My Pentax Q impressions

Pentax Q, f/4.5, 1/200 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 400, 0.0 EV

The small camera sensor market is under a lot of pressure nowadays. Partially because manufacturers develop smaller form factor cameras with larger sensors, like Panasonic, Olympus, Sony, and Nikon. And there is the other competition for small sensor cameras coming from cell phone manufacturers. They compete with increasingly better phone cameras and software developers produce quite interesting photo apps. The Nokia N8 for instance is regarded as one of the best and also the latest Apple iPhone 4S has come a very long way.

To make sure a camera gets sold well, it needs to have something that others just don’t have or is simply done a whole lot better. Panasonic for instance does a good job with their LX series and Canon always did great with their G-series. Of course there is Ricoh with their GR Digital which remains unique in the industry with a fast wide angle prime lens and high quality built. Pentax tries to enter this niche markets of high quality compact cameras with the smallest interchangeable lens system. A daring move for sure, but also one that is received with lots of reservations world wide.

Pentax showed me a preproduction sample of the Pentax Q end of July and offered me one for reviewing purposes later this year (which I received end of September). Like many, I was very surprised to learn how small it is. But understanding that most photographers in the West want cameras with larger sensors I most definately had my reservations too in respect to the usability, image quality, and the quite heavy price tag.

Pentax Q, f/3.5, 1/2000 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, -0.3 EV

Understand the philosophy
Most of us have probably read that Pentax had been developing this camera for some years (in fact 5 years) and waited until sensor technology was good enough to fit in such a small camera. And sure sensor technology has come a long way, but the challenging question for Pentax is whether it is enough for consumers all over the world to except. And that challenge is very much influenced by cultural difference world wide.

The perception in the West for so long has been bigger is better, larger cameras are more serious, larger sensors provide better image quality, and the more exclusive the materials the higher the expectations by those who are willing to pay the price. Unlike here in the West, cuteness is something that is generally every well excepted among the Japanese society. In fact, they use a word for that: “Kawaii”. Funny thing, it was a Hello Ketty exhibition I visited that made me aware of this cultural exceptance in Japan. Something cute is considered juvenile and attractive in Japan. In the West however we consider it (confuse) it with childish, toy-like, and not certainly not serious.

Pentax Q, f/3.2, 1/1000 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, -0.3 EV

Basically you can say that in Japanese society nowadays kawaii (cute and neat) are the new beautiful and refined. And while the Pentax Q certainly is beautifully crafted and technologically refined, it is also cute (referring to the new “Q”) and very neat. A sort of lovable camera, because it is so small and full of technological achievements.

And that is also the caveat of this camera. Between cultures we have different expectations. Maybe Japanese consumers are willing to pay 800 Euro for such a small camera, but here we expect it to compete with larger sensor cameras for a similar price.

Pentax Q, f/2.2, 1/640 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 400, -0.3 EV

Therefore you might also notice that the camera is marketed here as an technological achievement. Small, high quality, SLR experience, you name it. See the example movie here, while in Japan there is more focus on the digital filters for the photographs and you see in this movie a woman using the Q or keeping it in her small purse. We want black cameras while the white Q with the standard prime lens sells pretty well in Japan. In fact, the white Q was one the best selling cameras last September in Japan (see source here).

Pentax Q, f/3.5, 1/400 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, 0.0 EV

So what is in the box?
What I find quite interesting is that the standard box does not contain a zoom lens, but the pretty small, lightweight, and fast aperture 47mm f/1.9 prime lens. I presume Pentax wants you to believe that it is not only a small and cute package, but is also a serious tool with a prime lens that could challenge the photographer. The body is very well constructed of high quality materials.  The magnesium body making it feel very light, but still very durable. It has a good grip, although I don’t find it as comfortable and stable as the grips I know from the Ricoh cameras. All buttons and dials are in my opinion logically placed. There is also a front dial next to the lens, but this can only be used for camera settings that affects the jpegs outcome. Unlike many other cameras, especially compact cameras, the Q has separative compartments for the battery and the SD card. I kind of like that, although both compartments are not so easy to open when you use a neck strap.

The camera has a flash that pops up very high above the camera. The flash can however also be used when not extracted. While I was personally very surprised by the performance of the flash, I am also no fan of flash usage in my photography. Still, I thought it’s performance was very consistent and just so much better than what Ricoh for instance has to offer.

Pentax Q, f/4.5, 1/160 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, 0.0 EV

The 47mm f/1.9 prime lens is pretty small, but delivers a nice grip and balance to the size and weight of the camera. The focusing ring is of the focus by wire type and therefore lacks an end or beginning point. The minimal focus distance is 8 cm, which was a kind of a shock to me since pretty much all small sensor cameras provide a macro mode. Not this camera though. To construct a small and fast prime lens it must come at a price and this becomes noticeable when you use RAW or jpeg without lens correction. The lens exhibits a lot of distortion despite the normal focal length. The lens also is very prone to flare. Normally I don’t mind flare for my photography, but this flare distributes quite unevenly and isn’t so pretty. There is also quite some chromatic aberration which can be too overwhelming with high contrast and bright scenes. Otherwise the lens gives pleasant sharp (enough) photographs from me, and like any other small sensor camera it remains smart to keep the apertures between f/1.9 and f/5.6 to avoid diffraction.

Pentax Q, f/4.5, 1/125 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, 0.0 EV

To construct this very small body Pentax decided to use the latest generation of 1/2.3″ sensors. I had a lot of reservation with the size of the sensor. And while some of these reservations came true, in other respects I was also pleasantly surprised by the performance of this sensor. It produces very pleasant colors and even at higher ISO’s these remain very consistent and well saturated. While there is certainly some noise reduction going on (for the jpegs), it still provides an excellent balance between the perception of sharpness and remaining noise. I call it perception of sharpness, because those who prefer to view at 100% will always have something to nitpick. I however thought it was doing very well against the slightly larger sensor that Ricoh uses in the GR Digital and the S10 lens module for the GXR. The small sensor does however display some serious magenta cast at very bright high lights. Even though I only used the prime lens I learned from others that it also shows this magenta cast with the other lenses. I contacted Pentax Ricoh about this and there response was: “The magenta fringing is caused by the strong light reflecting on the sensor to the lens. Unfortuntaly there is no solution for this“. It is not only there in the RAW photographs, but also in the in-camera processed jpegs. This however also happened to cameras with larger sensors, like the Sigma DP1 series and the Olympus Pen E-PL2.

Pentax (or I should be saying Pentax Ricoh) delivers the camera with SILKYPIX Developer Studio 3.0 for editing the raw photographs, but I personally prefer using Adobe Lightroom 3. With the latest update to version 3.5 it also supports the Pentax Q. I therefore never bothered to install it.

Pentax Q, f/3.5, 1/640 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, -0.3 EV

And what do you get in general?
Overall speaking you get a pretty simple and straightforward camera that provides good image quality considering the image sensor. The camera feels like a quality product, but is very likely too small for most hands (especially for non Asians). Thankfully the camera relies on many common features. The camera takes SD cards, including the latests SD XC cards. I can certainly advice some larger sized cards since the RAW images (when you want to use these) take up a lot of storage. The file size is generally around 19Mb of uncompressed data. Besides only RAW, you can also save jpeg and RAW and only jpeg. For the jpeg option the image processing engine provides several in-camera custom image settings, any of these can be altered with some additional parameters. These custom image settings are bright, natural, portrait, landscape, vibrant, radiant, muted, bleach bypass, reversal film, monochrome, and cross processing. I personally really liked natural, muted, bleach bypass, and reversal film. Especially reversal film was pretty need with stronger contrast and kind of compressed dynamic range to achieve the look of slide film.

Additionally the camera comes with a HDR mode and the bokeh setting. Sure you will find some examples else where on the net, but I never used the HDR mode and I thought the bokeh setting was a pure gimmick (actually, for me HDR is a gimmick too).

Pentax Q, f/3.5, 1/640 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, -0.3 EV

While Pentax (or I should be saying Pentax Ricoh now) markets the Q as a small compact interchangeable camera system with a SLR footprint, I think it is important to not expect comparable image quality and convinience from similar priced low end SLR cameras. And this is basically the main caveat of this camera. It is a very expensive camera. Now, don’t get me wrong. A Leica D-Lux 4 or a Ricoh GR Digital IV are expensive too. These kind of cameras are high end compacts constructed with exclusive materials, more then average camera technology, and are targeted for a niche market. But to be honest, I think the Pentax Q is too expensive compared to it’s possible competitors. Unlike Leica, the brand doesn’t have the exclusivity. Nor does the package make it exclusive too. I personally think it would make better sense to either sell it for less money or include the viewfinder and hood to the package. In the meantime the market is already making it’s first corrections with quite some discount and the Q selling for approximately €600.

Pentax Q, f/2.2, 1/640 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 400, 0.0 EV

And me personally?
At first I was quite overwhelmed by the size. It is really the smallest camera I have used to date. Seeing and feeling the body and lenses certainly is pretty amazing. Even though the lens is quite fast (f/1.9 aperture) it lags behind in start-up time and autofocus. I am not saying the autofocus is really slow (like the Sigma DP1), but nowadays there are small sensor cameras that have much faster autofocus. Where my Ricoh GR Digital 3 is conservative in the metering, tending to underexpose a bit, the Pentax Q does slightly overexpose. Even so it is still quite good in the highlights, while the slight overexposure leads to brighter colors and less noise in the shadows. Seeing how the sensor preserves it’s colors throughout a large ISO range, remains reasonable sharp, and the quite pleasant noise (no visual blotches) in the RAW images, for me it clearly demonstrates how far current sensor and image processing technology has come.

Even though the camera comes with image stabilization I thought it was less usable in low light compared to my Ricoh GR Digital 3 without image stabilization. It is likely the combination with the longer focal length and the very small size of the camera, but keeping it steady and avoiding camera shake was a daunting task.

Pentax Q, f/2.5, 1/160 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 640, -0.3 EV

I got the camera for review purposes when I was in the midst of a period of color photography. I was pretty amazed how well the Pentax Q worked in color. Since I mostly photograph B&W I also wanted to see how the camera worked for my photography. Although you can further adjust the B&W in-camera settings with more or less contrast and sharpness, and the color filters that changes the luminance of colors, I thought the B&W lacked some punch for me. In combination with the small size of the camera it tempered my enthusiasm of the camera. At the end of the review session I experimented too with the in-camera digital filters. Setting the camera to B&W with a yellow, orange, or green filter and some additional contrast with the help of the in-camera digital filters gave me the kind of B&W photographs I like that need a minimum of post-processing.

Pentax Q, f/2.5, 1/250 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 640, -0.3 EV

But all these in-camera features request a lot of processing power. The battery is small and I never succeeded in getting more than 170 exposures (even when only shooting jpegs). For me a camera must be intuitive and I only really use a manual when I just don’t know how to adjust a certain setting. On the last day of testing I accidentally touched a button that set the camera to the continues high mode where it took three photographs in a very quick row after a single press. I had no clue how to change it (yeah right RTFM!), but thought I would figure it out when I got home. In the meantime I was experimenting with the custom image settings and digital filters when the camera stopped working after some 10 minutes. It would still show the last image on the LCD screen. Removing the battery and inserting it was no solution. The camera still wouldn’t work. Eventually I decided to shortly recharge the battery and that finally worked.

I contacted Pentax about this issue. They told me that the engineers couldn’t reproduce it, but that the camera could have some issues with older SD cards. I was using 2008 Sandisk Ultradisk Extreme III. Shortly before announcing the first firmware update for the Pentax Q Wednesday November 1 they sent me the new firmware and I haven’t been able to reproduce this problem, while I still could reproduce it with the older firmware.

Pentax Q, f/2.5, 1/640 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 200, -0.3 EV

And regarding the firmware update the description was quite fague “improving operational stability”. But I am glad to report that the new v1.01 formware does improve the autofocus and start-up time. And as mentioned above I haven’t been able to reproduce my problem ever since. Optimizing the code in the firmware can improve performance which is particularly important with such a small camera with a relatively minimal computing power and buffer size.

Pentax Q, f/3.5, 1/500 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 125, -0.3 EV

In the end
After more than 4 weeks of working with the Pentax Q I am more than positive of this camera. You might read many opiniated reactions about this camera. I don’t think it is smart to market this camera as a dSLR kind of camera. For the advice price people simply expect more (although I think that is unrealistic). It simply isn’t a dSLR. It is an unique and very small camera with similarly small lenses. Despite the small sensor it performs really well with pleasantly colored jpegs, both at low and high ISO’s. Now Ricoh is the owner of the Pentax camera division, I personally think it provides some interesting opportunities for this camera system combining the best of both manufacturers. With a changed camera design, more similar to the Ricoh cameras, and a lower price it could well be the 40mm alternative many Ricoh GR users requested since Ricoh decided the 40mm lens couldn’t be used anymore with the GRD3. A slightly larger camera design would also make room for a larger battery, preferably the same sensor as the one being used in the older GX100/200 series and the GR D series.

While I don’t think it could be my general all purpose camera, it fits quite nicely next to my Ricoh GRD3 when I want to have a camera with larger depth of field and a normal prime lens. With the market setting lower prices for the Q it does actually become a more interesting camera too, but I would really advice possible new users to buy some latest SD cards and a few extra batteries too. Although the Q is small it provides the photographer a lot of joy.

Pentax Q, f/2.2, 1/1600 sec, 47mm equivalent, ISO 400, -0.3 EV

Personal note
I have no affiliate partnership with Pentax (nor Ricoh), but I think it is important for me to keep in good contact with them and discuss matters openly. Of course I realize that I am part of a possible marketing machine, but I am in no way restricted in my writing. If I notice an issue I ask them for a reaction, but will still write about it. Very likely I will still miss some issues that others may well notice, but I am no reviewer. There is nothing scientific about me using a new camera. I have my personal photography and what matters to me is how I can use and adapt a different camera for my own photography without hindering me. As a result I will not use all features of a camera. If you hoped to find full size examples or a bunch of downloadable RAW files I suggest to look elsewhere. There are enough review sites where you can find these, and charts, brick walls, and many studio arranged test photographs. My impression articles are strictly personal notes. I started writing these, because I had no idea how to interpret these technical reviews for my own photography.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma