When you think of DSLRs, it’s either Canon or Nikon; as the two largest manufacturers of DSLRs, how could you not? But there are other players, namely Pentax. Pentax (now owned by Ricoh) may not have the market share that Canon and Nikon do, but it has a fiercely loyal following that swears by the DSLRs (hence why Ricoh is keeping the Pentax name around). Which brings us to the Pentax K-3, a new 24-megapixel APS-C enthusiast DSLR that gives the biggest players a run for the money – and in some ways surpasses them. Let’s dig into Pentax’s latest flagship model and see how it stacks up.
Features and design
The Pentax K-3 won’t win the Miss Universe contest but who really cares about looks when you’re shopping for an enthusiast DSLR that’s more about performance? The all-black camera is really beefy with a magnesium alloy shell over a metal chassis. Not only does it weigh 28.2-ounces with just the battery and card, it’s fully weather-sealed – don’t drop it into a creek but it’ll handle the inclement outdoors. The supplied lens is labeled WR for Weather Resistant so feel free taking the kit out into rain- or snow storms – and keep your back to the wind so the lens stays clear.
Before we begin our tour, we want to mention some of the real performance pluses of the K-3. Not only does it have a 24MP APS-C sensor like the Nikon D7100 – one of our favorite DSLRs – it has a very robust burst speed of 8.3 frames per second, for a solid 60 frames. This is better than the Nikon which is 6 frames per second for 100 images. We won’t get into a total back-and-forth ping-pong match between the two cameras; we just want to let you know Pentax is back in the game (Pentax fans would argue it never left!). Even though the D7100 may have a finer AF system (51 points versus 27), the K-3 has one feature no other enthusiast DSLR offers: an adjustable anti-aliasing (or low-pass) filter simulator. Many high-end cameras such as this one (e.g., Sony A7R, Nikon D7100) eliminate the low-pass filter to enhance resolution and sharpness; it also helps cure moiré issues. However, no camera other than the K-3 lets you simulate turning it on and off to see which setting is best for your subject and photographic vision. It does this neat trick by oscillating the sensor in a manner that mimics the effect of a low-pass filter—the Web has lots of super-detailed info about this feature if you care to delve into it. As an added performance note, the Pentax K-3 has a top ISO of 51,200, something only offered by pro-level DSLRs at two or three times the price.
No other camera lets you simulate turning on/off the anti-aliasing to see which setting is best.
On the top deck is a lockable mode dial, built-in flash with nearby hot shoe, and a very readable small LCD display to quickly check your settings. Turn the on/off switch to the right and the display lights up – a great feature for shooting in dim light. Nearby are dedicated exposure compensation and ISO buttons. Since this is an expensive enthusiast DSLR, the camera has a much wider spec range than entry-level models. Here you get +/-5 EV and an ISO of 100-51,200 with the obligatory 1/8000th of a second top shutter speed. With less expensive DSLRs you’ll have +/-3 EV, a max of 25,600, and shutter speed of 1/4000. If you’re very serious about your photography, the higher numbers are the ones you want.
Although the K-3 has the classic green smart auto and PASM modes, it has two others you won’t find elsewhere: Sensitivity Priority (a feature unique to Pentax) and a combo of Aperture- and Shutter-Priority (dubbed TAV). There are three user settings, Bulb, and Flash X-sync (flash synchronization) as well, but no Scene options as you’d find on the much more affordable Canon EOS Rebel T5i, for example.
The two key features on the back are the optical viewfinder with a 100-percent field of view and a 3.2-inch fixed LCD rated 1,037K dots; both are quite good although a tilting display would be a nice improvement. You’ll also find a many buttons and controls including Playback, Metering, red-dot movie, another jog wheel, AF type, AE-Lock, a Green button to reset values being adjusted, Live View mode switch (still/video), Info, and Menu. One that’s different than usual is the dedicated button to switch between memory cards during Playback; just like the D7100 the K-3 has two slots. There’s also a four-way controller with center OK key. The points of the compass give access to burst mode, 11 image parameters (Bright, Vivid, B&W and so on), flash, and white balance.
On the right side are the compartments for the two cards and an optional remote. Although the camera doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi, it accepts Eye-Fi and FLU cards which give you wireless capability when you’re near a hot spot. On the left in one compartment are USB, HDMI, and DC-in connections, with a separate headphone jack nearby in another weather-sealed spot. On the left side near the lens plate are AF/MF, AF Mode, RAW/Fx, the flash open button, and an X-sync socket. On the bottom of the camera you’ll find a connection for on optional battery pack and the compartment for the supplied lithium-ion battery. It’s good for 720 shots (viewfinder only) or 520 using the flash at 50 percent. These are solid CIPA specs and the battery should last a full day in the field.
What’s in the box
Besides the body and the kit lens, you also get a lithium-ion battery and AC charger, various caps/covers, and a strap. The supplied CD has the Digital Camera Utility 5 suite for handling files and developing DNG/ RAW images. A 112-page owner’s manual is also included. We popped in two SD cards (one for still, one video) and began our tests.
Performance and use
Before starting we updated the firmware to version 1.01 – released in December – that Pentax says improves performance and stability; it’s a simple process using an SD card and your computer. We set stills and videos to top resolution – 6016 x 4000 pixels, 1080/60i – then started firing away.
This DSLR is a winner. It’s extremely responsive, and we it never felt like it slowed us down.
We used the K-3 over the course of several weeks shooting subjects as diverse as the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Arizona Biltmore hotel, the Hoover Dam, and smaller objects in between. Before getting too granular, let’s get this out of the way: this DSLR is a winner. It’s extremely responsive and we were shooting 24MP RAW+JPEGs which is a good workout for any camera. At no point did we feel the K-3 slowed us down as we focused on “dancing waters” and boats on Lake Mead. This one is ready to rock. Just as important, this DSLR captures really fine images with a broad range of accurate colors. It’s not full-frame quality but only the fussiest photographers will care – and they’ll be dropping many more bucks to achieve that quality.
Since the low-pass filter simulator is a rather unique feature, let’s deal with it. You have to drill into the menu system to find the options that include Off, Type 1, and Type 2. For best results, Pentax states you should use a shutter speed of 1/1000th or less, so we kept it at that level and below. We did many on/off comparison shots. Off is the default so you’re taking shots without a low-pass filter. Type 1 and 2 simulate varying degrees of anti-aliasing. We closely examined the results and, in a few words, the impact is subtle. We shot a cat resting in crumpled patterned sheets as well as a still of a window screen as well as many other still lifes. Even with 100-percent enlargements, the changes were minor. We guess it’s a good tool for your arsenal but we were quite happy with it off. Without belaboring the point, the K-3 takes very impressive stills in its default position – almost any photographer will be very happy with the results and the myriad tweaks available.
One area that’s decidedly mixed is ISO. Although the K-3 reaches 51,200, the results at that nose-bleed level from our standard test were very poor, almost like a circa 2008 CCD digicam. You can be confident up to 800 – even 1,600 – but at 3,200 and above, digital noise rears its ugly head. It’s a slippery slope as you ratchet it up. These were JPEGs so you can use RAW/DNG capture to eliminate noise at higher ISOs. However, our test is a good indication of ISO capability so be aware.
Movies weren’t off-the-charts either. The K-3 grabs 1080/60i clips in the MOV format. Overall the colors were a bit flat and there was noticeable rolling shutter. On a positive note, focusing was reasonably accurate and we didn’t have to fight with the camera to achieve sharp focus. If video is very important to you, consider the Canon EOS 70D or any Sony DSLR with Translucent Mirror Technology.
The Pentax K-3 is an Editor’s Choice winner – it’s really a top-notch 2014 enthusiast DSLR – even with the negatives detailed. If you’re in the market for a Canon EOS 70D or a Nikon D7100, give this outfit a very close look. The K-3 is generating a lot of buzz with photographers, even though it costs $150 more (with the 18-135mm lens) than the D7100 with an 18-140mm VR lens. We don’t know if long-time Canon and Nikon fans should put all their gear on eBay for this one but anyone stepping up to this level camera should put the K-3 near the top of the list.
- Excellent 24MP image quality
- Extremely responsive, fast burst
- Anti-aliasing simulator
- Rugged and weather sealed
- Bulky, expensive – but to be expected
- Built-in mono mic
- No built-in Wi-Fi/NFC connectivity