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Pentax's Chaotic DSLR Strategy

Pentax's Chaotic DSLR Strategy

Pentax launched a new "brand vision" recently in preparation for its upcoming product release, going as far as to develop an extensive webpage and supporting video to promote its DSLR cameras. Here are 10 reasons why their camera strategy is in disarray.

Pentax pulls no punches for its new brand vision, running with the strapline:

Pentax believes in the future of SLR photography.

Unpicking that sentence is interesting, because it requires the reader to understand what an SLR is, along with its historical relevance and standing relative to mirrorless cameras. All of that requires some substantial knowledge, as this isn't a saying the operates on multiple levels. To put it another way, you could read that as saying "all major manufacturers have switched their core development to mirrorless, but we are sticking with the SLR." The remainder of the webpage mixes history, rationale, emotive commentary, and operational principles. So, where did they go wrong?

1. What We've Done, Not What We Will Do: the webpage talks about what they have made, not what they are going to make. You obviously can't issue product releases, but it's almost like they are stuck in time.

2. Technical Innovation Isn't Relevant: Pentax proudly states that they were the first camera manufacturer in Japan to build an SLR as if that is a reason to continue solely producing SLRs. Obviously, if they had stuck with rangefinder or TLR designs back in the 1950s, then they wouldn't have built the brand they have now. Without actually saying it, the implication is that the SLR is the pinnacle of camera design.

3. Optical Viewfinders Are the Single Most Important Feature: for a webpage with limited technical information, they have to resort to superlatives such as:

...the light passes through the lens, and in turn the optical viewfinder. You view the image directly with your eyes, and feel it with your heart.

Yet, the single central argument is technical — optical viewfinders are the single most important reason for using an SLR. Pentax is saying that they are hanging their entire ILC strategy on this premise, which seems odd when Sony, Panasonic, Leica, Nikon, and Canon are all aggressively pursuing a mirrorless strategy.

4. Non-Speak: the language of the webpage drifts into marketing and advertising through the proliferation of what I would call "non-speak." For example:

By focusing on the senses of the photographer, these lenses have the ability to express distinct memories and feelings, drawing on natural details to create a sense of quality and of real perspective.

This all sounds nice, but what does it actually mean?

5. Five Principles of Pentax: I can't argue with any of the slightly woolly principles Pentax espouses. They are worthy in and of themselves and speak to their company ethos, photographic purpose, customer need, manufacturing quality, and overall expertise. It's that they don't only just apply to DSLRs, so — on their own — they don't explain why they are sticking to SLRs.

6. Mirrorless Track Record: what belies Pentax's "devotion" to SLR is the dire track record they have with mirrorless cameras. They arguably took the most creative strategy in the early 2010s with the development of the Q and K-01. The Q used a 12 MP 1/2.3" IBIS sensor (5.6x crop factor), making it a truly minuscule MILC. While it had a rich feature set, it was expensive and unsurprisingly (for a small sensor) suffered from mediocre image quality. The Marc Newson-designed K-01 was innovative for sticking with the K-mount but criticized for poor ergonomics. Both cameras were killed off.

7. What is the future strategy? You would be forgiven for missing Pentax's development strategy and roadmap, because it isn't there! What is their plan for the future? They are the only manufacturer making APS-C, FF, and MF cameras. That is exciting; however, the range is shrinking (now listed as four models: 645Z, K-1 II, KP, and K70) and increasingly looking a little old.

8. K-Mount: one of the biggest assets for any Pentax shooter is the great range of K-mount lenses that are available for their SLRs. Strangely, there is no mention of this, which is surely the single most important reason for sticking with the SLR design.

9. Brand Inflation: all marketing is about brand inflation. You make a camera, which may be mediocre or great; however, the job of advertising is to get the consumer to buy it. Pentax does have a product release coming up, but are there other motives for increasing "brand value"?

10. The Elephant in the Room: the webpage finishes with a 30-minute presentation and interview with Planning and Product Manager Hiraku Kawauchi. It isn't until the 10-minute mark that mirrorless cameras are mentioned, before espousing the magic of the "pentaprism" and optical viewfinders, finally returning to the topic at 24 minutes with the following question from photographer Keita Sasaki: "Does Pentax have any plans to launch a full frame mirrorless model equipped with a new lens mount?" Kawauchi responds, stating: "we aren't prioritizing either SLRs or mirrorless models. The thing that matters most to Pentax is developing SLR cameras that will provide our users with the ultimate pleasure of photography through the process of picture-taking." This sounds like he's saying we don't favor mirrorless or SLRs, but we'll only make SLRs. Maybe.

The Future?

I've already commented on Pentax's future and how it appears to be stalling, walking itself to slow retirement. On the one hand, Pentax has a great heritage and world-class design team that currently have ILC products that span APS-C, full-frame, and medium format. At the dawn of mirrorless in the early 2010s, there was a tremendous opportunity that spawned the Q and K-01. The failure of these systems along with the sale to Ricoh has been catastrophic. Pending the new product launch, where does its future lie? Will it retire its medium format 645Z and simply maintain a streamlined three or four camera full frame and APS-C lineup? Or should it go mirrorless and — if so — use the same K-mount (as with the K-01) or go with a new mount as other manufacturers have done? What will reinvigorate Pentax?

If the new brand vision could be summed up in one line, then it would be this: more of the same.

Body image courtesy JeremyA via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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12 Comments

Rick Rizza's picture

Stop it, it's dead already

Hoggdoc Photos's picture

And unfortunately Olympus is not far behind.

Peter House's picture

As I have said before I believe Pentax has a very strong following but they spread themselves thin. They tried to do too many things at once as a small player in the market. Their ace was the whole "affordable" medium format, which they should have focused their efforts on and stayed ahead of the curve. Now you've got new players in that segment and they have surpassed Pentax at their own game. There is no reason Pentax couldn't have been the one to drop something like the GFX100.

And just like Fuji, they should cultivate an entry level APSC to capture some of the amateur market which they can over funnel into the affordable medium format sector.

Tony Tumminello's picture

Landscape is where Pentax seems to have excelled at in terms of a niche for sure. Their autofocus tracking isn't up to par with the competition, but it doesn't matter because a mountain or waterfall isn't going to run away from you if you're really pushing for that genre in particular. Tacking on things like their excellent built-in Astrotracer, Pixel Shift, and weather sealing really puts them into a unique position that other brands can't touch for the same price. It's unfortunate because they're a great brand with great sensors and offer a great price for number of features that they put into the cameras, but the future really seems in doubt and without any degree of ad spending I can't see them really breaking back into the mainstream market. Say what you will about ads and influencers (ugh) and YouTubers (double ugh) and whatever, but can anyone really remember the last time they saw a Pentax ad? Honestly I've been around for 30+ years and I can't think of a single time for me. Without your brand in front of some eyes, who's gonna know that your product exists and could be exactly what they're looking for?

Bernhard Vogler's picture

Why do folks think they need to write articles like this? What is the purpose. I can't take this anymore. Let folks decide what gear they are happy with. The camera does not make the photo. There is tons of examples of good shots from any brand. The point I guess is to know your gear and do with it what you aim for.

Alvin Bartolome's picture

Ash trays, yeah, Pentax should try selling those made from their prisms.

All good points. Except that one thing that I like from Pentax is the slow product cycle release

I am a Pentax user for 10 years. They really lost their charm and direction.

Sam David's picture

I have yet to find a compelling reason for "mirrorless" cameras, other than to give camera manufacturers something "new" to sell when incremental improvements to SLRs no longer moved the market. Putting a "mirrorless" camera into the product lineup just to appear competitive diverted Pentax from doing what really needed to be done -- continue making outstanding SLR cameras and lenses.

Deleted Account's picture

I agree but I find it difficult to recommend Pentax, as a Pentax user, because the value I place in their equipment doesn't match with much of what people I meet (IRL, forums are another beast entirely) want from a camera. I valued the rugged build, the reasonable value (see a weather sealed kit lens on any other make in 2014 when I got my K-50? Most brands haven't got that even now) and the dependable technology (screw drive meant I had little qualms in buying second hand while I save for better lenses). Most people seem to want better AF (understandable), decent video (not sure about the K-1/3, but my K-50 is poor and the majority of lenses are noisy) and Pentax can't even claim the battery life advantage over mirrorless because the low end use the Li-109, and the higher end mirrorless now match the li-90.

Maybe with the price going up and up they'll be able to find better development of higher end models but then they'll be beyond my range. If the K-New is more than a D500 I know what I'll do.

Edit to say; unless it’s better in every way than a D500, if that’s the case I’ll suck it up and wait some more years...

Ken May's picture

As a long time Pentax shooter, I had hoped they would introduce a monochrome sensor dslr. Perhaps in the $1000-$2000 price range. It would be a niche market, like the GR series.

David Solodukho's picture

I want a K1000 Asahi version, but digital. All manual, metal, leather, clicky - just a full frame sensor instead of film. I can even live without an LCD. I don't understand how DSLRs got so large. K1000 is a size of a rangefinder, as is AE1 Canon. And it feels so good to photograph with. I'd even buy just for nostalgia.

Hoggdoc Photos's picture

"Unpicking that sentence is interesting," Seriously does the author really mean Unpicking shouldn't it be Unpacking?