Pentax Q7 review

The impressively small Pentax Q7 mirrorless camera features an image sensor that is 50 percent larger than previous models, but its shutter lag is a drawback.
Photo of Pentax Q7

The Pentax Q7 ($499.99 direct) is the latest entry in Pentax’s line of ultra-small mirrorless cameras. It shares the same body design as its predecessors, but its 12-megapixel BSI-CMOS image sensor is roughly 50 percent larger. The image quality is the best the Q series has delivered to date, and all existing lenses are fully compatible with the new, larger image sensor. The compact interchangeable market is extremely competitive, and despite the improvements that Pentax has made, the Q7 can’t keep up with our Editors’ Choice Samsung NX300. That camera delivers SLR-like performance and image quality in a compact body, and offers built-in Wi-Fi. But don’t count the Q7 out—for the right type of photographer it’s an intriguing camera. There are both modern autofocus and lo-fi manual focus toy lenses available, and those in love with super-telephoto shots will appreciate the ability to mount Pentax K lenses via an adapter.

Design and Features
The Q7 is tiny. It measures just 2.3 by 4 by 1.3 inches (HWD) and weighs in at 6.4 ounces, the same size and weight as the previous-generation Q10. The included zoom lens adds a bit of depth, about 2 inches to its depth when mounted, but it’s small to the point where you can throw it into your messenger bag or purse without worry. The only mirrorless camera we’ve reviewed that comes close in size is the Nikon 1 J3 (2.4 by 4 by 1.1 inches, 4.1 ounces), but that svelte shooter is aimed squarely at casual photographers. The Q7 has some controls and features that will satisfy point-and-shooters and shutterbugs alike. Like the K-50 SLR, the Q7 can be custom ordered in any of 120 color combinations.

Pentax has packed a good amount of physical controls into the Q7′s body. The front of the camera features a dial with five settings. By default it changes the art filter that is applied to JPG images, but it can also be set to enable the manual focus peaking aid, alter the image aspect ratio, switch between manual and autofocus, and enable the in-camera neutral density filter. On top you’ll find a mechanical release for the pop-up flash, the play and power buttons, as well as the shutter, a control dial, and a mode dial.

Rear controls are packed in to the right of the LCD—there’s an exposure compensation button, a four-way control pad with a central OK button, an Info button to toggle what’s shown on the rear display, and another button that loads the menu. The four-way navigation buttons each double as a dedicated shooting control—ISO, the self-timer and drive mode, white balance, and flash output control are right at your fingertips. There’s also the Green button—its function changes based on what mode you’re in or control you’re adjusting, but its general purpose is to put things back to default settings once they’ve been changed. If you’ve dialed in +3 EV compensation, a quick press of the EV button and then the Green button will reset that to 0.

Pentax D-SLR shooters will feel right at home with the menu system. It’s a familiar text-based menu, similar to pretty much every Pentax D-SLR I can remember shooting with, all the way back to the K10D. There are more functions available within than we have time to go into. Exploring them will give you the ability to customize camera functions, including the function of the front dial. One setting that I almost always enable in Pentax cameras is locking the area to the focus point—more often than not, I want what I’m focusing on to be what the camera meters its exposure off of.

The rear LCD is 3 inches in size and packs a 460k-dot resolution. It’s not as sharp as the 920k-dot screen on the Sony Alpha NEX-5R, and it doesn’t tilt, but it is quite bright. I had no problems using it on an extremely sunny day. It is sharp enough to review photos to confirm focus—just be aware that if you’re shooting in Raw mode, the image that comes up for review after a shot is captured will appear very blurry. Don’t worry, the camera just needs a little bit of time to process it. Going into playback mode after it’s saved to the card will give you a real idea of how the image looks. It can be a bit disconcerting if you’re not aware of this and you’re shooting with one of the manual focus toy lenses.

The Q7 includes focus peaking, which highlights in-focus areas of an image in white when working in manual focus mode, but I found it a little bit harder to use than the peaking systems found in other cameras. Even when an image is completely out of focus, there is a shimmering effect across the frame. It’s similar to the peaking highlights, and made it difficult to discern what was actually in focus. If you are using a manual focus lens it’s a good idea to disable the Power Saving option in the menu; when enabled it automatically dims the screen after a couple seconds, which makes focusing even more difficult.

One of the drawbacks of the Q7′s small image sensor is that, unless you’re really close to your subject, it’s tough to blur the background of images, even if you’re shooting with a fast lens like the f/1.9 01 Standard Prime. One of the settings on the mode dial is BC—Blur Control. This special mode racks the attached lens through the full range of its focus distance before snapping an in-focus shot. It takes the out-of-focus data, blends it with the in-focus subject, and saves a JPG photo with a blurry background, as seen in the photo above. The only downside is the time that it takes to accomplish this—there’s about a 2.8-second delay between pressing the shutter and taking the photo, and another 6 seconds for processing. It’s a neat feature, but don’t try and use it for action shots—and Raw shooters will have to live with JPG output when shooting in that mode.

Performance and Conclusions
Speed is an issue with the Q7, but not to the extent that it has been with previous Q models. The camera starts and grabs a shot in about 1.6 seconds, records a 0.3-second shutter lag in good light, and requires about 1.1 seconds to focus and fire in very dim conditions. It can shoot continuously in JPG mode at 1.5 frames per second, and can keep that pace when shooting Raw images—but only for 7 shots. If you opt for Raw+JPG you’re limited to 3 shots; it takes about 8 seconds for the buffer to clear completely afterwards. There’s also a high-speed continuous shooting mode, which is limited to JPG only; it captures 4 images at 6.4fps, and requires 3.8 seconds to write those to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card. If speed is what you’re after in a compact camera, look elsewhere. The Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2 also requires 1.6 seconds to start and shoot, but its shutter lag is a minimal 0.1-second and it has an 8fps burst mode.

I used Imatest to check the performance of the included 02 Standard Zoom lens. It’s a 5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 design, which delivers a field of view that is roughly equivalent to a 24-70mm zoom lens on a 35mm full-frame camera. It delivers impressive sharpness through most of its range, and is just a tiny bit soft at its maximum zoom. At 5mm f/2.8 it scores 2,033 lines per picture height, better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image, with impressive sharpness from edge to edge. Because of the small sensor, stopping the lens down actually harms performance a bit, so it’s best to shoot at f/2.8 when possible.

Zooming to 10mm narrows the aperture to f/3.5, and the score drops a bit to 1,938 lines, again with impressive sharpness from edge to edge. There is some softness at 15mm f/4.5; the lens scores 1,753 lines there and the edges are soft as well. If you’re shooting in JPG, distortion is not an issue as the Q7 applies automatic corrections. Raw is another story; at the widest angle there’s an absurd 8.5 percent barrel distortion, which gives photos a mild fish-eye look. Zooming to 10mm narrows that to a reasonable, but slightly noticeable, 1.5 percent, and it’s gone at 15mm. If you use Lightroom as your Raw converter—and we recommend that you do—there is a built-in profile for the kit lens that corrects the distortion with a single click.

Imatest also checks for noise. This can harm image quality as you increase the camera’s sensitivity to light via the addition of noise that gives photos a grainy look and hides fine detail. The Q7 uses a backside illuminated CMOS image sensor, a technology that does a better job avoiding noise than traditional CMOS designs. It manages to keep noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600. Some details are smudged when you put the ISO this high, but it still does an impressive job when you consider the 1/1.7-inch sensor size. ISO 800 delivers the best balance of noise and detail for low-light shooting, though you’ll always want to use the lowest ISO possible for the best image quality. You’ll be able to squeeze a bit more detail out of photos at high ISO settings if you shoot Raw; photos show a good deal of fine-grained noise, but even at ISO 1600 Raw detail is impressive, and we wouldn’t hesitate to shoot in Raw at ISO 3200 if conditions called for it. You can get better performance at high ISO settings out of a camera with a larger image sensor, but that also means a larger body and lens. If that’s what you’re after, consider the Sony Alpha NEX-3N; it delivers low-noise images with acceptable detail through ISO 6400.

Video is recorded in QuickTime format at 1080p or 720p quality, at your choice of 30, 25, or 24 frames per second. The video is quite sharp and colorful, the audio is clear, and the Q7 is quick to refocus when recording. But the footage suffers during motion. When panning the camera, the top of the frame advances before the bottom due to the rolling shutter effect (CMOS sensors capture an image line-by-line), giving video a rubber-pencil type of distortion effect. If you record an occasional video clip, just be aware of the issue, but don’t look to the Q7 for more serious video work.

Onboard ports include micro HDMI, a proprietary USB port, and a standard hot shoe. Pentax devotees will be happy to know that it is compatible with the same P-TTL flashes that work with the company’s K series of D-SLRs. The memory card slot supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards.

The Q7 is the best camera in the series yet. Its image quality is leaps and bounds better than the older Q10 thanks to the larger image sensor, and starts up in about half the time. The shutter lag is still lengthy for this type of camera, and in general the compact interchangeable segment is extremely competitive, with a lot of very good cameras available starting at $500. If you’ve shot with and enjoyed previous Q cameras you’ll find that the Q7 is a notably better camera. If you’re yet to test the waters but are intrigued by the Q system, this is the body with which to start. You can get a Q10 at a deep discount at this point, but the Q7 is worth the extra money. If you’re just in the market for a traditional mirrorless camera—one with an image sensor size that’s closer to an SLR and performs like one—you’ll likely be served better with another system. Micro Four Thirds is the most mature, and the Olympus PEN E-PM2 is a solid choice as an entry-level body. Its sensor is a little smaller than the APS-C size that’s found in D-SLRs. If you want a body that matches a D-SLR in terms of sensor size, consider the entry-level Sony Alpha NEX-3N, which ships with a compact power zoom lens, or the midrange Samsung NX300, which has earned our Editors’ Choice award.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.3 x 4 x 1.3 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, micro HDMI
Megapixels 12 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.16 seconds
LCD dots 460000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2033
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 12800
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type BSI CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.6 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 24 mm
Weight 6.4 oz
Lens Mount Pentax Q
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization In-Body
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 70 mm
Shutter Lag 0.4 seconds
Sensor Size 7.6 x 5.7 (1.17") mm
GPS No
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The impressively small Pentax Q7 mirrorless camera features an image sensor that is 50 percent larger than previous models, but its shutter lag is a drawback.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc