I hardly know where to begin. But, since I've gotten pretty good over the years at anticipating typical web reactions to new products, I guess I'll start by saying this isn't "the Pentax mirrorless." No. Get that idea out of your brain. What it is is a premium point-and-shoot. A wee mini-digicam. You know, like the Olympus XZ-1, the Panasonic LX-5, and the Canon S95.
But it is different. It's the first mini system digicam. It has interchangeable lenses.
The sensor is not APS-C or 4/3rds size. It's a 1/2.3" digicam-sized sensor (6.16x4.62mm). So who in the world would design an interchangeable-lens premium point-and-shoot for such a small format?
Well, let me answer that rhetorical question with another question: does the Q system remind you of anything?
(The picture is a hint.)
So what does "Q" stand for, anyway? Quirky? Qute? (More on that in a moment.) There are a couple of trends that seem on the rise in Japan. One is, well, tininess, and the other is...let's call it "playfulness." Almost as if we are all starting to get just a bit tired of serious, utilitarian, cookie-cutter black-blob DSLRs and the everlasting pursuit of clinical perfection, and just want to have a little fun. So take a look at the system photo below:
(That clip-on optical finder, by the way, is for the standard prime lens.) So can you read the word engraved on those two lenses in the front? Here it is a little bigger in case you lost your reading glasses when you were out on the Bay in your cigarette boat today:
"Toy" lens? Whaaa?
Never fear, the standard prime lens (47mm-equivalent) and the standard zoom (27.5–83mm-e) are both top quality, highly corrected lenses. A third is a fisheye (!). The "Toy Lens Wide" (35mm-e) and "Toy Lens Telephoto" (100mm-e) are both designed with aberrations deliberately left in, like a toy camera, or a Lensbaby, or a Lomo. Each is only going to cost $79.95 (!!).
They're just for fun, in other words.
That can't possibly be for us.
Well, speaking of that, you might have noticed that in most of North America, it's the middle of the night as the embargo ends and this post goes up. Not a terribly logical time for a product introduction. You can probably guess where it's the middle of the day: Tokyo. The Q system might or might not be popular in the rest of the world, but I get the feeling it's basically a Japanese product for the Japanese market. It's all between Japan and Japan. So natter all you want about the concept: if you're not Japanese, you most likely weren't the immediate target. So chill out. You're invited to the party, you just don't happen to be the guest of honor this time around is all.
Littlest for now
I never put much store in smallest or "biggest" or "this-est" or "that-est." It doesn't seem like a real distinction. It's always provisional. Somebody can always out-do you later. Neverthless, the Q will be the smallest interchangeable-lens camera system on the market when it ships. Take that, other tiny cameras!
In any event, if I'm right and "tiny" and "fun" are both hot in Japan at the moment, then the Q system hits both objectives at least as hard as anything else out there. I don't know who can beat interchangeable $80 lomo-esque lenses and The Tiniest crown. Maybe if the camera came in paisley.
It doesn't, just black and white (both with the silver lens).
As you might expect from the foregoing, the camera will be available in Japan well in advance of shipping to the rest of the world. When it finally gets to North America next fall, it will be sold as a kit with the standard prime for somewhere in the neighborhood of $800.
So here's a few more points about the Q. As for what the Q stands for, I'll bet you've never heard this before: The original Pentax bayonet lens mount, the venerable K-mount, was called "K" because it was supposed to stand for for "king." As in, king of the lensmounts. Very early promotional material and advertisements actually featured a king playing card to play up the association. Well, so now you know what historical well they drew from to get the "Q" name:
Here's another fun fact about the Q system: Pentax engineers have actually been working on it for five years. They started the project before there was a sensor good enough for it, apparently trusting that, given the known pace of development, a good enough sensor would be along eventually. Only when Sony's latest back-illuminated CMOS sensor become available did Pentax finish the project and bring the product to completion.
I'm not going to run down all the features and settings, as there are a zillion places on the internet you can get all that. But I will just note that the camera has built-in sensor-shift image stabilization. And, I will note that I haven't the faintest idea what they're talking about with all that stuff about the in-camera "bokeh control," so don't ask me! (In fact, I'm not even sure I want to know.)
We'll definitely get one of these to test once they wend their way to these shores.
ADDENDUM by Ctein: No doubt there will be many folks upset with the small size of the sensor, but as one who did a reasonable amount of photography with a camera of very similar sensor size and pixel count (the Fuji S100), I can testify that entirely professional results are possible from that size and pixel count. By way of example, I'm selling 17x22" prints of the following photographs, and most folks do not consider my standards to be low:
and here are a couple of three-frame stitched panoramas:
No, I don't expect the available light performance to be sterling. There's a lot of things I don't expect this camera to do. Only trying to preempt remarks of the "why waste a semi-professional design on such an amateur format" type.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Julian: "Hah! I just knew the big announcement would concern a Pentax product. My money was on a 'full-frame' DSLR to fill an obvious gap in the lineup, though."
Featured Comment by cgrab: "Great that the people at Pentax seem to have ideas of their own. First the 645 and now the Q-system. These cameras might not be for everyone, but certainly some people will want exactly that. Much better than another me-too product."
Featured Comment by John Roberts: "The price is indeed high, but kudos to Pentax for trying to keep the fun in photography (or maybe to put it back in). Does everything we do with a camera have to be 'professional grade'? Didn't we buy our first camera because we thought it would be fun to take pictures? It was only later that many of us got enslaved to the obsessive and unattainable pursuit of perfection. I'm for anything that shakes up the stuffiness of the photography world!"
Featured Comment by Aquemarropa: "No, thanks. An $800 camera with a sensor smaller than the one in the G12 or LX5? With Apple putting an 8MP camera in the next iPhone and having 1,000+ apps to customize your shooting, editing, post-production and (especially) sharing, it's clear that people can live with small sensor cameras if done right. Unfortunately for Pentax 'done right' really involves lower cost and more flexibility, not merely interchangeable toy lenses at the price of a Canon T3i. I suspect that after an initial sales flurry this system will be only slightly more popular than the niche Ricoh GXR system; and if I remember right Ricoh said they were aiming for 5,000 unit sales per month on that. I just cannot see people spending that kind of money on a camera merely for the pocketability factor considering the competition."
Featured Comment by T: "So many digital cameras, so few with a sensor the size of a piece of film."
Featured Comment by peter.gilbert: "Warning: Lenses may be a choking hazard for small children!"
Featured Comment by David H.: "The kit here in Japan (don't know which lens [kits will be sold with the standard prime —Ed.]) will be at about ¥70,000, which is might be a bit steep except for nuttier (?) enthusiasts who wouldn't mind paying that much for a halfway decent camera that is smaller than their car. Unfortunately, that price will likely never come down here, nor will much discount be found. At ¥40,000, I'd be tempted. At ¥70,000, it will need to be able to do things I know it can't. But I do know guys who might just pay that much....
"Small has always been big here, I just wonder why it has taken so long for companies to start to move to smaller digital cameras of decent quality. The vast majority of normal sane people I see taking photos are using cell/smart phones. Only old guys (and a few young women) are running around with huge Nikon D300s and such."
Featured Comment by Dave Luttmann: "$800? Dead in the water. Sorry, it's a cute idea, but overpriced. Come back at $500 and maybe we'll talk."
Featured Comment by John Eriksson: "This camera is quite capable of single-handedly murdering the premium compact segment (Canon G12), I think. I'm quite intrigued at this moment in time and might get one as soon as they are released here in Sweden."
Featured Comment by Amin: "When the rumors first emerged, I was as skeptical as anyone else. When the confirmation first came, I was as puzzled. Yet I find myself quickly warming to the idea. I like small gadgets, and this seems like good fun to me."
Featured Comment by Peter: "In sensors that small, a BSI [back-side illuminated —Ed.] sensor makes a big difference. Even though I recently got a smartphone, I still take along a Sony TX5 as my everyday camera, and it has probably the best low-light pictures out of any small-sensor digicam that I've ever used. Especially if you cheat and use the neat mode where the camera combines multiple frames to make a composite image in low-light. The technology is trickling down very quickly to the smartphone space as well.
"One odd observation: with all the talk about how the most recent Pentax DSLR's images are incredibly clean because of all the know-how they developed working around that Samsung sensor's noise a couple of generations back, you'd think they'd get more of the benefit of the doubt on their decision to finally bring this to market.
"As for the price, as many people have already mentioned, it's too rich for my blood. But that's just because I need a new camera system like I need a new hole in the head. I think when you consider the implications of interchangeable lenses, there will be a fair number of people who are willing to pay the $300 premium over a high-end, enthusiast compact. It'll depend greatly on what level of support Pentax brings to the table. Also unless demand is really high, or supply is really low, street prices will probably be lower."
Featured Comment by JohnMFlores: "In 2007 I purchased a Ricoh GX100 at a 50% premium over competing cameras from Canon, Panasonic, et al. Why? For the feel of it in my hands, the way the controls seemed to be directly connected to my mind's eye, and the way it disappeared when I tried to capture decisive moments. Connectivity—the organic kind—is important too, and if the Q offers that same feeling I'll happily pay the premium."
Featured Comment by John Robison: "What do these lenses use for light control? Rotating variable ND disc? I mean, at 8.5mm you sure couldn't afford to stop down very much before resolution suffers, a lot. I dunno, mayhaps there has been much progress in optical design for ultra short FL lenses lately. Clever idea though. I wonder if anyone else will jump on this concept.
"As for the 'toy' lenses. Well, a few years back Nikon sold (only in Japan I think) three or four lenses named 'Amusing Lenses.' If I recall correctly they were a fisheye, a 120mm that was macro or soft focus depending on how you configured the lens cells, and a 400mm ƒ/8. These were in the Nikon F mount, of course, and a full set today would probably go for one to two grand to a collector."
Ctein replies: John, first point: Focal length has nothing, directly, to do with resolution. Doesn't matter if it's an 8.5 mm lens or an 85 mm lens, it's the f-number (relative aperture) that limits resolution…if you have a diffraction limited lens. Big assumption, there.
Second point: you've never been able to stop down very far before resolution suffered, unless you were using large-format film. In a good 35mm system, with a top-quality lens and modern high-resolving films, stopping down below ƒ/4.8 sacrificed resolution. No joke. Most photographers never knew nor paid attention because they were incapable of testing this. It was my job to test for stuff like this.
Now that every semi-knowledgeable shutterbug with a large computer monitor can obsessively pixel-peep until their eyeballs bleed, you're seeing all sorts of panicky postings about how resolution degrades when you stop down too far.
Yawn. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Bottom line: you want to stop down very far to get increased depth of field or slow shutter speeds? Then you're going to sacrifice peak resolution.
Incidentally, for a system with the form factor of the new Pentax, the 'limiting aperture' isn't much different than it was for 35mm cameras. Somewhere between ƒ/4 and ƒ/5 .6. Stop down to ƒ/8 and you'll see a slight degradation in peak resolution. Stop down to ƒ/11 and you'll see a noticeable one. Stop down to ƒ/16 and it will be substantial.
As I said, same as the old boss.
Third point: short focal length lenses have been exceptionally good for many, many years. You can thank the motion picture industry for that. What's hard is making really good lenses with a wide field of coverage. But a short focal length lens for a smaller format, so that the field of coverage is the usual? Those lenses are really, really good.