Pentax: Sensors or Lenses?

May 30, 2010

On Pentaxian discussion boards, one dispute that absolutely refuses to die is whether Pentax will (or should) introduce a “full frame,” 24x36mm sensor DSLR.

The pleading for 24×36 often comes from those who might have already invested heavily in earlier FA lenses—meaning, ones originally designed to cover the old 135 film format.

I understand the emotion here—it’s quite true that an APS-C sensor wastes some of the capabilities of those lenses. And let’s take it as given that Pentax’s engineers would be fully capable of producing an excellent 24×36 camera.

But does Pentax “owe” its existing customers such a model?

Remember that Pentax had a serious near-death experience over the past couple of years. And its new corporate owner, Hoya, has taken a tough line in pushing them back to profitability.

From a business point of view, it’s hard to see an argument for selling a niche, low-volume body that might reduce the number of lenses Pentax could sell.

Entry-level DSLRs are the industry’s volume, brand-awareness, and profit leaders; and APS-C sensors will always serve well in those models.

Now, functionally, the main advantage of 24×36 over APS-C is in high-ISO performance. All other things being equal, the larger sensor area potentially yields about one f/stop’s gain over APS-C.

But the current Pentax K-x already gives quite decent performance at ISO 1600. And rather than fetishize a particular sensor size, our question is really “what do I need to get the shot?”

An equally valid route is to use APS-C lenses that are one f/stop brighter. (Depth of field stays comparable, if you use the correspondingly shorter focal lengths.)

So Pentax could also expand its choices of “DA” (APS-C) lenses—offering brighter apertures—even if it meant duplicating some existing focal lengths. (People may forget that two-tier lens lineups were standard practice for most manufacturers’ film SLRs.)

It has often been noted that Pentax has several glaring holes in its DA lens lineup:

  • Any lens f/2.0 or brighter (aside from the unimaginative and problematic 55/1.4 SDM)
  • A “normal” lens for APS-C, meaning 28–33mm (no, the FA Limited 31mm costing $1000 does not count)
  • Any prime costing less than $340

Pentax has no answer to Nikon’s hugely popular 35/1.8, which sells for $200. Pentax does not compete with Sigma’s 30/1.4, which costs $440.

Yet new lenses in this range would do much to negate the perceived “full-frame advantage.” These might be an appealing, reasonably-priced purchase for any Pentax DSLR owner. Would not this offer Pentax more sales potential than a new, costly 24x36mm body?

Quirky focal lengths are something of a Pentax tradition; so to start things out, I’ll suggest one:

How about a 29mm f/1.7?


8 Responses to “Pentax: Sensors or Lenses?”

  1. petavoxel Says:

    Before someone mentions it: Yes, APS-C SLRs have poorer, “tunnel vision” viewfinders compared to 24x36mm ones. My half-sarcastic comment is that you can solve this problem for $30 by buying a Pentax ME Super film body off eBay…

  2. Geoff Says:

    If you do low light photography, full frame has its advantages, better ISO (one stop at least), better view finder, better wide angle (I am talking Nikon here with the 14-24mm) nothing compares in APS-C lenses belive me, I have used both.

    But if I am doing telephoto work the APS-C is much better due to the extra reach of lenses.
    Larger sensors are better no doubt.

    Medium format digital is better than full frame 35mm which is better than APS-C which is better than point and shoot.

    The previous comment says to buy a film camera but where can you get ISO6400 film which I have with my digital D700 full frame camera.

    • petavoxel Says:

      The best sensor is the largest one—right up until the point that it makes the camera and lenses too expensive.

      That point may evolve over time (and it’s a different calculation for Nikon and Canon, who have a significant pro customer base). What I’m asking here is what business decision makes the most sense for Pentax today.

      • Geoff Says:

        The best business decision for Pentax may be to provide the best APS-C cameras that they can and concentrate on that market. Nikon and Canon have the pro market, I believe they sell many more 24x36mm cameras than even Sony in the 24x36mm segment.

  3. petavoxel Says:

    Last spring, Pentax USA president Ned Bunnell blogged with some thoughts which came close to saying directly that a full-frame Pentax made no sense. Worth a read, for anyone still harboring those hopes.

  4. Craig Says:

    One advantage of putting out a professional-grade full-frame camera would be that it would encourage more people to take Pentax seriously again. Even among consumers, the perception that Canon and Nikon are “what the pros use” does influence buying decisions, and I think the A900 has boosted Sony’s “street cred” among camera buyers whether or not any “real pros” actually use it.

    One aspect of this perceptual issue is that if a camera maker has no professional model, it encourages the suspicion that they’re incapable of producing one. This in turn makes people wonder whether their consumer-grade cameras are really as good as Canon’s or Nikon’s.

    • petavoxel Says:

      I understand the thinking here: A full-frame body as a “halo” product that reflects well on the whole brand. But by that reasoning, Pentax’s new 645D ought to be even more powerful as a symbol.

      Given Pentax’s recent troubles, I’m skeptical Hoya would let them introduce any camera unless it seemed it could pull its own weight in sales.

      • Craig Says:

        Your point about the 645D seems logical, but I don’t quite believe it because I think medium format is too far off the consumer’s radar. Most consumers these days don’t even know MF exists. Their image of a “pro photographer” is a guy with a high-end 35mm DSLR. If they’ve ever heard of Hasselblad, they probably think it’s just a really expensive 35mm camera, a sort of photographic Rolex.

        You’re probably right about Hoya’s unwillingness to invest in Pentax products unless they look like they’d be profitable, and they may well be right to think that way, but I don’t think that invalidates my point.

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