First Look: Pentax Q

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. The Pentax Q is quite an incredible camera to behold. It’s tiny. But not only is it tiny, it also looks great. But so blinded will you be by its tininess that you won’t notice what a superb job the company has done with the aesthetics.

The Q has the looks of an old school rangefinder but in the small body of a compact. Naturally, it doesn’t give you the rangefinder feel, but something more akin to a miniature version of the Fujifilm X100. Machined from magnesium alloy, complete with a metal mount and finished with either a black or white leatherette outer, it’s every bit as solid and reassuringly dense in the hand as you’d hope it would. But, even so, it weighs just 200g, even when loaded with battery and SD card. Measuring 98 x 57.5 x 31mm, it’s the very smallest interchangeable lens camera that the world has ever seen.

Quite staggeringly, it really is palm of your hand stuff but if you really want to get an impression of its diddiness, the best thing to do is try changing the lens. For our First Look time, we had the pleasure of the 47mm equivalent prime lens that weighs just 37g; possibly the lightest piece of camera optics we’ve ever handled. We felt like a giant playing with a toy.

Small sensor syndrome

All the miniaturisation does come at a cost, however. Unlike many of its mirrorless interchangeable lens camera competitors - the Micro Four Thirds Olympus Pens and Panasonic Lumix G-series, and the APS-C sized Sony NEX and Samsung NX series - there simply isn’t space to get a decent sized image sensor on board. Instead what you get is a 12.4-megapixel, 1/2.3” CMOS unit which equates to around a 28mm squared rather than the 860-odd-mm squared that a full frame sensor offers. Put more practically, the sensor in the Pentax Q is more like the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a basic compact camera, and therein lies a few of the problems with this device.

First up, a smaller image sensor means less sensitivity to light and therefore a poorer performance in low light conditions. You can still run it up to ISO 6400 but one would expect a whole lot of noise before you get to anything like those heights; something we’ll have to wait for the full review to test out. Fortunately, Pentax has had a go at combating this by switching round the structure of the sensor to position the diodes behind the light sensitive substrate bringing the latter closer to the image which it is trying to encode.

There is, however, a second, and probably more nagging, disadvantage. A smaller sensor means that you get a much deeper plane of focus than one would expect at any given aperture. So, even though the kit lens that comes with the Q has a maximum aperture of F/1.9, the resulting plane of focus that you get is actually considerably larger and our efforts to get that nice sharp focus effect with that wonderful watercolour blur bokeh area of defocus in the background were completely in vain.

Knowing this to be a problem, Pentax has introduced a mode called Blur Correction (BC on the main PSAM dial) which digitally creates what the processor thinks the image should look like. It tweaks the image to look as shallow as you’d expect a F/1.9 shot to look on a DSLR. With great interest, we had a crack at it and this feature is not good. In fact, it’s very not good. It’s what they call bad or even awful.

Do take into account that this is only a First Look at the device and there are obviously a few settings that you can tweak here or there to try and get better results but, with the way we used it in our time, the shots we gleaned were just dire. Not only did it seem to miss the focal point we were trying to capture, it was also way too harsh on the bokeh effect. However, like we said, it was clear that you could dial it down to a degree, so perhaps we’ll have more luck in the full review.

Apart from the sensor’s size having quite the profound effect on imaging results, the size of the camera as a whole took a little getting used too. There are a tonne of options and functions to the point where the view through the nice, bright, 3-inch, 460k-dot LCD is littered with the coloured icons of a thousand modes and settings. After a while trawling through the menus, you do begin to get a hang of what all the Pentax hieroglyphics are about but the quick access to the options through the shortcut buttons on the camera body are harder to get your head around.

Controls

The first problem is obviously one of unfamiliarity. It takes a while to know where things are going to be and that’s something one would expect to overcome. What might stand in the way of that are both the feeling of button cram and the fact that the little pushers themselves are absolutely tiny. They’re smaller than the tip of your finger and, worse still, sunk into the chassis to make them doubly hard to press. To be fair, it’s not that they’re an absolute no-no, more that Pentax could have made it easier for you.

Indeed the Japanese company has tried to by introducing the Quick Dial on the front of the Q for your left hand to twiddle. The idea - and it’s a very good one - is that you can set this five-position dial to work for either colour quality, aspect ratio, colour filters or smart effects such as vintage mode, cross processing, etc. Quick Dial offers you four of the options within each category as well as an "off" position to disable any of the effects.

The downfall of this is that, yet again, it’s all just too small. The idea that you hold the Pentax Q in quite the same two-handed way you would a larger, interchangeable lens, camera is verging on the absurd. Sure, you’ll use both your left and your right but there's barely the room to have both operating the thing. More to the point, there just isn’t the space to get your thumb and forefinger around the Quick Dial in order to make it a comfortable turn. We’re willing to admit that perhaps our hands were just too big for this thing but we couldn’t help walking away with the idea that the functional design of the outside of Pentax Q was an afterthought and really a victim of what Pentax could do rather than what it should.

To focus more on what Pentax has got right, there’s plenty to explore on the Q and with more modes, filters and corrections than we’ve ever seen, there’s probably enough flexibility to get your shots pretty much how you want them, even if it does take a lot of trial and error to get there. A combination of the HDR modes and colour settings meant that we never lost the hues that we were trying to capture, even in pictures with fairly extreme exposure levels to normalise.

One of the more interesting additions, that worked to some degree without any other help, is the CTE setting within the White Balance menu. The idea is to use it when shooting images with a strong light source or with extremes of colour. So, for example a sunset or the pile of oranges in our case. Without this mode enabled, many cameras would fade out the colours, presuming that they couldn’t be as intense as they are. CTE puts them back in again. With some added tweaks, we're confident that this could help get some really nice shots.

Video

On the video side, the 1080p recording at 30fps seems good on first inspection. Unfortunately, it's not - or not in our quick trial, anyway. The sound and colour quality are great but there seems to be a problem with the image processor in the Pentax Q. The first video shows exposure hunting as the processor does its best to play catch up to the changing light conditions while trying to encode and capture at Full HD. The second video demonstrates just as big a problem with the way the action jumps on four or five occasions in the early half of the footage; possibly this time more to do with the image stabilisation system struggling to keep up.

With the Pentax Q having feet planted firmly both in the compact snapper and enthusiast shooter camps, there are a couple of nice touches. We like the fact that it captures stills as DNG raw files as well as JPEGs to offer added flexibility in post production. There’s also a rather ingenious way of improving the performance of the built-in flash. A quick flick of a switch and it turns into a Go-Go-Gadget flash and pops out on a telescopic spring mechanism to create some distance between itself and the camera lens, for a smoother effect. We didn’t have time to play around with all the different flash modes but there’s plenty of scope to explore here.

Last of all are the lenses. You can opt to buy the Pentax Q as a kit either with the 8.5mm (47mm effective) prime lens for £599 or the 5-15mm (27.5-83mm, f/2.8-3.5) zoom lens for £729. On top of that there’s a 3.2mm (17.5mm) fish eye for £149 and two “toy” lenses - one wide, one telephoto - which come in at just over the £100-mark. Of possible greater excitement is that the bods at Pentax are looking into a converter to adapt the Q-mount into the DSLR K-mount so that you can have the pleasure of using your top quality, massive glassware with a tiny camera. 

Verdict

We didn’t start off hating the Pentax Q and, even after our First Look preview, to think that we hate it now would be a big mistake. The trouble is that it tries to be everything a camera could be only packaged into the smallest space known to man and, at first look, that’s simply not possible.

If you’re happy to part with some cash, then you might consider it a great option as a high-end compact. If you’re looking for something more on the hybrid side of things, then we sense that you’d probably do better off with a camera with a bigger sensor. What the Pentax Q does bring, that few others have managed, is something that looks quite spectacular. Very pretty and, if it weren’t for the lens jutting out of the front, very pocketable too.