Pentax K-1 Review

May 9, 2016 | Mark Goldstein |


The Pentax K-1 is a new professional full-frame DSLR camera. Key features of the K-1 include a 36 megapixel 35mm sensor with an anti-aliasing simulator rather than an optical anti-aliasing filter, Pixel Shift Resolution technology which delivers super-high-resolution images with more accurate colour reproduction, finer detail and less noise, the new PRIME IV imaging engine, and 14-bit RAW-format image recording. The K-1 also features a built-in GPS system with an electronic compass and astro-tracer function, 5-axis shake-reduction system, wi-fi connectivity, a 33-point Safox XII AF module, 86,000 pixel RGB light-metering sensor, ISO range of 100-204,80000, Full HD 1080p video at 60fps, and 4.4fps continuous shooting. The K-1 has a dustproof, weather-resistant and cold-resistant construction, a shutter designed for 300,000 releases, top shutter speed of 1/8000th second, an optical viewfinder with a nearly 100-percent field of view, a newly designed, flexible tilt-type 3.2-inch LCD monitor with 1037k dots, built-in dust removal, dual SD card slots and a USB 3.0 port. The Pentax K-1 is available in black for £1599 / $1799 body-only.

Ease of Use

The Pentax K-1 is outwardly quite similar to the K-3 II camera, but it's both bigger - 110(H) x 136.5(W) x 85.5(D) - and much heavier, weighing in at 1010g without the battery or memory card fitted, making it the largest Pentax DSLR to date.

The K-1 has a stainless-steel alloy frame and lightweight magnesium-steel alloy body. The K-1 is dust, cold and water resistant, thanks to a system of 87 special seals used throughout the design, and it can operate at temperatures as low as -10°C. This shows itself most obviously via the battery compartment and the memory card slot. The former is opened via a small rotating latch, which is reassuring but a little fiddly to use if you're in a hurry.

The K-1 features a shutter unit which provides a fast top shutter speed of 1/8000th second and an incredible 300,000 shutter release life-span. Rather than an optical anti-aliasing filter in the camera, the K-1 has an innovative anti-aliasing simulator instead, which can be turned off (default setting) or on to either the Type1 or Type2 setting, which adjusts the level of the effect.

The camera has a deep, contoured handgrip on the right-hand side, coated in a rubberized compound to aid grip, that enabled us to use three fingers to hold it and a right forefinger to operate the shutter button. There is a generous contoured area on the rear where your right thumb sits, with the rest of the body finished in a textured matt black. The shutter release action on the Pentax K-1 is quiet, which makes the K-1 well suited to more candid photography.

On the front of the Pentax K-1 is a RAW / Fx1 button, which instantly sets the image quality to whichever RAW format is selected in the menu system (either Pentax's PEF format or Adobe DNG), useful if you are shooting in JPEG and want to quickly switch to RAW mode for a particular image. This button can also be customised to optionally control either Exposure Bracketing, Digital Preview, Electronic Level or Composition Adjustment. Located underneath is the Autofocus Mode button, with three available modes (AF-S, AF-A and AF-C), and underneath a switch for changing between manual and auto focusing. New to the K-1 is a Lock button at the top which to temporarily locks certain control buttons and dials.

The Pentax K-1 has a built-in GPS unit, which can be toggled on and off via the dedicated button on top of the camera. This system records longitude, latitude and altitude data, and can be used with Google Earth to show where your photos were taken. There's also a special built-in Astrotracer function which calculates the earth's rotation to help ensure that stars are captured without streaking.

Connecting to the Pentax K-S2’s built-in Wi-Fi is done via the Smart Function dial, with the Wi-fi LED showing if you're connected or not. Once you have the dedicated Image Sync app installed on your device and you’re connected, you can shoot remotely, and very pleasingly, you have pretty much complete control over the camera’s shooting capability. So, you can change aperture, ISO, shutter speed and more - the only thing you won’t be able to change is the focal length of the lens. On the whole it’s a great app to use, and other manufacturers could look to this app for inspiration on how to produce a genuinely useful smartphone remote control app. The other option you have is to download images taken on the camera across to your smartphone or tablet for quick sharing to social networks or email.

Using the in-body SR (shake reduction) mechanism, Pixel Shift Resolution works by shifting the image sensor by a single pixel in four different directions and merging four shots together, so that each photosite on the sensor captures red, green and blue from the colour filter array, rather than just a single colour as on a Bayer sensor. Pentax claims that this creates "super high-definition images" with more accurate colour reproduction, finer detail, elimination of false color aliasing and less noise. Images taken with the Pixel Shift Resolution function turned on can be processed on the camera and also developed using the included utility software. Note that you should use a tripod or other support when using this feature, plus one of the Self-timer, Remote Control, or Mirror Lock-up functions, although it can now be used more effectively for moving subjects thanks to the new Motion Correction function.

Pentax K-1
Front of the Pentax K-1

Diffraction Correction claims to make all your lenses better by reducing the effects of diffraction by around two f-stops. Depending on the quality of the lens, diffraction is commonly seen at f/16-f/22, so Diffraction Correction promises to make an image captured at f/22 look more like one captured at f/11 in terms of definition and sharpness.

On the bottom of the K-1 is the weather-sealed battery compartment, housing the same rechargeable 1860mAh D-LI90P lithium-ion battery as used by the K-3 II camera. The K-1 managed around 760 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery before being depleted. There's also a metal tripod mount that's perfectly in-line with the centre of the lens mount.

On the right-hand side of the K-1 is a weather-sealed SD / SDHC / SDXC dual memory card compartment that's compatible with SDXC UHS-1 speed cards. Located below is the remote cable release connector. On the left-hand side is a large vertical flap covering the DC In, USB 2.0 and HDMI connectors. The HDMI port allows you to connect the K-1 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase an optional HDMI mini-cable. Above this are a small Mic port for connecting an external microphone and a headphone port, both protected by round rubber seals.

The Pentax K-1 follows conventional DSLR design in having a shooting mode dial on the top-left of the camera, which allows you to select either one of the advanced mode like Aperture-priority, Shutter-Priority and Manual, or the more point-and-shoot Auto and Program modes. There are no scene modes on this camera, signaling its intent as a serious photographic tool.

You'll instantly notice that the K-1 has a couple of unusual shooting modes that you won't have seen before on any other camera. These are the Sensitivity-Priority and Shutter & Aperture-Priority modes. Sensitivity-Priority automatically selects the best combination of aperture and shutter speed for your chosen ISO speed. The sensitivity can be shifted instantly (in 1/2 or 1/3 steps) by turning the rear control dial. This allows you to quickly select an ISO speed, without having to access the menu system, which is very useful in rapidly changing light conditions.

In the Shutter & Aperture-Priority mode the camera selects the most appropriate ISO speed for a shutter speed and aperture combination, allowing you to use ISO sensitivity as a third factor in determining the correct exposure. As digital cameras have always offered the unique ability to instantly change the sensitivity, it's surprising that Pentax are still the only manufacturer to allow you to use ISO in this way. At the base of the shooting mode dial is a switch which locks and unlocks the dial.

On the right-hand side of the top of the K-1 is the small shutter button, surrounded by the on/off switch. This has a third setting, which by default activates the traditional Depth of Field Preview function, stopping down the lens so that you can see the effect of your chosen aperture. Located in front of the shutter button is one of the e-dials, predominately used to change the shutter speed, while behind it are the Exposure Compensation and ISO buttons - these commonly-used functions are ideally located for easy access.

New to the K-1 is the Smart Function camera operation system, which is controlled via two new dials. The first is marked with 9 different options ranging from exposure compensation to wi-fi, while the second unmarked dial enables you to quickly set the chosen function. While this new system does group together the camera's key settings in one place, it does so at the expense of the traditional top LCD panel, which is still present but much smaller than on the K-3 II camera, with fewer settings displayed.

Pentax K-1
Rear of the Pentax K-1

The Pentax K-1 has a traditional eye-level optical TTL viewfinder which offers an impressive 100% scene coverage and 0.70x magnification. Being able to see exactly what will be captured means that you can only blame yourself for poor composition and unwanted details creeping into the frame. The viewfinder is bright and free of any distortions or aberrations, making it suitable for both auto and manual focusing. It also features a Natural-Bright-Matte III focusing screen to improve focusing accuracy during manual-focus operation. The K-1 now has a transparent viewfinder display, which optionally shows a grid pattern, Digital Level, AF frame or spot-metering frame right in the viewfinder, along with an in-finder status LCD runs horizontally along the bottom and it shows most of the camera's key settings.

On the rear of the K-1 is a large 3.2 inch LCD screen. The K-1's LCD screen has a very high resolution of 1,037K dots, wide viewing angle and it's gapless design helps it to remains visible outdoors in all but the brightest of conditions, making it one of the best LCD screens that we've seen on a DSLR. The brightness, saturation and colour temperature of the screen can be modified if you think it doesn't match that of your calibrated computer monitor.

The K-1's monitor features an innovative mechanism using 4 metal rods that allows for unrestricted tilt in all directions with no deviation from the optical axis, plus it can be tilted to almost 90-degrees for waist-level photography. Although it seems a little fragile at first, the fact that you can hold the camera and a lens by the LCD screen is testament to its strength, and it did prove genuinely useful out in the field.

The rear screen also doubles as a comprehensive status display, which can be called up by pressing the OK or Info buttons in record mode. If you then press the Info button again, you can also change all the settings right on the screen using a combination of the navigation pad and the rear e-dial. This ingenious solution spares you the pain of having to enter the menu, and makes most setting changes via the LCD screen very simple.

Another innovative feature that the K-1 offers are its operation assist lights. These consist of four bright LEDs that are positioned at the upper side of the lens mount, behind the LCD monitor, at the memory card slot, and at the cable switch terminal. Pressing the illumination button on top of the camera lights them up to assist with operating the camera in the dark, and you can switch them d on and off individually.

Located above the LCD screen and to the left of the viewfinder are the self-explanatory Live View button, which turns on the K-1's Live View mode, and the Metering Mode button, the latter doubling up as the Delete button. You can use the Live View mode to hold the K-1 at arm's length or mount the camera on a tripod, with a single press of the LV button on the rear displaying the current scene on the LCD screen. Focusing is achieved by pressing the small AF button on the rear of the camera or by half-pressing the shutter-button. Alternatively you can use manual focus in Live View mode, with up to 10x magnification available via the OK button to help you fine-tune the focus (you can also use the OK button to magnify the subject by up to 10x when Auto Focus is on).

Most of the main camera settings are displayed in Live View, including a helpful electronic level that helps to keep your horizons straight, although a histogram is still conspicuous by its absence. You can change the aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO speed and a number of other settings when Live View is activated. Live View is fine for use with stationary subjects, but forget it if you want to track a moving subject. The AF system in Live View mode takes a couple of seconds to lock onto the subject, making it much better suited to subjects that don't move. The Face Recognition AF mode works quite well, as promised quickly identifying up to 16 people in the frame, but again it takes a couple of seconds to lock onto a non-moving subject. More impressively Live View can be used in the continuous shooting mode with no restrictions on the 4.4fps rate, as the K-1 sets the mirror to the lock-up position.

Pentax K-1
Top of the Pentax K-1

Alongside this is the rear e-dial, mainly used for changing the aperture and zooming in/out during playback, the AF button which can be used instead of half-pressing the shutter button to set autofocus, and the AE-L button, handily placed for locking the exposure.

Underneath is a rather innocuous looking button with a small green dot that's unique to Pentax DSLRs. It has two uses - firstly, when shooting in Manual mode, a single push of the green button allows you to instantly set the correct exposure for the subject, as calculated by the camera, useful if you need a starting point for your own exposure. Secondly, the K-1 offers a Hyper Program function which instantly switches to either the Shutter-Priority or Aperture-Priority mode from the Program mode, simply by turning either of the control dials on the grip. Pressing the Green button then returns to the Program mode.

The K-1 can record 1080 HD footage, recording high-definition video at 1920 x 1280 pixels at 60i/50i/30p/25p/24p or 1280 x 720 pixels at 60p/50p/30p/25p/24p in the Motion JPEG (MOV) format. An innovative interval movie mode captures a series of 4K-resolution movie clips (3840 x 2160 pixels) at a fixed interval. The maximum size of a single video clip is either 4 gigabytes or 25 minutes. There's a built-in microphone for stereo recording, a socket for connecting an external stereo microphone and a headphone terminal. You can adjust the audio recording level manually and monitor sound levels during microphone recording. It also has an HDMI port for playback on a HD TV, using the industry-standard HDMI mini-out connection, but note that you'll need to purchase a suitable cable separately. You can also still connect the K-1 to a standard TV set via NTSC/PAL.

Importantly you can autofocus during movie recording, bringing the K-1 in-line with its main rivals. Unfortunately you still can't set the aperture from the camera during recording, only before, so you will want to use lenses that have an aperture ring if possible. The K-1 can be set to Auto Aperture Control, which removes the flexibility of being able to set the aperture yourself but at least enables the camera to change it during recording to suit the subject matter. The shutter speed cannot be set by the user in movie mode either, so you will have to rely on the camera's auto-exposure system while filming.

A traditional 4-way navigation pad is split into separate buttons, providing instant access to the drive mode/self-timer, custom image, outdoor view and white balance settings, with the OK button confirming actions. The Menu button underneath accesses all of the 100+ different menu options that the camera offers, reflecting the fact that this a complex and very customisable DSLR. Thankfully you will only have to set about half of the settings once and can then forget about them. The menu system has a fairly logical tabbed system with five main tabs, Camera, Movie, Playback, Set-Up and Custom Setting, each divided into several sub-pages, and it's easily readable with a bright display and a large font size making it perfectly visible even in low light.

In addition to the Info button that we've already mentioned, the Pentax K-1 has an Autofocus Area button which allows you to quickly set the AF point to one of the 33 available. Impressively 25 of these are cross-type sensors positioned in the middle, with the centre sensor and two sensors just above and below it designed to detect the light flux of an F2.8 lens. In Playback mode this allows you to toggle between the dual SD cards.

Pentax K-1
The Pentax K-1 In-hand

The Pentax K-1 features an improved built-in Shake Reduction system. Turn it on via the main menu option and the K-1 automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds, now providing approximately 5 shutter stops of compensation thanks to a new 5-axis gyro-sensor. As this system is built-into the camera body, it works with almost any lens that you attach to the K-1, providing a significant cost advantage over DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, which use a lens-based image stabilisation system (compatible lenses are the PENTAX K-, KA-, KAF-, KAF2- and KAF3-mount lenses; screw-mounted lenses (with an adapter); and 645- and 67-system lenses (with an adapter)). The K-1 displays a blur icon in the viewfinder to warn you that camera-shake may occur, regardless of whether or not Shake Reduction is on.

If you've had a bad experience with DSLRs and dust in the past, the K-1 offers the Dust Removal II mechanism. This automatically shifts the low-pass filter located in front of the CMOS image sensor at very high speed, shaking the dust off the low-pass filter. If you do still notice any dust, there's a neat feature called Dust Alert which is designed to show exactly where the dust is on the image sensor. A vertically and laterally correct image of the sensor shot at f/16 is shown on the LCD screen, indicate exactly where any stubborn dust particles may be lurking. While this feature won't prevent dust from getting onto the sensor, it does provide a quick and easy way of checking for it. In addition Dust Removal can be set to activate whenever the camera is turned on, and you can also use the built-in Sensor Cleaning function to lift the mirror and clean the image sensor with a blower brush or third-party cleaning solution.

The Pentax K-1's High Dynamic Range (HDR) Capture option takes three images with different exposures, with 3 different strengths on offer, and then records a single image that combines the properly exposed parts of each one, expanding its dynamic range. It's important to always use a tripod to prevent camera shake from blurring the HDR image, and it doesn't work very well for moving subjects. Similar to Nikon's D-lighting, Sony's DRO, and Olympus' Shadow Adjustment Technology, Pentax's D-Range allows you to correct the highlights (On or Off) and/or the shadows (3 different levels) before taking a JPEG or RAW image. Although this option is always at your disposal, remember that it is meant to be used in strong, contrasty lighting at base ISO. The Pentax K-1 also has a multi-exposure mode that allows you to combine between two and 2,000(!) different JPEG or RAW images into a single photo and a Cross Processing mode with four built-in effects and custom options that replicates the traditional effect of cross-processing film.

Pentax's Custom Images, similar to Nikon's Picture Styles and Canon's Picture Controls, are preset combinations of different sharpness, contrast, saturation and colour tone settings. You can change the saturation, hue, high/low key, contrast and sharpness for each of the ten options”. The Pentax K-1 additionally offers nine different Digital Filters, which allow you to quickly apply an artistic effect to a photo before taking it (JPEG images only). Note that applying the Digital Filters slows the camera down somewhat, as it has to process the image for a few seconds after it's taken. The K-1 can also be set to automatically compensate for both distortion and lateral chromatic aberration of any DA- and DFA-series lenses.

The rather innocuous-sounding AF Adjustment custom function will be of particular interest to current Pentax owners. If you have a collection of older Pentax lenses and you've never been quite sure how accurate they focus when mounted on a DSLR, this is the function for you. Essentially it allows you to alter the focus of each lens. You can use a focusing target to test if the lens focuses correctly, and if it doesn't alter it slightly using the AF Adjustment option, then test again until perfect focus is achieved. With most other DSLR systems you'd have to send the camera and lens off for calibration (and maybe even have to pay for it), but with the K-1, you can calibrate all of your lenses in the comfort of your own home.

The start-up time of the Pentax K-1, from turning the camera on to being ready to take a photo, is very quick for at around 1 second. Focusing is snappy even in low-light thanks to the newly developed, highly sensitive SAFOX XII AF module. It takes about 1 second to store a JPEG image at the highest quality setting with no discernible lockup between taking shots, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card. For RAW images the Pentax K-1 takes about 2 seconds to store an image and again there is no lockup between shots. In the continuous shooting mode you can hold down the shutter button and take 4.4 shots per second for up to 70 JPEGS or 17 RAW files, an impressive performance given the large 36 megapixel files that this camera produces. The K-1 does lock up for a few seconds once the maximum number of shots is reached, although you can continue to shoot continuously, just at a much slower rate.