The Pentax Q puts the compact in Compact System Camera. Is the ultra-small Q able to outsmart its larger-sensor peers? The What Digital Camera Pentax Q review...
Pentax Q review – Features
The Q takes the Compact System Camera to new levels of compactness. With a 12.4-megapixel back-lit 1/2.3in sized CMOS sensor at its heart the system wholeheartedly shuns the larger-sensor system cameras. It’s important to consider the options that Pentax is up against here: first came the Micro Four Thirds Lumix G and Olympus PEN models, followed by larger sensor independent ventures in the form of Samsung’s NX and Sony’s NEX series. More recently the Nikon 1 system, with its 1in sensor size, has been talk of the town – by and large received with a great bout of negativity throughout blogs and reputable technology publications due to the sensor being ‘too small’. And if that’s the attitude to a 1in sensor size then, well, the 6.17×4.55mm (1/2.3in) sensor in the Q – which is smaller than that found in both the Canon G12 or Panasonic LX5 compact cameras – is going to more than ruffle some feathers.
Let’s get it straight out there: such a small sensor means shallow depth of field will be far harder to achieve at standard to mid-range focal lengths. That sumptious blurred, bokeh background that epitomises many a pro portrait isn’t (really) achievable using the Q. This is further punctuated by the decision to pair up ‘Toy’ lenses (that’s their actual name) with fixed-aperture settings no brighter than f/5.6 for the 3.2mm fisheye, fixed at f/7.1 for the 6.3mm prime and f/8 for the 18mm telephoto. To reiterate, those are the widest aperture settings and in the case of the latter two the only aperture settings those particular lenses provide.
And so it becomes a little clearer… maybe. Despite the ‘compact size, SLR performance’ press release Pentax isn’t, at least in my opinion, looking to challenge the Compact System Camera market. It’s barely looking to take on the ‘high-end compact’ market either, though this is the area the Q is more closely aligned with. The Q is a world unto its own; a miniature street photographer’s camera unlike anything else out there. It’s an up to date camera delving into the past, associating itself with the romantic period of photography and, by this token, a model that’s got one hard sell.
As well as its uber small size, the Q offers Raw & JPEG shooting from ISO 125-1600 at speeds of up to five frames per second (5fps). A 25-point autofocus system is dealt into nine zones and also offers Face Detection, Tracking, AF-Selection (movable single point) and Spot (centre-point only) options. 1080p HD movie can also be recorded, while composing and image review takes place on the 3in, 460k-dot LCD screen. A standard hotshoe fitting is included to add an external flash or optical viewfinder (each sold separately), though there’s no capability to add an electronic viewfinder (EVF) due to lack of connectivity in the design. Speaking of which, where did such an unusual and independent model spring up from…
Pentax Q review – Design
Let’s rewind back to the early eighties, if you will, a time when Pentax released the 110 Super SLR. This mini camera took 110 film and snapped shots at 13x17mm – far smaller than standard 35mm SLR film cameras. In many respects the Pentax Q is the 110 Super’s modern day digital equivalent. And yet in other respects, given that the Q’s 1/2.3in sensor is not nearly as big, it’s a very different camera altogether. Ironically the Super’s 13x17mm frame wasn’t a million miles away from today’s Micro Four Thirds sensor size, the very size that Pentax chose to ignore in favour of a standalone system.
And with a new system comes a new lens mount. The Q is named as such, according to a loosely translated twitter post from Pentax Japan, because the ‘‘K[-mount]’ is ‘king’ and, since it is smaller and lighter, ‘Q’ is ‘Queen”. A sensible naming convention, but is the new 5.5x magnification mount sensible in itself? With digital sensors sizes come different lens magnifications – be that 1x, 1.5x, 2x, 2.7x or any other number of magnification/crop factors (however you prefer to term it) – that can be tricky to convey to the everyday, casual user. The 8.5mm prime lens that the Q comes kitted out with equates to a 47mm equivalent in full-frame DSLR terms – it’s not the super-wide lens that it may sound to be. In many respects these new mini lenses bring a size benefit in that they’re positively tiny compared to any other interchangeable lens system. They’re very similar to c-mount 16mm film camera lenses which, by chance, (unofficial) converters are already available for online – they’re worth looking at as many of these classic lenses have f/1.0 apertures or similar.
However, for whatever reason, Pentax has chosen leaf shutters within the lenses and, therefore, has avoided the Q’s necessity for a focal-plane or electronic readout shutter system. Such lenses mean faster flash sync of up to 1/2000th second can take place, though this is limited to 1/250th second when attaching an external flashgun which is, frankly, disappointing. And yet it’s unlikely that a mini camera such as this will be used for complex flash lighting – putting a standard flash on the hotshoe positively dwarfs the camera as it is. At the faster end of the scale leaf shutters, as is the case with the Q, can’t muster the super-fast speeds of pro-spec focal plane shutters. Hence the Q’s limitation to 1/2000th second at its fastest. Pair that up with f/1.9 (as per the 8.5mm lens) and the built-in ND (Neutral Density) filter system becomes an essential design feature to limit light at a wide aperture.
Then there’s the Q’s layout and design. It certainly looks quirky and, daresay, ‘fun’ – but there are some aspects that make its use all the more difficult. First of all the dials are, as would be expected, diddy. Small to the point that they can be difficult to turn, in particular the stiff four-position function dial on the front of the camera that, to make matters more problematic, sits right in the path of the lens, thus making for uncomfortable manual focus.
The Q’s inner menu system is typical of Pentax, all dark colours and confusion. Where a menu has two options for selection it’s hard to distinguish between which is the highlighted one and which isn’t. The mislabeled ‘Info’ button accesses the quick menu options, and it’s here that you’ll need to adjust for the likes of Raw and JPEG shooting as such options are often shaded out and inaccessible via the main menu.
Pentax Q review – Performance
Considering the Q’s promise to deliver DSLR performance we were left waiting for more. Given the awe-inspiring K-5 and 645D models that have graced Pentax’s release schedule in the past year, the Q therefore feels like even more of a departure.
The ‘BC’ (which we’ll call ‘Bokeh Control’) mode on the Q’s main dial is the camera’s attempt to counter its inability to provide pronounced shallow depth of field. It does so by blurring the background using post-processing, detecting and supposedly leaving the subject in ‘focus’ (i.e. not blurred). Or that’s the idea anyway. In reality shots look like a misplaced tilt-shift effect gone wrong with seemingly random blurring in various parts of an image. Needless to say it’s unimpressive to the point of a write off.
The rear LCD screen, while of a reasonable 460k-dot resolution, is another a bone of contention. Even in flat lighting the screen’s darkened playback makes it difficult to see and assess images to an acceptable degree. For the high price-point a higher resolution, better-coated screen should have been an absolute – particularly due to the Q’s lack of a built in viewfinder.
Focusing furthers the screen’s issues, as when the camera is hunting to pin focus on a subject or area the screen will brighten or darken as the camera deems necessary to obtain focus. Even if this is necessary to the focus mechanism it doesn’t look great in preview and can be deceptive to exposure level. Focusing itself is reasonable but doesn’t get anywhere near the sort of speeds the latest Olympus PEN or Panasonic Lumix G-series models are capable of. The Q’s focusing feels more like a compact camera and, while there’s nothing wrong with that, it ought to be far faster to make a real impression.
For burst shooting the 5fps mode is a decent speed, though a Class 10 SD card could only snap six JPEG Fine frames before pausing. When capturing Raw files the burst speed is drastically reduced and the buffer can take some time to shift data through to the card – the camera is inoperable during this time.
Another area that needs crucial thought is the Q’s dust reduction mechanism. As larger-sensor systems have reached a point of providing solid removal systems this tends to be an area that doesn’t cause much discussion of late. But with the Q it’s a very different story given the sensor size. Take the lens off and the sensor is sat there staring you back in the face – it’s very easy for dust and other particles to get into the camera. A hair or ‘dust bunny’ on a 1/2.3in size sensor is as desirable as a hole in the head as their size relevant to the sensor will be the end of an image. The same obstruction on a larger sensor is still a problem, but usually one that can be touched out in post-production if a shot isn’t there to reshoot. The Q’s DRII (Dust Removal II) mechanism is the same type as that found in the K-5 – and whilst we’re not doubting its performance, all dust reduction systems aren’t 100% efficient on any camera.
Pentax Q review – Image Quality
Pentax Q: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
Here’s where the Q makes things interesting: Despite the theory that smaller microlenses on a small sensor surface should produce limited – even ‘poor’ – image quality the Q bucks the trend. In fact the Pentax Q has the best image quality we’ve ever seen from a 1/2.3in sized sensor bar none. This is particularly true at low sensitivities, where ISO 160-250 produce clean, clear and crisp shots. ISO 400 remains decent too, but there’s a slight dip thereafter. To put it in perspective the Q feels as though it’s a stop behind a Micro Four Thirds system, such as the Olympus PEN, as by ISO 800 and quality slips downhill and as sensitivity increases to the top ISO 6400 there is more image noise. But, and crucially, ISO 1600-6400 aren’t complete write-offs as we were half anticipating. Oh how wonderful it is when a camera company does exceptional things with existing technology – and that’s what Pentax has done here. Pop the camera into a black and white mode and the grain-like quality at high ISO settings ties in with what was discussed earlier: that the Q is a great little street photographer’s camera.
Pentax Q: Sharpness & Detail
As lens samples are currently limited we were only able to review the 8.5mm f/1.9 lens. An impressive piece of glass, the centre sharpness is exceptional and renders crisp images. The two biggest issues, however, are barrel distortion and chromatic aberrations. The former can be corrected for (almost in full) by switching on the in-camera ‘Distortion Control’ which we’d thoroughly recommend. Colour fringing only tends to reveal itself in scenes with strong backlighting and wasn’t a problem for other situations.
Pentax Q: Tone & Exposure
As per many Pentax models the Q opts to meter to preserve highlights. In many instances this will lead to underexposure, for example a shot with a third sky and two thirds foreground will still be slightly thrown by the brighter sky area. Shooting with exposure bracketing switched on a +0.3EV adjustment proved useful a lot of the time, not least due to the poor LCD screen which makes it hard work to assess shots when outside. For existing Pentax users the Q’s metering will produce exposures as expected, compared to many modern systems that opt for brighter or slightly overexposed shots.
Pentax Q: White Balance & Colour
With default settings shots reproduce colours faithfully and Auto White Balance is accurate, though can be a little warm/orange in interior or studio shots.
It’s worth playing around with the Q’s additional modes, including Monochrome, Toy Camera, Retro, Soft and many others – though the likes of Sketch and Invert Color have limited application. Sadly these cannot be applied when shooting Raw + JPEG (the option would have been useful, despite the Raw file obviously not benefitting from the processing filter.
Pentax Q: Raw vs JPEG
The unprocessed Raw (DNG) files look quite different from their JPEG counterparts. Using the 8.5mm lens the Raw images are far more distorted due to barrel distortion, and the lack of processing makes for a much flatter colour palette with far less contrast the straight-from-camera JPEGs. This isn’t a criticism as the universal DNG files can be opened in any given software editor and you can make the most out of your images.
Value & Verdict
Pentax Q review – Value
At £600 with the 8.5mm (47mm equivalent) f/1.9 prime lens, the Pentax Q certainly isn’t cheap. No doubt that a huge amount of R&D and development costs will have gone into the system, but perhaps not enough of the former to realise that an accessible price-point would have gone a long way in helping the Q’s prospects in a wider market. It’s the high price that’s likely to be the Q’s single biggest sticking point, particularly when considering that the likes of the Panasonic LX5 compact is available for £360, or the Lumix GF3 Compact System Camera can be purchased for £480 with a 14mm f/2.5 lens. From our perspective the Q may offer good build quality and is a quirky, small size – but there are too few distinct angles to warrant the hefty asking price.
Pentax Q review – Verdict
The Pentax Q already has divided opinion and is likely to continue to do so. It’s a true mix of genius and insanity blended into one product that, therefore, makes it underwhelming.
The Q’s small sensor does mean lack of shallow depth of field control and despite Pentax’s BC mode (pseudo bokeh background effect) making its way into the camera it just doesn’t work. The best way to think about the Q’s sensor is for what it is: able to produce the best images we’ve ever seen from a 1/2.3in sensor size. And the wandering street photographer may not care less about shallow depth of field. If this sounds like you then you may be part of that small group that the Q will appeal to.
Is the Q better than other DSLR and CSC cameras? No. But it’s superior to almost every digital compact we’ve ever seen, and could happily be the ‘Queen’ here. Of course the interchangeable lens aspect makes it a target for the Compact System Camera contingent is where the Q falls down – all the expectation of performance, focusing speed, buffer size, screen quality and other factors can’t match up to the larger sensor competitors.
Unique and well made, but a novelty camera. The Q’s images are exceptional within the sensor’s confines, but it’s not enough of a stamp to see off the competition, and the £600 price tag will give very few prospective buyers any reason to choose this over a Lumix G or Olympus PEN model. We’re charmed – surprised even – but the Q’s ‘fun’ approach is short of the mark in a cut-throat market.