I think the ‘Q’ in the Pentax Q name stands for Quagmire because this camera is nearly impossible to categorize. On one hand, it’s a great portable interchangeable lens camera system, which will appeal to more advanced shooters. Yet on the other hand, the Pentax Q has a point-and-shoot worthy 1/2.3-inch 12-megapixel CMOS sensor inside. As a result, the Pentax Q is the world’s first interchangeable lens camera with the smallest sensor, and I’m not quite sure that’s something worth boasting about. Below the DSLR level, the digital camera market has APS-C sized mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX series. Then in come the Micro Four Thirds cameras like the Olympus PEN E-P3 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 with their slightly smaller sensors. Then there’s the Nikon J1 with a 1-inch type sensor. A camera like the Pentax Q is just absurd when you look at it in the grand scheme of things. Pentax didn’t even opt to go for a 1/1.7-inch chip like the Canon PowerShot S100. They kept things small.
Representing the Lollypop Guild
But there is a benefit to creating an interchangeable lens camera with a point-and-shoot size sensor, and that’s portability. The Pentax Q is tiny. Even the Canon PowerShot S100 is taller than it. The Pentax Q makes the Olympus E-PM1 look like a monster truck. And its lenses; oh the Pentax Q’s lenses! I nearly doubled ass over teakettle laughing at the Q’s tiny interchangeable lenses. I was shipped an f/1.9 Standard Prime, f/5.6 Fish-Eye, f/2.8-4.5 Standard Zoom, and two Toy lenses that looked small enough to come from a 50-cent machine. All five lenses and the optical viewfinder I also received could fit in a camera bag the size of a large grapefruit.
The Pentax Q is like a miniature toy camera, but don’t let looks fool you. The Q has an amazingly tall popup flash that resembles Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. There’s a customizable front Control Dial with four settings and alternates between Digital Filters, Aspect Ratios, Smart Effects and Custom Images. The Q also has a rear Control Dial for setting manual controls and features the classic Pentax Green button for quick options on the fly. There’s a hot shoe on top of the camera for a more powerful flash or viewfinder, though I found the Q’s built-in flash intensity to be brighter than most cameras I’ve tested, and even had to dial back the Flash EV in most scenarios. The SD card and battery slots are tucked neatly along the sides of the camera while the HDMI and AV ports sit on the bottom. For quick ISO, White Balance, Flash and Self Timer settings, the 4-way directional pad was the way to go, while the Q also offered a dedicated Exposure Compensation button.
In addition to stellar portability, the Pentax Q is a manual control and digital filter powerhouse. It’s got a 30-second shutter speed, White Balance color grid selector, built-in ND filter and ISO that reaches 6400. The Q also has 19 different Digital Filters that can be applied in post directly on the camera. Each filter has individually adjustable parameters for intensity, color and effect level. There are also several Smart Effect filters like Cross Processing and Tone Expansion as well as oodles of color effects. It’s safe to say that the Pentax Q has the most robust selection of image effects and filters, which is optimal for those who don’t have access to Photoshop.
How Did It Shoot?
So the Pentax Q is a rocking little powerplant that can fit inside a grapefruit, but what about image quality? I will say that size comes at a price, for the Pentax Q definitely felt the heat from that tiny 12-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor, which was working overtime. I shot side-by-side with the Nikon Coolpix P7100 and Canon PowerShot S100 and walked away favoring both models over the Q. It’s not to say that the Q can’t snap a decent picture. The Q’s bright light and low ISO performance was fantastic with very minimal chromatic aberrations present; just a little purple fringing here and there. However, the camera’s higher ISO performance placed it behind the Canon PowerShot S100 by a good car length. Serious photographers will not be able to attain that professional edge with the Q because of this, but advanced hobbyists and shooters looking to transcend the point-and-shoot world will be quite happy with the Q. It’s worth mentioning that the Q has 1080p HD video recording at 30fps in the H.264 codec. Video quality is decent, but it’s noisy and can’t match the Canon PowerShot S100 or Nikon Coolpix P7100. On the bright side, the Q can record videos using a multitude of Digital Filters.
In the end, the Pentax Q will go down as one of my favorite cameras I’ve ever tested, despite the fact that it’s got a 1/2.3-inch sensor. The amount of times I exclaimed “This is awesome!” during my unboxing of the Q far exceeded that of any other camera to date. Between its retro looks, munchkin-sized interchangeable lenses, plethora of built-in image effects and nice manual control suite, the Pentax Q really is a great camera. There is a dark side, however, and that’s the fact that the Q is still as good or a step behind the best point-and-shoots on the market when it comes to image quality. Also, I found that the Pentax Q’s LCD screen needed a much better resolution and its battery can go quickly. Lastly, the Pentax Q was a bit sluggish compared to the S100 and P7100, but hopefully a firmware update will cure that down the road.
The Final Word
I have one last bone to pick with the Pentax Q, and that’s its price. Listing at $750 with f/1.9 Standard Prime, that’s a bit steep. Factor in the 5-15mm zoom lens and Fish-Eye and we’re looking at over a grand for a camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor. If I were to improve upon the Pentax Q, I’d find a way to fit at least a Four Thirds-sized sensor in that tiny body with minute lenses to match. I’d pump more pixels in the 460K LCD to make it 920K, toss a spare battery in the box and boost the operation speed of the firmware. Perhaps we’ll see some of that in the Q 2, but for now, the Pentax Q is an insanely fun little camera that still has the capability of making many shooters very happy.