Pentax K3 Review – Ben Evans
It’s not full frame.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at the specific features that make the Pentax K3 one of the best value cameras available in 2014.
I never considered getting a Pentax camera when I was starting photography. It was after their professional glory days; Nikon and Canon dominated the market.
Later, I saw the video in which Alex Jansen, a soldier in a war zone covers a Pentax dSLR in dust, and then washes it off under the shower. It worked fine afterwards; hmm.
Then, there were good experiences with the Pentax 645D medium format camera and glowing recommendations of the K5 series from other (usually landscape) photographers.
Pentax was then bought by Ricoh, a much larger imaging and electronics company, and Pentax is the brand-name for their dSLR cameras. Importantly, this means more money, and more engineers.
Now we have the K3, replacing the K5 mkIIs.
The Pentax K5mkIIs omitted the low-pass filter, which blurs fine detail to avoid moire, for a sharper image. Nikon’s D800e and Sony’s A7r do the same. Pentax created an innovative solution with the K3; the sensor shakes slightly, blurring the image very slightly to mimic an anti-aliasing filter. And this can be turned off; giving you the ability to choose to use the anti-aliasing filter (at different strengths) when moire might be an issue; or not when you want the ultimate image quality. It’s good to see the innovation, but I never needed it so don’t consider it such an amazing feature. AA filters are increasingly being left out for increased sharpness (D800e, A7r, D7100); it’s good that the Pentax K3 images aren’t intentionally blurred like many other cameras.
The sensor is pretty special. Like many cameras now, the Pentax K3 has a virtual horizon on the LCD screen (and in the viewfinder) to help you level the camera. But it has an auto-level compensation function that I’ve not seen before; it will shift the sensor automatically by +/- 2 degrees to make it level (to straighten the horizon for example). Alternatively, you can manually move the sensor about +/- 1 degree in live-view mode to ‘get it right in camera’. Congratulations to Pentax for this.
The shaking sensor is obviously designed predominantly to provide in-body stabilisation, and this really is a useful feature. I didn’t know this, but Pentax makes a series of K-mount Limited lenses which rival Zeiss lenses for quality but with the practicality of auto-focus. They remind me of the Zeiss T* lenses for my Contax G2, but also have excellent manual focus, which is a pleasure to use with the focus-peaking on the Pentax K3. They sacrifice a larger maximum aperture for compactness. The 15mm f4, 31mm f1.8, 43mm f1.9 and 77mm f1.8 allow you to use slower shutter speeds when combined with the Pentax K3’s in-body stabilisation compared to faster lenses with cameras that don’t have that capability (like Nikon’s 35mm f1.4 with their D800). The FA lenses are for film/full frame, while the DA only cover crop sensors like the K3.
These Limited lenses are reason enough to buy into the Pentax system, not least because most are made for full-frame so can be seen as an investment for the future if/when Pentax/Ricoh creates the long awaited full-frame dSLR. I bought a Nikon 17-55mm ‘DX’ lens for a D2Xs because Nikon heralded APSc-size sensors as the future. It lost half its value, which is unusual for a lens, so do consider the future when you buy.
It’s interesting to consider why we want full-frame at all. The answer; less noise at high ISO sensitivities, the option for a very shallow depth of field with fast lenses, better image quality and our lenses have the field of view we expect. However, several other pro photographers I know have switched to smaller sensors with either Olympus or Fuji cameras. They prefer the smaller, lighter form factor and actually prefer the increased depth of field at larger apertures. Especially for groups, shallow depth of field is actually a hindrance. The Pentax K3 has a 23.35mp CMOS APSc sensor. This is great if you want your lenses to appear more telephoto (who wants to carry/pay for a 400mm?), but less good if you want your 15mm to act like a true wide-angle. Personally, I use a full-frame camera because I value the better ISO performance, but testing the Pentax K3 has made me question my choice. That said, this was largely due to the camera itself, not the sensor.
Pentax’ main advantage over most of its competitors is control and customisation. They’re obviously built by photographers. And because the K3 is the flagship (and because Pentax don’t seem to deliberately cripple their cameras like Nikon or Canon), there are lots of high-end features that really help with the photography. For example, activating the self-timer lifts the mirror up to help avoid camera shake. Nikon requires you to scroll a fiddly wheel to use the self-timer and separately select exposure-delay mode to lift the mirror up.
The K3 is particularly customisable. It’s the sort of camera you won’t want to lend to anyone in case they mess up the settings. The control dials can be adapted to taste. Pentax makes my favourite exposure mode; Hyper Manual Mode. Sounding suitably techy, it just means that pushing a convenient green button will bring the exposure back in line with what program mode would guess it to be so you don’t have to scroll the wheels too much. Sounds like a small thing – but it’s great in practice. There are lots of exposure modes that are sensible but will take several months to master.
Pentax cameras are therefore popular with geeky photographers who love to be able to change their camera to suit them. And because they know that their camera is better value than most other cameras on the market, and that they have the amazing Limited lenses, but that few people in the mainstream seems to care, they’re particularly vociferous. But Passionate Pentaxians aren’t normally photographing test charts. Rather, they’re in the field, often miles from civilisation, photographing nature.
The Pentax K3 has excellent dust and weatherproofing. The body is solidly made out of magnesium alloy with a stainless steel frame. There are lots of rubber seals in all the right places. It’s been tested to work well at -10°C. This build quality is instantly evident when you pick the camera up. It feels hefty but fits very well in the hand. Pentax make a battery grip which is similarly well made.
The Limited lenses aren’t weatherproofed however, and their metal construction isn’t ideal in cold weather. Pentax make a series of WR (weather-resistant) lenses that are more practical in the field. Interestingly, the cheaper18-55mm and 18-135mm kit lenses are weather-sealed – far more practical than other manufacturers if you’ll be photographing in the rain or on the beach. If you think you’ll be photographing outside, especially in adverse conditions, the Pentax K3 may be your ideal camera. Team it up with a couple of Pentax’ even more weatherproofed lenses, AW (all weather) for best results.
The Pentax K3 doesn’t have built-in wifi. I used to scoff at the idea that a camera needed wifi. What an irrelevant feature! It seems that IT engineers want smartphones and cameras to merge; dreadful thought. However, I’ve found that wifi is actually very useful in practice. For example, I was photographing an expedition and needed to post photographs on social media en route. It was great to send photos to my smartphone, edit them with Snapseed (highly recommended) and then upload them. This was with a different camera – I’ve not used wifi with the Pentax K3. However, it is one of the first cameras to use the newer, significantly faster USB3 connection. This speeds up transferring data from the card. Again, doesn’t seem important, but I’ve been in lots of situations where you need to get the pictures off the camera quickly.
As well as sending pictures wirelessly, it’s also possible to use wifi to frame the picture using live-view on a tablet, though most apps have very limited functionality at the moment. Nikon’s D610 has an add-on that sticks out of the side for wifi and the Nikon app is really terrible. For Pentax, you’d need to buy a ‘Flu’ card, which tucks away in one of the K3’s two SD card slots. Of course, Canon and Fujifilm have started putting wifi in-camera, which is preferable. A point to note; the Pentax app actually allows you to change exposure setting. This shouldn’t be a big deal but judging by the competition, it really is.
The dual SD card slots are great to have. Essentially, you can use one 64gb card to record RAW images and a second smaller card for Jpegs – so you have a backup in case either card malfunctions. You can also have a simple duplicate stored on the second card, or you can use it as an overflow in case the first card fills up. Not mentioned as often, and it really should be, is Pentax’ ability to manage the files on the cards. It’s easy to delete just the RAW file or just the Jpeg file if you’re shooting RAW+Jpeg. Again, as far as I’m aware, Nikon doesn’t allow this, even on their D4 – crazy! With the D600, I’ve got used to removing the card from slot 1 so I can delete photos from slot 2; so it’s a pleasure to use the Pentax K3 that actually has sensible user interface.
The Pentax K3 also has a noticeably better shutter mechanism. This isn’t a sexy feature, but it matters. It’s rated to >200,000 actuations; 1/3rd more than Nikon’s D610. It will shoot them faster too; 8.3fps compared to 6fps. It’s also quieter in normal mode than the D610 is in quiet mode. It’s dampened/balanced, which is difficult to write about, but try it out for yourself to feel the difference. It has a minimum (?) shutter speed of 1/8000s compared to 1/4000s. But, it only syncs with a flash at 1/180s instead of 1/200s or 1/250s compared to dSLR competitors. This is a shame as the Pentax K3 has a proper PC sync port to trigger studio strobes – something Nikon’s D610 lacks. Both cameras can access higher shutter speeds with high-speed sync (HSS) compatible flashes though.
There are even more features too, buried in the menus. Pentax just seems to give photographers a lot more options. For example, there’s a multiple exposure mode, like many other cameras. But it has three separate types; accumulation, average and comparative brightness. Again, this is the sort of feature that has lots of creative potential; but takes months to master.
More obvious is the auto-focus. It’s quick, largely accurate and offers high speed tracking. It has 27 auto-focus points, but 25 of those are cross-type (which work better). Importantly, they work down to -3EV so you can focus with less light. In comparison, the Nikon D610 has 39 auto-focus points but only 9 are cross type and it can focus in -1EV of light. However, the D610 inherits the auto-focus from a camera with a smaller sensor so these are all crowded into a small area in the middle of the frame. The Nikon D800 has 51 auto-focus points with 15 being cross-type and can focus to -2EV. In use, the Nikon D600 feels similar to the K3; both cameras aren’t in the same league as the Nikon D4 (obviously).
Anecdotally, and with therefore no statistical significance, the 55mm f1.4 lens I tested with the K3 had to have its focus adjusted. The Pentax (obviously!) had good control over fine-tuning the focus, and remembered the setting for that lens, but I’ve never had to adjust the focus with my Nikon 85mm f1.4 so this was a bit disappointing. The auto-focus with manual-drive lenses (not ultrasonic-wave) is quite noisy – I like the noise, but you’ll need to get the ultrasonic-wave auto-focus lenses if silence is golden to you.
Perhaps working under the misapprehension (?) of tinkering Pentaxians living in the wild landscapes they photograph, Pentax have stuffed the camera with a plethora of in-camera processing options. Of course, these will never equal the control you can achieve by actually converting the RAW files in a proper converter on the computer, but perhaps they assume that there are no Lightroom equiped Macbooks in the snow caves or desert camps where outdoor photographers are to be found. These modes are fun to procrastinate with but my most memorable experience of them was leaving one on by accident (they’re too easy to access) and thinking the camera was broken. In-camera RAW processing can be useful on occasion to output a jpeg file in black and white for example, but the zany options aren’t worth the extra menu-space.
More useful for the outdoor photographer is the optional GPS oojah, which not only records the lat/long location co-ordinates and altitude, but also the direction the camera was facing. I didn’t test this and indeed, I’ve not had any commissions recently where I’ve missed having GPS. There will be some astro photographers who will be thrilled to hear that the K3 has ability to trace the stars to avoid star trails with this GPS thingy; but that’s not me – though I suppose its useful that the clock is automatically updated when you travel.
High dynamic range (HDR) images are rightfully a major part of digital photography. The Pentax K3 has a useful in-camera HDR function that combines three images, compensates if the camera moves a bit, and actually gives you the three RAW files too so you can do a better job when you get home. Good feature. Exposure bracketing is very convenient to capture the range of images needed. The Pentax K3 has a very useful one-touch exposure bracketing and has a range of +/-5EV – much better than the Nikon D610’s +/-3EV range. That said, the dynamic range from the K3 (measured by DxOMark) is 13.4EV compared to the D610’s 14.4EV.
This geekery is evident in practice too – the D610 had more detail in shadows and highlights, and the RAW files had more latitude for post processing. This was also because of the difference in colour depth; 23.7bits for the K3 compared to 25.1 for the D610. The Pentax K3 therefore is quite conservative with the exposure to preserve highlights Comparing the images, especially when editing the RAW files, the Nikon D610 has the better sensor, even with its anti-aliasing filter. DxOMark has the D610 sensor rated 5th overall – the Pentax K3’s sensor is rated 35th. That said, I challenge the vast majority of people to be able to differentiate between the two cameras in a large print.
This difference is more apparent at high ISO sensitivities. Obviously, both the K3 and D610 have 24 megapixel sensors, but the D610 is full-frame, so the pixels can be bigger, and therefore collect more light. The physics play a large part in this. DxOMark measure the Nikon D610 as having an ISO of 2925; the Pentax K3 has an ISO of less than half; 1216. Numbers aside, it’s pretty clear when using them that the Nikon D610 has less noise at higher ISOs. Amusingly, the Pentax K3 offers a higher ISO than the Nikon at 512000; but it’s pretty much unusable. It’s excellent up to ISO800; the Nikon is great to ISO1600.
Not so practical, but very desirable, the Pentax K3 is also available in silver as well as black. They like colours; their recent K50 was a veritable rainbow baby – but the K3 looks classy and may help differentiate photographers with clients who pay too much attention to the camera you’re using. There are only 2000; of course it’s a digital camera so it would be as rotten an investment as most jewellery or computers; but Pentaxians love their cameras, and the silver version is very cherishable. Will the silver wear off and look tatty? Not sure…
If you’re making money from photography, or hope to do so in the future, you probably should be thinking about video capabilities. It’s not the same as photography, but clients increasingly ask for it and the Pentax K3 delivers. It has full HD 1080p at 30fps like most of its competitors. It has a stereo microphone jack and headphone jack. You can see from the pictures but it’s worth pointing out that the microphone jack is independent from the rest so using it won’t leave other ports uncovered in the rain. You can set audio levels manually. All well and good. Of course the main selling point is the in-body stabilisation that allows you to use lots of lovely Pentax lenses without necessarily needing some kind of rig to minimise camera shake. This is digital shake-reduction though, not sensor-shift; it’s not the same, and it’s not as good. The K5ii can apparently use proper electro-mechanical shake reduction, but not the K3.
You might hear about 60 frames per second. Well this is 60i for interlaced/imitation, not 60p for progressive/proper. I suppose its nice to have the option; but not really. Also, you may hear about 4k; quite a buzz word at the moment. Again, this is only an in-camera timelapse feature. Lots of cameras can shoot high resolution timelapses now so this isn’t a big deal. Look to Panasonic for an affordable 4k (video) camera.
More interesting for videographers is that the Pentax K3 doesn’t have continuous focus in movie-mode. You’ll have to focus manually, and that’s often tricky. That’s still the case for quite a few competitors though. The K3 does have focus-peaking, which emphasises micro-contrast for easier focussing, and this does help a lot in movie mode. Those wanting to colour-grade their footage may be better off with a camera that gives a clean HDMI-out so they can capture more malleable video files with an external recorder such as the Atomos Ninja. The great Pentax auto white-balance in mixed lighting helps its case as a dSLR cum indie-movie-camera.
Of course for ‘professional’ videographers, auto-focus isn’t important as they’ll use it on a rig and pull focus manually. Likewise audio will probably be dual-system with any audio feed into camera being used to help sync later. And shake-reduction will be turned off to minimise any strange effects when panning with the camera mounted on a tripod, rig or a proper Steadicam. It’s not too important. The K3 will deliver good quality video for most photographers’ needs. If you or your clients need better quality with higher bitrates, there are plenty of (far more expensive) dedicated movie cameras. But it’s useful to remember that major films have been shot in part with iPhones, GoPros and the older Canon 5Dmkii.
So for most photographers, Pentax have created a camera that’s better in use than Nikon’s D610. It doesn’t have the megapixel count of the D800e so the photographs won’t print quite as large. But for the vast majority of photographers, this is irrelevant, and the Pentax K3 offers better value. If you photograph outdoors and need a tough, fast-shooting camera, then it’s ideal. I won’t sell my Nikon for this because I’m invested in lenses and appreciate the slight advantages of a full frame sensor. But judging by the trajectory and relationship with Ricoh and the complacency of some competitors, I’ll bet that if my next camera isn’t mirrorless, it will be a Pentax. It’s not necessarily the vast array of innovative features. It’s just that it works; it’s what the competitors should be, and more importantly could be if they didn’t deliberately cripple their cameras below the flagship bodies.
And here’s the gallery of 200+ sample photos I took with the Pentax K3 in the week I had to review it. Password is purepentax – all rights reserved (get in touch if you’d like to use any photos) – www.picsurge.com/g/jjji8Q