Pentax: The Dying Brand?

Pentax: The Dying Brand?

Pentax is one of those loved brand names that inspires confidence and loyalty among its followers, a result of its engineering excellence and value for money. Yet, it has been largely absent from the camera market in recent years. Has it slipped into a commercial coma, and will life support be switched off shortly?

Pentax was born during the Japanese bonfire of large national corporations at the turn of the 20th century, celebrating its centenary in November 2019. It began life as a lens manufacturer for spectacles, progressing to the camera and cine lenses by the time it changed its name to the Asahi Corporation in 1938. As with most camera companies, Pentax switched to manufacturing military optics during World War II before being disbanded by the occupying Allied forces. It then reformed in 1948 and continued manufacturing lenses for (what became) Konica and Minolta. The reputation for the quality of Japanese camera and lens manufacturers became known during the war. However, the catalyst for global expansion was the 1950 Korean War, where David Douglas Duncan famously discovered and promoted Nikkor lenses. It was no different for Pentax, and the influx of orders led to a boom in and expansion of the industry. As with other manufacturers of the time, having both cameras and lens production was critical to an in-house system, particularly in the era of new lens mounts.

Early Cameras

The post-war period was also an interesting time in camera development. While Leica had released the 35mm rangefinder in 1924, the large format camera remained popular (Weegee famously used the Speed Graphic), along with the twin-lens reflex (TLR, such as Vivian Maier's Rollieflex). Yet, camera manufacturers worked furiously to solve the problem of the reflex camera, and it was Pentax that released the first Japanese 35mm SLR in 1952 in the form of the Asahiflex, introducing the first instant-return mirror latterly.

Asahi acquired the Pentax trademark from Zeiss Ikon in 1957 (a contraction of pentaprism and Contax) and has used it continuously since. Its breakout product was the 1957 Asahi Pentax SLR, which introduced the first SLR viewfinder pentaprism. So began a period of intense innovation that saw the first TTL metering (Spotmatic), production of one million SLRs (1966), TTL AE, Super-Multi-Coated lenses, and TTL AF amongst others. The 1960s also saw Pentax develop a medium format range in the form of the 120 6x7 cameras, as well as the popular 110 Auto.

In 1975, Pentax tried to take a march on the lens mount wars by introducing the highly successful K-mount. Designed to the same flange distance as the M42 lens mount (which Pentax itself used), the K-mount replaced the aging screw-fit design with a bayonet-type, making it easy for manufacturers to modify existing lens models. It has subsequently been used on all Pentax DSLRs using a standard flange distance and a throat diameter of 45.46 mm and 44 mm (which is very similar to Nikon's F-mount).

Digital

Pentax was by and large late to the digital party; whereas Canon and Nikon had hybrid DSLRs from the early 1990s and full models from 1999, Pentax didn't release its first model until 2003 (*istD). However, it then made a strategic partnership with Samsung, where the *istDS, *istDL2, K10D, and K20D also appeared as Samsung products. Then began a fertile period of development. Arguably, they stole a march on Fuji's strategy of a feature-packed range of APS-C models, subsequently introducing the first medium format DSLR in 2010 (that was also affordable) to much acclaim. They were also early into mirrorless, releasing the Q in 2011 that featured a 1/2.3" IBIS sensor, making it the smallest MILC at the time. This was accompanied in 2012 by the K-01 that paired a Marc Newson-designed body using an IBIS APS-C sensor with the K-mount. Pentax really was on the march, backed up by that vaulted range of K-mount lenses.

Pentax Today

While we might think of Pentax as a camera brand, it was primarily an optics company. In addition to making 35mm and medium format lenses, it also produced sports optics (binoculars and rifle scopes) alongside medical (optical) instrumentation (and later, services). As with Canon, this is a profitable business. In 2008, at its merger with Hoya, it was one of the world's largest optical companies, with over 6,000 employees and a turnover of $1.5B (in 2007, equivalent to about $2B today). Hoya, also an optical company, wanted to strengthen its medical business, which raised the specter of selling off the imaging division. Hoya subsequently shifted all Japanese production to SE Asia, and then in 2012, the imaging division was sold to Ricoh.

The impact upon Pentax speaks for itself. Since 2012, their release cycle for new models has been glacial, and Ricoh's current models include the 645Z (2014), K-1 II (2018), KP (2017), K-70 (2016), K-3 II (2015), K-S2 (2015), K-50 (2013), K-S1 (2014), and XG-1. It is arguable that all (or nearly all) of these products were already in development (or were cosmetic updates on existing designs) at the time Pentax was sold to Hoya. How much innovation has genuinely taken place at Pentax?

So, what do we make of Pentax's current lineup and future strategy? The dual mirrorless cameras from 2011 were innovative: the Q took the small form factor of Micro Four Thirds and made it smaller, while the K-01 married a high-performance APS-C sensor with the K-mount. The K-01 was widely criticized for its poor ergonomics and rapidly killed off; the Q lasted longer, but was again retired. This was a pivotal moment for Pentax, and their acquisition by Ricoh couldn't have come at a worse time. They matched Sony and Fuji in developing a mirrorless APS-C camera, but decided to go with the K mount, rather than to develop a new mount, making a wealth of existing lenses directly compatible. It was a unique strategy, and the failure of the K-01 is as much about their takeover by Ricoh as the product itself. It was an ignominious strategic failure that has overshadowed them subsequently.

Pentax's adherence to an APS-C DSLR product range also hampered their ability to compete with Nikon and Canon, the full-frame K-1 finally appearing in 2016. That's not to diminish the achievements Pentax has made as to their reputation for class-leading features and competitive prices. The K-1 incorporated IBIS, pixel shift super-resolution images, and Astrotracer. However, it was produced at a time when Canon and Nikon were gearing up to release their full-frame mirrorless ranges, something we have yet to see from Pentax.

Likewise, their class-leading medium format 645Z remains dormant. At the time, DP Review said:

assures super-high-resolution images with a stunningly realistic sense of depth combined with vivid colors and rich shadow detail

Pentax Tomorrow?

If there are two key developments in the camera market, then they are these. Firstly, mirrorless is undoubtedly the future, as it offers a smaller body, a result of the simpler base design. This leverages the use of an optical lens mount to produce either better or smaller optics. Secondly, consumers have shifted from purchasing low-end mass-produced units (that peaked in 2010) to medium and top-end enthusiast and professional models. CIPA sales data show shipments of 15 million units worldwide, of which ILCs make up 53%. Of these, DSLRs make up 54%, down from 62% in 2018 and 66% in 2017. DSLR production will continue for the foreseeable future — and particularly lens sales — however, there is no strong commercial basis for their wide development. BCN sales data (for Japan) shows Pentax in third place in the DSLR market at 3.1% (about 10,000 units), which gives an indication of their reach.

Where is Pentax in the camera market? It notably doesn't have a mirrorless camera, let alone a mirrorless strategy. There is no new lens mount, no lens range, and no clear development path. Whereas Sony, Nikon, and Canon have, at least in part, laid out their future, Pentax remains silent. It clearly has engineering excellence and a mirrorless lineup that incorporates APS-C, full-frame, and medium format would be compelling. Yet, the market is both highly competitive and with declining camera sales, a difficult place at the moment.

What is the next step for Pentax?

Lead image courtesy Vadim Sherbakov via Unsplash and body image courtesy mr.dave1 via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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30 Comments

I have fond memories of my Pentax cameras but at this point I think it’s too late for them. The camera market is shrinking and for them to make big investments now just to catch up doesn’t make sense. They probably won’t be the last traditional manufacturer to slowly fade away.

"What is the next step for Pentax?"

sell it to someone who can turn the company around. would be a shame they continue in their current path. them and olympus. though olympus needs to stop having managers steal money and think they can sell 4/3 $3000 cameras. thats just nuts and was a waste of time.money

The Olympus scandal came out in 2011. 9 years ago. And it wasn't about managers stealing money. And the E-M1X actually did sell more than most people thought it would. It even made some professionals and some companies switch to Olympus MFT.

"And the E-M1X actually did sell more than most people thought it would."

nah, it didnt

"It even made some professionals and some companies switch to Olympus MFT."

nah it didnt

Michael Comeau's picture

Fuji's GFX series is where Pentax should have gone with medium format.

Pentax has a rich heritage in medium format film and they could have been far more successful in MF digital with better marketing and a mirrorless model.

TIMOTHY HUNOLD's picture

I got the K1 to rekindle my love of the 67ii. Just sold the K1 to go to the GFX

While Pentax looks like it's dying and is more undead then living. Ricoh also make the GRIII which is one of the most loved street cameras since the GR line came out and Ricoh like every other optics company has most of their profit in business to business optics like scanners.

Kurt Hummel's picture

Ricoh doesn't want to put money into the Pentax brand. They announced the DFA 85mm 1.4 back in Feb. of 2017 and it's still not out, not even a release date.

They are supposedly working on a new APSC body but who knows when or if it will make it and when it does what really are the chances it will have anything innovative about it. Most likely it will be up to the level of a 5 year old body from some of the other brands and it will be only mentioned in forums, photo sites and Youtube channels as being outdated from the start.

And then the 645Z, I wonder if Ricoh remembers that's in their lineup, they haven't done anything with that system in years. They just watched as Fuji came in and took over that market.

They are doing nothing to get new photographers into their systems and the ones left are getting older and on limited budgets or dying off.

Good article- sort of makes us appreciate the momentum of other players big and small. But I think the best outcome is for them is to limp and dwindle, then three years after the bottom falls out of the market and there is just three brands and they are so happy to survive they get lazy, an upstart will buy Pentex from Ricoh and start a disruptive brand kinda like uhh Sony??? :)

My K1 and KP still works great.... So how is Pentax dying or failing? Maybe it's because they're not making cameras for bloggers and youtubers who change cameras like they change opinions? I came from Fuji to Pentax and it's been the best investment I've ever made.

Tony Tumminello's picture

That might be the exact issue: who's pushing for the Pentax brand? If you're not making compelling features that get attention and push product, how long can the brand last on dwindling sales as people slowly forget the brand? Where are the advertisements? The physical camera store that I frequent has tons of ads for the EOS R, the Z50, the a6500, the GH5S......and nothing Pentax. If there's no features that get (ugh) influencers excited, there's no word of mouth. If your name isn't out there, whether by bloggers or just ads saying "Hey, look at our products!", how can you get a new generation of photographers who might not have heard of you to buy your stuff?

Maybe that's the issue. Catering to features as oppose to photography. Many of the "influences" are not photographers rather personalities who feign being photographers. They talk new new cameras and features all the time and are always quick to jump on anything so as to out scoop the next guy. How is that suppose to help an industry at large? Granted the camera companies would love for you to buy a new camera at each iteration, but that's not realistic and very costly. Also not many even go past their kit lens when getting a dedicated camera. Not saying these bloggers are the main problem, but the companies use them as much as they use the company to push product and earn views, what does that mean for us the actual user of these products who are then belittle for using something that was made last year when the newer model is out now? That why I say my K1 and Kp still work because when something new comes out its as if emotionally people think their current gear all of a sudden is broken and it sucks, rather than properly upgrading should the newer product adds to the way one prefers to shoot especailly if its needed and a lot times I find there now need at least regarding the cost

"My K1 and KP still works great"

how is that relevant to pentax dying?
so you have 2 cameras that work. so now pentax is profitable?
with the recession with covid 19, I have a hard time believing they will survive through it. also olympus.

How often do you buy a camera? How often does one reasonably have to buy a camera? Do you buy a refrigerator every 2 years? Even smartphone sales have slowed and a new "flagship" comes out every year. Anyway the camera industry as a whole is possibly dying due to various reasons and as a result they've all reacted to various ways to this by ether rasing prices, slowing producton, taking aways memory card slots making a distinction bewtween a pro camera and a enthusist, not offering firmware support as before, and reducing offerings. Hasn't Pentax done the same?

I was shopping for a camera to do wedding videography as well as stills for the summer. 2 bodies as I need a backup angle. that idea gets thrown out the window for this year as there will be very few weddings.

leave your rationale analysis of what I need or dont. lets focus on the subject of pentax. certain items people want to upgrade faster then other products for many reasons. justifiable or not, needed or not.

"as a result they've all reacted to various ways to this by ether rasing prices, slowing producton"

thats all fine in regular market. because you can predict. add the pandemic and people not buying much of anything that isnt really needed. add the last month of no work, panic buying uncertainty, and fear and there is no declining market. there simply isnt a market

we see canons financial quarter which includes jan/feb and march. people were in lockdown from march mostly. in my country we were from the 16th of march. so they had 2.5 months of potential sales. looking forward, its going to be horrific.

why do you think there are few pentax users?

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

You go as a wedding photographer and want to buy two cameras for that task. Fine.
But why do you don't want to use your actual body as, at least, a backup ?

You really think have to buy a new system because the previous one is so lame and useless and unable to cope with a wedding... Could you tell us what you were using until now to teach the world what we should never buy as photocamera ?

Really curious to know what is nice for your "other pro missions" but unable to stand a wedding. Really !

the single digiti bodies I use are not made for video. very soft footage. quite crap actually.
I want to get into video. a lot more work. higher pay also. theres also editing which Im going to learn.

a backup camera is usually one that will sit on a tripod as a static backup video cam. for slow dance, ceremony, or anything else.

im not buying a new system. im continuing to use my current lenses. but if I should buy different bodies then nikon, ill use an adapter. for now, nikon has no good option for me. I was considering the a7III but I absolutely hate that small body. but basically id buy a camera for the video only capability. seems a waste.

z cameras-no thanks. not buying first gen anything. D780 would be a viable option. no battery pack and no prores option and price is way too high.

possibly a d850. id buy used though. nothing is certain yet. as of now, everything is on hold because no weddings. no point to invest in an uncertain world/market.

I'm a K-1 user and love it, but recently I've been fairly hardcore into Fuji, mostly for the size and weight. I love love love the FA lenses, but they are heavy as hell to have slung around your neck for 10 hours on a wedding, and the equivalent kit (body + 24-70+70-200) in Fuji is 9lbs vs 14 for Pentax.

That said, unless my K-1 breaks, it's not going anywhere, but if Pentax doesn't make enough sales to survive or be reasonable to keep going, replacement parts, repairs, etc will disappear, and when my K-1 has some sort of issue it'll be useless.

Also knowing that there are new lenses and improved bodies (Pentax's AF and focus points and buffer are abysmal compared to other brands IMO) coming down the road would make people stick with them, but others, like me, look from Pentax's 33 focus points to Fuji's 91 and without the promise of a K-1-iii or similar, are going to start having wandering eyes. Which is sad, I love my K-1 and I have the 3 Amigos which are stunning lenses, and I'd pay a lot of money to be able to use my current Pentax lenses on a full frame mirrorless body that's smaller and lighter (like the new mirrorless offerings from Canon and Nikon).

Even pre-covid, I don't know how much longer Pentax would limp along if it wasn't supported by a big company with lots of other irons in the fire.

Mike Smith do your homework! "Ricoh's current models include the 645Z (2014), K-1 II (2018), KP (2017), K-70 (2016), K-3 II (2015), K-S2 (2015), K-50 (2013), K-S1 (2014), and XG-1" Eh?

Dude, the K-3 II, K-S2, K-S1, K-50 and XG-1 are not current models. If you want to write Pentax off, make sure you're not re-burying old corpses. And you missed the Ricoh GRIII, duh...

I'll pass on your bogus poll. Stay safe, everyone, and wash your hands again.

Big Name's picture

Ricoh is probably hoping the industry will make a turn around at some point otherwise they probably would have shuttered Pentax a long time ago. Now that DSLR’s are dead it probably means Pentax is dead too. Maybe the Chinese will buy it?

Matt Williams's picture

I'm not sure what they could do at this point. I doubt they have enough name recognition to make a turn to mirrorless successful, competing with a new medium format DSLR *might* be an option but a hard sell, given the ever-dropping prices of medium format mirrorless cameras. They could pivot to that and compete with Fuji and Hasselblad but they'd need a new lens line.

It is a shame, the K-1/II is great with features that other cameras still don't have, their glass is nice, and the GR line is sublime, but I don't know what they could do at this point.

Timothy Gasper's picture

My mind can't tell me that this is the end for Pentax, and I refuse to believe it. Could be that they are developing their mirrorless offerings and keeping it very secret. At least this is my hope. I feel this year will tell us what they have in mind. I can't see them waiting any longer than this. Not without losing a good foothold on possible future markets. They're a very good company and I have always liked them. Go for it guys.

Marc Synwoldt's picture

Will people ever tire of posting FUD about Pentax? We've read this idle and toxic Pentax-is-doomed idiocy for decades now, and Ricoh Imaging is still producing excellent Pentax-branded cameras, lenses, accessories, and binoculars, including one of the most fleshed-out APS-C line-ups in the industry. Yes, they have been niche products for quite a while now, but a niche brand may ultimately be in a better position to weather the storms of the markets than the supposedly too-big-to-fail manufacturers, who are not necessarily targeting the same kinds of customers. What if the majority of Pentaxians isn't as hot about mirrorless, or doesn't even care about the differences between DSLR and mirrorless all that much, as the people busying themselves with writing about Pentax's alleged demise?

The article is half well documented. Let me pick a superbe one : Arguably, they stole Fuji's strategy of a feature-packed range of APS-C models.
-> Considering Fuji started the X line ine 2012 by releasing the X-Pro 1, and Pentax released in 2003 the DSLR K-line, all is said.

Besides, idon't really get what's the point of this article (one every year) about Pentax being slow and so on..

"Besides, idon't really get what's the point of this article (one every year) about Pentax being slow and so on.."

are you a pentax user?

Mike Smith's picture

Thanks for spotting that typo. It should have read: Arguably they stole a march on Fuji's strategy...

David Peterson's picture

" Arguably, they stole Fuji's strategy of a feature-packed range of APS-C models, subsequently introducing the first medium format DSLR in 2010 (that was also affordable) to much acclaim."

Hang on, Pentax was first, doesn't that mean Fuji was copying Pentax??

francisco dania's picture

I wish Pentax made a new digital camera with old native mounts like m42 or Pentax-K that is a camera I would buy, with IBIS and good video and even trow some new lenses with those old mounts. All of that with a retro pentax look

I routinely use my K3ii, and still delighted! However, my film Pentax systems, including P67’s & P645 are still the stars with roll film! “Clunk, Clunk” goes the music!! 👍

I am using K1 mkII for year and a half now and it is my first Pentax. I choose it because of resolution, great ergonomy, dynamic range, pixel shift, available price, lens compatibility... As an amateur I deliberately decided to focus manually and at slow pace.
So I wish Pentax would focus only on three dslr: k1, kp and 645 sucessors. And of course GR. Whole photo industry will fall in deeper crisis, since essentially it produces luxury products. So less products to care about greater are chances to survive. K1 essentially have all I need. Photo industry does not need new camera every year. It is better to enhance existing ones, Fuji/Kaizen way. Or exchange some parts, like upgrade to mkII. In this light it makes sense not to introduce new mount. It is mainly market driven move to sell more equipment. Do I need f0.95 lens? No. An if I one day do, I will intentionally buy Nikon Z for that reason only. It is not camera that see picture, I do. And for that reason Pentax gives me enough. And this is philosophy Pentax should embrace to survive. What I wish are more light lenses with estetic look. Not necessary ultimate sharpness, just enough sharpness; in this aspect Contax lenses amazes me every time. Today every new 1,4/50 mm lens weight about 1kg, twice once did. Where is then mirrorless weight advantage? And does that mean that uncountable images with Planar or Takumar 50mm are bad? Pentax need to review, refresh old optical designs from past (Limiteds, eg) with new technology and that's it.