Pentax K5 II - Standout Features

Much as other manufacturers generally update internal components of their professional SLRs while leaving the controls untouched, Pentax focused on what needed updating in the K-5 - namely the autofocus and sensor - and left the rest alone. That leaves less to talk about in a review of this sort, but most of the camera's old tricks - dating back to the K-7 - are unique enough that they still seem new. Features like Composition Adjustment, which allows you to actually move the sensor around in the camera to adjust your framing instead of tediously moving the camera on a tripod, show Pentax's prowess at using digital technology for all it's worth.

Since I've already used the K-7 and K-5 and found them to be competent image makers, I focused more on the unique features I didn't explore before. While I consider the controls good for such a small body, there's a lot buried under some of those buttons, and you have to spend some time with the manual before you're familiar with each, as a single button - like the Drive mode button - can conceal a deep well of settings that you cannot find elsewhere.

Flash

Semi-pro cameras like the Pentax K-5 II are built with the recognition that its users are bound to find scenes where they need a little fill flash just to get the shot. When shooting in sunlight in particular, a pop-up flash gives you just what you need to fill in eye-sockets. In shots like this one flash does a little more, effectively matching the ambient light with just enough light to get a reasonable exposure.

Pentax also makes the AF540FGZ, a fairly powerful external flash with a guide number of 54 at ISO 100. Featuring bounce and swivel capability, the AF540FGZ is compatible with the Pentax K-5 II's wireless mode, allowing it to work either on or off camera.

Pentax AF540FGZ mounted in 24x24-inch Soft box. The flash head is turned sideways to offer better access to the control panel. The pop-up flash can serve as a master or commander to fire remote flashes; whether it contributes to the exposure is set in Custom Menu 3, 21.

I mounted the AF540FGZ strobe in the a 24x24 soft box for a softer light, positioning the light source centered on my subject, with the camera right below, with a large white reflector beneath to fill in some of the shadows. Then I set the K-5 IIS's pop-up flash to remote-control the AF540FGZ without the pop-up actually contributing to the exposure.

Low light image quality and AF

One of the strong points of the Pentax K-5 II is its sensor, which performs very well in low light. There are essentially no changes from the performance of the K-5's sensor, which we believe is the same excellent Sony design used in other 16-megapixel cameras on the market.

F2.8, 1/25, ISO 3200, -1EV, JPEG From Raw, exposure, tint and contrast modified in Photoshop

The K-5 II's good quality sensor comes in handy when you underexpose images, particularly if you're shooting Raw. Having employed the exposure compensation to keep a dark scene looking dark, I forgot to set it back for a few snapshots in a dark room. Without the histogram on, I didn't notice how underexposed these images were until I got back to the computer, a not uncommon pitfall when shooting in low light.

Pentax says focus acquisition should be faster with the new SAFOX X autofocus system, and our experience shows that to be true. Pentax SLRs are usually doggedly determined if not fast, but the K-5 II tends toward making up its mind more quickly, even when challenged by lower and lower light situations. Shooting in the same low light with both the K-5 and K-5 II, I was less often left waiting for the camera to settle on a focus decision with the latter. As light got lower, it took a little longer, but the K-5 would take longer still.

As for light levels, I was able to compare the K-5 II with the Nikon D7100, and found I was able to focus with the K-5 II in lower light than with the Nikon. In exceptionally low light (a large blacked-out room lit with a single tungsten bulb) there was a clear point where the Nikon's AF system (rated down to -2EV) just gave up, never delivering a focus confirmation beep, and the K-5 II (rated down to -3EV) kept on making accurate decisions.

Bracketing

The Pentax K-5 II has a versatile bracketing system, accessed via the drive control button on the back of the camera. It's the up arrow on the four-way, marked by the self-timer symbol. I left it set to five shots and adjusted between 0.3 and 0.7 stops depending on the range I thought I'd need. You can use the EV button and rear dial to shift your starting point as well.

Manually Combined
0 EV
-1.3 EV
Raw Shadow Adjust

One approach to taking advantage of the bracketed images is to pick one with good highlights and one with good shadow detail and use a mask in Photoshop to overlay one over the other, gradually revealing what you want to show in the overall photo. In the above example I took the image the K-5 II decided was the optimal exposure and merged it with one underexposed by 1.3 stops. The K-5 II's metering averaged in the large expanse of shaded rock and trees on the right, overexposing the water and left side of the cliff. It wasn't until -1.3 EV that these elements were properly exposed, so I chose the -1.3 EV image as a base and gradually and selectively revealed the rocks on the right with a 25% brush.

Since this isn't such an extreme example, I was also able to open the underexposed Raw image and just turn up the shadows (scroll over "Raw Shadow Adjust" to see this image). The result brightens the sky and trees a bit more than I wanted, though, and brightens the shadows on the left side of the image as well, so I preferred the layers method.

HDR

Pentax added an Auto setting to their High Dynamic Range mode, but other than that it's still the same mode that shipped with the K-5 with slightly tuned blending, the company says. You can still get quite outrageous results, or more tame ones, and the K-5 II will also optionally auto-align your images so you don't have to use a tripod (it crops the images somewhat). Unfortunately, the K-5 II's HDR mode is JPEG-only, so in order to select it, you have to go into the menu and turn off Raw or Raw+JPEG mode for the HDR option to appear. (This is such a frustrating requirement that I hoped I would be able to use the Raw button to quickly switch into JPEG-only, but you have to manually select the JPEG mode in the Menu to access HDR and other modes.)

HDR Off
HDR Auto
HDR
HDR
Strong 1
HDR
Strong 2
HDR
Strong 3

I chose the same scene I used for bracketing to show what the HDR mode could do to keep the water from blowing out while retaining some detail in the rocks on the right side. In this case, the HDR Auto mode does a fairly good job, while the HDR Strong 3 mode is clearly better applied to a more extreme scene. Surprisingly HDR mode leaves the highlights a bit too bright, leading me to prefer the bracketed combo above. Note that the HDR Off image appears wider because the HDR mode crops the images.

Composition Adjustment

Sometimes fine-tuning your camera on a tripod is a pain. It can be very difficult to get just the view you want, and getting the horizon aligned just right sometimes never happens. The K-5 II's composition adjustment feature takes away some of that pain, allowing you to fine-tune your view by incrementally moving the sensor. Movements include shifting left, right, up, down with the four-way controller; and you can even rotate left and right with the rear e-dial to get the horizon right.

Horizontal & Vertical adjustments Rotational adjustments
Maximum available adjustments are 24 steps horizontally and vertically, covering a distance of 1.5mm on the sensor. The last shot in the Horizontal series is adjusted to show the upper left corner at f/1.9, which demonstrates how vignetting can be concentrated out toward the edges as a side-effect of shifting the sensor. Rotational adjustments are up to 1 degree in either direction; they can be combined with horizontal adjustments.

A separate feature, called Horizon Correction, will automatically swing the sensor to match the horizon when you're off by a small amount one way or another. So even if you're shooting handheld, the sensor will swing to better match the horizon.

Shake Reduction

Some on the Internet speculated that the K-5 IIS might have better image stabilization than the K-5 II thanks to the former's lack of a low-pass filter. The argument was that the absence of the filter would result in a lighter weight, and therefore greater range or ease of motion for the Shake Reduction system. Pentax disabused us of that notion right away, though, explaining that the K-5 IIS has a piece of non-blurring optical glass in place of the low-pass filter to keep the sensor assembly's weight identical to the K-5 II.

Our tests, made with the 43mm f/1.9 lens, firing off several sequences of images at 1/8 second and 1/4 second showed the K-5 II to be essentially the same as the K-5 IIS at stabilizing images. All were sharp at 1/8 second, and about 70% were sharp at 1/4 second from both cameras.

Astrotracer

Probably the most impressive feature I've seen in a long time is Pentax's Astrotracer feature, which melds the camera's Shake Reduction capability with the GPS position data. Because the camera can tell not just where it's located but which direction it's pointing, it can compensate for the rotation of the Earth by rotating the sensor inside the camera to match the motion of the stars. It's a very cool trick, one that essentially undoes the usual star traces normally seen in night exposures.

f/6.3, 30 sec, ISO 800, AstroTracer Off 100% crop
f/6.3, 60 sec, ISO 800, AstroTracer On 100% crop
f/6.3, 238 sec, ISO 100, AstroTracer Off 100% crop
f/6.3, 240 sec, ISO 100, AstroTracer On 100% crop

Even 30-second exposures produce star traces in normal exposures, but the Astrotracer feature has no trouble reducing or eliminating those. Overall, the Astrotracer feature worked at exposures up to one minute, as seen in the second set of images above, picked to show the degree of motion in the trees. Longer exposures met with mixed results, with my 4-minute exposures still resulting in slight star movement, though not quite as dramatic as the un-compensated 4-minute exposure. Different focal lengths also limit the sensor's ability to compensate for movement across the frame, but my shots with the 43mm F1.9 lens were pretty even.

In order to perform this impressive feat, you have to first mount the GPS on the camera and get a 3D lock on the satellites overhead. Then you set the camera's mode dial to Bulb and go into the GPS menu.

You need to go into the Astrotracer submenu and perform a ‘Precise Calibration.' This requires you to rotate the camera up and down, left and right and rotationally. For Astrotracer, you have to do a Precise Calibration, not just the Calibration found in the main GPS menu.

Of course, if tracking the stars blurs the foreground, the mode is of limited use at longer exposures, but should be useful for astrophotographers looking to focus on galaxies or other interesting sky objects. To see some features, stacking of multiple images may be necessary. Several sample images that illustrate the possibilities are available on Flickrhivemind.net.

AF tracking

One of the improvements expected with the new AF system was better autofocus tracking. My initial tests with shots of my kids running around the playground show that it hits more than it misses, but it's also quite dependent on the subject making up enough of the frame to warrant focus.

In repeated tests of a bicycle coming straight for the camera, the K-5 II didn't manage more than two semi-sharp shots; the rest were essentially focused on the background as the camera struggled for the first 75% of the shots to discern between the moving subject and the background. Focal length for these shots was about 50mm. After testing to see if the 11-point AF system could follow the subject as he weaved through the frame (it could not), we switched to having the subject head straight for the camera, using the more sensitive center point.

Frame rates went from a very fast seven-frames-per-second down to about four when I switched to continuous autofocus, then it got even slower when switching from center point autofocus to 11-point autofocus. In the Custom menu, setting menu item 16 AF.C Setting to FPS priority will maintain the frame rate regardless whether the camera attains focus; the default setting is what slows down the framerate as the camera attempts to lock focus.

Movie mode

Shooting movies on the K-5 II is much the same as using its predecessor. Maximum resolution is 1920x1080p 25fps, which is somewhat limiting for those interested in 24p or 30p.

Pentax K-5 II movie options include lower resolution modes, lower quality modes, sound on or off, various cross-processing modes, digital filters, movie aperture control (auto or fixed), and shake reduction on or off. Available resolutions are as follows:

Sizes • Frame size/frame rate
1920 × 1080 25p
1280 x 720 30p
1280 x 720 25p
640 x 480 30p
640 x 480 25p
Audio Monaural internal mic, 3.5mm stereo mic jack
Format AVI (Motion JPEG)
Recordable time 25 minutes

Samples Video 1

Set to auto aperture, auto exposure. Note the slight walking of the lines on the boat as it passes in the background, and a slight red image just left of the bars of the boat, as well as a brighter red glow on on the sail and mast of the sailboat (more noticeable in the raw video clip). Audio is dominated by the nearby slapping waves, though you can hear the guitarist playing on the right side of the screen.

1920 x 1280, 25 fps, Premium, Motion JPEG (AVI). Click here to download the full clip.

Sample Video 2

In this pan, there's very little sign of rolling shutter, but the gazebo roof at the end of the pan shows obvious moiré.

1920 x 1280, 25 fps, Premium, Motion JPEG (AVI). Click here to download the full clip.

Photographer's notes

When shooting I found the Pentax K-5 II's controls to be fairly straightforward. I like the clearly marked buttons and switches, reasonably stiff dials, and the locking mode dial. The body build is quite stout, yet small enough to fit easily into most bags and backpacks. The shutter mechanism is also very quiet, great in settings where you need to be discreet.

Pentax manages to pack a lot of functionality into just a few buttons, but that kind of tight integration can result in occasional confusion until you get more familiar with its quirks and workarounds. A good example of this is when setting the rear AF point switch to SEL, which allows you to select an AF point using the five buttons of the navigation cluster. It's a great feature, but with the switch set to SEL, the five nav buttons become dedicated to moving the autofocus point, locking you out of Drive mode, White Balance, Color mode, or Flash mode menus. Pressing and holding the OK button will make those available again, but it's hardly intuitive, or convenient when you're in a hurry.

Write latency was another problem I ran into frequently. While the K-5 II has excellent buffer depth, able to capture 18–24 Raw+JPEG images in a burst, it can take around 22 seconds to clear the buffer - even with a 95MBps UHS-I SDHC card - during which time you're locked out of the menu.

Occasionally shooting in Live View was necessary, for example when shooting off-axis from the viewinder, but autofocus isn't as fast as phase-detect, so it was only useful for tripod work. The view zooms while autofocusing, which works well enough, but it's also disorienting.

I also shot mostly with the Pentax Limited primes, as the 18-135mm lenses we have are sometimes disappointing by comparison. The GPS also offered at least one feature that makes GPS actually interesting instead of just a rote exercise of recording where you are when you take a picture.