Pentax has just introduced the K-01 mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. This type of camera lets you switch lenses, like a traditional single-lens-reflex camera (SLR), but dispenses with the reflex mirror and prism, making for a mechanically simpler and (theoretically) smaller and less expensive camera. What’s interesting is that, unlike its nearest competitors – The Nikon V1 and J1 and the Sony NEX-7 – the K-01 uses the same lens mount, and therefore the same lenses, as Pentax’s SLR cameras. This has led a lot of Pentax fans to reach the conclusion that the K-01 is aimed at people who already own a Pentax camera and lenses. Which is complete bollocks.
The web’s photography discussion boards have been alive with Pentax faithful complaining about the new K-01: It’s too big, it has no viewfinder, it doesn’t have [fill-in-the-blank] advanced feature that I want, I won’t be able to hand-hold long telephoto lenses, it’s ugly. These gripes all miss the point because they’re being made by people who aren’t in the target demographic for the Pentax K-01.
(Addendum, 10 April, 2012: Here’s a report on the K-01 written by someone who is in the target demographic.)
The target buyer for this camera is someone who isn’t already invested in the Pentax system; someone who is currently using a high quality phone camera or a simple point-and-shoot and wants to step up to a more capable camera but isn’t ready for the complexities – both real and perceived – of an SLR. Surveys have shown that most people with any real interest in photography still regard an SLR as the top "professional" type camera. The mirrorless camera segment of the market is a good stepping stone between very basic cameras, and SLRs.
This is not to say that people upgrading from phone cameras are the only ones buying mirrorless cameras – certainly there are SLR users who will buy a mirrorless camera as a compact alternative to their bulky SLR. But ask yourself this: Which market is bigger, current owners of owners of SLRs or current owners of iPhones? Put that way it’s obvious the latter has more potential for sales.
No viewfinder? The primary audience for the K-01 have always used cameras without viewfinders; they’re probably more comfortable with a camera that doesn’t have one. They certainly aren’t interested in the extra expense that it would add. (I note also that the K-01 has impressive video specifications and video on an SLR can’t use the standard viewfinder anyway.) In 2002 Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape told me he was surprised at the number of people attending his workshops who had never used a film camera. Ten years later the college courses I teach are full of students who have never used a camera with a viewfinder. They constitute a vast, untapped market, ready for a more flexible, capable camera but wanting something somewhat similar to what they’re used to. (I’ve talked to people with DSLRs who use live view exclusively and have never looked through the "real" viewfinder; these people are needlessly paying for a feature they never use.)
Too big? For people who already own a phone with a good quality camera, buying a camera as small, or nearly as small, as a phone would be superfluous because they already have a small, pocketable camera – their phone. The K-01 is a supplement to a camera phone, not a replacement for it.
Using the same lens mount as their SLRs was really the only avenue open to Pentax, who aren’t a big enough company to afford the expense of designing a new line of lenses. So Pentax have opted to try to leverage the advantages of keeping their existing lens mount.
The (relatively) large size of the K-01 is the most obvious side effect of keeping the SLR lens mount, though it is smaller than the K-5, still one of the smallest SLRs on the market. Its size is certainly a disadvantage in some respects compared to, say, a Sony NEX-7 or Nikon V1 (man, did no one at Nikon think about WWII before choosing that model designation?) but an advantage in others: try hand-holding a long telephoto on a NEX-7! The public generally still considers the SLR to be the ultimate "serious" camera and anyone who buys into a Nikon or Sony mirrorless system will have to acquire a whole new set of lenses when they get an SLR, even the same brand. A Pentax K-01 owner can buy lenses knowing that every one will also work perfectly on the SLR they eventually upgrade to. Whether or not they ever actually do upgrade, knowing the option is there is important. It’s a potentially huge cost savings in the long run.
The silliest complaint I’ve seen is that you won’t be able to use long telephoto lenses without a tripod. This is true – even the built-in Shake Reduction has limitations – but it misses the point. Here’s an old joke:
Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this!
Doctor: Don’t do that.
In this case the patient is saying "I can’t shoot long lenses without a tripod!" and the doctor is quite sensibly replying "Then don’t shoot long lenses without a tripod". Don’t bitch that your sports car can’t ford 18" of water or that your 4×4 won’t go 180 mph. Recognize what a design is intended to do and buy it if your needs fall within its scope. Here’s another relevant quote, this time from Winston Churchill: "I don’t know the secret to success but I know the secret to failure – trying to please everyone".
Every news site on the web that I’ve seen – even the photo and tech web sites that should know better – has got the story completely backwards: This camera doesn’t use the k-mount in order to entice SLR owners to buy it; it has a k-mount to entice the people who do buy it to get an SLR – a Pentax SLR, because it will share the same lenses – later!
Will this strategy work? Who knows? But it’s almost certainly better than doing what everyone else is doing and ending up with a "me too" product.
As for the complaints that the K-01 is ugly… well, I kind of agree on that one. But I’m not the buyer this camera is aimed at so my opinion counts for exactly… squat. If you already own a Pentax SLR – hell, if you own any camera other than your phone – you’re in the same position as me regarding this camera: irrelevant.
The market for point-and-shoot compact cameras is now just a small niche. The phone camera has almost completely killed it off. The future belongs to those who can innovate within a three-tiered hierarchy: Camera phones, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras and "serious" (read: expensive) cameras like SLRs, Leica rangefinders and the coming generation of high-end mirrorless cameras (which are a separate topic). Given their limitations as a relatively small company compared to the giants like Canon, Sony and Nikon, I believe Pentax has made a wise decision in approaching this hierarchy from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The potential buyers for this camera will largely be people who don’t own an SLR; current photography enthusiasts who buy it (and there will be some) are just icing on the cake.
The Pentax owners bitching about the perceived shortcomings of the K-01? They’re just being petulant because they think Pentax hasn’t built the camera they want (yet). They’re right: Pentax has built a camera for the next generation of photographers.