K-1 Hands-on First Impressions

PF Staff testing the K-1 at the WPPI Expo in Las Vegas

By PF Staff in Hands-On Tests on Mar 15, 2016


Pentax K-1 with 15-30mm F2.8

Without a doubt, the Pentax K-1 has an impressive list of specifications and new features.  The press releases never tell the whole story, though.  Courtesy of Ricoh Imaging we had access to a pre-production version of the K-1 (firmware 0.48) at WPPI 2016.  We had a chance to test the camera over the course of a 24-hour period with the D FA 15-30mm F2.8, D FA 24-70mm F2.8, D FA 28-105mm F3.5-5.6, and D FA* 70-200 F2.8 lenses, among others.  This testing gave us valuable insight into what really makes the new Pentax full frame so unique.  Read on for our preliminary evaluation of the K-1.

Disclaimer: the K-1's specifications, features, and performance are all still subject to change; the production model may differ from how it is depicted in this post.  We are not allowed to publish full resolution images from this pre-production model, but we have upload several 2000px sample photos in a separate post for you to analyze.

If you want the conclusion up front: we believe Pentax has a winner with this camera!

Image Quality

We learned from Ricoh Imaging that the K-1 is fitted with the 36-megapixel Sony sensor originally launched in the Nikon D800 (the sensor has been adapted to Pentax engineers' specifications).  To this day, this sensor (most recently tested in the Nikon D810) receives the second-highest full-frame performance benchmark according to DxO labs.  This sets very high expectations for the K-1. 


K-1 Sample w/ D FA 28-105mm @ 37mm (Click to enlarge)

In the field, the K-1 we tested quickly met these expectations.  One of the key appeals of the full-frame format compared to APS-C is improved image quality, especially at higher sensitivity settings.  Consider the scene below.  Even near the limits of the ISO range, the result retains plenty of detail and vibrant colors:

ISO 51,200 Sample @ 15mm (Click to enlarge)

At full resolution, one can even make out the small text on the distant television:

Photos of the same scene shot at other ISO settings (3200 through 204,800) can be found here.

In our opinion, the 36-megapixel resolution delivers an excellent balance of noise performance and detail.  In terms of pixel pitch, this resolution is comparable to 16 megapixels on APS-C— the same used in the acclaimed K-5 series.

For hand-held shooting, the K-1 takes things to a higher level thanks to its updated Shake Reduction II (SR II) system.  In addition to the superb image clarity thanks to the sensor, SR II adds an additional stop of stabilization and works along 5 axes, up from 3.  This gives the user unprecedented flexibility for tripod-free low-light shooting, which arguably surpasses the capabilities of the Pentax 645Z.

Dynamic Range is another key consideration. In this quick-and-dirty test, the K-1 has showed promising shadow and highlight recovery potential, with no shadow or highlight clipping whatsoever.


Unedited JPEG

In-Camera Developed RAW

The K-1 adds a few new settings to its JPEG engine, including variable clarify enhancement (think of it as an in-camera auto levels adjustment) and skin tone correction.  These are features that we will cover in more detail in our in-depth review.

Super Resolution

The K-3 II introduced pixel shift resolution and this feature has been carried over to the K-1, with improvements. The interval between the four shots have been reduced and the stacking algorithm can eliminate artifacts from moving objects such as leaves swaying the wind.  The camera simply reverts to using the original frame for areas in which movement is detected. A tripod is still crucial when shooting in pixel shift mode, but shooting in windy conditions is now much more forgiving.

The video below demonstrates pixel shifting with motion correction enabled:

It is not possible to use pixel shift in connection with flash.

As is common nowadays there is no AA filter in front of the sensor. The K-1 has the inherited the sensor-shift AA filter simulator introduced with the K-3 as well as options to remove moire in-camera from JPGs.

A more detailed analysis of the K-1's image quality will follow in our first impressions review of the production model.

Performance

While out shooting, no aspect of the K-1 ever slowed us down.  The camera was quick to start up, save files, and read photos from the card.  We did not have a chance to test the K-1's burst mode in the field, though the image buffer is much larger than that found in previous Pentax DSLRs: up to 70 JPEG frames at 4.4 FPS in full-frame mode, or 50 RAW frames at 6.5 FPS in APS-C mode.

Buttons and Dials

A number of fundamental design changes have been made to the K-1's user interface.

The Third Command Wheel

One immediately notices the third command wheel on the top of the camera and the related "Smart Dial" which determines the function that can be controlled by the third wheel. The functions that can be controlled are:

  • Exposure compensation
  • ISO
  • Burst speed (low, medium, high)
  • Bracketing
  • HDR (off, Auto, 1, 2, 3, Adv)
  • Viewfinder grid (off, on)
  • Shake reduction on/off
  • Crop (auto, on, off)
  • Wi-Fi (off, on)

These functions can also be set using the traditional control panel which is brought up by pressing the INFO button, entering the menu system, or, in the case of ISO and exposure compensation, by pressing the appropriate button and turning the rear command wheel.

We see this new feature as a convenient shortcut to access and change your most frequently used functions, but the major benefit in our opinion is in controlling ISO, in particular for manual exposure mode shooters.  Thanks to the third command wheel, you can now set shutter speed, aperture, and ISO with each a dedicated wheel.

The bracketing setting only controls the EV value between the brackets. It cannot control the number of shots in each set. For that you must use the drive mode menu as usual. We had hoped that both parameters could be set, in other words it would be nice to get back the convenience of a dedicated bracketing button like on the K10D.

The rear monitor is where you can see the value being set for all of the features:

Status screen showing the crop mode set with the smart dial

For most of the functions the viewfinder will also show the setting being made (exposure comp, ISO, bracketing, grid, shake reduction, and crop). The top LCD can only show the ISO and EV compensation.

It should be noted that if you have set the rear monitor to always off in shooting mode then it will stay off even when the third command wheel is used. We think it would have been preferable if the user could select whether or not the rear monitor should come on when the third wheel is moved, but that's a minor gripe.

One side-effect of the addition of the third command wheel is that the size of the top LCD has been reduced.  The top LCD is somewhat harder to read, and it can no longer indicate the active parameter in Hyper Program mode.

Switching to Movie Mode

The K-1 has a lever on the top plate that switches between still photography and movie mode. While in movie mode, the exposure mode (P, M, Av, Tv, TAv) is set with the mode dial rather than via the menu.  This change was originally made in the Pentax K-S2 and leads to quicker operation compared to the K-3's menu setting.

Still/Movie Mode LeverMovie mode switch

In terms of framerates, the K-1 supports 60, 50i, 30p, 25p, and 24p at full HD (1080), and 60p and 50p at HD (720).  We don't know why slower framerates at 720 resolution have been omitted.

Play and Live View Buttons

If you intend to use the K-1 alongside another high-end Pentax like the K-3 or K-5, it may take some acclimation.  While the general button layout is similar, a number of noticeable changes have been made: the Play button is now on the right side of the camera, just above the 4-way pad. The Live View has taken the Play button's old place near the left edge of the camera. We would have preferred that Live View be engaged through a third position on the still/movie lever and that the play button would have been placed like on the K-3. Admittedly, there is a benefit to the new placement of the play button when you have a heavy lens mounted like the 15-30 mm: it is possible to shift to Play mode with the right hand thumb while leaving the left hand supporting the heavy lens.  Regardless, future K-1 owners who are also users of existing flagship models will need to get accustomed to this change.

Four Way Controller

Rather than always controlling the flash mode, the down button in the four way pad is now customizable. By default, it controls a very useful new feature, namely the brightness of the rear monitor.  If you find yourself outside in bright light and can't see what's on the screen, it is now easy to quickly boost the brightness without having to go into a menu (which you can't see in the strong light!). Just click the down button and then the right button once or twice.

You can dim the screen for night photography by hitting the left button.  Just keep in mind that the altered brightness can be misleading; it can make photos look over- or under-exposed.  Be sure to reset the lighting setting once you leave harsh lighting.  Note that this setting is unrelated to the monitor brightness setting in the screen customization menu; it is specifically designed to compensate for outdoor conditions.

The Rear Monitor

This is probably the most striking new feature. Thanks to some mechanical ingenuity the monitor can not only be flipped up and down like on the 645Z, but also moved to the sides, which comes in handy when shooting verticals.  Four titanium bolts hold the monitor in place; they are in fact strong enough to suspend the weight of both the camera and a lens.  If you thought the K-3 was built line a tank, wait until you pick up a K-1!

Cleverly, four LED lights have been placed on the back of the monitor. When the monitor is pulled out, these LEDs illuminate not only the rear controls, but also the SD card compartment and the I/O connectors.

Four LEDs are mounted on the back side of the screen

There is also a LED that illuminates the lens mount. It as well as the other lights can be are turned on by pressing a dedicated button on the top plate. This button continues to work when the camera is otherwise turned off.

Lens mount illumination

The placement of these LEDs shows Pentax's commitment to user-friendliness.  Thanks to them, shooting outdoors in low light can be a much more comfortable experience.

Customizable Control Panel

The control panel is the screen that comes up when you press the INFO key. This panel is now customizable in that you can select which features appear on the screen. This is a great improvement over previous cameras. It should also be noted that some settings can be made with fewer pushes of buttons, such as bracketing.

K-1 control panel customization

In addition to supporting customization, the K-1 also adds a number of new options to the control panel.  New settings that can be added to this screen include Shake Reduction focal length, wi-fi, and viewfinder grid, among many others.   The handy SR focal length setting will make shooting with manual focus zoom lenses much more convenient.

Handling With the New Lenses

The new F2.8 zoom lenses are all quite hefty and require that you keep a solid grip on the lens barrel with your left hand. Perhaps this is the reason that the Play button moved to be within reach of oyur right hand thumb. It makes it possible to review images without letting go of the firm hold of the lens.

On the other hand, the new D FA 28-105mm F3.5-5.6 lens is surprisingly light and compact and a real joy to use on the K-1. It is weather sealed and feels quite sturdy, despite the low price tag. Size-wise, it is close to the DA 18-135mm lens and it makes for an almost ideal full frame travel lens and at a very reasonable price point ($499). Our recommendation that no K-1 buyer should overlook this lens.  In terms of image quality, our impression is that the lens is both sharp and contrasty, though vignetting corrections are advisable at wide and telephoto zoom settings.

The thumb rest on the back of the camera feels comfortable and provides plenty of friction.  The main grip is plenty big, but we feel it could be made a few millimeters deeper to afford the user a more decisive grasp of the camera.

Viewfinder and Autofocus

Pentax engineers have overhauled the K-1's viewfinder with a customizable LCD overlay.  Thanks this this, multiple AF points can be illuminated simultaneously, and virtually all components can be individually toggled on or off. Learn more about the viewfinder customization in our in-depth K-1 viewfinder tool.

Pentax K-1 viewfinder (illuminated) with grid, electronic level, AF area, and APS-C crop indicator

The viewfinder overlay allows to user to get a better sense of how the AF behaves in multi-point mode (i.e. A-33 and A-9).  The increased point count (33) also enables more reliable tracking. In these areas, the K-1's SAFOX 12 AF thus feels like an improvement over the 27-point SAFOX 11 system found in the K-3 and K-3 II.  As it's possible that the K-1's autofocus will receive additional tweaks prior to the final firmware, we'll refrain from further analysis at this time.

SAFOX 12 still falls short of the latest and greatest phase detection AF systems in the industry, some of which now have more than 100 points and sensitivity as low as -4 EV.  Still, it's without a doubt the best AF system currently found in a Pentax DSLR, and it's an improvement over the previous generation.  We had no problems with AF speed or accuracy while out in the field with our K-1.

Conclusion

The K-1's many new yet seemingly-minor features add up to make the camera among the most user-friendly Pentax DSLRs launched to date.  In particular, with its on-board GPS, astrotracer, and external LED lighting, camera is especially well suited for astrophotography.  When we consider this alongside the impressive image quality, in-body stabilization, super resolution, hardware moire suppression, and superb lens compatibility, the K-1 shapes up to be a truly formidable camera with unprecedented versatility and performance for a K-mount DSLR.  All this at a $1799 price tag results in nothing short of a slam-dunk product which is only limited by a relatively small third-party lens and accessory selection.

There isn't really another DSLR equivalent to the K-1 on the market today.  Cameras like the Nikon D810 or Canon 5D IV are similar in terms of specifications, but at the end of the day each manufacturer brings its own set of unique strengths and weaknesses to the table.

Despite being a great value for what it offers, the K-1 is still both larger and more costly than APS-C bodies.  If you're still trying to decide whether the K-1 is right for you, consider whether you can justify the jump in price and weight by the camera's increased image quality and new features.  For example, if you frequently shoot in low light or mainly shoot landscapes or portraits, switching to full frame might be a good idea.  On the other hand, if you travel frequently or mainly shoot telephoto, sticking with APS-C might make more sense.  For advice from the community, feel free to stop by the K-1 forum and post a question.


Learn more about the Pentax K-1:

The Pentax K-1 is available for $1796.95 in the US.  Follow these links to pre-order the K-1 and support the forum:

Don't miss the pre-order giveaway if you do place an order for the K-1.

All photos and screenshots found in this article are copyright 2016 PentaxForums.com; publication elsewhere prohibited without prior written permission.

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