Pentax Launches K-01 Mirrorless Camera, World Misses the Point

Pentax K-01 cameraPentax 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.

the college courses I teach are full of students who have never used a camera with a viewfinder

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 main buyers of the K-01 will be people who’ve never owned a serious camera before

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.

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23 Responses to Pentax Launches K-01 Mirrorless Camera, World Misses the Point

  1. I think you’re spot on with what you’re writing here about the new users. Except the looks, I love them :P I have the K-5 now, it’s my third DSLR from Pentax starting with the K10D (which I got six months after I started with photography). I see the K-01 as a good second body for me, specially for video and even time lapse (no mirror mechanics that can break or make noise even). If I were to photograph with this camera, I would miss a viewfinder, but it’s not a problem at all, I use the LCDVF for video on the K-5 when I record video hand held, and this would work just as well on the K-01 for both video and photography. Also, reading the full specs of the K-01, it has focus peaking. This will make older manual focus lenses from Pentax, which has fantastically dampened focus rings, be a lot more relevant than pretty much any other camera IMO. If the AF on this camera is ‘just’ OK, it will still work for most kinds of photography. And with only a shutter, no mirror, it will be very quiet. Add the LCDVF, and you’re good to go if you absolutely must have a viewfinder. If the AF is fast, you can use it for any photography I would think. Old user or not. The one thing I would have liked it weather sealing as I want to use this where I use my K-5. But that will come later as I do believe optical viewfinders and mirrors will go away.

  2. Miserere says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said, Mark…but y’er still wrong :-) It’s true that someone moving up from a phone camera won’t necessarily want a really tiny camera, but they won’t want a brick, either. When they go to the store and compare the size and weight of the K-01 with that of a micro-4/3 or NEX camera, they’ll put the Pentax down. As for that arsenal of lenses Pentax can boast about…they don’t matter to phone camera movers uppers, only to current Pentaxians, which you argue the camera isn’t intended for. As I’m sure you know, phone camera movers uppers buy the kit zoom lens and stick with it. Click here to compare the K-01 to an Olympus Pen E-PL3, a perfectly competent mirrorless camera with plenty of (small) native lenses available for it. With the kit lens it’s $50 cheaper than a K-01 body only. It’s also 44% lighter, not to mention quite smaller. Now tell me that you really believe someone with no idea about photography, who just wants something better than their camera phone or a P&S, is going to choose the Pentax.

    • admin says:

      Oh yes, plenty will choose the Pentax. The price difference isn’t that significant, increased size/weight can give a better impression of quality (ask people who buy Canon and Nikon SLRs) and the availability of glass is a huge incentive even if the buyer never takes advantage of it: Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer wrote of a pro he knew who made the enormously expensive system switch from Nikon to Canon simply because of Canon’s tilt/shift lenses (which Nikon didn’t offer at the time)… even though he had no need for the lenses at the time – he just wanted the ability to use them “just in case” he ever needed to. If working pros can be swayed by such reasoning it’s a sure bet amateurs can. In fact, having worked in a camera shop I know they are. Millions of people who bought the wretched 6-megapixel Rebel-D did so partly because of the vast range of lenses Canon makes… and then they never used anything beyond the kit zoom.

      • Scott says:

        Plus, the K-01 is primarily aluminum. Even the buttons are metal. If Pentax can get into stores along side micro 4/3rds and NEX, people will see a different. They will also notice how fast this thing should potentially be with specs so similar to the K-5… it even uses the K-7/K-5′s battery (making it appealing to existing users too from that aspect).

      • Ray says:

        No, they can’t. And the idea that a person would shy away from a full on SLR as too professional, yet buy a bigger MILC because it somehow exudes quality is… so ridiculous it’s stunning. Undountedly Pentax will nab a few uninformed idiots, but the idea that an educated upgrader with no investment in K-mount would take this over an M43 camera or a NEX is wishful thinking. Pentax fanboys are drinking deeply of the Koolaid.

        • admin says:

          Actually Ray, if you check around the web you’ll find Pentax fanboys are the ones most loudly proclaiming what a failure this camera is going to be!

  3. raffwal says:

    Sorry, but I think it’s YOU who’s missing the point. When a new mirrorless camera mount would allow a much shorter flange registration distance and with that a much smaller camera size, IMO there’s only two possible reasons to use K mount: attract people who already use K mount glass or plan a FF camera in the future. Pick your poison.

    • admin says:

      I made a third possible reason for using k-mount clear in the article: Because a small company like Pentax can’t afford to develop a new lens system. I’m quite confident this was their main reason and I think they’ve done a damn good job of making the best of it, given its limitations.

  4. nick k says:

    Size matters with a lens attached. the APSc mirroless cameras with a lens (Sony NEX7) will not be much thinner than the K-01. only wide angle lenses (below 28) will yelid a substantially smaller camera than the K-01 with a similar lens. So compare with a pancake or a 18-55 attached.

  5. bossa says:

    The number of people who refuse to see the logic of keeping the lens mount bewilders me. Have any of you people complaining about the ‘brick’ even held a K-5 without a grip? It’s almost too small to hold. The K-01 has a rubberized body and is thick enough so as to not need a grip for most situations that a new user may find themselves in.I have 2 K-5 bodies and will take a good look at a K-01 as a 3rd for use on primes, wide-angles and for video. The hatred that exists for this camera proves that Pentax are being noticed, if nothing else, at this point in time. And I wonder how many of these whingers have Arts and marketing degrees? Not many from what I see.

  6. regor says:

    I think you’re bang on, except for the look. It’s different, and we tend to reject different at first glance, but to me it looks sharp. Very European in design (a big Pentax market), it will be attractive to non-North Americans, especially Europe, Asia Pentax majority market and countries like Sweden and Scandinavia. I like it, but I have to admit, I tend to like what the majority of north-American don’t !

  7. Fair excuse in Pentax’s favour but it’s not complete.

    1. Pentax could’ve bundled a K-mount adapter and it would address exact thing you’re referring to.

    2. K-01 is a total ball-drop in terms of market research because people love their mirrorless cameras for the adaptability of lenses. Sony knows this very well and they have worked consistently to help this crowd through lots of firmware updates (e.g. adding of focus peaking, etc.). But the dumbest thing Pentax did was failing to see that they could’ve had the only stabilised mirrorless APS-C camera out there. That would give it a massive edge over what Sony has (or will ever have) in their unstabilised Nex line.

    3. Like the other person said, first time buyers aren’t going to pick up the K-01 and a Nex and put down the Nex. The Nex series also allow for the use of A mount lenses and they have adapters for phase detect as well. Plus Sony’s SLR line has higher-end lenses than Pentax-K with their Zeiss-labeled lenses with SSM. What does Pentax have? A bunch of slow focusing CA-ridden lenses with a “limited” badge… I’m speaking of course after using the 77 limited itself.

    • If I understand this correctly if sounds like you think the K-01 doesn’t have shake reduction, which it does. If that’s not what you mean, then I don’t understand your second point.

      To your first point: If they had made it so you needed an adapter, then they would have had to make a new line of lenses. Pentax isn’t very big, now they don’t have to. One line of lenses, and it’s for all their APS-C cameras.

      Third point: There are no perfect lenses, which includes both Pentax and Leica/Sony. And including what’s available from both Pentax and third party manufacturers, I don’t see Pentax being any worse off than Sony.

      • Meant it to be read as:

        …but the dumbest thing Pentax did was failing to see that they could’ve had the only stabilised mirrorless APS-C camera out there [with a short flange back to give the Sony Nex and Samsung NX series some real competition since the latter doesn't have in body stabilisation].

    • admin says:

      The people who are interested in using adapters is tiny – it’s apparent size magnified by their vocal enthusiasm on web discussion boards. 99% of the real-world customers who buy these cameras will never mount a third-party lens.

  8. Miserere says:

    A lot of you are saying that Pentax is a small company that can’t produce a new line of lenses so they had to go with the K-mount. May I remind you that Pentax released the Q with a new mount and line of lenses????

    If they hadn’t pilfered their resources on the Q, maybe they could’ve made the great mirrorless I always hoped they would.

    • admin says:

      It was much easier and cheaper to make a few lenses for the Q (though I still think that camera was silly) than for a larger-sensor camera: they’re smaller, cheaper (especially the “toy” lenses) and the few people who buy a Q aren’t likely to be demanding new lens designs every year like the SLR and mirrorless market. A new line of short-register lenses mirrorless would not only have been more expensive to create, it would have incurred continuing development costs for new lenses every year or two.
      A member of my department at school was just considering the new Nikon V1, particularly for video shooting, but decided against it. The reason? It won’t accept the Nikon SLR lenses he has already invested in.
      No other camera maker has made a mirrorless that accepts their SLR lenses. That’s called a market opportunity. Pentax hasn’t made the mirrorless you always hoped they would, no argument (I think Ricoh might, though). They’ve made a shrewd end-run that avoids head-to-head competition with the big guns. I’m optimistic about its chances.

      • Miserere says:

        Mark, Pentax has already announced that they’ll be releasing lenses that will only fit the K-01 because of protruding optical elements. Will they be completely new designs or just current Limited primes with the mount moved toward the front element like a turtle neck sweater?

        If they are new designs, then they might as well have gone with a new mount and an adapter for current lenses.

        • Why could they might as well have done that? I don’t see the point. The way they are doing it now, you can use all your old lenses without any adapters, and the new lenses will still work. Why do it differently? To make it a centimeter or two thinner? Why?

        • admin says:

          There will be a few new lenses for the K-01 but there won’t be a need for a new mount and a whole new line of lenses.

  9. As someone else pointed out, Pentax /did/ just introduce a mirrorless camera with a whole new line of lenses in the Pentax Q system. Pentax has always had a mini-interchangeable-lens camera in their DNA, the first being the Pentax Auto 110.

    It /is/ a puzzle why Pentax would build their new mirrorless prosumer camera with K-Mount compatibility. Is it so that the third party lens makers will continue to support K-Mount? Could be. Pentax is a small enough market that charging a license to produce a new mount might make the third party lens makers give up on them.

    Is it to attract the crowd upgrading from camera-phones and to still allow Pentax to make their DSLR line and have the two share a lens family? Could be.

    Here’s one idea I’d like to forward, however, and my reason for considering a K-01 to replace my *istDL when the time comes. My vision isn’t bad, but it’s not perfect, and nailing the focus (manually) in very shallow DOF environments can be tricky. Composing the shot in the optical viewfinder can be tricky. Above all, what the sensor records is distinctly /not/ what I see through the viewfinder in low light situations. /If/ the screen on the K-01 is sharp enough, with or without focus peaking, all these problems go away. What you see is really, honestly what you get. So my hypothesis is this: Perhaps K-01 was made as it was because a well made electronic viewfinder is a better photographic tool than the optical SLR system. I don’t know yet. I’ve not gotten my hands on a K-01 yet. But I’m hoping.

    I’m sure that back in the 1970, when the SLR system really became widespread, photographers complained bitterly about having to compose the shot in such a tiny window and roundly denounced them with the sneer that /real professionals/ wouldn’t need or use such a thing. Well, I’ve used viewfinder cameras. SLR was a huge improvement. Perhaps EV will be as well.

    -JRS

    • admin says:

      NOTE: This topic is so important I eventually devoted an entire blog post to it.

      Cost was a one reason for keeping the k-mount (the Q system, which I think is silly, was likely much less expensive to develop & build than a new APS-C, short-register system).

      There is, however, an elephant in the room: The declining industry support industry for the k-mount system. This is very worrying. The last time Tamron made a new lens available for Pentax was 2009. Tokina is probably somewhere in the same neighborhood. People have been clamoring for the 11-16/2.8 in Pentax mount for years to no avail. Sigma still supports k-mount, but with a long delay after a new lens is made available in other mounts.

      Though third-party lenses do take away from OEM lens sales to an extent they also contribute to system viability by increasing options, especially for fast glass at reasonable prices. I speak from experience: Before I bought my Pentax 300/2.8, 28-70/2.8 and 80-200/2.8 I made do with Tamron, Tokina and Sigma equivalents – without the availability of these lenses I probably wouldn’t have stayed with Pentax. Without the option of the Tamron 28-75/2.8 I probably wouldn’t have bought my Sony A850.

      So a big reason for not designing a new short-register mount for the K-01 is to avoid further diluting the presence of the k-mount in the marketplace and getting more users on board with it.

      I sympathize with the third-party lens makers to some extent: it has to be tough dealing with assorted different lens mounts. It’s somewhat akin to the problem of software makers in coping with new raw file formats. In fact, it’s probably worse because although there are many more raw formats than lens mounts, software is faster and easier to change than a lens mount design and there’s no inventory to maintain and distribute physically.

      Notice that the K-01 shoots raw only in Adobe’s universal DNG format. The reason is to assure the availability of third-party support. Keeping the k-mount instead of developing something new also serves that underestimated but important end.

  10. admin says:

    ??? The 1% I refer to are those on the web dissing the K-01.

    Certainly there is some market for adapters (though I note we don’t have sales figures for them!) It’s just that camera makers have to choose between offering adapters (which will sell a few more cameras but lose lens sales) and not making adapters, which might cost some camera sales but encourage lens purchases. Some are betting one one approach and some, like Pentax, the latter. Pentax has no choice, really. It is possible, of course, that both will be successful.