It happens the same way a lot of the time. I'll go into our bricks and mortar camera store here in Austin, Texas; Precision Camera, with the intention of picking up some ink cartridges for my ever thirsty printer, or I'll have a pressing need for a specific shade of gray seamless background paper, and as I'm standing around chatting with my sales associate I'll spy a camera that's still a mystery to me.
It happened about a month or so ago. I was finished with my business (buying yet another microphone) and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a used Pentax K-1 nestled at the bottom right hand side of a massive mountain of used Nikon cameras. I asked Tamara if I could take a closer look and she pulled it off the shelf and put it into my hands. This is a camera with that exudes toughness and it's denser and heavier than it looks when sitting dormant. I played with it and deliberated for a few minutes. The purchase price was under $1,000 and I'd casually looked at prices a week or so ago so I knew it must be something the store didn't think would move quickly because typically a very mint condition K-1 sells used for somewhere around $1300. I decided to buy it. I asked about lenses but the store is no longer a Pentax dealer and had no inventory of full frame lenses; used or otherwise.
So, exactly what is the Pentax K-1? In a nutshell, it's Pentax first effort at producing a full frame, high resolution, professional caliber DSLR. Not mirrorless but a traditional DSLR. With all that entails. The camera is obviously over engineered and feels like it's milled from a solid block of metal. All the buttons and dials are inspiring examples of good fit and finish. And the 36 megapixel, full frame sensor is much lauded by reviewers all over the web for both its incredible dynamic range (at least equal to the Nikon D810 when matched for ISO) and it's really good noise performance when used at high ISOs.
The camera has its own idiosyncracies and it also has some charming features that haven't shown up on cameras from other mainstream makers, yet. My favorite "far out" feature is the inclusion of LEDs all over the body which can be turned on to help a photographer find his or her way around the controls in dark environments. There are lights on the rear of the LCD screen so that when you pull the screen out from the body and push the "light bulb" button on the top of the camera four LEDs illuminate all the controls on the back of the camera. Guess work eliminated. There's an LED in the card slots area so you can be confident you are engaging slot one instead of slot two, if that's your goal (another weird twist is that unlike all other two slot cameras I've used the "first," or number one slot is actually closest to the front of the camera instead of being closer to the user. In other words, the slot closest to the back of the camera is actually slot #2. Weird, but then whose to say which is the "correct" orientation?
There is also a light just under the front of the pentaprism hump which illuminates the aperture ring and is a wonderful help when changing lenses in very dark situations. It's actually a godsend for theatrical photographers. Lens changes no longer have to happen in complete darkness....
Even though the camera is bereft of an EVF the actual optical finder is big and bright and sexy to look into (even if it shows you only a fraction of the valuable information spewed forth by a decent EVF). The body is chunky and amazingly comfortable to hold onto for long periods of time; if you can handle the weight. I've bought four lenses for the system so far. I initially bought the HD 28-105mm f3.5-5.6 FA WR lens because it seemed like the smart thing to do if I ended up relegating the camera to being an expensive "point and shoot" camera. But I quickly added two different 50mm f1.4 lenses because; well, you know ----- 50mm!!! Right?
While all of the lenses worked well and did nice stuff optically I ended up craving a portrait type focal length that would be faster than the 105mm f5.6 of the zoom so I bought the 100mm f2.8 macro lens. It's nice and also a bit Quixotic, at least when it comes to its industrial design.
The camera is pretty much just a summary of what professional DSLRs were like for the last decade= big, robust, fast to focus, full frame-y, and with lots of bells and whistles. The main differences between this camera and the Nikon and Canon variants really comes down to the health of the eco-system. How many different lenses can you buy to use on the camera? How many different third party lens makers supply their better lenses in Pentax K lens mounts? Etc.
The Pentax faithful will tell you that there are currently 13 billion lenses (mostly left over from the film days) that will fit the newest K mount cameras but most are a compromise as far as utilizing features is concerning. Most are manual focusing and a large portion don't work in most automatic modes. Frankly, lens design has changed and there are things that need to be taken into account when mating any lens with a state of the art, high def sensor. The coatings must be different than those used with film and special care has to be taken to avoid light reflecting off the sensor surface and bouncing back to the rear element where it has the potential to cause artifacts and also create flare. Additionally, film lenses were never designed and calibrated for very high resolutions. Most were designed to favor acutance over lines per mm.
Don't get me wrong. You can put together a modern system with current lenses, designed for modern sensors but the pickings outside the system will be slim. Only a handful of Rokinon/Samyang lenses are made in the Pentax mount (24mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4 and the 85mm f1.4 as well as the 100mm macro and the 135mm f2.0) but again these are all manual focusing and have no communication between camera and lens. You can put together a Pentax full frame version of the "holy trinity" with the 15-30mm, the 24-70mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f2.8 and you'll be covered for most shooting situations. There's a pricey 50mm f1.4 that's supposed to be as good as anything out there (and a bargain compared to the price of the 50mm f1.4 for the new Panasonic full frame cameras!!!!) but if you want current, affordable primes you'll really need to pick and choose. I bought two different 50mm f1.4 lenses. One is the last MF model (SMC) and the other is the (still current in the catalog) inexpensive, screwdriver drive version that's potentially a remake of the MF lens.
One does get the distinct feeling that if Ricoh doesn't pay a bit more attention to fleshing out the full frame product in the next year that they'll be partially responsible for driving the Pentax line into extinction.
So why did a I bother? Why did I buy a second body? Why do I keep buying additional lenses (like one of those old ladies in Las Vegas who wears a glove to prevent blisters as they keep feeding quarters into a slot machine and pulling down the lever? I guess I like the novelty of the whole experience. Then again it massages my nostalgia for a way of working that goes all the way back to the film days. The files from the camera are as good as anything out on the market at any price, up to (but not competing with) medium format. It's one of the few systems that has really, really good IBIS and that means all my lenses (the small handful I currently have) are now stabilized. The lack of lens choices helps to keep me from spending all my money on ever newer lenses and tricks me into taking seriously the idea of being a Pentax full frame minimalist.
On the other hand my left brain loves the fact that it's mature technology. That the shutter is rated to 300,000 exposures. That the camera is incredibly well sealed and completely gasketed. And then there all the features that I love the "idea" of even if I may never get around to using them. Things like the multi-shot high resolution feature and the astrophotography feature. The composition fine tuning, horizon adjustment and other weird stuff. When you realize how much full frame goodness you can get for a very satisfying price, in a body built like it's tough enough for a moon launch, the K-1 makes a good candidate for a second system to use during those times when you just want to go old school, or deliver files with even more resolution and sharpness than you can get when you pull out all the stops in your APS-C system. That said, my recent hit rate with a Fuji X-H1 and the 90mm f2.0 Fuji lens far exceeded the success rate I got from the K-1 in a small, dark theater.
I like using the K-1 cameras for personal work. It's just a different feel and a different mindset. One that I'm not immune to enjoying. I'll be taking one of the K-1s, a 50mm and the 28-105mm on vacation with me in a couple of weeks.
Personal note: Though I travel a good bit for clients (about 30 roundtrips in North America and one to Iceland last year) I haven't paid out of pocket for my own travel since Ben graduated from his college in upstate N.Y. I haven't taken a real vacation since my parents started faltering.... So, Belinda finally put her foot down and mandated that we take a real vacation; not a "write off" vacation. We decided to go to Montreal early next month and explore the area around that great Canadian city. We're committed. Tickets booked. Non-refundable hotel suite booked. Passports and Global Entry cards at the ready. Camera selection just beginning. Any VSL readers in Montreal?