by Mu-tien Chiou
It has been widely preached, "to buy a DSLR body is to buy into a DSLR system, a system of beliefs and a system of imaging philosophy." While I have heard it since the beginning, the saying has never made so much sense to me until now that I have invested so much in Pentax and jumping ship without losing a leg and an arm is no longer viable for me.
This has forced me to reflect serious reflect what type of photographer I wish to become. What are my goals I want to achieve by placing my hand on the grip and finger on the shutter?
As for me, the attractions in Pentax that lured me into becoming a Pentaxian 2 years ago will no longer apply to me now. But this is the obvious telltale signs that I have grown in photography, for I can still say that I am a proud Pentaxian. I still have a lot to grow, but one great realization I found out is that "your photography is about how you as the photographer interact with your tools." There is a Chinese saying that teaches the importance to know your enemies well, and I would say that it is equally important to know your everyday companions! Therefore with my limited experience, I would like to share my observations about what today’s Pentax system is good at and what it is not good at.
What makes Pentax stand out over other DSLR brand names: We Pentaxians are proud at Pentax’s
- High ISO capabilities (K-5, K-7, K-r, K-x) and in-body shake reduction (image stabilization): These two features are shared by newer Sony DSLRs as well. This is like that every lens you have is being upgraded when lighting becomes a challenging issue.
- Backward compatibility: old manual-focus legacy K-mount lenses can be found on the aftermarket for a bargain. They can all be used on new digital Pentax bodies and they are imaged stabilized.
- Compact Size: You have K-5 and K-7 that are considerably smaller than the competitor’s offer (Nikon D300s, D7000, and D5100; Canon’s 7D, 60D, and 50D). Combined with Pentax’s unique pancake limited primes such as 15mm f/4, 21mm f/3.2, 31mm f/1.8, 40mm f/2.8, 43mm f/1.9, and 70mm f/2.4, you have an ideal set for street photography, candid photography, and every-day photo documentary that boast top-notch image quality (15mm f/4 and 21mm f/3.2 excluded) that 3/4rds and slim interchangeable-lens camera (by this I am referring to cameras such as Panasonic G-series, Olympus’ EP-Pen-series, Sony’s NEX series, and so on) cannot offer you.
- Weather-resistant and/or rain-proof: Pentax offers K-5 and K-7 that endure severe weather such as snow and rain, as well as many weather-resistant glasses to be used with them (those with "WR" mark or DA* [Star] mark in the name). This provides peace of mind and mobility in beach activities, hiking, and snow boarding.
What Pentax is technologically behind other brand names:While with limited budget you can barely feel the difference, you would be better off jumping ship for Canon, Nikon, Sony, or even Panasonic if you are picky about the following photographic features and would not mind spending thousands of bucks to have the best results in one of these areas.
- Slow and not-so-bright aperture; blazing sharpness is generally lacking: The advantages of High ISO capabilities and in-body shake reduction that the Pentax camera body brought to you have been somewhat offset by the limited selection of lenses you have found in Pentax’s line-up for one particular type of photography: shallow depth of field photography. Canon’s 35mm f/1.4L II; 50mm f/1.2L; 85mm f/1.2L; 100mm f/2.0; 135mm f/2L; 70-200mm f/2L.8 IS II, and Nikon‘s 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II; 85mm f/1.4; 200mm f/2.0 VR II can only be matched by Pentax’s 31mm f/1.8; DA 35mm f/2.4; 43mm f/1.9; 55mm f/1.4; DA 70mm f/2.4; 77mm f/1.8; 100mm f/2.8; 200mm f/2.8; 60-250mm f/4.0 on today’s Pentax production line. With the offers of the third party lenses (such as Tamron’s 70-200mm f/2.8, Sigma 30mm f/1.4; 50mm f/1.4; 85mm f/1.4; 70-200mm f/2.8 OS; 120-300mm f/2.8), this issue is nevertheless mitigated. One can also look at the aftermarket for Pentax old FA* legends (no longer in production), such as 85mm f/1.4; 80-200mm f/2.8; 200mm f/4 Macro (arguably the sharpest Pentax lens on earth today though it’s f/4); 300mm f/2.8, even though they are rare and pristine copies can ask for an unreasonably high premium. But let me warn you here: the bleedingly sharp big aperture CaNikon lenses are no cheap things either- each of the Canikon lenses mentioned above may easily cost around USD $1500 to $2000.
- Mediocre auto focus (focus tracking): even the best of Pentax (K-5) lags somewhat behind its competitor in the auto focus department. Canon’s 7D and Nikon’s D300s both boast amazing AF accuracy, speed, and/or versatility. Not to mention if you have a serious demand for auto-focus ability and have USD$8000 (Canon 1Ds Mk3 and Nikon D3x)or $5000 (Canon 1D Mk4 and Nikon D3s) to spare on a camera body, Pentax has not even a player in the game (yet, hopefully). This means that you will not choose Pentax if you want to be a dedicated Sports photographer.
- Lack top quality zoom lenses: put in a simply way, Pentax is not known for its zoom lenses. Currently besides the 12-24mm f/4, 50-135mm f/2.8, and 60-250mm f/4.0, Pentax lacks top-quality zooms that can harvest an unanimous user satisfaction. You won’t see in Pentax glasses at comparable reach that can match the image quality of Canon’s 17-55mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8L, 17-40mm f/4L, 24-105mm f/4L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8 17-55mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8; 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. Pentax’s own 16-50mm f/2.8 has been proven a failure, and even the well-touted 60-250mm f/4 is leagues behind Canon and Nikon’s newest 70-200mm f/2.8s. While Sigma and Tamron have both offered their K-mount 17-50mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 to help Pentax mend this hole, I have say that among these four lenses only Sigma’s 17-50mm f/2.8 OS excels as a serious contender to Canikon’s counterparts (their 17-55mm f/2.8) for the most serious shooters (the rest 3 of them are priced lower and are bang for the bucks on their own without a doubt, but here I am evaluating them on absolute standards and we just should not talk about them. Tamron’s new 17-50mm f/2.8 VC II is in particular a let-down, for regularly priced at $649 it cost almost the same as the $669 Sigma’s 17-50mm f/2.8 OS but offers no significant improvement over its predecessor, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8, priced around $420). Anyway, the shortcomings in Pentax’s professional zoom lens sector make it hard to stay in the deliberation of professional wedding photographers .
- So-so video capabilities: Pentax’s video-shooting does not auto-focus. You might want to look at Sony (A-580 and NEX-5) and Panasonic (GH-2) for this function. Pentax does not provide seamless 60FPS or film-like 24FPS, you are limited to 30 FPS or 20FPS. You don’t have full aperture control during shooting like you’d have elsewhere. Do not count on Pentax if you want to excel in DSLR videography.
- Limited megapixel counts and lacks: in digital photography, more megapixels mean finer details and ability to yield larger prints. They are important to studio photography and glamour photography, or, put in a plain way, the pictures in you see in the magazine covers as well as inside. Again, you will have to save at least $2500 (Canon 5D mk2, Sony A850, A900), or $8000 (Canon 1Ds Mk3 and Nikon D3X) on a camera body in order to join this profession. That’s not something Pentax has. Also the studio lighting system is another area into which you will have to invest considerable time and money. I have heard Nikon is the strongest in this department followed by Canon (let’s not talk about medium formats here). Anyhow, Pentax’s name will not be mentioned in this category (excluding Pentax 645D, since that is medium format).
- Wanting a full-frame digital camera body for ultra-low light applications: the $2500 and $8000 camera bodies are full-framers, but here I am talking about another type of full-frame digital camera, which exchanges its megapixel counts for the abilities to yield clean, sharp images in dark places. The ideal cameras for this type of low ambient light photography (museums, concerts, clubbing, evening amusement, and outdoor night activities) are the $2500 level Nikon D700 and the $5000 level Canon 1D Mk4 and Nikon D3s. Their High ISO capability far exceeds that of the wonderful Pentax K-5, and they provide fast-shooting speed (1D Mk4 has 10fps at 16 megapixels, D3s has 9fps at 12 megapixel, and D700 has 7fps at 12 megapixels, while K-5 has 7fps at 16 megapixels) as well as lightning fast auto focus under dimly lit conditions.
After shooting two years with Pentax (K-m, K-x, K-7, K-5), I have found out that choosing to be a Pentaxian photographer means a quite different route than, say, Canonian and Nikonians.
There are times when I hope I could hold a Nikon D3s with a Nikkor 200mm f/2.8 VR II mounted, or just a Canon 7D equipped with a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. But then I learnt that the budget is far beyond me, and I am not planning on making my living on photography. This realization makes me content at where I was and where I still am: a Pentaxian.
Pentax has a niche market which its customers did not quite realize. I am not talking about DSLR novices or first-time buyers– every DSLR manufacturer is aiming at this target, and if you are just shooting with the entry-level DSLR and a kit-lens or a travel lens, the difference in user experience caused by camera brand names is negligible.
I am talking about that when you have outgrown your entry-level DSLR with cheap kit lenses and want to explore the full potential of your camera system, you will figure out that each major camera system is indeed having a quite unique strategy and niche market, or if you like to call it, a unique personality. This is less obvious with Canon and Nikon, as the big two have already trying to match each other’s offer by launching something smaller, but my theory certainly rings true with Pentax and other smaller brand names, such as Sony, Olympus, Sigma, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Leica.
In sum, I would say that Pentax can still perform decently in the aforementioned categories (shallow depth of field photography, sports and action photography, wedding photography, studio photography, glamour photography, and low ambient light photography), especially for the cost it asks for. But one find no reason to choose Pentax if s/he wants to shine in any of these kinds of photography.
However,I have luckily found out that street photography and candid photography are what I am fond of doing since day 1, and I can be happy.
- Hoya sells off Pentax digital camera business (news.cnet.com)
- Recommended Pentax Gear | Pentax Cameras | PentaxForums.com