An "after action" report on the now ancient Pentax K1.

Photo not exactly related to this post except that it was done with the Pentax K1...

Where to start? I'll do the short history first. I've owned one other Pentax digital camera; the K-01 concept camera, which made great files but was a bear to use and didn't have an EVF or the facility to add one. I have owned and shot extensively with both of the Pentax medium format film systems; the 645 and the 6x7. I bought the Pentax K1, used, on a whim and I quickly found myself loving its potential to crank out beautiful files at the drop of a hat. 

The camera is a 36 megapixel, full frame, DSLR in the traditional fashion. It has a big, bright optical viewfinder and tons of physical buttons with which to change commonly used stuff like focusing modes, ISO, AF areas, color profiles and much more. It's a camera that attempts to allay the anxieties of people who hate jumping in and out of perplexing and poorly designed menus. It is also big and heavy. Really heavy. The reason I bought it was that I liked the idea of it. My motivation was as simple as that. Oh, and the fact that it features in-body image stabilization and a host of other interesting and eccentric features!

I'm no stranger to cameras like this one, having been immersed in the Nikon full frame D800, D800e and D810 cameras, which I am told, share the same underlying sensor. But what I didn't think about when I tossed down the plastic for this adventure was that the K1 was the first full frame (35mm style) camera Pentax made since the film days and while the Pentax inventory of lenses is ample for APS-C cameras it's downright sparse for larger sensor cameras.  I looked everywhere for lenses and finally settled on the new-ish 28-105mm FA HD lens. (The FA indicates full frame while the HD indicates "designed for digital sensors..."). I supplemented the zoom (which is a variable aperture, f3.5-5.6) with a fast AF SMC 50mm f1.4 (which I like a lot) and also an older, manual focusing 50mm f1.4. I've yet to discern if one 50mm is sharper than the other but I'm not really so much of a "pixel peeper" to care mightily...

I think I'd like a fast, prime lens in the 85-105 range but I haven't found the right one yet at the right price. Many well meaning Pentaxers have pointed me toward the 77mm lens but I've read the test charts and on a full frame digital body the corners and edges just flat out suck. I'm thinking of getting a Rokinon 85mm f1.4 but I'm not sure I really want to keep sinking money into the system the way I have with the Fuji stuff. I'm worried with this particular brand that I'm buying into a system this time that will be cruelly orphaned in a year or so....

If I had more money than good sense (and that statement in and of itself speaks volumes...) I'd just pick up a second body (cameras, like rattlesnakes, want to travel in pairs) and pull the trigger on the 70-200mm f2.8 lens that Pentax makes for the system and then just rest my wallet for a while.

But, at any rate, that brings you up to speed about the "what" and "why" so let's jump into my contemporaneous experiences with the new-to-me mini-system. 

I've been shooting the K-1 around town and, frankly, I've been enjoying it, with the exception of the need to constantly "chimp" to make sure that what you thought you were shooting really ended up in the files in pretty much the same form as you conceptualized it. The weight of the camera doesn't bother me, and I've marched around town with it even on the hottest days this August (we are currently having a heat wave and a moderate drought in central Texas). 

The shutter is well damped and not too noisy and the mirror slap (at least physically) is all but absent. While the 28-105mm lens has turned out to be sharp, contrasty and well mannered; even when used wide open, I find myself gravitating to the 50mm f1.4 AF nearly all the time. After days of familiarizing myself with the operation of the camera, and after having watched Tony Northrup's tutorial about the features of the camera, I felt confident enough to start bringing the K-1 along on photo shoots (which I still do--photoshoots for clients that is, thank you very much!) and shooting it in and around the Fuji cameras and lenses (which I seem to be using as "lifeguard" cameras). On Friday night I took it with me to photograph a panel discussion at Zach Theatre, which took place after the performance of "ANN." I started by taking long shots of the panel of politicians and the actor with the Fuji X-T3 and the 50-140mm f2.8 but almost immediately recognized that getting closer and wider would be more impactful. 

Since it was a panel discussion and not a play the shutter noise was inconsequential. I mostly used the 28-105mm and ISOs as high as 3200 and was rewarded by sharp and nearly noise-free images. I also used the Fuji X-Pro2 and the 35mm f1.4 and was equally happy with those shots. The Fuji was much more discrete but it's hard to hide the fact that you're there photographing in earnest from the people around you when you have one camera hanging on the right shoulder, a camera with a long zoom on the left shoulder, and a big, honkin' Pentax hanging around the neck, resting on one's chest. 

When I looked at the files I quickly discerned that the Pentax Jpeg files (regardless of chosen profiles?) are much punchier and contrastier than the more "mannered" Fuji files. I ducked into the parameters menu and came up with the following formula for shooting well behaved Jpegs with the Pentax camera: color profile = natural. Saturation = minus 3 (out of five negative steps). Contrast = minus 2 and sharpness = minus 1. When the camera is set up this way the images look more like real life and less like a 2007 HDR fan's technicolor yawns.

Yesterday I took the Pentax, the 28-105mm and the 50mm f1.4 (AF) with me to a graduation ceremony at an Episcopalean seminary in central Austin. I photographed the matriculation ceremony, the installation of new faculty, the (very nice) reception afterwards, and also five portraits of new faculty members outside in the oppressive and brutal afternoon heat. To be clear, all the events except the portraits took place indoors; the marketing director was trying to match a look we did outdoors with previous faculty but the photographs of the first group were done in early Spring when the weather was...better. 

The Pentax and the 28-105 did a fine job on the outdoor portraits even though the highest flash sync of that camera is 1/200. The slower sync speed was offset by having ISO 100 as the lowest marked ISO for this camera. The flash came from a Godox flash unit in a 32 by 32 inch soft box and ambient light provided the fill light and balanced, tree-filled background. 

Where the Pentax actually delighted me was in photographing the reception. It was "flash on camera" with the flash pointed at the white ceiling and the the camera and flash set manually. The OVF made taking interior flash images fun again and since the light was consistent and the exposure was consistent the only heavy lifting the camera was doing was focusing;. I was using the 50mm lens and setting it at apertures like 2.8. The camera focused quickly and with no errors (it's incumbent on you, the user, to wait until the AF box turns green before mashing the shutter button) and no missed focus. 

Most of the files I shot across the two systems were fine right out of camera and only a few needed to be "spruced up" with a judicious application of shadow slider. For the record, no one asked about either camera. No one seemed to notice the cameras at all. No one cared. And that's how it should be. 

This morning I needed to make a series of portraits of a new hire at one of the non-profits I do work for. I got all courageous and took only the Pentax and the zoom with me. The only plausible back up at all for this shoot was the new iPhone I had in the car. I shot around 400 photos with the Pentax the night before but the battery indicator still shows at least 2/3rds power. Ever vigilant I tossed my one extra battery into the bag. I needn't have bothered.

Our portrait session was outside at 10 am, well before the blast furnace wind was fully wound up and engaged. It was a pleasant 89 degrees and muggy when we started. I used the same flash system I used the day before. It worked well. 

I must admit that the sensor in the Pentax camera is pretty darned good. Nicely detailed raw files, and the system, given the way I use it, nails focus well. This, of course, got me thinking about all the possibilities in the market today. The combination of a full frame sensor, the built-in image stabilization and the robust build of the body caused me to start thinking about a "step up" from this which, to my mind, is the Panasonic S1. I think I'll borrow one and test it out. It adds everything I liked about the Pentax but the cherry on the sundae is that the S1 also has a state-of-the-art EVF. 

Could it be the ultimate, ultimate camera? Let's find out.

But wait. Back to the Pentax. What's my assessment? Well, if you can find a "like new" body for around $900, and you like hunting for lenses, you will have just bought yourself one of the best image generators on the market, extant. Yeah, the mirrorless stuff does away with a lot of chimping. And some of the newer cameras shoot faster frame rates. And the video is no where near competitive. But if your goal is to make beautiful, quiet, slow photographs you won't find a camera that's much better in the real world. And certainly not for that kind of price!

I'm taking the week off from commercial work to learn how to relax, to swim more, to futz around with estate attorneys, and to enjoy life. Blogging is included in the program. Please come back and read more. 


Joe said...

Hi, Kent

Firstly, I'd like to thank you for your hard work and interesting writing on your blog. It's always appreciated and checked nearly every day. As to trolls, "Non Illegitimi Carborundum"

I've been using a K-1 for about two years with the very usable 28-105 kit zoom and also have a number of earlier lenses from Pentax film and APS-C days as well. Here's my take, FWIW.

The Pentax 100/2.8 macro is sharp, fairly light and compact for a full-frame lens, and weather-sealed. It's a nice all-around longer lens, but it's not a 1.4

My copy of the FA 77 /1.8 is in fact very sharp, particularly in the F/4-8 range. None of the Limited series is optimized for wide-open but they do reasonably well at full aperture, just not optimally like f/5.6

I did a side-by-side comparison between the 31/1.8 Limited and the Sigma 35/1.4 strictly from an image quality perspective at normal outdoor apertures. After MUCH deliberation, I bought the 31 Limited rather than the Sigma 35/1.4 I cannot quantify nor even adequately verbalize why the 31 and 77 Limited lenses are special but they seem to have a slight edge in overall imaging. Neither is weather-sealed. Both are screw-driven AF, so not as good for video.

Some of the earlier manual K series lenses from the 1970s are very sharp and very light. I have the 135/2.5 and it's a nicely made lens with good image quality. They're typically inexpensive on the used market and easy to use on the K-1.

The later M and A manual lenses do not seem to be as well-regarded by Pentax users. My experience with an M 200/4 is comparable. It's drawer-ware despite the compact size and good build.

The current "DA" 200mm/2.8 lens is sort of big and bulky but is very good on full-frame. Pentax now rates it as a full-frame lens but it's hard to find on the used market and quite expensive new. Ditto for the various 300mm Pentax telephotos.

The one real gap is in the 20mm-24mm range. There, I believe, a newer Samyang/Rokinon seems to make sense as a ultra-wide prime.

ODL Designs said...

Great read. I often hover over the but button of the Pentax 645z which can now be had for under 3k. But the size puts me off, not because I cannot carry it, but just that I don't enjoy it as much. Of course with Fuji iterating as fast as they are in the MF mirrorless space I suspect one might be in my future.

Of course you are browsing lenses now, as long as I have been reading your blog the pattern seems set:

But New camera with middling lens
Enjoy the fun of new system
Add that one missing lens
Explore the options
Add another needed lens
Flesh out the system
Sell your old system :)

I don't suspect you will do that with the Pentax due to the lack of technology, but it seems to be whetting your appetite for a larger sensor. I can't blame you, the small Nikon mirrorless system with their f1.8 primes currently appeals to me.

Having said that, the longer I use the m43rds system the more out of the way it gets, and I don't want to start again... But then I think, why not a used 645d done something completely different :)

Keep well Kirk!

Dogman said...

Recently I bought a used Nikon D800 with Micro-Nikkor lens and the Nikon copy attachment so I could "digitize" a selection of my negatives and slides from 40-50 years ago. For the last 3+ years I've used only Fuji cameras, mainly the X-Pro and X-T models. Once I started using the D800 I discovered how much I liked the optical SLR finder. EVFs are fine, I've actually come around to liking them, especially when used inside under lower light conditions. But outdoors, I found them overly contrasty and easily washed out by stray light entering the finder. The optical finder in the D800 was refreshing. Even inside in a low-light room, I had no trouble viewing (I have eyesight filled with floaters and rapidly dimming as I age). And outside the optical finder was wonderful.

I know mirrorless is the rage and I love my Fuji X-Pro 2 cameras--I now have three. But the main reason I love the X-Pros so much is the option for using the finder as a window instead of being wed to an EVF for everything. Returning to an SLR was a great experience for me. While I only intended to use the D800 as a copy camera, I've had so much fun using it I've bought four other lenses and I've been using it a lot. Gotta say that it is really too big and too heavy to be my only camera. But 36mp is kinda fun.

CWM said...

Hi Kirk,

I have to echo what Joe said. The 77mm on my K1 performs well (even in the edges) stopped down to 2.8, f/4 - 5.6 even better. I was not able to find the normal test reports or reviews of this lens on full frame. Reviewers like optical limits and lenstip only show it with APS cameras. I did my own testing and found it to be a lovely lens on full frame. For sharper results, the 100 macro is a great lens at a focal length you seem to like. Even wide open, a superb optic with weather sealing. The reason these Pentax primes are so small in size is that they use the old screw drive AF approach. Since I don't do ANY video or fast action sports, these appeal to me. The Pentax body is heavy (as you pointed out), not large and the screw mount lenses are solid, not large at all. The balance takes me back to film days when most camera systems were weighted more to the back of the camera in use. I have used just about every digital system on the market from day one (except for Leica) and the balance of the Pentax when using these great small primes is my favorite "retro" approach. I think I'm the same age as you (63) and had the experience with medium and large format film back in the day. Before you ditch the K1, try a few of these longer screw drive AF primes. Lensrental.com has the 77 for $58 a week. You may find the 100 macro for under $300 gently used. Funny, about the only current lens I haven't tried on the K1 is the 28-105! The 15-30 is a beast, but right up there image quality wise with the Nikon 14-24.

Love this blog!

dinksdad said...

The Pentax is 64 grams lighter than a Nikon D700. Enjoy the weight savings.

Ray said...

Enjoy your week and your new camera.

I'm guessing you hit the sack pretty early most nights, but do you have any pictures of Bats coming out from under the bridge for their nightly food frenzy?

Kevin Meechan said...

The Lumix S1 is a great camera. I'm renting one right now and doing some tests shots with it. I got it with the 24-105 f/4 "kit" lens and the Sigma MC-21 adapter for EF lenses. All my Canon glass works with it including my 24 and 17mm TS-E lenses. The kit lens is very good, better than my 24-105mm Canon. The files are detailed with good color, and the shadow recovery is pretty much class leading with no banding at extreme lifts. The EVF is very nice, but honestly I'm fine most modern EVFs (X-H1, a7RII, etc...). Build quality is great. My only complaint is that when reviewing a zoomed in shot on the LCD, it zooms back out when changing to the EVF, and you have to re-zoom. I like how it's implemented on the X-H1 better. Maybe there's a setting for that, but I can't find it.

Don Karner said...

Thanks a lot Kirk. Now I want a big, honkin' Pentax hanging around my neck. Good to know that one can adjust those JPG settings to get the look one wants. Some of the folks over on that big review web site should read this.

Keep up the good work.

John Krumm said...

Yeah, I'm reluctant to sell the K1, and likely won't, even though I haven't used it much since getting the XH1. I'm even reluctant to sell the medium format sized DFA 50 1.4.

One other 50 I like and if you find for cheap you might enjoy is the FA 50 macro 2.8. (there's a DFA too). It has more bight across the frame than the FA 50 1.4.

I was also looking at a 30mm 2.8 K lens on Ebay for $250 today. It has a very good reputation.


adam said...

it's apparently possible to change the mount on Rokinon/samyang fairly easily, since they make versions for so many systems, might just be a question of unscrewing, can't be bothered to take mine off the camera to check...

MichaelinA2 said...

K-1 user, then K-1 MkII user since the Pentax update offer last summer.

K-1 Tip: Check your firmware and make sure its the latest version. Really improves performance.

BEWARE of the K-1 MkII... It's seductive (in a good way).

Cheers... M

dwross said...

Completely agree with your assessment of the K1. I keep thinking I want a lighter camera, and I've tried a couple, but I always come back to my Pentank.

pswann said...

My first DSLR was a Pentax K10D with the SMCP-FA 50mm f/1.4 (which, I believe, is the one you have). I then read Michael Johnston's review of the 35mm macro (https://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2008/04/the-smc-pentax.html) and had to have it, too. Loved everything about the system. But I got worried about Pentax's future and sold it all to switch to Nikon. I still love many of the shots I got with my Pentax gear and, quite frankly, I still wish I had it all. Photographers have been fretting about Pentax's long term viability for a decade plus now, and we're all a little bit poorer for it.

And, for what it's worth, that review of the 35mm macro was and is one of my favorite bits of photography gear reviewing/writing, and your Pentax review here ranks right up there with it. You and Mike are thoughtful guys and great writers, but I must also have a weakness for Pentax.

Michael Lunceford said...

Hi Kirk,
I don't know if it would cramp your blogging style, which is very refreshing, but should you ever like to try a Pentax lens without bringing out the plastic, you are welcome to try any of mine, including the 77mm. Since I also live in Austin it would be an easy thing to do, and that way I would get to meet you. (I could brag about my cleverness, but my gambit is so blatantly transparent.)

Class A said...

Nice to see a real photographer who appreciates the qualities of a Pentax K-1.

Very refreshing compared to the more or less voluntarily shilling of the market's newest electronic gadgets on "photography's effete, millennial saturated (dis)information commerce site". Now if I could only remember where I got that last brilliant description from. ;)

The SMC 50/1.4 is not great near wide open. The new HD D-FA* 50/1.4 is leagues better overall. It is of course much larger and heavier as well, so it just depends on which lens suits you more.

I have the Rokinon (Samyang) 85/1.4 in K-mount and it supports automatic metering. Great lens, if you don't mind the manual focus. I'm sure the 85/1.4 Pentax is about to release will be even better, it will cost a lot more though.