Pentax Q Mirrorless Camera – Risky or Genius Move?

Today 23.6.2011 Pentax introduced the Pentax Q mirrorless camera and five compatible lenses for the new Q-mount. The Pentax Q features a new 12,4-megapixel  1/2.3″  Back-illuminated (BSI) sensor which is 6.16 × 4.62 mm (7.70mm diagonal). It’s a very small sensor compared to the Micro Four Thirds one, which is measured 18 mm × 13.5 mm (22.5 mm diagonal).

Two Pentax Q Cameras in white and black
(Image credit: Pentax)

An APS-C sensor is measured from 20.8 × 13.8 mm to 28.7 × 19.1 mm. We will talk about the advantages and disadvantages of this type of sensor later.  The Pentax Q MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera) is well built with magnesium alloy cover. It has a retro rangefinder camera design that we have also seen with the Olympus PEN cameras. The Pentax Q is capable of  recording Full HD 1080p30 movie clips (H.264 compression), it comes with a built-in flash and comes with many interesting software-based features.

Why Such a Small Sensor?

The Pentax Q camera is the smallest and lightest MILC in the world. It measures 98 x 57 x 31 mm (3.8 x 2.2 x 1.2in) and weights Approx180g (6.3oz) without batteries. No doubt that Pentax came up with this small-sensor mirrorless idea to conquer a bridge market segment. A segment of point-and-shoot hobbyist photographers who want to climb to a more flexible camera, but those who don’t want a bulky camera like a DSLR camera.

The question that many people start asking themselves is why use such a tiny sensor. The whole advantage of Mirrorless cameras like the MFT and APS-C based cameras is that they have a much bigger sensor than the one found in P&S digicams.

A few of the advantages of a larger sensor are higher dynamic range, low noise in high ISO sensitivity levels, better color accuracy, smoother gradations ,etc.  When Olympus and Panasonic introduced the Micro Four Thirds system, they knew that it’s a good bridge camera. In fact, that’s why they intend to stop manufacturing Four Thirds cameras and focus on the MTF format.

Sony took a different path by introducing the NEX cameras and the E-mount. The main advantage of the NEX cameras is that they use an APS-C sensor, which is larger than the Micro Four Thirds. The cameras are still small and lightweight. Sony didn’t see fit to utilize a smaller sensor if it can be done with an APS-C sensor.

Of course one thing I didn’t mention is that a larger sensor also means bigger lenses. If you look at the NEX-C3, it’s a very compact camera, but if you want to use a 18-200mm lens, you need to buy a big lens. Not as big as in 35mm, but still big that will actually wipe the advantage if having a mirrorless compact camera in the first place. Pentax attacked this problem in another angle. Pentax decided that the Q cameras will actually utilize a small sensor, like the one found on P&S cameras. That means that they can make much smaller cameras and compatible Q-series lenses for this mount.

Of course all those cameras will meet in online mirrorless camera’s comparison reviews. They will need to prove that it is worthwhile upgrading from a point-and-shoot camera to a mirrorless camera. The image quality will be only one parameter that will be judges, but an important one.

What’s a Back-illuminated Sensor?

It’s important to note that the Pentax Q sensor is actually a Backlit sensor (also referred to as Back-illuminated Sensor or BSI on short). By design, BSI sensor has been engineered to capture more photos (60% to 90% more) compared to conventional sensors. This should improve both the dynamic range and the low light performance of the sensor. Today we can find BSI sensors in many of the latest mobile phone cameras, where the sensor is very tiny.

A Risky Step or a Genius Move?

When you go over the specs, you start asking yourself a few questions. I asked myself the same question that you might ask: “What the hell Pentax was thinking?”.  It’s a point-and-shoot camera with interchangeable lenses.  If I want to have a point-and-shoot camera with a tiny sensor, I will rather grab the high-end Nikon P7000 or Canon G12 camera. If I want a telephoto-zoom camera, I would get the Nikon P500, Sony HX100V or Canon SX30 IS.

Why should I trouble myself with interchangeable lenses at all. If I want to upgrade to a more advanced camera, I would probably pick a M43, NEX or go with an entry-level dSLR camera. There are many choices out there, the Pentax Q doesn’t seem like a very good option for me, and I guess for many others.

From my point of view, it’s a risky step that Pentax made. The camera will stand the test of time, and we’ll see how the market accepts it. From what we know about Pentax, it understands the Asian market quite good and Pentax cameras are very popular there. For MSRP $800 (in the US) for the Pentax Q + PENTAX 01 Standard Prime kit lens (47mm in 35mm format), it’s not a bargain at all, actually quite expensive.

For approx. $400 street price I can get the Olympus PEN E-PL1 with the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital Zoom Lens.  For approx. $700 street price I can get the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Micro Four Thirds with 14mm F2.5 ASPH lens. Both are compact MILC and has proven to have high stills and video image quality. Furthermore, with the Micro Four Thirds, you can use both Olympsu and Panasonic lenses, and other third party vendors have produced lenses for the MFT-mount.

I really try hard to think of a reason why should anybody buy this camera. Even the design is retro, not everyone will like it.  Yes, it’s well built. It comes with a sensor shift shake reduction, comes with many scene modes, in-camera HDR, up to ISO 6400, AE bracketing, 5fps burst, 3-inch 460K-dot LCD and HDMI connectivity. All in all, its seems that the only thing that shouldn’t be in this camera is the interchangeable lens mount.

My Conclusion

I can certainly call that a very risky move. I really tried hard to find a market segment that this camera is good for. I mean, there are many people who search for a compact interchangeable lens camera, but currently there are better options in the market.

The good thing I have to say about Pentax here is that it came with mirrorless cameras before Canon and Nikon did. I’m quite surprised here. Maybe this move will accelerate the release of new Canon and Nikon mirrorless cameras, who knows.  What’s left to do is to see how the new PENTAX Q performs in lab test reviews.

Availability: Pentax Q will be available starting from September 2011. Price: MSRP price $800 in the US. Europe price has not been announce yet. The Q will be available in white or black.