A fun assignment and a tale of three cameras: The Sony a99, the Panasonic GH3 and the Pentax K01

I had the good fortune to be hired to take images for the "Thinkery." The Thinkery is the new name for our newly relocated Children's Museum, here in Austin, Texas. The assignment called for me to head over to the museum this past Saturday and take photographs of kids, parents, staff and everyone else trying out the new museum and all the new exhibits and interactive features. It was a "friends and family" experience meant to serve as a shake out or test run for the official opening in early December.  I was to work as discreetly and minimally as possible and that meant no tripod and no light stands.

At first I decided to go entirely minimal and take only the new Panasonic GH3's along with a small collection of lenses that included: the 25mm Summilux, the new kit lens (18-55mm) the longer entry level zoom (the 45-150mm) and a few fast Olympus Pen FT lenses. At the last moment I hedged my bets by bringing along the Sony a99 fitted with the 85mm 1.4 Rokinon Cine lens and a few extra batteries. Then I figured, "Oh what the heck?" and I stuffed the yellow Pentax K01 along with its 40mm 2.8 pancake lens into the bag.

During the course of the day I took about 2500 images. Some were just motor drive sequences where I was trying to catch the peak of action or the best expression and some were gratuitous color studies. But I did use all three of the cameras under the same conditions and it went a long way toward me understanding the differences between the cameras; or at least the differences between three Jpeg engines.

The Sony a99 was a known commodity and it did its stuff correctly. It was the most cumbersome to use and I expected the image quality of the big, gnarly full frame sensor to squash the other cameras but the reality was that while there might have been less noise in the files all three cameras performed quite well and the images from all three were equally usable.

The GH3 is like a trim athlete that knows its regimen cold. It focused quickly, the lenses were uniformly sharp and the colors and metering uniformly pleasing. I saw very nice files and very nice skin tones under mixed lighting at ISOs all the way up to 3200 ISO. For a camera system purchased primarily as a video toolset I am happy to see that it's also a very usable still imaging system. Much nicer files than I remember getting when shooting stills with the GH2 several years ago. And the batteries lasted all day long!

Finally there is the case of the Pentax K01. The "clown car" of the camera collection around these parts. I used it in a cavalier way. I set the ISO to auto and let the camera roam from ISO 100 all the way up to ISO 6400. I set the mode dial to "P" and set the autofocus to face detections (till I got bored and started to play with focus peaking in manual focus...). In other words this was the camera of the three that got the least in the way of controls and mindful direction from me. I would see something I liked, bring the camera up to frame and then flail away with a volley of three or four quick exposures.

All three of the cameras were set to deliver the largest and less compressed Jpegs available on the menu. All three were processed in Apple's Aperture program in much the same way.

I was happily editing and there were no surprises until half way through the edit when the files under went a change. The colors got richer. The images got sharper and more detailed and the files got more robust to changes and processing.  I wondered if the dog had changed a setting in Aperture when I left the office for coffee so I double checked. Nope.

I had just gotten to the section of the folder that was filed with Pentax files. Even at ISO 3200 (and, under the right circumstances---a bit above...) the faces were free of noise but invested with detail. The files had a different look and feel than the files from the other two cameras. The images of one and two year olds just glowed! And I remember how freeing it felt not to totally control my camera when I was taking those particular shots.

My friend, Paul, reminded me not to read too much into the files. He reminded me that I was mostly just comparing the different ways the cameras rendered Jpegs. But given that all of my favorite files from the day came from a camera and lens combination that cost me about $200 used gave me pause. Lots of pause. Had I spent the last 26 years doing this whole photography thing incorrectly?

Should I have eschewed the technical tunnel vision from the get go and just concentrated on being in the moment and trusting to the machine? Or did someone build a machine for taking pictures that works best for me and I just now found it? Or maybe it was just one of those days but it did make me give more thought to the idea of just what is creativity and what is mastery?


steven willard said...

I've been wondering when(if ever) someone with a big Internet voice would wake up to how good the Pentax camera-and lenses are and give them their due. When the K5 came out it got some good press, then nothing. Then the K5II/ K5IIs got even bettter reviews, but still no big names behind them. What does it take?

Unknown said...

Interesting! I seen the most clueless technically produce some lovely images… Makes you think, doesn't it!

Olaf Hoyer said...

Kirk- what you describe here is the logical continuation whats been described in earlier posts.
Tools are getting better everyday, so:
- they give the user more freedom and time to take care of the moment
- and lower the (technical) barrier of taking great shots

Like you said, in "the old days" lots of the secrets and successes of photography was in the mastery of tools- nowadays you don't need these craftsman skills big time, so basically anybody is able to snap technically great pictures. Question ist now: Will the overall amount of really great pictures (technically and aesthetically) be the same like in the decades before, and the noise simply rises, or will the next generation use it to have a different view of the world as its happening around them?

And: The tide is changing- as the technical and financial barrier to photos ist lowering, one has to invest some time to look for a niche oder field where one is some leader in one's own field- and this will mean that once again the soft skills will determine the success of artists be it photo or video as their field...

Unknown said...

We've been waiting for you, Mr. Tuck. Prepare for your assimilation.


The K-01 Posse.

Anonymous said...

Steven W. I agree with you. I shoot with a K-5 when I am serious but my everyday street camera is the $300 K-01 with the 21mm Limited lens. No one looks at you on the street when using the K-01 so it works well. Both cameras are great tools. Glad someone is saying something good about Pentax. GJK

Simon Morgan said...

I think you're going to get all the Pentax shooters coming out of the woodwork for this one, and I'm another one! I don't think it's a case of the machine taking away from the craft or anything like that, it's just that Pentax cameras produce really good JPEGs.

I spent ages shooting raw with my K5 because that's what "They" say you should do with a DSLR on the internet, but when I accidentally shot some JPEGs I was amazed at how great the colours looked compared to my Lightroom-processed raw files. After spending way too long trying, and failing, to recreate the look in a Lightroom preset I now use raw+JPEG and only keep the raw if I botch the exposure and need to make big adjustments.

Anonymous said...

Well, Ricoh and Pentax cameras have always been capable of making great pictures, and the fact that the K-01 is the same in that sense has never really been a secret. It has just got buried under all the usual Canikon hype in the mainstream, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

Whilst doing some things very nicely, the K-01 is far from perfect in photo reproduction, as demonstrated in some more interesting, less pixel-peepery oriented reviews, like the one in Imaging Resource. http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/pentax-k01/pentax-k01A.HTM
But overall as we know, it's pretty darn good.

Nevertheless, the demise of the K-01 had nothing to do with its IQ. It was all about the other performance issues and lack of essential features like an EVF. It was partially about looks, too, but that's another story.

All in all the K-01 was too much form over function, and the overall package was too lacking, especially for the original asking price.
It was much like the Canon EOS-M released around the same time - it had some nice features but also some serious shortcomings. The overall package wasn't appealing enough for a large enough audience.

I also think that the K5 and K3, for example, are great dSLR's and offer more photographic value than many other brand models at the same price range. Not only do they make nice photos, they are also weather sealed, nicely compact and have nicer than usual button/dial layouts. I say that even though I'm not a Pentax shooter.

However, one problem Pentax seem to have these days is the same Olympus have; whilst they are able to make great photo cameras, the video side of things seem to be a mere afterthought, not much to cheer about.
As relatively small companies they apparently don't have proper video departments, like some other competitors like Panasonic and Sony.

I do hope Ricoh/Pentax will carry on doing great, reasonably priced cameras, but I also hope that in the future they'll put more effort in designing an all new mirrorless camera, too, instead of just adding even more silly colour schemes to their entry level dSLR's and mini-MILC's.

Or trying to conform with the small but loud choir of camera geeks crying for a full frame dSLR, for the sake of having a full frame dSLR.
I think coming up with a full frame dSLR similar to the K3 would be a bit too little too late now, as the whole dSLR concept is already sunset tech. A basic dSLR (even with a full frame sensor) is no longer enough, especially for a smaller underdog brand like Ricoh/Pentax. Looks like Sony have figured it out.

I believe that the future of RIcoh/Pentax, if they wish to stay relevant, is to come up with a new mirrorless line of weather sealed interchangeable lens cameras, but something much better than the K-01 or Q7.

I wish they came up with killer video features, too, but I'm not sure if even Ricoh have the gollies to pull that off. Case in point, the GXR line.
It was quirky, ballsy and interesting move from Ricoh, but lacked totally on the video side of things.

I actually like the nearly pocketable GXR system quite a lot, and like the K-01, it does great looking stills for its mere 12 or 16 megapixels. But for video, meh, forget it. I need to carry another system around to shoot video. Therefore I often tend to prefer a one that does both well. But as a travel, street and walkabout photo camera it's still great.

One more thing, I believe Kurt left out another nice little tiddy about the K-01, the fact that it uses DNG as its native RAW format. ;-)

mgr said...

Just curious - were you using the Swivi? (I like the K-01's IQ but I'm finding the LCD difficult to use outdoors.)

Ron Hendriks said...

Welcome to the K-01 believers ;)

Michael Matthews said...

It might be interesting to see how these JPGs compare with those made with Olympus Pens back in 2010. Lovely stuff.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

mgr, all LCDs are difficult to use outdoors! But no. I was inside the whole day and using the LCD screen only.

Richard Swearinger said...

I've always suspected that the optical and imaging engineers in Japan knew more about getting great images out of their cameras than we math-challenged artistic folks and now you have the guts to say it out loud.
After all, those men and women have degrees in their fields and spend years working on a single sensor, processor, or lens.

Dennis Elam said...

I see you mention an 18-55 new kit lens for the Pany GH 3, I don't see one on the Pany website, is it a Pany or anoter manufacturer

Dennis Elam