Don't let its looks fool you: This camera delivers spectacular image quality
The Pentax K-01 is the first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera that is backwards compatible with an entire line of DSLR lenses without the need for an adapter. Can it deliver image quality to compete with top APS sensor DSLRs?
Pentax K-01 Key Features
- Mirrorless interchangeable-lens body
- Machined aluminum frame
- 16MP APS CMOS sensor
- 3-inch LCD with 920,000 dot resolution
- K-mount; compatible with 25 million Pentax DSLR/SLR lenses
- Full HD 1080p video at 30fps, 720p at 60fps
- Sensor-shift shake reduction
- 6fps burst rate
- Shutter speed 30-1/6000 sec
- ISO range 100-25,600
- In-camera HDR
- Built-in flash, hot shoe
- JPEG & RAW image capture
- Available in Black, White or Yellow bodies
- Body only price: $746.95 (as of May 14, 2012)
Pentax has managed to marry high design with serious photographic capability with the Pentax K-01 ($746.95, body only) the world's first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera to accept the entire line of Pentax K-mount DSLR lenses without an adapter. Featuring the same Sony-made, 16MP APS CMOS sensor that can be found in the pricier Pentax K5 ($1,100) and the Nikon D7000 ($1,500) the K-01 is among the top five APS sensor cameras when it comes to virtually noise-free images at high ISO, according to independent DxOMark lab tests. That's impressive.
How did Pentax pull this off? Well, creating a backwards-compatible mirrorless camera was not without some important compromises. I took the Pentax K-01 on a test drive to check out its ergonomics, ease of use, extensive feature set, and of course, its image quality. How did it do? Let's find out!
Welcome to the family: The Pentax K-01 (in all three colors) shown with the current line of Pentax K-mount lenses. All lenses ever made for K-mount cameras will work on the K-01, making this camera unique among mirrorless models.
In The Hands
The first thing anyone who picks up the K-01 will notice is that, while it is smaller than a DSLR, it is not very compact; in fact, side-by-side with the Pentax Q, it's quite large, proving the two cameras are two very different creatures intended for different uses and different audiences. In fact, it is the largest mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera on the market, but there's a good reason for this: Backwards compatibility with every Pentax K-mount lens ever made. In order to accommodate over 25 million Pentax K-mount lenses originally designed for DSLRs and SLRs, there needed to be a full flangeback distance—the distance from the back element of the lens to the surface of the sensor needed to be the same as a DSLR—since these lenses are not designed for the shorter lens-to-sensor distance (short flangeback) of Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compact cameras. Thus, it is smaller than a DSLR, but substantially larger (and thicker) than a MILC.
Despite its heft, I found the Pentax K-01 to be fairly comfortable to hold, thanks to the ribbed, rubberized material that wraps around the grip and along the right and left sides of the camera and its generously-sized controls. The rubber side lifts on the right to reveal the SD card port (an interior door needs to be flipped out to reveal the card port—a nice safety feature) as well as USB and HDMI outlets, and a small section of the rubberized left side pulls away to reveal a mic jack for an external microphone—nice!
The camera, with its simplified layout and oversized controls, seems almost toy-like in its design (Pentax hired world-renowned designer Mark Newson to design the camera) but its boxy exterior almost obscures the fact that on the inside, this is a serious camera with all the controls of a typical enthusiast-level DLSR, and then some. The left-center is dominated by a silver bulge; one might expect an EVF to be housed here, but there is none. Instead, it houses a pop-up flash and a simple hot-shoe that is compatible with Pentax flash units such as the Pentax AF-360 FGZ. There is no data port, so don't expect an EVF for this camera.
To the right of the flash housing is the oversized mode dial, which puts Auto, Scene, HDR, Flash control, movie modes, P, Tv, Av, M. and B at your fingertips. For more experienced photographers, this is a huge advantage over many of the K-01's competitors, who leave control knobs unmarked and rely too heavily on menu settings that require many button presses to access. The only minor quibble I have with the position of this dial is that in order to move it, you have to move your hand off the grip so your thumb and forefinger can reach it.
Other controls include a green and a red button. The green button is customizable—you can assign any feature to it. The red button by default will shoot video, but it too can be customized. A large, unmarked dial is the E-dial, and it is used to magnify images in playback mode and to adjust aperture and shutter speed, depending on the shooting mode. Next to the E-Dial is the exposure compensation button. Press it and move the E-Dial to change the EV. You can't miss the on-off button, which surrounds the generously-sized shutter release button. The red button, all the way to the right, starts video recording as soon as you press it. That's a nice convenience, but I found myself occasionally pressing it by accident when I was aiming for the EV button.
The camera back is spacious, dominated by the 3-inch LCD monitor, with plenty of room for the thumb to rest without accidentally bumping or pressing a button. Four buttons are aligned vertically: AF/AE-L, Play (for image and video playback), Info (which not only controls what information is displayed on screen, but gives quick access to meter patters, face detection HDR, filters, image size and quality, color management and more), and a Menu button, to access deeper menu items. A four-way controller (with each button individually controlling ISO, flash, self-timer and white balance) surrounds the “OK” button.
Swinging around to the front of the camera, a lens release button is nicely molded into the right side of the lens base, while an autofocus/manual focus switch is on the left side.
The Pentax K-01's unusual design calls attention to itself. The camera was designed by Mark Newson, who has been called “one of the most influential designers of the 21st century”. Its design is certainly distinctive, in an Argus C3 kind of way. In an informal poll of friends, family and fellow photographers, I found that about half loved the design, and half (mostly the photographers) didn't. Very few held neutral opinions, but even among those who were not impressed with the design the feeling was that the camera's image quality was more important than its design.
The Pentax K-01's native dynamic range of over 12 stops allows it to handle high-contrast scenes such as the one above with aplomb, showing good highlight and shadow detail.
Some scenes need help to get both shadows and highlights. Above New York street scene shows good shadow detail, but the highlights are blown out. Below: Same scene, combining 3 shots to boost the dynamic range. The camera handled it well (the HDR appears natural and not overdone) and combined the 3 handheld shots while compensating for camera movement. Even better: Note how even moving elements in the image (the people) are captured with no motion artifacts!
In The Field
After starting up the camera by flipping the oversized on/off switch (startup time: a little over a second), I was able to immediately start shooting. Auto modes were straightforward, and manual was easy to master (press the EV button to toggle between aperture and shutter settings). The bulk of the camera, which I was concerned would get in the way, was not obtrusive at all. In fact, the additional weight gave the camera added stability, and the ribbed rubberied sidewall/grip made the camera comfortable to hold (although I wouldn't mind a protrusion for the thumb to rest against).
The camera has a solid feel to it. The lens mount is a classic K-mount, with additional electronic sensors for a new generation of lenses. Mounting lenses was a cinch once I found where the lens release button was: tightly molded into the design of the lens base. Clever! Switching from manual to autofocus was also easy, via a front switch. When using older manual-focus K-mount lenses, users should keep it on manual focus.
In all but direct sunlight, the LCD monitor performed well, emitting a bright, sharp image. After a minute of inactivity, the screen darkens, but instantly brightens when you press the shutter release halfway down. The biggest problem I had was in direct sunlight. Reflections pretty much obscured the LCD image. An anti-glare screen or LCD hood such as the Delkin Pop-Up Shade might help here.
Due to its highly reflective LCD screen, I struggled to compose images in bright sunlight. I wish I hadn't cut off this nattily attired fellow's feet—he was wearing interesting shoes—but my bright shirt reflected in the LCD screen made framing difficult.
The rubberized door that opens to reveal the memory card, USB and HDMI ports required some finesse to close securely, and if not closed properly would open easily and seemed to be in danger of being torn off. Likewise, the door that revealed the external mic jack seemed to hang precariously by a single rubber hinge when opened.
Scene modes: Scene modes are easily accessible via the SCN setting on the control dial, and you can choose from Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object, Night Scene Portrait, Sunset, Blue Sky, Forest, Night Scene, Night Scene HDR, Night Snap, Food, Pet, Kids, Surf & Snow, Backlit Silhouette, Candlelight, Stage Lighting, and Museum modes.
I was able to capture some pretty good street shots while field-testing the Pentax K-01 with its 40mm f/2.8 lens. Check out this street photo slide show, above!
I used the new 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, which is being sold in a kit with the K-01 and is presumably perfectly matched, so I was able to get a sense of the camera's optimal performance. Autofocus acquisition was pretty fast, with very little searching, even in low light. I found lag time to be minimal but not instant. Compared to other MILCs, I would put this camera in the middle of the pack for autofocus acquisition and lag time. In single shot mode, image processing took about 1/3 of a second. Using a Class 10 SDHC memory card, the camera maintained full burst mode for about 3 seconds before the buffer filled up, and then the burst mode began to stutter, catching about 3 out of every 4 shots but never quite stopping.
Image processing time increased notably when switching to HDR mode, taking as long as 10-20 seconds. Processing took longer if the image was more complex, or I handheld an HDR image. The camera was able to combine handheld images for HDR and did a good job compensating for any camera movement between shots. Alas, when shooting in SCN > Night Scene HDR (which combines three images shot in low light to reduce noise), the camera locked up while processing the image when I shot on a cloudy day, but worked fine indoors in low light.
How'd the Pentax 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens do? It was a pleasure to use, and it produced images with nice, creamy-smooth Bokeh, and it is so small it compensates for some of the K-01's bulk.
Smooth operator: Above, shot at f/4 shows off the Pentax 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens's creamy-smooth Bokeh, while the 100% detail, below, demonstrates its noise-free image quality at ISO 400.
DxOMark Sensor Test results (used with permission)
Overall: Excellent 79 out of 100
Color depth: Excellent 23.7 bits
Dynamic range: Very Good 12.9 stops
Low-Light ISO: Excellent 1135
Thanks to its Sony-made, 16MP APS sensor, the Pentax K-01 is in the upper echelon of mirrorless cameras for image quality. In fact, it is also among the top-rated off all cameras, DSLR or MILC, to have an APS-sized sensor, according to DxOMark test results. Among 16MP cameras, it is among the top five (and is the sole mirrorless model), and the difference in image quality among these cameras is statistically insignificant.
The Pentax K-01's ISO accuracy is excellent, with the measured ISO falling less than third of a stop less than the indicated speed. Signal noise ratio is at an impressive 41dB at ISO 100, stays just under 30dB for ISO 1600 and 3200 before heading south, which means digital noise is well controlled until after ISO 3200! Dynamic range is best at ISO 100 and doesn't fall below 10 stops until ISO 1600.
My field tests confirmed the lab results, producing outstanding results in a variety of conditions. Below ISO 800, image quality was nothing short of spectacular, and I was able to get impressive results at ISO 3200, and even ISO 6400 looked pretty good.
Speed demon: Street shot above, taken at ISO 1600 was sharp, clear and, as you can see below, has virtually no noise, an outstanding performance!
Conclusion and Recommendation
If you're a fashionista who wants a camera that looks as good as you do (or as good as you wish you looked!), without a doubt the Pentax K-01 is a camera worth considering, especially in its attention-getting Yellow or White versions. But its beauty (for those who behold it as such) is much, much more than skin deep. In addition to being compatible with every K-mount lens ever made for a Pentax SLR or DSLR, it is still smaller and lighter than the Pentax K5, which shares the same spectacular sensor and delivers top image quality, but the K-01 costs some $400 less. Yes, the lack of an eye-level finder may kill the deal for some (a workaround would be the Hoodman Screen Loupe for eye-level viewing, or Delkin Pop-Up Shade to improve visibility in sunlight) but if you're looking for the least expensive way to get the a camera with the world's best resolution APS sensor and compatibility with 25 million lenses, the Pentax K-01 has no competition.