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.
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).
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.
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
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?