Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Pentax Q: Review of the world's smallest interchangeable lens camera

I've had my Pentax Q for about a month now. I was planning to write some kind of review about it, but I think Steve Huff (a very good “real world use” reviewer) has already written everything I think needs to be written about the Q.

So, I will agree with his review, and say that this tiny camera has definite limitations, but within those limitations it is probably the best camera in the world.

As regular visitors here may have noticed, there have been a few times since January when I have posted shots from my Pentax Auto 110, which uses 110 format film. I absolutely love that camera and am proud just to own such an amazing piece of photographic history (the smallest SLR ever made, with a suite of high quality interchangeable lenses). However, shooting film these days is an expensive proposition. A reel of 110 film itself costs about £7, and developing is about the same. (Or more if you foolishly use Lomography, whose prices are not only higher but their service is terrible and their in-house scanning is an unprofessional, low quality joke. Don’t use Lomography..)

So while I love the look of the 110 film, and the highly portable nature of the Pentax Auto (the camera, three lenses and three films all fit in a small side pouch during my recent trip to New York), the cost of film made me want a similar sized camera to take its place. The Q fit the bill in many ways, but the biggest factor was that the Q was clearly the digital spiritual successor to the Auto 110. It’s not hard to see that from a photograph of the two of them side by side:

Sadly, the Q is not an SLR camera with a prism viewfinder. It is very much a “compact” camera, with all the framing etc done via its rear screen. As an SLR user, this is never something I enjoy, but with the Q I found myself becoming a bit more spontaneous because I didn’t have to bring the camera to my eye to take a photo: I could snap away without even looking at the screen, after getting used to the field of view of the 8.5mm prime lens (equivalent to about 47mm in 35mm terms).

And really, that’s what the Q is great at: snapping away with carefree spontaneity. And in encouraging that through its design, it has absolutely made me take photos that have been better than photos I could have taken with my SLR, simply for the very fact that I probably wouldn’t have taken them at all with my SLR. That’s a great thing.

The Q also has some really good custom image modes. And to use these smoothly and quickly, the Q has a great design feature: a front mounted quick dial which you can custom assign to whatever shooting mode you want. I have mine set up for “high contrast monochrome” (which I have used a lot, and absolutely love), “cross processing” (which comes back with some crazy and seemingly random colour effects, which sometimes look quite good), “vintage” (think Instagram), and “bleach bypass” (a lovely effect, with boosted contrast and highly muted colours). Having these all available at the flick of a dial can really change the way you take photographs.


Cross processing.

High contrast monochrome.

Bleach bypass.

While the Q may not be an SLR, one of the benefits of the Q for an SLR user is that it has about 90% of the functionality (and same menu system) as my Pentax SLR. Bulb mode? You got it. Interval shooting? You got it. Aperture priority? You got it. In fact, I can’t think of any feature of my SLR that I use that the Q doesn’t have.

Okay. So the image quality. It’s not going to beat my SLR. Not even close. The sensor is tiny – about the size of the nail on my little finger. But is the image quality of the Q bad? No, not at all. Shoot a landscape shot at night at f4 (sweet spot), 30 seconds at ISO 125 and you’ll get a pretty beautiful result. And in practical everyday use, I have never found myself disliking any photograph taken simply because of “poor image quality”. That’s partly because the Q isn’t about obsessive pixel peeping, and partly because the image quality is actually very good for the size of the sensor.

There are probably only a limited number of situations where I would take the Q and purposefully leave the SLR, but given the size of the Q, it means I can carry it everywhere, whereas I certainly don’t carry my SLR everywhere. That’s the great thing about the Q. It’s a very capable camera which you can have to hand when you see that great moment.

I have the 01 prime lens and the 02 zoom, though on the whole I much prefer the prime. If I were going out with just the Q (packing light?) then I would take both lenses, but on the whole I find the prime produces much nicer results. The newly released 08 wide zoom looks like it would be a nice thing to have, but the price is steep, to say the least. I’m not quite sure what kind of photographer would be willing to pay the £300-400 price for such a lens.
One thing I would say is that I would never have paid anywhere near retail value. I got mine as a heavily discounted “returned/refurbished” deal. I do think the original retail value was a bit too high for what this camera is, especially if (like me and probably many others drawn to the Q) you already have a DSLR and so would not want to blow a lot of money on a camera with considerably lower specifications. But if you can get it for a good price then I high recommend the Q (or even better, the larger sensor Q7, which at the present time is almost unobtainable at a reasonable price).

I love the Q. Now I have one, the Pentax Auto 110 can sit proudly on the shelf while the Q goes in the bag.

To finish, here are a collection of some of my favourite shots so far: