When we saw the first mirror-less interchangeable-lens compact cameras just a few years ago, it was clear that the main reason the mirror went away was to allow for smaller cameras and lenses. And while the first models to hit the market were indeed smaller than DSLRs, none were truly pocketable—at least not with a lens attached.
But Pentax’s Q ($800, street, with kit lens) is smaller than any ILC we’ve held. It is so little that some people think it is a toy at first glance. But with a 12.4MP sensor—albeit a small 6.17x4.55mm one—and all the controls you’d expect from an entry-level DSLR, the Q qualifies as more than a plaything.
In the Test Lab
As we expected, the Pentax Q’s small sensor size limits its resolving power while making noise a sticky wicket. In our standard test results, which are based on TIFF files converted from RAW using the camera’s included software, the Q scored only an Acceptable rating in resolution, with 1700 lines per picture height.
Furthermore, as ISO increases, its resolving power falls off and the noise level rises. Since the modified version of the bundled Silkypix software does not increase the noise reduction as the sensitivity setting increases, our official noise results look worse than you’ll experience shooting JPEGs at higher ISOs. For example, at ISO 800 the Q scored Unacceptable noise levels from TIFFs (4.5) while JPEGs earned a Moderate (2.7) rating. At the top sensitivity setting of ISO 6400, TIFFs scored an 18.2; JPEGs, 3.6.
When you look at resolution at those ISOs, however, you can see why. At ISO 800, TIFFs converted using the default noise reduction yielded 1640 lines, while JPEGs converted in camera turned in 1520 lines. At ISO 6400, TIFFs resolved 1480 lines; JPEGs fell to 1225 lines. (Experimenting with NR during RAW conversion can balance noise against resolution—if you are willing to do this.)
Lower ISOs tell a different story. Both JPEGs and TIFFs were tied in resolution from ISO 125 through 400. But, at ISO 125 and 200, TIFFs had less noise than JPEGs; at ISO 400 both scored a Moderate 2.4.
Color accuracy was decidedly better with TIFFs, which showed an average Delta E of 6.5, while JPEGs scored a 10.1. The TIFFs earned an Excellent rating, while the JPEGs fall two bands to High.
In overall TIFF image quality, the Pentax Q earned an Accept-able rating from ISO 125 through 200—in line with what you might expect from a compact.
For comparison, we tested the Canon PowerShot S95 (see PopPhoto.com/buying-guide/compacts) and measured more resolution, with 1940 lines at ISO 80 from TIFFs converted from RAW files. This may be due to the S95’s slightly larger sensor, which allowed Canon to apply less resolution-robbing noise reduction. Still, the Q outperformed it on color accuracy and noise at ISO 200.
If the Q attracts snapshooters who won’t ever make large prints, its lower-resolution images should be fine. Plus, if you shoot only JPEGs, then the noise shouldn’t be too bothersome.
In the Field
The Pentax Q’s small sensor definitely pays off when it comes to body size. (That’s not a given, as we found in our test of the Nikon 1 J1 last month.) We expected its handling to be irksome, but we were pleasantly surprised. Pentax’s designers did a great job of creating a cute little body that feels solid and provides plenty of access to controls.