Mar 162012

The Pentax K-01 Camera Review – Design Masterpiece or Design Disaster?

Before I start writing my thoughts down on this camera I want to remind all of you who are reading this about how I review cameras. Most of you already know because I have been writing the same style of reviews for 3 years now, but at the same time there are always new readers with every review and they do not know my style of writing or how I review. Basically, when I get a new camera in for review or testing I look it over, read the manual (if I need to) and mess with the settings, controls, features, etc. I then take it out and shoot it in real world scenarios because I feel the TRUE test of a camera is going out and using it! Sure, i could whip out review after review by sitting in my house and setting up a small studio to take shots of flower vases and color charts but I feel those days of camera reviews are starting to get old, fade out, and get way too technical. Well, at least that is how I feel about it. That is also exactly why I started this site 3 years ago!

When I take out a camera like the K-01 and shoot it for a couple of weeks I make mental notes of issues I had as well as positives. I start writing and add to it daily and when I am all done, I post it for all of you to enjoy.  If I really love a camera then it inspires me to go out and shoot. Cameras like the Leica M9 inspire me because when you slap a great lens on that camera you KNOW what you are going to get..I see it in my head and it is all natural. The Fuji X100, even with its limitations and quirks is, IMO, a beautiful design and size with amazing IQ. Cameras like the Nikon V1 – I love that one because it JUST WORKS and provides superb color and metering along with AF speed and a build, size and quality that is plenty good enough for the masses. The Sony NEX-7 for it’s breakthrough design and being the 1st to put everything us enthusiasts have asked for in one body. EVF, the try-navi controls, the high res sensor, the swivel LCD…the list goes on.

Click image for larger size to see the beautiful quality of the K-01 and 40 2.8 lens

With new cameras like the Fuji X-Pro 1 and Olympus OM-D arriving any day now I am excited that the camera companies are FINALLY getting it when it comes to digital. With film, we had it easy. All we needed was a light box, a viewfinder and a lens to create our images. That’s it! With digital it gets complicated and these days when everyone and their brother is a photographer, it has become a whole new industry. These days, new cameras arrive every few months. Better models are always right around the corner. Depreciation sets in and we buy cameras and sell them for a loss 5-6 months down the road to get the latest and greatest. It is what it is folks, and it seems to be getting more and more crazy as time goes on. But it is OUR passion and OUR hobby and I know of many MUCH more expensive hobbies than photography.

So for me all of this is good as I can write about all of these cool cameras and have never ending content for the site :) I guess what I am trying to say here is that we have many GREAT options coming out today in regards to digital cameras and photography. This site always focuses on the enthusiast models and cameras that I think are good buys or of great quality but today I am writing about the new Pentax K-01 and after shooting it for a little while my feelings are somewhat mixed. I will say right now that ME…I am not a fan of the design at all. In use it is very boxy, not ergonomic, and feels like I am shooting with one of those toy cameras you see in the little kid isle at a toy store. Not sure how much Marc Newson was paid for this design but I feel Pentax could have done much better in this area. Not knocking Marc here because he obviously is not a camera designer. Now, some of you may LOVE this design. It IS INDEED different, and I am usually a huge fan of different but not this time. It just was not pleasant to shoot, and I hate to say that about a Pentax, a company whose products I normally adore.

The K-01 Meets the stilt girl :)

The good news is that while shooting this camera I realized that the image quality was fantastic, the new 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens is superb and TINY! I believe that this K-01 may have the best IQ of any digital Pentax to date. If this is all that matters to you and you have a load of Pentax glass, go buy one now and skip the rest of this review. :) If usability, design and IQ matter, then keep reading to see why I was not inspired to want to own this camera. ALL images shown here were shot with the Pentax K-01 and 40mm 2.8 lens.

Here is what I will go over in a simple, easy to read,  and fairly quick review (as it is basically a K5 in a different shell minus a VF)

  1. The Design
  2. The problem of no viewfinder
  3. The Specs
  4. High ISO
  5. Picture Quality
  6. The GOOD things about the K-01
  7. Autofocus Speed and Manual focus features
  8. Movie Mode
  9. Bottom Line Conclusion


The Design of the K-01 – what I like and do not like about it

It seems the biggest feature of this camera is the design, and that is a shame really. The camera innards are fantastic but when you see this box in photos and in person the very first thing that strikes you is the design, and this can take away from the camera itself I think. To some it looks cool and modern, and to others it looks like a toy. I feel it resembles the Leica Digilux 1 in many ways and if you go hold that camera now you will feel how boxy and dated it really is. I guess that is what I feel when I hold the K-01. It feels dated. The classic Leica Digilux 1 is seen in the image below.

The Leica Digilux 1 – an oldie and not even a goodie :) If you see this for sale, avoid it, unless you want it for a display case.

When I showed the K-01 to my Son Brandon the 1st words from his mouth were “wow, you bought an old school camera”? I said “no, it is the new Pentax” and his reply was “it looks 80’s”.

To a 16 year old, I guess this is what a 1980’s camera looks like.

The camera is very boxy, very square, and has a rubber coating/grip on the body. There is an LCD on the back with a few nice big buttons, which I DO like. There is NO EVF or VF at all and the top houses a pop up flash which comes in handy when you want fill flash. The rubber door you pull out to gain access to your memory cards is flimsy and I can see it breaking over time. When shooting this rubber flap never really fits back in correctly so its always kind of hanging out a bit. I would have preferred a solid door. The big buttons are cool and bright but they look toy like as if they were designed for a baby or small tike who is learning colors.

The dials move with a nice solid click feel and I do like the way they feel and where they were placed, so I do like the dials.

Like I said, some will enjoy this unique design but I feel it was not a great choice. It’s gimmicky and certainly not classic. It is also not really comfortable to hold nor that functional mainly due to one reason I will get into below.

The Problem of NOT having a viewfinder

When I took the camera out to a fair to shoot on a sunny Saturday I was so disappointed. The camera was almost useless as with the bright sun I could not compose my shots AT ALL because the LCD was washed out about 90%. The images I did get were all shot blind really, like the one below of the kid climbing the “Jacob’s ladder”. I saw a slight faded image but could not even make out what was on the screen.

This kid made it to the top but cheated. Still, he won his $2 back :) I had to shoot blind here by aiming and pressing the shutter. I could not see anything on the LCD due to the sunlight washing it out. 

So if you live in a sunny environment and want to shoot the K-01, forget it. The LCD will be washed out horribly. If Pentax would have put in an EVF it would have made this camera MUCH more fun and useful. To be without one, for me, is a deal breaker and I would take a K-5 over the K-01 if at all possible. It is only a little bigger but has a better feel, an optical VF and takes the same exact lenses (same lens mount). It costs a bit more but would be worth it IMO. Again, the K-01 has superb IQ but for me, it loses some ground in design and usability and I am a big fan of usability.

Without even an optical ViewFinder, it makes it hard to see what you are composing in bright sunlight and to me, this is a bummer. 

The K-01 and 40 next to the Sony NEX-7 and Zeiss 24. Look how slim and trim the NEX is, and it has a GREAT EVF.

The Specs of the K-01

The specs of the K-01 are fantastic and have the best specs of any Pentax to date. Take a look at what you get packed into this little brick of a camera…

Large 16 megapixel APS-C sized CMOS image sensor with low noise image capture and multiple aspect ratios.

Yes, this camera has a great CMOS sensor and even with the 40 2.8 pancake the IQ is superb.

Bright, high resolution 3 inch LCD with 920,000 dots.

It is a nice LCD but forget about bright sunlight use!

Full HD 1080p video capture at 30 FPS with h.264 compression (60 FPS at 720p) features outstanding video capture flexibility.

Video seems fantastic from what I have seen so far.

Flexible ISO range of 100-25600 ensures gorgeous noise-free imaging in any lighting condition.

Low light and high ISO are in line with what we see today from other cameras.

Mirrorless body design is compatible with 25+ million PENTAX K-mount lenses spanning decades.

THIS IS THE GOOD THING about the K-01. Use Pentax LIMITEDs without an adapter and for many, this makes it worth it. Period.

Sensor-shift PENTAX Shake and Dust Reduction system is compatible with every mounted PENTAX lens.

Seems to work great.

Fast 6 FPS burst mode is ideal for fast-action photography.

Well, I wouldn’t shoot fast action with this camera and the 40 2.8 as the AF is not the speediest.

Shooting modes include P, Av, Tv, and M, as well as powerful automatic modes, creative filters, and finishing options.

Focus peaking mode provides fast and accurate manual focusing for critical focus applications.

YES! I am glad to say that Focus peaking has been implemented. It is more like the way that Ricoh uses it with the GXR.

Captures JPG still images as well as open standard DNG RAW.

In-camera HDR mode combines bracketed user-specified exposures into a single, perfectly blended still image.

Built-in popup flash and external hotshoe compatible with modern PENTAX digital flash units.

Durable machined aluminum frame.

Contemporary styling by world renowned designer Marc Newson.

As for the features and menu system, it is almost exactly like the Pentax K-5 so be sure to read that review to see more. 

The Palm Reader spotted me :)

High ISO shooting with the K-01

I was impressed with the low light/high ISO shooting of the Pentax K-01. Noise was minimal as I cranked it up and color stayed good. I turned OFF the in camera NR for JPEGS because  I am not a fan of smearing, and most cameras will smear the images to reduce the noise. Still, no complaints at all in the high ISO department. Below are a few examples of high ISO. One 12,800 shot taken at night with a 100% crop and 3 full size samples taken in my living room at 11PM at night with no flash or light source besides my living room ceiling light.

Click image for larger size with 100% crop – ISO 12,800 at night just to test high ISO.

The following images are full size from RAW without any added NR. I used ACR defaults here. Click images for full size. They were snapped in my living room at 11pm

Overall Picture Quality of the Pentax K-01

I really can not judge on total and overall IQ from this camera because I have only shot it with the 40 2.8 lens, which is excellent but still no match for the limited primes. So every image you see on this page was taken blindly with the 40 2.8. I say blindly because as I already mentioned, the LCD was not even usable in bright sunlight so all images were basically an aim and fire kind of shot. Not necessarily the best basis to judge the detailed picture quality :) I can say that the IQ seems VERY similar to what I saw come out of the K-5. I did as much testing as I could with the limited time I had the camera.

Click image below for a large version with 100% crop shot at 2.8 with the 40 2.8 lens. This was straight from camera and just to show detail wide open. 

From what I have seen, I have ZERO complaints on the image quality of the K-01 as this is its BEST feature. I can only imagine that with the Limited primes one can get some beautiful images from the K-01 and I wish I had some on hand to test with it because I do know I would be thrilled with the results.

Shot out of my car window, through my tint an all. Shot using the 40 2.8 at 2.8. 

The K-01 and 40 2.8 are a great little combo due to the fact that the lens is so tiny and thin!

The bokeh from this lens is a little busy though…

The GOOD things about the Pentax K-01

The Lenses: I know I have said quite a few negative things about the K-01’s design and usability BUT there are a few really great things going for it. For one, Pentax DID NOT create an all new mount for this camera which means those who buy a K-01 will not have to play the waiting game while Pentax designs new lenses. The K-01 uses K mount glass and there is some delicious K mount glass out there! You can attach those gorgeous limited primes and you will be in business without an adapter or issues.

The Features: Let’s face it, the K-01 is packed with features and really leaves nothing to be desired (except the design and lack of EVF/VF). If shooting JPEG you can customize the look and color using the settings or the presents. I love the cross processing filter of this camera AND the K-5. Pentax gives you crazy customization of color, contrast, white balance and all of the other settings for those who are detailed oriented. Me, I just shot in RAW and converted and then resized for this review. But the features are here. Image stabilization, dust shaker, filters, etc.

Focus Peaking – Using old manual glass is a breeze with the Pentax K-01 due to the Focus peaking feature that has been added. I was sad to see that the Fuji X-Pro 1 does NOT have peaking but this Pentax DOES, which is great. I feel ALL mirror less cameras should have this feature which makes manually focusing without magnification a breeze. If you are unaware how focus peaking works, you can see an example of it in the video below even though I used an NEX-7 to demonstrate. The Pentax works just about the same way. 

High ISO – High ISO with this camera is superb. ISO 12,800 is about on par with the Leica M9 at ISO 2500.

If you like the body style and can live without a VF or EVF AND you have Pentax glass, then it is a no brainer. You will love the K-01. If you do NOT own Pentax glass and prefer a VF/EVF, then you may not be a big fan of this camera. Either way, it has a huge lens selection to choose from and has fantastic IQ. 

Autofocus Speed 

The Pentax has decent AF speed but uses contrast detect (slower) instead of Phase Detect (faster). The only mirror less camera to date that uses BOTH is the little Nikon V1 which allows it to be screaming fast in daylight and very fast at night. The Pentax with the 40 2.8 is fast but it is no speed demon. For example, when shooting video with this combo the lens makes the grinding noise when you focus/re-focus and it is not the fastest focusing lens. BUT when focusing in lower light this camera locks on quickly and accurately but if it gets too low it hunts and hunts like most other cameras do. I have had NO mis focused shots with this combo though so that is a plus.

Movie Mode Samples

The Pentax K-01 has various movie modes but instead of writing them all down I figured I would show them to you in a video along with some quick video samples shot with the K-01 (nothing exciting but hey, it’s something) Enjoy!

The Bottom Line Conclusion

I can see it now, Pentax fans are going to be giving me heat for talking bad about the camera design. I will hear about how just because it doesn’t look like a rangefinder that I do not like it. Well, that is not true at all. I like many cameras that are not designed like a rangefinder but in my opinion, and again, this is only MY opinion, the design is a fail. It’s too bulky, too fat, looks like a toy and is not comfortable to shoot. It doesn’t feel like a camera I can “connect” with. Design IS indeed important to ME and I feel a camera has to have all of the elements that bring it together to form one mean, lean, shooting machine.

A camera like the Sony NEX-7 comes to mind for it’s design. Sleek, full controls and customizations, try-navi controls, great tillable LCD that even works in daylight, superb OLED EVF built in, a nice grip that protrudes. It looks like a camera even though it operates more like a computer :) The K-01 is very “Tonka” toy like. Big, fat, clunky and odd. But, both will deliver superb IQ. The Sony costs more but it has more going for it as a body but the K-01 has more going for it when it comes to lenses.

The K-01 costs $899 with the 40 f/2.8 lens. The NEX-7 comes in at $1,349 with the 18-55 Kit Zoom in black so $449 more but you get an EVF, better overall camera for HD video, slimmer build and more of a camera feel, swivel LCD, 24 megapixels and even more customization that the already super customizable K-01. But with the Sony you only have access to the Sony lenses and others via adapters. Me? Id take the NEX-7 in a heartbeat over a K-01 but I do not own a stash of Pentax glass. If I did I would buy the K-5 :)

To some it will be ugly. To others it will be cute. One thing is for sure though, it does do what it was built to do and IT DOES IT WELL. I have no complaints with its output, just its design and lack of VF. Pentax should be applauded for trying something different. Wether or not it succeeds I do not know but with so much competition out there it will be tough. In the price range of the K-01 (or less) we have the following:

The Nikon V1 – I love the V1, that is no secret but it has become one of the most controversial camera releases in years. Many HATE it due to its small sensor but many love it due to it’s fantastic color palette, amazing speed, metering and accuracy. It has its weaknesses of course but it is a solid little system that is in need of new fast glass. The K-01 beats the V1 in IQ and High ISO easily but in usability the V1 wins hands down. My V1 review is HERE. 

The Sony NEX-5n – The 5n is $699 so still $200 less than the Pentax even with a kit zoom. I really liked the 5n and found it really did nothing wrong. Again, for someone without a collection of Pentax glass I feel the NEX-5n is a better buy. The 5n also shoots video effortlessly with the kit zoom with silent AF. My 5n review can be seen HERE.

The Fuji X10 – The Fuji X10 has that classic RF design but is includes a decent zoom lens and a really good tiny sensor. I really liked the X10 BUT if it were between the K-01 and X10 I would go for the K-01 due to sensor size and video capabilities. The X10 has  great color and output for the size of its sensor but it lacks in the video department and in giving shallow depth of field. Still, great little camera at a not so bad price. See my X10 review HERE.

The Olympus E-P3 – This is now old news with the OM-D coming out with the much improved body, sensor, and features but the E-P3 is $899 WITH A KIT LENS so it is in the same exact range as the K-01. Now, the K-01 will slaughter the E-P3 in Image Quality due to the larger APS-C sensor compared to the Micro 4/3 sensor BUT again, USABILITY! The E-P3 is one hell of a camera to shoot. It’s fun, has a great style and shape and the LCD can be seen in bright light. Still, NO built in EVF though. Also, the E-P3 can use some amazing Micro 4/3 glass like the 12mm, 45mm, and 25mm. This would be tough for me because the K-01 beats it in IQ and Video Quality but loses to it in body style and usability. I LOVE the E-P3 and being such a fan of it would probably go for that over the K-01. But your opinion may vary. You can see my E-P3 review HERE. 

Would I buy a Pentax K-01?

For me, NO. For you, ? The IQ is great, the high ISO is fantastic but for me, the body design and lack of a VF stops it from becoming a camera I would own. Besides, I can’t buy them all!

Where to buy the K-01

You can buy the K-01 in all of the fabulous colors below at B&H Photo which is my recommended place to shop for mirror less cameras and just about anything photographic. I also like Amazon

Buy the Pentax K-01 in BLACK with the 40mm 2.8 lens at B&H Photoor Body Only

Buy the Pentax K-01 in Yellow with the 40 2.8 lens at B&H Photoor Body Only

Buy the Pentax K-01 in WHITE with the 40 2.8 lens at B&H Photoor Body Only


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