Whither Pentax?

May 7, 2010

I guess this was the week for Pentax’s European executives to go rogue.

Hiroshi Onoda made some comments to the Spanish Pentaxeros website, hinting at future “more professional” DSLRs (google translation). Then, Stephen Sanderson told the UK’s Amateur Photographer that Pentax “hadn’t ruled out” a mirrorless, EVIL model.

Both statements were vague and ambiguous enough to set off a storm of speculation on Pentaxian discussion boards. Many hearts fluttered, imagining Pentax might introduce a DSLR based on a 24 x 36mm “full frame” sensor; others wondered whether they might join Olympus and Panasonic in the Micro Four Thirds camp.

Full-Frame Pentax?

Pentax Surprises Ahead?

But there’s two key facts that must always be remembered about Pentax:

  • They do not make their own sensor chips
  • Last year, the company almost went under

At PMA 2010, Pentax USA president Ned Bunnell gave an interview with Imaging Resource. He said plainly that Hoya, Pentax’s new corporate owners, were demanding more focus on the bottom line, and a clearer marketing strategy.

So, Pentax simply cannot build every camera its fanbase thinks might be cool.

Both Onoda and Sanderson tried to explain Pentax needs “go down a different route,” rather than compete head-to-head with larger and stronger competitors like Canon and Nikon. (Pentax learned this the hard way back in 1980, with their pro-spec LX film SLR system.)

One key concept in marketing is to identify your brand’s particular differentiators, then emphasize those. The Pentax identity seems to be in well-engineered but “approachable” models, appealing to beginners and enthusiasts.

Ned Bunnell noted Pentax was very aware of shoppers making their first move up from point & shoots (e.g. colors help make the K-x appealing as a fun family camera). Pentax also gets better recognition among hobbyist amateurs, some of whom have a fond history with the brand’s film SLRs.

The entry-level K-x is doing well with both groups. Pentax might capitalize on that by offering a step-up DSLR model, priced more modestly than the K-7 (which is nearly $1000). And the K-7 itself is due for some enhancements: It’s an embarrassment that the entry-level K-x has a better sensor. Meanwhile, Bunnell said Pentax was listening to complaints that the K-x lacked illuminated AF points in the viewfinder, suggesting one obvious change for a future successor.

So there are a number of likely next steps Pentax might take to “complete its DSLR range” as Onoda said. It is quite clear that Pentax cannot, and will not, go after the pro-shooter markets already well-served by Canon and Nikon’s top DSLRs.

Instead, Pentax’s 645D essentially created a whole new market segment, entry-level medium format, where they have no direct competition. But even there, Pentax is moving very cautiously.

So what of an “enthusiast” full-frame DSLR? Armwaving assertions that “costs of semiconductors always fall” are easy; but there remain real reasons why a full 24×36 sensor will always carry a premium price. And there are large up-front costs in creating CMOS masks for a new chip. So who would manufacture one for Pentax?

Canon doesn’t sell its sensors to competitors. Kodak is committed to CCDs—not CMOS (note the high cost, lack of video, and comparatively poorer performance of the Kodak-chipped Leica M9). Samsung’s future NX cameras will all be APS-C; selling enough 24×36 chips outside the company to make it worthwhile seems doubtful.

That leaves Sony—known to build 24×36 chips for Nikon’s DSLRs, as well as for their own. And Pentax is already buying its K-x sensor from Sony.

Sony’s 24 Mp full-frame A850 sells for $2000. For the market segment, this counts as aggressive pricing. Even so, Sony has struggled to win market share—in part because gaps in their lens and accessory lineup make them uncompetitive with Canon & Nikon (issues that would apply to Pentax, too.)

Why would Sony ever sell 24×36 sensors to Pentax at a price letting them undercut Sony’s own DSLRs?

It’s also silly to think that APS-C sensors are really “holding back” enthusiast photographers. The sensor in the K-x demolishes the ones $4000 professional cameras used a few years ago—a time when photography still limped along somehow. As photographers get into (paid) work where 24 megapixels might conceivably matter, they’ll also need the full professional accessory lineup which Pentax cannot provide.

Now in some ways, an “EVIL” camera would be a better fit with the Pentax identity: A high-quality but approachable, small camera.

Currently, the only source for Micro Four Thirds sensor chips is Panasonic. Originally, the Olympus name brought the credibility of a traditional camera brand to µ4/3. But today, it’s not clear what Pentax joining too would offer Panasonic—besides competition. Pentax would also be starting from zero with a µ4/3 lens lineup.

If Pentax moved into EVIL, the most obvious choice would be using the same APS-C sensor as the K-x. Pentax would need to use a shorter lens register than K mount; and to have a few new compact lenses available at launch. But an adapter for their current DA lenses would buy Pentax time in establishing another lens system (although this does undercut the EVIL size advantage).

The wild card is whether Pentax’s former, and now frayed alliance with Samsung would lead them to use the NX lens mount. A rumor surfaced that Schneider-branded lenses would come soon to the NX system; so Samsung doesn’t necessarily need Pentax. (Though keep in mind that at least one of Samsung’s prior “Schneider” lenses was a straight-up relabeled Pentax.)

But I “wouldn’t rule it out.”


2 Responses to “Whither Pentax?”

  1. E Says:

    Not only the 35/2, but all Samsung’s so called “Schneider Kreuznach” SLR lenses are rebadged Pentaxes. Different name, font and a blue stripe instead of a green one, but the entire Samsung SLR lens line-up: 18-55, 50-200, 16-45, 12-24, 10-17 Fisheye, 35, 100 Macro, and 18-250 are all Pentax DA/FA lenses.

  2. […] 30, 2010 On Pentaxian discussion boards, one dispute that absolutely refuses to die is whether Pentax will (or should) introduce a “full […]

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