How one sneaky little camera, bought as a novelty, can throw your whole plan off kilter. #Pentax

I guess I told you a month or so ago that I'd bought a used Pentax K-01 for a song and that I was having fun using it. I didn't pay much attention to the camera in the weeks after my purchase because I was getting up to speed on the Samsung Galaxy NX camera for my trip to Berlin and doing a bunch of pre-production and then shooting on some video projects. While packing for my working trip to Denver I decided at the last minute to toss the little yellow Pentax K-01 into my camera bag along with its charger. I brought it along as a rain/beater/fun camera to carry with me when I finished the long days of shooting with the big Sony cameras. 

The only lens I have for the Pentax is the 40mm pancake lens. So, what I've essentially got is a cheap camera that's yellow and has only one very limited focal length, no EVF and a tacky, promotional Pentax camera strap. And after four or five hours of walking around and shooting with it today I've already come to appreciate it, enjoy images from it and even smile when I hear its muted and quietly precise shutter go into action. Yes, the rear screen is as difficult to use as any other in bright daylight but I don't seem to care because the camera in its holistic entirety is so adorable. Maybe I like it because no one on the street seems to even pay attention to it when I shoot.

So, why do I think of this camera as problematic? Hmmm. I've been mulling that over. I guess it's because I've shot some stuff with the lens wide open at f2.8 and been very impressed with the characteristics of the lens. Sharp and smooth is how I'd describe it. Maybe it's because the shutter is muted and solid. And maybe it's because the I've come to like the bright color of the body....it's easier to find in the recesses of my black camera bag. It's become problematic because I keep thinking that if Pentax got so many things right in the creation of this camera and the matching of its physical properties to my proclivities then maybe some of the other Pentax cameras would suit me as well. And that's where the slippery slope always begins.... I keep zapping over to Amazon to look at reviews of the K5.2.  I played with one again at Precision Camera and came away impressed. Especially for the price!

I'm sure the Pentax glass is just as good as anyone else's and I like the size and feel of the bodies. It always starts like this: I'll decide that only one body and maybe that 70mm pancake lens will be just enough to make me happy. Sure, I'll keep the Sony a99 and other Sonys around for all my professional, paying work. The Pentax will be my fun camera, my art camera, my personal camera. But then I'll find reasons to like it too much and little by little it will ingratiate itself into my camera bag. I'll add a lens or two. And then one day I'll take it out on a little assignment instead of the Sonys and I'll have good luck that day, for one reason or another, and I'll decide that it's great to have two systems to go back and forth with and I'll add a few more lenses and maybe a second body; because you know that no professional should ever go on assignment without a back up body....

Deep in the honeymoon period I'll look for ways to rationalize getting rid of the Sonys and going "all in" on the Pentax gear. I'm sure the initial self-argument will be that the bodies and lenses are cheaper, etc. But once in the system we'll go through the honeymoon stage into our first big, plate throwing, name calling fight over some weakness or absence in the system. I'll begin to pine again for the full frame option. I'll rail against Pentax's primitive video implementation and lack of a headphone jack and I'll be back where I started, only thousands of dollars poor...

At this juncture, before I do any damage to myself or my bank balance I would love to hear from former and present Pentax users. Maybe you'll be able to blunt my desire with rational arguments from the other side. Maybe not. So much for camera lust. Let's talk about the Denver Art Museum.

I have the day off today and I was up early, well breakfasted and out the door with a camera in time to shiver happily in the 36 degree lows. The day is bright and sunny and warmed up quickly. I walked around for a while and then finally got serious and headed to the Denver Art Museum. I was thrilled with what I saw there. Absolutely thrilled. Right off the bat there's a show of Mark Rothko's work. I've always been a fan of Rothko's later subtle and quiet color studies but the show's curator did a nice job of creating a time line from Rothko's earlier work into his final years of working abstraction. The show also includes some work by contemporaries which helps to place Rothko's work within the time period and art/cultural milieu. That show closes tomorrow so I considered my visit lucky right from the start.

The architecture of the museum itself, an origami assemblage of non-linear, angled walls and creative space is worth the trip and I found myself bringing the camera up to my eye just to catch the whimsical juxtapositions of the walls. But the two installations that I really loved, almost worth the trip to Denver alone, were the enormous installation of Sandy Skoglund's Foxes at Play and smaller, quiet, black and white portraits by photographer, August Sander. 

Conceptual artist, Sandy Skoglund, has been creating wonderful three dimensional tableaus for decades. I first became aware of her installation work back in the late 1970's or early 1980's because a photography magazine featured her seminal piece, Attack of the Goldfish. The emphasis of the article at the time was the way that Skoglund lit and captured her three dimensional constructions. She used an 8x10 inch view camera and color film to make incredibly wonderful photographs of her work. In those days I assumed that the final target  was always intended to be the photograph as the final artifact of her work but museums have been collecting installation pieces now so the exhibitions have long lives and the photography recedes back a bit into its role of documentation for magazines, websites, catalogs and the like. The FOX installation is wonderful. I could have walked around it for hours. And I love the fox sculptures which I think stand up well as individual, sculptural art. Google Sandy Skoglund and I think you'll be surprised at how much Gregory Crewdson borrows, conceptually,  from her much earlier work.....

Middle Class Mother and Child by August Sander. All rights reserved.

 Finally, in a gallery in the North building of the Denver Art Museum is a small but very effective show of August Sander's work. For those of you who are not familiar with his work he was a German photographer who created a huge body of work by going onto locations and into businesses to photographing his fellow Germans in very direct and formal poses. His work was done in the 1920's and 1930's. He made portraits of coal miners, bakers, bankers, clerks---an enormous range. In most of his work the subjects face the camera with grim expressions. They are serious in their collaboration with Sander. Part of the formalism came, no doubt, from his use of a large view camera on a tripod.

But this show introduced me to several new images of Sanders that I hadn't seen before which are less formal but no less powerful. There was a portrait of three men in suits, posed casually in the countryside that is wonderful. Any of our best photographers in this age would be secretly proud to have shot that photo.... And the one of the mother and child in the park (above) is also timeless and perfect on so many levels, from pose and expression right through to final print.

The August Sander exhibit sobered me up and reminded me of how far we've allowed our craft to fall in servitude to budgets and expediency. His 8x10 inch portraits have a depth of field that is so shallow and falls off so beautifully and dramatically that even his technical decisions elevate the work to a level that most of us will never be able to achieve today with our technically advanced but mercilessly crippled cameras and lenses. In one sense it's all about format size.  We just can't replicate the magnificent focus isolation Sander was able to get with his tools unless we too go back, grow a pair, and start shooting with very large format cameras and very carefully processed and printed sheets of film. And it's a pity since the uniformity of our current cameras impoverishes us with its homogeneity. Sad times when the tools betray us and obfuscate their aesthetic shortcomings with a glittery display of techno-fireworks. And built in "art" filters....

Said in a different way: the more our tools are identical the more our collective vision is damaged by that self same lack of diversity.  And if we are unaware of what came before our chip filled toy cameras we don't even have the capacity to understand that there is a loss and how crippling that loss is...

That's the real gift that museums keep giving photographers. They keep showing us how the tools and vision are intertwined and how we've abdicated choice for easy use and low cost. And every now and then a Weston Print or a Paul Strand Print or an August Sander print comes along to slap us in the face and drag us out of creative lethargy. Thank you to the Denver Art Museum for at least three beautiful exhibitions savored all under one roof on one day. You made my stay in Denver that much better.


  1. Re Pentax. I believe a full frame Pentax is due to be released very soon.

  2. I'm not a pentax user my self, but I shoot sony (a77, a57) because of your takes on the cameras and the amazing quality of the pictures, and I've been really impressed with this cameras. I'm from Mexico and here in my country sony cameras don't have that large list of dealers, the camera stores I buy from have only limited lenses and accesories, and that has made me think if I should go back to canon or nikon. Recently I shot with my friends Pentax k-5, he was living in another country and bought it along with a couple of really nice tamron lenses (17-50 f2.8, 70-200 f2.8), battery grip and all (here is even more difficult to get pentax), he needed an engagement session and at the time I only had my 60d with a good but not great sigma lens, so he offered me to use the k-5, and I have to say I enjoyed all the time the shooting lasted, mostly I shot with the 70-200 between f4 and f7.1, and it was a blast, the autofocus really acurate even with off brand lens, quick, snappier, had to overcome some things (was really customed to canon layout and menu) but at the end I loved the shooting, the images and was really happy with my work. Thought about selling all my sony and go for a k-5IIs, but have to face the reality that even getting those from adorama or b&h, I need someone in my country to have availability for accesories and lenses and the sad part is that there is none. But you have the fortune to be right there with a lot of choices on hand (pentax, sony, canon, nikon, olympus, panasonic) and practically no limitations on lenses, bodies, tech support, etc., I'd say if you are thinking about it, why don't rent a k-5IIs and a couple of lenses you like and give it a go with some shoots? that way you may scratch that itch and find out if that may or may not work for you. sorry for the long post but had to tell about it, thanks.

  3. I confess that I'm only here to fan the flames of your gear acquisition syndrome. I'm an avid reader of your blog and have noticed that you're sensitive to the tactile properties of your cameras. Shutter feel, viewfinder, size, weight etc. I remember you saying that the Olympus XZ-1 was just too damn thin and as a happy owner of that camera I agree. It's too damn thin! If memory serves (couldn't find the blog post) you also expressed a preference for the nikon d300 over the d700 because of its more muted shutter. Interesting observation. Most reviewers either don't notice or fail to express an appreciation for such tangibles that don't appear on a spec sheet. I recall your prior observations only to establish what I consider to be your sensitivity to and appreciation for a camera's design and feel.

    Considering that you've already handled the K-5II most of this probably isn't news to you, but as an owner of a K-5 I'll go ahead and sing its praises anyway. First, the K-5 series have probably the most quiet and luxurious sounding shutters of any slrs on the market. I'm not sure it's possible to make a metal shutter and flapping mirror more silent. Second, the grip is superb, especially if you have smallish hands. Coming from a Nikon D80 I didn't like it at first. It felt too small, but after handling it for a few weeks I've quite literally come to grips with The Pentax Way. My middle finger nestles into the deep scoop in the grip in a most perfect way, and the overall shaping grips my hand so naturally I almost don't feel the camera in my hand any more. Third, this is one densely constructed camera. Stainless steel and magnesium in a body the size of a Rebel. That's unique. I won't comment on the image quality because there's a thousand other people that can say it better than I. Suffice to say it's GOOD. I know you're not much of a wide angle guy but I own the Pentax 21mm Limited and it's tiny, extremely well built, and sharp. I'll admit that the screw drive autofocus is a little noisy but it's no deal breaker. In my opinion the Pentax K-5 and the Limited lenses are the peak of aps-c dslr design. Hope you make the leap Kirk. I'd like to hear your opinion.

    Love your blog. Your tireless writing has given me hours of pleasure over the years.

    Caleb Courteau.

    1. My K5 have a nice ergonomy and superb image quality. Limited a DA* lenses are also superb.


  4. I have a comparatively ancient K200D, and it's a wonderful camera. It's close to the "simple camera" that's been the subject of some discussion over at TOP. I bought it second hand a couple years ago when a thoughtful store clerk said it was an ideal camera to start digital, and indeed it is comfortably close to, say, my Nikon FE. Small, weatherproof, ruggedly built, wonderful and cheap "legacy glass", what's not to like? Still, doesn't mean I don't covet a K-5 or K-01!

    Your blog is excellent, I always benefit from reading it.

  5. As a Pentax user, i was very intrigued by the title of the post.

    First, the part on the Denver Art Museum : Thank you so much for letting us discover some artists i honestly didn't know anything about, but i'm eager to buy some books about (using your Amazon link, of course !), because their works seems very interesting and inspiring :)

    Then, the first part : I came to the Pentax brand because i had some film gear (which is fully compatible with modern body). As you stated it before, Pentax is conservative in the vision of photography : so yes, the video is not very well integrated, it doesn't have touch screen, and so on.
    But make no mistake, Pentax strengt lies in the compactness, and lightweight primes. And the weather resistant body and lenses - the "WR" acronym (but i don't know if you're really concerned, axcept when you go to Barton Springs :)
    Pentax pancakes lenses : 15mm/f4, 21mm/f3.2, 40mm/f2.8, 70mm/f2.4 are not the fastest lens of course, but hey, they can all be kept in a pocket :D
    If you want faster there is the 31mm/1.8, 43mm/1.9 and 77mm/1.9, slightly bigger but still very small.
    for the rest, lenses are like competitors.

    Last, like Caleb stated it, the K5 series have a very quiet shutter. Some people just don't even know that you've press the shutter.

    Just know, that Pentax AF isn't the fastest around here due to the use of the screw drive (in body AF) instead of in lenses motor, if you want some different split screen, you need to find third party ones, it doesn't have (so far) a pro support like Canikon.

    Rent a body and some lenses, and make yourself an idea.

    PS : i use film body, and Pentax K-x (entry level from 4-5 years) and K5.

  6. I'm also a K5 owner and love it for it's haptics and image quality. I agree with Caleb Courteau that with a limited prime it is, to me, the apex of aps-c. Try the 70mm: 130g of purity.

  7. I use an A77 and a K-01. I go back and forth using the two. I bought the A77 for product (guitar) photography but never like the color rendering or lack of low light sharpness. I bought the K-01 on a whim because I loved it's looks and the discounted price made it irresistible. The K-01 is now my wonderful guitar camera. I still alternately use both cameras for everything else. I do prefer the K-01 color and depth, but there are many shot I have gotten with the A77 that the K-01 could not have accomplished. And the video on the A77 superb.

  8. Guess you mean the 'young farmers' from Sander, with three of them going to a Sunday dance or so? See it at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sander-young-farmers-al00014 (Tate's) for instance. Yes, that's one of his great ones.

    You should come to Cologne - we have half a museum full with his images.

  9. I to have been charmed by the little K-01.Took advantage of some cheap deals on the camera and now find myself in exactly the same place as your fine self.Its a wee minx of a camera and time and again i find myself reaching for it with a smile on my face.Sorry probably not much of a help but it sure is nice to find something a little different in this age of sameness.

  10. Go for the Pentax, then I can buy up your Sony stuff at Precision. Then later the formerly Tuck owned Pentax gear the same way. I don't mind being behind the curve...

  11. Kirk, don't listen to them ! I'll fly to your rescue (and your bank account's lol). A very good friend of mine who is invested in Sony gear, recently went thru a bit of a photographic rut, and started getting other stuff to try. She got a K30 and some good Pentax lenses and was very impressed with them. Then for whatever reason (hmm, that would be me advising it, I guess), she bought a D7100, assorted glass, and started sending me shots of both cameras in comparable conditions. The Nikon was *running circles* around the Pentax... Which she sent back prompty. Don't get me wrong, I did have a K20 and LOVED the ergonomics and operation, but the lens selection is comparatively smaller and more expensive than CaNikonMinolta, by a fair margin too. Less avallability, crazy high prices for lenses, yes Pentax is nice but hey other manufacturers do just as well and way cheaper. The one thing I can say about the brand though, is that Pentax users are a super nice, warm and friendly crowd. Btw as much as I want to part with Sony's annoying ecosystem and dumb marketing policy, the NEX's goodness has me on a leash...

  12. >>the more our tools are identical the more our collective vision is damaged by that self same lack of diversity<<

    Whenever I get to feeling this way, I remind myself that Weston and Cartier-Bresson (the heroes of my youth) both used ordinary commercial gear that was available to everyone at the time. Weston's prints look like normal 8x10 contact prints of his time, except for their amazing subjects and compositions. HCB's stuff looks just like normal 35mm Tri-X. Everyone shooting 35mm Tri-X at the same time produced prints that looked like his, again except for the subject matter and composition.

    All we are called upon to do is make art with the tools we have available, and to choose the tools that best fit our vision.

  13. If you _really_ want to be impressed, play with the DA* 55mm 1.4 on a Pentax body. Sorry, I can't help dissuade you from diving more deeply into Pentax. I'm a happy Pentax shooter with a K20D (a few models back from the K-5) and some of their best glass.

  14. My K-5 and my FA 77 are just the perfect portrait pair. I might be tempted by full frame, but ever since I got this camera I haven't even had any GAS, just maybe a little LBA to do it justice.

  15. I made a similar impulse buy when the canon eos m with the 22mm pancake fell below $300 in July. I really expected very little, but that little camera is great fun. And it takes sweet photos. Yeah it's a little slow in operation... but it fits in a pocket in my cargo shorts... So in short... I know what you mean...

  16. Pentax ergonomics is great. The software menu is very well designed and easy to use. Some lenses are overpriced, such as the DA 21mm or DA 50mm. But some are great - FA 31mm, DA 15mm (which is slow but small and high quality build), DA 70mm. And of course that crazy pancake 40mm is awesome. The flash and AF system are probably the weakest links.

  17. I still use my grandfather's Pentax film camera. They made and still make lovely lovely lenses.

    I've had a go at using their dSLRs. They're ok. But the ovfs are small and gloomy (if you're used to film vfs or evfs ) and the af isn't the best. Top marks for weather sealing as standard though.

    I'd say pick up a couple of the great lenses for the k-01 and carry on using it for fun. You'd be frustrated swapping over completely, for work, but the Pentax will be great for just pressure free beautiful art.

    Now if Pentax do make a full frame camera that'll really catch my interest.

  18. Being Pentaxian since the early eighties, I sincerely don’t believe Pentax is in any way a better or a superior brand between the established camera makers. The reasons why I stay with Pentax are threefold:
    1. Pentax always has showed an immense respect for his existing clients. Every Pentax lens that has been made since the late seventies is still compatible with their most recent digital bodies, including the K – 01;
    2. Other brands surely have excellent engineers, but I do believe that a Pentax engineer is by definition also a photographer. The little refinements that one finds so often in their cameras can only be invented by people who have also a good photographical experience;
    3. Someone mentioned it earlier, but the feel of their cameras is unique. You may like or dislike it but in a blind test, I never fail to pick up the Pentaxes.
    Pentax as a company doesn’t exist anymore since it has become a brand of Ricoh. So it has to be seen if the Pentax’ heritage will stand in the future.

  19. if you want to stay away from pentax, then don't try the 43/2.8, 77/1.8 and the 15/4 lenses

  20. I have the Pentax k-5, which I think has the same image quality as your K-01-- terrific, with incredibly flexible files, with some depth to them. The K-5 ergonomics are also great, unlike the K-01. I have two problems, though. One is the weight. While the K-5 is light compared to good DSLRs, I'm spoiled by my lighter m43 cameras. The second is the temptation that you describe of buying additional lenses and accessories for a second camera system. So for those reasons, as much as I love the K-5, I'm thinking of selling it.


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