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Pentax K-1 Review: Pixel Shift in the Studio

Updated: Apr 22, 2018

L. Leroy Tourbillon Skeleton Front and Back


I’ve been making images of timepieces for several years now. I’ve always been surprised by the amount of dirt and imperfection I find inside these amazingly beautiful (and amazingly expensive) watches. Again and again, I have found imperfections in these crazy expensive watches that I would have been appalled to see if I were to purchase one. Eventually, I came to understand that the watchmaking industry is so small, literally and figuratively, that it’s impossible to eliminate all those imperfections. The general rule is if you can’t see it without a 4X loupe, it doesn’t exist.

The same goes for editing the images. As a rule, I never edit at 100% view because the amount of time it takes to clean up every visible speck is completely unrealistic for any project deadline. And, since most of that detail will never even be seen in normal viewing, there’s simply no point in spending my time (or the client’s money) striving for invisible perfection. The truth is, watch customers will never see the details I find inside these watches. And my clients will never see the dust and junk I fail to clone out of the images… unless they are pixel peeping at 100% magnification, which I very RARELY allow.

So… why make more work for myself, struggling to capture (and clean up) all that detail and imperfection? Because it’s there! :D

Some Background

When I first started shooting watches, I was using a Canon 5D (yes, the old one) with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro. At the time, I was pretty happy with the results, especially for web viewing. Even the old 5D, at only 12.8mp, revealed shocking details like tiny fingerprint smudges inside the watch casing. 12.8mp seems like such a low resolution by today’s standard, and yet, the images I created with that camera still wow my students and clients today.

I’ve used a lot of gear over the years. I’m constantly tinkering and experimenting to improve my process and my image quality. After the 5D, I stepped up to an old Phase One H25 mounted on the back of a Hasselblad 501c. At 22mp, the H25’s resolution was all but equal to a Canon 5D mark ii… But that big sensor (literally double the size of full frame) with no AA filter (and the spring-powered Hasselblad body and lenses) brought out something special in my work. When the Hasselblad bodies started giving me trouble, I mounted the H25 onto a Fuji GX680 and fell in love with bellows. Tilts and shifts make it possible to get the razor thin depth of field more in line with the watch face.

Recently, I’ve been shooting with an old Pentax 645d mounted on a 645 bellows. With adapters, I can mount all my favorite Hasselblad lenses with ease and control. And focus stacking is even simpler with the ability to focus the rear standard (with camera mounted) while keeping the front lens standard perfectly in place. The 39mp resolution of the 645d generated the largest images I’ve ever made for my watch photography… until now

The New Kid on the Block

The Pentax K-1 36mp with pixel shift is generating astounding levels of detail with gobs color data. And the Pentax 100mm 2.8 Macro WR is a wonder of a lens; sharper and smoother than any other macro lens I’ve used. This combination handily out-resolves everything I've previously used for shooting watches, including  the H25 or the 645d with the Hasselblad 135mm macro bellows lens.

I’m definitely sold on the K-1 for product work. However, it’s not all moonbeams and sunshine.

I’ve had to reinvent my process. Again. Pixel shift doesn’t work with flash, so I’ve had to switch to high power LED’s. This makes a rock solid tripod absolutely essential. I’ve discovered that my heavy-as-f*** Salon camera stand is actually not as immovable as I’d previously thought. I’m lucky I have concrete floors in my studio because I think it would be impossible to extract the full potential from this camera with wood floors. And tethering with Lightroom and the Pextax tether plugin… well it kinda sucks. Actually, Lightroom’s tethering has always been a little unstable. I’ve been using CaptureOne for tethering in the studio for years and it’s as solid as it can be. Unfortunately, PhaseOne doesn’t like Pentax cutting into their medium format sales so they don’t support the more serious Pentax cameras.

And this brings us (finally) to the point of this article. Pixel shift on the K-1 has brought up a lot of questions about file compatibility in the various processing suites. I shot some new watches earlier this week and discovered some interesting things. The Pentax cameras can save a RAW file as DNG, which is great because it allowed me to process the images in my old favorite, CaptureOne. I was impressed with the results, overall… until someone mentioned that CaptureOne doesn’t actually support pixel shift, which means I’ve yet to tap the K-1’s full potential. That sent me down the rabbit hole and I’ve now spent an entire day comparing processing results from Lightroom, CaptureOne, and SilkyPix Pro.

The Testing

I shot several identical images of this antique pocket watch movement with and without pixel shift turned on and with the camera saving in both Pentax PEF raw and DNG raw. I then processed each image in all three programs with the default process settings. I also created one alternate with adjusted sharpening and noise reduction. No other settings were changed at all. I then exported all the files as 8bit Tiffs and layered them in Photoshop with perfect alignment so I could make small, 100% pixel crops for this article. Below are my findings.

The effect of pixel shift is clearly visible. At first look, the default settings in Lightroom appear disappointing, while Silkypix produces very impressive details. To my taste, the default settings in Silkypix appear just a bit over sharpened. I initially started this exercise to determine if CaptureOne is recognizing the pixelshift data. It’s clear that CaptureOne is, indeed, rendering more information in the pixelshift file. However, I was surprised to find that CaptureOne is the obvious loser in this contest.


At the beginning of this process, I was convinced that Silkypix is a program I would need to add to my tool set just for the ability to process pixelshift images to their maximum potential. With a change in sharpening settings, I can now confidently say Lightroom is the superior program for this purpose. I still prefer CaptureOne for most of my processing. But it’s clear that CaptureOne falls short of its usual quality when dealing with Pentax generated DNG files.

The Pentax K-1 is not the MOST studio friendly camera, lacking reliable tethering ability, and there may be even more impressive image quality from the big boy medium format toys from Hasselblad and Phase One. That said, overall, I’m very impressed with the K-1 for product work in the studio. I had been dreaming for quite awhile about upgrading the aging 645D to the very impressive 645z… however, the K-1’s image quality potential is so high, I think I’ll be happy waiting for the next Pentax 645 Digital, perhaps with medium format pixel shift. :D

#pentax #pixelshift #phaseone #captureone #lightroom #silkypix #watches #studio #productphotography

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I've been teaching photography in Seattle for about 10 years. In 2010, I created REDred Photo School & Studio with a grand vision to recruit other teachers and build a full-fledged photography academy

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