Interview with Ned Bunnell, President of Pentax

Ned Bunnell is the President of Pentax Imaging (USA), and an avid photographer. He considers himself very fortunate to have a day job that combines his love of photography with leading a company in selling and marketing cameras. Prior to Pentax, he worked in product marketing and planning roles at Canon Computer Systems, Polaroid, Adobe Systems, Agfa-Gevaert and NEC. Ned has also operated two studios over the course of his career, most recently Bunnell Photography in San Clemente, CA.

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We had a chance to sit down with Ned at PMA, as well as a follow-up on some camera and market details later this fall at their press event at the International Center of Photography in New York City for their release of the K-x. Ned was very gracious to go over his past history and what lead to his current career as the president of Pentax, as well as reveal what blogs he frequents, and which Pentaxian photographers he finds inspiring. Read on!

Tell us a little about your past history as a photographer.

I grew up in Connecticut with two strong influences: my father who worked on Wall Street, and my mother who was and still is a very active watercolor artist. I would spend summers with my father while I was in prep school planning to work with my dad on Wall Street. I had a mixed childhood—interested in business but also attracted to art. While in high school, I had been a photographer and the editor of the school paper. I went to college in Boston at Northeastern and spent the first year in business school, and started to take more and more pictures.

By the end of the first year, I realized I was no longer interested in business school. I switched from Northeastern to Emerson College and started taking photography courses. Before I knew it, I was totally committed to photography. I ended up finishing my schooling at the San Francisco Art Institute. I mainly shot with Leicas and returned to Boston to work as a stringer for the Boston Globe. I did nothing but street photography and got some really good assignments. I also did a lot of graphic design work. I had two different studios over my career: I had a studio in Amherst, NH in the early 80’s with a complete darkroom for both black and white and C-chrome. I was doing photography for a little known company at that time, Brookstone. Back in the 80’s they were issuing four catalogs a year. My studio primarily was being supported by doing product photography. On any given day, I would have to shoot sometimes 25 to 30 small items that they were bringing in. I had a full-fledged studio with all the lights you could imagine.

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I then embarked on the path to where I am now. In the early 80’s, I had an opportunity to start working for a Japanese company, NEC, who was building printers. I had been a calligrapher and understood letters. They wanted me to help them design better printers. They brought me in as a consultant. I helped them design some of the first post-script printers and helped them build the typeface library for the US market. They understood the Japanese character set, but they weren’t so good with the Roman character set, so I was also able to help them there. After NEC, I worked with Adobe for a number of years and spent some time at Polaroid. With Adobe, I was doing international business development. Again, it was based on licensing software tools to convert the alphabet from Japanese manufacturers into English. Throughout this I was still taking pictures. Then was hired by Polaroid to help them turn around their digital imaging business. I then spent eight years at Canon before coming to Pentax. At Canon, I was responsible for the Bubblejet printer business in the US and it was our group that introduced Canon’s first digital camera, the Powershot 600, back in 1995.

My entire career has been focused on imaging, product planning, and marketing. I really am enjoying what I’m doing right now. We [Pentax] may not be the biggest company in terms of market share, but one thing a lot of people say, is that we’ve got the best photographer as the president in the industry. Ego aside, the point I’m making is, as a photographer, Japan understands that when we talk, I’m really the voice of the customer. I reflect a pretty deep understanding of the way photographers think and what they want, and that’s really helpful. In too many companies, the sales subsidiaries are in fact just sales subsidiaries—they need to reflect the needs of the market, and report back to headquarters what’s working and what isn’t working. There’s usually a sales bias towards that, or headquarters is never sure they believe what the US market is saying. At least I can speak to both the real market conditions, the business issues, as well as why a product is popular or not popular. I speak with conviction because I use the product.

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Even though your business studies in college were pretty brief, do you think the exposure of that helped define the career path you took?

I think so. My father was a real stern taskmaster. I learned a lot from him in terms of understanding business, to be very practical, and really pay attention to numbers. It’s influenced how my wife and I manage our personal finances. My mother encouraged me to be creative and my father reminded me about how careful you have to be when it comes to business and to look at both the risks and rewards. You make the right decision and then you have to accept the consequences. I think I benefited from having both those strong influences.

When you’re working with feedback, being that you are the representative of the Pentax customer, how do you go about acquiring, pooling and digesting feedback you’re getting and relay that to headquarters?

Before the Internet, companies would spend a lot of money and time trying to assimilate through old-fashioned analogs like warranty cards: demographics, what you liked about the product. In the analog days, it took forever to get the information back, then you’d have to analyze it, and put all your faith into it. Another thing we used to do, which many companies still do, is spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on focus groups, going from city to city talking to 20 people in each group, to collect feedback from the major cities, doing qualitative feedback where you might show different groups of consumers mock ups of a product, i.e. the camera and talk to them about their views of whether or not they’d be interested in things like an SLR other than black. The problem with that type of research is that it’s a lot of money, it’s qualitative.

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How has that changed since Hoya acquired Pentax?

The marketing test I mentioned at the New York event was the limited edition White K2000 we released in January of this year. When we talked to Hoya about doing focus groups, their view was we’re just going to build the white cameras—it’s actually a lot less expensive to build a limited number of cameras (2500), get them out into the hands of consumers and hear what they have to say about being able to touch and use a real product. That’s a very good example of how we’re working differently. With all my experience of doing these qualitative focus groups, you never really get the feedback you want. You’re asking somebody, “What if you had a product like this, would you like it?” That’s a lot different feedback than getting emails from somebody who just bought a white K2000 and talks specifically about what they like and don’t like about the camera. The combination of what we did with viral marketing, emails, blogging, we were able to get data back immediately.

Pentax historically has been more of a qualitative-driven company, that didn’t really look at data or consider data important. Hoya demands data in rote numbers about anything we do. The fact that we were able to get back to them, on how people liked this white K2000 within three months of running the test, and now here we are in September announcing the pentax_kx-black-kit, which will be available in white, navy, red, and black. That’s less than six months after the test. We were able to turn the data around into a real product and eliminate any fear of risk that colors would be a problem. My point is, that fast of a turnaround would never have happened in the analog days where you never were able to touch or reach customers.

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Do you think you’ll continue with a more rapid product cycle?

Oh I think so. One of the beauties of the Internet, is the ability for us to get feedback from our customers and potential customers right away. That’s changed the way everyone thinks about product life cycles and time to market and understanding the needs of the customers.

It’ll be really interesting to see how the success of the sales of the K-x goes, both here and in Japan.

In Japan, we’re running a campaign called “100 Colors, 100 Styles”. There’s already been a lot of push back—either people either complaining or asking why is the US only making 4 colors of the K-x available, while in Japan there are 100 colors, and we want those colors here in the US. The truth of the matter is, there’s a practical side to this. No one else has ever manufactured DSLRs in various colors before, so give us credit for taking risks, (which is being acknowledged, I think). The production aspect of building multiple color bodies is not trivial and therefore, partly due to the way Hoya runs their business, if we were to roll this out worldwide, we would’ve had tremendous logistical problems, and we would probably not have learned as much about which colors resonate in which markets. I think it would be fair to say that the reason we’re doing the 100 colors in Japan is that culturally, the Japanese market is probably the market that would be most open and receptive to colorizing and customizing their DSLRs and therefore an ideal place to test the 100 colors.

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We’re going to learn from that, and clearly whatever happens in the Japanese market you can imagine that we’ll make some changes as we move forward in terms of how we introduce future models with different color options. Here in the US and in Europe, we’re going to be testing the success of the four colors we’re selling.

What I discovered early on with the Internet, not only is it a fantastic community, it’s probably the absolute best way to understand the needs of the customers in terms of what they like and don’t like. I learn from my blog, that people are so willing to share what they like and don’t like about a product. Provided you have a thick skin, you’re really able to understand what motivates your customers. Of course, you have to balance that very carefully.

What are the top forums you hang out on?

My day usually consists of going to photo.net (on which I’ve been a member the longest), Dpreview, Mike Johnston, Pentax forums, Gadgets and Gizmos over a cup of coffee, just to see what’s brewing that day. I’ll also go onto Flickr, Facebook, and photo sharing sites to see what people are doing on those. I think we’re using the Internet fairly effectively. Some companies are a little afraid of it. I respect and understand it. You can get some really good advice from customers. A lot of things we’ve done recently directly relate to feedback we’ve heard, even though a lot of members on your forum (photo.net) would probably say we don’t listen. I share that information with Japan. Obviously we can’t do everything. I think our accuracy today in being able to calculate the needs of the customers is significantly better than it was 15 years ago.

What’s your process for boiling down the information?

I collect verbatims of what everyone says and then process the information. One of the things I try to do, is to hear what everyone is saying and then sift through all the notes and comments and reactions and try to balance that and communicate back to Japan. As the voice of the customer, I believe I know what’s right from a photographic standpoint. I think I understand what the customers are asking for, but I also have to balance that with what I think we technically can do and what time it’s going to take for us to do it. That’s where it becomes a little more pragmatic. The nice thing is we get that information back fairly quickly on a regular basis. In some cases, it’s instantaneous.

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In the past, everything was programmed. We only looked at our warranty cards and we only looked at the demographics. Oh, 60% of the consumers are happy with the camera. Well, now things happen spontaneously. There are things that have happened that we didn’t expect, such as a pleasant surprise where someone was using the product in a way that we hadn’t anticipated, or when building a camera we hadn’t thought about one little feature. Someone says, that’s a fantastic feature and you didn’t emphasize it enough. There’s a lot of spontaneity in terms of the reaction you get today from the Internet that we were never able to tap into in the past. You have to be able to respond every day to what you hear, whether it’s a minor issue or a major issue.

Do you feel that Pentax is able to sway or influence the market?

The K-7 is a good example of our niche. Our engineers and everyone in the company really believed that there’s no need to build an advanced SLR and make it the size of a giant SUV. An advanced SLR can be really small, the ergonomics can be really well thought-out, and deliver a camera that’s comfortable to use. Our Limited lenses, the small compact prime lenses we produce, are another example of how we think differently and understand the needs of the photographers. We’re producing these products because we think that’s what a lot of customers and photographers want. Does that influence other companies? I think it probably does, but we’re not doing it to influence other companies. We’re doing it because this is the way we think photography should be thought of and these are the tools we think will resonate with the people we want to do business with.

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How did the concept of the X70 come about and where do you see this taking people with the Pentax line of products.

We’ve never been in this particular segment of digicams before. We mainly focused on compact cameras and SLRs. The conceptualizing of the X70 was actually pretty simple. We’ve heard feedback from quite a few retailers that we’d really like Pentax to bring out a bridge camera. It helps us expand our brand in terms of the way they can represent Pentax. It also helps us satisfy a need from people who really want more capability than a compact but don’t want the complexity of an SLR—just a compact camera that gives you the zoom range of an SLR and an easy-to-use camera. It gives us the opportunity to hopefully put Pentax camera in the hands of a new customer that we previously have not been able to meet. It’s obviously a bridge technically between compact and SLR and it’s a bridge for us in terms of reaching out to hopefully bring more customers into the Pentax club.

Any more details on the medium format camera?

Six months ago, we had brought back the 645D medium format product. It had initially been shelved shortly after Hoya took us over. As we announced in Japan, we were focused on getting some new cameras out, which happened to be the K-7 and the K-x. From a business standpoint, it was much more important for us to solidify our APS-C sized sensor strategy. We recently announced that now that we’ve solidified our small frame sensor strategy, we’re restarting development of the 645D and the target is releasing it sometime in 2010. As we get more firm dates, we’ll let everyone know.

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Do you find that with your creative photography pursuits, you’re able to balance what you enjoy doing photographically with the business side of the things? What sort of photographic projects are you pursuing today?

My photography is different today. The only time I really get a chance to do anything creatively is when I’m on vacation. I don’t have that much time these days to be able to commit to any given photo project. I have to take the little pieces of time I have to do some photography. Mainly to keep my blog active. It’s really just moments of photography that are driven either by a new lens and try to figure out what are the right images for me to be shooting with this new lens so I can add them to my blog. They are project-driven based on the available time I have, and based on what equipment I have available. If I had a lot more time, I would probably be doing a lot more photojournalism and taking time off to go to Costa Rica to photograph people, but I really don’t have that much time. The nice thing about this position is for me it’s like being like a kid in a candy shop. Every time we come out with a new lens, I get to be one of the first people to play with it. It’s great to be able to test the lens, see how it works, and how I like it personally. The short answer is, my photography pursuits now are more of a relaxation and diversion from my 80-hour work week. I take advantage of the cameras and lenses that we have.

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Out of all the Pentax products available currently, what are your favorite tools?

I tend to be much more of a traditional photographer in the way I think. Having shot with nothing but Leicas and Rangefinders with only one or two lenses in the film days, my view of photography is probably different than a lot of people today. I spent years studying and applying the zone system to my photography. I’m very much into previsualizing the shot before I take it. Typically, I don’t need a lot of different lenses. The best way to learn photography is to apply a one-lens-a-day principal. You don’t need to put every single lens you own in a bag and go out to shoot. Put one lens on (preferably a prime) and use it all day. It will affect the way you see your subject matter. It will force you to see the way the lens sees it. My current favorite lens and camera combination (at the time of this interview) is the K7D with the FA 31 Limited lens. This is without a doubt probably one of the nicest prime lenses out there. I tend to lean more towards prime lenses, specifically the Limited lenses, I was so used to using 28mm and 35mm Summicrons and that’s all I needed to do my photography as a freelancer. I never relied on zoom lenses in the past.

As far as other Pentax shooters, name three that you find really inspirational and maybe look to to see what the current products are doing in the real world.

I’m a little biased, as the three that come to my mind immediately is partly through our relationship. We have a number of Pentaxians we work with that make presentations at all of our tradeshows

  • Mark Dimalanta, surfing lifestyle photographer, Huntington Beach
  • Julie Quarry, freelance travel photographer for Alaska Air, Horizon Air
  • Kerrick James, die-hard adventure photographer; Phoenix, Arizona.
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I’m naturally accustomed to seeing what they’re doing with our cameras and lenses. There are a lot of other photographers out there I could mention, just not off the top of my head.

We also have a Pentax Photo Gallery, which is a site where we pay respect to the best photographs from Pentaxians around the world. Last year, the Pentaxian photo gallery site won a webby award—People’s Choice Best Photo Site.

Because Pentaxians are such staunch supporters, it seems that any big or small milestone means a lot to them. How do you feel that the Pentax crowd responded when you got that award?

Having been a photographer with my photographs shown at various galleries over the course of my career, I fully appreciate the fact that there’s a lot of disappointment when your photographs are rejected from a gallery showing. There’s still the desire of photographers to show his/her images. We recognized early on that even though manufacturers are selling very expensive equipment to our customer base, we were only showing our potential customers images from professional photographers, but we weren’t showing what our everyday photographers can do. What we’ve all seen from the Internet is there are thousands of really great photographers out there that no one knew about before. We wanted to make Pentax Photo Gallery an online gallery that allowed the best Pentax photographers from around the world to be seen. The site has no commercial objective and there are no ads on it. We protect the photographer’s rights. We found photographs from photographers we really liked. Some we’ve licensed to use on our web site and in print. We’re doing this in a non-commercial way. We think it’s worked pretty well. If you look at the body of work in the Pentax gallery, it’s a great testament to Pentax photographers.

How does one get their photographs featured in the Pentax Photo Gallery?

It’s a worldwide site. We have a voting system built in where Pentaxians as peers get to vote on the submissions. Once the images get to a certain rating, Carolyn Pitcavage (Sr. Marketing Coordinator) will make the final decisions. She can be pretty busy some days going through all the submissions and deciding what makes the cut.

Our thought behind the site was, if we can amass the most information about Pentax cameras, including the most beautiful examples of what other Pentax photographers have taken, it’s going to make your experience of Pentax a lot more meaningful. There are a lot more people who are doing their review and analysis of cameras online today. As a result, they’re much more accustomed to making a purchase decision online.

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Do you use other manufacturer’s photography products currently?

There’s a little bit of a tempest in a teapot recently, where I posted on my blog about the Leica D-Lux 4 and posted some comments about how much I liked this Leica. There were some people who wanted me to be fired as president because of acknowledging that I liked this other manufacturer’s product more than mine. I explained my rationale. Don’t you want the president of the company to know what the competition is doing? This is a perfect example of how I tend to be a photographer first, and I had a great experience with the Leica. I also wanted to see how Leica was doing. Is it helping me think about what we want to do? It could. As a passionate photographer, I’m very comfortable using any tool that I think would help me be a better photographer, but also that helps me to learn about what’s going on in the industry.

Do you sometimes go to local retail store to take a look at some of the new products from other companies as part of your research?

I am a pretty avid shopper. I think you have to be if you’re in any marketing, sales, or executive level position. I’m interested in not only the products themselves, but also how the product is being displayed, how it’s positioned, how the store has it laid out—the entire environment. Are they being displayed differently by one retailer versus another? Is there something about the design, color, or packaging that we need to think about differently? It’s an important part of doing your market research. Shopping for me is actually fun. It gives me a sense for if the product is being perceived in the way we expect it to be.

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To speak of some of the equipment you enjoy using, what do you do for post-processing?

Right now, I’m primarily taking photos in my fleeting moments of leisure and it’s usually focused around experimenting with a new lens. Recently, I posted some samples of our new 15mm Limited. I’m usually putting up new images of either a new camera or lens. Being more of a traditional photographer, I tend to use very little processing. I use Photoshop and Lightroom. I’ve always believed that the best photograph is one that is properly exposed from the camera. My processing is pretty straightforward. Also, I can’t put up early samples of a lens with post processing.

I always shoot in RAW. At a later date if you decide to do something different with your images, you can. My first pretty serious digital photographs were taken with the 30D from Canon. I was profiling and printing them on the Epson printer at that time. I’ve now gone back to take some of those images and print them on my new Epson printer and because of the improvement in the dithering and the color space associated with the new printers, I now can go back and process my RAW images differently for the new printing. I couldn’t have done that had I shot in JPEG. I shoot in RAW, convert with Lightroom or within Photoshop. I usually go into Levels and adjust the White and Black points, and I may also adjust color balance. I might decide to change to daylight. The long and short of it is, that I really don’t do much post-processing.

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Text ©2009 Ned Bunnell and Hannah Thiem. Photos © Ned Bunnell.

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    • I enjoyed the article very much. Here's one on my wish list for Pentax: An option for bluetooth upload of photos to computer instead of tethered. In my opinion, it seems simple that when a user presses the "play" button to see the images, a menu choice of enabling bluetooth upload could appear instead of viewing the images on the camera LCD. Since that extra menu pop-up might miff some users, allow it to be disabled in set-up options to function as all previous models. Furthermore, you would only want to run the bluetooth for minimal time since it can be a power hog. I simply want to upload photos without cable. It is a shame that two of the links above (blog and Pentax photo gallery) appear to be hijacked by someone else (photographer, Harold ?). What happened here photo.net?
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    • Links fixed. Just a typo on our part. My fault. Apologies!
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    • A great interview. Pentax is the only DSLR manufacturer that I know of that has this mode of direct input. I've been using my K-7 for 10 weeks now (previous was a D300). The body certainly compares well with the D300. The easy handling actually sets it a notch above. I use it professionally, so the handling is VERY important to me. Things I would like to see: Viewfinder is great, but the alpha/numeric display is dim!! Can this be corrected with firmware and can it auto-adjust? Just brighter would help. Firmware again - can the depth of field position on the on-off switch be made to turn the illumination of the top panel on/off? Mid range zooms a little short. The 17-70mm is a great lens, but a "street shooter" in the 16-90mm would be better (I owned the Nikon 16-85mm. Very handy). I know that there are trade offs with such a range, but the lowly, old Nikon 24-120mm (original) was carried by many Pros). Document that Green Button. It's great, but only a small portion of it's uses are documented in the manual. An addendum on the Pentax website? A second edition of the Owners Manual would be timely. Thanks Ned!! Best, Bob Lloyd Woodhouse Photographics
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    • Very interesting interview. Ned seems to be very representative of the company. Quotes I found telling: "The K-7 is a good example of our niche." "my view of photography is probably different than a lot of people today...I don’t need a lot of different lenses." and most interesting to me, this question and answer- Q. Do you sometimes go to local retail store to take a look at some of the new products from other companies as part of your research? A. "I am a pretty avid shopper. I think you have to be if you’re in any marketing, sales, or executive level position. I’m interested in not only the products themselves, but also how the product is being displayed, how it’s positioned." Here's the problem. I'm a Pentax fan. I think they have done an excellent job with their latest products, the 60-250 zoom, the K-7, and the K-x. BUT THERE IS NO PLACE IS MY ENTIRE STATE FOR ME TO HOLD AND TRY THEM OUT! Like I said, I think they have a hit on their hands with the K-x. But for entry level cameras especially, people need to see it in a store! Sure Pentax die hards will search out a K-7 in some cases, but I can't recommend the K-x to the other sports parents, when they don't see Pentax as having any pressence in the market. I think these new cameras can have more than niche appeal. All of those "avid shoppers" like Ned can't see them though in the US. I guess the question is whether the Pentax goal is to just be a niche company. I hope not.
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    • I had a dream the other night. I saw a digital LX with an EVF, nice clean lines not pocketable but easy to carry that was perfect for the DA Limited lenses. Can dreams become reality? ;-)
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    • Hi, I have been a Pentax user since I got a Pentax S1a in 1964. I also collect them and have about 30 including 3 Asahiflexes and an original Pentax (OP?). Currently I am using a K10D. I am retired so updating to a K7 is not easy. I am sorry my K10 does not have the flash connection that my istD has. I would like the camera to be able to enter the GPS coordinates into the EXIF data. Live viewing is not a priority but if it is available I would like it to be hinged - I am getting too old to lie down to take a low level photo. (My alternate viewfinders on my LX were great.) Ian.
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    • Would it not be possible to attach some kind of mirror housing to the live view screen? Maybe the image wold appear upside down or something but we elderly photographers would appreciate the possibility to compose the closeups from above. Larseric, Sweden
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    • I enjoyed the article. It's nice to see that a person who enjoys photography so much is in such a position to influence manufacturing. I wanted to remark that from a personal perspective and as a shooter of many different film cameras from 35mm to 4x5, that I have been researching lately a future purchase of a more Pro/Am (meaning under $1500) style digital SLR then the P&S that I now own. This purchase will be in response to a need I have to speed up my work flow that now includes scanning, a laborious chore that is eating up too much of my time. In the course of my research looking at various bodies, lenses etc, I have looked at Pentax, read alot of test articles in various magazines and on the internet over the last year, (outside of my recent needs), and researched the opinions of the lenses. In truth I must remark that of what I have read, the Pentax offerings, and speaking outside of the lens base, always seems to lag behind it's competition in the 35mm style genre. I would truly love to buy into the name, especially what with the interesting prime lenses you have, but it seems that your sensors are just not at the top of "the" game. I do not say this to argue with the loyal customer base, but to let you know what I have found in research. As a more professional then amateur shooter I need a fewer frills hot rod shooter that can kick out top class image files. I need to do minimum processing and the colors must be right in order to get me to invest my hard earned money into a new lens collection. If your going to win converts to your brand, especially us older shooters, skip the colors, make the bodies "easily" holdable no matter the size and produce a sensor that gets out to Iso 1600 without a bunch of noise. Btw, my fist Slr ever was a Spotmatic F and my last Pentax was a K1000. I would love to see Pentax succeed and challenge Nikon and Canon so I can invest again.
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