It's been long, long overdue. But the time has come: Pentax has finally made a full-frame DSLR, the K-1. And at £1,600 this 36-megapixel monster is one competitively priced camera, certain to help Pentax make its mark in a competitive market. Just how good is it?
Pentax is so often the dark horse; the company to silently release a cracker of a camera and for it to go, by and large, unnoticed. The K-1 could go the same way because it's so late to the game. Pentax users have been calling for a digital full-frame DSLR for years now, so for one to arrive now is great news but belated great news.
Having handled the K-1 there's a lot of good about it. It's pretty small scale for a full-framer, which Pentax puts down to a floating mirror structure to keep the depth (at 85.5mm) shallower than it might have been. There's an optional battery grip to enhance the beast - both in terms of doubling-up battery life and portrait/landscape operability thanks to additional buttons for both orientations.
So to the headline features. At this stage, having only snapped some frames around the Ricoh UK London headquarters using the camera, we can't truly judge the quality. But given the 36.4-megapixel resolution this is a familiar sensor, the same Sony-made one that you'll find in the Nikon D810, no less. Which is no bad thing: that camera performs exceptionally, and as the Pentax has gone anti-aliasing filter-free in the construction everything should be super sharp.
What's very different about this sensor, however, is that it's effectively "floating" within the design, to incorporate Pentax's home-grown 5-axis image stabilisation system, dubbed SRII. Capable of countering pitch, yaw, roll, horizontal and vertical movements, this system will ensure any lens gets the best stabilisation - including K-mount legacy lenses right back to 1976 (the older ones will be manual focus only, though).
As with its more recent DSLR cameras, Pentax uses this stabilisation system in a number of interesting ways. Features like Horizon Correction, where the sensor itself moves to accommodate a straightened horizon; or Pixel Shift Resolution where the sensor uses its stabilisation system to move by a single pixel in four directions, capturing full RGB data per pixel (now with a movement detection algorithm to negate motion in such images). But new to the K-1 is an AA Simulator (anti-aliasing) that can be used in situations where moire might be an issue - the camera can use the SRII system to produce micro-vibrations to move the sensor at a sub-pixel level during exposure, while a software-based solution can be used as an additional solution (both can be used together).
Basically, Pentax uses its stabilisation system like no other manufacturer. And if you're into astrophotography then the built-in GPS and digital compass might be of particular interest. By feeding the data from these sources a tripod mounted K-1 can use its Astrotracer function to physically move the sensor to trace the movement of celestial bodies without the need of an equatorial telescope for sharp, non-star-trail results. Now that's smart if that's your specialism. And you thought GPS was just about geotagging.
Before we get carried away with quirky details, however, let's take a look at the autofocus system. The K-1 is the first to introduce Pentax's SAFOX 12 AF system, complete with 33 autofocus points and low-light sensitivity to -3EV. That puts it up there as fairly competitive with other models, although the continuous autofocus didn't feel quite as swift as the Canon and Nikon competition, and that was with the new Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8 lens (announced September 2015). Perhaps it's because that lens isn't final firmware, but we tried others and the older (and louder) motored lenses aren't quite as snappy.
Which is one of the things to take-away from the K-1, and Pentax as a whole: there are a bunch of full-frame FA lenses available, but it's not easy to track them all down to buy. It's almost like an elite club. Try and find, say, the 77mm f/1.8 and you'll be very lucky to locate one in good condition. That's a Pentax issue through and through, really, nor is there quite the breadth of glass that you'll find in club Canon or Nikon. Not that most photographers will want to own every single lens under the sun, of course.
But back to Pentax offering Pentax things that no other manufacturer can. Top of the list has the be the new 3.2-inch "flextilt" LCD monitor, complementing the 100 per cent field-of-view pentaprism viewfinder. That name is integral to the LCD's description: it's a truly free-floating screen that can be grabbed with ease and positioned in-and-around the 44-degree angle thanks to four metal brackets beneath it.
Pop it out into its secondary position and it can face beyond 90-degrees upwards for waist-level work too. Now most full-frame DSLRs have fixed LCD screens, bar the Nikon D750. So for Pentax to go all-in here is a real boon. It's ultra-tough too - you can hold up the whole weight of the camera and chuck it around without fear (we tried, as did many others at our preview session).
There are additional quirks too. Pull that screen out and four LED lights beneath can be used to illuminate the surrounding buttons to make night-time work a little easier. There are even LEDs positioned above the lens to read old aperture markings and make lens-changing easy, in addition to the SD card slot having one. Each of the three areas can be turned off individually, while the screen and lens options have two brightness levels. It's all about the details.
Controlling the camera, to us, felt a little more alien than we're used to, mainly because the rear thumb dial is positioned a little too deep into the camera for our liking. But we know why it is: there's a secondary dial sat atop the camera, which overlaps to the rear, and is used in conjunction with a function wheel to define its control. Twist the function wheel - which has exposure compensation, ISO, continuous high/low, bracket, HDR, grid display, SR, crop, and Wi-Fi functions - and the setting of the secondary dial changes accordingly. No menu digging required; it's a very smart control indeed.
A weather-sealed magnesium alloy construction polishes off the feature set, so are there any weak spots? Well, the 4.8fps burst mode isn't class-leading, while the 1080p30 movie capture option can only offer 60fps in an interlaced capture format - so this really isn't a videographers' DSLR (but there are plenty of others for that). There's also no touchscreen, while live view won't match up to, say, Canon's Dual Pixel AF system in the 1D X II and other cameras.
Still, what the Pentax K-1 really hits home is value. A rich feature set for £1,600 body-only? That's a bargain. And it works extremely well. It might be the dark horse and underdog - but everyone likes to get behind an outsider. And from what we've seen there's no real reason this camera won't be an astonishing success for full-frame hunters.