Pentax Q7: Hands-On First Impressions

Preliminary evaluation and sample photos

By PF Staff in Hands-On Tests on Jun 25, 2013
Pentax Q7: Hands-On First Impressions

Over the course of the past week, we have had the pleasure of testing out the new Pentax Q7 camera along with the "02" 5-15mm zoom kit lens.  The Q7 is the latest member of the ultra-compact Pentax Q-mount mirrorless system.

We suspect that even if you frequent our site, you may be unfamiliar with the Q system, as to date it has not had a very big following outside of Japan.  Therefore, we would like to offer some background information about the Pentax Q7 and its predecessors before presenting our first impressions of the new camera (if you want to skip ahead to our evaluation of the Q7, scroll down or click on the "read more" link).

In the fall of 2011, Pentax introduced the first Q-series model: the Pentax Q.  At just 180 grams and measuring less than 10 x 6 x 3cm, the Q was marketed as the most portable interchangeable lens digital camera ever made.  The body itself is most likely smaller than the palm of your hand. Five dedicated lenses were introduced alongside this camera: a standard prime lens, a standard zoom lens, a fisheye lens, and two "toy lenses" (lean more about them in our lens database).

Despite its small size, the Pentax Q came loaded with advanced features, such as RAW image recording, manual video controls, and the traditional P/A/S/M shooting modes in addition to full auto and scene modes.  At its heart was a 12.4 megapixel point-and-shoot sized sensor (1/2.3") complete with a mechanical image stabilization system.

Pentax Q (original)The original Pentax Q

With its tiny and "qute" appearance, the Q seemed like something that both enthusiast and amateur photographers could easily fall in love with.  One small detail got in the way, however: the camera's relatively-high launch price of $799 made it more expensive than most entry-level DSLRs and many competing mirrorless cameras.  Furthermore, the Q's small sensor meant that it could not outperform other 1" or micro four-thirds mirrorless cameras in terms of image quality, and so very few people saw it as a compelling alternative.  Even the Pentax K-01, with its APS-C sensor, was $50 cheaper than the Q at launch.

Pentax dropped the price of the Q to $749 in early 2012, and later that year, its successor, the Q10, was announced at an even lower price point of $599.  This in turn pushed the price of the original Q as low as $249, and at this clearance price, many of our forum users finally decided to add it to their bags.  The Pentax Q section on our forum has since then outgrown both the K-30 and K-r DSLR sub-forums.

Pentax Q10
Pentax Q10 with silver 5-15mm kit lens

Anyway, let's get back to discussing the Q10.  In terms of specifications, it does not differ much from its predecessor.  In fact, it has the same sensor, LCD screen, and button layout.  The only major change was the addition of focus peaking and other firmware-based enhancements, such as improved AF and a slower minimum shutter speed for lenses without a leaf shutter (most of these features were later brought to the Q via a firmware update).  In addition, Pentax changed the external design of the camera; they also decided to use plastic rather than magnesium alloy for the body.  While enthusiasts frown upon this change, without it, it would not have been possible for Pentax to produce the Q10 is so many exotic color combinations.

In the fall of 2012, a sixth lens joined the Pentax Q lineup: the 15-45mm telephoto zoom.  It was accompanied by an adapter for K-mount DSLR lenses.

Pentax Q7
Pentax Q7 with yellow 5-15mm kit lens

Now that we've covered the history of the Pentax Q system, we can finally get to the meat of this article: our hands-on first impressions of the brand new Q7, which was announced just over a week ago.  We believe that the Q7 represents a key milestone for Pentax Q system, as it is the first Q-series camera to feature a larger sensor.  The Q7's 1/1.7" chip is approximately 50% larger in terms of area compared to the 1/2.3" unit found in the Q and Q10.  While this isn't a huge difference by any stretch of the imagination, it still means that the Q7 should be capable of producing clearer images with less noise and more detail at high sensitivity settings.  While the Q7 shares the same body and basic features as the Q10, Pentax have added native eye-fi compatibility and improved the autofocus system.

When we first reviewed the Q, we were unfortunately not impressed by its image quality.  Pentax did a good job of squeezing as much performance as possible out of its 1/2.3" sensor, but at the end of the day, the Q's files were still noisy and lacking in detail, even at the lowest ISO setting.  Will this change with the Q7?  Read on to find out!

Image Quality

The Q7's larger sensor affects more than just raw image detail.  It will also make the 01, 02, 06, and 07 Q-mount lenses deliver a wider field of view* and have a narrower depth of field at wide aperture settings, meaning that you'll be able to get slightly better bokeh than with the Q/Q10.

One unfortunate side effect of this is that barrel distortion from wide lenses such as the 5-15mm zoom will become more noticeable, and with the 5-15mm lens, it is actually quite severe.

Here is a sample photo showing the kind of bokeh that you can expect from the 5-15mm lens.  With the 01 standard prime, you should be able to get even better results similar to what we got with the Ricoh GRD IV.  You still won't be able to blur backgrounds nearly as easily as with a DSLR, but a slight improvement is certainly better than no improvement at all.

Pentax Q7 - Bokeh Example

While we have not yet been able to compare the Q7 directly to its predecessors (we will do so in our in-depth review), our initial impression is that the Q7 delivers noticeably better image quality at its lowest ISO setting.  Furthermore, it produces respectable results up to ISO 800.  Beyond that, noise quickly starts overwhelming the image.  The Q7's output seems to be very similar to that of the Pentax MX-1, which likely uses the same sensor.

The photo below, shot in bright daylight, shows that the Q7's sensor has a decent dynamic range.  Detail in the trees is also plentiful.  We corrected shadows and highlights were corrected using the RAW file.

Pentax Q7 - Daytime sample

The Q7 also had little trouble capturing this bright yellow flower, which can normally be challenging to photograph properly due to the prominence of highlights.

Pentax Q7- Yellow Flower

What about low-light photography?  Unfortunately, this is an entirely different story.  If you're looking to shoot hand-held night photos, you will generally need to use ISO 3200 or higher, even with a stabilized camera/lens.  At such a high sensitivity, there is so much noise that it is difficult to even generate web-sized images from the Q7.  The sample below was shot hand-held at 1/5s and wide-open at ISO 3200.

Pentax Q7 Low-Light Sample

Another fairly significant issue is ghosting and flare.  The 5-15mm lens does not come with a hood (one can be purchased separately), and unfortunately, any strong or nearby light source will produce significant lens flare and/or ghosting at night.  The ghosting in the photo below is about as mild as it will get. A barrel distortion correction of +15 (in Photoshop) was also necessary.

Pentax Q7 Low-Light Sample 2

Despite these issues, the Q7 is certainly an improvement over the Q/Q10, and we're happy to see that the Q system is finally moving forward in this respect.

*the Pentax 03, 04, and 05 lenses do not support the Q7's larger sensor.  These lenses will automatically be used in a crop mode on the Q7.  With adapted DSLR lenses, the crop factor has changed to 4.5x, down from 5.6x.

Build Quality and Handling

The Q7 (like the Q10) is made mostly of plastic, but despite this, it feels exceptionally stury and well-built, so we have no complaints.  The grip has an elegant faux leather finish. The only issue we found was that the color of the lens differs slightly from that of the camera, as does the color of the inside of the battery/sd card doors compared to the exterior finish.  This may vary depending on which of the 120 different color combinations you pick up, but overall, the Q7 feels just as durable as the Q.

While most of its buttons are very small and at time hard to press, the camera is generally easy to handle and certainly never a burden in terms of size.  Point-and-shoot users considering this camera should note that it does not feature powered zooming, so two-handed operation will normally be required.  Also, depending on how you hold the camera, it may be difficult to turn the control dial at times.

Pentax Q7 - LCD

On the back of the Q7 you will find a large 3" LCD screen, though its resolution (460k dots) is just half of what you'd find on a Pentax DSLR.  Its anti-reflective coating makes it fairly easy to see outdoors.

Autofocus

The Q7 offers the same basic AF modes as the Q and Q10.  However, the AF has been improved to display exactly where the AF has locked on within the selected AF area (in 1-25 zones, depending on how big you make the AF area).  Its predecessors would only indicate whether or not focus has been locked anywhere within the selected AF area.

We have no complaints about the speed of the AF system for general use, and it even worked reliably in low light (though at reduced speed).  It struggled when we went to photograph close-up flowers, however, so for that purpose we had to resort to manual focus.

The photo below shows how the new AF system works.  The detailed AF confirmation, similar to what's found on the Ricoh GR/GXR/GRD cameras, makes it a lot easier to verify that the camera has focused correctly.

Pentax Q7 Autofocus

While the Q7 does offer focus peaking, its low-resolution display makes it hard to discern what's in focus at times.

Features

A detailed description of the Q7's features will be included in our in-depth review.  We were only able to find two new things, the first of which is native support for Eye-fi wireless SD cards:

Native Eye-Fi Support

Second, it looks like the live view display layout has been improved slightly.  Pentax have added a border around the electronic level display and enlarged it so that it is easier to spot and read.

Pentax Q7 - Live view

Performance

Overall, we are satisfied with the Q7's performance, as over course of the past few days we experienced no stability or speed issues when shooting in RAW+ mode. If anything, the performance has been improved in areas such as card writing speed and shutter lag, but we will need to verify this through a comparative review.

Unboxing

Here's an unboxing video of the Pentax Q7.

The Bottom Line

We haven't yet mentioned the best thing about the Q7: its price.  At just $479 for the body only (this is the first time a Q body is being sold without a lens in the US) or $499 for the 5-15mm zoom kit, it is the cheapest Q-series camera to date, yet also the most advanced.  This means that for fans of the Q system, the Q7 could be a great replacement for (or a compainion to) the Q or Q10.  The new lower pricing will also make the Q7 appeal to more consumers, something that the Q lineup desperately needs, at least outside of Japan.

As far as colors go, while the black and silver bodies certainly look the most traditional, we've come to like the black-and-yellow body a lot more.  A unique camera deserves a unique look- and we think this is about the best color combination that we've seen to date in a Pentax.

The Q7 is without a doubt our favorite Q-series camera to date, for as we've already mentioned, it brings the much-needed image quality improvement to the Pentax Q lineup.  We are sure that it will serve enthusiasts and casual users well as an ultra-portable yet versatile premium compact camera.  With that said, the Q7, like its predecessors, is no replacement for a DSLR, nor will it ever be.  It is important to understand that sacrifices must be made when designing a camera this small.  It you are looking for noise-free images or something that can be used for action photography or large prints, the Q7 likely isn't for you.  But if you're looking for a fun camera that will always be there when you need it, or a camera to complement your DSLR, then look no further than the Pentax Q system.  Don't forget that the fact that DSLR lenses can be adapted to Q-mount cameras allows them to capture impressive telephoto imagery.

Convinced about the Q7?  Pre-orders yours at B&H and get it in July!

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