Life after Dark: Pentax K-1 Field Test

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After months of running around with nothing but mirrorless and rangefinder cameras, the first thing that came to mind when I picked up the new Pentax flagship DSLR was, “Geeeeeez this puppy’s heavy…” The Pentax K-1 is, indeed, a heavy camera, especially when paired with an HD Pentax-D FA 24-70mm f/2.8 ED SDM WR zoom lens, but the image quality and functionality of the K-1 quickly allayed any weight issues I had the first time I lifted the camera to my eye.

The dynamic range of the K-1’s 36.4MP full-frame CMOS sensor, combined with the processing abilities of the camera’s PRIME lV image processor, are immensely impressive. Highlight and shadow details hold up equally well and the transitional tones between these extremes are equally sweet. What’s more, except for my photograph of stars in a midnight sky, all the street scenes photographed for this review were captured handheld.

Photographs © Allan Weitz

Pentax’s first full-frame camera contains a 36.4MP CMOS sensor that, in a bid to maximize resolving power, lacks an anti-aliasing filter. In its stead, the K-1 features an electronic anti-alias simulator (i.e., a controlled micro-burst of sensor vibration) when photographing moiré-prone subjects.

A new 33 AF-point (25 cross-type) SAFOX 12 AF module enables precise focusing with immediate response times in all but the most dreadful lighting conditions, but even when prowling the streets after dark, the camera’s “eyes” outperformed my own ability to see through the darkness.

The K-1 can continuously capture JPEGs, 14-bit RAW (DNG), or JPEG/DNG image files at up to 4.5 fps in full-frame mode, or 6.5 fps in APS-C crop mode. Flash sync is 1/200-second and video can be captured at 1080/30p.

Storm clouds rolling in? No problem—the K-1’s magnesium-alloy body is thoroughly sealed against the elements.

The K-1 also features a 5-Axis image stabilization system that gives you a five-stop advantage with 5-Axis correction when shooting under difficult lighting conditions. Does the camera’s five-stop IS system work? According to the nighttime street shots I captured for this test, it sure does. Although I had a tripod with me, I didn’t unfold it until I began shooting 8- to 12-second exposures of stars around midnight.

If exposures of 8 to 12 seconds are too long for your needs, the camera offers you the option of cranking the ISO sensitivity upwards of 204,800. It’s also worth noting that few, if any, of the accompanying photographs were captured at ISO sensitivities higher than 1600, which is hardly a stretch for the K-1’s sensor and image processor.

Speaking of stars, one of the niftier features found on the Pentax K-1 is the AstroTracer function, which uses the electro-magnetic compass in the camera’s built-in GPS system to move the K-1’s sensor during long exposures and neutralize star movement due to the rotation of the earth when shooting astrophotography.

Stars at midnight

If you really want to maximize image quality, by increasing color accuracy, fine detail, and high ISO capabilities, you can place the camera into Pixel Shift Resolution Mode, which effectively captures a quick succession of four frames—each frame captured with the sensor moved 1-pixel to the left, right, up, and down. The four images are then processed and stitched in-camera into a single composite RAW or JPG optimized image file with an effective resolving power of about 42MP. 


The Pentax engineering department went out of its way to integrate a pleasing blend of analog and digital controls on the K-1. If you grew up in the days of film cameras, you’ll feel right at home. Conversely, if you grew up digitally, you should find the K-1’s controls to be a walk in the park.

The controls on the Pentax K-1 are a nice blend of analog and digital. The graphics display on the camera’s 3.2" LCD is easy to read and navigate. Need to shoot from an oddball angle? That’s the kind of shooting Pentax’s engineers had in mind.

One of the more ambitiously designed features on the K-1 is the camera’s 3.2", 1,037,000-dot Cross-Tilt LCD, which utilizes four sliding struts for positioning the screen in a variety of angles. If you have a penchant for shooting at neck-breaking camera angles, this camera has your name on it.

Are you looking for that perfect composition and need to move your camera slightly to the left, right, up, or down but don’t want to—or can’t—move the tripod? The Composition Adjustment function on the K-1 allows you to shift the camera’s sensor slightly to the left, right, up, or down. Other features found on the Pentax K-1 include dual SD card slots and, for video shooters, external mic and headphone ports.

For adding a bit of in-camera dash to your photographs, the K-1 has a Custom Image mode that applies creative filters to your images. These filters include Auto Select, Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, Vibrant, Radiant, Muted, Flat, Bleach Bypass, Reversal Film, Monochrome, and Cross-Processing. In the case of Cross-Processing, if you like the effects of your chosen filter settings, they can be saved and applied to future image files.

Having grown up using DSLRs, I know when a camera feels good in my hand and I know when it doesn’t. Ergonomics are important to me and, though I’d readily prefer to sling a lighter camera and lens over my shoulder when out in the field, the K-1 and the 24-70mm zoom sat nicely and securely in my average-sized hands.

Combine good ergonomics with quick autofocus, quick shutter response times, 750-plus frames per charge, and Wi-Fi connectivity for remote triggering and image transfer, and you have a camera that more than satisfies my list of camera needs.

The Pentax K-1 is a long time coming, and there’s little doubt the Pentax engineering and marketing departments were bent on introducing a camera that wouldn’t disappoint serious shooters and maybe even serious pros.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review, the quality of the pictures I captured with the K-1 surpass any weight considerations I have with this camera and lens. However, the Pentax K-1, which weighs 2.03 lb, is notably lighter than the Canon EOS 1D X Mk II (3.36 lb) and Nikon D5 (3.11 lb), and is just a smidgeon heavier than the Sony Alpha a99 II (1.86 lb).

What’s more, Pentax’s flagship K-1, which sells for well under $2,000 and is supported by an extensive line of full-frame FA and D FA-series lenses, costs about $1,300 less than the Sony a99 II, about $4,100 less than the Canon EOS 1D X Mk II, and about $4,600 less than a Nikon D5.

If you’ve ever questioned the pro qualities of Pentax cameras, the K-1 should put any doubts to rest. The camera is tough, packed with state-of-the-art features, and is more than up to the demands of working professionals and photo enthusiasts alike.

What are your experiences with Pentax cameras? We’d love to hear what you have to say about this ever-popular brand, in the Comments section, below.

The accompanying photographs of the Pentax K-1 camera and 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens were photographed using a Savage Product Pro LED 22" Light Table.

10 Comments

I bought a K-10 and a Pentax 18-270 in 2008 as my first foray into digital.  My research told me that the K-10 gave me the most value for my money as an amateur.  I since upgraded to a K-5 and added a few modern and older lenses.  Most of my photos are travel memories and family.  

Recently I was asked to candidly capture people having fun at a large outdoor event.  I used the 18-270.   I needed to quickly capture both static shots and action at varying distances.  The Tav setting along with the wide sensitivity range for the sensor allowed me to concentrate on aperture and shutter speed and ignore ISO for very good results with no noticeable noise.  Autofocus worked better than expected including several one-time-opportunity shots of action at less than 1/1000 second.  

I don't shoot enough to justify upgrading now, but it looks like the K-1 or successor would be a worthwhile investment.  

Interesting review. I have a K2000, k5 and the new k3ii and I started 50 years ago with a Pentax film camera and adapter for a microscope that I used for photos of aquatic organism, in particular, Saprolegnia parasitica, more commonly known as 'Ich" to for folks who have aquariums.

So, what does this have to do with the K1,  if it had been available when I bought my K3ii I would have bought the K1. I would have loved to have had a full frame Pentax. I have had many photo classes with folks with the Sony, Canon, and Nikon and I would not trade based on photos I have seen in classes.

I have never had any complaints about the camera, my complaints are against me not taking the time to read the book, once I have I have had no problems. So readers, if you get one Read The Book first and save your self-future aggravation.  

K1 is simply the best full frame camera for the money on the market. Yeah the auto focus isn't that great so if your shooting sports prob not the camera for you. Video is also horrible but so what. If I'm serious about video I'll buy a camera for video. But rumor has it the k1 has the same Sony sensor found in the Nikon d810 and a7r. Also, focus peaking, so if you like manual lenses or old m42 lenses it's a dream come true. Electronic shutter, and dynamic range as good as a medium format sensor. Yeah I just said that. The image quality is better than every other full frame sensor on the market with the exception of maybe the d850, and Sony a7ll or a9. Pixelshift mode gives you medium format dynamic range and 42mp. In body ibs really works well. Astro tracer is also amazing. Imagine shooting the night sky at iso100 for 60 seconds. Yeah you can do that and longer no problem. The k1 is a gem, it should have been camera of the year. Best image quality, best value, most features. Best ergonomics. Oh and the best battery life. Seriously this battery doesn't die. 

By the way, if you don't believe my claims, the k1 has the best dynamic range and image quality only comparable to medium format sensors, go to the dp reviews test scene online and compare the k1 with and without pixelshift against any camera and you'll quickly see. 

People say, they don't have much glass. Well that may be, they don't have 3 versions of a 24-70 and 70-200, but the ones they do have are all spectacular. Absolutely spectacular. You don't need more than what they have i promise. And if you do, there is a whole world of vintage m42 glass out there that opens up a new universe of creative shooting, and a lot of fun and easy with focus peaking. Is there even another full frame dslr out there with focus peaking and electronic shutter? 

I'm not quite ready to move from the K-3. However, I have been slowly acquiring full-frame capable lenses, which are fully-functional on the APS-C K-3, and can therefore make the jump at some point without killing my cash flow. 

But let's not forget that so long as I want to manually focus, I still have my KA lenses from my Super Program kit that work with either my K-3 or a future Pentax full-frame body. And even those lenses can use Pentax in-body stabilization. 

The Super Program kit is eagerly waiting for the reintroduction of Ektachrome.And did I mention that some of my digital lenses have full functionality on my Super Program?

In short, none of my Pentax investment over close to 40 years of photography is going to waste. My problem isn't that Pentax doesn't have enough lenses, but rather how many of those lenses do I have room for in my bags when I walk out my door.

Well I don't think I could be happier with a camera than I am with my K-1. Sure the K-1 could have better video functionality or higher frames per second but for me thats not what I primarily use the camera for (and sufficient when I do need them).

I think the the built in stabilisation and backward lens support are generally under valued by reviews - they are big pluses for sure! For example the K-1 is a delight to use with the small and light FA primes (its not a heavy camera if you just have say a FA50 f1.4 on the front!) and you can cheaply enjoy the character of older lenses like the Takamars. All with SR, focus confirmation (and catch in focus!) and a green button to set exposure.

The K-1 is a wonderful camera which brought the joy back to my photograhpy that I only experienced with my first DSLR. It is a photographer's camera made by people who understand ergonomics.

If someone is keen on video, they should probably look elsewhere. Not much wrong with the K-1 -- it even has a mic-in and headphones-out port, but it just doesn't offer anything special in the video department.

Also, anyone just wanting to hold down the AF button and get sharp bursts when shooting action, should also look elsewhere.

For anyone else, the K-1 is one of the best cameras available. The PixelShift technology that can increase the 36MP resolution even further (easily better than 42MP) is just the icing on the cake of a camera that is brimming with features and just a joy to use.

Zero details on the Video capabilities, or the limits ofthe video capabilities.

Same-Same as every other reviewer. :(

Seven years ago Pentax released the K-5 model. This model was incremental to the K-7 in several ways including the implementation of the same sensor as the Nikon D7000. These are the two models I was deciding between for my first DSLR. I primarily liked their higher levels of dynamic range when compared to the Canon equivalents. I ultimately decided on the K-5 because I had begun on film with Pentax SLR's and the lenses would be backward compatible. I also found the K-5 to be more user-friendly with its customization options. 

Fast-forward to today and this model is slow and clunky compared to competitors. Its dynamic range has held up well, however, its autofocus and high ISO abilities are subpar by today's standards. I have resisted upgrading this model because it seems that each of its successors has been one step behind the competition. Since the release of the K-5, Pentax seems to have been sacrificing features to keep their models lower-priced than competitors. Unfortunately, I believe this lower pricing has caused people to associate the brand with lower quality rather than better value. This issue of lower pricing I believe has afflicted the K-1 model as well. Despite becoming ranked third by DxOMark and being ~$1,000+ less than the competition, consumers were more than eager to criticize its abilities. 

One of the primary critiques of this model was its "limited selection of lenses." Although, it is necessary to realize that Pentax merely holds ~10% market share. Even today, a little more than one year after the release, Pentax has around 50% the same number of full frame lenses as Nikon and Canon. (This is using the number available for sale by B&H) The numbers for Pentax and Sony are approximately equal. This goes without saying that, in some cases, the number of lenses is higher than competitors when you eliminate things such as repeated focal lengths or only include weather resistant lenses. Another noteworthy factor is that Pentax has consistently included in-body shake reduction. When you only compare its lenses to Nikon's and Canon's with IS/VR, Pentax actually has more stabilized lenses.

Pentax has also marginally lagged in the autofocus department. However, I believe this gap has been narrowing over time. In 2016, Pentax updated their mount to the KAF4 mount. This is significant because it allows third-party manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron to produce lenses cheaper than before. This also introduced PLM autofocusing. As this technology develops and more lenses are made with this feature, I believe Pentax could become the leader in autofocus.

Personally, I have not used the K-1. If I were a professional, it would be excellent for me. Since I am not, I am still waiting to see what the K-3 II successor will have in store. 

All in all, the DSLR market as a whole hit its peak in sales in 2010. I believe this has put a heavy strain on Canon, Nikon, and Pentax as entry-level consumers are more content with their smartphone's cameras. As Ricoh further develops Pentax as a brand it is interesting to see what the future holds.

I shoot the K-1 and it really is a great camera.  Many of the DA lenses will still fill or almost fill the sensor.  If you are able it is a good pickup.  FA 77mm limited and the K-1 is the best lens and camera combo I’ve shot. 

With the K3/K3ii, I believe Pentax is now head and shoulders above the competition, with the possible exception of autofocus. But the brand has many, many other strengths. If you're a sports shooter, maybe look elsewhere, but if HIGH IQ is what you're after, it's hard to impossible to beat Pentax, whether in APSC, Full-frame, or Medium Format. They are at or near the top in all fields, and are significantly less expensive in every genre they compete in. And the Limited Lenses are simply breathtaking.

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