Pentax K-S1 sheds light on your dSLR options

k-s1-8.jpg
Lori Grunin/CNET

Pentax's outlook for expanding its market beyond the Pentaxian faithful brightens this fall -- literally. Its line of S1 products, seemingly targeted at non-traditional photographers, launched earlier this summer with the Q-S1, now continues with a dSLR that sports a carnival-ride of colorful lighted controls. The K-S1 also features a reworked design that's intended to appeal to restless phone photographers, but without many internal compromises. At $800 for a kit with the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens, it directly competes with the small Canon EOS Rebel SL1, and the more staid Nikon D5300. (UK and Australian pricing were not available, but a direct conversion would be about £480 or AU$860.)

The company made some interesting design choices for the K-S1. Colored, glowing lights on the grip, the power/shutter button, and the big OK button on the back indicate video versus still modes as well as increase visibility in the dark. Pentax also moved the mode dial to the back, making it big and vertically oriented, for operation with your right thumb, similar to virtual mode dials. Pentax reasoned that phone camera users are accustomed to having all their controls on a single plane, and in addition to allowing for a more compact body, it's pretty comfortable and sensible. My one concern is the dial's proximity to the thumb rest where it likely will be subject to accidental turning.

Although the front of the camera looks fairly traditional -- save the Cylon lights on the grip -- the way the front curves out to form the grip rather than indents into the body makes it appear and feel a little different. It's solid, though I admit to liking the indented grips more.

It has some features that will appeal to traditionalists, including a nice large viewfinder with 100 percent scene coverage, a perk that's rare in this class of cameras. Like the D5300, there's no OLPF (optical low-pass filter) to slightly blur edges in photos. The K-S1 does incorporate the K-3's antialiasing-compensation option, which simulates a low-pass filter by physically offsetting the sensor to slightly blur jaggy edges and fix moire -- that's the reason cameras have OLPFs to begin with. However, it doesn't work in movie mode, which tends to be where you need it a lot.

Unsurprisingly, it has a lot in common with the K-50, including a lot of Pentax staples like sensitivity-priority mode (Auto ISO with manual shutter and aperture) and the green button (which resets exposure settings to custom defaults in each mode). But there's also enough extra to merit the higher price. It also offers built-in stereo audio rather than mono like its competitors.

And, of course, it comes in colors. The retail options will be white, blue and black, with another nine colors available. By cutting back from the usual cornucopia of color options, the company will be able to keep some of each in stock in regional warehouses to minimize ship delay, something Pentax has encountered in the past as a barrier to buying alternative colors.

My take

I like the idea of the lighted controls, but only if they're configurable; for instance, I'd like to keep the lights in the back, but axe the one on the grip and on the shutter/power button so it's not as ostentatious in dim environments. Unfortunately, I think Pentax failed to take the phone-interface metaphor far enough. If you really want to make phone photographers comfortable, the camera at least needs a touchscreen and built-in Wi-Fi. The K-S1 does ship with a Flucard, but what if it gets lost or damaged?

Physically, it's small but surprisingly heavy, which also matters to a lot of potential buyers.

As an entry- or even midlevel dSLR, it looks like it offers quite a lot compared to the competition, but I suspect Pentax will probably have to do more than move a few controls around and light it up to attract the unconventional photographers more than its traditional dSLR buyers.

Comparative specifications

Canon EOS Rebel SL1
EOS 100D
Nikon D5300 Pentax K-S1 Pentax K-50
Sensor effective resolution 18MP Hybrid CMOS II 24.2MP CMOS 20.1MP CMOS 16.3MP CMOS
Sensor size 22.3mm x 14.9mm 23.5 x 15.6 mm 23.5 x 15.6 mm 23.7 x 15.7mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
OLPF Yes No No Yes
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 12800/ 25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 51200 ISO 100 - ISO 51200
Burst shooting 4fps
8 raw/ unlimited JPEG
5fps
n/a
5.4fps
20 JPEG/5 raw
6fps
30 JPEG/8 raw
Viewfinder
(mag/effective mag)
Optical
95% coverage
0.85x/0.53x
Optical
95% coverage
0.82x/0.55x
Optical
100% coverage
0.95x/0.63x
Optical
100% coverage
0.92x/0.61x
Hot Shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type;
31-point contrast AF
39-pt AF
9 cross- type
11 pt AF
9 cross type
(SAFOX IXi+)
11 pt AF
9 cross type
(SAFOX IXi+)
AF sensitivity -0.5 to 18 EV -1 to 19 EV - 1 - 18 EV - 1 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 x-sync 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/6000 to 30 seconds; bulb; 1/180 x-sync 1/6000 to 30 seconds; bulb; 1/180 x-sync
Metering 63-zone iFCL 2,016-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 77 segment 77 segment
Metering sensitivity 1 to 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 to 22 EV 0 to 22 EV
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p, 25p, 24p
720/60p, 50p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/60p, 25p, 24p
H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p,
24p, 25p; 720/50p, 60p
H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p,
24p, 25p; 720/50p, 60p
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo, mic input Stereo Mono
Manual aperture and shutter in video No Yes n/a Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 4GB 4GB 25m 25m
IS Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift
LCD 3 inches
Fixed touchscreen
1.04m dots
3.2 inches
Articulated
1.04m dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless connection No Wi-Fi Wi-Fi via bundled Flucard No
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes
Wireless flash Yes n/a No No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 380 shots 700 shots 410 shots Li-Ion: 480; AA lithium: 1250
Size (WHD) 4.6 x 3.6 x 2.7 in
116.8 x 90.7 x 69.4mm
4.9 x 3.9 x 3.0 in
125 x 98 x 76mm
4.8 x 3.7 x 2.8 in
121.9 x 94.0 x 71.1mm
5.1 x 3.8 x 2.8 in
129.0 x 96.5 x 70mm
Body operating weight 14.9 oz.
422.4g
16.9 oz.
479.1g
19.7 oz. (est.)
558.5g (est.)
23.2 oz.
657.7g
Mfr. price (body only) $600 (est.)
£570 (est.)
AU$730
$750
£730 (est.)
AU$900 (est.)
$750

Other pricing not available
$700 (est.)
£470
AU$650
Primary kit $750
£700 (est.)
AU$830
(with 18-55mm STM lens)
$850
£830 (with 18-55mm VR II lens)
AU$1,049 (est.)
(with 18-55mm VR lens)
$800
(with 18-55mm lens)

Other pricing not available
$780 (est.)
£500
AU$690
(with 18-55 WR lens)
Alternate kit US pricing N/A
£620 (est.)
(with 18-55mm II lens)
AU$1,140
(with 18-55 STM lens and 55-250mm lens)
$1,050
(with 18-140mm lens)
UK pricing N/A
AU$1,300
(with 18-55mm VR and 55-200mm lens)
Pricing not available $880 (est.)
£600
AU$850
(with 18-55 WR and 50-200mm WR lenses)
Release date June 2013 October 2013 September 2014 July 2013

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Pentax K-S1

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