Pentax and its competing platforms

16 Feb

For many years, Pentax has maintained two parallel APS-C SLR platforms, the lower one containing the K-m, K-x, K-r and now K-30, and the upper one having the K-7, K-5, and K-5 II/K-5 IIs. Focusing only on recent history, the K-r was developed from the K-x, and the K-30 similarly shares elements with the K-r. The K-7, again is identical with the K-5 except for incremental improvements. The same accessories will fit both cameras.

I’m speculating here, but it may be the case that two mostly separate engineering teams work on these platforms, creating a moderate amount of competition, friendly or otherwise. Maybe people on the higher-end platform get salaried differently, and those making significant improvements on the lower platform get “moved up”. Whatever the case may be, if I’d had a penny for every time I’ve seen the question, “K-5 or K-30” over the past year, my piggy bank would be quite a bit better off.

For those wondering what the benefits of each camera are, I’ll give you the short version. The K-5 has a quieter shutter, larger buffer, more controls, more access options, and reputedly less fast and accurate LiveView focus (aka contrast-detect).  But the K-30 produces smaller files and therefore writes them more quickly once the buffer is full, which almost makes up for the K-5 buffer advantage. The K-30 shoots video at a higher frame rate and lower quality with greater compression (H.264 vs. Motion JPEG). However, my copy is noisy during filming, making this a non-starter. Both are completely water- and dust-proof if used with a WR lens, the continuous fire advantage of the K-5 (7fps vs. 6fps) is negligible, and both record 16 megapixels, with the K-5 II now having the same weak AA filter as the K-30. The K-5 II also has expanded on the plasticlessness of the K-5 (the body is mostly metal) with a glass display. This also makes the K-5 a little heavier, and in spite of its noisiness, one might consider the K-30 the more mobile camera as it has a deeper grip with a special “horn” on the corner of the body to give extra thumb purchase. I’ve never found myself wanting a strap with the K-30, but the K-5 feels more slippy. The K-5 has a slight dynamic range advantage that I never saw making any difference in day-to-day shooting. But it really more or less comes down to the quieter shutter and video capabilities – everything else you can learn to live with.

But you can now often get the K-30 at little more than half the price of its older brother. The dilemma is that each camera has clear advantages, and Pentax has created a situation where there is no “best of both worlds” – a camera that commands a high price and has all the advantages. Doubtless this is too much to ask, and the weight argument alone makes this a likely impossibility in any camera makers. But I could see customers trading off 100g for a camera that is The Beast. Mind you, both cameras offer way more functionality than any competing brand can give you at a comparable price point. They’re the best bodies around for miles in their class. Emphasis on bodies.

Does Pentax see a lot of customers purchasing both cameras, and then returning one, or selling it onwards? Is it making money for them, in the way that Amazon has short-term ownership firmly integrated into its cashflow? That’s thinking too hard about it, and it wouldn’t, in all likelihood, be a good business strategy because margins are greater for lenses. Yes, Pentax wants to sell you lenses. Pentax is a razor blade/printer business. You get the razor/printer (camera body) at a discount, so you then keep investing in blades/cartridges (lenses). Niftily, though, if those second bodies remained in customers’ hands because a Pentax-aligned customer passes the camera on to one who might otherwise have purchased Nikon or Canon, Pentax may actually then sell more lenses. A bit of a long shot, perhaps, and probably not part of the business plan that was presented to the board.

What’s clear is that after very successfully reviving the K-5 line, Pentax will have to come up with a whopper. Something to blow people away and make them realise that it hasn’t all been done. I’ve a few ideas, but they’re MINE. Until Pentax knocks with cash in hand. So we might see the 24 megapixel sensor from Sony next, or the full frame. Both present significant challenges. Not all of Pentax’ current lenses may be up to looking good at 24 megapixels (again, a challenge for all lens makers!), and many are not full frame, which in the short term will feed Sigma if Pentax does release the FF body without massive lens-backup. (Sigma’s K-mount lenses to my knowledge are all full frame compatible, as their design is identical on other mounts that have full frame cameras available.)

Of course, it has been pointed out that they need only revive some older lens designs in the short term, with incremental improvements made thereafter. However, it is my observation that Pentax, like its peers, has been stockpiling. They have a backlog of lenses, especially the non-WR lenses, which is stopping them from upgrading other lenses to this new paradigm. (Incidentally a similar brand differentiation problem arises here with respect to the premium line of DA* lenses – DA* are all weatherproof, whereas DA lenses have started to be upgraded recently.) So Pentax may need to discount APS-C lenses when introducing full frame, to clear stock before customer interest in APS-C abates.

There are several ways out of the dilemma, however. The K-30 has been extremely favourably reviewed. It could remain in the line-up while Pentax introduces an APS-C K-5 III or K-3 with 24MP sensor, and a separate full frame camera. The K-3 and K-30 could then be merged into a single successor priced slightly above the current K-30, with a mirrorless K-02 to round off the entry segment. Let’s see what Pentax decide to do.

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