Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pentax K-r review


Ask any student what camera they used at college during the days of film and the chances are they'll reply 'Pentax', or so it seems. I don't think anyone has done a meaningful survey. But, it's true Pentax SLRs were the popular choice of the professional in the UK during the 60's, a bit before my time. That said, I'm old enough to remember the K1000 from the late 70's, a likeable 'no frills' student-orientated camera and the underrated MX, a far, far smaller and more expensive model, but still manual mechanical that actually had a similar specification, although it could boast 5fps continuous shooting using an optional motor drive and battery pack (only two or three others could at that time) and aperture readout in the viewfinder. Oh and what a viewfinder that was. Even by today's very best standards it was huge.

I'm reminded of the MX by arrival of the Pentax K-r, a new 12.4-megapixel mid-range model that will sit between the successor to the top of the range metal bodied K-7, the K-5, and one of my favourite DSLRs of recent times, the unassuming and underrated entry level K-m. Not every camera has to be built like a tank, and possess countless feature after feature. The K-m or its predecessor the 12.4 MP K-x isn't the kind of camera to impress a client on a high value commission and neither is the K-r but both are impressive nonetheless, the latter especially with what it has to offer for the price (£599 Inc Vat). Like any good camera, it's a lot more than the sum of the parts, though they sure count for something. The K-r takes some of the features from the out-going K-7 and some from the K-x. The outer, for instance, is quality-feeling plastic over a stainless steel chassis and it will capture HD video at 720p 25fps, but it can also out do the K7 by shooting at up to ISO25,600 (expanded) and at 6fps for a 25 frame burst of Jpegs or 12 uncompressed Raw files (that's Adobe DNG or Pentax PEF).

Pentax has even corrected several of the shortcomings of the K-x, most notably the absence of visible AF points. All 11-points are illuminated, though there’s still a tendency for the centre point to override the out-lying sensors. It must be deliberate, but that’s fine by me, focusing is both fast and, for the most part, accurate. Although the marketing material states the viewfinder magnification is a fairly generous 0.85x with a 96-percent coverage, it’s nowhere close to the 0.96x of the older 35mm MX. That’s because the magnification is based on the angle of view of, usually, a 50mm. On the smaller sensor cameras, such as the APS-C format K-r, you have to take that cropped view into account. Indeed, corrected at 0.57x, the viewfinder of the K-r is pretty cramped by all accounts but no worse than rival offerings.

The taller body now accommodates the same spec screen of the K-7, a munificent 3-inch panel with 921k dots and with wide viewing angles, more detail and fine colour, it’s a good deal better than that of the previous offering in the K-x. The K-r adds a handy HD movie mode at 720p rather than the full-HD of pricier offerings and it has some nice touches. Although M-JPEG rather than the space-saving MPEG4 derivatives there’s a choice of quality settings, though the harsh compression of the lowest setting is best avoided. Capture times drop from 22-minutes to just over 11-minutes regardless of flash card capacity but at least there’s a fixed aperture option for that attractive defocused blurring with some of the better Pentax wide aperture lenses. You won’t see that with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens though, but there are some outstanding ‘Limited’ lenses that will take full advantage of that and the built-in anti-shake sensor mechanism. 

In low light, though, sensor sensitivity is ramped up and while noise is generally well controlled in stills, at least up to ISO3200, video clips can be far from noise-free. Focus operation is fast in both the video mode and Live View, using contrast detection AF directly from the imaging sensor. Automatic enlargement of the image based on the AF point to confirm accuracy is a nice touch however, autofocus is not available during video capture, which is restrictive. It maybe just as well though as the kit lens’ AF operation is shrill.

There are plenty of other well-thought out and valuable features though, that you just wouldn’t expect at this level. For instance, it has an intervalometer; an expensive option for Canon users, and uniquely a choice of Copyright Information (Photographer or Holder/Client) can be embedded in the Exif data. Deep in the Custom Functions menu there’s a novel Catch-in Focus mode, where the shutter will trigger when the subject moves into the focus zone and perhaps more importantly the K-r is supplied with a lithium-ion battery but there’s an adaptor available for AAs should you need them in emergency. It’s just this sort of attention to detail that Pentax has always garnered praise for, even with the change of ownership, it’s really good to see these models are capable of holding their own against the bigger, brasher brands.

For more information please follow the link to Pentax Europe or Pentax USA

Please note, after speaking with a senior Pentax executive yesterday concerning internet reports about the discontinuation of the Pentax K-r, the spokesperson confirmed 'the camera is outselling our forecasts and so stock can be a little low in some areas but I expect the camera to continue for some time to come.'

To shop for the Pentax K-r please follow the link to Adorama, WEX, or Jessops (currently with an online special of just £399.99).

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