New Products from Pentax

Pentax-K-5IIs-front

Pentax announced eight new products and one new technology this afternoon (September 10, 2012). They are:

  1. Pentax K-5 II
  2. Pentax K-5 IIs
  3. Pentax Q10
  4. SMC Pentax DA 18-270
  5. HD Pentax DA 560 F5.6 ED AW DC
  6. SMC Pentax-Q 15-45 F2.8 "06 Telephoto Zoom"
  7. Pentax Adapter Q for K-mount lenses
  8. HD Pentax D-FA 645 90mm F2.8 ED AW SR Macro
  9. New “HD” lens coating, allegedly introduced to eventually replace SMC

The Pentax Q10 is a compact interchangeable lens camera; the 15-45 “telephoto” lens is designed for the compact system. The D-FA 645 90mm macro is a medium format lens designed for Pentax’s 645D camera (which costs $10,000). As I am not invested in either Pentax’s compact or medium ILC formats, these products have little interest for me. The other products are of greater interest. Let’s examine them a bit more closely.

Pentax K5 II. This is essentially the Pentax K-5 with modest improvements. The standout spec is the AF sensitivity range, measured in EVs: -3 to +18EV, which is the widest of any APS-C camera, and as wide as the Nikon D800, which is -2 to +19EV. Notice the -3EV. Here are the specs of some other cameras:

  • Pentax K-5 I: -1 to 18EV
  • Canon 60d -0.5 to 18Ev
  • Canon 7D -0.5 to 18Ev
  • Canon 5D mk3 -2 to + 18 Ev
  • Canon 1D Mark 4 -1 to 18Ev
  • Nikon D7000 -1 to 19Ev
  • Nikon D800 -2 to 19 EV
  • Nikon D4 -1 to 19Ev

At least on paper, the -3EV seems impressive, and is apparently the lowest number of any DSLR. Will this camera really autofocus in -3EV light? That remains to be seen. But it’s worth keeping an eye on.

The other main improvement is an air-gap-free, scratch resistant LCD. The rest of the specs, including the video specs, appear identical to the K-5 I, much to the consternation of the gearhead crowd. The camera even uses the same Prime II imaging engine. Pentax’s K-30 and K-01 use Prime M, a more advanced imagining engine that supports 30fps 1080 video (instead of the 25 fps 1080 of the K-5 I). How do we account for this? Well, apparently Pentax was faced with a tradeoff. If they used Prime M, they would have to give up the 14 bit raw files, which some claim is the secret behind the K-5’s year and a half reign as the dynamic range king among all digital cameras, a reign only ended by the introduction of the Nikon D800 (Nikon D800 DR = 14.4EV; Pentax K-5 DR = 14.1EV). When then is more important: Video specs or 14 bit raw files and DR? Given that you get the video specs in other Pentax cameras, I’ll take the 14 bit raw files. Whether 14 bit really makes much of a difference remains unknown; but it does seem to me, in my own experience, that the K-5 does provide a bit more headroom than any other camera I’ve used. I’m recovering highlights from it I’ve never recovered before.

The K-5 II also uses a 16 MP APS-C sensor, rather than the 24 MP Sony sensor used by Nikon in the D3200. There’s some serious gnashing of teeth on the part of those who care more about gear than photography over this one. I’m thrilled by the choice. Now if need to replace my current K-5, I don’t have to upgrade to a 24 MP sensor that, for all practical purposes, provides similar quality but larger files. Addition by subtraction. A 24 MP Pentax flagship camera would be an upgrade only on paper. In practical use, it would simply lead to longer PP workflows and greater storage headaches (remember, a file only exists if it is stored in at least three separate places!).

The Pentax K-5, other than QC issues and the AF, is as a close to the perfect APS-C DSLR (for shooting stills) as we are likely to see. I’m pleased that Pentax is going to keep it around at least another two years, improving only the few areas that require improving.

Pentax K5 IIs. This is the K-5 II without the anti-aliasing filter, which promises to provide higher resolution and cleaner images (with the tradeoff of possible moire artifacts). I’ll admit to being slightly intrigued by this camera. If my K-5 were to give up the ghost, I would seriously consider this camera as a replacement. Until this year, the only cameras without AA filters were the medium format digital cameras and the Leica M9. Earlier this year Nikon released a version of the D800, the D800E, lacking an AA filter. That camera costs well over $3,000. The Pentax K-5 will be less than half the price of the Nikon D800E, making it, by far, the least expensive digital camera without an AA filter. I think this is a very shrewd move. I strongly suspect that the Pentax K-5 IIs will produce better, cleaner, sharper images than any of the current 24 MP APS-C cameras. Sharper images at only 16 MP! That strikes me as a step in the right direction. Let’s aim at improving the quality of pixels on sensors, not merely their quantity.

SMC Pentax DA 18-270. This is a rebadge of the Tamron 18-270. Well, perhaps it’s not quite a rebadge, as it features Pentax’s own SMC coatings. I would be curious to compare images taken with both the Tamron and Pentax lenses, to compare the effects of the different coatings.

Pentax DA 560 F5.6 ED AW DC. Here at last is the long awaited Pentax super telephoto. It’s unique in that it makes use of optics designed for astronomical telescopes. It allegedly renders distant objects extremely well. The big negative here is the price: $7,000. To rich for my blood. But perhaps Pentaxians will now have a supertelephoto they can rent when needed.

Conclusion. Of course, most photographers could care less what Pentax does. Pentax-Ricoh is a bit player, dwarfed by Canon, Nikon, and even Sony. The mania for mirrorless is sweeping over Asia, propelling even Olympus and Panasonic to new heights, well above the brand that essentially designed the first commercially successful SLR. However, as little as Pentax may matter these days in the overall scheme of things (they once mattered a huge amount, back in the early days of SLR photography), the company is still worth watching, at least in the DSLR space. Pentax tries to be different. They have no interest in being mere clones of Nikon or Canon. What this means for Nikon and Canon users is that any new innovation that Pentax attempts and strikes a chord with DSLR users will eventually find it’s way into their systems. One example is built-in flash, found in virtually all non-professional DSLRs. That was originally a Pentax innovation. Admittedly a small innovation, but it’s enjoyed a widespread effect. Or what about the power zoom feature, now being introduced by Panasonic and Olympus in some of their lenses? That, too, was a Pentax innovation, introduced, rather oddly, on their film cameras in the early nineties. Pentax a few years back introduced colored DSLRs. And just this year they introduced a lower mid-level WR DSLR, the Pentax K-30. Camera manufacturers are already beginning to introduce colored DSLRs of their own; and if the K-30 sells well, we could be seeing, in the near future, Nikon and Canon coming out with their own sub $1,000 WR camera, with matching WR kit lenses. And what about -3EV AF sensitivity in the K-5 II? If that turns out to be the real deal (which remains to be seen), I would expect to find that feature popping up in the new Canikon models sometime in 2013. Pentax’s innovations may be extremely modest. But they do have a way of showing up in the cameras of other brands.