12th Jun 2013 | 22:03
It's a Q, with a (bit) bigger sensor
While other manufacturers tend to put higher pixel count sensors in their new cameras, Pentax has made an unusual move and put a larger sensor in the latest addition to its Q series of compact system cameras (CSCs). Whereas the Pentax Q10 has a 12-million-pixel, 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, the new Pentax Q7 has a 12-million-pixel, 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor.
A 1/2.3-inch sensor typically measures 7.66 × 6.17mm, but a 1/1.7-inch sensor is usually around 9.5 × 7.6mm. Increasing the size of the sensor while keeping the pixel count the same should ensure improved image quality, at least at the centre of the frame, because larger photo sites gather more light, generate less noise and have a greater dynamic range.
However, the Pentax Q7 has exactly the same mount as the Pentax Q10 and accepts the same lenses, so it is possible that the corners and edges of images captured by the Pentax Q7 are softer and have more chromatic aberration and darkening.
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According to Pentax UK's Stephen Sanderson, the original Pentax Q design and its compatible lenses were built with this change in mind, so image quality should be improved across the frame. We will only know for sure once we have tested a full production sample.
Another consequence of having a larger sensor is that when lenses are mounted on the Pentax Q7 the angle of view is slightly wider than when they are mounted on the Pentax Q10. The Pentax Q10 has a focal length magnification factor of 5.5x, while the Pentax Q7 magnifies the focal length by 4.6x.
The widest lens currently available for the Q series is the 3.2mm f/5.6 fisheye lens. On the Pentax Q10 this produces images comparable with a 17.5mm lens on a 35mm camera, and on the Pentax Q7 it's 16.5mm.
Meanwhile, the 5-15mm standard zoom lens, which on the Pentax Q10 is equivalent to a 27.5-83mm lens, becomes the equivalent of a 23-69mm optic on the Pentax Q7.
In addition to changing the size of the sensor in the Q7, Pentax has changed the filter over it and, following the current vogue, there is no anti-aliasing filter. This should enable the camera to produce sharper images, with more detail - albeit with the increased risk of moiré patterning.
There's still a dust reduction mechanism that makes the infrared filter vibrate to reduce the need to clone out dust marks from images captured by the Pentax Q7.
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Like the Pentax Q10, the Pentax Q7 is designed for use by novices as well as enthusiast photographers, and consequently it has the usual program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual exposure modes, in addition to an automatic option and 21 scene modes.
The combination of the new sensor and the Q Engine has enabled Pentax to give the Q7 a maximum sensitivity setting of ISO 12,800. The start-up time has also been improved, and it now takes approximately one second to boot up.
Pentax also claims to have improved the focusing accuracy in low light situations.
As before with the Pentax Q10, the Pentax Q7 as a Shake Reduction (SR) system, but this has now been upgraded to enable you to shoot handheld images at up to three stops slower shutter speed than normal.
The Pentax Q7 is capable of recording raw and JPEG files, and there are 11 Custom Image options - namely Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, Vibrant, Radiant, Muted, Bleach Bypass, Reversal Film, Monochrome and Cross Processing - to give JPEG files a particular look.
There's also a number of digital filter effects, including Toy Camera, High Contrast, Shading, Slim, HDR, Invert Colour, Extract Colour, Watercolour, Posterization and Fisheye.
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Having a slightly larger sensor than the Pentax Q10 should mean that it is easier to control depth of field with the Pentax Q7, but it still has the Bokeh control first introduced with the original Q. When this mode is selected the camera applies additional blur to out of focus areas to simulate the effect of having a wide aperture and a large sensor.
Other headline features of the Pentax Q7 include a maximum continuous shooting speed of 5fps, Eye-Fi SD card compatibility, a three-image HDR mode, a multiple-exposure mode, remote control receptors on the front and back panels and a digital level that indicates when the horizon is correctly aligned.
Build quality and handling
The Pentax Q7 is small and neat, and feels nicely made - although as before, there's no sealing against dust or moisture. It is constructed from engineering plastic, but still feels pretty durable, and the narrow finger-grip provides good purchase.
The pop-up flash, however, still seems a little flimsy.
There's no getting away from the fact that those with large hands will find the Pentax Q7 a little on the fiddly side, but the controls are sensibly arranged on the whole, and the dials enable you to make quick adjustments.
A dial on the top of the camera gives you access to the exposure modes, Bokeh control and video mode, enabling you to make rapid changes. Those who want to shoot snippets of video here and there, however, may find it frustrating that recording can't just be started from any exposure mode with a press of a button.
A dial on the front of the camera provides access to one of five functions, including the focus method, Focus Peaking and the ND filter. You can set the different functions that the dial controls via the main menu.
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Within easy reach of the thumb is a scrolling dial which controls different functions, depending on what exposure mode you're in at the time. So, for instance, when shooting in aperture priority, you use it to alter aperture. When in fully manual mode, you can switch between aperture and shutter speed by pressing the exposure compensation button.
There's also a traditional four-way navigational pad on the back of the camera. From here you can directly access some of the key settings you'll probably want to change frequently, such as sensitivity (ISO) and white balance.
Changing the autofocus point is a relatively easy process, despite the fact that the Q7 doesn't have a touchscreen. All you need to do is press the OK button in the centre of the navigational pad, and then use the directional keys to move aorund to the point you require. A touchscreen would have made this process quicker, but with only 49 points clustered around the centre of the frame, it's not too slow a process.
To access other settings that you might want to change fairly often, you can press an info button on the rear of the camera which brings up a sort of quick menu which contains settings such as metering, file format and aspect ratio. The settings contained within this menu can't be changed though, which is a shame if you find yourself not using any of them.
A final button which deserves a mention is the green button just above the navigational pad. This is a quick way to reset certain settings – for instance if you are altering exposure compensation, a quick tap of the green button will reset it +/- O, saving you have to scroll though the whole range.
One particularly useful feature of the Q7 is that it will show you how an image is going to look when you make changes to certain settings, by displaying whichever photo you took last as if it had used that setting. It's a handy way to quickly tell if the setting you're choosing is correct, perhaps even more so when switching between different colour spaces or digital filters.
When focus peaking is activated and you're using manual focus, then white highlights will be shown on screen to indicate when focus has been reached. It's a helpful feature and makes it easier to focus correctly, but it would have been nice if different colours could have been selected as it's not always easy to see white highlights if you're photographing something pale or quite bright.
Despite the camera's small size, it still has a full sized SD card slot, unlike the micro SD slots of other small compact system cameras such as the Samsung NX Mini or the Nikon J4. This is good news if you already have a slew of SD cards in your arsenal.
Like the Pentax K-50 introduced at the same time, the Pentax Q7 is available by special order in one of 20 different body colours, with a further choice of different grip colours. So if you want a pink and blue, orange and lime, green and lilac or blue and brown camera, you're in luck.
The standard colours in the UK, however, are black, silver and yellow, with matching kit lenses. The standard prime lens is also available in the same 20 colours as the Pentax Q7 body. The price of the Pentax Q7 and the new Q lens is yet to be confirmed.
The Pentax Q7 is a bit of an odd proposition. Yes, it's small, but there are cameras which feature a larger sensor which match it in size, or are only slightly larger. What the Q7 has going for it is the cuteness factor, so if you're drawn in by that then it could be tempting.
Sadly, image quality leaves a fair amount to be desired. When a camera features interchangeable lenses, despite the fact that the sensor is only as large as a compact camera, you expect a much higher degree of image quality – sadly this isn't the case with the Q7.
While images appear to be sharp on the screen while composing, as soon as you hit the shutter release it's clear that there is a lack of detail, even when shooting at low sensitivity speeds (such as ISO 100). This is especially apparent when attempting to shoot reasonably close up items, but less so when shooting wide angle scenes.
On the plus side, colours are bright and punchy directly from the camera, without being overly vibrant. The Q7 shoots raw format DNG files, which is useful as a universal file format for tweaking straight in your photo editing software of choice without having to rely on proprietary software.
Looking at images shot in low light, at high sensitivities, such as ISO 3200, reveals a significant loss of detail and image smoothing. At ISO 1600, smoothing isn't quite so bad, although examining at 100% reveals just how much smoothing takes place – the overall effect when viewing at normal printing or web sizes is decent though. I'd recommend sticking to ISO 1600 unless strictly necessary, especially if you're looking to make prints.
In good light, the Q7 is able to focus pretty quickly, if not quite as fast as the likes of Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus. As light levels drop, the camera struggles to lock on to a target a little more, but it's unusual for a false positive to be presented.
Overall, the Q7's all-purpose metering system does a good job of producing accurate exposures, although it can be thrown off by a strong lighting source, in which case switching to spot metering might be helpful.
On a better note, the camera's automatic white balance fares a little better with producing accurate colours, even when faced with artificial or mixed lighting sources.
There are a number of different digital filters which you can activate for use with the Q7, some of which are better than others. It's worth experimenting to see if you particularly like any of those on offer, however remember that digital filters can't be shot in raw format.
Instead, you might prefer to alter Custom Image settings, which allow you to shoot with a number of different presets, including subtle effects such as Natural, or more dramatic effects such as Monochrome or Cross Process. The benefit here is that you can shoot in raw format, should you need a clean version of the image later down the line.
The kit zoom lens offers a decent focal length, and reasonably impressively has a maximum aperture (at the widest point of the lens) of f/2.8. This helps when shooting in low light to keep the sensitivity down, and also helps to create some attractive shallow depth of field effects – although the small sensor size puts somewhat of a limit on what you can achieve. Generally also, the kit lens is a decent performer, producing reasonably sharp images. We weren't supplied with other lenses for the Q7, but it generally feels like a camera that you'll use with the kit optic most of the time anyway.
Here we can see some chromatic aberration occuring – see the area next to the leaves on the trees – which is a shame to see from the kit lens, but doesn't happen too often.
Shooting at high ISOs reveals a fair amount of image smoothing and loss of detail – if you can, try to keep the sensitivity to 1600 and below.
In this image, shot at ISO 3200, the overall impression isn't too bad when viewed at a normal web or printing size, but if you examine the full resolution image you can see where detail has been lost.
Images can appear a little softer than is preferable, which is especially noticeable when shooting close-up images.
Overall, the kit lens is a reasonable performer, producing fairly sharp images across the frame in most shooting conditions.
Colours are bright and punchy directly from the camera.
The camera's metering system generally does a good job of producing accurate exposures.
The Q7 includes a number of different digital filters, as follows:
It's difficult to know who to recommend a camera like the Pentax Q7 to. One of its most appealing things – unfortunately – is the fact that it's available in a wide variety of different colours, so if that's your thing, then it's worth looking into.
Although it is very small, with the addition of the kit lens, you're still not going to be able to fit this into a jeans pocket, so it's almost redundant how small it is. It's also worth noting that other cameras with larger sensors are similarly sized, or not much larger, most notably the Samsung NX Mini and Nikon J4, both of which feature a one-inch sensor. The Panasonic GM1, which features an even larger, Four Thirds, sensor, is also not much larger.
If you are looking for a compact camera, then it's probably best that you stick with one, rather than shelling out for a compact camera which can change lenses – and which you may not end up doing anyway.
If you are convinced by the cuteness and colour ways offered by Pentax, the good news is that the camera is pretty easy to use – and although there's not a touchscreen, there's a decent number of buttons, including direct access controls. Sadly, the bad news is that image quality leaves something to be desired, but if you're mainly shooting in good light, and don't want to take many close-ups, colours are bright and punchy, while the metering and white balance systems do well.
There's a somewhat varied selection of lenses available for the Q system at present, although it's not as wide as those available for the Micro Four Thirds or Sony E Mount. On the plus side, there's a greater variety of optics available than for the Samsung NX Mini mount, although there's nothing in the way of macro lenses, and prime lenses are limited, which is a shame.
With its miniature DSLR like styling and many, many, different colour ways, there's something to be said for the cute factor the of the Q7, which may be particularly appealing for you, especially if you don't need to shoot anything too demanding – such as low light.
With a limited lens range, a very small sensor size and slightly disappointing image quality, unfortunately there's plenty to dislike about the Q7. It's serving a very niche audience, which may or may not exist. Lack of detail throughout the sensitivity range is to be expected from a compact camera, so if you're looking for something that performs better in that arena, take a look at the other small compact system cameras currently out there.
If you're after a cute compact system camera which takes reasonable pictures in good light, then the Q7 is a good choice. Unfortunately, for Pentax, there are plenty of better options currently on the market. The best, if you're in the market for a very small, but still well performing camera, is the Panasonic GM1 which manages to fit a very large (by comparison) sensor in a body which isn't too much bigger than even the Q7's diminutive stature.