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Pentax seeks turnaround with tiny Q, giant 645 cameras

The teensy Q cameras flopped in the US, but they remain central to Pentax's effort to rebuild its business and brand. Also coming: a big price cut for the K-50 SLR -- and leaf-shutter lenses for the beefy 645Z.

Pentax Q-S1 is very small camera but features a choice of eight interchangeable lenses.
Pentax Q-S1 is quite small and features a choice of eight interchangeable lenses. Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- The Pentax Q cameras may be small, but Pentax has big ambitions despite difficulties selling them.

When the "mirrorless" movement swept across the camera industry, bringing a wave of compact but higher-end models to compete against traditional SLRs, Pentax tried to set itself apart with the unusually small models. But the Q family struggled outside Asia, where tiny gadgets have an established market. It's been a hard sell in European markets and a dud in the US.

Pentax believes it's just a matter of time before more people see its merits, though, said Jim Malcolm, the executive vice president overseeing North American operations, in an interview here at this week's Photokina show.

It's not going to replace the hulking SLRs that remain popular with enthusiasts and professionals, but Malcolm believes plenty of buyers will appreciate what Pentax Q offers -- a tiny size but higher image quality than a smartphone as well as the flexibility of interchangeable lenses.

"You have a healthy, full imaging ecosystem in a really small package. People who shoot with it say it's very good," Malcolm said.

The success of that effort is critical to Pentax, which Malcolm admits lost a generation of buyers by mishandling the difficult transition from film cameras to digital cameras, ceding influence to Nikon and Canon. Ricoh, an office printing giant, acquired Pentax in 2011 and has been working for the last year and a half to turn it around. The Q line is important to that effort: they may be small, but they come with premium pricing, and Pentax is tightly focused on profit margins.

Small sensor grief

The big knock against Pentax Q is that the camera's image sensor is much smaller than those used in mirrorless models and SLRs from Sony, Samsung, Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon, and Canon, and photographers gravitate toward larger sensors for the image quality advantages.

"It's been wildly successful in Asia. In the US we've had a hard time," Malcolm said. "In the US, it's too easy to say it's a small sensor so it can't be good."

The Pentax Q-S1 is small, so its flash has to spring a long way away from the lens to avoid redeye problems.
The Pentax Q-S1 is small, so its flash has to spring a long way away from the lens to avoid redeye problems. Stephen Shankland/CNET

More fruitful will be positioning the Q family, such as the new $449 Q-S1 (which retails for £380 in the UK and AU$599 in Australia), against smartphones, Malcolm believes. Its image sensor is twice as big as those in phones, the camera body can optically stabilize images, and it's equipped with an Eye-Fi memory card, the Q-S1 can transfer photos directly to phones for quick sharing over Instagram or Facebook.

The company also is trying to appeal to retailers with a wide range of 60 customizable color combinations. With the Q families, it'll take about a seven to 10 days to ship a custom order to retailers, and when the customer picks it up, it's a chance for the retailer to add sales of profitable accessories like cases, memory cards, or another one of the eight interchangeable lenses in the Q family.

Chasing profit margins under Ricoh

Pentax began a new chapter since becoming part of Ricoh, another Japanese company but with 100,000 employees a much larger business. The turnaround concentrates on profits, not on revenues that don't necessarily mean profits. That's meant some disruption not just to Pentax but to its sales channel, too.

"We're building the business from the ground up as profitable model. We're looking for dealers who want to grow profitably, not companies chasing revenue. We walked away from some," Malcolm said.

Dropping those partnerships "sounds negative," but ultimately a Pentax partnership is good for them, he argued, with a focus on profit margins rather than merely moving a lot of inventory that doesn't actually help the bottom line.

The Ricoh Theta, which uses front-and back fisheye lenses to take 360-degree panoramas, is a novel photo gadget that gets the brand name of Pentax's parent company.
The Ricoh Theta, which uses front-and back fisheye lenses to take 360-degree panoramas, is a novel photo gadget that gets the brand name of Pentax's parent company. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We're very attractive compared to what Canon and Nikon have," Malcolm said. "Our competitors have high volume. We still have low volume -- but high margins."

High-volume sales is a nice problem for Canon and Nikon to have, of course. Even products that individually make slim-to-no profits can bring customers back for upgrades and accessories. Having a lot of cameras in the market encourages third-party lensmakers and others to join the ecosystem. And popularity helps a brand.

Pentax knows it. Soon in the US it will cut the price of its K-50 SLR from $779 all the way down to $499 -- a move that shows the bind the company is in trying to balance profits with market success.

"We need to attract undecided buyers at the low end," Malcolm said. "It's a huge difference. It's going to take some share and get people more into the Pentax brand" -- perhaps some of the lost generation of under-40 people who barely know the Pentax name.

But it'll only go so far.

"There's been a race to the bottom," with some SLRs selling for as little as $300 or $400. Pentax won't "go all the way down" with no profit margins or with cheaper but subpar products, he said.

Moving to medium format with 645

For the mainstream market, Pentax offers its mirrorless Q cameras, SLRs, and niche models like rugged WG-4 and Pentax XG-1 for soccer moms and hockey dads. A newer effort is its high-end medium-format 645 line, digital cameras whose 44x33mm sensors leapfrog Nikon, Canon, and Sony SLRs whose full-frame sensors measuring 36x24mm.

With the $8,500 645Z, Pentax wants to tap into the high-end professional photography market.
With the $8,500, 51-megapixel 645Z, Pentax wants to tap into the high-end professional photography market. Pentax

Pentax's newest model, the 645Z uses an image sensor measuring. That offers another rung up the image-quality ladder from the traditional SLR world, though it requires photographers to buy an entirely new set of lenses.

Oh, the starting price is $8,500, not including lenses. Remember what he said about chasing margins?

That's expensive, but Pentax tries to steer customers toward a more favorable comparison than even high-end SLRs costing less than half that price. Instead, Malcolm points out that the 645 cameras are a quarter the price of models from medium-format specialists Phase One and Hasselblad -- though their models often have somewhat larger sensors with more megapixels for lots of editing or for high-quality poster-size prints.

Pentax is trying to resuscitate medium-format clout it had in the film era. "We identified a specific part of market, the professional full-frame shooter who wants to step up to medium format," he said. In film days, about 1.5 percent of professionals shot with medium-format cameras, but now that's down to only an eighth of a percent -- less than a tenth as many photographers.

Pentax is trying to succeed by putting in as much technology as possible for the price, emphasizing features including the Sony sensor, the in-house autofocus expertise drawn from SLR engineers, and weatherproofing that medium-format rivals lack. "We don't have to start from scratch," he said.

But full-frame SLRs have a vastly larger selection of accessories, and with models like Nikon's D810, a 36-megapixel sensor resolution that's not too far away from Pentax's 51 megapixels. Nikon has been giving even medium-format cameras a run for their money in DxO Labs' tests of raw image quality, though that company hasn't yet published results for the 645Z.

Again, Pentax is committed despite the challenges, though, and it's developing new products. One item in high demand from pro shooters are leaf-shutter lenses, which put the camera's shutter in the lens instead of relying on the one built into the camera body. That approach lets them use synchronized flash at higher shutter speeds.

"That's an interesting place to look," he said, strongly hinting if not actually committing to the leaf-shutter move.

With medium-format prices so high and volumes so low -- tens of thousands a year ship globally, by some estimates -- it won't be easy. Malcolm thinks the medium-format machines will give pros a way to stand out from the herd of full-frame shooters: "It's that distinction that pros are looking for."