Pentax K-01 16Mp APS-C hybrid camera review
Mirrorless maverick for grown-up lenses
Mirrorless camera sizes seem to be ever-reducing, yet the company that brought us the tiny Pentax Q , has now produced its antithesis. The Pentax K-01 is a big, rubber-clad, brick-shaped monster – a 16Mp APS-C interchangeable lens camera which rather defies categorisation.
Hybrid heritage: the Pentax K-01 utilises the well-established K-mount for its lenses
Available in black, white and bright yellow, regardless of colour choice, the Pentax K-01 is sure to polarise opinion. Its unconventional body, styled by designer Marc Newson, is a bold, bravely minimalist construct. Its large, fat-finger-friendly controls lend it a welcoming, almost toy-like familiarity – a world away from the dull, black and often intimidating features of a DSLR.
To all intents and purposes, the K-01 is a standard, full-sized DSLR camera minus the viewfinder and its reflex components. Indeed, unlike compact system cameras – that demand a unique range of lenses designed specifically to fit the smaller form factor – the K-01 uses the standard Pentax K-mount which has been around since the mid-seventies.
Buy into this model and you can access a vast array of lenses, both new and second-hand which can be used without the need for a costly adapter. The disadvantage of this approach is that these lenses are much larger than their compact system counterparts, resulting in a far bulkier, heavier kit bag.
Optics aside, another advantage of the larger size is that it provides room for a much bigger battery, enabling the K-01 to shoot around 540 shots on a single charge. The best news, however, is that the DSLR with which the K-01 shares the vast majority of its specification is none other than the excellent K-5, the flagship Pentax model.
Consider that the K-5 is positioned against such giants as Nikon’s D7000 and Canon’s EOS 7D, and you’ll realise that Pentax is aiming high with the K-01. Utilising a sensor very similar in performance to these high-end models, the K-01 delivers outstanding image quality and almost ridiculously good low-light results.
Fuss-free, finger friendly controls
Not only does it offer a maximum ISO of 12800 – which can be pushed to 25600 – but it does so with some of the lowest noise levels I’ve seen. At the lower end of the ISO scale, detail and sharpness are truly excellent. In terms of image quality alone, this camera is capable of producing better quality pictures than the vast majority of DSLRs and is worthy of its place alongside the serious enthusiast models mentioned above.
In the balance
Extreme colour casts gave the auto white balance a few issues, when shooting city scenes at night, I found selecting Tungsten mode to produce the best-looking images in a hurry, but in general exposure and colour rendition were flawless – certainly much, much better than I had expected to see from a camera at this price.
Taps into a veritable seam of glassware, new and old
However, the rather poor corner sharpness of the supplied 18-55mm kit zoom lens was shown up easily by the high resolution of the K-01, which took full advantage of the much higher quality of the additional 55mm f/1.4 prime lens we tested with the camera. Also available as a kit option is the almost unimaginably thin 40mm f/2.8 XS pancake lens – the thinnest in the world, according to Pentax, at less than 10mm thick. Draw a circle on a small cardboard box with a marker pen and you’ll get something of the idea of what the K-01 looks like with this lens fitted.
It’s in this configuration that the camera comes closest to the compact concept – its almost total lack of protrusions making it considerably easier to pack.
Flat as a pancake: the Pentax K-01 DA 40mm f/2.8 XS lens
My tests with some very old manual focus K-mount lenses were less than successful. One aged Tokina zoom  failing to fit given due to a pronounced reinforcing metal flange around the mount and a Chinon standard lens  failing to function without the use of a cheap 2x teleconverter .
Aged optics foibles aside, Pentax promises compatibility with a total range of 214 lenses, with 28 of these currently in production. Lest we forget the large number of compatible lenses made by more mainstream third-party glass vendors such as Sigma and Tamron. And if you're concerned about image stabilisation, sensor-shift based anti-shake technology is built into the body, providing these benefits for any attached lens.
I’m guilty of the occasional chuckle at the photographer – DSLR held at arm’s length – squinting in an attempt to compose an image on a small LCD when there’s a perfectly good viewfinder available. Alas, the K-01 forces you to be that person every time you take a photograph. You can get away with this when using a compact camera – even a compact system camera, but a camera of this size and weight just feels wrong without a viewfinder.
A non-articulating LCD and no EVF option are the only real drawbacks here
For no romantic reason, I longed to hold it close to my body. Held farther away to make use of the screen it feels cumbersome and unstable, while bright sunlight makes composing and focusing images very difficult indeed. Hand holding it to shoot video quickly becomes tiring. I have nothing against offering a camera without a viewfinder as standard – it reduces the total size and keeps down cost – but there’s no viewfinder available for the K-01 even as an optional accessory. So you really need to be sure you can live without one before you part with your cash.
18-55mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 27-83mm)
Night shot with auto white balance
Night shot set to tungsten white balance
No High Dynamic Range (HDR)
High Dynamic Range (HDR) on full
Zoom with a view
Put a fast prime lens on a K-01 and you’ll be working with razor-thin depth-of-field which requires careful composition and precise focusing. The K-01 lacks the phase-matching detection autofocus found on the K-5 and many other DSLRs, leaving you with the slower and less-effective contrast detection AF system used by most live-view cameras. Focusing speed is also highly-dependent on your lens, the kit zoom lens not being very quick at all and faster lenses being considerably better at focusing in low light.
Plenty of room for extra function buttons – in the next version perhaps?
Thankfully, Pentax has included a few features to help you nail the focus. There’s a dedicated focus assist light and an AF auto zoom function. The latter will zoom in the live-view image automatically as you compose to help you check focus as though through a loupe. More interesting is the ‘focus peaking’ feature which highlights and sharpens the edges of in-focus portions of the image so you can see at a glance which elements are sharply focused. This is especially useful when using manual focus, although I found it wasn’t quite precise enough when the depth of field is really narrow, such as when taking a macro shot.
Also missing from the K-01 are several of the K-5’s physical controls. Perhaps Pentax thought a second control dial would break up the clean minimalist lines or intimidate the novice user. Even so, there are vast areas of empty space on the body left unused where useful additional buttons could have been situated. You do, however, get a pair of customisable buttons, one red and one green, with which you can make your favourite functions more accessible.
By default, the red button immediately starts movie recording, which is available in resolutions up to 1080p at up to 60fps with sound captured in stereo from the built-in microphone. The green button functions as a sort of panic switch, instantly cancelling any exposure adjustments you’ve made to allow you to fire off a shot quickly with sensible settings.
Several other functions can be assigned to either button, including depth-of-field preview, focus peaking, one-shot JPEG+RAW capture and adding one of the many available digital filters. It’s almost shame to subject the K-01’s images to such effects but, a must-have for the Instagram generation. There are 17 treatments provided, including such favourites as watercolour, pastel and miniature effects, as well as more useful ones such as a monochrome mode and various colour filters.
The usual mode dial provides access to the standard exposure modes, plus full-auto and a total of nineteen scene modes. There’s also a dedicated slot for HDR mode which automatically captures and aligns a series of three JPEGs into a single image with enhanced dynamic range.
According to Pentax, the K-01 has the widest lense range for a mirrorless camera without resorting to an adapter
Pressing the INFO button gives you access to a quick menu of functions, allowing you to adjust several shooting options without entering the full menu system. Annoyingly, some of these functions, such as HDR and RAW mode, are mutually exclusive leaving one or other of them greyed out but without any indication of which other function is preventing its use.
Continuous shooting is available at a respectable 6fps in JPEG mode and in general use, the camera seems quick and nimble with the possible exception of focus, depending on your lens and the HDR mode which renders the camera unusable for several frustrating seconds while the image is processed. Continuous shooting in RAW mode is also somewhat disappointing. The manual conveniently omits this statistic from the specifications, but in practice it’s slow enough to not feel much like continuous shooting at all.
A tempting alternative to the CSC craze
Given its size and performance, the K-01 is closer to the DSLR than it is to the mirrorless compact despite its reduced physical controls and slower autofocus performance. The lack of viewfinder is also frustrating, but when you consider the stunning image quality and the comparatively low cost, it all starts to make sense.
Despite these few niggles, the Pentax K-01 is a superb shooter for the price. Any other camera combining this level of image quality and features will cost you hundreds of pounds more. Any, that is, with the possible exception of the Pentax K-5 that can be found highly discounted at present – a highly desirable alternative for K-mount afficionados who can’t live without a viewfinder, but for those who can, the Pentax K-01 takes some beating. ®
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