Pentax Q Review

Design & Features

As you've seen, the Pentax Q is a very small mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The camera has a magnesium alloy frame, and it feels very solid in the hand. I'm probably going to get raked over the coals for this comment, but I feel that the Q is actually too small. While it's fairly easy to hold, thanks to a small rubberized grip, your fingers end up resting on buttons and sit dangerously close to the various dials on the camera. In addition, most of the buttons are miniscule -- especially on the four-way controller -- making it easy to accidentally press the wrong thing. The playback button is located on the top of the camera, next to the hot shoe -- I wish its position was swapped with the "green button" instead. The bottom line here is "try before you buy".

The Pentax Q in black and white
Image courtesy of Pentax

As you can see, the Pentax Q is available in black and white.

Now let's see how the Q compares to other mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras in its class 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-PM1 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 in. 14 cu in. 217 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 in. 14.2 cu in. 222 g
Pentax Q 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 180 g
Samsung NX200 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 220 g
Sony Alpha NEX-C3 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.0 in. 10.6 cu in. 225 g

The Q is the smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera in the world, though the Sony NEX-C3 isn't that far behind. The gap between the Pentax and Sony cameras widen as soon as you attach a lens, as the NEX's lenses are gigantic by comparison. The Q is really the only true pocket ILC, even with a lens attached!

Let's take a quick tour around the Q's body now. Use the tabs to see the camera from various angles.

Front of the Pentax Q

I'm sure you're probably staring at that crazy flash right now, but let's save that for later. The first thing to talk about is the camera's 12.4 Megapixel, back-illuminated CMOS sensor. This sensor, developed exclusively for the Q, is the same size as what you'll find on most compact cameras, and is tiny in comparison to Four Thirds and APS-C. This chart gives you an idea of how the various sensor sizes compare -- the Q's would be somewhere in-between 1/2.5" and 1/1.8". We'll see if the Q is capable of producing better quality photos than your typical compact later in the review.

The sensor is mounted on a movable plate, which is part of the camera's image stabilization system. When the camera detects shake, the sensor is shifted to counter for it. Do note that you can't use sensor-shift IS in movie mode -- an electronic system is available, though.

With its sensor exposed to the elements, dust may be a concern to potential buyers of the Q (or any interchangeable lens camera, for that matter). As with most of its competitors, the Q will "shake" dust off of the sensor when the camera is turned on or off, so this problem should be minimized.

The lens mount here is the new Q-mount, which is as amazingly small as the rest of the camera. Lenses you attach will have a hefty 5.5X crop factor, due to the small sensor size. Remember that only the "standard" lenses (01 and 02) will support autofocus. To release a lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount.

Now, about that flash. It can be in the normal "down" position (see the photo of the available camera colors for an example), and it can also pop up and away from the body, to prevent shadows from the lens, and to reduce the risk of redeye. While the mechanism is clever, I have to wonder how it'll hold up over the long term.

What about that dial? The Quick Dial can be customized to handle various camera functions, including Smart Effect (the default), Custom Image, Digital Filter, and aspect ratio. I'll tell you more about those later in the features section.

The other items of note here include the AF-assist lamp, receiver for an optional wireless remote, and the stereo microphones (bottom).

Back of the Pentax Q

The main event here is the Q's 3-inch, 460,000 pixel LCD display. As you'd expect, the screen is quite sharp with that resolution. Outdoor visibility was about average, and in low light, the scene brightens up nicely, so you can still see what you're looking at.

Pretty much everything else here are buttons, most of which are self-explanatory. By default, that green button resets whatever value you're adjusting, but it can also be used for a DOF preview, one-push RAW+JPEG access, and a few more things.

The items on the four-way controller are only accessible here, as they're not in the menu. I'll go into a little more detail later about some of those in a bit.

The info button brings up a shortcut menu, which lets you quickly adjust fourteen less commonly used camera settings. Do note that you lose the live view when this menu is displayed -- just press Info again and it will return.

On the top of the camera is the manual release for the flash, the hot shoe, a pair of dials, three more buttons, and the speaker.

The hot shoe will work best with Pentax's flash, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. One thing that the Q cannot do is control external flashes wirelessly. If you're using a third party flash, you will likely need to adjust the exposure on both it and the camera manually. The Q can sync as fast as 1/250 sec with an external flash.

The black dial at the bottom-right of the photo is used for adjusting settings, and for playback zoom. Above that is the mode dial, and I'll explore the various options found there after the tour. Just left of those is the shutter release button, which is on the small side.

Just left of the power button is the Q's speaker.

Now here's something you don't every day (or any day): a battery compartment on the side of a camera! The Q's D-LI68 battery goes right in that slot, though extracting the battery can take a bit of work.

On the opposite side of the Q is its memory card slot. Why can't all manufacturers put it on the side, instead of on the bottom? The doors over both of these compartments are of average quality.

While Pentax put the battery and memory card compartments on the sides of the camera, they put the I/O ports on the bottom. Under that rubber flap you'll find HDMI and USB + A/V ports. Be sure to seal that flap well, otherwise the camera may not sit flat.

The only other thing to see here is the metal tripod mount, located right in the middle of the body.

The "view" in live view, complete with histogram

We're going to talk about camera features now, and the one I want to start with is live view mode on the Q. You get a live preview of exposure and white balance, reasonably fast autofocus, face detection, a live histogram, and three types of grid lines. When manually focusing (which you'll do with three of the five Q-mount lenses), the frame can be enlarged, to ensure proper focus. In other words, the Q performs just like the point-and-shoot camera you may be used to.

Now, let's talk about what you'll find on the camera's mode dial:

Option Function
Auto Picture mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Some menu items may not be available.
Movie mode Unlike most cameras these days, you need to set the mode dial to this position in order to record movies. More on the Q's movie mode later.
Program mode Automatic, but with full menu access. You can use the dial on the top of the camera to flip through various aperture/shutter speed combinations.
Shutter Priority (Tv) mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/2000 sec.
Aperture Priority (Av) 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 (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode will keep the shutter open for as long as the release button is held down, for up to 32 seconds.
Blur Control mode Combines several exposures into one to produce a photo with a blurred background. Those of you with a keen eye will see that it's a digital effect.
Scene mode You pick the scene, and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Select from portrait, landscape, macro, moving object, night scene portrait, sunset, blue sky, night scene, night scene HDR, night snapshot, food, quick macro, pet, kids, forest, surf & snow, HDR, backlight silhouette, candlelight, stage lighting, and museum.

If you want to use the Q as a point-and-shoot camera, just set the mode dial to the Auto Picture mode. If you want scene modes, the camera has plenty of them, including two HDR modes. I'll tell you more about HDR in a moment.

The Q has full manual exposure controls as well, covering shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Speaking of ISO, you can select a fixed value (125 - 6400) or a range that you want the camera to use (e.g. 125 - 800). The only way to adjust the ISO sensitivity is via the four-way controller on the back of the camera.

Fine-tuning white balance

Speaking of controls only accessible via the four-way controller: let's talk about white balance. The Q has the usual presets, as well as the ability to use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting. There's also a Color Temperature Enhancement feature which will "keep and strengthen the color tone of the light source in the image". That said, you can't actually set the color temperature yourself on the Q, nor can you bracket for white balance. You can fine-tune WB, however, in the green-magenta and/or amber-blue direction (see screenshot).

The third and final "four-way controller only" feature is the drive menu, which holds the self-timer, continuous shooting, and bracketing options. I'll save the continuous shooting discussion for the next page of this review, but I do want to mention bracketing now. This feature will take three shots in a row, each at a different exposure. You can select how large of an interval there is between each shot in the menu. Exposure is the only thing you can bracket for on the Pentax Q.

Here's where you assign functions to the Quick Dial on the front of the camera. In this case, you're picking which of the Smart Effects you want easy access to.

The Q's Smart Effect feature is only available via the Quick Dial on the front of the camera. There are nine Smart Effects available on the Q (plus three custom slots for your own creations), and you can assign four of your favorites to the Quick Dial. Here's the full list of Smart Effects:

  • Brilliant Color
  • Unicolor Bold
  • Vintage Color
  • Cross Processing
  • Warm Fade
  • Tone Expansion
  • Bold Monochrome
  • Water Color
  • Vibrant Color Enhance

I'll let you experience those for yourself!

Another neat trick the camera can do is save a RAW image at any time -- even if you have the image quality set to JPEG. After you take a photo, you have a few seconds to press the exposure compensation button, which will save a RAW copy of the photo you just took. I'm pretty sure that this feature is exclusive to Pentax cameras.

I've avoided discussing important menu options for quite a well, but I can't escape it any longer. Before I tell you about these features, I should tell you that the Q's menu system has the appearance of Pentax cameras from ten years ago. That said, they're easy enough to navigate. Okay, let's hit up those features now!

  • Custom Image: each picture style contains settings for saturation, hue, high/low key, contrast, and sharpness, each of which can be fine-tuned; in addition to the usual suspects like bright, portrait, and landscape, there are several old-school film styles like bleach bypass, reversal film, and cross processing
  • Digital Filter: Pentax has long had this feature, so it's not surprising that it's on the Q, as well. Some examples of the filters here include toy camera, HDR, extract color, water color, and fisheye
  • Aspect ratio: choose from the native 4:3, as well a 16:9, 3:2, and 1:1
  • File format: choose from JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG; Pentax uses Adobe's DNG format on the Q; a RAW image is approximately 22.2 MB, while a three-star JPEG will take up 3.6 MB on your memory card
  • Autofocus method: choose from face detection, subject tracking, 25-point select (choose 1, 3, 5, 9, or 25 points), select (choose even more points, and spot
  • ND filter: reduces the amount of light coming through the lens, which allows you to use slower shutter speeds or larger apertures than you normally could
  • HDR capture: combines three photos, each taken at a different exposure, into a single image with improved contrast; choose from Auto, HDR 1, or HDR 2
  • Multi-exposure: combine up to nine exposures into a single image
  • Interval (time-lapse) shooting: take photos at a set interval; you can start right away, or at a later time; use of the optional AC adapter is strongly recommended
  • D-range setting: restore highlight and/or shadow detail; see examples below
  • Distortion correction: on by default, this reduces lens distortion; check out the distortion test photo later in the review
  • Quick Dial: here's where you customize what this dial does; you can assign different Smart Effects, Custom Image styles, Digital Filters, and aspect ratios to the various spots on the dial
  • Green button: define what this button does, such as reset settings, quickly switch to RAW or RAW+JPEG, get a DOF preview, lock the AE or activate the AF system

The two features I want to describe in more detail are all related to contrast: HDR and D-range Setting. I'm going to start with HDR, which combines three exposures (each with a different exposure) into a single photo, with dramatically improved contrast. There are three HDR modes to choose from: Auto, HDR 1, and HDR 2. HDR 1 is a stronger version of Auto (you'll get even better contrast), while HDR 2 has the over-the-top contrast and color that can also be achieved using this technique. Below is an example of how the Auto HDR feature can improve contrast in our purple fringing tunnel shot:

Default settings
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HDR Auto
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As you can see, the HDR feature dramatically reduces the highlight clipping on the left side of the photo. The image does get a lot darker, though, so that's the trade-off. You should be able to take the HDR sequence without using a tripod -- at least in good lighting.

The other feature is known as D-Range Setting. Here you can preserve highlights, shadows, or both. By default, both of these are set to "auto", but you can turn them "on" as well, which improves things a bit. Let's compare them all, shall we?

Highlight corr: auto
Shadow corr: auto

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Highlight corr: on
Shadow corr: auto

View Full Size Image
Highlight corr: auto
Shadow corr: on

View Full Size Image

On some occasions (or if you have the ISO fixed to 125), the two auto D-Range settings just won't do it for you. The examples above show you what happens what you set the highlight and shadow correction settings from "auto" to on". As you can see, both make a difference. While I didn't show it here (oops), you can set both of those settings to "on", if you wish. Do note that the ISO will be boosted to 250 when this feature is on. If you have the ISO fixed at 125, the auto mode won't do anything, since boosting the ISO is required for this feature to work.

There are a few custom settings worth a mention. They include:

  • Shake reduction options: you can have shake reduction when you're composing a shot, though it's at the expense of battery life
  • AWB in tungsten light: whether camera keeps a warm tone when shooting in tungsten light with auto white balance, or applies strong correction
  • Electronic shutter: whether the camera will use the electronic shutter with lenses with mechanical shutters (applies only to lenses 01 and 02); turning this on will reduce the noise produced by the camera while taking a photo

Moving on to movies, now -- the Pentax Q can record Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 (30 fps) with monaural sound. You can record until the file size reaches 4GB, or the recording time reaches 25 minutes. Two lower resolutions are available -- 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480 -- both at 30 fps.

Unlike most cameras, you can't take movies in every shooting mode -- you first have to set the mode dial to the movie position. Once there, you can go all automatic, or choose to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. The Q cannot focus continuously while recording a movie. You can't use the optical image stabilizer, either. There's a digital version available that works "okay" -- I think the real thing would do better.

One other thing the Q can do in the movie department is create a time-lapse video. As with stills, you can set the start time and interval between shots, and the camera will do the rest. Instead of saving a ton of images, you'll get a video.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the 1080/30p setting. Notice how the sound doesn't kick in for a second, and that the boat seems a bit jumpy (maybe due to the digital IS?).

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 27.6 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Now let's talk about the Pentax Q's playback mode.

There's little to see on the playback tab in the menu That's because most of the options are found in the menu that is opened by pressing "down" on the four-way controller

While it may not appear that way at first, the Pentax Q's playback mode is actually chock full of options -- you just need to press "down" on the four-way controller to open up a secondary menu. Here are some of my favorite options from playback mode:

  • Digital Filters: there are almost twenty filters that you can apply to photos that you've taken; examples include fisheye, sketch, toy camera, and extract color
  • Redeye edit: attempts to digitally remove redeye from your photos
  • RAW development: change the parameters of a RAW image and save the results as a JPEG; very handy!
  • Movie editing: divides or extracts segments from videos
  • Image comparison: view two photos side-by-side

By default, the Pentax Q doesn't show a whole lot about your photos. However, if you press the Info button, you'll see more, including your choice of histograms and plenty of shooting data.

The camera moves between photos at a decent clip. A lower resolution version of the photo is shown instantly, with the high res version appearing less than a second later.