Pentax K-1 Mark II
This 36MP full-frame DSLR still has plenty to offer Pentax fans, according to Andy Westlake, but no essential new features
a 36mP full-frame Dslr with plenty to offer, says andy Westlake
When the original Pentax K-1 appeared a little over two years ago, it garnered a lot of excitement. Not only was it the first full-frame DSLR to sport the iconic Pentax brand, but at £1,600 it also offered remarkable value for money. Its 36MP sensor had only previously been seen in substantially more expensive cameras such as the Nikon D810 and Sony Alpha 7R, and it included five-axis in-body image stabilisation and an unusual flexible-tilt rear LCD.
Now, parent company Ricoh has given us a replacement: the Pentax K-1 Mark II. But it’s very much an iterative upgrade, with few new features. The main addition is an ‘accelerator unit’, which works in tandem with the PRIME IV image processor. As a result, the Mark II offers an extended sensitivity range, which now goes all the way to ISO 819,200 compared to ISO 209,400 on the original. There’s also an intriguing-sounding version of Pentax’s Pixel Shift Resolution mode that works for handheld shooting, and a promise of faster AF with improved subject tracking. But that’s the extent of the changes.
Uniquely, existing Pentax K-1 owners can have their cameras upgraded to Mark II standard. For around £450, the main circuit board can be replaced with the new version, enabling the full set of updated features. The SR label on the front plate will also be replaced with a new ‘II’ badge.
On paper, the Mark II still stands up very well in comparison to its most obvious competitors, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II and Nikon D750, both of which cost almost exactly the same. However, the
Sony Alpha 7 III has redefined our expectations of what a sub-£2,000 camera can offer. Compared to these redoubtable foes, the K-1 Mark II still offers higher resolution and maximum ISO settings, but is this enough?
At the K-1 Mark II’s core is a 36.4- million-pixel full-frame CMOS sensor, which forgoes an optical low-pass filter to deliver maximum detail. This usually risks imaging artefacts, but Pentax has a unique solution. Enable its AA Simulator mode and the camera can use its in-body IS system to slightly blur the image projected onto the sensor to combat aliasing and moiré, with a choice of strengths. If you’re not sure whether you need this anti-aliasing effect, the camera can shoot a set of exposures with and without.
Core features are solid, if unspectacular. The Mark II can shoot at 4.4fps at full resolution, with a 17-frame raw buffer; switching to the 15MP APS- C crop mode enables 6.4fps with a 50-frame buffer. Metering employs an 86,000 pixel RGB sensor, with multi-segment, centreweighted and spot modes available.
Autofocus is provided by the 33-point SAFOX 12 module, which includes 25 cross-type points towards the centre of the frame. The focus points cover about half the image width and a third of its height – reasonable for a full-frame SLR but trounced by any mirrorless camera (and most APS- C DSLRs). Switch to live view, and the K-1 Mark II offers contrast-detection AF covering 75% of the frame width and height.
Shutter speeds range from 30sec to 1/8000sec, with 1/200sec flash sync. The mirror and shutter mechanism are quiet and well damped, and in the usual Pentax fashion, enabling the 2sec self-timer engages mirror pre-fire to further reduce any risk of blur from mechanical vibrations. Delve into the menus and you’ll find a silent electronic shutter, although the camera isn’t completely noiseless due to its mechanical aperture operation.
Based around the Pentax K mount, the K-1 Mark II is compatible with a huge range of lenses dating back to 1975. It’ll work best with autofocus lenses, of course, but is also perfectly happy with manual-focus KA lenses that have electrical contacts to pass aperture information to the camera. It can even work with purely mechanical K lenses, but only in manual- exposure mode using stop- down metering.
Other features include highdynamic-range shooting; independent shadow and highlight tonal-range adjustment; incamera lens corrections; a multiple- exposure mode, and an intervalometer with a huge range of programmable options. In- camera raw development is available, and built-in Wi- Fi allows you to copy images to your smart device, or control the camera remotely using the Pentax Image Sync app.
However, it’s the in-body IS that delivers most of the K-1 Mark II’s best tricks. Most obviously, it promises sharper images at slow shutter speeds with almost any lens, giving up to five stops of stabilisation. This means it works with lens types that aren’t usually stabilised, such as wideangles and fast primes. It’ll even work with old, mechanical K-mount lenses: turn the
camera on after changing lenses and it will prompt you to select the focal length.
The Mark II also includes the Pixel Shift Resolution mode seen on many recent Pentax cameras. In its conventional form, this requires the camera to be fixed to a tripod, and makes four exposures while shifting the sensor one pixel between each. This allows it to capture full- colour information at each point in the image, giving visibly higher detail. A Motion Correction option aims to reduce image artefacts with subjects that move between exposures. But brand new is a handheld pixel-shift mode, which I’ll examine in detail later.
Other clever features enabled by the stabilisation system include Astrotracer, which works with the built-in GPS unit to move the sensor for capturing sharp long- exposure photographs of star fields. It’s also possible to use the IS mechanism to fine-tune your composition when shooting from a tripod. Last but not least, there’s a rather brilliant function that can automatically level your images during handheld shooting.
Build and handling
The K-1 Mark II is a brute; at 1,010g it’s heavier than even the Nikon D850. Its body is narrow but deep, measuring 86mm from the front of the prism to the back of the LCD. This reflects the need to house the in-body images tabilisation unit, along with the screen-articulation mechanism.
Pentax has a reputation for rugged, weather-sealed bodies, and the K-1 Mark II is no different. Its magnesium-alloy body feels rock solid – you can even pick it up by the articulated LCD screen and shake it around, with no ill- effect. The large handgrip is coated with thick, textured rubber and provides a very secure hold.
Almost every available surface is covered with buttons, dials and switches. Unlike other DSLRs, the K-1 Mark II has three dials that you can use for changing exposure settings, rather than two: Ricoh has cottoned on to the fact that you might want quick access to ISO and exposure compensation as well as shutter speed and aperture – an insight that has so far eluded Canon and Nikon. You can configure the front and rear dials to your own preference separately for each exposure mode, then change the function of the top-plate dial on the fly using the adjacent selection dial.
It’s just a shame the K-1 Mark II doesn’t have a joystick controller for moving the focus point; instead, you’re supposed to use the d-pad. The complication is, you also use the d-pad for changing drive mode, white balance, colour mode and LCD brightness, toggling between the functions using a small button above the ‘up’ key. It’s easy to lose track of which mode the d-pad is in, and inadvertently change settings when you wanted to move the focus point.
Other buttons on the body give direct access to metering and autofocus modes, and there’s even one for temporarily turning on raw recording. Yet more functions can be accessed quickly via the Info button, which calls up an on-screen quick menu. Only a couple of buttons are customisable, but that’s no problem as it’s difficult to think of anything you might assign to them that’s not already easily accessible.
This complex control layout takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s actually a really quick way of working. It’s not for the fainthearted, but if you’re stepping up from a high- end Pentax APS- C body such as the K-3 II, most of the interface will be familiar. However, I can’t help but feel that Ricoh could benefit from making a simpler full-frame model, too.
A small top-plate LCD shows basic shooting information, with the rear LCD used to display the main settings. One oddity is that if you turn off this screen, then pressing a function button or spinning the top-plate dial won’t reactivate it, even temporarily. This means that it’s possible to change certain settings such as HDR mode or continuous shooting speed without the camera telling you what you’ve done.
Viewfinder and screen
The K-1 Mark II is unashamedly a traditional DSLR, designed to be used primarily with the optical viewfinder. Fortunately, the finder is very good, with a magnification of 0.7x and almost 100% coverage of the scene. The image is reasonably bright, and there’s just about enough ‘snap’ to focus manually with f/2.8 lenses. What you don’t get, of course, is the accurate preview of exposure,
colour, white balance and depth- of-field that’s offered by a good electronic viewfinder.
Full exposure information is displayed beneath the focusing screen, and you can overlay electronic level and gridline displays if you want. However, the autofocus points can be difficult to see when you’re moving between them, as they’re outlined in black. But, like almost anything else on the camera, this behaviour can be changed, and I set the camera to highlight the active AF point in red.
Below the viewfinder is the 3.2in LCD, which is mounted on one of the most complicated articulation systems ever devised. The unit is attached to the camera via four metal struts, allowing it to be tilted up, down, left or right. An additional hinge at the top of the support mechanism enables the screen to be set horizontally for waist-level shooting.
This flexible-tilt screen is particularly handy when shooting in live view with the camera on a tripod. Unlike the tilt- only screens on the Nikon D850 and Sony Alpha 7 III, it continues to be useful when you’re shooting in portrait format, although here the maximum tilt angle up or down is limited, at less than 45¡.
Thankfully, the LCD itself is very good and accurately colour calibrated. One neat touch is that you can adjust the brightness between five very different settings using the down button of the d-pad, with the brightest being useful in strong sunlight, while the darkest won’t blind you at night. The screen isn’t touch sensitive, though, which these days feels like an anachronism.
Ricoh has used the same SAFOX 12 autofocus module as the original K-1, which provides 33 focus points grouped towards the centre of the frame, including 25 cross-type points that can detect both horizontal and vertical detail. Flicking a switch on the lens throat selects between auto and manual focus, while pressing a button above it and spinning the control dials selects between single-shot and continuous AF, and auto or manual selection of focus area. You can choose between using just a single point or surrounding points as well, which can be useful when tracking moving subjects.
In principle, the AF is now faster, with improved tracking, but without a K-1 to test side-by-side I couldn’t verify any improvement. Suffice to say the Mark II worked well with the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens I had for testing. While it’s noticeably slower than rival cameras, it should be fine unless you plan on regularly shooting fast-moving subjects. However, being accustomed to the ability of mirrorless cameras to focus anywhere in the frame, I found the restricted
AF area coverage that’s inherent to full-frame DSLRs to be rather limiting.
Switch to live view and you get a much wider focus area, covering 75% of the frame height and width. Unfortunately, the contrast- detection autofocus isn’t very fast, and is rather prone to hunting. But it’s usable for static subjects and is accurate. Live view also provides the most accurate possible manual focus, achieved by pressing the OK button to engage magnified view.
As you’d expect from an £1,800 camera, the Pentax K-1 Mark II is a pretty accomplished performer. It’s responsive in almost every aspect of its operation, with only a few exceptions. My biggest irritation is that it takes a second or two to wake up when you half-press the shutter button after auto power- off, which can result in missed shots. Also, if you have instant review enabled for checking images after they’ve been shot, the camera ignores the control dials until playback has been dismissed, so you can’t change settings quickly for a second shot. But if you find this to be a problem, simply turn off instant review.
Metering and auto white balance are both pretty reliable, courtesy of the 86,000px RGB sensor, and in general the K-1 Mark II returns attractive JPEG files. If you want to pep up its output, there’s a good array of JPEG colour modes available. On dull days, though, it tends to underexpose slightly.
One key advantage of the K-1 Mark II over other DSLRs is its in-body image stabilisation. I found this worked well, and using the Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8 I could get consistently sharp shots handheld at shutter speeds as low as 1/4sec at wideangle, or 1/15sec at telephoto, equating to around three stops benefit. The big advantage, of course, is that it works with every lens, although unlike optical systems or in-body stabilisation on mirrorless cameras, you don’t get the benefit of a stabilised viewfinder with telephoto lenses.
Image quality is excellent, with the 36MP sensor delivering as much detail as you’ll see from any camera that costs under £2,000. Dynamic range is impressive, too. But its additional high ISO settings are completely spurious, giving little more than an unidentifiable mess. I’d be loath to shoot at anything much above ISO 12,800.
The Pentax K-1 Mark II captures highly detailed images with huge dynamic range Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8 at 31mm, 1/60sec at f/16, ISO 100
The K-1 Mark II can work with a huge range of old K-mount lenses. I shot this with an old, fully manual telephoto prime Tamron SP 300mm f/5.6, 1/4sec at f/5.6, ISO 100
Bold colours are maintained even at quite high ISO settings
Good image quality is maintained up to ISO 12,800 at least Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm, 1/10sec at f/8, ISO 12,800