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Pentax K3 – Hands on Review

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Pentax users have always been waiting eagerly for a new digital sensor camera but all Ricoh/Pentax did was to produce more camera bodies with the same old Pentax K5 sensor. It must have been the longest surviving digital sensor incorporated into more Pentax body models than any other digital sensors in the history of digital sensors. So when Ricoh announced that they were introducing a new Pentax K3 with a totally new digital sensor, you can hear the Pentax fan boys sigh of relief.

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Hands on feel and what has changed

I have been a heavy user of Pentax K5. It has gone with me through many photosafari trips around the world during the past 4 years. My K5 has seen many battle wounds from the fall on the Manang Trek, Nepal, the heavy dust storm in Mt Bromo, the freezing snow falls in Urumqi, the semi desert heat at OMO Valley, Ethiopia and many other wonderful photosafari trips to long to list here.

The K3 feels a tag heavier than the K5 but the grip is very much better. The buttons have changed position and in some instances disappear from the control panel. It’s like relearning how to drive.

The K3 now spots a 24 megapixel APS-C CMOS digital sensor without an AA filter. The image processor has also been upgrade to PRIME III

The LCD screen is larger. It has gone up from 3” to 3.2”. The display scheme is customable. I didn’t really like those funky colour schemes. It spots a 3:2 aspect ratio compared with the 4:3 on the K5.

The mode selection button has seen some changes. Pentax DSLR’s mode dial has always been loaded with more features than one can find in other makers like the (Sv) and (TAv) modes. The locking mechanism has now been revamped with a switch controlling the lock and free positions.

The major changes are found on the back of the camera. Movie recording has now been featured prominently in the K3. The live view (LV) button is moved near to the viewfinder. I find this an irritation. The red button always reminded me of a warning sign that something is wrong with the camera. This needs getting used to or just paints it black.

There is also a dedicated switch that switches from the movie to the still photography mode.

At the intersection of the left and back sides of the camera is the K-3’s microphone port. The K3 has the ability to manually adjust the mic-level – something that could not be done on the K5.

Not far from the mic port is the new headphone jack. To the upper left you’ll see the flash sync port, as well as the RAW/Fx button.

Yeah! The best news is the incorporation of two SD card slots. This was what I have been waiting for – carry at least 64G of memory on the camera for short trips without bringing my Mac Book Air and external hard drive.

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Hands on test

What a better way to test this camera other than to bring it out in the field for a 5 days 4 nights photosafari trip to visit the Hill Tribes in the Luzon Cordillera, Philippines. Our photosafari trip brought us to Banaue (UNESCO Heritage site) famous for rice terraces, Sagada famous for its hanging coffins and Buscalan, a remote village of the Kalinga Tribe (where the oldest tattoo artist in the world lives).

1. Image quality

The images looked smoother and sharper due to the lack of the AA filter than the K5. It also managed to capture more details mainly due to the increase in megapixels. A 32G SD card was only able to capture 600 RAW images compared to about 800+ images on my K5.

I must say the image quality has improved visibly over the K5.

2. Dynamic range

I loved B&W images and hence the dynamic range is a very important consideration when choosing a camera sensor. In this respect, the K3’s sensor’s dynamic range is about half a stop better than the K5.

3. ISO noise levels

I have often set my camera to TAv mode setting the aperture and shutter speed while allowing the camera to choose the ISO settings. Images taken below ISO3200 are almost noise free but the noise levels increases as the ISO increases. However, with noise reduction software, one can obtain useable images the ISO levels up to 12800. I find that this property is similar to the K5’s sensor.

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4. Weather seal

This was one of the important considerations for me choosing the Pentax K20 at that time when I first purchased into the system. I was looking for a very rugged camera that could withstand the weather conditions that I experienced during my travels….and the Pentax came out tops at a price that was way below other makers offering the same weather sealing properties.

The K3 also provides the same weather sealing properties that I like. I had a chance to test it in a light drizzle and it came out unscathed.

5. Increase in burst mode

The K3 has featured an increase in burst mode with 8fps.  I have used this feature occasionally to take action shots like Pacu Jawi and sports. This increase in burst mode fps is a welcomed feature.

6. Super vibration mode.

Pentax has announced that they have incorporate a cutting edge technology that can vibrate the sensor for  image stabilisation, shake off dusts, ward off moiré and even allow fine adjustments to the sensor position for lens focusing and compensation adjustments. Well, I have not tried it as I did not come across a situation that warranted its use other than the image stabilisation.

7. Focusing speed

This has been the bane of Pentax fan boys. Some of them have found the focusing speed of the previous models a bit lacking. K3 has promised to provide improvements in this area. It has now incorporated the SAFOX 11 TTL autofocus system with 27 points, 25 of which are cross-type. In the field there were some noticeable improvements in the focusing speed especially at low light and low contrast conditions.

 

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Conclusion

This is a user’s review not a technical review. I have reviewed the features that I used often in my photography – things that matter to me most. I would not go into a technical comparison on which is a better camera compared to other makers as I think it is academic.

Overall, I find the Pentax K3 an improvement over their previous high end models like the Pentax K5II and K5IIs. What I particularly like is the improvement in image quality, sharpness and image details. Owning a 30” Dell monitor has its disadvantages; image imperfections are very visible on this screen. I must say I am very pleased with the K3 image files. I am now in the process of printing a large print (3ft by 6ft) from this sensor. From what I see on my monitor, it looked good.

I like the wider native dynamic range. It makes my work converting images to B&W easier. The high ISO noise controls are at par with the K5 which I can live with.

Now the most important question, would I buy this camera when it is available? Well, I am impressed with its performance and have since placed my name on the pre-order list.

 

Review by Maxby Chan

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