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).

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.