickly discovered that it could be placed into manual exposure mode! YES! and the Quick Dial settings could be used. I quickly set the camera to the settings for the venue and looked at what size the video would shoot at. The Q can shoot either 1080, 720 or VGA video. The default frame rate is 30fps, and cannot be adjusted.
I left the camera in 1080, fitted a plate to the Q and mounted it to my monopod and waited for the show to start. One thing I did notice is that the IBIS would shift the sensor visibly when the models turned as seen in the video. I'll shut that off for the next video I shoot. Overall the quality isn't bad. It wont compare to my 7D, but it does do something my 7D can't, tracking focus in movie mode!
I know there's been some confusion about whether the Q can actually focus track during video. It really can! Watch this video for proof. Also notice how the sensor shifts too much with lateral motion!
Days 6-9: As the week grinds on, the Q gets pros salivating!
Lobby shots, backstage shooting and walkthroughs: Fashion Week, if anything is somewhat repetitive. The Q got a lot of attention and admiration in the end, and I am sad having to return this camera. Yes, a Micro 4/3rds unit will produce better quality. Sure, it has a relatively puny little point and shoot sensor, and yes, when placed in tungsten the color is a bit too cool. Still, the build quality is excellent. No other MILC has felt as good in my hands. This camera felt solid, took the punishment of the pit, and performed admirably.
I doubt Pentax ever expected to have the Q used in such an environment, and to their credit they have built a camera that is serviceable under the conditions I subjected it to—and would probably excel at whatever you throw its way. The controls are very logically laid out, and whether a Nikon user, or a Canon user like myself picked it up, within minutes the controls were deciphered (without consulting the manual!) and the camera instantly captured the heart of everyone who handled it.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Purely from an ease of use and bang for your buck standpoint, the Pentax Q is in my opinion the best mirrorless unit on the market right now that is not a true rangefinder by Leica. The compromises are quite acceptable, the AF is fast even in very low light, and the JPEG engine does an excellent job. I wish I had shot a few images in RAW, but I wanted to replicate the conditions that all of us in the pit deal with. We shoot JPEG because the turn around is instant. There is no time to process 700-800 RAW files. Here the JPEG engine of the Q held up under the demands. The video function is excellent, and yes Virginia, it does AF track in video mode.
Some say the $800 price tag is too high, but for a solidly built and easy to use camera with a plethora of functions one would not expect at this price point along with a very sharp prime lens, it is a bargain. If it can handle the 9 grueling days that is New York Fashion Week, it will easily handle what most end users will use it for. I want one and a majority of those that handled it this week want one as well. It's just too much fun to use!