Pentax spells out vision as an art company that ignores superior tech

Pentax has gone long enough between camera announcements that “Do they still make Pentax cameras?” is an actual Google search suggestion. But as Pentax prepares to announce the development of a new flagship crop-sensor DSLR next week, the company shared an evolving brand philosophy and published an interview with President Shinobu Takahashi discussing the future of the company. And it’s a future that’s unsurprisingly but dangerously focused on the “art” of SLR photography, rather than mirrorless.

Throughout the video and written proclamation, Pentax emphasizes the experience and art of working with an SLR, going as far as subtly implying that mirrorless cameras are further removed from the artistic process of creating a photograph. When you work with an SLR, the video says, you “view the image with your eyes and feel it with your heart.”

Pentax has already said last year that the brand wasn’t interested in joining the full-frame mirrorless craze. But can a modern camera company survive without making the leap to mirrorless, as even big brands like Canon and Nikon are finally jumping in head first instead of timidly dipping a toe in the water? Olympus’ announcement of a potential sale of the camera business — after fully supporting mirrorless but refusing to go full-frame — suggests a fraught future for camera companies that do not embrace the full range of technical possibilities.

Pentax’s plan for survival is to do the opposite — and focus instead on the experience of photography rather than superior technology. “At Pentax, we don’t design SLRs or mirrorless cameras based on which is superior or inferior in terms of technology,” Takahashi says in the interview. “We believe that everything depends on which type of camera the user prefers because of the way it handles or captures a particular subject. We design SLRs that allow the photographer to sense and capture the light coming through the SLR-exclusive pentaprism. We’d like to help them create images using all the elements of their creative imagination.”

One of the five “Principles of Pentax” released by the company says that the company will “pursue a level of quality and performance that can’t be measured by numbers alone.” The company continues to say that numerical values won’t be the only pursuit, but “sensory feedback” will be a part of the design and development. In other words, how the camera feels and the experience of shooting with the camera matters, more than fancy specifications. A big part of that is the optical viewfinder, which Pentax claims is a better way to see the light in the scene and even interact with the subject.

“The thing that matters most to Pentax is developing SLR cameras that will provide our users with the ultimate pleasure of photography throughout the process of picture-taking,” Takahashi said in the interview. That’s not a bad goal, but is taking a photograph with a technically advanced camera any less fun than taking a picture with an SLR?

The list of principles also says that Pentax designs new cameras “through sheer devotion.” (Does Pentax have fewer resources than what’s dedicated to the 360 cameras made by parent company Ricoh?) And aims to create cameras “that allow for direct communication with the subject” and allow photographers “to enjoy all the processes involved in taking a picture.” The final point is to respect “photographic experiences.”

If the list of principles and interview don’t make the company’s focus obvious, a webpage dedicated to the brand’s redefined philosphy makes it clear: “With an SLR, photography is more like painting a picture than operating a mechanical device.”

The company stops just short of saying mirrorless photography is less artistic, but they certainly imply it.

Ricoh Pentax-DFA 50mm F1.4 SDM SW review
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a DSLR photographer that bought the Nikon D850 after the mirrorless Z 7 came out. But I didn’t buy the D850 for the experience or because shooting with mirrorless feels any less artistic. I bought the D850 because the DSLR can still focus on a dark dance floor better than the Z 7 and I can shoot an all-day wedding with only two batteries. 

Pentax is making no such claims that the SLR is technically better, only that SLRs are artistically better and that optical viewfinders are nice. DSLRs feel different than shooting with a mirrorless, yes, but saying that they are more artistic is like saying owning a certain type of paintbrush makes you more of a painter than the next guy. And trying to build a profitable company off that philosophy is, at best, risky.

Granted, if there’s any company that can make inferior technology with a great experience work, it’s Pentax. Pentaxian photographers are known to be fiercely loyal. While Pentax DSLRs have been first to launch some great features like weather-sealing, “cutting edge” isn’t one of the first phrases that comes to mind when thinking of the company. Shooting with a Pentax already had a different feel to it, and while risky, it’s less ludicrous than if one of the top two camera brands decided to do the same.

Pentax is riding on the idea that DSLRs are the next film camera. Despite numerous claims that film is dead — just as many photographers have been saying for years about DSLRs — photographers still pick up film cameras exclusively for that different artistic process. Fewer advanced features can help photographers slow down and put more thought into each shot. Pentax is saying the same about DSLRs, despite the much smaller gap between mirrorless and DSLR than digital and film.

The question is, will it be possible to sustain a business with the number of photographers who prefer the Pentaxian experience to the competitors that regularly sprout new features and advancements at a similar price point?

Pentax will offer a glimpse at just how that new philosophy will manifest in a physical camera next week. The company is planning a broadcast to share the development of a new APS-C flagship camera on July 22 at 7 p.m. Japan standard time, 6 a.m. ET.

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