When Pentax announced the K10D back in 2006, it was a revolutionary camera for serious amateurs and professionals on a budget. The K10D was more rugged and feature-packed than any Pentax digital SLR before it. In 2008, the company decided to update their line with the Pentax K20D, but that camera was more evolutionary than revolutionary ... so much so that many Pentax K10D owners never felt the need to upgrade. Pentax apparently heard the message loud and clear, because the new K-7 is quite simply the most impressive Pentax camera ever produced. That's not Pentax marketing speak, that's just my first impression from spending a week with a pre-production camera body.
Pentax was kind enough to let me spend some time putting a pre-production version of the K-7 through its paces. Although the pre-production model we received has preliminary (non-final) firmware and we aren't allowed to post full-size images in this first thoughts review, the camera is extremely close to being a production-level unit similar to what Pentax will ship to customers, so let's dispense with the disclaimers and start talking about what makes the K-7 such a fantastic camera.
For those more interested in a CliffsNotes summary of the features and specs on the Pentax K-7, be sure to read our news article about the release of the camera. In short, the K-7 features a newly designed 15.07 megapixel (14.6 effective) CMOS imager with a new primary color filter and integrated Shake/Dust Reduction sensor movement system. The new sensor offers Live View and the ability to capture HD video (a first for Pentax). The K-7 also features a new 77-segment metering system for more accurate metering under difficult lighting and a dedicated AF-assist lamp to improve autofocus speed in low light conditions. A large, 3-inch LCD makes Live View or image and video playback a breeze. While a larger, brighter optical viewfinder with 100 percent field of view and 92X magnification is easily the best viewfinder I've seen in a Pentax DLSR.
As someone who's used Pentax system cameras off and on for more than a decade now, I immediately felt right at home with the K-7's controls. That said, if you're coming from other systems or moving up from a lower-priced Pentax, the numerous buttons and dials might take some time to get used to. For me, the only control that required me to retrain my brain was the mode dial. Pentax added a locking pin to the mode dial so you have to press a center button to change the shooting mode. This is great since you cannot accidentally change the mode dial, but it's something new for long-time Pentaxians. Once you get used to the new layout, however, you may quickly appreciate that the K-7 seems to have every control you need in the perfect location. The arrangement is definitely similar enough that those seeking an upgrade to their older Pentax cameras won't have much to learn.
In terms of size, advanced amateur DSLRs have to strike a difficult balance: most consumer DSLRs feel too small and cheap, but upper tier, advanced cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D300, and Olympus E-3 are just too bulky. The K-7 features a compact, magnesium alloy body that is one of the smallest (if not the smallest) advanced amateur cameras on the market. Measuring just 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.9 inches and weighing only 26.5 ounces with battery and memory card, the Pentax K-7 is visibly smaller and noticeably lighter than similar cameras on the market.
The K-7 inherits the rugged build quality of the K10D and K20D and goes a step further with weather, dust and cold resistant (to 14 degrees Fahrenheit or -10 degrees Celsius) body and environmental seals so that photographers can keep shooting in any weather. It's that extreme build quality and weather sealing that makes the K-7 camera body feel better than any other camera in its price range ($1,299.95). The new 3-inch LCD with 921,000 dot resolution is a welcome size increase over previous models and makes the new Live View feature much easier to use.
Still, the exterior features of the Pentax K-7 aren't really what make it so special. For that, we have to look inside. For starters, the K-7 is the fastest Pentax DSLR ever made with a top burst shooting speed of 5.2 frames per second (40 JPEGs, 15 RAW/PEF or 14 RAW/DNG). Anyone who's still foolish enough to think Pentax cameras aren't fast enough for professional motorsports needs to spend an afternoon at the track with the K-7. Pentax also claims that the 11-point autofocus system in the K-7 uses improved focus algorithms over previous Pentax cameras ... and during my week-long test of the K-7 I can confirm it is noticeably faster than any Pentax camera I've previously used. The one exception in terms of speed is the contrast-detection AF used in the camera's live view mode. Our pre-production unit of the K-7 suffered from horribly slow AF lag when using live view mode with the camera's LCD. That said, most DSLR cameras with live view mode suffer from slow contrast-detection AF. Obviously, we'll do some controlled focusing speed tests on both of the K-7's auto focus technologies - its traditional phase-detection system feels very speedy as well - and give a full report back in our full review.
When it comes to image quality, I honestly feel like kissing the Pentax engineers responsible for the K-7. Although our pre-production unit didn't come with the final firmware, image quality at all ISO settings seems noticeably superior to the K10D or K20D in terms of image noise and color. More importantly, Pentax finally seems to have figured out how to build a camera with extremely accurate white balance. Whether I was shooting under strong incandescent light or horrible mixed lighting conditions the K-7 almost always managed to deliver perfect white balance for accurate color reproduction even with JPEGs. In the sample image below the party hat is being lit by an incandescent bulb, a window with diffused sunlight, and a TV projecting various color temperatures of light. The most important thing to notice in that sample image is that the colors look exactly the way they should despite the horrible lighting. I'll reserve detail and noise analysis for the full review, but so far I like what I see in terms of color reproduction and dynamic range.
I'm also pretty impressed with the K-7's selection of "digital filters," which provide a range of in-camera emulators for editing photos without Photoshop. Some of my favorites include "toy camera," "water color," "star burst," or the surprisingly useful "extract color" filter. Still, even if you never use a single in-camera digital filter it's safe to say you'll be impressed by the quality of the images coming out of this camera.
The K-7 also includes a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image capture mode that captures three images and then combines them in camera to widen the exposure range and bring out details in shadows, midtones, and highlights. There's even an in-camera Lens Correction tool that electronically adjusts for lens distortion and lateral chromatic aberrations so you won't have to make those corrections on your computer. If that wasn't impressive enough, working photographers will surely appreciate the fact that the K-7 can embed copyright information in the metatag data of every image ... so you won't have to worry as much about proving image ownership.
Of course, one of the big new features with the K-7 is the ability to record HD video at 1280x720 (16:9 widescreen aspect ratio), 1536x1024 (3:2 aspect ratio) or 640x416 (3:2) resolution all at 30 frames per second. We shot several sample videos with the K-7 at the various resolution settings, but since this pre-production camera doesn't have final firmware Pentax asked us not to publish any videos at this time. That said, the video quality seems on par with other DSLRs capable or recording video. The K-7 even has an external microphone terminal for recording stereo sound ... a good thing to have since the camera's in-body Shake Reduction feature can cause the built-in microphone to record excess noise. An HDMI port built into the K-7 also makes it easy to show your videos directly on your HDTV.
Despite the pre-production status of our review unit, the Pentax K-7 looks to be the most revolutionary camera Pentax has produced to date. I didn't have time to cover all of the outstanding features of the K-7 in this first thoughts article, but you can expect to see a lot more in the full review. At the moment, there isn't much that I can complain about when it comes to this camera. Well, I suppose I can complain that the cost of the optional D-BG4 battery grip ($229.95) is at least $30 too expensive for a battery grip accessory, but that's a very minor issue. The point I'm trying to make is that after a week of using the K-7 it's clear that Pentax got a lot of things right when they designed this camera.
Detailed analysis of the K-7's performance - and its price to performance ratio - as well as full size images will be coming soon in our full review, so be sure to check back in for that.