Barely 13 months after the introduction of its DSLR flagship K-5II/K-5IIs, Pentax is at it again: the K-3 becomes the new standard bearer of Ricoh Imaging's burgeoning APS-C sensor equipped fleet. Announced in October 2013 and arriving in the market the following November, Pentax describes the new camera "...as the most advanced enthusiast DSLR available, featuring unparalleled technology and specifications..." Coming on the heels of the K-5II, a very capable and feature-rich model at an attractive price-point in its own right, ad copy for the K-3 clearly demonstrates Pentax feels they've raised the performance bar with their new offering.
A quick look at specifications for the K-3 offers possible insight into the Pentax enthusiasm: the camera features a 24 megapixel APS-C sensor (23.35 MP effective size), a significant increase from the 16 megapixel sensors offered in the rest of the Pentax DSLR lineup. One aspect of resolution increases on the same physically-sized sensor is the ability to make larger prints -- files coming out of the K-3 measured 20.05 x 13.33 inches at 300 dots per inch; by comparison, files coming out of the Pentax K-5II (16.3 MP effective size) measure about 16.42 x 10.88 inches at 300 dpi. Bigger files also give you the opportunity to crop images fairly aggressively if necessary, seemingly getting you "closer" to certain subjects. Here's the full frame/full resolution shot of an Anna's hummingbird, and the same shot cropped to 20 x 15 inches at 225 dots per inch - prints of both are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Moving on from resolution, there's a continuous shooting rate of up to 8.3 fps and a newly designed SAFOX 11 autofocus module with 27 AF points. The magnesium body panels mount on a stainless steel chassis that features weather sealing and in-camera shake reduction (stabilization). There are dual SD card slots and a "newly designed Real Time Scene Analysis System featuring an 86,000 pixel RGB light-metering sensor and improved algorithms that further enhance accuracy of exposure, white balance and autofocusing". The K-3 also offers "an enhanced video recording experience including the ability to change from still image to video recording with the flip of a dedicated switch to capture full HD movie recording in H.264 format". Native ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 51200. The camera can also accept an optional GPS unit that provides electronic compass, Astro-tracer and GPS time sync functions.
The Astro-tracer function is an intriguing feature for folks wishing to dabble in night sky photography as it utilizes the GPS and the camera's built-in shake reduction system to match the movement of the camera sensor with the movement of celestial objects due to the Earth's rotation. This function can be enabled for times ranging from 10 seconds to 5 minutes and is designed to produce images with stars and planets reproduced as points of light rather than elongated "trails". Unfortunately, we didn't have a GPS unit available to give this feature an actual field test, but here's a 20 second night sky shot from the K-3 featuring the constellation Orion and what looks like an airplane- produced trail. This was a RAW image post processed using Photo Ninja software.
A primary feature of the K-3 is the inclusion of what Pentax describes as "the world's first selectable anti-aliasing filter, giving the user the ability to easily toggle anti-aliasing functionality on or off, for supreme resolution and zero limitations". Nikon's D800E pioneered the movement away from anti-aliasing filters in certain cameras in order to produce improved image sharpness and Pentax followed suit with the K5IIs. However, the K-3 doesn't contain a new anti-aliasing filter with the ability to be switched on or off; instead, Pentax uses shake reduction to produce a slight movement of the camera sensor in order to simulate the effect of an anti-aliasing filter when that feature is enabled: "The anti-aliasing simulator applies microscopic vibrations to the image sensor unit at the subpixel level during image exposure, generating the same level of moire-reduction effect as an optical anti-aliasing filter. This function is most effective with a shutter speed of 1/1000 second or slower". We'll take a close look at image quality with this feature enabled and disabled later in the review.
Finally, the K-3 has a significant wireless capability: "with installation of an optional, dedicated 16 GB FLU CARD for PENTAX in the K-3, the photographer can remotely change settings such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO, shift the AF focus point, release the camera shutter, check the live view image, and browse and download images to mobile devices and PC"; Eye-fi Wireless and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media are also compatible. The camera has a USB 3.0 high speed port.
Pentax includes a lithium-ion battery and charger, hot shoe and body mount covers, camera strap, eyecup, and CD-ROM software with each camera. The K-3 will be available as a body only for $1,300 and in kit form including a DA 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 WR zoom lens for $1,700 - a K-3 Premium Silver Edition will also be made available in a limited quantity with only 2,000 units being offered worldwide. This limited-edition model features a silver body with a silver BG-5 battery grip designed exclusively for the K-3 and a suggested retail price of $1,600. The PENTAX FLU SDHC 16GB memory card to enable remote control and wireless functions retails for $100. Here's a look at the wide and telephoto ends of the kit lens:
BUILD AND DESIGN
The K-3 fits the template for a modern DSLR and appears well-built in terms of materials, fit and finish. The camera is assembled in the Philippines; the 18-135 mm kit lens that came with our review unit also appears to offer appropriate build quality for its price point, and is made in Vietnam.
Ergonomics and Controls
Outwardly, the K-3 bears a strong family resemblance to its predecessor K-5II, the principal change being a different contour to the left front of the camera body. Dimensions are 5.17 x 3.94 x 3.05 inches, virtually identical to the earlier camera, but body-only weight increases 1.9 ounces; shooting configuration (battery, camera strap, one memory card) with the 18-135mm kit lens was 45.4 ounces.
With the kit lens onboard the K-3 offered a nicely balanced shooting platform for hand holding; because of the camera's relatively diminutive size the little finger of my right hand curled under the camera body and the joint between the tip of my index finger and the middle pad fell naturally onto the shutter button, requiring a little conscious readjustment to trip the shutter. There was ample space between the handgrip and lens barrel/lens mount for my fingers while hand holding and the control layout is such that a comfortable shooting grip doesn't interfere with or cause inadvertent activations of external controls.
The info button on the camera back brings up a screen offering access to a number of frequently used shooting settings including ISO, highlight correction, shadow correction, digital filters, HDR capture, the AF assist light, high ISO noise reduction, slow shutter speed noise reduction, distortion correction, lateral chromatic aberration adjustment, peripheral illumination correction, autofocus mode, autofocus active area, memory card options, file format, JPL recording pixel numbers, shake reduction, and the anti-aliasing filter simulator.
The control layout of the K-3 is very similar to the K-5II but there are just enough changes to keep K-5II shooters moving into a K-3 on their toes. The most obvious change is the migration of the AF mode button from the camera back to the left side of the lens mount base just above the focus mode switch; in its place resides a new stills/movies switch. This new switch is part of the "enhanced" video experience promised by Pentax and is positioned nicely for easy activation by the thumb of the right hand. Simply flip the switch from still to video mode, acquire focus with a half push of the camera shutter and commence capture with a full push; a second push on the shutter button ceases capture. You can also use the live view/record button to initiate and stop video capture once the camera is in video mode. The "video" icon that formerly appeared on the mode dial has been replaced by two additional user custom settings, and the K-3 moves the live view/record button just to the right of the eyepiece. A "change AF point/card slot switch button" is a new addition to the lower right rear of the camera body.
Menus and Modes
Menus in the K-3 are what you would expect from a high-end prosumer camera aimed at the enthusiast market niche, which is to say they offer a wide range of camera adjustments and settings in most shooting modes and the ability to fine tune camera performance for various shooting styles and subjects. The record mode menu consists of four pages; movie menu, one page; playback menu, one page; set up menu, four pages and custom setting menu, four pages. While the same number of menu pages are presented whether you're shooting in the fully automatic green mode or any of the other semi-automatic or manual modes, the number of individual items available on a particular page are severely restricted in green mode. Here's the rundown on green mode and the rest of the shooting options available in the K-3:
It's a safe bet to say that K-5II users moving into a K-3 will feel right at home with the menu layout and shooting options afforded by the K-3.
The 3.2 inch color LCD monitor features brightness/saturation/color adjustment along with an anti-reflective coating and an air-gapless design. The monitor is adjustable for 15 levels of brightness, but even so can be difficult to use outdoors during bright conditions for image review or capture. Monitor resolution is 1037K dots and while area of coverage is not specified it appears to be close to 100%.
The viewfinder features .95% magnification and offers 100% coverage; it has diopter adjustment to compensate for varying degrees of eyesight and was pleasantly large and bright in use.
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