As an outdoor photographer who loves adventure, travel, backpacking, and of course landscapes and nature photography, I have a slightly different set of priorities when it comes to choosing the perfect camera. For example things like size, weight and weather sealing are just as important as a camera’s image quality. And when it comes to images, things like dynamic range and corner sharpness are much more important than skin tones or bokeh, etc.
This is why, over the course of the last year or so, I have sung the praises of cameras like the Canon 6D, (review here) the Nikon D7100, (review here) and even the Nikon D600. (review here) Recently I even tested the Nikon D5300 (review here) and the Nikon DF, (review here) in my never-ending quest to find the perfect outdoor / travel camera.
If you didn’t bother to click on any of those reviews, basically I’ve praised every single one of them for being great adventure photography cameras, but with minor flaws or shortcomings that hold them back, albeit sometimes only a tiny bit, from also being the best choice for other things like action sports or weddings. Spoiler alert: Here we go again? Maybe…
The Pentax K-3
It was with great interest that I received the new Pentax K-3. Basically, it is a flagship crop-sensor DSLR with features and performance similar to what Nikon should have already delivered in the form of a DX D400, or what Canon should have produced in the form of a 7D mk2. Yet the Pentax K-3 seems to stand alone in this class, offering the latest and greatest crop sensor and some of the most exciting specs that a traditional DSLR can possess.
Initial Opinion & Conclusion
Indeed, the K-3 has a lot going for it. Like the Nikon D7100, it’s got dual card slots and a killer 24 megapixel sensor with no AA filter and great image quality up to ISO 3200 or 6400 even, territory where previously only the full-frame bodies could qualify as professional. Not to mention, dynamic range that is almost on par with the legendary Nikon D800!
Unlike the D7100 however, the K-3 is fast. Like, Canon 7D fast. In fact at 8.3 FPS to be exact, it’s faster than any other crop sensor or full-frame DSLR aside from the ~$6,000 flagship sports cameras from Canon and Nikon.
Also unlike any other DSLR in its class, (except maybe the aging Nikon D300s or the 7D) the K-3 is as robust and strong as the flagships I mentioned, the Canon 1DX and the Nikon D4. It has a magnesium body, and extensive weather sealing that would probably even give Olympus a run for its money as the most weather-proof camera on the market.
All these high-performance features are nice, of course, but they can be significantly held back if the camera doesn’t also offer a few more subtle things that a pro might require. Namely, pictured above: The PC Sync port for professional flash use, plus a decent 1/200 sec. sync speed and 1/8000 sec. shutter ceiling. Next, the dual card slots are capable of redundant backup, and are very high-speed unlike some cameras such as the Canon 5D Mk3, Nikon D600, and Nikon D7100. Also, a few minor things such as locking mode dials and quick 100% zooming are very useful for me.
Night Photography With the Pentax K-3
Last but not least, when it comes to night photography the K-3 has some incredible capabilities and functions that simply cannot be found on any other digital camera, period. The most exciting and notable feature is the Pentax O-GPS1 accessory, which isn’t cheap at ~$200. However this is no ordinary GPS module, because it can actually work in conjunction with the camera’s compass and gyroscope to use the in-camera sensor stabilization for astro-tracking! This means that depending on the focal length of your lens you can use shutter speeds up to five minutes long without any rotation movement in the stars whatsoever. Impressive, to say the least.
That’s not all, however. With or without the GPS accessory, the Pentax K-3 excels at night photography in general. Firstly of course, it has a built-in intervalometer for timelapse recording, a feature that I have grown to rely on as a Nikon owner. The K-3 also adds a few slightly different options though, including in-camera RAW compositing for star trails. So for example if you want to create a 60 minute long star trail, instead of creating a single 60 minute exposure (which would inevitably be very noisy) …you can instead combine 120 30 sec. exposures and get the same final image but with a lot less noise. Also, you can switch the composite mode to “additive”, and combine not only the star trails but actual exposure values! For example if you’re shooting at night and your camera is at 30 sec. exposures but your images are still too dark, you can combine multiple 30 sec. exposures to achieve the brightness of a longer exposure!
As you might imagine, I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the K-3’s potential, and we haven’t even talked about the Pentax lens offerings yet. Once again, Pentax delivers some incredible option that are simply not available on any other traditional DSLR system. Namely, their lineup of FA and DA primes are incredibly light, compact, and sharp, sharp, sharp. Did I mention that they’re largely constructed of metal, despite being so small and light? In short, these lenses make a laughing stock out of “affordable, compact primes” from Nikon and Canon like 50mm f/1.8s and similar lenses that are entirely plastic and really not that small. Then, there’s specialty lenses like this little puppy:
Pentax 15mm f/4 vs Rokinon 16mm f/2
Apples and Oranges? Maybe, maybe not. With Pentax’s enhanced low-light and night photography functions, f/4 might be all you ever need! Also note that the Pentax lens is all-metal and rock-solid, while the Rokinon is all-plastic with questionable reliability. Either way, there is no lighter, smaller way to get to ~22mm equivalent on a DSLR.
Pentax K-3 and a 40mm pancake lens, VS the Nikon D700 and 85mm f/1.8 G
More Apples and Oranges? Maybe so, but the Nikon 60mm f/2.8 that would be a more proper comparison is still the same size as this 85mm. Either way, the weight and price difference is significant.
Who is the K-3 made for?
While this camera is definitely one of the most versatile, capable cameras on the market and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to ANY type of serious photographer, the K-3 does indeed have an intended purpose in my opinion. And that purpose is clear: adventure photography, extreme conditions, and astronomy or astro-landscapes.
Indeed, the K-3 can hold its own in any type of shooting condition, even sports or wedding photojournalism considering its autofocus capabilities and high ISO performance. So whether you are a serious hobbyist or a working pro, the K-3 is a champion of shooting in harsh conditions, bad weather, or just around the house!
Is there anybody who shouldn’t consider the K-3? I’ll expand on this more in my specific complaints below, but simply put this camera is not for you if you are intimidated by advanced controls and functionality. Because of its added features and slightly less intuitive layout, a beginner will find it very challenging to get the most out of the K-3.
However no, there really isn’t any significant performance shortcoming that makes it un-usable for certain things, like for example how the Canon 6D and Nikon D610 are noticeably hindered for off-camera flash, or how the Nikon D7100 and the Canon 5D Mk3 are tough to use as dual-card slot sports action cameras. Really, the K-3 can do everything and do it well. The main thing holding it back is simply the fact that too few people have realized how great it is!
Despite all the great, pro-grade performance, the camera does have one shortcoming that is partly a matter of personal taste.
The very first thing that I struggle with when I pick up the K-3 is the slightly difficult menu interface. Being very familiar with both the Canon and Nikon menu systems, I pride myself in being able to quickly adapt to any camera and shoot with it in extremely demanding conditions that require changing settings and functions on the fly. With the K-3 however, I feel at the very best it will take a lot longer for me to memorize the controls, or unfortunately in the worst case, I may never be able to get the camera to “dance” for me in certain demanding conditions. So yes, I hate to say it but Canon and Nikon’s menu system is slightly more intuitive and functional in general.
To be specific, one thing that Pentax has done is they’ve moved almost every single button to be on the back-right of the camera, within reach of your thumb. This might sound awesome at first, if you find it annoying to use your left hand to reach certain controls on the other side of the rear LCD screen, however there is a catch. In order to make this work, Pentax has double-duty buttons. I just hate double-duty buttons, plain and simple. The K-3’s double-duty buttons are especially frustrating to master, too. They have dedicated the rear 4-way controller pad to do both AF point selection as well as WB, flash, picture control, and drive mode. How do you switch between these functions? With another button that toggles between focus point selection and the other controls. Unfortunately this is not only difficult to wrap your head around, but also extremely difficult to use even after you do figure it out. There are are zero indicators that remind you which function your control pad is currently dedicated to! (CORRECTION: Another K-3 user informs me that there is indeed a very small focus selection indicator icon in the corner of the viewfinder, which does help. However I still wish Pentax would add a dedicated focus point “joystick” like Canon does for many of their cameras.
Thus, even after a few weeks of use I find myself still clumsily hitting the wrong controls, or blindly hitting the toggle button two or three times to try and figure out which function the control pad is currently serving. So, I hope the software teams are paying attention:
Dear Pentax, (or dear Ricoh)
It is NOT GOOD if I accidentally turn on bracketing, or start a timelapse when all I want to do is move my focus point around. Not good at all.
There are a few other things that bothered me: 1.) The quick-zoom playback function that allows you to go straight to 100% does not sense which focus point is selected, like Canon and Nikon’s pro cameras do. 2.) There is no “my menu” system for collecting all my most frequently used menu items, like there is on Nikon. (Canon has attempted to offer this as well, but theirs is significantly crippled because they only allow a single page of menu items.)
Of course if you’re not shooting like a maniac and if you can afford to take things slow, this issue becomes less and less of a drawback, and more just a character of the camera that you must get used to. I may yet master the art of remembering to always reset my control pad to whichever function I use the most, and maybe after a few months of heavy use this initial difficulty will vanish completely. We’ll be sure to publish a final report, of course.
All of the sample images you see below have been captured using a production model K-3 in the PEF format and processed in Lightroom 5. For landscape images on sensors that have no AA filter, my favorite recipe for sharpening is a high-intensity, small-radius sharpening without any luminance noise reduction or detail enhancements applied.
With 24 (very sharp!) megapixels and ~13 stops of dynamic range, the K-3 sensor is definitely world-class…
Pentax K-3, SMC Pentax-DA Limited 40mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8
Hand-held @ 1/15 sec @ ISO 100
Being able to hand-hold at very slow shutter speeds allows a nature photographer to capture macro shots at lower ISOs and/or without having to reach for a tripod!
Pentax K-3, HD Pentax 15mm f/4 DA
Even if you avoid torrential downpours, the K-3 still inspires creative confidence in the face of a pesky light rain and high humidity, and/or freezing cold.
As I mentioned before, we are still barely scratching the surface of what the K-3 can do. After a rather cloudy trip to Hawaii, I hope to make a few trips out to the desert to really push the K-3’s abilities in astro-landscape photography, where I think it will truly shine and prove its worth. Still, even at first glance I can tell that anybody who is serious about advanced photography would be wise to consider the Pentax K-3. Just about the only down-side is that it is a crop-sensor system and that Pentax currently has no full-frame options whatsoever. (unless you’re willing to jump all the way to the 645 format digital cameras!) However for many photographers, myself included, this is hardly a reason to pass up such an amazing camera! Even if Pentax did create a whole new full-frame system in the near future, I would still consider the K-3 to be a very wise choice for anyone who is looking to keep their gear portable and light yet robust and powerful!
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