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Performance and Image Quality

Though it relies a lot on its retro looks to help sell itself, at its core the Pentax MX-1 has a good quality lens and sensor that combine to produce great results. Startup is reasonably fast, taking about two seconds, but shutdown could be a bit quicker, sometimes taking three seconds before you can stow the camera again. Continuous speed is only one frame per second, not a surprise in this product category; however, burst mode high can capture about 10 Fine JPEG shots in around 2 seconds. Reducing compression to normal does nothing to change how many frames are captured, nor does changing the output resolution. During our testing we (as usual) shot primarily in Raw+JPEG mode, and didn't like how the camera frequently locked us out of menus while waiting for data to save to the card. Even with our fastest card, a SanDisk Extreme Pro rated at 95MB/s, the camera took three seconds to save a single Raw and JPEG pair before returning the camera's systems to our control, and that includes being able to take another shot.

Focus is contrast-detection, and very fast. The camera automatically switches to Macro mode with closer subjects (inside 0.5m, 1.6 feet), but you have to manually select 1cm Macro mode, which allows you to focus on objects between 1 and 2cm.

JPEG image quality from the MX-1 is generally very good, bringing to mind output from the Olympus XZ-2, a camera whose pictures we like for their sharp detail and good color rendition. For maximum quality, shooting in Raw mode s a good idea (see the next page for some examples of why) and speaking of which, the Pentax MX-1 also includes in-camera Raw conversion, allowing you to vary aspect ratio, image size and quality; apply custom image (color) settings; adjust ISO sensitivity; add shadow correction; and apply distortion correction (see below).

JPEG
Raw (distortion uncorrected)

The MX-1 automatically applies distortion correction to JPEGs, which is why there's a dramatic change between the two images as you roll over the titles. In this shot, taken at 32mm equivalent, it's clear just how effective the in-camera correction is. Though you can process your Raw images in-camera so that they're distortion corrected, at the time of writing Adobe Camera RAW doesn't have a profile for the MX-1.

Wide (28mm equivalent) Tele (112mm equivalent)
The Pentax MX-1 delivers very good detail at wide-angle, and despite how extreme the distortion correction may seem in the previous Raw image, the JPEG results are excellent, with impressive corner sharpness and no noticeable chromatic aberration. The crop below is taken from the lower left corner of the image. Quality at the telephoto end is equally impressive, with very good detail and contrast. The crop below is from the center, but the corners look little different.
100% crop 100% crop

The Pentax MX-1 outputs impressive images with good sharpness corner to corner, and very little evidence of chromatic aberration. Even coma seems negligible in the corners.

White balance

In everyday shooting, the Pentax MX-1's Auto white balance setting did well most of the time, as most pocket cameras do these days.

F2.5, 1/100, ISO 1600 DNG, -0.5EV, -10 highlights, Tungsten WB
100% crop 100% crop

When shooting in a darkened high-school theater, however (above), the MX-1 had a little trouble with the mixed lighting, rendering the tungsten quite yellow, occasionally blowing highlights; but that's not a big surprise. Theater lighting is a challenge for any camera's auto white balance and exposure system, and Pentax cameras are generally biased to retain some of the yellow color under tungsten lighting. Switching to tungsten white balance in Adobe Camera RAW, dialing back exposure by half a stop and adjusting the highlights made a more usable image, though the highlights remain a little hot.

Exposure and background blur

Exposure is also mostly very reliable. Seattle's frequent overcast conditions resulted in some fairly flat images during our shooting, but the camera still told the truth, which is what we like them to do. In the exceptionally difficult conditions of a sunlit mountain scape, the MX-1 did very well indeed, and although some images from our selection were a touch underexposed (see the following page) on the whole, the camera performed admirably.

Shot in 1cm Macro mode, this image was taken at F2.8, 1/45 second, ISO 320. The image shows a nicely defocused background (which is to be expected in macro mode). 100% crop

Having a slightly larger sensor and a fast lens does a little to improve subject/background separation over smaller-sensor designs, but you're not going to get anything like the subject/background separation you would expect from the larger sensors in mirrorless or SLR cameras. Naturally the closer your subject, the more blur you'll see. 1cm Macro mode (see the picture of the flower, above) demonstrates the effect.

At more normal focus distances you're not going to be blown away with buttery-soft backgrounds. Despite the impressive-sounding F1.8 maximum aperture, it's only available at the widest lens setting, which has a greater depth of field. The above shot (F1.8, 1/320, ISO 100, 28mm eq.) illustrates just how little your background will be thrown out of focus. Focus was set on the insect. While at 100% onscreen the background seems soft, at normal print sizes the background is still pretty distinct.

But at the middle and telephoto settings, you do get more impressive subject separation, thanks to the limited change in the maximum aperture. Even at the telephoto setting, the lens stops down to only F2.5, which, combined with telephoto focal lengths can produce some noticeable background blur.

F5.0, 1/320, ISO 100
F2.5, 1/1250, ISO 100
100% crop 100% crop

Roll over the aperture settings above to see the change in background blur as we change aperture from F5.6 to F2.5. You can get reasonable background blur thanks to the relatively wide aperture of the lens even at telephoto.

Low light

ISO is easily adjusted thanks to the ISO button on the back of the Pentax MX-1. ISO by default is limited to 1600, but you can allow it to rise to the maximum 12,800 setting with a turn of the rear dial, a nice feature if you just want to get the shot no matter what. ISO 640 images are a little crunchy around transitions, but most detail is pretty good. ISO 12,800 is very grainy, so you'd want to avoid it most of the time, but ISO 3200 is very good and ISO 6400 is good for so small a sensor so long as you keep your print sizes small. To see how the Pentax MX-1 compares to its peers, see the Image Quality Compared pages of this review.

Color/Effects modes

The Pentax MX-1 has a range of color and effects modes, including HDR, which are effectively a subset of similar modes found on Pentax's SLRs, with less scope for adjustment. Presets include Bright, Natural, Vibrant, Reversal Film, and Monochrome. The first three allow you to adjust Saturation, Hue, Contrast, and Sharpness, but only by a few steps.

Shooting in black and white can be fun, because it allows you to see the image in luminance only, something we couldn't do in the past with film cameras; you had to imagine what your eye saw in color as a black and white image. The MX-1 also saves a Raw image that you can later reprocess to your heart's content, either in the camera or a raw processor. An otherwise drab shot can become instant art with the Pentax MX-1's HDR mode. Though not as sophisticated as some, it turned what would have been a poorly lit image into at least something more interesting, if a bit surreal. It even preserves quite a bit of the color from outside the windows in this shot. Again, we can always refer to the Raw image if we don't like the result and want to reprocess the original shot.
HDR Strong 2
Default conversion of Raw file

It was while shooting a series of images that we learned HDR Strong 2 could resurrect a drab day. We'd show the other images, but they're also fairly drab. To see how bad it was, roll over the Raw file the camera saved. Of greatest practical interest is how much the MX-1 brings up the exposure from the shadows on the left, but there is something to be said for the illustration-like image delivered by the MX-1's HDR mode. Note that the HDR image appears to be slightly zoomed because HDR mode crops some of the image.

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Comments

Total comments: 14
solarider

Blunty's reviews are pretty fun to watch.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuOpygcOVJE

1 upvote
WilliamEv

I purchased the MX-1 because liked the look of it and that it was a compact. Would be great for traveling. So got my MX-1 and went on a Holiday sad to say it worked for two day and them the LCD stopped working :( No pictures of my holiday except for my IPhone. I am trying to get it returned, replace or repaired but no one seems to care.

0 upvotes
FW Birds

I ordered one of these today. They are now selling for half of their original list price. To me that seems like a bargain. I really like the colors of Pentax jpegs, so much so that I may just shoot jpegs for ease and convenience. This looks like a great travel camera to pair with my K-3. Looking forward to trying it out.

0 upvotes
miuan

This is the first camera I want to return as soon as I got it, and I really wanted to like it despite its strange form factor. The operation is frustratingly slow. Most of the controls are well laid out and the buttons have good feel to them, but their response is sluggish most of the time, taking away the fun from the photography. The AF is desperate in all but casual static shooting, even in macro mode with enough light it struggles at times. The funky chroma NR artifacts at ISO 1000-1600 and the lack of NR / image parameter settings finishes the bitter feeling. I'm going back to my X10, sorry Pentax.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 2 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Sad Joe

PLUS: Nice nice brass body. CONS: That is simply not nice to hold ...remember the 'Simply Hold A Pentax' marketing strap line guys? Sadly its designers didn't….

0 upvotes
Rip57

I picked one up on the Woot $199 deal and have to say that's a lot of camera for the money. I'm still getting used to this particular form factor - no viewfinder and a LCD screen that tilts up and down (only). The technical quality of the photos is quite nice - it's my compositional skills that are lacking.

One thing that has helped is enabling the view screen overlay with vertical and horizontal lines as well as the electronic vertical and horizontal levels. I'm learning to shoot more from the waist, but I still keep trying to bring it up to my eye to look through the nonexistent viewfinder.

I still have an old film MX, into which I long ago placed a viewfinder screen with vertical and horizontal lines. The point is, my lack of compositional skill is certainly not the fault of any one camera.

4 upvotes
Ben O Connor

A silver Pentax K-3 kit & MX-1 as a back up P&S cam

Dream of a hobbyist in 2013-2014

4 upvotes
HauntedToaster

You can pick it up on Woot today for $199, plus $5 shipping.

0 upvotes
davids8560

This is a terrific RAW-capable high-end enthusiast compact, and at current prices (Jan. 2014) it is an excellent value and a very attractive option when compared to similar cameras in its class. Image quality is just about as good as you can expect for a camera with this size sensor. Build quality is outstanding. The menus are straight forward and inituitive in use. Performance is snappy all around. It's also a very good-looking camera, in addition to its decent performance. And maybe it's a matter of personal preference, but I rather like the accentuated oblong shape, as it gives me plenty of room to easily access the right buttons and make adjustments. The dedicated Ev knob is a very handy plus, too. I'd like to see a hot shoe and a reasonably-priced optional EVF like the Olympus XZ models have in the next iteration. But without hesitation I highly recommend the Pentax MX-1.

Comment edited 4 times, last edit 14 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
ragmanjin

This is all the comments this camera got? That's a little disappointing, it's such a winner. Studio comparison tool, Fuji XQwhatever vs. Pentax MX-1 vs. Canon G16.....well, you'll see it. When I need a replacement for my G11 I'm almost certain the MX-1 will be the compact in my pocket for many years.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
6 upvotes
Kfrog

I'll give serious consideration for my small camera needs.

0 upvotes
PRhe

I bought the MX-1 after comparing it to the Olympus (XZ-2) and Fuji (X10 & X20) options. Picture quality is superior, control setup is logical and the camera itself is drop-dead gorgeous! Looking forward to years of happy clicking.

6 upvotes
papa natas

I've bought one too. I feel you, bro.
This is the camera that's unobtrusive, no ostentation. People give it a look (with a dog's interrogative expression) wondering if it is an old, well preserved 35mm with the ordinary 50mm lens. You won't provoke the "Pros (?)" with their phallic gear nor step on the toes of the P&S crowd. You are the Chevy Nova parked between the Hummer and the Porsche.
When it comes to menu, I love the simplicity and the friendly use of it. IQ is just superb. Colors are just off the wall, especially blue skies when shooting in winter. It easily accommodates up to 3 f stops. It makes me go back to my first SLR: Pentax ME Super.
This is a First Love camera. The LOVE that so many have forgotten: The LOVE for FUN!!

Comment edited 27 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
jkokich

Sounds like a great little camera!

0 upvotes
Total comments: 14