Why Is Pentax Convinced That DSLRs Are the Future?

Why Is Pentax Convinced That DSLRs Are the Future?

Pentax recently announced the K-3 Mark III, the third iteration of their flagship APS-C camera, which reinforces their stance that their future (and as they argue, the future of photography) is in DSLRs, not mirrorless cameras. With an industry increasingly focused on mirrorless cameras, why is Pentax going against the grain?

Back in 2016, long before mirrorless cameras had really taken hold in the industry, I reviewed the Pentax K-1 DSLR. You can read that review here, but long story short: I loved it. It is a fantastically unique camera, full of truly interesting features that enable new creative possibilities (instead of existing merely as marketing fluff) and backed up by a very capable and resolution-rich sensor. My only real qualm with the camera was its middling autofocus, but boy, the future looked bright for the company. I don't mean that in the sense that I thought they would overtake Canon or Nikon, but it sure seemed like they would continue in their niche as a more esoteric company with a smaller but fiercely loyal following. Honestly, the only reason I did not switch to a Pentax system at that point was because I like niche lenses, and their lens library is a bit limited in that sense. 

In the four years since I reviewed the K-1, the company's progress has been painfully slow, marked by bodies with very few changes and just a lens or two, at least up until the recently announced K-3 Mark III. In some sense, that is not surprising. Pentax has a much smaller market share, and we should not expect them to be throwing wads of cash at research and development and pushing out boundary-stretching gear at a breakneck pace like companies such as Sony or Canon. What did make me raise my eyebrow, however, was when a Ricoh executive claimed that he thought mirrorless was essentially a fad and expected the majority of users to return to DSLRs in "2-3 years." 

This is a seriously cool camera.

I find it really hard to believe that will be the case, and I get the sense that other companies do not believe it either. After all, look at Canon, for example, which has stopped development of new EF lenses and is winding down their major DSLR lines while aggressively developing and releasing professional mirrorless bodies and lenses. Every other manufacturer — Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Panasonic — are all either totally mirrorless or moving toward it at a brisk clip. 

So, does Pentax really believe there is going to be a massive return to DSLRs in a few years, leaving them as the sole manufacturer with up-to-date DSLRs, waiting to soak up profits from a throng of customers looking for cameras with mirror boxes? I highly doubt it. Such comments can be explained in a few different ways. Perhaps the company is aware of the size of their market share and the capital it would take to establish a new mirrorless line in the space, and it simply might not be viable, thus the desire to instill a sense of confidence in sticking to DSLRs. Shareholders and such. Perhaps it is a roundabout way of saying there will always (or at least, for the foreseeable future) be those who prefer DSLRs to mirrorless bodies, and as other major manufacturers shutter their DSLR lines, Pentax will be waiting with open arms and up-to-date DSLR tech to welcome those mirror box refugees. That certainly seems a more reasonable and plausible philosophy than the whole mirrorless exodus thing. 

Could Pentax hold out long enough for those DSLR users? After all, DSLR equipment isn't going to suddenly stop working the day its manufacturer decides to focus exclusively on mirrorless. I'm sure the company can make it that long, though. After all, they already have the aforementioned small but fiercely loyal following, and their conservative approach to research and development could be a strategy to tide them over until they reach the point when they are the sole provider to a market that still has a proportion of photographers looking for DSLR equipment. Even if it isn't reasonable to expect them to hold out that long, what else could they do given their position? It is a gamble, however, if this is their strategy.

Put some of that Pentax magic in this camera.

There is one way Pentax could join the mirrorless market without having to pay the admission fee of developing an entirely new line of bodies and lenses: join the L mount alliance. At least at a surface level, it would be a fantastic fit. The alliance currently features Panasonic, Sigma, and Leica. Panasonic's cameras focus primarily on and are marketed toward video work, traditionally the weak point of Pentax's bodies, which generally include it as an afterthought. Sigma, of course, is primarily focused on lenses. And Leica's only full frame L Mount camera is $6,000. It seems like there's a stills photography-shaped hole in the L Mount Alliance that could be nicely filled by Pentax. Just imagine a camera with the build and video qualities of the Panasonic S1 and the geeky photography features of the Pentax K-1, all with access to Sigma's deep library of capable but affordable lenses. That would be a tough camera to beat. 

I'll confess I don't know the business particulars of the alliance, and perhaps it is not viable for Pentax to join it, or maybe they simply aren't wanted in it. But I do know that Pentax produces unique equipment that invigorates my creativity, and I would be sad to see such a storied and unique brand go away. Who knows, maybe in five years, when DSLRs are truly put out to pasture by all the other manufacturers, Pentax will be there and will thrive when photographers who just can't stand an electronic viewfinder have nowhere else to turn. I don't think there will be that many photographers who haven't at least started a transition toward mirrorless by then. That does not mean there won't be some, though, and I think there will always be at least a small market for DSLRs (at least for the foreseeable feature). Part of the question is if Pentax can capture those users instead of them simply moving to a mirrorless option from the brand they are already using. I certainly hope that the company sticks around, in whatever form that may be. 

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M M's picture

I don’t know what Pentax is thinking. The way technology develops EVFs at some point in the future will be better in absolutely every aspect than OVF. Mirrorless just has more development than DSLR because in the end computing always wins over mechanical solutions. It would be nice if some of Pentax’s ideas went into future cameras but I have my doubts. I still have fond memories of my K-5 and K-3.

Les Sucettes's picture

Not as a rangefinder. EVF’s cannot look outside of the frame. OVF’s can - so you can anticipate action stepping into your frame while on an EVF you cannot while looking through it... you can only by moving the camera around, thereby losing your composition, or alternative shots... and that matters a lot... a Rangefinder OVF is superior for this purpose, to be fair it was superior to a DSLR OVF for the same reasons ... just that a Rangefinder EVF cannot mimick a Rangefinder OVF, because by definition EVF always is through a lens.

As for ovf vs evf « through the lens » ... yep, EVF provides far more advantages there - the frame refresh is a disadvantage but less so than above...

SONAT YILMAZ's picture

Fujifilm xpro2 and x100 series do have a hybrid rangefinder. You can use the ovf and still see the evf in the corner. Easy to check exposure and rangefinder alignment problem while keeping the ovf advantages. I do have an x100f and I love it.

Klaus Enrique's picture

An electronic solution, i.e. the EVF, will never be as fast as the speed of light, so in that regard, they will always lag and be inferior. The dynamic range that a camera can capture is only a fraction of what a human eye can see, and while that will improve, it also means EVFs will lag for many years to come in that regard. Finally, a DSLR can have IBIS and a hybrid OVF/EVF, so you could make a DSLR with almost all the advantages of a mirrorless camera (minus the size). The future could still be DSLRs...

Peter House's picture

There is so much irony in the fact that Pentax is hell bent on promoting the fact they were the innovators of the Pentaprism, but won't rise to the challenge of another innovation. They are actively choosing to be stuck on an old technology, but promoting a heritage based on innovation.

Personally I am a big fan of Pentax. Their color science and glass has given me some of my favorite images. But I have not shot Pentax for many many years because of their poor decisions in development. They were so far ahead and should have gone the Fuji route. They could have developed a solid APSC line and already had the leg up on Medium Format.

IMO Pentax should focus 100% on medium format. They are already a small player, may as well focus the energy on a niche market and leverage their history in that department, instead of stretching their resources thin on other formats.

If Pentax dropped a 35-50MP Medium format camera that did 4k video and offered decent AF.....sign me up.

Matt Williams's picture

They really could do well if they came out with an affordable line of medium format mirrorless cameras (with an adapter for 645 lenses). They started the affordable MF thing to begin with, and Fuji is pretty much the only other option (I don't count Hasselblad because they basically have one affordable body and their lenses are much more expensive).

Drazen Cavar's picture

I hope Pentax is right to some extent, and in the other extent I hope Olympus will reach Pentax stability.

Olympus made mirrorless revolution with the idea of ultimately lightweight systems. Current trend of full frame mirrorless is oxymoron by itself, full frame glass will not become lighter and the main reason to switch to mirrorless don't exist on case of full frame cameras.

On top of that, DSLR can always grow with evf as an addition to OVF, while vice-versa is not possible.

Again, the main benefit of mirrorless is certainly supposed light weight, and the current trend of full frame mirrorless is simply dumb.

Matt Williams's picture

Light weight is not, and never has been, the main benefit of mirrorless. That is *one potential* benefit, but not the biggest selling point. I think that idea comes from back when m4/3 and small Sony APS-C cameras were the primary mirrorless bodies out there (and size IS one of the main benefits of m4/3).

That said, most FF mirrorless cameras with lenses 50mm or under will absolutely be smaller than their DSLR counterpart, and some FF mirrorless cameras are designed specifically with size as a main selling point (Sigma Fp, Sony A7c).

Carlos Dacosta's picture

The biggest benefit to mirrorkess is it is cheaper yo manufacture, therefore more profits for company. However, the lenses end up weighing the same as the Dslr lenses. The bodies have slowly crept up in weight and size since the first one was produced. So who stands to gain? Remrmber, the new sensor and AF technologies can be used in any type of body.

Drazen Cavar's picture

The weight was absolutely the main reason why Olympus developed mirrorless cameras, and why they were sticking to m43 sensor, to ensure lenses will be as light as cameras are.
Current senselessness in market trends is mostly related to successes in aggressive marketing campaigns.
There was never real reason to make FF mirrorless when knowing that lenses cannot be reduced in size and weight.
Light FF ML bodies are particular joke as they are without exception very unbalanced, front-heavy. That creates additional problem, tiny bodies with feeble grips have to carry brick-size lenses.
With some more development, cameras like Nikon D780 can become real future, but again, heavy marketing on US market can sway customers in any direction.

Deleted Account's picture

Where did Pentax say DSLRs are the future?

Deleted Account's picture

From that interview: “..after one or two years, some users who changed their system from DSLR to mirrorless [will] come back to the DSLR again.”

The word used was “some” not most or all. Nor did they say or imply SLRs were the future.

Anyhow I’m one of those “some” myself. Had a few mirrorless cameras, now have stuck with two DSLRs (a crop and a 35mm) and don’t feel like upgrading for quite a while. The only thing that makes me look at a Sony from time to time is the Laowa magic shift lens, but there’s always software to transform perspective when needed.

Michael Marcelletti's picture

Jason you are absolutely correct and Alex is absolutely wrong. They did use the word "some". The word "some" means anything from two to the total number of mirrorless users minus one. I am absolutely confident with zero doubt that "some" users have switched back and will continue to switch back. How many that is remains an open question that only time will answer .

And again Jason, you are absolutely correct that they did not say or imply that DSLRs are the future.

Rather, what Pentax is stating is that "some" users (such as you and myself) will prefer a DSLR and they will cater to that market.

Pentax is making the judgement call that they are a niche player and they will make effort to appeal to that niche. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Also keep in mind that many of those hipsters using film are using K1000 or similar SLRs. Pentax offering a digital version of the SLR allows them to use digital in a similar way to the way they use film.

Again, that makes a lot of sense to me.

RP UT's picture

I'm not sure why camera companies need to have it as an either-or concept. An EVF screen that flips up (or similar) inside of the optical viewfinder could give the best of both worlds...essentially just live view inside the viewfinder. They'd carry the bulk and weight of the prism and mirror, but I'd totally tolerate this aspect to have an OVF/EVF combo. If I had to prognosticate, Pentax might be planning just such an approach, and by continuing to prioritize the optical side, they'd be in good position to do so. But that's probably just dreaming on my part. :)

Marek Stefech's picture

btw. i really like to work with DSLR witch have sensor with AF points, so that is combination of DSLR and Mirrorles, i can reliable focusing in corners during fashion shoots and than switch for DSLR and phase detection for sport, and most important thing is DSLR are so ergonomic, why sony still dont doing body like that.

Quazi Sanjeed's picture

Canon and Nikon produced some gimmicky DSLRs and now barely have any sales. A reason why they're now turning to MILCs.

Pentax can perform well if they play to the photographers. By photographers I mean the pros and committed enthusiasts. They are the only remaining segment in the market, the casual shooters have migrated to smart phone arena. Therefore, Pentax must manufacture real DSLRs that photographers crave. Or else, they'll have to embrace Olympus's destiny.

Richard Richard's picture

Name a gimmicky DSLR from either Canon or Nikon. What a bizarre thing to say.

Deleted Account's picture

What is a gimmicky DSLR? And it is not true "now barely have any sales". The whole market went down but e.g. still most of the units Nikon sells are DSLRs. Most, if not almost all, pros still use DSLRs or are using medium format cameras. So what is it you want to say?

dale clark's picture

Pentax is just sending signals to its current owners. Outside of their Medium Format system, who is switching to Pentax? Canon and Nikon has not abandoned their DSLR users? I highly doubt current DSLR users are saying "I better find a different brand that is going to support DSLRs quick" just because Canon and Nikon is developing their mirrorless systems. Pentax is just saying to their current users "hey...we are not going anywhere ..no need to switch"

Rk K's picture

They promote it because it's the only thing they can make. A new mirrorless mount is completely out of the question for them.

Timothy Turner's picture

If an SLR also has live view why do you need a mirrorless camera. Maybe I'm missing something but it seems to be the best of both worlds.

Matt Williams's picture

Live view on SLRs is 1) restricted to the rear LCD, i.e. no EVF, 2) lacks phase detection AF in most cases (Canon's dual pixel AF aside), 3) DSLRs must have a significantly longer flange distance to make room for the mirror, which inhibits lens design and camera size.... the list goes on.

Carlos Dacosta's picture

Matt Williams- You fail to understand that this technology you speak about can be applied to a Dslr if they chose to do so.

Christian Lainesse's picture

I think a better question would be, why APSC? They could have continued to refine the K1 and refresh the 645Z...

Deleted Account's picture

I know Full frame is all the rage right now, but I much prefer the reach of a APS-C for wildlife photography. I would also think APS-C would find a niche in sports as well.

M M's picture

I have a Fuji APS-C and am happy with it. But realistically the additional reach of APS-C is basically achieved by cropping which a full frame camera can do too.

I agree that Pentax should make a smaller K-1.

Deleted Account's picture

Agreed (in part). When you want the 26MP from Pentax, but instead go with a FF camera that you intend to crop then you're looking at a high MP FF camera. I personally don't need high MP as much as I need reach.

I'd prefer a cheaper APS-C than having to buy an expensive high MP FF camera so that I can crop down to 26 MP.

But I see your point. If you want the high resolution to begin with, then it makes more sense to go FF.

Jacob H.'s picture

There will indeed be a market for DSLRs in the coming years. Just alone based on the number of expensive lenses out there and some use cases involving AF in very low light situations or battery life issues like for a reporter.
The real issue for Ricoh Pentax, I fear, is their lack of resources (money) to fund the development of a complete mirrorless system. Their annual reports -esp. for the camera division- aren't exactly uplifting literature over the past few years.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Pinhole cameras are the future.

Ziggy Stardust's picture

Wrong headline.
It thinks DSLR is its (short-term) future because it doesn't have the resources to do mirrorless.
It's riding the train to the end of the line.

Michael Engshun's picture

Pentax - the Kodak of 2020s..

Roger Cutright's picture

If Pentax plans on being the sole survivor of DSLR's then they need to concentrate on things other than the OVF. Things like buffer depth, vastly improved autofocus, and improvements to their gps/astrotracer which only they have and sets them apart. They also need to seriously up their lens selection. They always had a good OVF so putting so much effort into a strength and ignoring weakness is not going to help them survive.

Dillan K's picture

Pentax has no budget for developing a mirrorless camera at this time. It had a DSLR in the pipeline, so marketing is making it look like they're making a stand for DSLRs. It is better than looking like they're out of step with the market because they were caught flat-footed.

Ziggy Stardust's picture

I enjoyed my K3-I. It was a little smaller than the Panasonic G9 (M43s) I went to even with IBIS. It felt good in the hand. The AF wasn't up to birds (neither was the G9's). There was a useful range of affordable lenses with so-so optical quality.
But Ricoh cameras is going to go the way of Olympus.

Igor Sotelo's picture

When the shutter of my trusty and much loved MX died after 30 years, I bought a Pentax *istDL, but it didn't have good compatibility with my Pentax-M lenses, the CCD sensor had no live view, the finder was awful, there was no sensor cleaning option and I absolutely hated the APS-C format. It made one or to two good pictures from time to time, but it wasn't a great camera. Perhaps digital wasn't yet ready.

When I retook interest in photography, I went with a Canon FF DSLR, and then with Nikon. But with Canon completely abandoning their EF system, and Nikon's F system future in serious doubt, I regret not sticking with Pentax and trying their K-1. While the K-1 doesn't have a huge prism of the MX or it's compactness, ergonomics and light weight, Pentax is at least fully committed to DSLR's.

I also have a small Sony system, I love the size, features and optics, but the EVF quite simply isn't, and will never be, an adequate substitute for an OVF, and judging by the Fuji X100 series, a hybrid finder is the best solution. I'm trying really hard to get used to EVF's, but I see myself coming back to my DSLR's.

Once Ricoh expands the lens library, on their own and with assistance from Tamron, I think, something like a Pentax K-1 III with a 42-45 MP Sony sensor, improved AF tracking, most importantly a hybrid finder, off the sensor AF in live view or EVF mode, higher frame rates, clearly make the best choice of any DSLR or MIL cameras.

A quality star tracker is cumbersome and extremely expensive. Just for that feature it makes sense to buy Pentax.

Leica still makes their M-system, with EVF add-ons and third party manufacturers like Voigtlander and Zeiss making lenses for them. Pentax will definitely find their following with DSLR's and that won't be so niche at all.

What could Pentax add to the MIL market over Sony, Canon, Nikon, Leica and Panasonic? Not even Fuji wanted to go FF route, instead using APS-C and cropped 645 formats. Besides, Pentax would need a complete lens lineup for their new mount.

With DSLR's, on the other hand, Pentax can add a lot of value for the costumer in terms of OVF functionality combined with MIL technology. Sony FE/E, Nikon Z and Canon RF will never offer OVF.