Is smaller always better when it comes to digital cameras? Pentax engineers certainly thought so when they designed the new Pentax Q interchangeable lens camera (ILC) which rightly claims the title as the world’s smallest interchangeable lens model. When I got a sneak peek at this camera only a few hours before it launched, I was amazed that it fit in the palm of my hand, and even with the optional wide-to-tele 28-80mm equivalent zoom lens will probably fit in a jacket pocket with ease. In fact, the Pentax Q body is even smaller than the new Sony NEX-C3 body, and I was able to demonstrate that in my short FIRST LOOK Pentax Q video.
Unlike DSLRs, ILC’s such as the Pentax Q lack either an optical or electronic viewfinder, instead relying on large LCD monitors to provide a preview image, just like most point and shoot digital cameras. However, like larger DSLRs, they accept a variety of interchangeable lenses and usually offer more exposure and image quality controls. For the Sony NEX-C3, most of the controls are accessed via menus on the large LCD monitor, while on the Pentax Q the external knurled main control dial lets you quickly switch modes without scrolling through LCD screen menus. I’m all for more control dials and buttons on the camera exterior versus menu driven controls (which can be hard to see in very bright light or when holding the camera at waist level). However, DSLR-style control dials add to the size of a camera, and for ILC’s the main drive has been towards smaller size.
But are photographers willing to pay a premium for small size in this category? Time will tell. However, I wasn’t the only one surprised by the high price of this camera vs the competition: $800 for the 12.4MP Pentax Q with a prime 47mm equivalent f/1.9 lens compared to $699 for the Sony 16.2MP NEX-C3 with an 18-55mm zoom kit lens. Throw in the fact that a new 16.2MP Nikon D5100 HD SLR with an 18-55mm VR zoom lens sells for $850, and it looks as if Pentax is taking some serious risks not only with the high price of the camera but with the small size of the Q’s sensor.
About that sensor: At 1/ 2.3-inches, the Pentax Q’s CMOS sensor (manufactured by Sony) is about 1/10 the size of the APS-C sized CMOS sensor found in most DSLRs or the Sony NEX-C3, and identical in size to those found in advanced point and shoot models from a number of manufacturers. The chart below (courtesy of Wikipedia) shows how it compares in size to the APS-C sensor found in the new Sony NEX-C3, the Four Thirds Standard sensor found in the Panasonic DMC-GF3, and the full frame and medium format sensors found in a variety of pro DSLRs.
Pentax Q’s 12.4MP CMOS BSI sensor is 1/2.3-inch format, similar in size to those used in many advanced point and shoots. Chart on right, courtesy Wikipedia shows how it compares in size to those from other ILC cameras and HD SLRs.
In my opinion, the main reason for choosing an ILC is to get a compact, lightweight camera that under many circumstances rivals the image quality from a larger DSLR. That includes better low light sensitivity with low noise at high ISO settings, increased depth of field control and separation, RAW file recording, high resolution, and great color accuracy. A second key benefit is the ability to choose a specific lens for a specific purpose—for example, a 16mm f/2.8 ultra-wide angle lens for shooting indoor architecture. (Currently, no point and shoot camera offers such a built-in ultra-wide lens.) While I haven’t examined actual images from the Pentax Q (which can record in RAW DNG format or JPEG), it’s likely that they will be handicapped by two major image quality shortcomings found in point and shoot cameras with similar sized sensors: high noise at low ISO settings and little depth of field separation even with wide-aperture lenses.
Five lenses are available at launch for the Pentax Q, including the Standard 47mm equivalent f/1.9 kit lens. It and the zoom are the only two to include a lens shutter and variable apertures, while the other three have fixed apertures and rely on the sensor’s electronic shutter to freeze action.
On the first note, Pentax tech engineers were quick to point out that the backlit CMOS sensor used in the Pentax Q has already proven itself as one of the best in its class, offering low light performance not seen in older, non-backlit CMOS sensors. That’s why the Pentax Q is able to offer ISO settings up to ISO 6400, a rarity in point and shoots. Until I actually test the noise levels or see images shot at high ISO’s, I’ll give Pentax the benefit of the doubt in the “noise” arena. The engineers also claimed that the lenses designed for the Pentax Q were of much higher quality than those typically found in point and shoots. If this is true, then sharpness, distortion, and vignetting might be better, but physics control the depth-of-field control that you can get from a camera, and the smaller the sensor format, the less depth of field control and separation is possible, even when using an f/1.9 aperture. In an effort to minimize this potential drawback on the Q, Pentax touts a variable Defocus filter in its feature writeups, but I’ve yet to see a filter that could create digital Bokeh that competes with the optical Bokeh from a large sensor paired with a wide aperture lens.
So for now, I’m impressed by the incredibly small size of the camera, its rugged build quality, and its overall feature set, including sensor-based image stabilization, dust reduction, compatibility with external Pentax flash units, and its Full HD 1080p movie capability. (Stabilized 1080p in the palm of your hand? Wow!) Ok, there’s no stereo input jack, but the camera does have a mini HDMI jack output for connecting straight to a large screen HDTV, so you can show off your photos and videos.
On the other hand, I remain skeptical about the Q’s low light performance, depth of field control, and relatively high price. Can’t wait to be proven wrong on any of those accounts.