BUILD AND DESIGN
The K-r lands right in the middle of Pentax's DSLR line-up. This camera looks quite a bit like the entry-level Pentax K-x, but with many of the advanced features and capabilities of Pentax's flagship K-7. The K-r is a well designed, precision-built and robustly constructed imaging tool with nicely placed rubberized grip panels and a deep hand-grip.
The K-r's polycarbonate body shell over stainless steel frame construction is tough enough to go just about anywhere. Fit and finish are uniformly excellent and dust/moisture seals appear to be up to just about anything short of combat photography and extreme environments. My test unit was a bright exuberant fire engine red - the K-r is also available in pro black and "hip" white. The white version of the K-r will be available with a matching white 18-55mm kit lens, but the red and black body color options will have to make do with the standard black 18-55mm kit lens.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Pentax K-r handles nicely and due to its deep handgrip provides very good balance (with the 18-55mm kit zoom). This camera feels solid and stable. The K-r fits the hand nicely with the right index finger falling naturally on the shutter button.
All controls are logically placed and easily accessed for right handed shooters, though some buttons are a bit small. The K-r's compass switch (four-way controller) takes a little getting used - the N, S, E, and W buttons are very small and don't feel as responsive as they would if the buttons were larger. Overall, the K-r's control array seems a little busy, but it isn't counter-intuitive and most users will have no difficulty using the camera competently after a short familiarization period.
The shutter on Pentax's K-r is electronic, but very traditional sounding - with a loud mechanical shutter "clunk" when you press the shutter button. Some folks will enjoy this link to the past, while others may regard it as an affectation. I like the traditional shutter sound even if it is an affectation, but it isn't great for street or candid photography because your subject may hear the shutter and react - something of a moot point with a fire engine red camera body.
Menus and Modes
The Pentax K-r features a fairly complex four tab (with multiple pages under each tab) menu system. The K-r's menu system provides tons of options and it is logical and reasonably easy to navigate, but it isn't very quick since you may have to traverse multiple pages for even simple changes. The Pentax K-r provides a more than adequate selection of shooting modes including:
The Pentax K-r's default pentamirror optical viewfinder provides approximately 96% coverage with 0.85x magnification. The K-r's optical viewfinder is relatively bright, hue correct, and fluid. I used the eye-level viewfinder almost exclusively. Eyeglasses wearers (like me) who want to use the eye-level finder can adjust (via the diopter slider) eye piece focus over a -2.5 to +1.5 diopter range. The K-r, unlike most of its competition doesn't automatically switch back and forth between the pentamirror viewfinder and the "live-view" LCD, users who want to utilize live-view must press the LV button on the camera's rear deck.
The K-r's 921,000 pixel 3.0-inch (7.62 cm) TFT LCD can be used as a live-view viewfinder, to navigate the extensive menu system, or to review captured images and saved video clips. Two years ago the K-r's LCD would have been a major selling point - today a large high resolution LCD is essentially a required feature in a mid-level DSLR. The live-view LCD is noticeably dimmer and not quite as fluid as the eye-level pentamirror finder. Live-view is fine for stationary subjects, but the AF system in Live View mode needs a couple of seconds to lock on your subject, making it much better suited to static subjects like portraits. The K-r's LCD has a fairly wide 170-degree viewing angle in both the horizontal and vertical axes and provides all the status/function information typical users are likely to need/want.
The Pentax K-r's LCD, like all LCD panels, is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting. Using an LCD for composition and framing in bright outdoor light can be very frustrating - a brighter, higher resolution LCD with a good contrast ratio and a decent anti-glare/reflection coating would radically simplify this chore. It is virtually impossible to accurately estimate the contrast ratio of an LCD display by eye and camera manufacturers are dependably (and universally) guilty of grossly inflating numbers to make their newest models seem more appealing.
The DCR test lab is adding a new feature to our reviews - we'll now begin providing LCD peak brightness measurements and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio would fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. That would be bright enough to use the LCD for framing and composition in outdoor lighting, and it would provide a better sense of contrast and image quality. The Pentax K-r weighs in on the high end of that scale at 739:1 - for comparison purposes several of Canon's current P&S digicam models score in the low 400's. Peak brightness of the K-r (the panel's output of an all-white screen in nits at full brightness) is 614. For reference, anything above 500 will be fairly usable outdoors, with improving results at higher levels.
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