The Pentax K-01: A Review from the Field

Discussion in 'Open Gear Talk' started by Paul Giguere, May 14, 2012.

  1. Paul Giguere

    Paul Giguere

    May 4, 2011
    Wayland, MA USA

    Okay, I have to admit I was fully expecting to hate this camera. Every photo that I had seen on-line of the Pentax K-01 made the camera look like an ugly overdesigned brick (the famous industrial designer Marc Newson designed the K-01’s external wrappings but I’m not impressed). So why review it at all? Well, if you recall I wrote a review of the Pentax K-5 last year and I thoroughly enjoyed that camera. A smallish DSLR (not compact by any means but smaller than other high-end DSLR cameras), the K-5 was simply a joy to use so I figured that, given the K-01 is essentially a K-5 inside (and it uses the same lens mount as the K-5 which means lots of lens to choose from), I would do due diligence and review it as well.
    The Pentax K-01 sports a 16.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, a 921,000 pixel LCD screen, and all of the various features, settings, and shooting modes you would expect. The camera also features a number user-customizable options and a few of the buttons can be reprogrammed to operate other features of the camera (just like the K-5). Unlike the K-5 though, the K-01 is not weathersealed. For this review, I used a Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited Lens which is usually in the general focal length range that I like to shoot (31.5mm with the 1.5X crop factor of the sensor). The camera body comes with the basics (body cap, neck strap, manual, battery and charger, plus AV and USB cables). The street price for the K-01 is $750 USD (plus lens).


    There is no getting around this but I must start with the physical characteristics of this camera. Yes, this camera is a brick (and it weighs like one too coming in at 19.8 oz.). I took the camera to a local camera shop and put it next to a Pentax K-5 for visual comparison and I have say that the two cameras are almost exactly the same size with two exceptions. . . the K-01 lacks a hump on top of the body for the viewfinder/mirror housing (the K-01 is a mirrorless camera) and the protruding grip for one’s fingers on the left side of the body (assuming you are looking at the front of the camera). Other than that, these two camera share a very similar footprint.
    IMG_238940. The top of the camera contains a few dials for setting the camera mode, power switch, shutter release, along with a toggle wheel for making selections when I various modes. The back of the camera contains various buttons for accessing the common features, menus, etc. At first I thought the design was a bit Spartan and possibly missing something important but I think this is where good design came into effect by giving us a simple, functional layout with just what we need, no more, no less.

    The battery is accessed by a bottom door (typical) but the memory card slot is located behind a piece of rubber that also forms the primary grip of the camera for your right hand. You basically slide the rubber door towards you and then lift it away (it is attached by two rubber hinges which I’m sure will wear out after awhile or get caught in something and break). I had a really tough time replacing the door and getting it to firmly seal to the point where I felt it was firmly closed again. I never mastered this weird door in the time I had the camera.

    I also wish there was something on the back of the camera for my right thumb to perch on when holding the camera (it is just a smooth body surface and nothing else). While most of the front and sides of the camera have a vertical-lined rubber surface (which is very grippy), a camera this chunky and heavy needs something more to hold on to and I found myself a little unsure holding the camera as I was afraid I might lose my grip. A pop-up flash, hotshoe (behind the flash), and tripod socket (centered under the lens housing) complete the major elements of the camera body.
    Once I entered the menus, I was at home. The menu design and structure are very similar (if not identical) to the K-5. Now I know that how each manufacturer handles their menus varies considerably and individual preferences will vary even more, but I prefer the Pentax menu design over other cameras I have used including the Canon 5D et al. Pentax uses a series of tabbed screens to hold all of the options and settings for the camera. You simply move from tab to tab (each screen usually groups settings together in a logical manner) and then move down to make a selection. The screen never scrolls further than what will fit on the tabbed area. Unlike Canon, which has this long, color-coded list of settings in their menu, I prefer the sensible layout of the Pentax much more.

    In the Field

    Despite it’s chunkiness, I found using the K-01 in the field to be, for the most part, just fine. Having used LCDs to frame my photos for years (the Ricoh GRD being my main camera), I felt at home using the K-01’s LCD screen to compose my photos. And, while not the fastest camera out there, it performed as well as a general purpose walkabout camera. This is not a pocketable camera nor can it easily be put into a coat pocket so a small camera bag was what I used to lug it around. I also dislike neck straps so I used a wrist strap (mostly to prevent an accidental drop. . . although with the weight of this camera the tug from a fall could probably dislocate my wrist).


    A couple of things bothered me about the K-01. First, the camera uses contrast detection for focusing and while this is adequate for most kinds of photography, I found it sometimes missed the mark and was just either too jumpy or the LCD screen couldn’t keep up and I kept experiencing delays on the screen as I moved the camera. Maybe this is not a result of contrast detection per se but I believe it is a side effect and shows up in the K-5 when using the Live View feature (which then switches the camera into contrast detection as well). Also, I had trouble locking exposure properly. The camera tends to try and expose for the shadows which could result in blown highlights. I found myself having to make several corrections to my exposure settings in mixed lighting conditions (particularly when my subjects were framed against a bright background). This is not something I had encountered with the K-5 and I think this must be something specific to how the K-01 works. Ten years ago this was the norm with such cameras but for a modern camera design, I found it lacking and most reminiscent of mass consumer point and shoot cameras.


    Another thing that drove me crazy was the LCD screen brightness. Basically, even under less than bright conditions, the LCD would wash out and I could barely see anything. I know this is a problem with most LCD screens but this was particularly bad. Remember, this is a mirrorless camera and, at the time of this writing, there isn’t any electronic or optical viewfinder option available (although I suppose you could purchase a third party viewfinder matched to your lens).


    In actual use, I found myself using the K-01 much like a would if I were carrying around a DSLR (such as the K-5) in that I usually kept it in my bag and would pull it out when a photographic opportunity presented itself. In other words, the K-01 lends itself well to a more direct and deliberate way of photographing which, for me at least, is not as desirable or satisfying when I am doing “walk-around” or street photography. I typically like to respond to the moment quickly without thought for the camera (which is why I like the Ricoh GRD camera so much) but a camera like the K-01 requires you pay attention to it. With my Ricoh GRD4 (a much more compact camera) I tend to keep the camera in my hand at all times and just walk around ready to make a photo of anything that interests me. I find this gives me more of a “stream of consciousness” approach to my photography where I don’t think about the camera much at all and instead I’m focused on the scene in front of me. I suppose some people who do street photography will find the K-01 just fine (and of course it is smaller than most DSLRs out there) so this will vary with each person.



    In general, I was pleased with the resulting photos from my outings. The quality was as good as the K-5 (when the conditions were right and the stars aligned) which is not surprising given that, under the hood, the K-01 and the K-5 are the same camera for the most part. The controls are well thought out and the camera feels very solid and well made (with the exception of that rubber memory card door).

    The Pentax K-01 is decent camera but I’m not sure where it sits with regards to the competition. Sure, it sports a APS-C sensor (soon to be considered a standard for cameras like this) but there are other players out there that can offer more at a similar price point. Also, there are the Micro Four Thirds cameras out there which have a firm foothold in the mirrorless market.

    Would I buy a K-01? I have to say no to that one but, even with the warts (some of which are cosmetic and some symptomatic of a camera of this design), the K-01 reminded me how much I had enjoyed (and missed) the K-5 that I got a chance to play with last year. So (and here is the funny part), after returning the K-01 to B&H, I ordered the K-5! So, perhaps there is a purpose and role for the K-01 to play after all, as a sales tool to help stimulate sales of the K-5. I think once people get a taste of the Pentax system via the K-01, they may want more.
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  2. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Hi Paul, thanks for the review. Is there any reason to buy this camera over the K5? The difference in price with kit lenses (40mm vs 18-55) between both cameras is about 200$. Size certainly doesn't seem to be a criteria, given that they both seem to be about the same bulk. For 200$ more, I'd get a VF, better ergonomics, faster 11 point AF, and a better photographic experience overall. Why would anyone consider this camera over the K5? Is there a big difference in IQ?
  3. Paul Giguere

    Paul Giguere

    May 4, 2011
    Wayland, MA USA
    Unless you really want a mirrorless camera (and slightly reduced bulk), I think the K5 is the better camera. As you say, for about an additional $200 you would get a lot more for your money. That is why after sending the K-01 back, I ordered a K-5 (and am enjoying it very much).

    • Like Like x 2
  4. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Ah. Thanks.
  5. krugorg

    krugorg SC All-Pro

    Sep 26, 2011
    Minnesota USA
    Kyle Krug
    Thanks for the impressions on the K-01, Paul. Interesting that you ended up going with a K-5... with 20/20 hindsight, knowing that I would end up with the FA 31 mounted most of the time (which takes the K-01 from CSC to small DSLR), I think the K5 would have been a smarter play for me.

    I do think if they would have ditched the modern design, had a built-in viewfinder, and went with a classic rangefinder look that matched the Ltd primes and marketed as such (Limited body), they would have had a much better market reception, even if it was on the thicker side. The size doesn't bug me as much as the weight... feels like a cement block after you have handled a X-Pro1, with somewhat similar volume.

    You do have a bit better dynamic range on the K5 than on the K01, from what I understand mainly due to 14-bit versus 12-bit RAWs. Not sure how much of a difference this makes real world, as the K-01 seems pretty incredible in this regard.

    The only feature I can think of on the K-01 that is not on the K-5, is the focus peaking, which actually helps save the K-01 a bit with its noisy and somewhat slow focus (also great if you had some old MF K lenses). The downside is that it is going to be challenging to use in bright sunlight. Maybe this feature will be added in the next Pentax DSLR releases.
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  6. Thanks for the review, Paul. It confirmed my suspicions that it wouldn't measure up to my K-5, nor give any advantage over it... and congratulations on ordering a K-5 for yourself. You already know you won't be disappointed with it :)
  7. LisaO

    LisaO SC Regular

    Jul 11, 2010
    Thanks for the review. I looked at the camera the last time I was at B&H and thought it was one of the ugliest cameras I have ever seen. I know it was designed by a famous high end designer but to me, it looks like a bar of soap met a kids pool toy. Nice to read it takes decent images but it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to walk around with one.
    • Like Like x 1
  8. jarekm9

    jarekm9 New to SC

    Feb 29, 2012
    The are two things better about K-01 kit over K5 kit. First is the better lens, 40mm lens is 40mm Limited which is made of plastic instead of metal. 2nd is that the K01 has a lot weaker AA filter. The photos will have a lot finer detail which K5 will lack. And that's saying as a K5 owner.
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  9. Tonto

    Tonto SC Rookie

    Focus peaking is only found on the K-01 amongst current Pentax cameras (as of today ;p), also better video but we wont claim that.
  10. Biro

    Biro SC Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 7, 2011
    Jersey Shore
    So Paul... This is six months later and the K-01 body is now available for under $350. At this price point, what would you say about the K-01?
    • Like Like x 1
  11. Paul Giguere

    Paul Giguere

    May 4, 2011
    Wayland, MA USA
    At this price point, I would say K-01's days are numbered and that perhaps Pentax/Ricoh are getting ready to jettison the camera from it's lineup or replace it with a Mark II version (I could be wrong of course, it happens frequently. . . so my family tells me). With that said though, this is an incredible price for a camera that is about 75-80% of what the Pentax K-05 is (the older body, not the new Mark II ones). So, if you can live without an optical finder (and stick with the LCD) and you don't mind the slower focusing speed, this might be a great deal for someone who has been wanting a K-05 but may not have wanted a SLR body.

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  12. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro

    Jul 8, 2010
    Perhaps a Mk2 with an optional high-res EVF? And an update to the GXR EVF...
  13. Paul Giguere

    Paul Giguere

    May 4, 2011
    Wayland, MA USA
    This would be a nice upgrade (in addition to addressing some other speed issues) for the K-01 but it depends what Pentax really wants to do with this camera (or Ricoh with the GXR for that matter). With Ricoh layoffs on the horizon (part of a restructuring), I think we may see (hopefully) some new products (or updates) that merge the Pentax and Ricoh lines a bit. If I was Ricoh/Pentax though (and I'm just saying here), I would dump the Pentax Q and the Pentax K-01 and focus on a new GXR body and Pentax A16 mount (compatible with all Pentax lens) with auto-focus, peeking, etc. (perhaps even re-badging the thing as a Pentax if that will twirl everyone's propellers on the Ricoh/Pentax board of directors who approved the purchase of Pentax in the first place).

    I think Ricoh is still trying to figure out what Pentax means to them and I think we have now seen all of the releases of "in-the-pipeline" products from Pentax that where in development before the Ricoh buy-out happened. What happens now is anyone's guess.

    Oh, and I want a Ricoh GRD5 next year with the same Sony 1" sensor that is in the Sony RX100.

  14. christilou

    christilou SC Hall of Famer

    Jul 13, 2010
    Sunny Frimley
    There's something about the K-01 that's very appealing and I find despite owning two other cameras (X Pro 1 and and EM5) it's the one I reach for the most and get the most pleasure from using. Just the right size in the hand and produces the goods in the IQ department. I bought one and sold it and then bought another. I've even had it on and off Amazon for sale but when it came down to it, I couldn't let it go! Optional EVF would be nice and speedier AF but apart from that it just works for me :) I would hate to see all that Ricoh have achieved die out and trust that Pentax must have seen much to gain from the buy out so who knows.