Pentax K7 Hands-On
Pentax has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the camera industry. It just doesn't get the respect that it wants, and often deserves. Nikon and Canon are the industry's dominant players in both the pro and prosumer segments, and everyone else are also-rans, if not in product quality, then at least in market share.
This is as it is, but is unfortunate because many people are not aware that there are some really fine and competitive products. The brand new Pentax K7 is one of these.
But before going further, just a word of disclosure. I've always had a soft spot for Pentax cameras, and lenses. My first serious SLR as a working photojournalist was the 1964 Pentax Spotmatic (Honeywell in the U.S. – for those of you with long memories). It was the first popular camera to feature TTL metering. There also was a time when I had a Pentax MX, which I thought was a much better "small" SLR than the Olympus OM1, and also cost a lot less.
Of course then there's the Pentax 67, which I shot with for many years. One of the world's great medium format SLRs, and still a perennial favourite for many.
Pentax lenses also deserve mention. Their consumer lenses have generally been run-of-the-mill, but Pentax's top lenses, such as the current "Limited" line, are as good as those from anyone else.
Let's not mention Pentax's first DSLR, the 2003 *ist D. Regardless of the camera's merits, and there weren't that many, this has to have been the stupidest product name in the history of the photographic industry. It probably cost Pentax a place in the DSLR marketplace for years, that maybe only now the K7 will regain.
Pentax K7 with 50-135mm @ ISO 400
Which brings us to the K7. The is a well priced, well featured, and competitive DSLR. Just the thing to raise Pentax's profile and sales in the new industry environment, where having a historic name and past counts for little among the vast number of people who have only just "discovered" photography during the past decade.
The key points are...
– 15 Megapixel (Samsung) sensor; APS-C sized with a 1.5X factor
– weather sealed magnesium alloy body
– 5 FPS shooting speed
– 720P HD video
– 920K dot LCD
– 100% viewfinder
– DNG raw format
– sensor shake reduction works with all lenses
– dust removal through sensor vibration
– class leading small size and light weight
– in-body Shake Reduction works with all lenses
Not a bad list of features, at a retail price of about U.S. $1,300
The K7 is one of the smaller DSLRs on the market. The Canon T1i and Olympus E-620 are size competitors, though the K7 is targeted further up the market scale, more towards the Canon 7D and Nikon D300s segment in terms of price and performance.
It falls to hand quite nicely, though if anything it may indeed be a bit too small for some with hands larger than mine. As it is I have to cock my index finger quite a bit to press the shutter, or alternatively release the shutter with the second joint of my index finger.
Other user interface controls are pretty straightforward and the camera's main controls and primary functions can be sussed out by a knowledgeable photographer in short order.
I do have a few niggles though. Some of the rear panel controls are so close together that it's almost impossible to make settings changes without inadvertently changing something else. The focus point selector, for example, is so close to the Live View button that I activated it almost every time by accident.
There also is no thumb style joystick, with selections having to be done with control wheels. This is doable, but not as fast and effective as with a well designed joystick.
Viewfinder & Screen
The viewfinder is 100% and quite large and bright for a 1.5X camera. None of the full frame cameras should feel threatened, but the K7 is right up there with the competition in this regard. Similarly with the rear LCD. It is large, bright and of high resolution.
I found the mode dial to be a bit annoying. Curiously, it is exactly what I always complain I wanted. It has very firm detents, which means its unlikely to be set accidentally, but it also has a center locking button, for the same purpose. But combine these both with a smaller than usual size, with no finger spacing between it and the prism/flash housing, and it is a bit of a pain to change.
My only other gripe is the SD card slot. Again due to the downsizing process the gap between the door when open and the card when popped free is very thin, and its almost impossible to get even small fingers in to extract the card. I regard this as a major design flaw as more than once I've dropped the card in trying to extricate it from the narrow opening left by the hinged door.
Not So Instant Review
It takes a couple of seconds from when the shutter is pressed until a review image appears on screen. Sorry Pentax. This isn't acceptable. Even the Leica M9, which is slower than most, is faster than this. This is with a fast card, and is the same whether one is shooting raw or JPG. Most current cameras are at least twice as fast.
UPDATE: A number of readers of this review during the first hours online were update about the above, because, as they rightly point out, "this is only the case if you have the lens aberration and distortion correction features turned on".
Fair enough. When turned off preview is effectively instant. But, I expect that with corrections turned on is the way that most serious photographers will use the camera. And, there are other cameras that have similar capability which do not take as long. A faster processor is likely needed, which I believe would also help autofocus, as seen below.
I'm not sure what to say here. When sitting quietly and testing the camera, whether with stationary or moving subjects, autofocus seems to do its thing properly, whether one is using multi-point or single point. But, in the heat of rapid shooting, when subjects are moving quickly, such as dancers or athletes, I have the impression that the AF hunts more than I'm used to with either current Canons, Nikons or Sonys. It's almost as if the camera is taking a moment to consider what to do next.
Can I benchmark this? No. Can I demonstrate this to someone else on a consistent basis? No. But from time to time, when I'm working quickly, I feel that the K7 is intruding on my fluency of shooting. If you're contemplating the purchase of a K7 (rather than just nattering about it on a web forum), and plan on shooting sports or other fast action, you might wish to experiment with this and see if you share my experience.
I also find the AF slow to lock on when the camera comes out of sleep mode with a button press. The various Canons and Nikons and Sonys that I'm used to seem to do so almost instantly, while the K7 again seems to pause as if gathering its thoughts before finding focus.
Pentax cameras have long been criticized for not have as responsive an AF system as some of their competitors. Reportedly the K7 is improved, and I certainly wouldn't call it poor when it comes to autofocus, but it doesn't quite seem in the same league as it's prime competitors.
Pentax is to be commended for adopting the DNG raw standard. They are among a still small but growing group of forward thinking companies that realize that this is what their customers need and want. They still make their proprietary raw format – PEF – available, but I can't imagine why anyone would prefer to use it. Because my favoured image processing tool is Lightroom, I was able to use it right away with the K7, even though the camera has only been shipping for a few weeks, something that is rarely possible with new cameras when proprietary formats are used.
I was a bit confused though when I noted that the screen where one sets the type of raw recording is not next to where one sets raw mode. It's on camera setting screen #4, while choosing to shoot in raw is on screen #1. Not a big deal, but not as intuitive a layout as one might prefer.
It's been a long time since I paid close attention to Pentax's lens line up. But a bit of research showed that a couple of the good quality zooms to consider were the SMC Pentax-DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] and the SMC Pentax-DA 12-24mm F4 ED AL [IF]. Both of these appear to be very highly regarded by the Pentax user community, and were the ones that I requested for testing. Pentax also has a well deserved reputation for their prime lenses, particular their "Limited" series. So if first rate lenses are your thing (and they should be) there are some really honeys in the Pentax line-up.
I did not shoot enough with these two lenses though to draw any conclusions as to image quality.
Live View & Video
Live View is well implemented and in the current style, with a dedicated LV button and contrast detection autofocus. I didn't have an opportunity to do any serious video testing but what little I did do looked superficially fine, though CMOS jello was in strong evidence. Don't pan the camera quickly and this shouldn't be an issue.
It's always fun and instructive to do comparisons between cameras. But, they are fraught with peril and are therefore hard to do. They are also time consuming. Because of schedule constraints during the time that I've had to work with the K7 I'm going to refer you elsewhere on this one. Imaging Resource has done a very nice job of comparing the K7 to other cameras in its category, and since I always find IR's work to be fair and well executed I'm going to simply recommend that you look there to satisfy your image quality comparison hunger.
Mirror Lock Up
Pentax has implemented MLU nicely. Though there's no dedicated MLU button, they have placed it as an option directly on the Drive Mode button. They have also made it part of the Self Timer function, so a 2 sec self timer release will also automatically lock up the mirror first, reducing any vibration.
Memo to Canon:
On my Leica S2 preview I facetiously suggested that you visit Leica to learn how to implement MLU properly, since as a corporation you appear unable to do so. I realize though that while the schnitzel and Pils in Solms (actually the nearby town of Wetzlar) is very good, Germany is a long way from Japan just to learn how to do MLU.
But, now that I've seen that Pentax, one of your neighbors in Tokyo, has figured out this apparently difficult engineering feat, may I suggest a visit cross town might be in order? A lot less expensive that the plane fare to Germany.
As with most current DSLRs there is a plethora of menus to wade though to find the various settings, including in this camera a large number of custom settings. But what is missing is any means of organizing these into a custom menu set so that the ones that you need frequently are easily accessible. This is such an obvious requirement on a camera with deep menus that it's surprising that Pentax has omitted it.
The other control means that's missing is a review screen with quick-set capability. Many cameras, from Leicas to Sonys now have this, and its an important means of being able to quickly change settings without wading though menus. Combined with the lack of custom menu settings just makes the camera harder to operate than it should be.
Image Quality & Conclusion
I have a confession to make. I found the Pentax K7 to be a competent camera.
That's a confession?
Well, it is in a way because it goes toward explaining why I don't have a lot to say about the K7's image quality or its overall appeal. It's a competent camera and does a lot of things well and not too many poorly. Image quality is fine, but not exceptional, and maybe a bit noisier than some.
But therein lies its failing in my eyes. The camera isn't compelling for any reason. In marketing terms it doesn't appear to offer a USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Almost every aspect of the camera is competent, and there are only a few failings. But it also doesn't really excel at anything. It isn't the fastest, the sharpest, the highest resolution, the smallest, the lightest, the fastest focusing, or have the fastest frames rates.
In other words, the Pentax K7 is like a middle child who gets lost in the shuffle in a large family, between the cute young ones and the mature and smarter older ones, or the really attractive sibling that garners all of the attention.
This became apparent to me in two ways. The first was as I was choosing which camera to take out on a shoot each day (I had four different new cameras to test in a one month period). After a full day of initial familiarization I rarely found myself reaching for the K7 by choice. Not because of any particular failing, but simply because there were features or capabilities of other cameras available that simply were more compelling and which I felt would help me take better images more effectively.
Secondly, when it came to shooting some images for comparisons, looking at resolution and high ISO capability, the K7 stood firmly in the middle of the pack. Not a stand-out in any regard, but not so far behind the pack so as to draw attention to itself. In fact this "averageness" meant that I got bored doing comparisons, because there really wasn't a stand-out feature or failing to make the process interesting.
In the end, the Pentax is a fine camera and anyone who finds it of interest will likely not be disappointed with its purchase. Don't regard this as damning with faint praise. It's a camera that will likely to be found equal to the needs of most photographers looking in this price and performance category. It just failed to light my fire.