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In this modern world of Nikon and Canon domination of many sectors of the photographic market, many forget that other manufacturers exist and make wonderful products.
Sony, Olympus, Panasonic and others have all made inroads in various market sectors, most notably mirrorless cameras. Then there is Pentax.
Pentax has historically been a bit eccentric as a camera company. In the past, when film was the medium, they were known for such oddities as releasing lenses with aspherical elements along with other highly innovative features usually found on cameras from other manufacturers with a much higher price and not even mentioning it. Not much has changed with Pentax in the Digital Age. They still make great cameras loaded with features one would only see on the flagship models of cameras from other manufacturers, and with the recent purchase of the company by Ricoh this trend has only gotten better. In a market where all the Instant Avedons kept screaming “Full Frame! Full Frame!” Pentax has recently released what can only be described as one of the best APS-C cameras on the market, the Pentax K3 Digital SLR camera.
Sporting a new 24 megapixel sensor without an AA filter, the K3 allows the user to combat moiré situations by providing two modes of moiré reduction (effectively simulating an AA filter). By using the IBIS system to make micro vibrations at a sub pixel level, the camera can provide the same slight blur. While the current trend towards the removal of AA filters by most manufacturers is welcomed, moiré is an issue in certain situations. The fact that Pentax provides a solution for it is commendable.
Pentax K3 Key Features:
24mp CMOS Sensor w/o AA Filter
IBIS provides Image stabilization with all lenses including all the old manual focus lenses
27 AF Points of which 25 are of the more sensitive cross type
100% VF with a 0.95x Magnification
Tank like build featuring Magnesium Alloy Panels on a Stainless Steel frame with 92 weather seals
GN 13 Popup Flash
3.2” Rear LCD with a resolution of 1037K in a 3:2 aspect ratio
HD Video at 1080/60 with manual exposure and audio level controls
1/8000th Max Shutter with a flash sync at 1/180th
New 86,000 pixel RGB metering system as well as a Multi-area AWB to deal with color in images with multiple light sources as seen on Ricoh Cameras
8.3 FPS Continuous shooting mode
Dual SD Card slots
WiFi via either Eye-Fi or Pentax FluCards that allow not only WiFi connectivity, but also complete control of camera controls with a smartphone.
USB 3.0 support. The only other camera currently on the market with USB 3.0 is the Nikon D800.
14 bit RAW files in either PEF or DNG format
Support for the O-GPS1 GPS unit including the unique Astrotracer function
So how does all this translate in real world use? Read on…
Ease of Use
The K3 is physically a small camera for what amounts to a pro-grade APS-C body. The large grip makes it comfortable to hold even though its dimensions are closer to a Rebel than say what its true competition is, the Nikon D7100 and Canon 70D. That said the build of the camera does make it hefty and heavier than the other two models, so using both hands is highly recommended. Like many of Pentax’s recent pro grade cameras (K5, 645D et al) the Pentax K3 bristles with buttons and controls and much like many Ricoh cameras, the vast majority of these buttons can be customized in various ways. While this initially seems daunting, in practice it leads to less menu diving and allows the user to customize the camera to their hearts content.
The viewfinder can only be described as wonderful and on par with either the Canon or Nikon offering with an actual pentaprism, providing a 100% field of view and near life size magnification. Making working with older manual focus optics much easier, especially if one decides to change the focusing screen to those available from Ricoh Imaging or third party providers like Katz Eye Optics. In addition, for those who prefer using live view, focus peaking is added to the options available in working with manual focus optics as well. Overall, there is a very good set of focusing tools. The AF is centered on the new SAFOX 11 system with its 27 point Auto Focus, of which 25 of the points are of the more sensitive cross type when using the VF and the traditional phase detection AF. In live view, a 45 section contrast detect system is implemented with two tracking modes and of course focus peaking. Another feature is the DOOF preview which can be selected to be either the traditional Optical or a Digital Preview. The best part is that the RAW/FX button can be assigned to Digital Preview, providing both preview options at the touch if one isn’t planning on switching between RAW and JPEG often or using the built-in digital filters much.
Three notable changes from the previous Pentax APS-C offerings are the dual SDXC card slots, the support for USB 3 and the new Anti-Alias simulation via the SR system to reduce moiré under certain shooting conditions. The addition of a headphone jack and the ability to manually control audio levels will be a welcomed addition to Video enthusiasts as well as it’s unique 4K time lapse movie mode (yes you read that right 4K Video on a DSLR even if it is only time lapse); perfect for those Samsung 4K television owners. Throw in the new 24mp sensor, 92 weather seals and a plethora of other refinements the K3 really leaps frog ahead from the K5IIs to what can be considered at least on paper the absolute best camera currently in the APS-C DSLR market sector. But how does it handle under real world conditions? How good is that AF in practice? How does it handle the current Internet obsession of shooting black cats in a coal mine using only a match for lighting? How good is that video REALLY? Read on dear reader.
Shooting with the Pentax K3
Shooting with the Pentax K3 is pretty straightforward. The controls are logically placed and really never get in the way of shooting. In truth it isn’t that dissimilar to shooting with any other Pentax camera including the top of the line Pentax 645D. At base ISO the IQ is on par with many other cameras that cost a bit more (according to DXO the performance is not far behind the Pentax 645D or a Canon 5DMrkIII). Against its natural rivals, the Canon 70D and the Nikon D7100, the K3 more than matches and in some areas slightly exceeds them. If you are worried about IQ, the Pentax K3 will more than adequately ease your fears.
What surprised me most of the Pentax K3 was the low light performance. The AF is much improved, working well in all but the lowest light levels. At high ISO under pixel peeping there does seem to be a bit of noise above ISO 800 when shooting in JPG, but far less than I would have expected with such a high resolution sensor. In actual use, say in a print or reducing the image as above for Internet use, the noise is pretty much a non-issue all the way up to ISO 12,800. Shooting in RAW provides even more control over noise giving workable images for prints up to 11x14 at the higher ISOs. Pentax has chosen to give users a choice of RAW format between its proprietary PEF format and the far more useful Adobe DNG standard. The dual card slots are also a wonderful addition to a camera in this price range. This not only gives you the ability to shoot nearly forever, but allows one to shoot JPG to one card and RAW to another or duplicate data on both cards to protect against card failure. Quite literally, the features set on the Pentax K3 are what I would expect from a Nikon D4 or Canon 1DX, not from a camera that is closer in price to a Canon 70D or Nikon D7100. One thing it does lack is the 70D’s Tilt Screen that is touch-sensitive. For many (like myself) this is a non-issue, others of course will swear that photography is impossible without it (which makes me wonder if these folks even used a camera prior to the digital revolution). It’s all personal choice here.
Of course the biggest question on IQ is the new AA Filter simulation Pentax has added to the K3. Much like the Pentax K5IIs the Pentax K3 lacks an Anti-Alias filter, allowing the sensor to tease out the maximum detail out of any scene. However as anyone who has worked with systems without an AA Filter can tell you, certain subjects can create an effect called moiré without an AA Filter. Nikon’s and Pentax’s previous approach to this was to make two models of the same camera – one with and one without the AA filter. This time Pentax has decided to go a different route, simulating the slight blur of an AA filter by slightly shaking the sensor in sub microscopic steps at a subpixel level using the camera IBIS system. This creates the effect of an AA filter. Pentax provides two strength levels of this effect, allowing the user to simulate two different types of AA filters. I have not personally tested this, preferring to not to use the AA simulation. While moiré can be a concern, the above image shows little of it considering the collar Stella Rose Saint Clair is wearing is made of horse hair lace, a fabric notorious for causing moiré at the drop of a hat. There are other examples online if you really wish to see what moiré can do and how the K3 handles it if you wish to look for it.
For all the burgeoning Stanley Kubricks out there, Pentax has upgraded the video system on the Pentax K3 DSLR to something more useable for production. While it doesn’t have the on sensor phase detection AF with tracking that the 70D has, the K3 now has audio level controls and a headphone jack along with a microphone jack and can record Full HD in H.264 at 1080 with frame rates of up to 60i. One interesting option is the “Interval Movie” recording option that allows the camera to record a time lapse movie at 4K resolution by compositing a collection of still images into an AVI file. The only drawback is that the camera does not save out the individual files used in the creation of this movie, which would provide a high level of flexibility in post to grade and edit. In truth, after working with a Black Magic Cinema Pocket Camera, most DSLR based systems seem a bit quaint here. I would love to see Pentax implement a CinemaDNG save ability or at least a ProRes 4:2:2 save ability via firmware update in the future. There is a HDMI port to connect an off board monitor or a recorder for those needing that. For the most part the K3’s video capabilities are on par with all but the most specialized DSLR based systems. Like nearly all DSLR based systems Rolling Shutter effect can be a concern, but only under the most extreme conditions. The files produced by the K3 do respond well in post production software such as After Effects and grading programs like Davinci providing good dynamic range and clean images. The K3 does allow the use of its library of digital filters when creating movies with it, allowing for some interesting effects prior to shooting.
Audio wise, the onboard mono microphone is a bit of a letdown, so an off board microphone or recorder is highly recommended. Pentax’s current lenses are bit noisy when focusing as far as video work is concerned so the use of a focus puller is also highly recommended. Currently, I do not know of a K to PL Mount adapter that is readily available, though MTF will make you one a la carte. Other than that, you will be limited to Pentax K lenses or its medium format optics if you can get your hands on the discontinued Pentax 645 to K or Pentax 67 to K adapters.
As many online reviewers have noted, the Pentax K3 Digital SLR is truly very capable and with little embellishment one of the best, and in my opinion, perhaps the best APS-C camera currently on the market today. With a feature set one would expect more out of a top line camera such as a Nikon D4 or Canon 1Dx, for stills there really is not many cameras better in its market sector. Video wise the K3 is a vast improvement over its previous models, but could use some improvement (continuous AF in video would be nice) and perhaps a set of video optimized lenses. As I mentioned earlier, if CinemaDNG or Prores 4:2:2 were included as file formats this would certainly make it far more useful in very demanding video applications. Of course these features could be addressed via firmware updates, and hopefully Ricoh Imaging does find it in their hearts to add these features. The one niggling thing that did occur while using the K3 was a strange rapid shutter firing when the battery level was low. It happened only once to me and changing the battery seemed to correct the problem. Ricoh Imaging is aware of this issue and firmware 1.01 seems to have fixed this issue for me. Many in the Pentax community have started calling this camera the “Baby 645D” and with good reason. The IQ is there and overall performance make it a good companion to the 645D if you are looking for a more mobile unit that you can mix in with it for workflow purposes with little worry.