Pentax Q7 Review - The Pentax Q7 is one of the smallest CSCs on the market. The question is – are sacrifices made in performance to make it so small? Read the full What Digital Camera Pentax Q7 review to find out...
The original Pentax Q, launched in June 2011, and the Q10 that followed it in September 2012, both had small 1/2.3in sensors of 12.4-megapixel resolution. While both cameras were lauded for their performance, handling and features, many people criticised their image quality, particularly high-ISO noise problems directly resulting from that small sensor.
Pentax must have taken that criticism on board, because the news Q7 features a larger 1/1.7in sensor with a resolution of 12.76 megapixels.
Pentax Q7 Review – Features
The Pentax Q7 shares the same body and most of the same features as last year’s Q10, but it does bring a few extra cards to the table. The most significant upgrade is of course the new sensor. The Q7 is equipped with a 1/1.7in back-side illuminated CMOS sensor, offering roughly 50% greater surface area (28.5 vs. 43.3 sq.mm) than the 1/2.3in sensors found in the previous two models.
1/1.7in sensors have been used in high-end compact cameras such as the Canon G-series and Panasonic LX series for many years. Since the new sensor has the same 12.76-megapixel (12.4 effective) resolution as its predecessors, it follows that the all-important photocell size is larger, which should mean greater colour depth, improved dynamic range, better low-light performance and less high-ISO noise.
Thanks to a 10% performance upgrade to the Q Engine image processor the Pentax Q7 does has a higher maximum ISO setting than the Q10, going as high as 12,800 ISO.
One of the few new photographic features that the Q7 can boast is the Blur Control option, or as Pentax calls it on the website, Bokeh Control. This controls the blurred highlight points in the out-of-focus areas of images, particularly those shot with telephoto lenses or very wide apertures. What Blur Control on the Q7 does is to artificially blur the foreground and background of the scene, attempting to simulate that narrow depth-of-field look.
It is only partially effective; it looks good on some subjects, but poor on others. It’s an interesting effect though, and worth experimenting with.
Most of the Q7’s other main features are carried over from the Q10. It has the same sensor-shift image stabilisation system, a staple of high-end Pentax cameras for many years. Using the kit zoom lens at its maximum 15mm (70mm equiv.) setting it reliably produced shake-free hand-held shots at a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second.
The Pentax Q7 has a full range of manual exposure options, with shutter speeds of 30 seconds to 1/8,000th of a second available thanks to a combination of an electronic shutter in the camera and mechanical shutters in some of the available lenses.
As well as this it has a wide range of automatic scene modes, plus a number of in-camera Smart Effects processing options to replicate the effects of filters and image processing techniques. Some can be applied during image capture, some have to be applied in playback mode.
Another key feature carried over from both the Q and the Q10 is the handy Quick Dial on the front panel. This is a control that lets you quickly switch between camera settings. In the menu you can select between Smart Effects, aspect ratio, focus method, focus peaking (outlines high-contrast areas suitable for focusing) and the ND filter. It would be nice to see some more options for this very useful feature; maybe a future firmware upgrade might expand its usefulness?
Pentax Q7 Review – Design
The Pentax Q7 manages to be particularly small by opting to use an existing compact-camera sensor format. As a result, this also means that the lenses are very small too. This is the main – indeed, the one of the only – advantages of the Q system; you can carry a complete camera system in your coat pocket.
The Q7’s overall build quality is very good. The body is made from tough polycarbonate plastic and feels very sturdy with no flexing or creaking when squeezed. The controls are solidly mounted and have a good “feel”, especially the top panel dials, which are just stiff enough to avoid accidental movement.
There are large hinged hatch covers on either end, one for the card and the other for the battery, and these have strong metal hinges. The only fly in the ointment is the cover for the USB and HDMI sockets on the underside of the camera body, which is a rather nasty rubber flap held in place by a flimsy rubber tether.
The Pentax Q7’s body is of course very compact, but surprisingly it’s not the smallest CSC on the market; the Nikon 1 J3 is actually a couple of millimetres smaller. However the Q7 scores over the Nikon by retaining that “proper camera” feel in its handling.
Where the Nikon J3 has the handling characteristics of a wet bar of soap, the Q7 has a small but comfortable handgrip on the front, a thumb grip area on the back, and the body is covered in a retro-styled leatherette finish that provides a solid and reliable grip even with sweaty hands.
Most of the Q7’s controls are laid out so that they can be easily operated with one hand, and even the tiny D-pad is raised up slightly so that it can be operated with your thumb if necessary. The controls are all clearly labelled, and despite the compact size it feels well thought-out and easy to use.
One particularly nice feature is the flash. It’s a decently powerful little unit, with a guide number of 4.7 at 100ISO, and it can be used either in its normal position, or popped up. It is mounted on a sprung linkage that raises the flash head and moves it sideways, placing it about 4cm further from the lens, thus helping to reduce red-eye.
Pentax, and its new parent company Ricoh, have never been afraid to try out new ideas, and the Q7 does have one rather unusual selling point. If you go to the Pentax website you’ll find a colour chooser that lets you select from 120 different colour combinations, with 20 body colours and six grip colours.
If you want the Q7 with the 8.5mm f/1.9 prime lens you can choose a colour for that too. Your selected colour combination has a unique code number, so you can go to your dealer and order that exact colour. Naturally some of the combinations are revolting, but at least they’re distinctive!
Pentax Q7 Review – Performance
The Pentax Q7’s overall performance is reasonably good. It can start up, focus and shoot a picture in approximately 1.75 seconds from a cold start, which is about average for its class. In three-star JPEG mode it can maintain a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.1 seconds apparently indefinitely, which is fairly impressive. In Raw + JPEG mode however its performance is highly dependent on the speed of the memory card being used.
With a cheaper class 6 card (6 MByte/sec) the Q7 can shoot four frames at the usual speed, but then has to pause for five or six seconds to write the data to the card. However with a faster class 10 card (10 MByte/sec) it can maintain a shot-to-shot time of approximately 2.3 seconds in Raw + JPEG mode, which is pretty quick for a small camera. Raw files are approximately 20.5MB, while the low-compression JPEG files average around 3.5MB.
The Q7’s battery performance is also good. Pentax claims 260 shots without flash usage on a full charge, but during testing it managed to take just over 300 shots over the space of a week, plus about 15 minutes of video and quite a bit of image reviewing and mucking about in the menus before the battery finally gave out. Bear in mind also that this was with a brand new battery; li-ion batteries usually take a few charge cycles to reach peak performance.
Pentax Q7 Review – Image Quality
Colour and white balance
Pentax has been making cameras for a very long time, and certainly knows a thing or two about colour and metering. The Q7’s default image processing produces very natural tones, accurately reproducing the scene even in questionable lighting. Auto white balance coped well with late evening shade, which can make some cameras produce a blue tint, while in bright sunlight colours were rich and vibrant.
The addition of the Q7’s various colour processing modes, particularly the “Vibrant” option, really brightened up the scene on a dull day, producing very vivid colours.
Exposure metering was also generally accurate in good light, as one might expect. The new larger sensor also seems to have improved the camera’s low light ability, and it now focuses and meters accurately even in very dim lighting. Dynamic range is also greatly improved over the Q and Q10.
In high contrast situations the metering seems to favour shadow detail over highlights, which can cause a few problems with burned-out skies on some shots, but for extreme situations the Q7 does have an in-camera HDR setting.
Obviously the Pentax Q7 isn’t going to compete with cameras sporting APS-C sensors and resolutions of more than 20 megapixels, but for a 12.4MP camera with a small sensor it does surprisingly well on fine detail. Unlike a lot of cameras the Q7 has no anti-aliasing filter, which undoubtedly helps, and it certainly compares favourably with most high-end compacts which also have 1/1.7in sensors, such as the Panasonic LX7 or Samsung EX2F.
Image noise was a major problem for the original Pentax Q, and is also the Achilles Heel of the Q7’s major rival the Nikon 1 J3. Fortunately the Q7 acquits itself well in this department, producing virtually noise-free images at 1600 ISO, and shots that are at least usable at 3200.
At 6400 ISO things do start to fall apart a bit, with a lot of detail being scrubbed away by the noise reduction, but at least exposure and colour balance remain consistent. The maximum is 12,800 ISO, and at this setting the image quality is pretty poor, but it is a full-frame shot. Again we’d compare it to a high-end compact such as the Panasonic LX7, which it beats quite handily in this test.
Kit lens performance
Our test sample of the Q7 arrived with the Q 02 5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 ED AL [IF] kit lens, one of only two zoom lenses so far available in the Q system range. As kit lenses in general go it’s about average, although as the usually excellent Pentax kit lenses go it’s a bit below average.
One only has to compare raw shots with their JPEG paired counterparts to see how much wide-angle distortion the processor has to correct. That being said however, its edge-to-edge sharpness is consistently good at all focal lengths and most aperture settings.
There’s a bit of corner softness and just a hint of chromatic aberration in the corners at f/8, but that’s about it. The optical distortion is also greatly reduced at telephoto lengths.
Pentax Q7 Review – Verdict
The Pentax Q7, and by extension the whole of the Q system, is a difficult thing to summarise. On the one hand you have a surprisingly capable little camera with a good range of features, excellent build quality, performance and handling, and image quality that compares well to most high-end compacts. It’s a genuinely nice camera to use, and its compact size means you can take it anywhere, and the best camera in the world is the camera you have with you when you need to take a picture.
On the other hand it’s hard to avoid seeing the Q system as something of a novelty act.
Many reviewers, your author included, have drawn some obvious comparisons between the Q system and Pentax’s Auto 110 system, introduced in 1978. Like the Auto 110, the Q system is a novel approach using an image-recording format usually associated with cheap consumer cameras.
It is undeniably a good quality product capable of excellent results, but will probably struggle to find a grip in a market dominated by larger, more capable rivals. It’s probably worth a sober reflection that the Auto 110 was discontinued after seven years, with only two camera models and five lenses. Will the Q system go the same way?
Only time will tell, but it would be nice to think that the camera market can support a few unusual niche products, especially when they’re as nice to use as the Q7.
Pentax Q7 Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a few sample images captured with the Pentax Q7. For a full range of images, head over the the Pentax Q7 review sample image gallery.