Fearless in theFaroes
Pentax’s first full-frame DSLR may often be overlooked by landscape photographers but, as Matty Graham discovers, this ultra-tough beast is perfect for a trip to the rugged Faroe Islands
Pentax had a tricky job on its hands when launching the K-1 back in 2016. The full-frame market has always been a congested space and the ‘big two’ of Canon and Nikon have enjoyed years of leading the market with tried-andtested DSLRs from the 5D and D800 (latterly D850) line-ups. Plus, the emergence of Sony’s acclaimed mirrorless A7 series added further traffic and choice. However, it could be argued that the lack of expectation on the brand freed up the R&D designers at Pentax to throw off the shackles and try adding some genuinely new features to its first full-frame DSLR.
Pick up this camera and the first thing you’ll notice is its weight and bulk. Users of ultralightweight mirrorless cameras may want to hit the gym for a few weeks before using the K-1 as it tips the scales at 1,010g, making it heavier than the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (890g) and the Sony Alpha 7R III (657g). Put simply, the magnesium-alloy K-1 is built like a tank, and that’s a good thing, especially when you’re heading to the Faroe Islands – a group of small islands in the middle of the North Atlantic, roughly halfway between Scotland and Iceland. A place where you can experience rain, snow and sunshine in one hour, let alone one day, the Faroes are a landscape shooter’s dream. It’s the ultimate destination for testing a camera like the K-1, with its 87 weather seals and temperature protection that allows for operation down to -10°C. This harsh landscape is no place for a flimsy plastic camera that runs out of battery in a couple of hours.
The K-1 is two years old now and although the K-1 Mark II was recently released (see AP 9 June), there really wasn’t that much new on the updated camera (see ‘ What’s new with the Mk II?’ overleaf). So, for a camera that’s been around a while already, the specifications of the K-1 still impress as much as they did when the camera was released. At the heart of the Pentax is a 36-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. Measuring 36x24mm, the sensor has no optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter, which will result in sharper images at the increased risk of moiré. This puts the K-1 well ahead of the similarly-priced Canon EOS 6D Mark II (26.2MP) and 24MP Nikon D750. Obviously, the Pentax K-1 can’t match the Nikon D850 (45MP) or Canon’s EOS 5DS R (50MP), but then it has a much lower price tag, and if you do need bigger files, you can take advantage of the Pixel-Shift Resolution feature. Simply place the K-1 on a tripod and the camera can capture four images, shifting the sensor by a single pixel for each exposure before compiling the multiple shots into one 175MB raw file. In fact, this is a good time for the reality check that the K-1 currently retails for around £1,600. That’s an ultra- competitive price for such specifications and resolution. Granted, most dealers now stock the Mark II, which is around £100-£150 more expensive, but that’s still way, way more affordable than comparative models from other brands.
So, the K-1 is wallet friendly, but the spec sheet delivers even better news. The K-1 offers a built-in five-axis image-stabilisation system, meaning every lens you pair with this camera benefits from the technology and helps you capture sharper images, with less risk of blur – again, this is something missing from Canon or Nikon DSLRs. What’s more, one of the most interesting features employed by the Pentax designers is the cool 3.2in LCD,
which is manoeuvrable, thanks to innovative stilts that suspend the LCD. In the field, this system is great for positioning the screen exactly where you want it to be and is far more useful than a fixed LCD. The monitor unit features Air Gapless technology, meaning it has special resin layer applied between the protective panel and the LCD, which Pentax say cuts down on reflections. I certainly didn’t have any problem viewing the monitor on the few occasions in the Faroes when the clouds parted and the sunshine hit the LCD. However, there is one niggle, which is that the monitor is not touch-sensitive, so users have to rely on command wheels and d-pads rather than being able to simply swipe or press with a finger like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
During my trip to the Faroes, I got caught up in endless snowstorms and plenty of rain, so it was reassuring that the body of the K-1 is weathersealed, and the camera’s bulk enabled me to get a firm grip, particularly when I was heading up mountains trying to traverse a rugged stretch of coastline. When paired with a typically fast aperture lens (I used the Pentax 24-70mm f/2.8 for the majority of my photography), the weight of the camera helps balance out this big glass so it doesn’t feel top heavy and pull forward while around your neck. Of course, you don’t want to be holding it all day as it’s heavy, but when you do, it feels nice and safe in the hand and I certainly didn’t mind using it in snow or rain. I’m sure it isn’t, but it feels pretty indestructible and that’s appealing when you’re miles from a camera repair shop. To further emphasise the K-1’s durability, the shutter unit is rated to withstand 300,000 actuations, reinforcing its credentials as a DSLr suitable for professional use.
While there’s lots to admire in the K-1’s features sheet, some specifications are frustrating when out in the field. A total of 33 autofocus points is a low count compared to the 61 from the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or even the 51 from the nikon D750. That said, in the real world, the autofocus system performs perfectly well for landscape photography – even in low light it can lock on to subjects quickly and accurately. If you are shooting action photography, however, then the system will cause more of a headache, especially when you shoot in bursts, as the K-1 manages a mere 4.4 frames per second – fairly pedestrian compared to the 7fps from the 5D Mark IV or the 6.5fps from the D750. Again, though, for landscape photographers this isn’t likely to be a deal-breaker.
That said, there are still more features that aren’t seen on other cameras, and this is where the Pentax designers seemed to have listened very carefully to their customers. For example, there’s a number of LEDs (Pentax calls them Operation Assist Lights) to illuminate important areas that photographers need to
see in low light – including the front of the mount so you can line up a lens properly when changing optics in low light, and the memory card slots, so you don’t find yourself flapping around with the SD cards.
The LCD Menu display will look a little dated if you are used to Canon or Nikon cameras, but is actually well thought out and is easy to navigate around, especially when you’ve been using the K-1 for a few days. I encountered a lot of changing light conditions when shooting in the Faroe Islands, so I appreciated how easy it was to dive in and change exposure settings quickly. Landscape photographers are likely to spend a little more time to set up custom settings so they can work even quicker and the main dial arrangement also aids the speed of operation. The exposure mode dial and the command dial are nothing new, but the third ‘Smart Function’ dial is the key to this rapid operation, which enables photographers to quickly select options like HDR, Wi- Fi, Drive mode, Exposure Compensation or ISO at the turn of the wheel. In the field, you have to keep reminding yourself that these options are literally at your fingertips rather than searching through the Menu screens.
A system to grow with
Landscape photographers who also like to shoot when darkness falls will appreciate the Astrotracer mode found on the K-1. The mode works by utilising the technology of the GPS and electric compass to move and tilt the sensor during a long exposure. This results in stunning long- exposure night images with sharp stars in the sky, rather than the unattractive blurred trails you’d get from a standard-sensor camera. What’s more, the mode is versatile – you don’t have to do much setting up with the camera and this advanced feature means you don’t need any extra equipment (such as an equatorial telescope) to capture views of celestial sights, so it actually saves you money. Unfortunately, while in the Faroes, cloud cover during the nights meant I didn’t get to make the most of this cutting- edge feature.
Photographers considering adding the K-1 to their shortlist when buying a new camera may hear the faint sound of alarm bells when they think about the lens selection at their disposal. It’s a common misconception that Pentax has a limited range of optics, so anyone considering the K-1 should know that there are in fact plenty of lenses to choose from. Pentax’s own-brand full-frame lenses range from 15mm right up to 560mm, with a raft of versatile zooms and fast-aperture primes in between. Plus, when you then add in all the Pentax-fit lenses available from third-party manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron, Pentax users are actually spoilt for choice. Given there are plenty of optics on offer, the appeal of the K-1 is further enhanced but the proof of any camera is in the quality of its imagery, so how does the K-1 perform?
Punching above its weight
Given the bulk of the K-1, it’s still no overstatement to say it punches above its weight when it comes to image quality. JPEGs can be finely tuned, with users able to alter parameters such as saturation and contrast, but serious landscape photographers are likely to bypass the JPEG file format in favour of the editing potential of the K-1’s raw files. The K-1 is able to record either PEF raw files, or straight DNGs.
What struck me from my time using the camera in the Faroe Islands was the impressive dynamic range of the files and the low noise, even at raised ISOs. Let’s talk about the dynamic range first. In the Faroes, I did take along a number of ND and ND grad filters, but due to the terrain, there were plenty of occasions when I didn’t have time to add the adapter ring and slide in the glass. This could have been when I was dodging waves and spray while shooting by the coastline, or when I trekked up the Faroes’ highest mountain – a snowy peak called Slættaratindur, where I was more concerned with not slipping down the slopes than getting my exposure balance absolutely spot on. Either way, the dynamic range was a big safety net and the amount of tonal information these files capture is vast.
Images with blown- out skies were rescued thanks to the highlights information in the raw file, and even tricky scenes such as a snowywhite mountain and a darker overcast sky could be balanced out with the shadows and highlights sliders in Lightroom. But the image quality goes beyond simply saving badly exposed images. The ISO levels show low noise, even when I was shooting handheld around the harbour of Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands, in low light. Knowing the K-1 won’t let you down in this regard gives you a great amount of confidence to work frequently in low light. Colour rendition is also good, and it’s worth noting that the K-1’s biggest picture size measures 7360 x 4912 pixels. This is a huge file size that means photographers can
‘Given the bulk of the K-1, it’s still no overstatement to say it punches above its weight when it comes to image quality’
create big prints (well in excess of A2) – perfect for landscape photographers who wish to create large prints to sell or exhibit. The large file sizes have a secondary benefit to the photographer, because they allow the shooter to heavily crop an image without affecting image quality. This affords the photographer a second chance at composition if they are not completely happy with their first attempt as taken in- camera.
More than a one-trick pony
The K-1 is somewhat of an enigma in the DSLR world. On one hand, it boasts a number of innovative features, notably the Astrotracer mode, the LED lights and that quirky LCD stilts design, yet on the other, it does fall behind in terms of burst speed and focus points when compared to its rivals. What can’t be argued is the value for money this camera represents – offering big megapixels and doomsday-proof weather and temperature protection, all at a very attractive price point. If you’re a photographer who doesn’t have any allegiance or dependency on other brands, and are coming into landscape photography looking for a camera that gives you excellent image quality on a sensible budget – as well as being able to take the knocks and beatings of everyday professional use – you’ll find few cameras, if any, that are capable of stacking up to the K-1. Getting to the Faroe Islands is easy, with flights from Edinburgh taking just over an hour to reach Vagur airport. Hiring a rental car is highly recommended, although there is a bus service that connects the airport to the capital, Torshavn. To find out more, visit www.visitfaroeislands.com.
Gjogv’s colourful houses sport a spectrum of hues on their walls and roofs
Sunset falls over the island of Streymoy, not far from the capital Torshavn
The rugged coastline near the village of Gjogv, where the surf rolls in high from the turquoise waters of the north Atlantic ocean
Faroe’s huts, roofed with grass, are surrounded by
snow after a blizzard
A frozen tarn provided foreground interest for another shot of Saksun Church
Morning light over the capital of Torshavn. This image was taken from the comfort of my hotel room
These steps down to the natural harbour provide a strong leading line to direct the viewer’s eye