Pentax has updated its first full-frame SLR, the K-1, but there aren’t a lot of big changes in the K-1 Mark II ($1,999.95, body only). There are some promises of improvement, including better tracking autofocus and improved image quality at higher ISO settings, but our tests show they are nominal upgrades at best. The marquee addition, handheld multi-shot Pixel Shift imaging, doesn’t do as much to improve resolution as you want it to, though its presence doesn’t detract from anything. Therefore, our verdict on the K-1 Mark II is the same as with its predecessor—image quality is excellent, autofocus needs some work, and if you aren’t already invested in the Pentax system, there are more versatile performers out there.
The K-1’s Doppelganger
The K-1 Mark II has the exact same body design as the first iteration of the camera. It has the same angled lines that evoke the classic medium format Pentax 6×7, the same oddly hinged LCD…the same everything. It measures 4.3 by 5.4 by 3.4 inches and weighs 2.2 pounds. It’s a little smaller than some other high-resolution models, like the pricier Nikon D850 (4.9 by 5.8 by 3.1 inches), but it’s also heavier (the D850 is about 3 ounces lighter).
Despite the extra weight, the K-1 Mark II feels good in the hand, although it does go against the small-and-light philosophy that drives the design of Pentax’s APS-C SLR and DA Limited lens series. The handgrip is deep enough for comfortable shooting, even when paired with a longer lens. The body omits a built-in flash, a feature that we’re seeing disappear from more and more cameras, especially those geared at pros and enthusiasts. Some will find it an omission—a pop-up is useful for some quick fill when you don’t want to use a big strobe, and can also trigger off-camera lighting without the need for an add-on radio trigger—and others won’t miss it at all. You already know which side of that fence you’re on.
The K-1 Mark II is sealed against dust and moisture, so you can use it in all kinds of weather when paired with a sealed lens. We’ve seen weather sealing on all of the full-frame lenses that Pentax has released since the debut of the K-1, but you’ll need to be careful when using older glass.
The normal array of SLR control buttons are there. The focus mode toggle switch is on the front, near the lens mount, and is paired with a button to change the AF mode in conjunction with the front and rear control dial. There’s also a Raw/Fx button to change file format, and a Lock button to prevent inadvertent changes to settings.
On top you get the Mode dial, to the left of the pentaprism. It locks in place, with a switch at its base to keep it set or allow it to turn freely. When it is in the locked position you can also depress a center switch in order to turn it. I like the design, as it caters to photographers who prefer a locked dial and those who don’t.
To the right of the prism is the dial that sets the K-1 apart from competing SLRs. It changes the function of the other, unmarked dial on the top of the body. You can set it to control a number of functions, including the continuous shooting speed, crop mode, EV compensation level, ISO, Wi-Fi system, and others. I almost always left it set to EV control, but your needs may be different.
It’s joined by a small monochrome LCD, which shows the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, battery life, and active card slot. It’s less info than you get from bigger screens—the level of EV compensation set is a notable omission. Also on top is a button to control the camera’s lighting, a dedicated EV button to supplement the dial function, and the shutter release. The On/Off switch surrounds the shutter.
The backlight button doesn’t just turn on the backlight for the information LCD. The K-1 Mark II also has a series of LED lights. They illuminate on-body controls, so you can see what you’re doing when working in a dim studio or under dark skies to get the perfect Milky Way image. I’m a bit lukewarm on the idea. I much prefer working with backlit controls, like the ones Nikon includes on the D850. They’re less jarring to the eye, so there’s less adjustment time for your pupils when working with them under dark skies.
Night sky photography is a reason some will consider buying the K-1 Mark II—its Astrotracer system leverages its moving image sensor and GPS to reduce blur when photographing the stars. Essentially, it’s able to compensate for the rotation of the Earth, although the amount of compensation will vary based on the direction in which your camera is pointed and your choice of focal length. I was able to get crisp shots of stars with exposures of up to two minutes using Astrotracer, longer than the 15 to 20 seconds you manage with Astrotracer disabled. Of course, you’ll need to limit these shots to stars only, or composite separate exposures for images that incorporate both the night sky and terrestrial elements, as the sensor shift movement will blur earthbound objects that enter your frame.
Rear controls include the Live View and metering controls at the top left corner. The rear control dial (the front is on the handgrip), AF, and AE-L buttons are at the right side. The thumb rest incorporates an IR sensor for wireless shutter release (there’s one on the front too, for your selfie needs). The Green button, a familiar control for Pentax shooters that can quickly reset Program shooting settings or toggle auto ISO, is also on the back, along with Info, Menu, and Play buttons.
Finally, there’s a four-way control pad with a center OK button. The directional controls serve double duty. They’re labeled to adjust the Drive, JPG output settings, LCD brightness, and White Balance, but the Focus button above the pad switches its function to focus point adjustment. I’d much rather see a dedicated focus joystick, as it’s a bit clunky to toggle the function with the button.
The Mark II sports the same eye-level viewfinder as the K-1. It’s a pentaprism with 100 percent coverage and 0.7x magnification, with an overlay framing grid that can be turned on or off. It’s a little dimmer than the viewfinder on competing models from the big two—the Nikon D850 and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV—when viewed side by side with a lens of the same f-stop attached.
The rear display is 3.2 inches and 1,037k dots. It’s not sensitive to touch, which seems out of date in 2018. It’s mounted on the same unique hinge system that we saw with the K-1. Four arms extend to pull the display out from the body, and the panel itself is mounted on a hinge, so it can tilt to face up. It’s a design that we still haven’t seen on models aside from the K-1. It’s solid, and a bit more versatile than a simple hinged display. If the K-1 had better video chops I’d say a vari-angle display would be beneficial, but it’s a stills-first camera so the ability to point the LCD in the same direction isn’t a must-have.
Connectivity and Features
The K-1 Mark II includes dual UHS-I SD card slots. The UHS-I standard is slower than the newer UHS-II. You can put a 95MBps card in the Mark II and take full advantage of its speed, but UHS-II cards are as fast as 300MBps. The Mark II isn’t a burst-shooting maven, but it would be a plus to have faster write times when you are capturing a number of images in sequence.
Other connections include a 3.5mm microphone input and a headphone jack, micro HDMI, micro USB, and DC power input. There’s Wi-Fi, but we were disappointed with the wireless experience with the K-1 Mark II and other cameras that use the Ricoh Image Sync app to transfer photos. It’s a slow, buggy piece of software, in need of a rewrite. It’s especially baffling that Ricoh has not been able to make the app more pleasant to use. It purchased Wi-Fi memory card maker Eyefi and all of its intellectual property in 2016.
In-body stabilization is a hallmark of Pentax cameras. The K-1 Mark II has a five-axis stabilization system, rated to five stops by CIPA. The system isn’t any stronger than you get with the K-1, but improved processing and precision adds a feature missing from the first camera—handheld Pixel Shift Resolution.
Pixel Shift Resolution takes a series of four images, moving the sensor by a single pixel each time, in order to better sample color. To understand why this works, you need to know how a Bayer image sensor works. The K-1’s sensor is sensitive to light, but not color. A filter array, a complex matrix of red, green, and blue in a repeating four-by-four pattern, sits over the sensor and makes it sensitive to only certain hues of light at each pixel site. To fill in the blanks, the image processor interpolates data from surrounding pixels. Moving the sensor allows the K-1 to sample color and luminosity data at each pixel, effectively improving its resolution without upping the pixel count.
Other cameras do this, and typically require a sturdy tripod and a static subject to be effective. The K-1 Mark II’s standard Pixel Shift system, which does require a tripod and static subject, works quite well. Its new handheld mode works too, but doesn’t show noticeable improvement from single image capture, even when viewed at 2:1 magnification. You can see the difference, or rather the lack thereof, in the comparison crop above.
The Mark II also includes a GPS, the same as the K-1. It adds geographic metadata to images, but can also be used for long exposure star photography. If you don’t want to add star trails to an image you can enable the Astrotracer feature, detailed in the previous section.
The K-1 Mark II matches its predecessor in speed. It powers on, focuses, and captures an image in as little as 1.3 seconds. Autofocus speed is solid in bright light, about 0.1-second when paired with the FA* 50mm F1.4 SDM AW lens. The focus speed does dip to about 0.6-second in dim light. Switching from the optical viewfinder to Live View switches to slower, contrast-based autofocus. In bright light the camera nets 0.6-second focus and 0.9-second in dim conditions.
Our basic autofocus speed test is performed with a big target that is easy for the camera to hit, and with all autofocus points turned on. In real world use, I found the K-1 Mark II to fall into the same pitfalls as the original K-1. I experienced a good amount of frustration trying to get a shot of a hummingbird on a branch with the Mark II and the 150-450mm zoom lens in AF-S mode. I had the center focus point selected and placed it directly over the bird, but the Mark II consistently hunted back and forth and struggled to lock focus.
The camera didn’t fare well in our AF-C focus test, which utilizes the burst mode and continuous focus system to make images of a target as it moves toward and away from the camera lens. The hit rate was poor, netting a 50 percent in-focus average. Compare this with the Sony a7 III, which features a 24MP full-frame sensor and sells for the same price. It shoots more than twice as quickly as the K-1—10fps—and got almost every shot in focus in this test.
Burst shooting tops out at 4.4fps. When the K-1 was released, that figure was on the slow side, but not terribly slow when you considered its 36MP sensor and the 5fps of the Nikon D810. But since then we’ve seen faster and faster capture with more pixels. The Canon 5D Mark IV packs 30MP and shoots at 7fps, the 45MP Nikon D850 can go as quickly as 9fps with a grip attached, and the 42MP Sony a7R III manages 10fps. You can boost the K-1’s speed to 6.4fps by switching to the 15MP APS-C crop mode.
The continuous shooting buffer isn’t huge. I was able to snap 11 Raw+JPG, 12 Raw, or 20 JPG shots before the buffer filled up and the camera slowed down. Writing all of the images to a Sony 300MBps memory card requires about 28, 25, and 16 seconds, respectively.
Image Quality Improvements?
The K-1 Mark II uses the same 36MP image sensor as its predecessor, but it does promise to improve high ISO capture by way of a new coprocessor, which Ricoh is calling an accelerator unit. It pushes the top ISO higher—all the way to 819200, two stops more sensitive than the ISO 204800 offered by the original K-1.
When shooting JPGs with default noise reduction settings enabled, the Mark II produces images with less than 1.5 percent noise through ISO 12800, which is two stops better than what we saw with the K-1 at the same setting. Detail is about the same, though, showing the accelerator certainly has some advantages when it comes to curbing image noise when shooting JPGs. We see strong detail, without detracting noise, through ISO 1600. There is a very slight drop in contrast and fine detail at ISO 3200 and 6400.
I do see some smudging of tiny edges at ISO 12800, the same as with the K-1. At ISO 25600 image quality takes a step back, blurring lines that appear distinct at lower settings. The blur increases at ISO 51200, to the point where I’d not recommend shooting JPGs beyond ISO 25600. Higher settings are basically useless, as you can see in the test images included in the slideshow that accompanies this review.
I expect most K-1 Mark II customers to shoot in Raw format. Here I am not able to see any difference worth mentioning in image quality when comparing the two cameras. Images are crisp, with strong detail and little detracting noise, through ISO 3200. There’s a slight step back at ISO 6400, but you’ll have to view images at full magnification to see it. Photos at ISO 12800 look about the same as 6400, but we do see just a little bit more rough grain at ISO 25600 and 51200. Grain starts to overtake detail at ISO 102400. Higher settings—ISO 204800, 409600, and 819200—are essentially useless if you care about image quality.
If you’re serious about video, you’re not using a Pentax camera. The K-1 Mark II’s video toolkit is very limited, with capture topping out at 1080p. Footage shows a lot of rolling shutter effect, along with unnatural shimmering and the rainbow effect of color moiré.
K-1 Mark 1.1
The Pentax K-1 Mark II isn’t that much different than the K-1. If it weren’t for the accelerator unit we’d expect the new features to be those talked about in a firmware update, not a new model. Ricoh is offering an upgrade program for current K-1 owners, but I can’t recommend anyone invest $550 in the rather minor upgrades we see with the Mark II. The program ends soon, and if you’re a K-1 owner reading this after September 30th fret not, you didn’t miss out on much by missing the upgrade window.
My thoughts on the K-1 Mark II are much the same as they were with the K-1. Image quality is excellent, ergonomics are sound, and there is no arguing with the build quality. The camera’s deficiencies are in autofocus performance, Wi-Fi implementation, and video capture.
If you are heavily invested in the Pentax system, want a full-frame camera, and haven’t already bought a K-1, the Mark II is your best choice. But that’s a narrow recommendation, and one that certainly comes with some caveats. Landscape photographers will enjoy the rugged design, high-resolution sensor, and Pixel Shift system, but this wouldn’t be my first, second, or even third recommendation to serious wildlife or sports shooters.
On the other hand, if you’re not invested in the Pentax system, I don’t see now as a good time to jump in, at least not at the full-frame level. There aren’t as many first- and third-party lens options as with other systems, and those that are available tend to cost more, cutting into the value you get by opting for the K-1 Mark II instead of, say, the Nikon D810, which sells for around $1,000 more new, or a few hundred dollars if you’re happy buying a refurbished model.
My recommendation in this price range for customers who are drawn in by the K-1 Mark II’s high-resolution image sensor, weather-sealed design, and in-body image stabilization is the Sony a7R II, which sells for about the same price. Sony’s lenses do tend to run a bit pricey, but there is third-party support from Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina, and if you have a big library of vintage Pentax K-mount glass you can use it with the Sony system via an adapter, assuming your lenses are old enough to sport physical aperture control rings. The A7R II isn’t the latest model from Sony, and it doesn’t offer Pixel Shift, but it does start out with a 42MP sensor instead of a 36MP, which helps to bridge that gap.
Our favorite high-resolution, full-frame camera is the Nikon D850, followed closely by the Sony a7R III. But both cost upward of $3,000, which puts them in a decidedly different price class.