Packed with a ton of night photography-specific features, I’m here to tell you why the Pentax K-1 is truly the king of night photography cameras.

I’m writing this piece in response to B&H Photo Video’s video published March 2019 titled, “Night Photography Series: The Best Cameras for Night Photography.” Their list included cameras from the older, budget-friendly Nikon D750 to Sony’s A7rIII. It even included FujiFilm’s GFX 50R medium format camera. For reasons unknown to me, they excluded the Pentax K-1 from their list. 

Pentax K-1 – Not to be Overlooked

Regardless of my loyalty to the brand, I find it unusual that Pentax cameras rarely receive any praise.

The Pentax K-1 Mark 1 has been my camera of choice since I bought it new in June 2017. It was the K-1’s specialization in night photography that prevented me from switching from Pentax to any other system.

As part of this ongoing torture test, my K-1 has spent plenty of time under the night sky.

The K-1 admittedly has a few drawbacks. But in the last few years that I’ve been doing landscape and night photography, I have yet to find any significant flaws that impact my shooting, workflow, or the quality of my work.

About the Pentax K-1

Released in early 2016, the Pentax K-1 was the highly anticipated first digital full-frame camera in Pentax’s camera lineup. The camera has features like a rugged magnesium-alloy body, in-body image stabilization, and a 36.4megapixel CMOS sensor.

Like many Pentax cameras before it, it features Pentax’s almost mythical weather sealing.

What the spec sheet will not immediately tell you is the K-1 also comes with several features that are very specific to night photography. Some of which are found exclusively in the Pentax K-1.

I’ll highlight those features plus more to explain why I believe the K-1 is the only near-perfect choice for night photography.

Price

Amazon Affiliate Link: Pentax K-1 Mark II 36MP Weather Resistant DSLR with 3.2″ TFT LCD, Body Only, Black

At the time of writing, the Pentax K-1 Mk1 sells below $1,800. That price makes it one of the less expensive full-frame cameras on the market. For comparison, refurbished Nikon D750s still sell for over $1,000 and other cameras on B&H’s list are well over $3,000 for the bodies alone. 

Night photography is an expensive hobby. Sturdy tripods, fast lenses, tracking mounts, night sky filters, astro modifications, and pro-grade camera bodies, amongst other things, can all empty your wallet very quickly.

If you throw in the cost of a tracking mount, then even a refurbished D750 easily equals or passes the price of the Pentax K-1. (More on tracking mounts later.)

Lenses for the Pentax K-1

There is no doubt that there are many more options for lenses available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony lens mounts. But Pentax hasn’t been completely forgotten. 

Rokinon, Bower, and Samyang, for example, offer several wide-angle full-frame lenses for Pentax K-mount. Even Sigma’s excellent 35mm f/1.4 Art is available for Pentax K- Mount.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art for Pentax K Mount.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art for Pentax K Mount.

Irix offers its excellent and inexpensive 15mm f/2.4 in Pentax K-mount.

Pentax K-1 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone. Photo Courtesy of Ken Burcham Jr.
Pentax K-1 with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone. Photo Courtesy of Ken Burcham Jr.

Even Pentax’s native glass like the 15-30mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and D FA* 50mm f/1.4, are all extremely capable, fast lenses suited for night photography.

Despite what some critics say, there is definitely not a shortage of lenses for Pentax cameras. There just isn’t as large of a selection as Canon’s EOS or Nikon’s F mounts.

Pentax K-1 Image Sensor

The K-1 features a 36megapixel sensor that has 14.6 stops of dynamic range. That puts it within half a stop of all of the best cameras currently available. And that’s even three years after its release.

At 36-megapixels, it boasts plenty of resolution for pixel-peepers and to make high-quality prints. It does mean file sizes are large, but not unreasonably so. Even those of us with laptops won’t have too much trouble using Photoshop to process images.

The image quality is also great at higher ISO numbers. 

Single exposure at 15mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO 18,000
Single Exposure at 15mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO 18,000

I won’t claim the sensor is entirely ISO invariant because I have not truly tested the claim. But I do know that I have produced some excellent 16”x20” prints with the above image shot at ISO 18,000.

The one issue I’ve had with the sensor is the white noise has been an issue for single, extremely long exposures. However, it is eliminated in-camera by shooting at a lower ISO and using shorter exposures to prevent the hot pixels that generally cause white noise to appear. (I rarely shoot exposures longer than 5 minutes.)

Weather Sealing

Almost every technical article comparing weather sealing between cameras tends to have an asterisk somewhere that says, “shut up, Pentaxians.”

I’ve put the Pentax K-1 through several torture tests by living in the desert. It has withstood several sand storms and has endured a sandstorm followed by heavy rain in Death Valley.

Pentax K-1 and D FA 24-70 f/2.8 covered in snow in winter 2018
Pentax K-1 and D FA 24-70 f/2.8 covered in snow in winter 2018

It has also seen a blizzard in Southern New Mexico without flinching.

It almost goes without saying that Pentax cameras are notoriously rugged and durable.

As long as you don’t change lenses, cards, or batteries, nothing is getting in unless you entirely submerge your camera.

For night photographers, clouds and sand storms usually mean a blocked Milky Way and a shaky tripod, so it isn’t a big concern.

It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

LCD Screen

Like almost all digital cameras, the K-1 features an LCD screen; the screen of the K-1 is a 1.04 million-dot screen.

Unique to the K-1, the screen swivels and tilts with the help of four stainless steel bars that allow the screen to tilt 90 degrees up, 44 degrees down, and 35 degrees left and right. This making viewing low or high-angle shots much more comfortable.

Part of the LCD’s usefulness to night photographers comes from its easily accessible brightness control.

It is the default setting on a programmable “FX2” button on the camera.

Outdoor View Setting
Outdoor View Setting

Photographers using the K-1 can quickly adjust the brightness of their LCD screen without going into the camera’s menu system.

At “-2”, the LCD is still bright, but no so bright that it causes your eyes pain when you’re checking your settings or histogram.

Ease of Use

Continuing with the ease of use, the K-1 features a “smart dial” on top of the camera with a mode dial to set what it controls. 

The mode dial lets you can assign the top knob to several other functions. These include changing the crop mode, turning on image stabilization, controlling exposure compensation, and even turning the built-in Wifi on or off, amongst other things, all at the tip of your thumb.

K-1 Smart Dial Mode Dial
K-1 Smart Dial Mode Dial

For night photography, setting the mode dial to the ISO setting means you now have a knob dedicated to aperture, shutter speed, AND ISO individually.

So, no pressing any extra buttons or digging through menus to make adjustments to the exposure triangle.

Camera Exterior Lighting

The first feature in the K-1 specifically for night photographers is the exterior lighting. If you’re like me, you know every button and dial on your camera so well that you can operate it with your eyes closed. But then, if you’re like me, you also always put the lens on with the third try because you can never really get the red dots lined upright.

The K-1 has exterior lighting built-in that is turned on with a small button next to the smart dial. One light illuminates the lens mount so people like me can change lenses without blinding themselves with a headlamp or trying to find that invisible red dot when everything is red under your night view headlamp.

K-1 Lens Mount Illumination
K-1 Lens Mount Illumination

The second set of lights is inside the SD card slots. 

K-1 SD Slot Illumination
K-1 SD Slots Illumination

I personally find these lights unnecessary as I don’t change cards often in the field. But if you do need to and you can’t see the SD slots, these small lights can help. It’s the thought that counts.

The last set of lights is on the back of the LCD screen. 

Using the swivel LCD, you can illuminate things like your tripod head or the back buttons of your camera. 

K-1 Rear Button Panel Illumination
K-1 Rear Button Panel Illumination
K-1 Tripod Illumination
K-1 Tripod Illumination

They can also be used to illuminate your SD card case in case the previously mentioned lights aren’t enough to help you.

The last light that turns on when using this feature is the top LCD panel has a green light to show your settings and battery life if, for some reason, your rear LCD is off or not working.

K-1 Top LCD Illumination
K-1 Top LCD Illumination

The lights are customizable. Using the K-1’s “Illumination Settings” menu, which allows you to adjust the brightness of the top LCD and backside control lights.

The settings menu also allows you to choose which lghts turn on when using the feature as you can disable the lens mount, SD slot, back panel, and top LCD lights individually.

It isn’t a terribly useful feature and I would get along fine without it.

But this feature has, at the very least, made changing lenses easier. It also allows me to check that my L-bracket is properly seated in my tripod head without turning on my bright headlamp.

Night Vision

This particular feature is particularly useful for night photographers, in case the name, “night vision” in the camera menu didn’t tell you. What this feature does is it allows you to change your rear LCD view mode so that everything you see is tinted red and monochromatic.

K-1 Night Vision: OFF View
K-1 Night Vision: OFF
K-1 Night Vision: ON View
K-1 Night Vision: ON

To further assist you in retaining your night vision, the brightness of the rear LCD is adjustable even with night vision enabled. Just like the reason behind red headlamps and flashlights, the red tint helps preserve your night vision while you’re shooting in the dark.

After shooting in the dark for a while, I’ve found that the rear LCD and my histogram are still very easy to read even with night vision on and the outdoor view setting at “-2”. At this level, the screen is so dim that it is just barely visible under an actual light source. But at night, it’s still very viewable.

The only downside to this feature is that your instant-review images are displayed in the same red, monochromatic view.

That means for those using low-level lighting; we’ll have to turn night vision off to make sure we have our lights’ white balances set correctly.

As for your exposure, you’ll either have to know how to read your histogram or turn night vision off to get a rough idea of how your image looks. 

Pentax K-1 Astrotracer

K-1 Astrotracer Function Menu
K-1 Astrotracer Function Menu

At this point, I feel like I’m beating a dead horse when it comes to talking about Pentax’s Astrotracer function. But it is an unbelievably useful dead horse that is unique to Pentax cameras.

You can learn more by reading about my previous article on Pentax’s Astrotracer function and how to use it.

As night photographers, a lot of us either own a tracking mount or at the very least, want one. I am not one of those people that wants one as I have not seen a real need for one.

To explain it simply, Astrotracer is a function built into the Pentax K-1 and K-1 ii (and several other Pentax cameras). It uses the camera’s sensor-stabilization system in conjunction with the camera’s GPS to shift and rotate the sensor to counter the Earth’s rotation relative to the night sky.

This function acts as a built-in tracking mount which has allowed me, personally, to shoot 1-minute exposures consistently with a 35mm lens.

My longest exposure with no trailing using a 35mm lens has been 4 minutes without having to carry or set up a dedicated tracking mount.

Single Exposure D FA 24-70mm @ 35mm, f/2.8, 60s, ISO 1600 Tracked with Astrotracer
Single Exposure D FA 24-70mm @ 35mm, f/2.8, 60s, ISO 1600 Tracked with Astrotracer

Because of Astrotracer, I have also successfully shot images of the Milky Way at as low as ISO 200.

Single Exposure at 50mm, f/1.4, 80s, ISO 200
Single Exposure at 50mm, f/1.4, 80s, ISO 200

As I mentioned in my full article, it has its limitations, but it is a functional feature specifically and only for shooting the night sky.

Other Features Worth Mentioning

The K-1 has a few other minor features that may be useful for night photographers:

It can shoot 4K time-lapse videos with its “Interval Movie Record” function.

The “Star Stream” function allows you to create 4K videos of star trails forming. Your foreground will stay motionless while the stars will streak across the sky by taking as many exposures as you tell it.

The K-1 also has a nifty little feature called “Horizon Correction.” This function uses the camera’s internal gyroscope to tell the sensor to rotate until your shot is level even if your camera is not. If your camera is off-level, the horizon correction can eliminate some work and the pixels you’d lose leveling your horizon.

Final Thoughts

The Pentax K-1 does not match the best in the industry in dynamic range, focus speed, or frames per second. It doesn’t have hundreds of aftermarket lenses to choose. It doesn’t have 45, 50, or 60 megapixels.

But it does have a few practical and useful features tailored to night photographers without extra cost.

When the sun goes down, you don’t need 11 frames per second or a lightning-fast autofocus system. And 60+ megapixel photos are possible with a little extra field-work and a few clicks in Photoshop.

You don’t need the Sigma 12mm, 14mm, 18mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 wide prime lenses. A single 35mm or 24mm will do the job.

And no camera has 15 stops of dynamic range at ISO 1600, 3200, 6400, or 12,800.

The playing field levels once the sun goes down. The K-1 is the only camera with several features tailored to night photography to make it easier, more accessible, and more affordable.

B&H Photo Video published their list of the best cameras for night photography, but those cameras were all fighting for second place.

So since 2016, the Pentax K-1 has, as far as I’m concerned, been the quiet king of night photography cameras.

Have I mentioned Astrotracer?

5 COMMENTS

  1. The reasons listed above in your article is the exact reasons why migrated from Canon to Pentax. Price vrs Performance is a no brainer. I’m predominantly do landscape photography with a good splash of astro and the K1 gives me the confidence that it will perform regardless of the conditions etc. Good write up for a very underrated and under exposed (mind the pun) camera.

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