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.”
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.
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.