The Pentax K-01 is an odd duck that breaches the borders of traditional digital camera aesthetics. That’s because this mirrorless nonconformist was designed by Marc Newson, a popular name in contemporary product design. Though Newson has designed everything from watches to boats, the Pentax K-01 was his first project of the digital imaging persuasion. The Pentax K-01 is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen over the years, but the camera is not just a funky conversation piece.
The Pentax K-01 has chutzpah under the hood, featuring a 16-megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor, full manual control, Focus and Exposure Peaking, 1080p HD video at up to 30fps and the “world’s thinnest interchangeable lens.” Having tested a multitude of Pentax DSLRs over the years, I was quite skeptical of the K-01 at first. However, after a few weeks with the eccentric character, I can safely say that it carries plenty of the company’s DSLR DNA. Is the Pentax K-01 enough to make a major splash in the mirrorless market though? Let’s find out.
- Highly impressive still image quality
- Quality construction with built-in image stabilization that rules
- DSLR-grade shooting features with awesome Focus and Exposure Peaking
- Wafer thin 40mm pancake is dynamite, compatibility with any K-mount lens
- Mic jack for advanced sound options
- Funky design that turns heads
- Video quality was hit or miss
- No built-in viewfinder
- No Continuous Autofocus in Video mode
- RAW colors were much more accurate than JPEGs by a landslide
Ideal for: Intermediate to semi-professional photographers who want a mirrorless companion unlike any other.
Find it at: http://www.pentaximaging.com/hybrid/K-01_Yellow.
Suggested Retail Price: $899.95 with SMC Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 kit lens.
Pentax K-01 Design
It’s a rarity that the Design portion of a camera review attracts just as much attention as the Features or Image Quality sections, but look at the Pentax K-01. The camera seems as though is was concocted in an Ikea Laboratory from Whoville. I think the “electrocution yellow” color (I made that name up) is a prime contributor to the camera’s unconventional appearance, so I was a bit disheartened to see a black model when I unboxed the mirrorless enigma. Regardless, the K-01’s ribbed rubber panels, chunky, oversized dials and brick-like body provided enough weirdness to place the camera in a league of its own within the design department.
But the most fascinating aspect of the Pentax K-01 was its absurdly thin 40mm f/2.8 Pentax DA pancake lens, which measured under 1/2-inch thick. Pentax claims the 40mm DA is the world’s thinnest interchangeable lens to date, and it adds to the camera’s aesthetic allure. Marc Newson also designed this lens, so it’s no wonder that it flows harmoniously with the funky body design. I really loved the 40mm DA because its manual focus control was buttery smooth and it also supported autofocus action. The quarter-sized lens cap juxtaposed with giant focus ring was a dynamic comedy duo. Also remember that the K-01 can outfit any K-mount Pentax lens ever made.
Now the Pentax K-01 lacks a viewfinder, though an external optical rangefinder can be purchased separately. That means the camera relies on the 3-inch LCD screen at all times, but it’s a nice one with a 921,000-pixel resolution. There’s a peppy popup flash atop the K-01 that offers a nice fill spread, and before I wrap this section up, I want to make one thing clear: the Pentax K-01 is a quality piece of equipment. The body is made of aluminum, including all of the dials and the flash. There’s a Mic jack for more serious video recording and a Mini HDMI terminal. The camera accepts a nice, big DSLR-sized battery pack for prolonged life throughout the day. If you think the K-01 is a gimmick, which I suspected at the beginning, think again. This is one solid, functional design, despite its eccentricities.
Pentax K-01 Features
After the Pentax K-01 surprised me with a body design that was unconventional, yet of a high caliber build, I thought there was no way the camera would be any sort of game changer in the shooting features department. That’s where my initial assumptions proved wrong again. The Pentax K-01 is just as capable a camera as any mid-level DSLR, though I actually stumbled upon a few features that no other DSLR offers in the major market: Focus and Exposure Peaking. Those are features that used to appear on the top-of-the-line consumer camcorders, and now they’ve made their way into the digital camera circuit. Focus Peaking creates sharp, bright highlights around objects that are in focus, making the buttery manual focus ring entirely usable and worthwhile. But there was also Exposure Peaking (Bright/Dark Area in the menu system), which turned underexposed portions of the LCD screen yellow and overexposed portions red while using Live View. In conjunction with the live histogram, the Peaking features on the Pentax K-01 were invaluable.
The Pentax K-01 also featured one of the best Image Stabilization systems, courtesy of the camera’s built-in sensor shift configuration. I was flabbergasted by how well the Pentax K-01 was able to quell the jitters, and the camera’s system proved to be one of the most effective I’ve ever tested, particularly in video mode. Manual adjustment was also in full gear, with P/A/S/M in Photo and Video modes. The K-01 has a shutter speed that ranges from 30 seconds to 1/4000-second, but the camera also has a dedicated Bulb mode that has its own place on the Mode dial, which is quite rare these days. Aperture can be stopped all the way down to an f/22, which was wonderful paired with the 40mm’s nine-blade f/2.8 maximum opening. ISO can also hit a ceiling of 25,600 with a base floor of 100. The K-01 also has full white balance control with a color grid selector, though I found the Auto WB to be one of the best performers I’ve seen in a while.
While the Pentax K-01 provided enough firepower for advanced shooters, the camera also included several shooting modes for creative types and beginners. Similar to Olympus mirrorless cameras, Pentax offers a vast suite of Digital Filters that specialize in high contrast, saturated colors and twinkling starburst lights. All digital filters have adjustable parameters for setting the intensity of the effect, and they can all be applied in Playback after the image is taken. In fact, I recommend shooting in JPEG+RAW mode and then applying filters in Playback because I got to keep an original RAW file and then apply any filter I wanted to the JPEG file. More filters are actually available in Playback mode, so I failed to see the point of shooting in Digital Filter modes. The Pentax K-01 has a cluster of different color filters and an HDR mode as well. In order to take full advantage of HDR mode, the camera/subject must be entirely still since the camera captures up to three images at different exposures and blends them all together. I recommend using a tripod with HDR mode, but found that with the various bracketing modes that it was better to create HDR shots in Photoshop.
The Pentax K-01 has a dedicated Video mode with P/A/M adjustment, though recording in the artsy Digital Filters was not possible. Also, there was no Continuous Autofocus in Video mode, so I had to rely on manual focus. That was okay, since the MF on the Pentax K-01 was fantastic, though Focus Peaking was only available in Still Picture mode. Of course, the Pentax K-01 had a full Auto mode with multiple Scene detection and automatic flash deployment for beginners. Several Scene modes were available as well, including a Night Scene HDR, Stage Lighting, Backlight Silhouette and Landscape. All in all, the Pentax K-01 was just as equipped as most mid-level DSLRs with the addition of professional tools in the Focus and Exposure Peaking.
Pentax K-01 Image Quality
The Pentax K-01 is equipped with a 16-megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor, which is the same size as the ones found in high grade mirrorless and mid-level DSLR cameras. In fact, the same sensor can be found inside the Pentax K-30, the company’s weather-sealed mid-level DSLR. I’ve tested Pentax cameras for quite a while and I’ve never had a bad experience with any of their DSLR models. In fact, Pentax image quality rivals that of many competing models. The K-01 was no different, offering splendid image quality, especially in Still Picture mode.
To benchmark the Pentax K-01’s performance, I shot with the Olympus OM-D EM-5 as a comparison model. In the end, I preferred the image quality of the Pentax and was reminded again how underrated Pentax cameras are. The life-like clarity and tones abounded amongst my test shots, and the high ISO noise levels were delightfully low. Out of all the mirrorless models on the market, the Pentax K-01 will arguably offer you the best image quality when it comes to still images. One thing to note is that the RAW quality shots are much better than the JPEG iterations. In fact, I saw two different reds when comparing JPEGs to RAWs side-by-side (the RAW’s red was much more accurate). So, shoot in JPEG+RAW at all times if you care about an optimum color performance. But as far as overall still picture quality, the Pentax K-01 is a fantastic performer.
On the Video side of the river, the Pentax K-01 is capable of 1080p Full HD video at 30, 25 and 24fps with different quality settings. I recorded at 30fps in maximum quality and the results were hit or miss. First of all, the camera excels in static environments with a manual focus and ample light. So, video of someone writing or flowers swaying in the breeze will look stellar. However, when I shot a lupine field under an overcast sky, I ran into a fair amount of compression. Furthermore, contrasty lines like window shutters exhibited moire patterns. So, the Pentax K-01 is capable of producing very good video quality, but I really had to work to achieve that via lighting, environment and focal length. In that regard, many beginners may wonder why the footage of the volleyball tournament on the beach looks great while the final musical number under dim stage lighting looks like a compressed mess. So, video quality could be improved.
Pentax K-01 Picture Samples
Pentax K-01 HD Video Samples
Pentax K-01 Conclusion
It’s hard for me not to love a nonconformist, and the Pentax K-01 is a champion in so many regards. Rather than puff its eccentric feathers on the outside to shroud meager offerings on the inside, the Pentax K-01 is a fantastic camera in almost every aspect. Its design is not only funky and unconventional, but it’s a beautifully-constructed hunk of rugged aluminum. The K-01 also brings advanced DSLR-style shooting features to the table, including Focus and Exposure Peaking; tools that no other digital camera will offer in this price range. Still image quality is fantastic with the K-01, and although I had a mixed experience with the camera’s video quality, I know that it’s capable of producing great things with the right lighting and equipment.
So, the Pentax K-01 is officially the wildcard surprise of the year. If you dare to be different in the digital camera world, the Pentax K-01 will take you very far.