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Why the Pentax K-01 Was a Bad Idea

Form over Function · Posted on 02-02-2012 in Photographic Articles

Why the Pentax K-01 Was a Bad Idea

Pentax arrived late to the mirrorless party, having been beaten on the way even by those concrete-footed giants, Canon and Nikon. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing to be late, as this means you have had time to see what other companies have offered, what the market has liked and hated, thus gaining valuable information that the pioneers in the field didn't have. The latecomer should commit few mistakes and produce a better product because of their tardiness.

That's the theory, anyway, because in practice, in real life, the latecomer sometimes stumbles into the party having just rolled out of bed, without showering, bringing no nibbles or beer, and apparently barely knows anyone. But at least they're wearing a designer suit!

Yep, that's what Pentax has done.

Before I detail why I think the Pentax K-01 was a bad idea, let me make a couple of things clear. First of all, I don't hate Pentax. I've been shooting Pentax cameras since 2006, have owned two of their DSLRs (I still have one of them) and have way more lenses than I should. Back in 2008 for a while I wrote a weekly article for PentaxDSLRs blog and have been called a fan-boy on a few occasions. I'm not, but I must've said something nice about Pentax to deserve the insult. Secondly, I don't hate mirrorless cameras; in fact, my main camera for the last few months has been a Samsung NX10.

Now you know where I'm coming from, let me explain why I see the Pentax K-01 as a failure.

It was designed by a celebrity designer

Pentax signed on famous Australian industrial designer Marc Newson for the K-01 project. Nothing reeks of subterfuge like hiring a big name to design something for you because it means that you don't think the quality of your product is good enough to attract customers on its own merits. It is also demoralising for your workforce because you're telling them "I don't think you're capable of designing this camera, even though that's what I hired you to do, so I'm farming the project out to someone else from outside." Then there's the issue of asking somebody unfamiliar with camera design, or even camera usage, to design it; why? Because a camera needs to be used, handled, carried, and form must always follow function, not the other way around. A camera must be beautiful to use, not to look at.

The first thing I noticed when I saw the K-01 was the placing of the on/off switch. Pentax DSLRs have long had the perfect switch, located around the shutter release button, making the act of turning on the camera quasi instantaneous, and yet somehow making it difficult to turn the camera off by mistake. The switch on the K-01 still lies around the shutter release button, but the lever end is now in an awkward position, and it's big. Furthermore, this ensemble is very close to the strap lug, so I wonder how much the strap will get in the way. I know these are small things, but to me they stick out as signs that the camera was designed by someone who hasn't used a camera as an enthusiastic photographer.

I'm not saying anything against Marc Newson, who has some very beautiful designs to his name; what I'm saying is that he shouldn't have designed it. Here's an interview with him talking about the K-01. Note that he doesn't once mention ergonomics (which has long been one of Pentax's strengths for their DSLRs):

It doesn't have a viewfinder

Now, don't think I'm one of those old farts who thinks a camera that isn't smashed up against his face, collecting nose grease, isn't a real camera; not at all. I own a Canon S90 without a VF and have no issues with it. As I mentioned already, I own a Samsung NX10 that has an integrated EVF, but I probably take 70% of my shots with the rear screen and only the remaining 30% with the EVF. So yes, I can live without a VF, and no, not all mirrorless cameras should have one. But here's the problem: The Samsung NX10 with kit zoom lens weighs 520g (1lb 2oz); the Pentax K-01 with kit zoom lens weighs around 785g (1lb 12oz). I took my DSLR, which without a lens weighs just under 800g, and walked around the house holding it up and out, pretending to take photos via the rear screen. It's tiring, and this is just with the kit lens; start mounting some longer or faster lenses and you easily go over 1kg (2.2lbs), which makes it practically impossible to shoot hand held.

Is there at least a way to attach an accessory EVF? Looking at the photos I don't see any ports that would allow that.

Pentax knows all this, which is why it released the super thin and light DA 40mm f/2.8 XS (Xtra Small? Xtra Slim?). Unless they have other extremely light lenses coming out soon, I envision many Pentaxians will find their anterior deltoids getting sore after prolonged shooting.

It's hard to shoot hand-held with longer lenses

This is related to the previous problem. Try shooting over 100mm with the camera held out in front of you. Shake Reduction will certainly help, but it will be a challenge.

You can't easily shoot with just one hand

Again, we're talking about ergonomics. Pentax DSLRs have a lip at the rear that the thumb hooks under while the front of the grip has an indentation at the top for the middle finger. This all conspires to provide a comfortable yet secure grip when holding the camera with one hand. The K-01 is flat in the front and back, so unless the grip is, well, grippy, it won't be amenable to single hand usage.

The rear screen isn't articulated

If you're going to force people to compose via the rear screen, at least make it articulated so you can shoot from the waist with heavier lenses. I'm not putting this one on Mr Newsom, this is Pentax's fault.

It's too big for not having an EVF

Compare it to the K-5 in this photo, it's pretty much a K-5 with the viewfinder cut off. Granted the K-5 is a smallish DSLR, but Sony has managed to make minuscule mirrorless cameras, so I have to wonder why the K-01 is so big. Let's compare it to one of the bigger APS-C mirrorless out there, the Fuji X-Pro 1, which has a volume of 494c.c.; the K-01 has a volume of 559c.c. And remember, the Fuji has a viewfinder!

While Pentax was constrained by having to keep the K-mount registration distance, it doesn't mean the rest of the camera had to be as large in width and height.

You can't mount any lens you want on it

One of the reasons micro-4/3 took off was due to the availability of adapters allowing you to mount practically any lens ever built on the cameras, which was possible because of the shorter registration distance of the new mount. I remember reading thread after thread on forums where photos taken with the Panasonic G1 were being posted and not a single one had been taken with a micro-4/3 lens. The Sony NEX system has proven equally popular with lens adapting photographers. So what about the K-01? Well, because it has a native K-mount it means you can mount all the legacy Pentax glass on it. Who might this appeal to? Pentax photographers, who are small in number. Who does the micro-4/3 or NEX mount appeal to? Photographers with lenses of any brand or mount. You see how Pentax is making it difficult for itself to sell many of these?

Now let me bring up an issue that we'll have to wait for proper tests to know for sure if it really is an issue: Autofocus with legacy lenses. And by "legacy lens" I mean any Pentax mount lens designed for their DSLRs. So what's the issue I'm worried about? The K-01 uses contrast-detect AF (CDAF), which works differently than the phase-detect AF (PDAF) used in DSLRs; a whole article can be devoted to how they differ, but suffice it to know right now that lenses designed for CDAF are different in some ways than those designed for PDAF. For example, they have focus groups (of glass) that tend to be lighter and require a shorter travel distance in order to focus. PDAF systems know which way they need to turn the focusing gears (forwards or backwards) in order to acquire focus but CDAF don't, which is why the lenses zip forward and/or backward for a moment before finally deciding in which direction to focus. 4/3 users have found their lenses focusing much slower (or not at all) when used (via Panolympus adapter) on micro-4/3 bodies; will the same happen on the K-01?

So what is good about the K-01?

Video. It shoots 1080p up to 30fps and can do 60fps at 720p; of course, it also lets you use a whole host of nice Pentax glass to shoot with (and plenty of excellent 3rd party lenses too). It has on-board stereo mic and an external mic port, also featuring a mini-HDMI port in case you want to use an external monitor. Given the likely high IQ delivered by the new 16MP Sony CMOS sensor, it could prove to be a great video camera.  It also features manual video controls and can record in the H.264 format.

I wish I could think of something else, but I can't. I know Pentax will claim the largest selection of lenses available to any mirrorless system, but when a lack of EVF precludes using so many of them hand-held, does it really matter?

Who is this camera for?

Pentax intended it for novices as evidenced by the inclusion of 'HDR' and 'SCN' on the mode dial at the expense of Sv and TAv. An yet, I do not see why a novice would choose this large camera over a Panasonic GF3 or Olympus E-PM1 or E-PL2, which are smaller, lighter, and offer accessory EVFs if wanted. The micro-4/3 lenses you would attach to them are also smaller than most of the equivalent Pentax lenses currently available.

It's all about the compromise

All cameras are compromises and the mirrorless market has been built on this principle. You get a camera with smaller buffer, slower frame rates, smaller lens selection, and usually slower lenses at that, without any weather sealing or double control wheels...but in exchange you get a small camera that can fit in a coat pocket, that uses smaller, lighter lenses, yet still delivers the IQ of a 4/3 or APS-C sensor. If you want to compromise more, you can get one without an EVF to make it even smaller.

Sales of Olympus Pens, Panasonic GFs and Sony NEXs (none of which have EVFs) show that many photographers are willing to make such compromises, which is why 12 of the Top 20 best selling compact system cameras at Amazon US belong to them. The K-01 doesn't have much size or weight advantage for a mirrorless, so why compromise losing the EVF if you gain little in return?

What Pentax should have done

It's easy to play armchair CEO after the fact, which is why I'm going on record right now saying that the Pentax K-01 will be a failure, just like the Pentax Q (which languishes at position #70 in the aforementioned Amazon US top selling CSCs). It's not that I want Pentax to fail, it's simply that they've decided to come out with unique cameras to go with their "Be Interesting" slogan, not realising that the best mirrorless camera has yet to be released and the market was all theirs to capture. What is this camera you ask? Here are the specs, which must be secret because nobody has followed the formula:

  • Compact body, about the size of the Samsung NX10
  • 16 MP APS-C Sony sensor with its characteristic superb IQ
  • Manual controls for aperture, shutter and ISO
  • A line of compact, fastish (f/1.8 - 2) primes
  • Short registration distance and mount wide enough to allow M mount lenses with (or even without) adapter
  • High quality EVF
  • Swivelling rear display
  • Body price: $999
  • Lens prices: Under $500

Pentax had the expertise to accomplish all the above, yet squandered it on the Q and the K-01...they could have built the perfect mirrorless camera if they'd wanted to.

Wouldn't that have been interesting?

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