The Tokyo Subway Club

When I was first shown the Pentax Q, I think I understood it pretty well. It was a palm-sized gem, a jewel designed to maximize the potential of a compact-camera’s sensor with tiny, but precise interchangeable lenses.
Of course we are continually reminded of the Pentax Auto 110 of the 1970s – an effort to maximize the 110 film camera with high grade optics – but unfortunately hampered by the lack of precision of the plastic 110 film cartridge.
Clearly, I saw the Q targeted at the Japanese urban professional, who spends long hours away from the apartment while commuting, at work, and out with friends. If they want to be a hobby photographer on weekdays with more than just a cellphone, then a quality camera, with lenses, should ideally fit in the shoulder bag along with their laptop. Hence, the Q.
But in North America, we are seldom far from our vehicles, where the empty back seats easily swallow our DSLR camera bags. It’s hard for us to see the Q as a practical camera. It’s next to useless at the kids’ soccer games (like most mirrorless models), and the small sensor gives up a lot in ISO performance and dynamic range.
In a Tokyo cafe, however, out with friends, the Q is a conversation starter. While everyone else poses with phones, this little camera comes out, its tiny lens is exchanged, and its little flash pops up. What’s not to love? And the fact that it was quite expensive didn’t hurt either.
So I could see that the original Q would have a long search for customers outside of big metropolitan areas.
That was four years ago now, and a lot of water has gone under the Q’s bridge. The larger K-01 has come and gone, and the Q has gone through four models, the last two (Q7 and Q-S1) have had slightly larger sensors, apparently because when the original model was launched there were few compact sensors available with full HD video ability.
The last three models were also less costly, but fans appreciate the higher build quality of the original. And those fans, along with the Tokyo Subway Commuters Club, have come to realize the little gem is a lot more capable than originally envisioned.
For instance, like the Micro 4/3 mirrorless universe, there has grown a cottage industry of lens adapters for the Q system. Not only can DSLR Pentax lenses be fitted (even Pentax has their own adapter for that), but you can fit just about any optic you desire, given the very, very short flange distance. Have a fancy for old cine lenses? There are adapters for that: C-mount or D-mount, take your pick.
If you read my earlier post about lens envy, then you’ll know why I took the plunge when the chance came up to buy an original Q body for next to nothing.
When it arrived, I once again was dazzled by how crazy small it is. It really is dainty, and it makes you want to love it.
Of course, a spate of orders quickly followed for adapters: K mount, Nikon mount, and Cine-D. Then there’s the other accessories, cute little cases, caps… I digress.
But given that the Q needs a decent regular lens, I agonized between the highly-regarded 8.5mm normal lens (dubbed the O1 Standard Prime, in Q-speak), and the more versatile, but less optically perfect kit 5-15mm kit zoom (the 02 Standard Zoom). There are low-fi “toy” lenses that don’t really help the Q’s cause, and a decent fish eye. Late comers have been the 06 telephoto zoom, and the very pricey 08 wide zoom. Uncharacteristically for me, I chose the 02 zoom as my proper Q lens for the time being.
But the first gadgets to arrive were the K and F adapters, and so began the quest to exploit the Q’s main asset – which of course, is resolution. “But the Q just has a 12 megapixel sensor,” you say. And you’re right, but those 12 megapixels are stuffed into a very tiny 6.17×4.55mm space (I’ll try to avoid calling it 1/2.3″ because I find that antiquated measurement system misleading). A full-frame DSLR’s sensor is some 30 times larger in area than the Q’s, so if you were to extrapolate those 12MP over the full frame, you’d have a 350 megapixel sensor.
But put your favourite DSLR lens in front of that little Q sensor and you see a major boost in magnification (a “crop factor” of 5.5x, if you want to know). So that 50mm normal is now a decent telephoto, and a 135mm is now equivalent to putting an 800mm monster on your full frame. The trick is to try and get enough quality out of your old lenses to make it worthwhile.
The Q reminds me a bit of the Minox subminiatures I used to mess around with. Those were fun, but I never got super results from mine. Sure, others were able to make big prints, often by using exotic films developed in semi-exotic potions. But even holding the tiny light camera steady was a challenge. It’s hard to jiggle a big SLR with a heavy lens.
Those challenges translate well onto the Q. To get it to work, especially with adapted glass, focus has to be spot on, and just because the built-in stabilizer (SR) works with just about anything, doesn’t mean you can really hand-hold that 135mm and get usable photos.
Proper super tele work requires a good tripod, probably a magnifier hood over that rear lcd, and the wireless remote so you don’t jiggle anything. The little camera is buried in the middle of the rig. But the important thing is there are those out there getting very acceptable results from such unlikely outfits – and the point is that all that birdwatching, or stargazing horsepower comes at a fairly low cost, assuming you can borrow that already-owned telephoto from your DSLR outfit. You don’t have to spend $11,000 to get right in a woodpecker’s face.
I have to say I took my best-yet moon shot with the Q attached to the 300mm telephoto and 2x converter from my Nikon outfit. And I may just go after some birds when up north on vacation.
Trying my best with the D-mount adapter and a host of old 8mm cine lenses, I have to admit defeat. Several good-looking optics vignette badly on the Q – as old 8mm film still has a smaller format than this little thing. Other lenses cover the format, but sadly lack enough sharpness to be worth the fiddling.
I haven’t tried C-mount lenses, but I don’t think I will.
So (drum roll please), I have to conclude the most practical and fun lenses to use on the Q are Pentax’s own Q-intended optics. The 5-15mm zoom offers a nice wide angle, which is hard to find in just about any other adapted optic. It has a leaf shutter, a switchable neutral density filter (to keep apertures wide near f4.0 for best sharpness) and, of course, autofocus. I may have to indulge in a couple more, particularly the 8.5mm f1.9 prime.
But another worthy distraction are the lenses from the old Auto 110. A customer traded me a boxed set of three, along with the original camera and winder for the display shelf. With an adapter and a press fit aperture to help reduce flare, they do have promise. Down side is all three, including the 18mm “wide angle” are all long lenses on the Q.
So Pentax has found a way to stuff most of the gadgetry of a mid-level DSLR into a tiny, tiny package, along with most of the fun. But we can’t have it all. The tiny sensor, and tiny optics do fall short of the image quality we get from our bigger camera and lens outfits. Still, the sharpest Q images do rival what we were getting from the big digitals only a few years ago.
The real fun, however, is the reaction of someone who watches you click the little lens off its little mount, and bayonet on another.
“Wow,” is usually all they say.
Welcome to Tokyo. Get your transit pass ready.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on July 15, 2015.

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