Pentax Q compact system camera
The cutest camera in the world?
Review When it come to compact system cameras, Pentax has form, if your memory goes back far enough. Like the Auto110 SLR film camera of old, the Pentax Q is laughably small, but in a good way. It’s a happy laugh – like a friendly chuckle at the burblings of a new-born. Its design is achingly cute – especially the white version I received for review – while build quality is impressively and surprisingly high.
The Pentax Q – a fully-working scale model of an enthusiast camera
Its retro looks are unashamedly borrowed from the classic and prohibitively expensive rangefinders of yore, but this is no cheap plastic scale replica: When handling the Q, its leather-clad magnesium- alloy body feels entirely authentic and reassuringly solid.
It is a little bit small though, did I mention that? Sure, there are normal compacts smaller than the Q, but this is a camera that’s designed to be tweaked and poked about a bit. There are many tiny buttons to be pushed and dials to be dialled – and if you’re the kind of person who’s considering the Q based on its ability to compete on the same turf as an SLR, you will be pushing and dialling a helluva lot.
This is not a toy
Using the Q is unlike handling and other camera: If you have big hands, then prepare to look a little silly as it’s not so much your hands that will be holding the Pentax Q, or even your fingers. No, the Pentax Q is to be held very much by the fingertips – and I do mean specifically the tips. You know how grown men look riding those mini motorbikes with their knees poking out sideways to great comic effect? Well, expect something a bit like that.
The controls themselves are as well placed and evenly spaced as they can be, given that most of the rear of the camera is taken up by a 3in LCD display – that’s bigger than you’d get on the considerably larger Fujifilm X10, for example. Next to it, the usual up, down, left, right and OK cursor controls are supplemented by discrete Menu, Info and Av buttons along with a green ‘panic’ button which will instantly override the mess you’re making with the manual exposure controls and fix them for you.
Thumb and forefinger of the right hand get a control dial each: The finger gets the classic mode dial incorporating the usual PASM and full-auto options along with a scene mode selector, dedicated ‘Blur Control’ mode and, of course, the option for 1080p video.
The metal shutter button is raised and can’t be mistaken for the tiny, recessed power switch nearby. Over on the the left hand side, past the hot shoe, is a button to enter playback mode and a catch to release the tiny built-in flash which springs out on an unexpectedly long hinged cantilever much like a jack-in-a-box.
A pop-up flash by anyone's standards
On the front of the camera, a programmable five-position ‘quick dial’ let’s you choose from a selection of four pre-set camera configurations which you can set up beforehand via the menus.
Key to the design of the Q is its use of interchangeable lenses: Due to the Q’s small image sensor, the specially-designed Q-mount lenses are correspondingly teeny-weeny: The smallest examples being about the size of one of those little round pots of lip-balm. They’re also very, very light. To put this into context, I carried the Q along with four lenses in a single jacket pocket, hardly noticing the weight at all. If you’ve tried that with any other camera system, you’ll appreciate just how much of a difference the Q setup can make.
The review sample came fitted with a non-zooming or ‘prime’ lens with a wide aperture of f1.9. Its focal length of 8.5mm translates to a field of view equivalent to a 47mm lens in 35mm terms, which makes it great for natural-looking people shots and street photography. It’s a great lens to leave on the camera pretty much all the time and yes, it will fit into a jeans pocket albeit in a somewhat embarrassing ‘or are you just pleased to see me’ kind of way.
The aperture opens wide enough to allow some degree of bokeh – as shown in the toy monkey image, but you’ll have to have your subject extremely close to get a strong effect. This is where the aforementioned ‘Blur Control’ mode comes in, allowing the Q to shoot up to three differently-focused images and combine them to create artificially enhanced bokeh.
A useful array of lenses to suit its 5.5x crop factor
Considerably larger is the optional 5-15mm zoom. A 35mm equivalent to 27.5-83mm it covers medium–wide to portrait focal lengths and still opens up to a relatively bright f/2.8 at the wide end of the range. Both of these lenses support autofocus and incorporate mechanical shutters. The 3.2mm diagonal fish eye is, however, without either of these features and must therefore be focused manually while relying on the Q’s electronic shutter.
Also fully manual are the remaining two lenses in the line-up which have been somewhat surprisingly labelled by Pentax as ‘Toy’ lenses. A charitable interpretation would be toy as in ‘poodle’ rather than toy as in ‘broken by Boxing Day’.
A clip on viewfinder is an option
The ‘Toy’ telephoto 18mm f/8 which extends only slightly the maximum magnification of the standard zoom and an even less useful 6.3mm f/7.1 which actually falls within standard zoom’s range. It should also be noted that all three of these manual lenses have fixed apertures.
Once you work out how to use the Q’s assisted manual focus mode, the fish eye lens in particular is a lot of fun enabling images you won’t be able to get on a fixed-lens camera.
It takes full size SD cards and even has a mini HDMI port
For all its versatility a sophisticated control, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Q is a compact camera with a compact camera’s sensor. If you’re expecting SLR-level sharpness and detail, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Having only a very dull winter day available for outdoor testing certainly didn’t help the camera achieve its full potential.
The 3in screen dominates the back
In the camera’s natural colour mode, images are rather low in contrast and colours somewhat less punchy than what you might expect from a consumer camera. This gives the advanced user maximum flexibility when post-processing in image editing software and impressive results are available with just a little tweaking.
Wide angle: Standard 5-15mm f2.8-4.5 zoom (35mm equivalent: 27.5-83mm)
Click for a full-resolution crop
Telephoto: Standard 5-15mm f2.8-4.5 zoom (35mm equivalent: 27.5-83mm)
Click for a full-resolution crop
8.5mm Standard Prime - a little bokeh at f1.9
In-camera tonal effects
As you might expect, the camera struggles at the higher ISO settings reducing in detail and saturation and increasing in noise the higher you go. Noise reduction can’t be turned off entirely, but selecting the low level NR option brings back some detail even at ISO 6400. Pixel-peeping aside, and given adequate lighting, the Q can deliver very pleasing results despite these shortcomings.
RAW shooting is on-board along with quite a few in-camera processes
Indeed, it’s capable of all manner of thrilling photographic stunts, enabling creativity far exceeding that of any other camera its size. It’s jam-packed with features that I haven’t been able to touch on in detail here, including sophisticated in-camera RAW image processing, sensor-shift image stabilisation, automatic HDR and the ability to tweak and adjust just about everything everywhere.
Being a self-respecting compact system camera, accessories abound
Due to its size and sensor format, the Pentax Q is fighting at a big disadvantage from the start when it comes to image quality. However, it presents itself so well and offers so many enthusiast-friendly features that it’s one underdog that’s really hard not to root for. Despite its limitations, I find myself really wanting to own one. ®
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