Pentax K-01 £679.99
24th May 2012 | 11:55
Is the K-01 a knock out blow to its rivals?
Pentax isn't a company to rest on its laurels. As we saw with the the Pentax Qcompact system camera, it's willing to push camera design in often exciting and unconventional directions. With the K-01, Pentax has created a mirrorless system camera that can use any existing K-mount lens, without the need for adaptors, which should surely appeal to existing Pentax SLR owners.
The Pentax K-01 differs from other mirrorless systems because it uses the same mirror box unit and lens mount found on Pentax DSLRs, but without the reflex mirror. Besides allowing existing lenses to fit, it means the lens is no closer to the sensor than it would be on a DSLR, so the camera isn't all that much smaller than the most compact DSLR bodies Pentax produces.
The APS-C CMOS sensor found in the Pentax K-5 camera body, which was very well received, has been transplanted into the Pentax K-01, along with the Pentax SR system, which moves the sensor to compensate for camera shake.
The design of the Pentax K-01 is quite striking too. Renowned designer Marc Newson has been drafted in to make the camera as unique in appearance as it is technically. It's his first camera design, since his staple work includes designing furniture, watches and champagne coolers, so it's quite intriguing that Pentax decided to go down this route.
For those who can't abide the usual black or silver colour choices most cameras are finished in, the Pentax K-01 is also available in yellow.
It's difficult to tell who exactly Pentax is aiming this camera at. Without a doubt, it may be appealing to owners of existing Pentax gear, as a slightly more compact alternative. However, photographers who are new to Pentax may be put off by the weighty body and chunky dimensions.
Sensor: 16MP CMOS
ISO range: ISO 100-12800, expandable to 25600
LCD screen: 3-inch LCD
Dimensions: 79 x 121 x 59mm, 560g
It has plenty of features to tempt beginners and experienced photographers alike. A full range of exposure options (including manual) are at your disposal, as well as other more exotic features, such as automatic HDR. Beginners are catered for with a comprehensive range of automatic scene programs and two automatic modes, one of which disables the built-in flash.
Videographers may also be interested in the Pentax K-01. Full HD video recording is possible, and an input for an external stereo microphone is provided, along with mini-HDMI connectivity.
At the heart of the Pentax K-01 lies the same 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor found in the Pentax K-5 DSLR, which offers a native ISO sensitivity range of ISO 100-12800 and ISO 25600 with ISO expansion enabled. This should provide ample scope for taking pictures in a wide range of conditions, whether it be dark or light, or for forcing faster shutter speeds to freeze fast action.
A sensor shift shake reduction system is also provided for those times you wish to take handheld shots at low shutter speeds. It works by moving the CMOS sensor to compensate for camera movement.
A range of creative manual exposure modes can be selected via the chunky exposure mode dial on top of the Pentax K-01. Accompanying these are a standard automatic mode, a comprehensive range of 18 auto-scene programs, an auto mode with flash disabled and an automatic HDR mode, which is ideal for shooting contrasty scenes.
This HDR mode works by taking three images at different exposures, which are then combined in-camera, producing an image with more detail in highlight and shadow areas. Three different levels of the effect can be selected, along with an auto mode, which attempts to gauge how contrasty the scene is, and apply the appropriate level of HDR effect.
A 3-inch screen with a resolution of 921,000 dots provides a clear view during picture composition and playback. The screen isn't articulated in any way, which is a shame, because this can help with taking pictures from low or high viewpoints.
Full HD video recording at up to 30 frames per second is possible, which is recorded using the popular H.264 codec. Higher frame rates of 60 frames per second are possible with the resolution dropped to 720p, which can be useful if the footage is intended to be played back slower, for a slow motion effect.
A stereo microphone input is provided, for use with high quality microphones for video, and the footage can be exported via the HDMI connector, beside the SD card slot. Unfortunately autofocus is disabled during recording, leaving you to adjust focus manually if the distance to your subject changes during recording.
A pop-up flash is provided, which covers the angle of view of an 18mm lens and provides ample illumination for fill-in at close quarters.
There's also a standard ISO hotshoe with connections for TTL operation with Pentax flashguns is located just behind the pop-up flash. This provides extra scope for shooting in low light, or using third-party flash accessories, such as wireless flash triggers.
SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards are supported by the Pentax K-01, providing plenty of options for storage. However, during testing the camera refused to work with a couple of Class 4 Samsung-branded SDHC cards, both of which work fine in other cameras. Other brands of SD media we tried all worked perfectly.
Build quality and handling
Marc Newson's design touches make the Pentax K-01 look quite unlike other cameras available at the moment. Whether this look is appealing or not is subjective, but the flat, boxy design feels more brick-like, than like a sophisticated photographic tool in the hand.
A rubber coating has been applied around the front and side of the camera body, which provides a firm grip, although part of this rubber forms a flap that covers the SD card slot, and is prone to flop open if care isn't taken to avoid catching the edge of it.
Many of the buttons for menus and features such as exposure compensation and video recording are laid out in a geometric fashion across the top and down the back of the camera body.
While, for the most part, the arrangement of controls is good, it can be difficult to operate the exposure compensation button without catching the video button, which can result in accidentally recording a short video clip. Also, the green function button is placed so far from the grip that it can be difficult to reach without some finger gymnastics.
The screen is bright and clear and provides wide viewing angles, but the glossy acrylic cover can hamper visibility when viewing the screen from an angle in bright conditions.
Helpfully, the flash unit pops up a fair distance above the camera, which should help to reduce the effects of red-eye in portraits. The articulated mechanism feels very sturdy, too.
In some respects, it can seem like a little too much attention has been paid to aesthetics, rather than ergonomics. However, the body does feel very solidly put together, and the dials on the camera especially have a quality feel to them, producing a good solid click when operated.
The same 1860mAh D-Li90 battery found in the Pentax K-5 DSLR powers the Pentax K-01. This chunky battery should provide most users with more than enough power for a lengthy photography session, since after taking over 200 shots and a few short video clips during testing, the camera still showed a full charge.
For a mirrorless camera, the Pentax K-01 certainly isn't compact, when compared to Micro Four Thirds and even Sony NEX cameras, and is also relatively heavy, weighing 560g with the battery and memory card installed.
The Pentax K-01 ships with a 40mm pancake lens, which is currently the thinnest lens of its type available, and does shave a fair chuck off the overall size of the camera. Kits with an 18-55mm and 55-200mm zoom are also available.
Pictures produced by the Pentax K-01 are rich in detail and vibrant in colour, without appearing unnatural, and it it more than capable of producing stunning results with the right subject, in the right conditions.
Its multi-segment metering is consistent, but often tends to underexpose, even when scenes only have small bright areas in them. But at least the highlights are preserved, High-contrast scenes nearly always fool the multi-segment metering, so having three stops of exposure compensation either side of the metered value at your disposal is handy.
Meanwhile the auto white balance system does a decent job of correcting colour casts under artificial lighting, leaving a warm cast. However, under overcast conditions images can be left looking quite cold, with a noticeable blue cast being produced in the image.
Plenty of white balance presets are provided, which correct casts adequately, and a custom white balance function is there for times when the colour lighting is tricky to compensate for.
Because the sensor fitted to the Pentax K-01 CSC is the same unit found in the Pentax K-5 DSLR, noise control at high sensitivities is pretty much the same. This is a good thing, because the Pentax K-5 performs extremely well at high sensitivities.
There is no significant image degradation due to noise until ISO 1600, where a little noise can be seen in midtones, and a little softening due to noise reduction can be seen on in-camera JPEGs. Even so, the effects of noise are only very slight, and even pictures taken at ISO 6400 should be printable to around A4 (US letter) size.
Beyond that, noise starts to become much more prominent, although images taken at ISO 25600 still have accurate colours, and should be more than adequate for sharing at low resolutions on the web.
Raw images taken at sensitivities of ISO 3200 and above display much higher levels of noise, but they also contain much more detail. A combination of careful noise reduction and sharpening in post processing can still yield good results though.
Auto focus speed and the (lack of) responsiveness of the shutter are both weak points of this camera. Even in good light, with a high-contrast subject, the autofocus system takes at least the best part of a second to lock onto a subject. In low light conditions and with low contrast subjects, a frustrating wait while the camera tracks back and forth attempting to find a lock is the norm.
Luckily, manual focusing is quite easy, since pressing the OK button magnifies the centre section of the image on the screen to improve accuracy.
But the delay between pressing the shutter release, once the lens is focused, and the shutter firing can be quite noticeable, especially when taking pictures of moving subjects. This can be very frustrating, since fleeting moments are easily missed, and even people's expressions may have changed during the delay.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Pentax K-01, we've shot our resolution chart with a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens mounted.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Pentax K-01 is capable of resolving up to around 22 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 22 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 22 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 22 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 22 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: 22 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 128000, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 25600, score: 18 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 100, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 24 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 12800, score: 20 (Click here for the full resolution image)
ISO 25600, score: 16 (Click here for the full resolution image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG signal to noise ratio
JPEG images from the Pentax K-01 have good signal to noise ratio results, and while just beaten by the Pentax K-5 at ISO 100 and 12800, at all other sensitivities the K-01 just has the edge.
Raw (after conversion to TIFF) signal to noise ratio
TIFF files (after conversion from raw) again show that the K-01 handles noise well across the sensitivity range, with noise only starting to become apparent from ISO 3200.
JPEG Dynamic range
Results show that the Pentax K-01 produces similar results to the Pentax K-5, Panasonic GF5 and Olympus E-P3 up to ISO 800. Above this sensitivity the K-01 show better dynamic range performance than the comparison cameras.
Raw (after conversion to TIFF) dynamic range
Between sensitivities of ISO 100 and 1600 the TIFF (after conversion from raw) dynamic range shows a big improvement over the K-5. Above this sensitivity the results are still respectable, but show that tonal graduation in the highlights and shadows can easily be lost at the highest ISO settings.
The large APS-C sensor enables shallow depth of field, with images taken at fast apertures.
Shutter speeds as fast as 1/4000sec can be selected, for freezing fast action. A bulb option is also provided for extremely long exposures.
Auto white balance does an excellent job indoors
Colours are vibrant direct from the camera
Images are vibrant and contain plenty of detail straight from the camera. However, multi-segment metering tends to underexpose: +1.3 stops of exposure compensation were required for this shot.
Quality at high sensitivities is impressive
Three different levels of auto HDR effect can be selected by the user. Note the chromatic aberration around the arch caused by the pancake kit lens.
Colours straight from the camera are vibrant, without looking unnatural
Dynamic range is good, with plenty of detail being retained in shadow and highlight areas.
The addition of a standard hotshoe means third-party flash accessories can be used, which is great for studio photography.
The large APS-C sensor results in narrower depth of field, which is great for blurring background at wide apertures.
Plenty of detail is contained in images taken with the Pentax K-01.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
With current prices for the Pentax K-01 hovering around £680 in the UK and $900 in the US, this camera is about as inexpensive as it is compact. When compared to similarly specified competition, the price is a little dearer.
Much of the competition, such as the Panasonic Lumix GX1, Olympus PEN E-P3 or the Sony NEX-5N, also benefit from a more compact body and faster autofocus performance. This makes it really difficult to see the value in the Pentax K-01, unless you already have a stash of Pentax K-mount lenses to use with the camera.
This is a shame because, frustrations with the slow autofocus performance and slightly odd handling aside, Pentax has created a very capable camera in the K-01.
The Pentax K-01 produces sharp, vibrant images with low noise at high sensitivities. The ability to use any K-mount lens with the camera is also an asset, especially for those who have already invested in Pentax optics.
Auto focus speeds are lacklustre when compared to the opposition, which may be frustrating if attempting to shoot erratically moving subjects. Some elements of the handling could be improved on, such as the rubber flap that protects the SD card slot and the positioning of some buttons.
Image quality on the Pentax K-01 is excellent, with the camera yielding sharp, colourful images, with low noise at high sensitivities. Plus, it has the features to please both beginners and experienced photographers alike.
The Pentax K-01 is certainly capable of producing excellent quality images, but unless you already own Pentax optics, it may not be the best value mirrorless camera available with current prices.
Having said that, it may be worth keeping an eye on the street price of the Pentax K-01. If it were to fall, it could become a champion of good value, especially for existing Pentax lens owners, or those willing to sniff out a good lens bargain second-hand. It appears the ability to use any K-mount lens is this camera's main asset.