First Impressions

By Richard Butler

Pentax has, for many years, built DSLRs that are very focused on traditional photography: a well worked twin-dial interface, large viewfinders across the whole range and some of the most comfortable grips of any DSLRs. Despite the company changing hands and being absorbed into Ricoh, this very 'Pentax' philosophy seems to inform every aspect of the K-1. Yes, there are some clever modes such as Astrotracer, multiple exposure and time-lapse options, but these have clearly been added after the photographic fundamentals of the camera have been polished to a high sheen.

Perhaps this impression is overly colored by my experience of previous Pentax models: the K-1's viewfinder will delight APS-C users but, unlike the models further down the range, isn't significantly higher in spec than its immediate peers. However, the noticeable lack of a dedicated REC button just reinforces my perception of this as an unusually single-minded camera.

 The K-1 isn't a small camera, by any means, but it's attractive and it fits well in the hands.

My first impression on picking up the camera was 'this is one of the cameras that the Nikon Df should have been.' I think that comes from the prism-shaped prism hump; a styling cue that invokes the word 'classic' rather than screaming the word 'retro.' However, what the K-1 absolutely gets right is what I considered the Df's great mis-step: it offers a single well-polished, coherent interface. This isn't a camera with duplicative or redundant controls, it isn't customizable to the extent that only the person configuring it knows how it works: it's a photographic tool that anyone who's ever loved a DSLR can pick up and start shooting with. It's like a beautifully made pair of shoes - it looks great and you know that it'll offer just enough give to fit you perfectly. And, unlike the Df (and most really nice shoes), it's really aggressively priced.

Known unknowns

That doesn't mean we don't have a couple of areas of concern that we'll want to look at, once we have a fully reviewable camera back in the office. The autofocus sensor is more advanced than we've seen before from Ricoh but as we've seen on other brands' DSLRs, 36 megapixels have a way of highlighting any slight focus imprecision, so we'd expect to have to do some focus fine-tuning to get the best from the K-1.

Autofocus performance is always lens dependent, to a degree, but the range of designs and focus motor types (including some screw-driven models) means this variation is likely be greater than in systems that have been more recently updated.

We had the chance to use AF system in a non-test environment and found that, paired with the relatively fast-to-focus 15-30mm F2.8, its tracking was fairly slow but also pretty good at recognising and following its subject. This could limit its utility with faster moving subjects - where it may choose the correct AF point too slowly to respond as the subject moves around the frame. The limited AF coverage also means it's unlikely fast-paced shooters will experience much success shooting this way, possibly falling back to relying on the center AF point - which, along with the points directly above and below it, focuses down to -3 EV.

The rear screen's articulation mechanism is complex and fascinating, but it's not entirely clear to us what the benefit is over an edge-hinged screen than can be rotated to face inwards.

I don't think any of us were particularly taken with the complex rear screen arrangement, with several members of the team expressing concerns about its longevity and the durability of the rubber sleeve that surrounds the screen's ribbon cable. Perhaps with further use we'll discover a compelling reason for the design but for now we're left unsure why Ricoh didn't opt for a fully articulated panel that would, at least, allow you to rotate the screen and protect it.

Other doubts were expressed about the availability of lenses for the K-1, with not a lot on offer beyond a handful of Limited primes and the new (distinctly Tamron-esque) F2.8 zooms. However, more than most new cameras, I suspect that's not going to matter too much. This is because I believe many of the people most excited about this camera are excited precisely because they already own Pentax lenses that they've been wanting to use to their full potential on a digital body. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that a 36MP sensor is likely to be fairly demanding on older glass, and our initial impressions of shooting with one older 50mm Pentax prime aren't wholly encouraging.

The K-1 allows the use of classic K-mount lenses. A far cry from the film bodies that they were designed for, bear in mind that the 36MP K-1 is likely to stress some of Pentax's older primes and zooms. 

A good fit

If you do have lenses that can take full advantage of that resolution, the K-1 looks like a very promising landscape camera. It's a sensible size and weight, it's weather-sealed and the top plate LCD should work well on a tripod. But the extra benefit comes when you engage the Pixel Shift Resolution mode, taking four offset shots that increase chroma resolution by shooting the scene with a different colored capture pixel for each shot. The latest implementation will attempt to cancel-out any movement that occurs between frames. Don't expect this to cope with a car driving through the image but it should (we're told) be able to deal with leaves rustling. And, of course, the multi-shot nature of the Pixel Shift Resolution mode will improve image noise properties because the noise is averaged-out across the four exposures. That should mean more dynamic range - which is already likely to be high if Ricoh uses its usual sensor supplier.

Similarly, astrophotographers are likely to appreciate the K-1's Astrotracer function and the LEDs to help with lens-mounting and camera operation after dark. Overall, though, the people Ricoh most hopes to impress are the Pentax faithful (Company representatives have even said as much). And, while the fine detail of the camera's behavior will only become truly apparent after more extensive use, I think a lot of them are going to be really impressed with this engaging, comfortable, well-specified and keenly priced camera.