Pentax K-01 Review

Design & Features

Love it or hate it, the Pentax K-01's design is certainly unique. When I first saw it's retro-modern design back at CES, I thought it looked like something that would carry a Fisher Price label, rather than Pentax. While it's appearance has grown on me since then, I'm still not a huge fan.

The K-01 is essentially shaped like a brick, albeit one with modern accents. The body is made almost entirely of metal, save for rubberized sections on the sides and front. The camera is well-built in nearly all respects, with my only complaint being the easy-to-bump power switch and the "rubber flap" that I'll get to later. The camera is very thick, and I think the grip is a bit too small considering that. While most buttons are well-placed, the green button is difficult to reach, and the flash release / delete photo button is right where you'd hold the camera with your left hand.

Image courtesy of Pentax

If you really want to show off the K-01's bold design, look no further than the yellow model you see above. For more conservative folks, there are also white and black models available.

The K-01 is a bit of a handful -- even with the 40 mm pancake lens attached

Now, here's a look at how the K-01 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Nikon 1 J1 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 12.7 cu in. 234 g
Olympus E-P3 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 in. 18.1 cu in. 321 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 4.6 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 19.9 cu in. 272 g
Pentax K-01 4.8 x 3.1 x 2.3 in. 34.2 cu in. 479 g
Samsung NX210 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 222 g
Sony Alpha NEX-5N 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 in. 16.9 cu in. 210 g

As you can see, the K-01 is much larger than other interchangeable lens cameras. The reason for this to its large flange-back distance, which is what allows it to support K-mount lenses. Since one of the big selling points of mirrorless cameras is their diminutive size, the K-01 seems a bit awkward. The only time you'll fit this camera in your pocket is with the pancake lens -- and that's assuming that you have large pockets! With any other lens, it'll be just like carrying around a regular D-SLR.

Let's tour the K-01 now, using our tabbed interface:

Front of the Pentax K-01

Here you can see the K-01 without a lens attached. If you haven't been following along, that's a K-mount in the picture, and it supports virtually every Pentax lens ever made. As always, there's a 1.5X crop factor to keep in mind, so that 40 mm pancake lens is equivalent to 60 mm.

You can see just how much empty space there is between the mount and the sensor (the flange-back distance) -- you could smuggle a mouse in there (not that I recommend it).

Speaking of the sensor, that's a 16.3 Megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor you're looking at. This is as large a sensor as you'll find in a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.

This sensor is mounted on a movable plate, which is used for both image stabilization and dust removal. The stabilizer will provide up to 4 stops of shake correction on nearly every Pentax lens. In addition to reducing the likelihood of blurry photos, the shake reduction system smooths out your movies, as well. You can also have the camera "shake off" the dust when its powered on or off, though you need to turn that feature on in the setup menu.

The two pinholes that sit above the lens mount make up the K-01's stereo microphone.

Straight above the word "Pentax" is the K-01's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. This flash is the most powerful one available on an ILC, with a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100. And, should you want more flash power, a hot shoe is available too.

The last items to see on the front of the camera can be found on the grip. The red-colored thing is the combination IR receiver (for the optional remote control) and self-timer lamp. Moving to the upper-right, you can see the K-01's AF-assist lamp, which puts out a blinding green light to help with low light focusing.

Back of the Pentax K-01

The back of the K-01 is relatively normal-looking compared to the rest of the camera. Being a mirrorless camera, you'll be composing all of your photos on the 3-inch LCD that's on display here (no EVF is available). This screen has 921,000, so everything's nice and sharp. Outdoor visibility was about average, and in low light the screen "gains up" nicely, so you can still see your subject.

For those wondering, the K-01 does not support an electronic viewfinder, which is too bad (there's certainly room for one).

To the right of the LCD we have four well-labeled buttons, which handle AE/AF lock, playback mode, toggling the info shown on the screen (and bringing up the shortcut menu), and entering the menu system.

To the right of those is the card access lamp, with the four-way controller under that. The controller is used for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and also serves as a shortcut for adjusting the ISO, flash, self-timer, and white balance. Pressing the "OK" button while you're manually focusing will enlarge the frame.

Top of the Pentax K-01

The most striking part of the K-01's design can be found in the top view. The most conventional-looking button is the flash release / delete photo button, located at the bottom-left of the photo.

At the center of the photo you can see the flash (closed here) and the hot shoe. The hot shoe will work best with the Pentax flashes I mentioned earlier, as they'll sync with its metering system, which allows for things like high speed flash sync. If you're using a third party flash, you'll probably have to set the exposure manually, and you're limited to an x-sync speed of 1/180 sec. Unlike Pentax's other cameras, the K-01 does not support wireless flash control.

Next to the pop-up flash is the camera's mode dial, which I'll describe in detail after the tour. Next to that is the uniquely designed power switch, which unfortunately moves a bit too easily. Inside the power switch is the shutter release button.

Below all that are three buttons: the famous Pentax green button (which, by default, resets the setting currently being adjusted), another for exposure compensation, and a third red button for movie recording. The function of both the red and green buttons can be customized.

In-between all those buttons is the camera's sole control dial, which you'll use for adjusting the exposure, navigating menus, and enlarging images in both record and playback mode.

Left side of the Pentax K-01

There are just a few things to see on this side of the K-01. The first is the speaker (two small holes), which sits above the AF/MF switch, which does just as it sounds. I'll have a bit more on the camera's manual focus features after the tour.

Under the small rubber cover at the bottom of the photo is a external microphone input.

Right side of the Pentax K-01

At first glance, it looks like there's nothing on this side of the K-01. However, if you peel back the rubber piece of the left side, you'll find this:

It's the I/O ports! They include the memory card slot (which has a cover of its own), the USB + A/V out port, and mini-HDMI.

The rubber cover that protects these ports leaves much to be desired. As you can see, it has just two small straps that attach it to the camera, and I don't know how long those will last. It's also surprisingly difficult to close properly. I don't know why Pentax didn't just put a traditional plastic door here and throw a rubberized texture on top.

Bottom of the Pentax K-01

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount -- in-line with the lens -- and the battery compartment. The plastic door over the battery compartment is of decent quality.

Despite the fact that the K-01 is as large as some D-SLRs, it's still very much a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. That means that you'll compose all of your photos on the camera's 3-inch LCD display.

The "view" in live view, with histogram While it's difficult to see here, focus peaking is making the edges of the stapler look extra sharp, so I know it's in focus

Before we get into features, I want to talk about the live view experience on the Pentax K-01. The image on the LCD is sharp and bright, with an excellent refresh rate. Options include grid lines, a live histogram, and highlighting of over and underexposed areas of the image. Unfortunately, an always-handy electronic level is not available. If you're manually focusing, you can not only enlarge the frame (as you can on almost every camera), you can also turn on something called focus peaking. Focus peaking sharply outlines the part of the frame that's in focus, which makes manual focusing a whole lot easier. The only other cameras I've seen this on are the Sony NEX ILCs.

Now let's get into the features that you access with the mode dial. First, a list of what you'll find on it:

Option Function
Auto Picture mode Point-and-shoot operation, with automatic scene selection. Some menu options are locked up.
Movie mode While you can record movies at any time with the red button, here's a dedicated mode with a few more options.
Program mode Still point-and-shoot, but with full menu access. Pressing the green button will allow you to use Program Shift, where you can move between various aperture/shutter speed combinations.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the proper aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached.
Full manual mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed, with the same ranges as above.
Bulb mode The camera will keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is held down. An option in the custom settings menu lets you use the shutter release as a toggle, which gives your finger a break. The optional AC adapter and remote control are helpful here.
Flash off mode An auto mode with the flash disabled.
HDR mode The camera takes three images -- each at a different exposure -- and combines them into a single photo with dramatically improved contrast. See below for more.
Scene mode The K-01 has a boatload of scene modes, which include: portrait, landscape, macro, moving object, night scene portrait, sunset, blue sky, forest, night scene, night scene HDR, night snap, food, pet, kids, surf & snow, backlight silhouette, candlelight, stage lighting, and museum.

The K-01 has shooting modes for just about everyone. Beginners will find a capable auto mode and a metric ton of scene modes. Enthusiasts have the usual manual exposure controls -- including a bulb mode -- plus RAW support, white balance fine-tuning, customizable buttons, and plenty of custom settings. I'll have more on that later.

Another nice thing on the mode dial is the camera's high dynamic range (HDR) mode. This improves contrast by combining three different exposures, each taken at a different value, into a single image. There are four HDR modes to choose from: auto and then HDR 1 - 3. The HDR modes basically control how strong the effect is, with higher numbers being more artistic than realistic. You can also set the interval between the exposures (by using the camera's main dial) from 1EV to 3EV.

HDR off
View Full Size Image

HDR on (±3 EV interval)
View Full Size Image

While the results are not as impressed as with the Sony cameras I reviewed recently, the K-01's HDR mode still produced more shadow detail and a bit less highlight clipping. The camera will align the images automatically, so a tripod is generally not needed. I should add that you can use HDR in any shooting mode via the main menu, though you can't adjust the exposure interval when you do that.

Now I'm going to talk about features controlled by buttons. The Info button usually toggles what's shown on the LCD, but it also opens the handy shortcut menu you see above. From here, you can adjust every important setting on the camera, without having to dive into the main menu.

White balance fine-tuning

The four-way controller handles three important functions which are not available in the menus. They include:

  • ISO sensitivity: crank it up manually from 100 to 12800, or choose an automatic range like 100-800
  • Drive: here's where you'll find continuous, self-timer, and wireless remote control shooting, plus AE bracketing
  • White balance: the usual presets are all here (including four fluorescent options), plus color temperature enhancement (CTE) which strengthens the color tone of the light source, and a custom mode; you can fine-tune white balance using the tool shown above; WB bracketing is not available, however.

We're going to move into the K-01's menu system now. Sadly, Marc Newson didn't touch the menus (aside from the background), which use the same antiquated design that Pentax has been using for who knows how long. While it's not pretty, it does get the job done though. Here are some of the highlights from the menu:

  • Custom image: these are sets of image parameters that allow you to adjust saturation, high/low key, contrast, and sharpness; there are several presets available, including bright, portrait, landscape, bleach bypass, black and white, and cross-process
  • Digital filter: special effects like extract color, toy camera, retro, and high contrast can be found here
  • Image capture setting: here you can adjust the aspect ratio (16:9, 3:2, 4:3, 1:1), file format (JPEG, RAW, or both), resolution/quality, and color space
  • AF/MF settings: choose the AF method (face detect, subject tracking, flexible spot, center), AF auto zoom (camera enlarges the focus point when you halfway-press the shutter release), and turn on focus peaking (discussed earlier)
  • Lens correction: here you can turn on distortion correction (see example a bit later) and chromatic aberration correction (which is on by default)
  • Multi-exposure: the K-01 can combine up to nine exposures into a single image, with auto EV adjustment
  • Interval (time-lapse) shooting: the camera can take up to 999 images at intervals ranging from 1 second to 24 hours; you can set a start time, if you wish; tripod and AC adapter are essentially required for this; the K-01 can also do the same kind of things, but save the results as a Full HD movie instead of a bunch of stills
  • D-Range setting: home of highlight and shadow correction; see below for examples of both
  • Noise reduction: you can really fine-tune high ISO NR; slow shutter speed NR is auto/on/off
  • Live view: turn on grid lines, a live histogram, or highlights for bright/dark areas
  • Button customization: define what the green and red buttons do, as well as how the AE/AF lock button functions for both stills and movies; you can have the green/red buttons handle one-push file format switch, image previewing, focus peaking, and more
  • Memory: choose what settings are stored when the camera is turned off
  • Dust removal: remove dust now, or when the camera is turned on or off

In addition to the shooting and setup options, there are also sixteen custom settings. Some of the items of note here including EV/ISO steps, ISO expansion (which opens up ISO 25600), and shake reduction options.

Let's go over some of the "correction" options that I listed above. I'll start with distortion correction, which is strangely enough turned off by default. Since the 40 mm pancake lens isn't the kind of lens that has a lot of barrel distortion, I'm using my personal 18 - 55 mm lens for this example. Do note that this is probably not the same 18 - 55 that comes in the dual lens kit.

Distortion correction off (default) Distortion correction on

As you can see, the distortion correction feature "flattened" the test chart, reducing the fairly strong barrel distortion on the 18-55 lens. If only it worked as well for vignetting!

Next up is highlight correction, which is found in the D-Range Correction options. This is set to "auto" by default. In order for the camera to do its thing, it will set the sensitivity to ISO 200. Here's a crop of our purple fringing tunnel showing what this feature can do:

Highlight correction off Highlight correction on

While the highlight correction helps a little bit, it doesn't work miracles. The most obvious changes can be found by looking on the ground, to the left of the column -- you get some detail back there. The sky remains blown out -- it's supposed to be blue in reality. Even with the relatively minor improvements, I see no reason to change the setting from its default "auto" position.

The other half of the DR correction feature is shadow correction. As you might've guessed, this brightens the dark areas of your photos. You can choose from auto, low, medium, high, and off positions. Unfortunately, the effect is so subtle that I couldn't come up with a decent example for you (despite numerous attempts).

The K-01 has a pretty nice movie mode. It allows you to record Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 with your choice of frame rates: 24, 25, or 30 frames/sec. Sound is recorded in stereo, as you'd expect, and if you want to attach an external mic, there's a port for that. You can keep recording until the elapsed time reaches 25 minutes, or the file size hits 4 GB. If you're recording 1080p at the highest quality setting (***), it looks like you'll hit the file size limit in about 16 minutes. If 1080p is too much for you, the K-01 also supports 720p (at 60 fps) and VGA resolutions. At all resolutions, you can choose a quality setting ranging from one to three stars.

Not surprisingly, you can zoom in and out to your heart's content when recording movies on the K-01. The camera does not offer continuous autofocus, but you can refocus the camera by pressing the AE/AF lock button. That's not a great idea, though, as the refocusing can be slow and noisy. The image stabilizer is available and does a nice job of smoothing out the "bumps" in your videos.

The K-01 supports full manual control over exposure while you're taking a movie. You can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity, along with the microphone level. About the only thing missing here is a wind filter. As I touched on earlier, the camera can take a serious of photos over time and compile them into a time-lapse movie. The K-01 does not permit you to take stills while simultaneously recording video.

Videos are recorded using the H.264 codec, and saved in QuickTime format. Here's a sample for you, taken at the highest quality setting:

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 38.2 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

The quality's not wondrous, but it'll probably be good enough for most folks. I did notice that if you have focus peaking turned on, the first few frames of a movie will show that effect. I trimmed that out of this clip.

Press "down" on the four-way controller to access the "real" playback menu RAW editing tool

The Pentax K-01 has a pretty nice playback mode for an interchangeable lens camera. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Quick Zoom: instantly jump to a set magnification when zooming in playback mode
  • Image rotation/resizing/cropping: gotta have these
  • Digital Filter: apply one of 21 special effects to photos you've taken
  • RAW development: edit RAW images right in the camera; you can adjust white balance, exposure, ISO, lens correction, and more; the results are saved as a JPEG
  • Movie editing: divide a movie into two parts, or just extract a segment

By default, the K-01 shows just basic information about your photos. However, press the Info button and you can choose from various other screens, which include tons of details about settings, plus your choice of histograms.

The camera moves from photo-to-photo without delay.