Pentax K-S1 Review
Construction and Handling
Pentax DSLRs have become well known for fantastic ergonomics and user-friendliness in recent years. Ever since the debut of the Pentax K-7 back in 2009, Pentax users have been spoiled by deep, comfortable grips and convenient button layouts. Even recent entry-level cameras such as the K-50 feature dual control wheels and weather sealing, something that no competing brand can match within its price class.
Black Pentax K-S1 with 18-135mm Lens
Unlike other current Pentax cameras, the K-S1 trades in that legendary handling and weather-sealing for good looks and compactness. We must admit that even the standard black version of the K-S1 (pictured above) looks elegant. The more interesting color options, such as white/grey and blue/black, are even more appealing. Whether or not users will actually value this is a separate topic which we will save for the last page of our review.
Loaded and ready, the K-S1 weighs in at just 558 grams, or about 15% less than the K-50. This makes it the lightest Pentax DSLR ever made. Even with its mirror and pentaprism viewfinder, it weighs about the same as the Pentax K-01! But it still doesn't strip the 450-gram Canon SL-1 of its title as the lightest DSLR on the market.
While the K-S1 may be heavier than the S-L1, the two cameras have nearly identical dimensions: 4.8 x 3.7 x 2.8" / 12.2 x 9.4 x 7.1 cm for the Pentax vs 4.6 x 3.6 x 2.7" / 11.7 x 9.1 x 6.9 cm for the Canon. When the K-S1 is paired with one of Pentax's tiny Limited lenses it'll be neck-and-neck with the SL-1 for overall compactness.
Blue Pentax K-S1 with FA 43mm F1.9 Limited Lens
So, what price does one have to pay to enjoy this degree of portability? Since Pentax has reduced the size of the K-S1's body considerably compared its other DSLRs, the first thing you will notice is that the K-S1 is rather uncomfortable to hold. Unless you have very small hands, the camera's grip is simply too small. Even though the K-S1 is light for a DSLR, it's not light enough to get away with such a small grip. Not only do your fingers struggle to find a place to rest around the front of the body, but right side of the grip is simply too narrow to evenly distribute the weight of the entire camera across the palm of your hand. The heavier your lens, the less comfortable the combo will be to hold, and the quicker your hand will get tired. The difference between the K-S1 with an 18-55mm (200g) and an 18-135mm (400g) is like night and day; holding the latter for extended periods of time can become very taxing.
Fortunately, there's one thing you can do to carry the K-S1 comfortably in between shots. We discovered that when using the K-S1 with a wrist strap, it's much more comfortable to hook your fingers around the edge of the grip and let the camera rest against your fingers rather than trying to maintain a firm grip at all times.
The photo below illustrates this technique; it also shows the gap between the right side of the camera and the palm of your hand, which is the key culprit to blame for the poor ergonomics.
K-S1 with Wrist Strap
Other design changes in the K-S1 give rise to a host of minor annoyances. As you may have noticed in the photos at the top of this page, the SD card slot is not located on either side of the camera. Instead, the memory card is housed together with the battery, which is inserted into the bottom of the camera. At first, this looks like a clever way to remove clutter and make the camera's design more elegant.
Pentax K-S1 Battery/SD Door
But what if you want to put your camera on a tripod? Not only does this make it more difficult to remove the SD card, but it's actually possible for the tripod mount to prevent the battery door from opening. We were lucky enough that our Manfrotto tripod plate still allowed the door to deflect to about 90 degrees, but your mileage may vary.
This tripod plate still allows the battery/card to be accessed
The AF/MF switch was also redesigned on the K-S1. It's been moved closer to the edge of the body and enlarged. The result? It's extremely easy to accidentally put the camera in MF mode while shooting verticals. So easy, in fact, that it will likely happen every time unless you take extra care to avoid it.
K-S1 Side View w/ Large AF Switch
The close-up photo below better illustrates just how close the switch is to the edge of the camera. Pentax has taken a step backwards with this design, as on other bodies like the K-50, K-5, and K-3, the switch is recessed and angled to minimize the risk of accidental toggling.
AF Switch Detail
When it comes to the button layout, the K-S1 features one key change compared to traditional DSLRs: its mode dial has been moved to the back of the camera, and it now surrounds the 4-way controller. While initial user reactions criticized this change, it is actually somewhat clever to have the mode dial placed there rather than on top. It allows the mode to be changed with a single hand and makes it easier for the user to always know what the current mode is set to. The switch has fortunately been designed in such a way that it is almost impossible to turn it unintentionally, and it requires moderate effort to turn.
Another change is that the movie mode has finally been removed from the mode dial and is instead accessed via the power switch. While not as convenient as a single button to start video recording on demand, at least it makes the video mode trivial to access.
Sadly, Pentax forgot to include a second e-dial (control wheel) on the K-S1. This doesn't make sense on a camera that's designed to be user-friendly, as a second control wheel allows for extensive customization and flexibility.
New Mode Dial Layout
The remainder of the button layout mimics that of the Pentax K-50, and thus it inherits a flaw which we've brought up in the past: the isolated positioning of the Live View button that prevents it from being accessed during single-handed shooting. If the LV button were swapped with the Menu button (which is rarely pressed due to the presence of the control panel and info screen), this problem could be solved for good. Again, having the Live View button out of reach makes no sense in a camera that's designed for modern users who will probably use live view more frequently than the optical viewfinder.
The good news is that for the most part, the remaining camera functionality is easy to access, and this is supplemented by an improved interface that we will be discussing on the next page.
Back at Photokina 2014, Ricoh Imaging representatives flaunted the fact that the K-S1 was designed to feel like a premium product inside and out. While there is certainly some truth to that statement, we cannot consider the K-S1 to be the iPhone of the camera world. Apart from the machined metal e-dial, the remainder of the controls and body is made of plastic. The camera does feel solid and well-built in your hands, and there is no flimsiness to be found, but upon closer examination, there are just too many visible seams and screws for a product that's meant to impress.
The built-in flash features a mechanical release lever, which means it will never fire unless manually opened by the user. This is a good thing, as it may save you from some unpleasant surprises.
Ports and Connectivity
The K-S1 houses a micro HDMI and USB port beneath a flap just to the right of the mode dial. The former can be used to mirror the camera's display (live view feed or playback mode) on an external monitor.
On the front of the camera, you'll find an IR port compatible with the Remote Control F. There is no IR port on the back of the the camera.
The K-S1 also supports wireless tethering (remote image capture, live view, and download) via the O-FC1 FluCard accessory, which we have reviewed separately. We would have preferred to see built-in Wi-Fi, mainly for a longer working range, but also because the O-FC1 is a rather slow memory card.
Finally, the camera also offers native support of Eye-Fi cards.
Viewfinder and LCD
This is one area in which the K-S1 truly shines. The optical viewfinder offers 100% frame coverage and 0.95x magnification: you won't find a bigger one in any other APS-C camera. The 3.0" 921k-dot LCD screen (same resolution as most high-end DSLRs) now has an aspect ratio of 3:2, which allows the entire screen to be used to display the image during live view and playback.
The K-S1 is decorated with a host of colorful LED lights in the OK button, around mode dial, on the on/off switch, and around the grip. With the exception of the mode dial illumination, we find these lights to be rather gimmicky. The ring around the On/Off switch glows green when the camera is on, and it turns red when video mode is selected. The lights along the grip can be used to display a self-timer countdown or the number of faces that have been detected in live view. Users who care for the K-S1's appearance may enjoy the lights, while others may not give the K-S1 any serious consideration as a result.
If the K-S1 hadn't made compromises in the other areas we've touched on thus far, our outlook on the LED lights would be much different. In its current state, all the lights make the camera look like a toy to potential customers new to Pentax. The lights can be dimmed, disabled, and customized via the menu (see the next page for details).
One last thing worth mentioning is that whether you half-press the shutter button to focus, the mode dial and OK button LEDs go out, likely to divert all power to the AF motor. The resulting flashing is mildly annoying.
Click on any thumbnail for a larger image.
The K-S1 is among the most compact DSLRs currently on the market, and it certainly looks unique. It excels in certain areas, such as the viewfinder, which is best-in-class. Unfortunately, the camera doesn't deliver many of the features of that Pentax users have come to expect, such as weather sealing, dual control wheels, or good ergonomics. The camera body is simply too small for most users to hold it comfortably. The new mode dial location works, but it's a shame that other usability issues haven't been addressed, such as the inconvenient positioning of the live view button that that hampers 1-handed operation.
While the camera feels solid and is by no means flimsy, it fails to sell itself as a premium product. With all its LED lights and decorative facets, it gives the impression of a toy more than anything else. This is unfortunate, because the camera's performance proves that it's quite the opposite of a toy!