Introduction: A couple of weeks ago I found myself composing an email to Ned Bunnell, President of Pentax Imaging USA, to ask him to clarify a rumor. I ended up including so many questions that I decided to scrap the email and just ask him if he had time for an interview. Fortunately, I caught him between trips, so we were able to get some exchanges in before Ned returned to Japan, where he is now. What follows is edited from our correspondence.
Mike Johnston: Ned, welcome again to TOP.
Ned Bunnell: Thanks Mike.
MJ: There are a lot of things I'd like to ask you about, but we might as well jump in at the deep end. The first thing is probably the most pressing thing for longtime Pentaxians. There was a rumor on the boards recently that Pentax's much-beloved Limited lenses, including what my friend Oren sometimes jokingly refers to as the "Pentax Numerology" Limiteds—the 31mm, the 77mm, and the 43mm—are being discontinued. I think that rumor has quieted a bit now, but can you shed some light on it just for the record?
NB: I'm glad you’re asking for clarification on this. The rumor appears to have started during Photokina. I can tell you we have no plans to cancel production of the FA Limited (31mm, 43mm and 77mm) lenses. In fact, we view the FA Limiteds and our newer DA Limiteds as being unique in the industry. I can share with you that we saw an increase of non-Pentax shooters adding a K-7 to their camera bag precisely because these Limited lenses were the perfect match for this camera’s compact, rugged and nicely balanced body design. I’m hopeful that this trend will continue with our recently announced K-5, which carries on the same design concept as the K-7.
MJ: That's a relief. Those particular lenses are probably more famous than any lenses without the L-word on them. And to mention another former rumor that's been put to bed, you and I have talked several times about the status of the 645D; and, since we talked last, the big dog has launched in America. That was great news...
NB: Sure. We made an announcement at Photokina that the 645D would start shipping in Europe and North America in early December. We followed up on October 12th with more details about the 645D plans in the U.S. market, as you reported on TOP.
With very limited production, we had to delay release in other markets until we caught up with the high demand in Japan. If anyone has experienced "Sakura" or the blooming of cherry blossoms every Spring in Japan, they would immediately recognize, from the number of photographers shooting the cherry blossoms with medium format cameras, that our biggest demand for the 645D would come from Hoya Pentax's domestic market. [Hoya Corporation of Tokyo has been the parent company of Pentax since the end of May, 2007 —Ed.] Although we are catching up with demand, it's still important for your U.S. readers to know that we'll be bringing in an extremely limited quantity of units to the U.S. I hope folks don't think I'm saying this as a sales pitch. Quite frankly, we'd relish having more units to sell. However, it's not going to happen.
MJ: So good news and bad news on that front, although mostly good.
NB: You’ll probably remember that shortly after acquiring Pentax, Hoya management stopped development of the 645. At the time, many users were dismayed, and questioned whether they’d ever see the 645D in real life. In reality, we knew that we could not manage development of the 645 and two new SLRs, so the decision was made to focus first on getting a new entry-level and advanced SLR into production. This allowed us to focus on both the K-7 and K-x. And then, with these new platforms in place, to come out fairly quickly with the recently announced K-5 and K-r. With this foundation in place, we were then able to go back and complete development of the 645D and make it an even better camera by increasing the sensor size and incorporating a lot of the imaging processing architecture and features we had developed for the K-7 and now the K-5.
My view is the 645D is good news for us, and it's not necessarily related to the number of units we sell. It showcases our technology, allows us to deliver a very high-resolution camera targeted to a very specific user. We will not be successful long-term if we just try to emulate what others do. And therefore the 645D is that sort of halo product that allows us to say to certain photographers that we really understand what you’re looking for. This type of independent thinking and simple focus on what matters most to many shooters also I think helps support the approach we are taking with both the K-5 and K-r.
MJ: Speaking of the K-5 and K-r, it strikes me that Pentax has a particularly good lineup now: the K-r for entry level, the K-5 for mid-level, and the 645D that really only Leica can match in its lineup. How are you feeling about the lineup these days?
NB: I think the 645D, K-5, and K-r is a good line-up, and I’m reading on the forums that some folks believe it shows that the last two years under Hoya management has resulted in a compelling offering. I think we are showing that we have a much more cohesive plan than we’ve had for many years.
A picture taken by Ned just "today" (Friday in Japan; it would have been yesterday here in the U.S.) in Ikebukuro with the K-5 and 31mm Limited lens. "As I was walking through the plaza outside the Performing Arts Center," he wrote on his blog, "I spotted a young lady with a white K-x. It turns out she is a babysitter and had at least six small children that she was letting play by the water fountain in the plaza. We pointed to each other's Pentax and then laughed as we took a photo of one another."
And I should add that for consumers, I think we’re similarly taking the lead with color K-x's and the recently announced RS1000 with user-changeable faceplates. We know that many consumers like the idea of personalizing their cameras, just like they do their cell phones, iPods, notebooks and so forth.
MJ: Of course, those things are, let's say, several rungs lower on the interest-ladder for the readers of a blog like mine.
NB: Yes. While I understand that these cameras don’t necessarily appeal to the majority of your TOP readers, they need to understand we’re not necessarily making these devices for them. These new cameras and colors have allowed us to appeal to a brand new demographic for Pentax, and we’re growing our installed base of users with people who've never owned a Pentax camera before. Obviously from a branding, business, and growth perspective, this is important to us.
MJ: The RS1000, for those who don't know, is the "re-skinnable" digicam that allows people to play around with the appearance of their point-and-shoot. Our readers might forget that Pentax has an interesting, almost eccentric selection of digicams; we can't forget the I-10, with its retro 110-camera look. The digicam that appeals to me is the Optio WR90, which is weatherproof. And even that one comes in a selection of colors.
NB: Our long-running waterproof W-series of cameras have also been instrumental in getting Pentax cameras into the hands of a younger, more outdoor-lifestyle crowd than we were ever able to do with our SLRs. We also learned that these users did not necessarily frequent dedicated photo websites and therefore we’ve been communicating with them via banner ads, on various lifestyle sites that better reflect their primary passion. We’re also engaging this younger crowd on Facebook, where word of mouth and a friend's experience with their W90 is a much more powerful motivator than any traditional ad we could develop. And considering our limited ad budget, these type of social campaigns are very effective.
MJ: Oh, speaking of Facebook, there's something I've been meaning to tell you. A longtime friend, Kristin Oren, contacted me not long ago—on Facebook—asking for camera-buying advice. Kris is a dynamic, attractive woman who I've known since she was the age her daughter is now. She has a young family and lots of activities and interests, and she wanted a new camera to take pictures of kids' activities. Long story short, she bought a K-r on my recommendation. It's her first DSLR. She decided to go with the two-lens kit with the longer tele specifically so she'd a have a longer lens to use to photograph her daughter at the riding ring. Here's one of the very first pictures she took with her new camera and the 55–300mm lens:
Nice job, huh? Kris wrote on her Facebook page,"The SLR really does take much better pictures. I can't believe we didn't get one earlier." I have a bit of a weakness for horse pictures, but I thought this was outstanding for a first attempt with a first SLR. Anyway, she's a good example of both a new Pentax owner and someone who's moving up to an SLR for the first time...very successfully so far, I should say.
NB: That's nice to hear, and a beautiful shot.
MJ: Okay, moving on now, here's another $64,000 question: how have the colored K-x's been selling? Inquiring minds want to know.
NB: The K-x colors have been very successful for us—despite much debate and initially some negative reaction from the more traditional SLR shooter. In simple terms, the color K-x's caught the attention of first-time SLR families who had not considered Pentax before. This helped drive sales beyond our traditional user base, and, as I said, that's obviously critical to us on several fronts.
MJ: Which colors do people like best, do you know?
NB: In terms of popularity, while black was still the highest selling model, we saw very strong sales of white, followed by red. Blue turned out to be the least popular color. At Photokina, when an editor asked me if colors would still be a focus for us, I simply pointed to a display of the new K-r in black, white and red. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words [smile].
MJ: Well, just so you know, it appears you might have started something.
So as long as we're on the subject of consumers and marketing, I've noticed an undercurrent of complaint on various 'n' sundry fora about the fact that Pentax cameras aren't easily found any more in many camera stores. What's the story about that?
NB: Sure. I’ll try to give you a clear picture or explanation to what is a pretty complicated business matter. And because I sense the frustration is really focused on our lack of widespread brick-and-mortar presence, I’ll speak to that rather than online marketing, where we’re enjoying strong sales and growth.
First, our decline in channel presence actually started years ago when we were late to transition from film to digital cameras. We lost quite a bit of shelf space at that point, and it's taking a long time to gain back the level of presence we had in the film days.
Secondly, up until the last two years, quite frankly we did have not had a complete product line (good, better, best compacts and at least two SLR models) which is the type of assortment that many accounts like to merchandize. It’s not financially feasible, especially in today's economy, for a retailer to stock a brand with only one or two sku’s. Up until recently we didn’t really have a compelling line-up that gave accounts a reason to want to carry Pentax.
However, starting last year with the K-7, K-x colors, and our new compacts, many accounts recognized that we in fact were starting to transition the company into a brand that has a good line-up, at the right price points, with some very unique features.
This increased confidence in our brand, products, and positioning has allowed us to start expanding in several key areas. For example, we are now in Fry’s and Ultimate Electronics who are well known regional CE retailers. Hopefully those of you in greater L.A. have seen that we’re renewing our relationship with Samy’s Camera and that all their stores now carry Pentax product. Just this fall, we were really pleased to be invited back to W.B. Hunt, which is a very important photo specialty dealer in the greater Boston area. In fact, we’re launching our first workshops with W.B. Hunt in early November.
In addition to these new accounts, we’ve also worked hard to re-establish our brand and presence with all major retailers in the greater New York City area—which is the single most important region for our business and I suspect many other manufacturers as well. And while I don’t want to risk alienating any of our dealers by not mentioning them by name, it’s important to highlight a shining star when you see one. For anyone living in the greater St. Louis area, you’re probably aware that Creve Coeur Camera, which now has nine stores, does an incredible job representing Pentax. And while I can’t reveal numbers, it’s fair to say that our market share in this region, thanks to Creve Coeur, exceeds our national average by more than just a few millimeters (sorry for the lens pun).
Regarding big-box retailers, I think it’s realistic to say that we still have a ways to go before we’re on the shelves of these brick and mortar stores. As most readers know, the big-box stores are only interested in brands that drive traffic to their stores, and its very difficult and expensive to displace any of the major incumbent brands. Having said this, we do sell our cameras on all the big-box retailers' dot-com shops and we are seeing consistent growth there. This is important, as these retailers naturally measure a brand's performance online, and it's certainly a factor in deciding whether to bring a brand or product into their stores.
In closing on this topic, it's likely this explanation won't stop the posts asking, "where can I buy Pentax?" However, I did want your TOP readers to know that we have a channel strategy that is working and allowing us to expand our distribution in a manner that works for both our partners and Pentax. And having developed and executed on several distribution plans over my career, it's important to remember that these things take time and in the end it's all about developing long-term relationships with your resellers.
MJ: That's a more complicated answer than I expected, but fascinating—thank you.
Just one more question: is there anything you can tell us about lenses? This brings us more or less back to where we started here—we've long known lenses are one of the strong points of Pentax DSLRs, although I've been critical of the lack of a normal lens in the ~35mm-equivalent range.
NB: LOL! A discussion on lenses is much more complicated and emotional than dissecting a channel strategy, but let me try to touch on a few points related to your question.
First, on a personal note, I totally understand your desire for a 35mm equivalent lens. Early on in my career, I shot with rangefinders and a 35mm lens almost exclusively. Since you’ve added the K-5 to your own camera bag, as others have suggested, you should check out the DA 21mm ƒ/3.2 Limited. It’ll give you a 32mm field of view, it’s sharp, has to my eyes a very pleasing color and snap, and although it’s not superfast, that's offset by its very compact design. I think you’ll also find that it balances beautifully with the K-5 and would be the sort of combination that you could shoot with all day without creating any stress on your wrist if you know what I’m saying. Other lenses you should consider, though they are longer focal lengths, are two of my favorite—the DA 35mm Macro ƒ/2.8 and the FA 31mm ƒ/1.8.
With regards to our lenses overall, I think it's fair to say we’re trying to focus on lenses that offer better than average utility, as well as continue to expand our DA Limited line of very compact, high quality optics that are truly the perfect match for our small and ergonomically solid bodies.
Our two most recent lenses address the utility end of this spectrum. The DA 35mm ƒ/2.4 AL lens was designed to provide a new variation for our kit configurations, as well as provide users with a small, lightweight affordable prime lens option. From a design standpoint, I think our engineers wanted to offer customers an introductory kit configuration that in their words was "nimble and easy to use and could be carried around comfortably." It’s probably our lightest prime lens and was designed to produce sharp images with a good bokeh thanks to its relatively bright maximum aperture of ƒ/2.4. I should also point out that comes with our well-regarded SP coating, so I think this ultimately will be viewed as a solid addition to our line-up. And just to clarify, the decision to offer this with a body in a kit configuration will vary from region to region, so it will also be available as a stand-alone lens.
The other lens we announced around Photokina time this past fall is the DA 18–135 ƒ/3.5–5.6 WR. Our goal with this lens was to address the high demand for a 7.5 times zoom (27.5 to 207mm in 35mm equivalence) in a compact and weather-resistant design. I also believe our engineers' goal was to make this the smallest and lightest lens compared to any other manufacturer in this zoom range category. And although it's not totally weather sealed like our SDM lenses, it comes with some very nice features including rounded aperture blades for smoother bokeh, ED glass, SP coating and quick-shift focus. It also continues the same design concept of our popular DA 18–55mm WR. And since I've already seen speculation on some forum posts about its origin, we wanted to differentiate this design from any other third-party lens and therefore I should add this is a totally home-grown Pentax-designed and Pentax-made lens.
Regarding our Limited line-up, although I don't think we actually refer to it as a Limited lens, our new D FA 100mm ƒ/2.8 WR Macro is a telephoto lens that shares the same "Limited" concept by using a solid aluminum housing and compact design. It also features rounded aperture blades which the predecessor FA 100 macro didn’t offer, and its WR seals offer nature photographers the ability to shoot 1:1 macro images even in damp, inclement outdoor conditions.
MJ: And people like it.
NB: Right. From what I'm reading, now that this lens has been out on the market for a while, it sounds like users are extremely pleased with its overall construction, performance, and image quality.
While we could go on and on about lenses, I hope this gives you a sense that we’ll continue to focus on lenses that have a real purpose or goal and not just release lenses to fill out a catalog listing. And, above all else, they'll have the fit, finish, optical performance and compact size that very few manufacturers seem to care about anymore.
MJ: Also, people are wondering about additional lenses for the 645D....
NB: We did announce at Photokina (although it might have been lost in the noise with other releases) that in addition to the new D FA 645 55mm which is shipping now, we’ll ship a 25mm ƒ/4 lens early next year. While I’m not at liberty right now to discuss any specs, we’ll keep you and your readers updated as soon as details become available.
MJ: Ned, I know you're busy, so I'll let you go now. But thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. I appreciate it.
NB: You're welcome. My pleasure.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by G. Frank Peterson: "Regarding color cameras: I never thought my wife would ever shoot with a DSLR, then she saw the purple K-X.... We went to Alaska, as usual, nobody commented on my DSLR; but people went nuts over her purple K-x. Viva anything that grows our passion."
Featured [partial] Comment by Robbie Corrigan: "Even the President of Pentax USA is giving you lens advice :) "
Mike replies: Just so everybody knows, a kind reader has offered to loan me his 31mm to try, so that and the 35mm DA Macro will be doing the lens duties for now.
Featured Comment by Kris Oren: "I'm the one who took the second picture in the article, with my brand new K-r. I just wanted to say that I clicked on the 55–300 lens, set the camera on 'action' and started taking pictures. Since I don't know much about photography I stick with the 'auto' settings. This was literally my first shot. It was a very cloudy day, so I was a little worried about the action shots in low light. I took a bunch of pictures and got some great series shots before, over, and after jumps. Shooting across the ring, the pictures were clear and crisp. I even caught my daughter closing her eyes and gritting her teeth over one particularly bad jump! Needless to say, I'm very happy with your recommendation Mike. I'm also glad that Ned liked the picture!"