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Pentax K-1: The Perfect Astro Camera?

The new full-frame Pentax is full of features that landscape photographers—especially star chasers—will love
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Pentax K-1: The Perfect Astro Camera?

The Pentax K-1 is the first full-frame Pentax DSLR.

Capturing an accurate (and beautiful) view of the heavens is the goal of the astrophotographer, but for the shooter looking to capture the majesty of the Milky Way without star trails, it’s often necessary to turn to expensive pieces of hardware called star trackers. Thanks to the new Pentax K-1, star trackers, at least for some astrophotographers, may become a thing of the past.

Star trackers are automated camera mounts that precisely automate the process of panning a camera slowly in tandem with the rotation of the earth, creating tack-sharp images of the night sky. Often heavy, expensive and cumbersome, star trackers are nonetheless essential to creating a photo of the night sky without blurred star trails.

The new Pentax K-1, the company’s first full-frame digital camera, includes an ingenious system that will eliminate the need to carry extra hardware in order to capture a perfect image of the heavens. Following in the footsteps of the popular APS-C K-3, the K-1 includes a sensor that can shift position in several directions (as well as tilt). The ostensible use for the movable sensor is to reduce blur when shooting long exposures or when the photographer is moving, but combined with the camera’s electric compass and onboard GPS, it means the K-1 can create photographs as tack-sharp as anything that comes from a system mounted to a tracker.

Point the K-1 at the stars, and the system, dubbed AstroTracer, can track the stars without having to first orient the camera to Polaris, which you have to do with a star tracker. In astrophotography mode, the camera can capture exposures up to five minutes long, at which time the planet rotates more than the sensor’s shifting abilities can keep up.

The Pentax AstroTracer feature moves the camera’s sensor to follow the stars, rendering them as sharp points rather than trails during long exposures. The new Pentax K-1 includes this feature, as does the K-3 II, which was the camera used to take this photo.

In Star Stream mode, the camera photographs star trails by capturing images at intervals and stacking the files together in-camera to create an image that produces beautiful star trails without an overexposed foreground.

Photographers can choose to save the individual images and the final combined images (for processing later in Photoshop) or only the composited image.

The Pentax K-1 isn’t a one-trick pony, though, packing a number of features and advances into a substantial, but comfortable DSLR body. The K-1 is dust- and weather-sealed, with 87 individual seals, and will operate down to 14º F. In a nod to those who operate at night, the body has a built-in LED light that illuminates the camera mount, the rear of the LED panel and the controls, allowing for easy lens-changing in complete darkness. It also features an easily adjustable brightness setting to dim the LCD to prevent losing night vision.

The sensor in the Pentax K-1 is the same one found in the well-regarded Sony a7R, with great dynamic range and color accuracy. The body incorporates a settings dial that prevents trips to the menu or a settings menu. The LCD screen on the back extends and pivots in a completely unique spider-like way, and the settings display on the screen rotates when the camera is turned from landscape to portrait mode.

Pentax fans have been clamoring for a full-frame digital camera, but it’s not just these “Pentaxians” who will benefit from the new system. Parent company Ricoh assures us this is just one in a series of forthcoming full-frame cameras, ensuring a continuing stream of lenses and accessories for the re-emergent brand.