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Pentax plan calls for higher-grade SLR

The scrappy Japanese camera maker has ambitious plans for a 2009 successor to its new top-end K20D SLR. But don't bet on a full-frame image sensor.

Pentax's K20D is the company's new top-end SLR. Pentax

LAS VEGAS--Pentax just announced its new flagship SLR camera, the K20D, but the Japanese company has plans on the drawing board for a higher-end class of camera in 2009.

On the Pentax roadmap for 2009, the SLR quality arrow jumps up "much higher" above the K20D--a bigger step up than the one from the K10D to the K20D--said John Carlson, Pentax's product manager for imaging systems.

"That would be a new category" of SLR for Pentax, he said, but was mum on further details.

Obviously, that statement leaves a lot of room for maneuvering and interpretation, but it's still a notable reflection of the company's ambitions. Pentax also must reckon with some powerful competitors with high-end models--not just market leaders Canon and Nikon, but also well-funded newcomers such as Sony, which plans to release a professional-grade SLR this year.

Pentax announced its K20D last week and is showing it off this week at the Photo Marketing Association trade show here. The 14.6-megapixel model includes features such as 11-point autofocus, sensor-shift image stabilization, ISO up to 6,400, and seals to keep out dust and water.

SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras offer higher image quality and interchangeable lenses, but they're more expensive and bulkier. SLR sales are growing faster than the overall digital camera market, so it's no surprise camera makers are fighting for dominance--especially because the market is in flux.

Pentax, like Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Olympus, is a traditional camera maker facing new competition from consumer-electronics powers such as Sony and Panasonic. Sony got a leg up in the SLR market by acquiring the assets of Konica Minolta, and Panasonic has a partnership with Olympus and Leica. Another electronics giant now selling SLRs, Samsung, bases its products on Pentax cameras.

One way Pentax could head toward higher-end SLRs would be to follow Canon and Nikon with models whose image sensor is the size of a full frame of 35mm film. Most digital SLRs, including all of Pentax's, employ a smaller "APS-C"-sized sensors that are cheaper to make. Larger sensors offer the promise of greater sensitivity because pixels are larger, and for 35mm film buffs, lenses give the same field of view as they did with film.

But don't expect a full-frame Pentax, at least for the time being, Carlson said. Asked whether it was in the plans, he said, "At this point I would say no. The lenses are designed for the APS-C format," Carlson said. However, he qualified his remarks with a disclaimer: "What will happen in two years? Who knows."

One interesting feature in Pentax SLRs is support for the Digital Negative (DNG) raw-image format, which is Adobe Systems' attempt to curtail the cacophony of proprietary raw image formats. Raw images provide more quality but require manual processing into something handy such as JPEG, and different SLR models typically have their own proprietary formats today.

Pentax is probably the most notable DNG adopter, though others include Ricoh and now Epson with its super-high-speed camera. However, DNG still plays second fiddle among Pentax photographers to the older PEF format, Carlson said. "Most people are shooting PEF," he said.