By Andrew Kochanowski
English gloom lifted for a few moments of sunshine, so Belgian and English soccer—er, football—fans hurl invective at each other. Lime-vested bobbies appear in moments. Surely, something good must happen. It's a fine thing I have a camera with me. I turn it on shutter priority, 1/500 second, and wait. The fingers of my left hand fall loosely around a small, metal lens. I take a peek at the engraved distance scale; a flick to the right and I find infinity, a few millimeters to the left and I'm focused a few feet in front of me. I know where my focus plane will be, but just in case, I take a quick look at my viewfinder. A tiny adjustment and the figure in front of me is in focus. Snap.
A cab squeezes by, and there, two girls, one wearing a fur. Whump, whump, I keep snapping; no shutter lag to speak of. Move in, move out, cross the lane, back up, avoid getting pushed by the cop line separating the English and Belgians. Yes, the girls are now together, maybe there'll be something good out of this.
The sun is strong now, time to switch to aperture-priority. I flick the command dial—what a positive click—and set it to ƒ/8. I think I'll walk over to Regent Street, maybe Knightsbridge, and see how things look there. Plenty of space on my card, the battery still full, it will be a good day's shooting. I don't yet know what I got, maybe nothing, but if the photos fail—as almost all street photos do of course—the fault will be solely mine. I've been using an odd-looking thing to snap with: the Pentax K-01. And a delightful little camera it is.
A little background. Though pretty much anything will do for candid photography, I do like my cameras small(ish), unobtrusive, quick, and controllable largely by feel. A Leica M9 is, of course, grossly overpriced for what you need and get, the older M8 hopeless at any ISO over 640. DSLRs are, well, DSLRs. The Micro 4/3's system sensors are meh, their manual focus crude. Gimme some dynamic range, and at 3200 ISO while you're at it. Throw in good battery life, please, I like to shoot for several hours. And may I please have a set of good, small lenses to put on it? Now, not on the five-year roadmap, Sony?
Though I had never owned a Pentax in my life, when the K-01 was previewed in March, I was intrigued. The Pentax K-5 DSLR with essentially the same APS-C Sony sensor has nearly peerless DR. I don't want a DSLR for the street, and, like a fixed dog, the K-01 has no hump. It was starting to sound pretty good. What's this? No adapters? It takes every K-mount lens ever made—wait, don't Pentax make a bunch of tiny, metal primes? With smooth, damped focus rings, and built-in hoods? Yes, they seem to. B&H is my friend; better yet they have a generous return policy. A black and aluminum K-01 with a Pentax DA 21mm ƒ/3.2 (32mm equivalent) is on my front porch in a couple of days. The Oly OM-D, a faux SLR with probably the same Panasonic sensor as is in my GX1 will have to wait.
The K-01 looks the biz. It’s a chunky-feeling, solid thing, all modern, angular, with brushed aluminum controls, and a thick, ribbed rubber coating. On the bottom there is a signature of the guy who designed it for Pentax (Marc Newsom, who I admit I had never heard of). The controls feel fast, positive, and intuitive. Dedicated buttons for pretty much everything, a fat control wheel for my thumb. An Info button brings up pretty much everything else. On a single screen. No menus to look at while shooting. Who would have thought? A soft, almost inaudible shutter sound. Nice heft without feeling heavy. Perfect balance with the DA 21mm. Hmm. There is no external viewfinder, not even an EVF, and you can't add one. The forums are all a twitter, it's a dealbreaker, indeed. What I see is a beautiful, fixed-position, 3-inch, 900K-dot screen. Well, I think, I bet I could take a photo or two with this setup.
Here's my studied advice after about 3,000 exposures: having no external VF makes no difference at all. While I admire a good optical viewfinder second to none (and admit to loathing EVFs, even the one on a Sony NEX-7), for the street, for this type of shooting, OVFs and EVFs offer little real utility. Yes, I know strong sunlight washes out a screen, and polarized sunglasses make a vertical frame impossible. Surely a bit of ingenuity can compensate. In real life, shooting in the middle of everything, I can glance at the screen while turning the focus ring on the lens. Or I can let the AF work and override it when I want. In dim light, where many a DSLR starts to hunt around, focus peaking with manual focus work perfectly. It all works, in fact, especially the interface between AF and manual focus. I can switch on the fly with a sturdy switch right where my left thumb would fall without looking up from the action.
Proof of the pudding is in the eating, they say, and this pudding's files are flat out fantastic. Clean, detailed shooting up to 3200 ISO, with 6400 certainly useable for decent-size prints. Noticeably nicer tonality than the best I was able to get from Micro 4/3 sensors. Pentax did it right dispensing with a proprietary format, giving RAW files in DNG, so they load right up into Aperture. Color balance is very, very good right out of the box. Battery life over 500 shots, more if you use less AF. Decent buffer in JPEG, a little slow in RAW but overall pretty responsive. I'm sold. Time for a wide and a normal, for the perfect set of lenses. A Pentax DA15mm ƒ/4 (24mm equivalent) and 35mm ƒ/2.8 Macro (52mm) are on the doorstep in short order.
Is it perfect? No, of course not. A photographer friend took one look and called it a biscuit tin that takes pictures. Hard to argue with that, really. But it's a pretty good picture-taker, even without a biscuit inside.
Andrew Kochanowski is a member of candid and street photography collectives Burn My Eye and Un-Posed. His work with Burn My Eye is on display now at the London Festival of Photography, and with Un-Posed later this year in Berlin. All photos copyright of the author, all taken with the Pentax K-01 with DA21 and DA15 lenses.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.