Photographers looking to purchase a full-frame DSLR used to have a fairly limited selection to choose from. As has been the case for a number of years, Canon and Nikon offer a variety of full-frame models while, more recently, Sony has made waves in the market with its A7 range of mirrorless cameras. Buyers look set to have a bigger choice now, as Pentax has launched the K-1 – the brand’s first ever full-frame DSLR. Building on the success of Pentax’s APS-C DSLR range that includes the K-5 and the K-3 II, the K-1 is a rugged DSLR that sports weather seals and should feel at home in the often unreliable British climate.
The build quality is just half the story though, as the K-1 is also packed with features including a huge resolution, 36.4Mp sensor and built-in, 5-axis image stabilisation. So, are we really about to see Pentax take on the big guns of Canon and Nikon?
The Pentax K-1 includes both well established and brand new features. It has 5-axis SR (Shake Reduction) technology built into the body meaning that, regardless of which lens you use, shots will benefit from up to 5-stops of stabilisation. This is a big win, as photographers often have to pay a premium for optically stabilised lenses. The Shake Reduction is backed up by the K-1’s Pixel Shift Resolution system, which captures four images, shifting the image sensor by a single pixel for each, before merging the image into one super high-resolution file, which can even be saved in RAW format. Inside the bulky body of the K-1, which weighs a hefty 1010g (including battery and SD card), you’ll find an all new CMOS sensor and 14-bit PRIME IV processor to handle its 36.4Mp files. On the outside of the camera are more features sure to appeal to landscape shooters in particular. The rear LCD screen boasts a unique design that allows it to pivot on flexible stilts. These look delicate at first glance, but are robust enough to take the knocks of everyday use. The tiltable LCD is clever, but the K-1’s illumination LEDs are downright ingenious. Placed to light up the lens mount when you’re changing optics, the memory card slot when you are swapping storage and the back panel, each LED can be individually turned on or off. They prove to be amazingly useful when shooting in low-light conditions, saving you fumbling around in the dark.
If you’re shooting in cold conditions, the K-1 can operate in temperatures down to -10°C. Another quirk of the K-1’s exterior build is the top-plate LCD, which is rather small by full-frame DSLR standards. This is to make way for the K-1’s third big dial, which controls settings and can be fixed to adjust ISO, Exposure Compensation, Crop Mode, Drive Mode, Bracketing or Wi-Fi. The dial acts as a quick way to access the mode you’d like to adjust, without the hassle of having to enter the Menu and look down at the LCD. In the field, this works remarkably well and speeds up operation. Other features of note include Wi-Fi for the transfer of images, built-in GPS to tag your location and an Astrotracer feature that helps to capture pictures of the night sky without streaking stars.
Build & Performance Make no mistake, the K-1 is a rugged, go-anywhere camera. Eighty-seven weather seal ports are in place to keep dust and moisture out of the camera, which can be paired with Pentax’s range of AW (All Weather) and WR (Weather Resistant) lenses. The shutter mechanism is rated to withstand a whopping 300,000 releases and the body is made from rigid magnesium alloy.
When fitted with a heavy f/2.8 lens, the camera does feel weighty in the hand. This gets even heavier with the optional battery grip that’s available for £230. That said, the standard grip allows for plenty of purchase and the textured exterior means it shouldn’t slip. While the camera is a pleasure to use, there are a couple of niggles to be mention. The 33-point autofocus system is fast, but not lightning fast (even though 25 of the points are cross type). However, this may be remedied in the future if Pentax brings out a firmware upgrade.
The frame-rate is also on the sluggish side, with the K-1 managing just 4.4 frames per second – albeit a similar performance to that of its high-res rivals, the Nikon D810 and Sony A7R II, both at 5fps. The inclusion of dual SD card slots extends the time you can keep shooting without having stop to change storage.
JPEGs take 1.8secs to write, while RAW files take 2.6secs. The K-1 is capable of firing 70 JPEGs or 17 RAWs before the buffer slows up. The camera benefits from lots of little features that make a big difference in the field, such as a lockable exposure mode dial and the ability to change the brightness of the LCD screen quickly using the D-Pad button. This is very useful when you’re moving from shade to sunny conditions every few minutes.
Sporting a unique design, the K-1’s tiltable LCD makes capturing awkward compositions much easier. It’s supported by four stilts and this means the display screen of the 3.2in 1037k-dot resolution monitor can be viewed from many different angles. What’s more, the LCD can also be tilted up nearly 90 degrees, which is perfect for the ground or waist-level compositions creative photographers often find themselves shooting.
With such high-resolution files, great ISO performance is vital and the K-1 doesn’t disappoint. Images captured in both JPEG and RAW can be used with no sign of digital noise up to ISO 6400 and even at ISO 12,800, images are decent enough to be printed at a large size. At the high ISO rating of 25,600, the typical grain and speckling of digital Noise starts to become apparent and Noise Reduction via image-editing software will be necessary to improve the quality of the file.
Value for money
Priced at £1599, the K-1 offers incredible value. Compared to models from Canon or Nikon, you get far more bang for your buck. Canon’s 5D MkIII is a 22.3Mp DSLR that costs £2150 body-only, while Nikon’s 36Mp D810 matches the resolution of the K-1, but also costs much more with a price of £2139. Those already using Pentax APS-C cameras don’t have to sell their DA lenses as they can be used on the K-1 via a crop-sensor mode, which automatically gives an APS-C view of the scene. Although this does cut the resolution from 36.4Mp to 15.4Mp, the mode can be changed to capture the full-frame view – even with the DA lens attached.
Combining excellent build quality, fantastic image results and amazing value for money, the K-1 definitely holds its own against established rivals from Canon and Nikon. It certainly seems like Pentax listened to photographers when designing the K-1 and built a camera to make them happy. Only the sluggish autofocus and frame-rate prevent the K-1 claiming a five-star score. Those slight issues shouldn’t detract from what is a very impressive offering from Pentax, though. After all, the K-1 gives its APS-C users a great reason to move up with the brand if they’re sold on full-frame. And this is especially true given the highly competitive price-tag.
What’s more, if Pentax can get things so right with the launch of its first ever full-frame model, just imagine what the MkII will bring.
- Street price £1599 (body-only as of August 2016)
- Resolution 36.4Mp (7360x4912px)
- Format RAW & JPEG
- Sensor Full-frame, 35.9x.3x13mm
- ISO Native 100-204800
- Shutter 1/8000sec - 30secs, Bulb
- AF system 33-point
- Burst rate 4.4fps
- Monitor 3.2in 1040k-dot tilt LCD
- Viewfinder Optical (100% field of view)
- Flash No
- Video Full HD (1080p) up to 60p & 4K interval movie mode
- Connectivity Wi-Fi
- Storage 2x SD, SDHC & SDXC
- Weight 1010g with battery and SD card
- Dimensions (WxHxD) 136x111x85mm
- Visit www.ricoh-imaging.co.uk
This review was first published in the July 2016 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.