The new Pentax K-r DSLR reminds me in some important ways of my first 35mm SLR, an old, basic Mamiya. The K-r is an interesting camera - it has a full complement of flashy features, but at heart the K-r is a fairly straightforward (and for today), fairly basic DSLR.
In 1976, Pentax introduced a new 35mm SLR called the K1000; a very simple single lens reflex camera designed to help neophyte shutterbugs learn basic photography skills. The K1000 enjoyed one of the longest production runs in camera history because it was cheap, dependable, tough as nails, easy to use, and capable of producing consistently excellent results. Generations of student photographers, yearbook staffers, high school photo-journalists, and college sports shooters learned their craft behind a K1000. By the time production stopped in 1997, Pentax had manufactured more than three million K1000's.
That's not how things are done in the digital era. Intense competition between Nikon and Canon is driving the creation of the most amazingly feature-rich cameras ever built. Second tier OEMs like Pentax, Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus struggle to compete with the industry giants. That bloodthirsty competition has been a real boon for consumers. Innovations like the 4/3 and micro 4/3 formats, live view LCDs, and HD video modes have expanded alternatives exponentially for DSLR/interchangeable lens camera purchasers.
Consumers like innovation, so camera makers come up with flashy new features for each new model - and new models are introduced at an almost daily rate. Innovation is a good thing, except when innovation becomes its own justification. Sometimes it really is better to just focus on the basics and manufacture the best camera you can build. Don't get me wrong, the Pentax K-r provides most of the features offered up by the top two marquees, it just doesn't let flashy features dominate - basic functionality, dependability, durability, and ease of use appear to be the Pentax K-r's stock in trade.
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.
Shutterbugs who shell out $800 for a DSLR generally expect a pretty substantial return (in terms of performance) for those hard earned dollars. The Pentax K-r isn't the fastest camera in its class, but it does perform credibly across the board and a two one hundredths of a second (0.02 versus 0.04) difference is essentially no difference at all.
The Pentax K-r starts up very quickly, essentially "real time" - turn the camera on and it is ready go. Shutter lag is 0.04 of a second, quick enough for just about anything this camera's target audience is likely to try. AF acquisition is 0.19 of a second which is very close to the AF acquisition times of the K-r's competition. The K-r's continuous shooting rate is 6.4 fps. In the timing arena the Pentax K-r isn't the fastest DSLR out, but it is competitive across the board.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon Rebel T2i||0.02|
|Sony Alpha SLT-A55V||0.04|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Alpha SLT-A55V||0.16|
|Canon Rebel T2i||0.18|
|Sony Alpha SLT-A55V||17||10.8|
|Canon Rebel T2i||170||3.7|
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The Pentax K-r provides the following focus modes - auto, AF.S (single - with focus lock), AF-C (continuous), 5-point or 11-point Auto, Select (AF point), or Center AF. The K-r uses an updated (SAFOX IX) version of the same TTL phase-matching 11 AF point (9 cross type in the center) contrast detection auto focus system as the Pentax K-7. The camera automatically selects the closest AF point to the subject (closest subject priority) and the selected AF point glows red once focus is locked.
AF is consistently fast and accurate even in dull lighting. Continuous AF (which continually adjusts focus as the shooter follows a moving subject) works pretty nicely in most action/sports shooting situations. The K-r's Face Recognition AF mode works nicely, identifying up to 16 people in the frame, but it needs a couple of seconds to lock on a non-moving subject. Live View can be used in the continuous (AF-C) shooting mode with no restrictions on the 6 fps rate since the mirror is locked up. The K-r's Face Recognition AF mode works nicely, identifying up to 16 people in the frame, but it needs a couple of seconds to lock on a non-moving subject. Live View can be used in the continuous (AF-C) shooting mode with no restrictions on the 6 fps rate since the mirror is locked up.
Pentax KAF3, KAF2, KAF-, and K-mount lenses can be mounted on the K-r , but older lenses have restrictions. My tests were conducted with the SMC Pentax DA 18mm-55mm f/3.5-f/5.6 AL kit zoom. The 18-55mm kit is equivalent to a 27-83mm zoom. Most DSLR manufacturers offer a kit lens, generally a 3x zoom designed to sell with their entry-level and mid-level DSLRs at the lowest possible combo price. Most OEM producers build these kit lenses as simply as possible using as much plastic as they can get away with.
Pentax's kit zoom is a little different. Pentax attempted to produce an inexpensive optic which feels well-made and offers some genuinely impressive performance for serious shooters. These "extra" features include better construction with less reliance on cheaper materials, a non-rotating front element for filter users, and a manual focus option. Pentax's 18-55mm kit lens has received very favorable reviews compared to kit lenses from Canon and Nikon.
The K-r's kit zoom is surprisingly good, but images do show some noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is lower than average at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled.
One of the K-r's most useful features is its image stabilization system. Pentax's IS system (Pentax calls this SR - shake reduction) neutralizes camera shake by vibrating the CCD sensor to cancel out involuntary camera movement. Most camera manufacturers (including Canon and Nikon) accomplish IS by shifting lens elements to counteract for camera shake. The greatest benefit of camera body IS systems is that they work with every lens mounted, not just with (more expensive) IS or VR lenses. With image stabilization enabled, Pentax K-r users can shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 EVs slower than would have been possible without image stabilization.
The K-r's built-in pop-up multi-mode P-TTL flash (auto, manual, manual flash + red-eye reduction, slow speed synch, slow speed synch + red-eye reduction, second (trailing) curtain synch, wireless flash, and flash-off. The K-r's flash automatically pops up when needed - if ambient lighting isn't sufficient or to add fill-flash in back lit situations. The K-r's built-in flash provides a decent selection of lighting options, but the fastest flash synch speed is only 1/180th of a second - which is fairly pedestrian. Guide Number is 15.6 at ISO 200/m. Coverage is equivalent to 28mm and the maximum flash range is about 16 feet. Flash Exposure Compensation: -2 EV - +1EV (1/2EV steps). The K-r also provides a dedicated flash hot shoe for mounting Pentax Speedlights like the AF360FGZ or the more powerful AF540FGZ. Third party flash units can be used, but not with full compatibility.
Unique to the Pentax K-r is its new Dual Power source feature. Most current DSLRs draw their juice from proprietary rechargeable Lithium-ion battery packs. Rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries are lighter (and require less physical space) than AA batteries, but some shooters like AA batteries so Pentax's engineers designed a camera that allows the use of both power sources - the best of both worlds. Battery life with the new D-LI109 lithium-ion battery pack is rated (by Pentax) at around 470 images (with 50% flash usage) and playback time is rated at 300 minutes. Based on my experiences with the K-r, I'd say that figure is probably inflated by about 25%.
The Pentax K-r stores images to SD and SDHC flash memory cards after a firmware update with SDXC cards as well. Images can be saved in JPEG, compressed RAW, and uncompressed RAW formats.
The Pentax K-r's 1280x720 at 25fps (16:9) HD movie mode produces properly exposed and color correct videos clips. The K-r also captures video at 640x480. I shot the video that accompanies this review in the dimly lit bar of the Galt House, so the lighting was a real challenge for the K-r. Video capture is dependably impressive. Colors are rendered accurately and contrast, even in poor lighting is balanced.
DSLR image quality is dependent on a combination of factors: the quality of the lens mounted, the efficacy of the CPU (image processing), and the accuracy of the exposure system. Default JPEG images from the K-r appear uniformly sharp with neutral colors, but that's due to Pentax's minimal sharpening and sensible image interpolation. Users can customize images either in-camera or via the computer. All my comments relate to the Pentax K-r with 18-55mm kit zoom mounted.
Image Quality results will vary slightly, depending on the lens mounted. Based on my images, the K-r's image quality is dependably excellent, with very good detail capture in highlight areas, very good detail capture in shadow areas, and crisp edge transitions. Default colors are bright, vibrant, nicely saturated, and hue accurate. Images show a wide dynamic range and good tonal balance. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was remarkably well controlled considering that this is a kit lens.
Our weather here in the Ohio Valley has been ugly for the past couple of weeks - cold, rainy, gray skies, and even some snow. The Pentax K-r's Auto white balance mode produced reliably hue correct colors. We did have a couple of days with brief sunny interludes. Overall, the K-r's WB system, even when working with less than perfect lighting conditions, produced reliably accurate colors. The K-r's white balance options include: TTL (through the lens) Auto, and user selectable settings for Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, tungsten, Fluorescent (White, Neutral, Daylight), flash, manual and Color Temperature modes.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The K-r provides an impressive selection of sensitivity settings including TTL Auto (ISO 200-800) and user selectable settings for ISO 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, and 12800. ISO 200 images show bright colors, slightly hard-edged default contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 400 images were also very good, but with just a little less pop.
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 6400, 100% crop
ISO 12800, 100% crop
At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail. ISO 1600 images are fairly noisy. ISO 3200 images show flat colors, fuzzy detail, and reduced contrast plus lots of chroma noise.
Additional Sample Images
There's really nothing new here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Not everyone wants a camera that has loads of mostly unnecessary (and rarely/never used) capabilities - some shooters just want a dependable camera with decent optics that will do exactly what they want it to do precisely when they want it done.
Anyone already invested in Nikon or Canon (or another marquee) DSLRs have little reason to switch to the K-r, but old timers just boarding the digital photography bandwagon and first time DSLR buyers should seriously audition the Pentax K-r before just automatically buying the equivalent Nikon or Canon model.