While the Pentax Q might look like a miniature DSLR, at heart it’s very much an advanced compact and this needs to be kept in mind when judging overall image quality. Compared against other compacts using a 1/2.3in sensor, including those that fall within the high-end or advanced compact segment of the market, we’re pleased to report that the Q performs exceptionally well. Indeed, to revisit the bold claim made by Pentax that we referenced at the beginning of this review it’s certainly true that the Q can deliver “high-contrast images, rich in gradation and texture,” and much more besides. As far as regular compact cameras go, the Pentax Q delivers some of the best image quality we’ve yet seen, with mid-range ISO performance particularly strong.
Between ISO 125 and ISO 400, images remain sharp and free of noise, while ISO 800 shows only minor signs of noise with impressive levels of detail retained, especially in shadow areas. It was ISO 1600, however, that really left us impressed; whereas the vast majority of compacts tend to deliver fairly poor results at ISO 1600, the Pentax Q is still producing pretty good images. Under close examination, detail can be seen to have softened, but noise is kept largely at bay, with overall image quality remaining high enough to view and/or print at larger sizes that would usually be the case.
Metering is generally quite consistent, although as with Pentax DSLRs, the Q has a tendency to preserve highlight detail through underexposure. Thankfully, the camera offers /-2EV compensation to help out in situations where you want to intervene. We didn’t encounter any problems with Automatic White Balance, with the Q proving consistent at metering for variations in colour temperature.
Sadly though, there are some limitations, with the Q’s compact-sized sensor severely limiting how shallow a depth of field you can attain, even when shooting at maximum aperture. Even with the 8mm lens opened to f/1.9, you really need to be using the Q at its minimum focus distance (around 15cm) to really throw the background sharply out of focus. And while such close focusing might be ok for Macro and still-life work, it simply isn’t practical for larger subjects and for portraits.
Clearly aware of this limitation Pentax has attempted to implement a solution in the form of a Blur Control shooting mode that can be accessed directly from the main mode dial. This basically uses image processing to accentuate the defocused areas of an image, with three levels of strength on offer. In theory it’s a nice idea, however in practice we found it to be somewhat flawed, often failing to properly distinguish our main subject and blurring random areas on the same focal plane, with the net result that some images end up looking like they’ve been put through one of those fake tilt-shift apps you can get for smartphones.
Irrespective of its overall score, it’s hard not to warm to the Pentax Q. Not only does it look different, it is different, and for that alone kudos must go to Pentax for daring to tread a different path. The Q can deliver solid results when used as a regular digital camera, but what it really excels at is the ability to deliver effects-laden photography on the fly. The generous number of creative tools and the ease with which they can be used mark the Q out as a camera to experiment and have fun with, and that will surely bolster its appeal to many, irrespective of its inherent limitations. There are undoubtedly better compact system cameras available for photography enthusiasts, but for gadget lovers and casual snappers looking for something small and fun, the Pentax Q pretty much hits the spot. The £600 price tag is uncompetitive though, and sure to put plenty of people off.