Pentax’ K-mount strategy and Sony’s 61 megapixel sensor

What is Ricoh, the parent company for the Pentax brand, going to continue to do with K mount cameras? I have a suspicion.

Their latest genuine Pentax flagship is the K-1 II, and before that it was the K-1. Both cameras shoot 36 megapixel full frame images at 4.4 frames per second and 15 megapixel APS-C images at 6 frames per second.

The other major camera they have in the running is the KP, which shoots 24 megapixel APS-C images at 7 frames per second. It’s really only a tiny bit faster.



But Pentaxians have not considered the K-1 a serious APS-C flagship until now. In terms of price, it is currently extremely affordable compared to the KP given that it is a full frame camera – the mark-up in some places is only about 25%. And the K-1 will take APS-C images at the kind of quality that K-5 II owners were proud of, but with an expected shutter lifetime of 300,000 rather than 100,000. When you consider that, pricing it slightly above the KP makes it more of a gift than a commercial offering.

My main observation is that Sony has announced a full frame sensor that allows a 26 megapixel crop mode image in addition to a 61 megapixel full frame one. The response from many was a bit lukewarm, with some saying the megapixel wars were over, and every camera was now good enough. But not in crop mode, and that’s a point that Sony failed, in their product presentation, to properly get across.

Being able to have a camera that is both an APS-C and a full frame flagship at the same time is a big deal. And Sony knows that Pentax has the know-how to sell this sensor in an attractive user-friendly DSLR package once the main hype is over, at a somewhat lower price than the Sony mothership. It may take 18 months before Sony actually let third parties have the sensor in a product, but I doubt it given the fact they are already advertising it. In any case, there can be no doubt that engineering departments are already talking to each other about what’s going to happen. The tepid reception of the A7R IV will only help Pentax make their bid, and I think the moment of unification of APS-C and full frame, of consolidating these into one body, will be profound.

What does this mean for Pentax? With any luck, one of the great next DSLRs will be a K-1 III or K-1 IV with that 61/26 megapixel Sony sensor. Whether Pentax users will accept this will at least partly depend on the frame rate offered. The Pentax K-3 series advertised 8.3 frames per second, although this would only be achieved in fairly specific conditions. Nikon’s very high-spec and high-price APS-C camera, the D500, would do 10 frames per second, with top DSLRs like the D5 and 1D X II doing even more, and mirrorless cameras more still. And Sony have shown that the 61 megapixel sensor can be read at 10 frames per second.


But DSLRs have stopped being in the game of matching mirrorless frame rates. The technological challenges involved are just that much greater. As my second aside of this expose, the fact that shutters are on their way out does not imply mirrors are. A mirror and global electronic shutter would be a great combination, and this might even free up space to improve IBIS a little further (more space to pitch and yaw).

To me, the success of a Pentax K-1 III/IV in unifying APS-C and full frame into one body does seem to depend on the frame rate achieved. It’s tough predicting what sort of specs would continue to bring new users to the brand, but for the core Pentax user base, I think a consistent frame rate of at least 7 fps in APS-C mode and maybe 6 in full frame mode would make them buy this model. To bring new users in, the bar may be a little higher.

What’s interesting thinking about the marketing of this is how, in this case, no marketing may have been the correct solution. Had Ricoh come out and told Pentax users, this is your new APS-C flagship, now deal with it, there would have been riots in the street. Letting us, the users, figure out when the K-1 III arrives that it may in fact be the new flagship is a far better approach, especially given the likely launch pricing of a K-1 III at about twice that of a K-3 in its day. Cheeky though to wean us off the idea of an APS-C flagship with the KP.

Having a fusion camera will go some way towards addressing some of the concerns I see about the increasingly labyrinthine paths of lens compatibility, because to many users, whether they get out a 26 or 61 megapixel image at the end of the day may not be a huge deal, and being able to use any Pentax system lens without major adverse effects will be a considerable advantage. And the pros already know how to check for lens compatibility.

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