DigitalCameraReview.com
Pentax Q Review: Think Small
by Howard Creech -  10/20/2011

Since the beginning of the digital imaging revolution, a whole generation of photographers has grown up using compact P&S digital cameras. Those shutterbugs have grown progressively more sophisticated over the intervening years, but they still want tiny, easy to use cameras that produce excellent images with very little effort on the part of the shooter.

Pentax Q


Those folks have driven the development of a completely new class of digital cameras - the compact system camera - which combines P&S convenience, compact size, and ease of use with DSLR-like performance and lens interchangeability. A consortium of camera manufacturers developed the 4/3 and Micro 4/3 formats by eliminating the reflex mirror assemblies and optical viewfinders found on DSLRs and utilizing smaller sensors (about 30-40% smaller than the APS-C sized sensors used in most entry level DSLRs, but still about 8 or 9 times larger than the tiny sensors typically used in P&S digicams) to create a whole new class of smaller and lighter interchangeable lens cameras.

This new class of cameras is marketed primarily at P&S digicam users who want to move up to a camera that provides more user control, better image quality, and the ability to use interchangeable lenses without accepting any significant increase in size, weight, or operational complexity over the compact P&S digicams they've been using.

The new Pentax Q takes that concept in a completely different direction by building a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera with no optical viewfinder around a tiny 1/2.3 inch CMOS image sensor (like those found on most P&S digicams) which allows for an even smaller footprint. The Pentax Q is the smallest interchangeable lens camera currently available - noticeably smaller than Micro 4/3 format digital cameras like the Panasonic GF3 and the Sony NEX5, about half the size of a Canon G12, and less than a fifth the size of the new Canon Digital Rebel T3. That diminutive profile was achieved by Pentax's decision to use the smaller P&S sized image sensor, but the "Q"s competition have all chosen to use substantially larger sensors in their CSC models. The "Q"s tiny sensor has only about 1/8th the light gathering area of the GF3's sensor. Every major camera manufacturer now offers CSC models except Canon and Casio.


BUILD AND DESIGN

At first glance the "Q" could easily pass for a typical compact P&S digicam, but on closer examination this tiny camera is obviously much more capable than its P&S siblings. Build quality is actually quite good - the camera's magnesium alloy frame is covered by a durable plastic/polycarbonate shell. Dust and moisture seals seem to be very effective and the new lens mount was clearly designed to make frequent lens changes quick and easy. Fit and finish are consistently first-rate and while the "Q" is undeniably diminutive, it feels substantial and well built. The "Q"s new backlit 12 megapixel CMOS sensor is a highly efficient light-gathering device that (according to Pentax) produces very little noise even in indoor and low-light shooting scenarios.

Stylewise, the "Q" is rather traditional looking - the body is rectangular and slightly rounded at each end with a small mode dial capped handgrip on the right side of the camera. The flash hot shoe sits atop a small hump that gives the "Q" a distinct "baby" SLR look. The "Q" measures 3.9x2.3x1.2 inches and weighs in at 7.1 ounces with battery and SD card installed. My "Q" test unit was white, but the camera is also available in black. All lenses are chrome (meaning they'll match up nicely with either the black or white model) like they used to be back in the fifties.

Ergonomics and Controls
I spent most of my adult life shooting pictures with SLRs (my last film camera was a Nikon F4S), but for the past 10 or 12 years I've primarily shot pictures with P&S digicams. The most amazing thing about today's point and shoot digital cameras is that they are dependably capable of generating excellent pictures with almost no effort on the part of the shooter. Casual shooters who have a basic understanding of the rules of framing and composition can create images with top tier P&S digicams that are essentially as good (up to 8x10 inches) as the images generated by entry-level DSLRs.


Pentax Q

Many veteran photographers prefer larger cameras because ergonomics are generally better. Bigger cameras provide larger buttons, a better grip, and more stable handling. I've been a photographer for more than forty years, but I've always loved small cameras. When I took the "Q" out of the box I immediately thought it looked like a 21st century version of the elegant little fixed lens "pocket" cameras of an earlier era. The front, top deck, and the back of the "Q" contain a full complement of traditional knobs, switches, and buttons, but the camera doesn't look cluttered or busy.

The "Q"'s user friendly design makes this digicam remarkably easy to like. The intuitive control layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever used a P&S digicam. All controls and buttons are easily accessed by right handed shooters, but the buttons are all rather small. On the back of the camera are the compass switch (4-way controller), the menu button, the info (display) button, a dedicated Exposure Compensation Function button and a dedicated Delete button. In movie mode the shutter button functions as the "one-touch" video start/stop button.
Menus and Modes

The Pentax "Q" features a simple three tab menu system that is remarkably easy to navigate. Even though the "Q" appears to be aimed primarily at a younger demographic, the menu's large font seems to have been designed to also meet the needs of older shooters who often suffer from reduced visual acuity.

The Pentax Q provides a full range of shooting modes - here's a breakdown:

Display
The "Q"s 3.0 inch TFT wide-viewing angle (170 degrees) LCD monitor features 460,000 pixel resolution and is adjustable for brightness. Coverage is 100% and the LCD is bright, fluid (movement is smooth, not jerky), and hue (color) correct. As mentioned earlier, the "Q" doesn't feature a built-in optical viewfinder, but Pentax does offer a hot-shoe mounted optical viewfinder as an optional accessory. However, the VF-1 costs $250.00 and only includes guide marks for the 8.5mm prime lens.

Pentax Q

The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1, which would be bright enough to use the LCD for framing and composition even in bright outdoor lighting, and also provide a good sense of color accuracy and native contrast. The "Q" weighs in at a very impressive contrast ratio of 811:1 - for comparison purposes a couple of Canon's entry level P&S digicam models feature LCD screens with contrast ratios in the mid 400's. Peak brightness for the "Q" (the LCD panels output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 584 nits and on the dark side (black luminance level) the measurement is 0.72 nits. For reference, anything above 500 nits should be adequately bright when shooting outdoors. The "Q"s default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need.


PERFORMANCE

While it may look a bit retro, the "Q" is a thoroughly modern digital camera with all the bells and whistles consumers have come to expect. The "Q" is as fast or faster than its competition (shutter lag), but it is the slowest camera among those noted in terms of AF acquisition, exactly a quarter of a second slower than the pack leading Olympus E-PM1 to attain AF lock on its subject. However, since the "Q" is a rather unlikely choice for shooting professional sports or rapidly unfolding action and a ¼ of a second isn't really all that much time, that statistic isn't particularly relevant.

In practical terms, the "Q" is competitive with other CSCs. Turn the camera on and it is ready to shoot almost immediately (and that includes the dust removal cycle). Shot-to-shot times (for single JPEG images) run from between 1 and 2 seconds without flash to between 2 and 3 seconds with flash. Shot-to-shot times will obviously be longer, but not objectionably so, when shooting RAW images.

Shooting Performance
Image stabilization is almost ubiquitous these days and the "Q" features mechanical sensor shift (with integrated dust removal) image stabilization - meaning the IS function is built into camera body rather than incorporated into each individual lens - as it is with optical image stabilization systems. Image Stabilization allows users to shoot at slower shutter speeds than would have been possible without IS. Pentax claims the "Q" IS system allows users to shoot at up to 4 f-stops slower than would have been possible without IS.

The "Q" features a typical P&S style Contrast Detection (25 point) AF system with single and continuous AF modes, a face detection mode, and manual focus capability Most DSLRs feature more complex Phase Detection AF systems, but to date, all CSCs feature Contrast Detection AF systems, like their P&S antecedents. The "Q"s AF sensitivity range (EV1 to EV18) should cover the vast majority of subjects the "Q"s target audience is likely to tackle. In the field the "Q"s AF system is adequately quick and dependably accurate.


Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon 1 J1 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.01
Olympus E-PM1 0.01
Pentax Q 0.01

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-PM1 0.19
Nikon 1 J1 0.21
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.22
Pentax Q 0.44

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Pentax Q 6
6.2 fps
Olympus E-PM1 11 5.5 fps
Nikon 1 J1 28 5.1 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 20 4.2 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The "Q"s built-in flash provides several useful artificial lighting options including: Auto, Auto + Redeye reduction, slo-synch, slo-synch + Redeye reduction, trailing curtain synch, and off. Pentax claims the maximum effective flash range is about 25 feet, which seems a bit optimistic based on my very limited flash use.

At first glance the "Q"s corner mounted built-in flash looks like just about every other P&S digicam's built-in flash. On closer inspection users will notice a small slider switch directly behind the flash. This slider switch is used to pop up the flash, but the "Q"s on-board flash is radically different than any pop-up flash ever seen before. The Q's pop-up flash is deployed at the end of an innovatively designed jointed arm that raises the flash high enough (and swings it a bit to the right) to avoid the flash and lens being on the same axis, which results in much lower red-eye potential. However, users will need to exercise caution not to bend, break, or deform this easily damaged mechanism when using the flash in pop-up mode. The flash can also be used in its nested position when red-eye is not a concern.

The "Q" draws its juice from a rechargeable Pentax D-L168 Lithium-ion battery that Pentax claims is good for about 250 exposures. I had to charge the battery twice in a bit more than two weeks of heavy use and the battery was in the low range when I shipped the camera back to Pentax - so something like 250 exposures on a fully charged D-L168 seems about right. The battery is charged via the included battery charger, rather than in-camera, so a back-up battery can be used while the original battery is charging. I charged the battery overnight each time I charged it, so I can't comment on how long it takes to fully re-charge the battery.

Lens Performance
Photography was much different when the world was populated by photojournalists, documentary shooters, "available/natural light" aficionados and "street" photographers. Serious shooters in those bygone days bought mechanical SLRs and the "kit" lens was usually a fast f/1.8 or f/2.0 50mm (which provides the same perspective as the human eye) normal lens. The Standard lens for the "Q" is the f/1.9 8.5mm Prime lens (47mm equivalent) just like back in the old days.

The Pentax Q's new stainless steel lens mount was designed to perfectly mate "Q" mount lenses with this camera's newly developed high sensitivity sensor to optimize/maximize image quality for this camera.

Pentax offers two lenses in the "Q" High Performance lens series. Lenses in the High Performance series feature metal mounts, Pentax's SP lens coating, include 40.5mm filter threads, and provide both a built-in ND filter and an in-lens shutter mechanism that allows 1/2000 second flash sync with the "Q"s built-in flash. The 8.5mm prime will nicely meet the needs of most photography enthusiasts who will love the large maximum aperture and better image quality of the prime lens. Those who need a bit more reach or some wide angle capability can add the f/2.8-4.5 5-15mm (28-83mm equivalent) zoom lens.

The other three lenses are in the Pentax "Q" Unique lens series. These lenses are much cheaper than the optics in the High Performance series. They feature polycarbonate lens mounts, they don't have AF capability, and they don't include filter threads. Unique series lenses include: a 17.5mm (equivalent) fish-eye lens, a 35mm (equivalent) "toy" lens, and a 100mm (equivalent) "toy" lens.

The f/1.9 8.5mm prime lens that came with my test camera did show some very minor corner softness at maximum aperture, but center sharpness is impressively good. In fact those graduating from P&S digicams will be amazed at just how radical the difference is in basic optical quality between any P&S digicam zoom and a very good quality prime lens. The 8.5mm's focus ring is electronically (rather than mechanically) linked, so it doesn't really feel like the focus rings on older lenses, but it is very responsive and quite precise. Barrel distortion is not a problem and Pincushion distortion is essentially non-existent.



Video Quality

The "Q" records 1920 x 1080p HD (AVC h.264) video at 30 fps. The sample video that accompanies this review was shot on a heavily overcast day at Louisville's Extreme Park. The video clip is fluid, color correct, and the resolution is excellent, especially given the dull lighting.

Download Sample Video

Image Quality
Image files produced by the "Q" have a more natural look than those produced by some of its competitors and that is a good thing because the "hot" oversaturated colors produced by most P&S digicams (and some of their CSC siblings) can actually detract from the overall impact of an image. Starting with a neutral default color palette (the colors the camera records are very close to the colors seen by the naked eye) and then allowing users to boost saturation (color intensity) if they so choose - provides more options for shooters.

Default images from the "Q" show very good color, balanced contrast, and impressive sharpness. Overall image quality is dependably excellent outdoors in good light and (according to Pentax) slightly better than average indoors - although indoor images seem a bit darker to me than they ought to be. Shadow detail capture is better than expected and highlight detail capture is noticeably better than average. Although there is a very slight tendency toward underexposure - outdoors in good light the "Q" produces dependably well-exposed, natural color, low-noise images. Chromatic aberration is well controlled, but some minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds.

Finally, the question everyone is waiting to have answered. I haven't used all of the currently available CSCs, but I have tested the Panasonic GF3. In my opinion (up to 8x10 inches) the "Q"s low ISO (up to ISO 200) image files are equal to those generated by the GF3, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the GF3's sensor is 8 times the size of the "Q"s sensor. Until I tested the "Q" the GF3 was my favorite CSC and although I still believe the GF3 is an exceptional camera that is no longer the case.

White Balance options include: auto mode, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent (D,N,W,L), Tungsten, Flash, and CTE. The "Q"s auto white balance setting does a reliably good job outdoors. Indoors, the "Q" does a good job of getting the colors right. Default colors are hue accurate and close enough to neutral to nicely mimic real world colors.

Pentax Q Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The "Q" provides an impressive range of sensitivity options including Auto and user set options from ISO 125 to ISO 6400. Image noise levels are lower than average at the ISO 125 and ISO 200 settings.

Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 125
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 125, 100% crop
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 200
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 400
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 800
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 800
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 1600
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 1600
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 3200
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 6400
Pentax Q Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Images shot at lower ISOs show very low noise levels, vibrant color, sharp resolution, slightly hard native contrast, acceptable highlight detail, and decent shadow detail. Visible noise/graininess and loss of fine detail begins to show at the ISO 400 setting and gets progressively worse from that point upward.

Additional Sample Images
Pentax Q Sample Image Pentax Q Sample Image
Pentax Q Sample Image Pentax Q Sample Image
Pentax Q Sample Image Pentax Q Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS

Pentax has always traveled to the beat of a different drummer and the "Q" is a perfect example of this innovative corporate philosophy. It would have been easy (and not unexpected) for Pentax to have marketed a GF3 or NEX-5 clone, instead they decided to venture into uncharted territory. By building the "Q" around a tiny 1/2.3" CMOS sensor like those found in P&S digicams (rather than the larger sensor found in 4/3 and micro 4/3 format CSCs) Pentax locked up the smallest CSC title and put themselves in a very risky competitive situation. Since the "Q" costs about the same or more than all those other CSCs with larger sensors many consumers may (justifiably) buy into the larger sensor equals better pictures scenario.

I expected the "Q"s tiny 12 megapixel CMOS sensor to produce either very noisy images or smooth, flat, over-corrected images with little or no fine detail from an overly aggressive noise reduction system. When I reviewed the first group of images I'd shot with the "Q" on my monitor I was impressed to discover that the images were relatively noise-free and filled with the sort of fine detail that an aggressive noise reduction system would have eliminated.

In my opinion the "Q" is going to be the first in a long line of Pentax small sensor CSCs. Nikon developed a new sensor for the 1 CSC series that is smaller than the sensors found in the GF3 and NEX-5, but larger than the tiny P&S sized sensor that drives the "Q". I won't be surprised if Canon's first CSC is built around the sensor from the G12.

I've been fascinated by small cameras for more than forty years. I've owned a Rollei 35S, a Minnox 35GT, a Contax T, a Pentax A110, and an Olympus Pen EE, among others. I've tested dozens of tiny P&S digicams and written reviews of several 4/3 format and micro 4/3 format compact interchangeable lens digital cameras. I promised in my "first-look" review to reveal whether my initial positive impressions of the Pentax "Q" stood the test of time and heavy use. They do, and I still like the Pentax "Q" more than any small camera I've used to date.


Bear in mind that I haven't used any of Sony's NEX series or Nikon's Nikon 1 series CSCs and I haven't used all of Olympus' EP series, or all of Panasonics GF series CSCs. I'm basing my conclusions on the following - the Pentax "Q" consistently produces excellent images with low noise levels at lower sensitivities, it behaves more like a P&S digicam than any other interchangeable lens camera currently available, and it is the smallest interchangeable lens camera in the world. I don't do much indoor or low light shooting, so I'm basing my conclusions on shooting outdoors at low ISO sensitivities. Clearly and unequivocally, cameras with smaller sensors (everything else being equal) are going to produce more noise at higher sensitivities than similar cameras equipped with larger sensors, so shooting indoors with the "Q" may produce less than praiseworthy images.

Anyone considering the Pentax "Q" should take into account the following - currently Pentax only offers two standard lenses, the fast 8.5mm prime lens (that graced my test unit) and a short zoom, barely qualifying it as a system camera. The "Q" with the f/1.9 prime lens runs about $800 (the two lens kit runs about $1000). For about $500.00 consumers can buy a Canon Digital Rebel T3 DSLR with a (very slow) 18-55mm zoom - so clearly the Pentax "Q" requires a larger initial investment than some entry-level DSLRs.

The T3 is not only cheaper, it has a much larger APS-C sized sensor and is compatible with more than fifty Canon zoom and prime lenses ranging from a 14mm ultra-wide-angle to a 1200mm super-telephoto and dozens of EF/EF-S mount lenses from third party lens makers Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. The same arguments apply when the "Q" is compared to 4/3 format and Micro 4/3 format CSCs - they all have larger sensors and all have a more comprehensive selection of lenses.

So why would anyone spend more to get a smaller camera that can do less? You can't drop the T3 in your shirt pocket, and while you may be able to drop a NEX-5 or GF3 in your shirt pocket, they are going to create a much larger bulge than the "Q". So who will buy the "Q"? I see the market for the "Q" as shooters who like really tiny cameras and available light/natural light aficionados and/or street shooters who like the fast f/1.9 "normal" lens. I'm afraid that I fall into both groups, so if I were in the market for a new CSC, the "Q" would be my first choice, but not at eight hundred bucks.

Pros:

Cons: