Excellent APS-C DSLR!

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MarBa Contributing Member • Posts: 806
Excellent APS-C DSLR!
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This is a review after shooting with the camera for a month. I took already about 8000 images with a lot of different old and modern Pentax lenses. I have extensive previous experience with Pentax K-1, K-7 and Ds but also Sony A6300. I have shot various things with the camera: mostly snapshots during a “walk around”, portraits, a bit of landscape during a few hikes, macro but also a lot of action during a swimming competition.

In summary, it’s a great pleasure to use this camera! I like it especially with smaller prime lenses. The camera has some flaws that are likely due to limitations of its processing power. But despite some shortcomings that limit the camera in some edge case scenarios, this camera covers pretty much all my needs and accepts all my Pentax glass. The major improvement in AF and frame rate made Pentax finally usable also for action photography!

Buying this camera is a no brainer for any Pentaxian who wants a fast camera or an excellent image quality in an APS-C body! It is also a great purchase for anyone looking to get an APS-C camera with an OVF. Pentax has some unique APS-C (and FF) lenses, that are affordable and very well built (both primes and zooms). This camera can also compete with FF DSLRs because of its large OVF, great ergonomics and a very good image quality. Therefore it is an excellent option also for people looking for a great performance and usability in a small package with all the advantages of a DSLR.

Here are more details ... positives and some negatives that I find important. While I list negatives, none of them are major and I would buy the camera again.

Positives:

1) Optical View finder – this is a major achievement for Pentax! The OVF is as big and bright as the one on the full-frame K-1. Therefore, one major downside of using APS-C camera (over FF) is eliminated. It is a joy to look through this OVF .. you get used to it quickly! Looking through an older APS-C camera will become painful.

2) Ergonomics and settings - the buttons are just GREAT! So many ways to customize the camera (pretty much all the buttons can be set to any function) that it really takes a while to optimize it all but once you have it .. it's just excellent! You don’t need to go to the menu at all. And if you know you are changing some settings often, just save your choice in a separate “user mode” (like for example specific AF settings).

New AF point selection joystick is perfect for fast changing of focus points. This leaves the 4-way button pad for customization of quick change of 4 functions. This improves usage of the camera quite a bit.

New S.Fn button – nice addition – makes it faster to change 5 different “Smart Functions” – it could have been better though (see below). Nevertheless, it allows you to avoid going into the menu to change settings.

The third wheel – similar to K-1. I think that the flexibility that comes with this is just fantastic! You can for example control aperture, shutter speed and compensation with just rotation of a dial and no additional button presses. This makes operation of this camera so easy and fast.

There are so many excellent things that Pentax is doing as standard on all their cameras that I can’t possibly go over all of them .. but I will mention few that I consider as unique and very useful:

User modes - you can save different settings for say Action, or B&W, or Manual .. in addition to the exposure modes already available. You customize all the settings that the camera has to offer and then save it in the User mode – excellent! (Although it would be great if editing and saving of these settings were a bit easier and if one could have more flexibility in setting up what changes are being “remembered” when camera is turned off.)

Green button – fast return to default settings – very handy!

3) Metering, WB, color calibration

The new “Highlight-weighted” metering mode is just excellent. It very well prevents over-exposure of highlights. I use it almost exclusively and I almost never need to do additional EV compensation. This is a major improvement over K-1. Even when the review of an image in camera shows slight overexposure, I find that those can be recovered well when shooting raw.

Auto WB works great. No need for anything else.

Color calibration – the embedded color calibration profile (“Natural”) is almost identical to the one I made with X-rite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2. This is nice as there is no need to calibrate the camera for faithful reproduction of colors.

4) Speed of AF-C and Frame rate – this is a major improvement over the K-1!

I tested the camera during a high-level international swimming competition with DFA70-200/2.8 and DFA150-450 lenses. I had far higher keeper rate than with my K-1 in the past. It was no longer frustrating! The camera was able to refocus quickly and I had no problems getting sharp images of the fastest swimmers (except freestyle, which is challenging). After testing and changing few AF-C settings (such as hold, priority of focus/frame rate), the camera was doing really well. The 10-11 frames per second frame rate really helped to catch the right moments. It helped a lot that one can save and quickly change AF settings with the “Smart function” button.

The coverage of the field of view with AF points is decent for a DSLR.

I did not use the auto selection of AF points and object tracking though (only manual selection of AF point). At least for swimming, this did not seem to be good enough and the camera was confused by water splashes. But object tracking seemed to work quite well for a few occasions when I tried to shoot birds in flight (but it’s not my main skill, so I can’t judge the performance honestly).

At least for me, the performance of the camera was only occasionally crippled by the relatively small buffer (35 raw files). Relatively fast saving of the images to a card helped .. and importantly, the camera works when the buffer is being cleared! Major improvement over K-1!

5) Image quality – colors, dynamic range, noise level, resolution – all absolutely top notch! Practically speaking, I don’t worry about using the camera even at ISO up to 12800. I get beautiful colors and noise level that I’m used to getting from my K-1. I’m not sure about how well the camera preserves very fine detail at high ISO as some noise reduction is probably being applied also to raw .. so for absolute best results one should be aware of this .. but for normal shooting your skills and lens matter far more anyway and for those situations, the camera delivers excellent raw files that one can edit without major problems. (I did not shoot any JPGs.)

Dynamic range is excellent, you can recover shadows so well! I would think that EV bracketing would be needed only in absolutely extreme situations and only for large prints.

Resolution is great for an APS-C camera – you can crop a lot and still get beautiful images for screen or print.

6) Unique features:

Horizon correction – I just love this feature! You get perfectly leveled photos without much of an effort during daily/fast shooting when you don’t want to think about it too much. It saves so much editing time later. (Of course, this feature works only in certain range of tilts.)

DNG raw – did not have to wait for LR update to start shooting

Pixel shift (high-resolution mode), shake reduction, AA filter simulation

Interval shooting – very flexible and customizable

7) LCD screen/touch – LCD image quality is as good as on K-1 – I realized that the touch function is not all that useful for menu or browsing images but for AF point selection in LV or movie it is handy.

8) Size/weight – the camera has a nice size for an APS-C DSLR! Quite light as well .. but this is probably because I’m used to K-1, which now feels like a tank in my hands.

9) Video – it is improved for Pentax standards but that is a very low bar to pass.

10) Two card slots – saving files twice is good – but the slots are still slow.

11) Learning a lot – the camera has a lot of automation and it is customizable but you still need to think and set it up correctly to get a perfect output. So to master shooting with this camera, you have to learn a lot and this I consider to be a good thing.

Negatives:

1) Lack of GPS - the phone app that is supposed to geotag your photos is not working properly with all phones. For me (Android 10), the BT connection between the camera and my phone is lost every time the camera turns off and my phone "sleeps". I have to wake up the phone to reconnect.

The lack of working GPS makes this camera a bit less good for just walking around and hiking where you'd like to have the location info with your photos. There are workarounds available - like using smart watch for tracking, or some phone apps - and then tagging photos later. However, lack of GPS also means that for the astrotracer function you'd need the external GPS unit. It's a pity that Pentax did not include at least a compass into the camera and the ability to take GPS coordinates from the phone. That would make astrotracer possible with just a phone.

2) Buffer and write speed - buffer is about 35 raw files (each about 33MB). That is not enough at 11 frames per second! In addition, the write speed to either the UHS-II or UHS-I rated slots is only about 80 MB/s (meaning about 2.5 frames per second). I have a very fast (280 MB/s writing) card and the camera can't take an advantage of that. Both slots write at equal speed (actually the UHS-I rated slot is even slightly faster). Writing to both slots (duplicate raw files) makes things even worse and the speed drops to about 1 frame per second. The actual speeds of the card slots should be advertised so that people don't expect fast write speeds to the UHS-II slot (theoretically rated up to 300 MB/s).

3) Battery life - it seems that the LCD takes a lot of power. The battery life for this camera seems worse than for K-1. If you use the LCD or LV a lot, you'll not get to the advertised 800 shots per charge. I have days when I get only 300-400 shots per charge. But shooting action with OVF, you can get 1200 shots. I think the LCD is the culprit because you can feel that the camera gets a bit warm (not hot!) around the left edge of the screen, especially when the brightness is increased and even if you just brows images or menus (no shooting).

4) Video - I was hoping that this Pentax will have finally 4K/30p (or even 60p). It does, but only with a crop. This is something that is not properly advertised so be careful. Also, the video file size is limited to 4GB, so about ~7min at 4K/30p. I'm fine with there being no AF in video but the crop is not great. In addition, there is no way to get raw video, or 10-bit for increased flexibility in post-processing. So overall, video is just barely OK for today's standards.

5) Fixed screen - this is not a big deal for me but I would still use a tilt screen time to time for macro or landscape. While the fixed screen makes the camera more compact and durable, there are solutions out there that are a good compromise of flexibility and durability.

6) Some knobs, settings - one major waste of space is the knob that selects between OVF, LV and video. This is a knob that could have had 10 options but has only 3! This should have been used for the options on the "Smart Functions". Simply, instead of using the S.Fn button in combination with arrows or dials, you could have had those options on this rotating knob as it is on K-1 or KP. This would allow for much faster selection of those functions. The LV/Video/OVF selection could have been a “slider” underneath, like on KP. I would still keep the new S.Fn button for something else though.

In addition, the options for "Smart functions" are limited for no reason! You can only have 5 smart functions picked from the list of all available functions. This is despite the fact that you select between them with an arrow or a dial so there is no physical limit for how many you can have like on the wheel on KP or K-1. In addition, within each smart function you have a limit imposed on which options you can select from. Again, for no reason, as you anyway have to scroll through them.

7) Active AF points are hard to see in the OVF - you can't see the active AF points very well. They are briefly illuminated but that light is hard to see outdoors with bright light. So a combination of bright day and a dark object makes the selected AF point hard to see. However, usually it is not a big deal for AF-S. But in AF-C, since you can't see very well which AF point is active so you can't check what the auto AF point selection algorithm is doing. You have to "blindly" trust it, or switch to manual selection of AF points. For example, I don't quite trust the system to focus on face/eyes since it is hard to see what is happening. So I keep selecting AF points with the joystick (which is great to use!). However, I want to say that this camera is not worse than K-1! It’s a general problem of OVFs.

8) 1.3x crop mode – it does NOT crop raw files and therefore does not help to get more frames into the buffer or have faster buffer clearing.

9) Not for beginners - this is just to say that you can't just give this camera to a random person who is used to shoot with a phone or a mirrorless camera. You have to set everything for them to make sure all will be done correctly.

 MarBa's gear list:MarBa's gear list
Pentax K-1 Pentax K-3 Mark III Pentax smc FA 31mm F1.8 AL Limited Pentax smc FA 43mm F1.9 Limited Pentax smc FA 77mm 1.8 Limited +3 more
Pentax K-3 Mark III
26 megapixels • 3.2 screen • APS-C sensor
Announced: Mar 30, 2021
MarBa's score
4.5
Average community score
4.5
Pentax K-1 Pentax K-3 Mark III Pentax K-7 Pentax KP Sony a6300
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