Shooting experience

By Richard Butler

The K-3 is a heavily feature-laden DSLR, to the extent that it's unlikely many owners will make use of all its functions. For example, I'm unlikely to make any significant use of the interval timer or Interval Composite modes, since they're not really an aspect of photography I enjoy, but there are people that will use them regularly and plenty more that will appreciate the option to use them occasionally.

Just as when I reviewed the Nikon Df, it's a surprise to be shooting with a DSLR again and remember how variable the metering can be, compared with the mirrorless cameras I've been using. In part this came because I found myself shooting scenes (such as an iced-over River Charles), that any metering system would be confused by. Thankfully the K-3 can be set up to give pretty clear indications about exposure - letting you specify (and combine) what information you want shown during image review after you've shot. For instance, I set it up to show both a histogram and highlight warnings, but you can also get the preview to jump to 100% magnification if you're concerned about focus. It's not quite as straightforward as Olympus's shadow and highlight warning live view, which allows you to predict your exposure, rather than retrospectively checking it, but it's as good as anything offered on a DSLR.

Pentax DA Limited 15mm F4
F6.3, 1/800th, ISO 100

The camera's metering hasn't been as dependable as the mirrorless cameras I've become used to shooting with, but then some of the scenes I was shooting have been quite challenging. Note also the straight horizon - something of a rarity in my shooting.

To a great extent I really enjoyed the K-3's ergonomics, reflecting its similarity to a series of cameras that have always been nice to hold. The K-7, somehow already five years old, had excellent handling, thanks to its well-shaped grip and pleasing density of build. The K-3 maintains both these features and puts its two control dials in good positions. Although I love the idea of the focus point toggle button, I found it a little easy to hit by mistake, especially when wearing gloves. That and an occasional failure to find the AF Mode button with my fingertips (I think using my left thumb is probably a better approach), were the only stumbles I made while using the K-3: plenty of external controls and a well-designed function menu meant that everything I wanted to change was close to hand.

It was also a surprise to be working with screw-drive lenses again, most brands having moved to either ring-type motors, linear motors or near-silent micro motors built into the lenses, meaning I've become accustomed to very fast and very quiet focusing. Such lenses are available for Pentax, and I've been shooting with some of those, too, but the company's 'Limited' series of lenses uses the camera's internal motor. And, even though these screw-driven lenses focus pretty quickly, it's become unfamiliar to hear the internal motor grinding away if the focus has to adjust across a large distance.

Pentax DA* 50-135mm F2.8, 155mm equiv.
F2.8, 1/160sec, ISO 3200

The Pentax 50-135mm F2.8 (along with the original Sigma 50-150mm F2.8), is one of my favorite lenses. It offers a 70-200mm equivalent range in a format that's more affordable and much easier to handle than an actual 70-200mm lens. So, for situations such as portraiture, that aren't simply about reach, it's arguably a better option.

As with the previous generation of Pentax DSLRs, the K-3 can correct for lateral chromatic aberrations - which would otherwise be one of the 50-135's weak spots.

For the most part, though, shooting with the K-3 was enjoyable. It's an extensively-featured camera, so I found myself constantly discovering new facets of its feature set. For instance, having rushed out of the office to spend a weekend away without noting down the password for the FluCard, then setting the Auto Resize option to 'On,' I ended up discovering both that I wasn't able to use the Wi-Fi connection and that I'd successfully shot an entire weekend's worth of images at 1280px across. You can imagine my relief when discovered the camera's ability to bulk-convert Raw files in-camera, after they were shot.

HD Pentax-DA 20-40mm F2.8-4.0 Limited, 35mm equiv.
F6.3, 1/60th Sec, ISO 800

Having shot this image, I was able to reprocess a smaller version, from Raw and use the FluCard to transmit it to my phone. The results are certainly better than I'd have been able to natively shoot with my phone's camera.

I also missed what I think would have been quite a nice video opportunity by accidentally leaving the camera in 'Interval Movie Record' mode, which renders the [Rec] button non-functional. Obviously many of these errors would be eliminated with time and experience, but it's fair to say that the flip-side of having so many features is a steeper learning curve and more potential pitfalls than less well specified models.

Generally, though, there's much to enjoy about the K-3. With no clear idea as to whether Nikon will ever directly replace the D300S, and Canon's EOS X0D series now moving away from metal bodies, the K-3 looks a lot like the last semi-pro APS-C DSLR left standing. Pentax is also alone as a DSLR maker in really supporting the APS-C format - offering a range of well-constructed 'Limited' prime lenses in a variety of slight unorthodox focal lengths (for instance, the 15mm lens is nice to use but I'd not previously found myself thinking 'what I really want is a 22.5mm equivalent lens).

AA Simulation - no great shakes?

Having experimented with it, my sense is that the K-3's most publicized feature is also one of the least important. I felt the anti-aliasing filter simulator (which is demonstrated elsewhere in this review), isn't terribly significant, in the grand scheme of things. We've seen 24MP APS-C cameras without AA filters over the past year and it's not uncommon that the choice of lens or aperture value can be enough to render it irrelevant, since they effectively play the role of the filter. When working with very sharp lenses, close to wide-open and with a tripod, it's worth setting the K-3 to AA filter bracketing mode (which shoots a shot with each of the simulator modes), to ensure that you've got the sharpest possible shot if you need it, but have a moiré-free image if your image contains high enough frequency detail to induce false color. The rest of the time, I was able to leave it switched off, since there are usually enough factors at play (focus precision, hand shake, lens symmetry), that prevent you seeing that last extra sharpness gain or play a more significant role in overall image quality.

However, in saying this, I don't mean to dismiss either the feature or the camera as a whole. Its most-discussed feature doesn't have a big impact on everyday photography (though it will occasionally make sense for some people), but it hints at a philosophy of trying to optimize every aspect of image quality. I may personally think that the lens correction features play a much bigger role in the quality of day-to-day photography, but the fact that the K-3 offers so many tools to help you try to get the best possible results is admirable. Ultimately, what makes the K-3 interesting is the camera as a whole, not just the latest clever feature to be added.