10/02/2014 16:00 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

Pentax K-3 review

Picture perfect, video variable, high-end DSLR

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What is it?
The Pentax K-3 is a high-end DSLR camera with an APS-C sized sensor and picture quality at its very core.  

What’s great?
The stills really deliver, the weather-sealing is seriously handy and it’s easy to set the K-3 up the way you want it to shoot.  

What’s not?
Video capture is quite poor, there’s no touch- or vari-angle screen and it could be a little more user-friendly.  

The bottom line:
The K-3 is a really good camera that takes really good pictures but the Canon 70D is a more complete device.  

Pentax K-3 (© Pentax)

Pentax K-3 Review

If there’s another DSLR manufacturer out there with as an important heritage as the big two of Nikon and Canon, then it’s Pentax. The company’s successes in the heyday of 35mm film won it great fondness that remains in the heart of many digital photographers today even if it’s now struggling to keep to up with Sony’s tail in the camera-maker stakes.

Now under the stewardship of parent company Ricoh, Pentax is back with a high-ish-end, consumer-level DSLR to show what it can do. Complete with a reassuringly solid, weather-sealed build and an innovative piece of photographic technology known as an optional anti-aliasing filter, we took the Pentax K-3 out for a test drive or two to see if it’s brought back the magic too.

Pentax K-3: Build

In a world of plastic bodies, it’s refreshing, if slightly heavy, to see that Pentax has gone all-magnesium alloy with the K-3. You’re definitely going to notice it at 800g but the satisfaction that that density brings really makes you feel like you’ve got something for your £1,099. Despite the mass, though, it’s actually quite a small size camera for this kind of device. At 131 x 100 x 77mm, it comes off all round very much like the old Nikon D80 - and that’s a very good thing.

Of course, what the K-3 has that the D80 doesn’t are those trademark Pentax DSLR weather-sealing features as well. That doesn’t mean that you can submerge the thing in a puddle and expect everything to be all right but we had every confidence in its ability to withstand whatever the elements threw at us while shooting - and that was quite a lot given that January 2014 was one of the wettest on record. It’s only the lens you’ll need to worry about once it starts bucketing down. With the hood attached, the glass stayed clean and we walked away with plenty of great shots - and some dripping wet clothes.

The generous leather grip all the way over the front, right-hand side is invaluable to ensure that it’s not slippery when wet (or sweat) and all of the buttons and dials are well positioned and of a very decent size. Perhaps the only criticism that one might level on the build front is that the Pentax K-3 isn’t particularly nice looking. But then most DSLRs aren’t.

Pentax K-3: Usability

We had a bit of concern, at first, that there wasn’t much in the way of blank buttons for users to customise but, start digging into the menus of the K-3 and what you can do to the thumb and forefinger dials and how that little green control comes into play, and you begin to realise how to make this camera your own.

The E-Dials, as they’re known, and that green button can be set to control ISO, exposure, aperture or shutter speed for each shooting mode as you need - and that includes video capture too. In other words, while in Manual, you might want aperture and shutter speed at the wheels with a setting suggesting at the green button, but when locked into Aperture Priority (Av) some other assignment of those switches might be relevant. Well, rather than have to change each time, the K-3 will remember what you like. It’s seriously handy.

On top of that, there’s also three completely user-customisable shooting modes on the main dial: U1, U2 and U3. You can set up everything on these from White Balance to how you like your focus system. While many of our preferences changed minute to minute, we did quickly recognise that there’s a few set ways that we like to try to shoot. Once you find what they are, those U settings are something of a saviour, as is the lock mechanism on the mode dial that stops it from slipping around.

Pentax K-3 (© Dan Sung)

On top of that, we’re also big fans of the video/stills physical switch. It’s not something you see on every camera and it’s a great way to bring the options you need for each mode right to the surface.

Despite all this, there’s not a lot of help for those that don’t understand all of the options in the on-screen menus. There is an information button but it doesn’t really deliver enough when you really need it to. You do get a decent virtual summary of the most important settings on the monitor at all times but one can’t help feeling that this isn’t the kind of camera best suited to beginner DSLR users. Even high-end kit should really help those in that bracket grow into it.

Finally, there’s the LCD screen. It’s not a vari-angle and it’s not touch-enabled. That would be ok but there’s plenty of models at this price that offer either one, the other or both, and that just makes for reasons to head for one of those instead.

Pentax K-3: Focus and speed

Judging a camera by its AF system is a tricky subject matter given that it hugely depends on what lens you’re using. Each piece of glass has its own AF servos. That said, the AF in the K-3 is generally very good. It’s a bit ponderous with the 18-135mm kit lens but accurate, thanks to the 27-point AF system, and highly adjustable to your needs.

There’s also focus peaking included for those wanting to shooting manual focus but that’s only available in Live View mode which is both understandable but also a pity given that the K-3 includes a viewfinder with a 100 per cent field of view. In other words, everything you see down the VF is everything that you’ll capture in your picture.

Even if the it’s not the quickest, though, it’s a rare treat to get such high 8.3fps burst rates out of the K-3, if only for 60 shots. Mirrored cameras tend to be a bit slower, particularly at the higher end, so to rattle off 8 pictures each second is really nice. At the same time, the inclusion of Bulb mode (where you can leave the shutter open for as long as you like) is great to see too; perfect for those looking to do some shots of the night sky.

Pentax K-3: Picture Quality

If pure picture quality is what you’re after, then that’s an excellent reason to buy the Pentax K-3. It’s got the same 24-megapixel sensor inside it as in some of the high-end Sony cameras but the image processor is streets ahead. What you get is an expertly-handled colour palette that rarely leaves you disappointed and a level of sharpness and detailed that are as good - and largely better than - any you’ll find in this price bracket and APS-C sensor size.

At the same time, we felt that the K-3 didn’t do a well as we expected at higher ISOs. It was just about ok at ISO 1600 but noise on our shots was all too obvious any further down the line. That’s not bad, by any means, but we thought we’d get more flexibility out of it than that. Probably the other query is around exposure. If we had to call it - and we suppose we do, really - the K-3 has a tendency to underexpose. Whichever metering system we went for, we often wanted to notch it up a touch.

On the plus side, that high resolution might come at a cost of larger image files but the seriously good news is that this is a dual-SD card machine. Not only does that mean a reserve bank of storage but you can also get quite clever about how you assign the files - JPEGs to one and RAW to the other, video to the first and stills to the second; it’s your call.

Pentax K-3 (© Dan Sung)

And now comes the curiosity and ingenuity of this anti-aliasing effect. Let’s start at the beginning. Until now, cameras either come with one of these filters inside or they doesn’t. Their job is to stop close patterns in the frame starting too look weird. Take someone wearing a check shirt or a similar kind of structural repeat and you might notice what’s known as a moiré effect that produces a fake visual design that simply shouldn’t be there. So, why not include an anti-aliasing, ‘low pass’ filter in every camera to stop this? Well, because it slightly damages picture quality, that’s why.

So, given that picture quality is one of the main drivers behind the K-3, the clever cakes at Pentax have axed the filter but come up with a way of creating anti-moiré when you need. Motors inside give the sensor a little shake at the right time and that does the trick. There’s even two levels of shake to choose from to minimise any unnecessary blur, and the short answer is it works really nicely. As if to spite us, it took ages to actually find something to shoot that gave us moiré but, when we did, the anti-aliasing system was highly competent and only even needed the lower level to make the change. It’s really impressive stuff and, hopefully, something we’ll see from other manufacturers soon.

Pentax K-3: Video

Video is not something that everyone cares too much about in a camera but, if it matters to you, then you might consider a different machine. The built-in mic is pretty lousy. That’s not criminal given that there’s an external microphone jack but then not everyone wants to use one. Sound could be a bit choppy and the built-in version tended to pick up touches and movements of the camera far too much.

Picture quality wasn’t anything like as good as the stills offered either, and that was all the more enhanced because the focusing in Live View wasn’t quite up to scratch. The focus tracking for moving subjects didn’t seem to work and that’s pretty key given that people tend to move in videos.

At the same time, we like that you can choose from all the main exposure modes in video (P, S, A and M) and the effects filters, which are also available while shooting stills in Live View mode, add real value too. It’s just a shame that there’s no 60fps 1080p quality available to help keep your movies as smooth as possible.

With so many video controls and options at your fingertips, there’s probably better movie potential than we discovered but Pentax makes you work a little too hard for it, and that’s presuming that it’s there at all.

Pentax K-3: Verdict

The Pentax K-3 is a great DSLR, no doubt. You can get some really stunning pictures with beautiful colours and superb detail out of it. All the same, there are some missing features that might make you buy a different camera instead. There’s no touchscreen and no vari-angle options, it’s not the best in low light at this price and video capture is on the poor side. What’s more, despite the excellent personalising options, it’s not very user-friendly for beginners.

Nonetheless, what the K-3 does have going for it is lovely build quality and that very clever anti-aliasing system. The only trouble is that it’s up against one of the very best DSLRs around at the moment - the Canon 70D. The Canon can’t do that anti-aliasing but it’s got everything else you could want including all that the K-3 is missing. Unless you’ve already got a draw full of superb K-mount lenses, we just can’t think of a good reason to buy the Pentax K-3 instead.


Pentax K-3: Available now £1099/£1449 (body-only/with 18-135mm kit lens). Check the latest prices with Bing