The Pentax K1: Fantastic Feature-Filled Full Frame

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday March 16, 2017

In brief: Street testing the Pentax K1 36.4mp full-frame camera and the HD PENTAX-D FA 28-105mm lens.

These shots of a marina in fog just after dawn are from my very first day of shooting with the Pentax K1. From the moment I started to shoot with the camera I found that I loved the way that it felt in my hands. I purposely shot the first few days without looking at the manual just to see how much I could figure out on my own. It took me a while to locate all of the basic controls but once I got to know where everything was, I found them very conveniently and thoughtfully placed. I'm used to shooting with smaller-sensor cameras and when I saw these full-frame files pop up on my monitor, I was hooked on both the camera and on full frame files. Compared to smaller sensors, the clarity of a full-frame file just jumps off the screen, it reminds me of looking at a large-format transparency on a lightbox. I still have a lot of respect for the APS-C format, but given the option, I'm pretty sure I'd go with full frame. Both shots were exposed for 1/80 second at f/10, ISO 1600. The metering system handled the exposures beautifully--not something all cameras do that well in thick fog.


Name: Pentax K1
Image sensor: Primary color filter, CMOS. Size: 35.9 x 24.0 (mm)
Megapixels: 36.40 (effective); 36.77 (total)
Compatible lens mounts: KAF3, KAF2, KAF, KA
Weight: 1010g (with battery and SD card); 925g (body only)
Sensitivity range: ISO AUTO/100 to 204800 (EV steps can be set to 1EV, 1/2EV or 1/3EV)
Image stabilizer: Sensor-shift shake reduction (SR II : Shake Reduction)(5-axis)
Viewfinder coverage: Approx. 100%
LCD viewfinder: 3.2 inch (aspect ratio 3:2)
Full specs: Here

Name: Pentax HD PENTAX-D FA 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 ED DC WR
Maximum aperture: F3.5-5.6
Minimum aperture: F22-38
Lens construction: 15 elements / 11 groups
Filter size: 62mm
Weight: approx. 440g / with hood approx. 463g(approx. 15.5oz./ with hood approx. 16.3oz.)
Full specs: Here

There's nothing like wandering around in the woods on a foggy morning. This was also shot on my first day with the K1. I let the camera set the white balance for this and I only tweaked it a tiny amount in the RAW conversion. I was shooting both RAW and jpeg simultaneously and storing them to the same card, by the way, but I could have saved the two formats to separate cards if I chose (or I could have simultaneously saved both formats to two separate cards) because the K1 has two card slots and gives you the option of storing different files types to separate cards. Having two card slots and recording to two cards is a real lifeline in case one of your cards happens to fail. Cards failing is pretty rare, but it does happen. Exposed at 1/200 second at f/10, IS0 1600, handheld.

This is Not Your Father’s Pentax

When I first posted on Facebook that I was going to be testing the Pentax K1 there was an outburst of nostalgia from those friends who grew up with the very legendary Pentax K-1000 35mm camera. It seems there is hardly a photographer of a certain age (the camera first came out in 1976 if that helps you guess that age) that didn’t own a K-1000. The K-1000 was an affordable bare-bones rock of a camera that was still being manufactured well into the 1990s and sold over three million units. It was a simple, affordable and dependable (and very mechanical) camera that was the first serious camera for a lot of photographers. Mine is still sitting on a shelf, in pristine condition, in my office.

Today there are also a lot photographers that remain particularly loyal to the Pentax brand. While I was writing my travel column at the (sadly) now defunct Popular Photography, for example, I interviewed the great outdoor shooter Kerrick James several times who often shared his passion for the Pentax 645Z medium format digital SLR camera (51.4mp) and other Pentax cameras. While they may not enjoy the huge audience that a few other camera companies do today, Pentax has always had an intensely loyal core following. There’s a very interesting history of Pentax cameras here.

I think that the long history of and ongoing respect for Pentax cameras is why there was such a groundswell of interest last year when Ricoh (who bought Pentax in 2011) announced their first full-frame digital camera, the K1. With a comparatively low retail price of $1799 (approximately half of what the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV sells for), it has made a very big splash in the digital-camera world and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it—and I’m going to tell you right now, I’m in love with this camera. Bigly.

I wanted to test the low-light and high ISO capabilities of the K1 in a challenging location and so one of the places that I took it is to my favorite library: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. The books and manuscripts are displayed in a spectacular five-story (plus a few stories below the main floor) rectangular glass tower that is just a rare-book lover's ultimate dream. They lights are kept relatively low to preserve the books and so shooting in there is a challenge. Both shots were exposed at 1/60 second at f/8, ISO 12,800, handheld.

…But This Might Be Your Pentax

The Pentax K1 is a full-frame DSLR with a 34.6mp sensor. The LCD is articulated, but it uses its own one-of-a-kind hinging system. A lot of features on this camera are uniquely Pentax.

One of the things that I love about this camera is that Ricoh was not afraid to give it a singular personality all its own. The camera has some design features and controls that have a definite rebel quality to them and I like that. In fact, it’s one of the things that made me bond with this camera immediately. The very first thing that I shot with the K1 was the foggy harbor at dawn shown above and I found that I had an instant kinship for the way that it felt in my hands as I shot. The K1 feels more like a traditional SLR than any of the other DSLRs that I’ve handled and yet it has some very cool and innovative features. It's rare that you find design ideas that make you think, “Wow, what a great idea!” and yet I have found myself saying that many times as I got to know this camera. For instance, being able to just press one button to change the ISO without taking my eye from the viewfinder is great. Here are some more of things I like about the K1:

Let’s start with the body. For one, this is a very rugged-feeling body. There is nothing about this camera that says, “treat me gently.” The K1 was designed to be what it is: a hard-brawling professional workhorse. The body is completely weather sealed and while I wouldn’t do it (particularly since I’m using a loaner), apparently you can pretty much take it into the shower with you and it will be no worse for the wear. If you doubt that, check out this video from a French photographer. Mud bath, anyone?

Ergonomically speaking, the K1 is a very comfortable body to use. The grip is large enough to put your hand around (even with gloves) and almost all controls can be operated (once you figure out where they all are and that takes some time) without pulling your face away from the viewfinder. Speaking of the viewfinder the pentaprism finder offers 100-percent accuracy and an articulated 3.2” LCD screen. The LCD screen (brilliant in clarity, by the way) is not articulated in the way that you might be used to, on a multi-angle pivot, but rather on an odd-looking contraption of little spider legs called a ”Cross-Tilt” mechanism. The system works pretty well but it has some limitations, including the fact that you can't face it forward (for v-blogging or selfies, for instance) and you can’t turn it all the way in to protect the LCD. I’ve no idea why Pentax chose this route for articulation, but it is surely one of the things that sets the K1 apart.

Walking around the Yale campus is always full of strange little surprises and it's especially fun for me with a new camera in my hands. One of the nice things about the K1 is that you don't have to dive into menus very often to make changes to things like ISO or white balance; almost all basic functions can be adjusted on the fly via buttons and dials, but fair warning--it takes a bit of time with the manual to uncover all of the various combinations of settings available. I found these two characters hanging out on the facade of the Yale Law School--where else? Both were exposed at 1/125 second at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld in very late afternoon light.

Five-axis stabilization. As I mentioned above the K1 also has five-axis (in the body) image stabilization. Rather than put the stabilization in the lenses (which makes the lenses heavier, more complex and more costly), Pentax opted to use a moving sensor: as the body moves around, the sensor moves to compensate and eliminate camera shake. One of the advantages of this type of stabilization, of course, is that the camera can stabilize your images even with lenses that have no built-in stabilization (like legacy Pentax K-mount lenses).

Impressively, the camera can provide up to five stops (rated by CIPA standard testing) of stabilization. Another very interesting feature that the stabilization provides is that the camera has built-in horizon leveling and automatically knows when the horizon is crooked (there’s a horizon level option in the viewfinder, too) and corrects it. Wild? In addition, the K1 has a feature called Astrotracer that corrects for the Earth’s rotation when you are shooting long exposures of the stars. I’ve never heard of that feature in any other camera.

Pixel-shift resolution. The K1 also has another amazing option that is related to the moving sensor: a feature called pixel shift resolution. When this option is turned on, the camera creates a higher level of resolution and better color resolution by taking four separate images with the sensor shifted by one pixel for each exposure. This shifting technology thereby exposes each of the pixels to the full RGB spectrum. Those four frames are then merged into one. The camera has to be on a tripod to use this feature and you are pretty much limited to stationary subjects, but it absolutely enhances sharpness. Pentax offers a proprietary software called SilkyPix that helps you get the best results from the pixel-shift feature.

Buttons galore that will save you a ton of time. One thing that you notice right away is that the K1 is loaded with all sorts of button options. While this plethora of things to push might seem like overkill at first, in reality the buttons are beautifully thought out and they allow you to quickly control the operation of the camera without having to flip through endless menus. In the first few days that I was using the camera I kept looking to the menus for things like white balance and ISO when, in fact there are simple and obvious buttons for controlling them. Anything that eliminates scrolling through menus is OK with me.

One of the rarest finds in Yale's Beinecke Library is this complete Gutenberg Bible--one of only 49 in the world. The book is pretty difficult to photograph because not only is it behind thick glass, but it's very dimly lit, to prevent fading. The light goes on only when you approach and stays on only for a limited time. I shot this at ISO 12,800 and exposed it at 1/40 second at f/8, handheld. To be honest, I thought that in some of the shots at ISO 12,800 i was seeing more noise than I liked, but oddly, only in the bible shots. The shots of the book tower were shot at the same ISO and showed very little noise--it was a mystery I didn't resolve. It may have had something to do with the glass that I was shooting through.

Quick-control mode dials. And speaking of faster operation, here is another very cool thing: the camera has two mode dials on top that let you reach even further into menu-less operation. The main mode dial on the upper left (you can lock it with a tiny switch) has the standard exposure options (shutter priority, aperture priority, program, manual, bulb, etc.) but it also has five user-programmable options (U1, U2, U3, etc.) that you can use to call up various combinations of customized exposure settings. You can, for example, dedicate U1 to call up the customization settings that you’ve set for sports or action photography (high shutter speeds, auto white balance and auto ISO, for instance) and then use option U2 to call up custom settings that you have programmed for landscape photography. The “U” settings are kind of like macros for quickly switching from one subject set up to another. If, for instance, you and your spouse like to shoot with different customized settings, you can leave them programmed and then just call up your channel. Fantastic. Wow, do I love that feature.

The second mode dial, on the top right of the body, is called the “multi-function” dial and it is kind of like a mechanical version of a quick menu. This dial works in conjunction with a third control dial (also on top of the body and conveniently placed to rotate with your thumb) and by using the two together provide you very fast access to things like exposure compensation, bracketing, HDR, a grid pattern, wi-fi and other options. I tried to figure this system out on my own, but it was so different that I eventually went onto Youtube and found a great K1 tutorial by Tony Northrup that I highly recommend watching. By setting the multi-function dial to +/-, for instance, I could then use the third command dial to set the exposure compensation while barely pulling my eye away from the viewfinder.

One of the great things about the high ISO ranges in many digital cameras is the ability to walk around and shoot night scenes handheld. I shot the top scene of a window at Yale Law School using a speed of ISO 12,800 and exposed it at 1/60 second at f/4.5. One of my writer friends said that it reminds him of Hogwarts school from Harry Potter--and he's right! The other shot is also a Yale, just a random night silhouette, same exposure. Since the Yale Campus was designed (in 1935!) to bring English Gothic universities to mind, it's not surprising that there's a Harry Potter feel to them.

Some more things that I like…

There are so many things about this body that I like (and, again, that are so uniquely Pentax) that I can’t mention them all, but here quickly are a few more that I found very useful:

LED illumination. The camera has built-in LEDs that let you illuminate things like the card slots, lens changing and the area behind the LCD to illuminate rear controls. LEDs for help changing lenses or finding card slots while night shooting? Brilliant.

GPS and Wifi. The K1 has very customizable GPS that will add your location data to the metadata for each shot. You can, for example, adjust how often you want it to reset your location (five seconds, 15 seconds, etc.). I didn’t use the wifi but from what I’ve seen, it looks very straightforward and Pentax has their own app.

Excellent outlets. They include D/C (so you can shoot without batteries in the studio—terrific for long time-lapse sequences), micro USB, micro HDMI and both headphone and mic jacks.

LCD review time control. You can set the LCD review time to off, or you can set it to longer durations—three seconds, five seconds, etc. There’s no question in my mind that a photographer designed this feature.

Two card slots. You can record to two cards simultaneously and you can customize which files go to which cards. Fantastic.

These snowy scenes in my backyard reminded me of a Japanese woodblock prints; they were shot while it was still snowing pretty heavily. Exposure for both was 1/200 second at f/6.3, ISO 200. When you see these full-frame files on a big graphics monitor, the sharpness and clarity is mind boggling.

Some things that are missing…

Video is very basic. The max resolution on the video is 1080/30p and there is no 4k. That’s not much of a deal-breaker to me, but if you shoot a lot of video, the lack of 4k is a big deal.

Somewhat boggy AF controls. The AF is pretty zippy (33 focus points, 25 are cross type points) on the K1, but there is no dedicated AF point selector and the options for choosing the AF-areas is pretty limited to a cluster option. There is a single-point option (and that’s what I used primarily) but there needs to be more AF flexibility. Also, I had trouble seeing the AF points and they don’t illuminate until focus is confirmed. If there is an option to make them brighter, I didn’t find that.

No built-in flash. A lot of photographers probably never use a built-in flash anyway, but I do use it for fill flash with macro subjects a lot and for quick fill of informal portraits. Not having a flash is probably a minor omission, but given a choice, I would prefer to have it.

Marge's. I've been driving by this now-closed deli for months waiting for the right light. Shot at 1/400 second at f/10, ISO 200.


It’s kind of hard to say why you instinctively like or dislike a camera, but every time that I pick up the K1 I feel like I’m home. I get the same feeling that I get when I’ve been traveling a lot and then I come back home to New England. This camera just feels right in my hands.

There were times when the camera frustrated me: every time I tried to use the left arrow on the rear main control dial to change the white balance, it would just shift the AF pattern around. It drove me nuts until I realized I just needed to shift out of the AF mode that I was in. I later learned that you can quickly get to most controls, regardless of what other modes you are in, just by hitting the Live View button. Little things like that slowed me down a bit, but it was just unfamiliarity. In almost every case, once I figured out what was going on I had increasing admiration for the menu-free operating controls.

And then there is the file quality which is, of course, perhaps the primary consideration. As I said, the very first thing that I shot was a foggy morning in a harbor and seeing the clarity of the full-frame files open up on a big monitor solidified all my good feelings about the camera. Those were the best exposed files I’ve ever seen on a digital camera. The dynamic range (look at the shots of the Yale library book tower) is off-the-charts great. There is also the issue of Pentax offering a limited full-frame lens selection, but I have to assume they are fast at work on new lenses. By the way, the only lens I had available during my test was the PENTAX-D FA 28-105mm and it's a stellar short zoom, sharp, light fast to focus and very affordable. I had a few shots where I see some color banding and I have to wonder if I didn't inadvertently slip into the pixel-shift mode without knowing it. I'm really curious to know why that happened, but it was only on an isolated few shots, so I assume it was something that I did.

There’s a scene in the movie Mystic Pizza where a restaurant reviewer is reviewing the pizza and after trying in various ways to describe the pizza he gets to the end and just says, “In a word: superb.” That pretty much sums up my feelings about the K1. (And the pizza at the real Mystic Pizza, by the way.)


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