Is Dark Horse Pentax Fizzing Out?

I have a soft spot for underdogs. When I learned that Pentax was rebooting their camera line in the USA market back in 2006, I was one of the early buyers. I snagged the k10d, and turned into an evangelist for Pentax. I praised the camera to anyone who’d listen.

And it deserved the praise. It had a spankin’ new sensor that no other camera maker was using. It had waterproofing and was extra rugged, which was perfect for hiking and some light abuse. No other camera company offered a camera with that feature. It also had a sensor-shake feature to clear its sensor of dust. Also unprecedented. On and on. There were oodles of new features that very few or no other camera companies were using. And best of all: it used the famous Pentaprism for its focusing mechanism (a Very Good ThingTM).

In other words, it was innovative. Pentax had positioned itself to be a industry leader by introducing new features and tech to its camera that no one else was doing. Canon and Nikon scrambled to catch up.

So, yeah, I was excited for Pentax. It was a dark horse that had the potential to turn the camera industry upside down.

In its heyday, the brand was a household name. The Pentax ME and k1000 film cameras were the cameras that every wannabe Photographer had to have back in the 70s and 80s. The LX was the pro model (if anyone has a mint one somewhere in their attic, please let me know! I’d love to get my hands on it). They were so successful they were The First camera company to produce 1 million SLR cameras, back in 1981. That was a huge deal at the time.

Somewhere in mid-80s, something happened, and Pentax all but disappeared from the USA market. I’ve no clue why — details are sketchy.

Anyway. Back to late 2000s. I thought, perhaps a little naively: “If they keep setting industry trends, they’ll get huge in no time!”

A few short years later, in 2010, Pentax introduced the digital medium format successor to their insanely popular film 645. And it was affordable! In comparison, most medium format cameras are $20k and up.

Ricoh, an office equipment company, bought Pentax out in 2011, and I thought: “This is great! More money, more resources for R&D and marketing!”

However it appears Ricoh had little interest in its subsidiary and I now suspect it was more interested in cannibalizing Pentax’s lens IP for its own compact camera line and copiers.

Pentax slogged ahead.

Pentax released cameras at a steady clip, about 1 or 2 new bodies each year. Compared with Nikon and Canon, this was slow. But as long as they innovated and set themselves apart from the en masse, that was fine. Except…they stopped innovating.

You see.

A camera company with as few model lines as Pentax has needs to be continuously investing in R&D and to set themselves as a industry leader. They did this the first few years, but the past few has been unimpressive. R&D is hard — I get that.

Pentax’s seemingly lackluster update to the excellent K1 model reinforces this line of thinking (related post in which I rant about the so-called upgrades).

IF R&D is no-go, they should be marketing heavily, and working on getting their products in camera shops. Especially in the USA. Aside from a couple major retail camera companies like B&H and Adorama, that’s not happening at all. Meanwhile Canon has TV commercials. Nikon, I can’t recall seeing tv commercials in recent years, but they’re in most department stores with electronics category like Best Buy, Costco, Walmart, etc. There’s a stark difference in their marketing strategies.

On top of that, Ricoh recently rebranded Pentax.

This was their logo in 2013.

And this is the logo now, which quietly made its appearance late 2017.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on: Ricoh is distancing itself from Pentax. I would not be surprised to learn that Ricoh has been quietly shopping around for a buyer.

That’s disappointing. I really hoped that Pentax, as a dark horse, would regain its former glory.

We’ll see what happens at the Photokina, which is a trade expo for camera companies. Tech companies often use the event to reveal new cameras, gadgets, and technologies. The next one is scheduled for September 2018. If Pentax doesn’t bring something wholly new to the table…it won’t look good for the company’s future.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Pentax’s cameras are excellent. They’re not exciting and innovative, true, but they’re solid. They perform well. They take great pictures. And considering that my current camera, the original k5, is still kicking butt 7 years later, that says something about its longevity.

For the moment, I still recommend their cameras, though perhaps not as enthusiastically as ~10 years ago. If you’re in the market for a new camera, do consider them.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Ellen

    Your argument really only makes sense if one subscribes to the logic that frequent model releases are equated with innovation. I’ve always thought that multiple model releases of cameras in the space of a year is serious overkill (other than for the purposes of line differentiation- eg, entry level vs prosumer). I’d rather see fewer new models further apart and quality innovation then frequent often inconsequential tweeks. I’ve never been a fan of the II approach to upgrades (as in K-5II, k-3II).

    As for what may happen in the future, few of us know and I see little value in soeculating about the sale of the Pentax brand.

    Pentax did loose much of its market share in the 80s and hasn’t recovered, but who cares as long as the company keeps innovating and supplying us with great cameras? Other than the wait for a full frame, they’ve done that.

    From a technology standpoint, we may be plateauing. So we all need 42 and 50 megapixel full frame cameras? Probably not.

    Just my thoughts.

  2. Jefry

    I really don’t get what is the point of this article..
    Every camera brand and model has a great thing and several bad..
    Just buy what best fits your needs..

  3. Mark

    If you are complaining about the lack of marketing by Pentax, join the club, but only as a rookie. Pentax has never had good marketing, reason unknown. But the company has continued to innovate, pixel shift being huge. Pentax requires patience among its users, which usually rewarded. But I agree Pentax and Ricoh need to be more aggressive. But Ricoh selling Pentax is unlikely. Ricoh wants to build its name of course, but Pentax and Ricoh are too much of a good fit to part ways.

  4. Bernhard Blumöhr

    Unfortunately, the DSLR market is no longer growing. People buy smartphones. Since the camera manufacturers have more difficult to assert themselves in the market. If Ricoh repels Pentax at some point, they might be better off with Sigma!

  5. I think that Ricoh back in the day was the budget line of cameras, they used Pentax’s K-mount because Pentax never copyrighted it. I love Pentax to death, they’re my favorite lens maker; I have many of their older cameras/lenses and the build quality is top-notch! I think it says something that the maker of quality products got bought out by the camera company making cheap knock-offs.

  6. Mark J Chavous

    A few things. Suggesting that Ricoh is distancing itself from the company they bought is a bit presumptuous. Ricoh would be foolish to rid itself of the resources that Pentax has, since they can help reboot Ricoh’s line of point & shoot cameras. Ricoh was wise enough to keep the Pentax name intact, unlike Sony who let the Minolta photography name fade into history (they have done well with their camera line, but many of us would have loved to see the Minolta name remain). Pentax isn’t going anywhere.

    Pentax remained strong throughout the 80s, as they moved upscale by offering new pro oriented lenses such as the 300mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/5.6 (later replaced by the 600mm f/4 AF as auto focus cameras were introduced). The 90s were sort of weird, and it wasn’t that Pentax disappeared, it was as Canon and Nikon continued to compete aggresively and flooded the market with all kinds of intense marketing, other companies like Pentax (Minolta, Olympus, Fuji) simply chose not to play the game at that level. Pentax even less so, and you are preaching to the choir about Pentax’s marketing in general, a constant gripe by customers (and very quietly, by sales and other Pentax staff I knew at that time). I worked in photo retail back then and I watched this all happen. Unfortunately, Pentax’s marketing efforts continued to decrease, to our consistent frustration.

    But they continue to make great cameras and lenses. And the fact that many of us can use our legacy glass on the new cameras without modification is a blessing that no other company can say on Pentax’s level (Nikon comes the closest, but no cigar). As another Mark on this page said, using Pentax requires patience but it has been consistently worthwhile. You may nitpick about the tweaks in the II versions of the gear, but most of the people I know who shoot with them love them just fine. The GPS capability on the K-3II was very well received by Pentax landscape shooters who love to hike to various locations. The K-1II getting the KP’s increased lSO range is a real boost for those of us, like myself, who work in news and sports photography, where lighting can often be a roll of the dice.

    One last thing: if the market for real cameras like DSLRs does a nosedive in the next few years, Pentax is already streamlined in its size, and could well survive. If that were to happen to Canon and Nikon as big as they are, that could be catastrofic, though Canon is a very bit corporation and they could hang on. Having said that, I do wish Pentax could do something about its marketing. It’s a great name which, appearences notwithstanding, is not ready for the photographic dustbin, not really even close. We are doing just fine, thank you very much.

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