The Pentax K-5 review: Pentax’s most capable DSLR yet. With a new sensor, new autofocus system and plenty more features to boot. Can the K-5 do no wrong?
Pentax K-5 review – Features
There’s no denying that the K-5 goes head to head against cameras such as Canon’s EOS 60D. But just a quick skim through the spec sheet immediately shows that the Pentax actually has a far more rounded feature set that should prove a temptation for many prospective purchasers.
There’s no denying that the Pentax K-5 goes head to head against cameras such as Canon’s EOS 60D. But just a quick skim through the spec sheet immediately shows that the Pentax actually has a far more rounded feature set that should prove a temptation for many prospective purchasers.
At the camera’s heart is a brand new 16.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, most likely the very same Sony sensor as found in the A55 (and Nikon D7000). Based on the impressive image quality from both of those cameras this can only be a good thing: high resolution and top quality. Uniquely to the Pentax, however, is the Prime II image processing engine that can produce a top-end sensitivity of up to ISO 51,200 – something other cameras of this class don’t offer. Add in-camera sensor shake reduction to ensure that any Pentax lens fitted benefits from sharper images and there’s even a unique Auto Level Compensation feature that can physically adjust the sensor by up to one degree to counter for unstraight horizons.
It’s not just the sensor that’s new either, the focusing system, despite still being an 11-point (nine cross type) array as previous releases, is now designated the Safox XI+. What this means is not only a wider array for a broader focus area, but improved speed and accuracy too.
On the rear you’ll find a 3in, 921k-dot LCD with a 100% field of view optical viewfinder positioned above this. Although there are higher resolution screens and tilt-angle capable options out there on the market, this option is still a very decent standard.
In addition to stills shooting the K-5 offers Pentax’s most up to date video mode too: now capable of shooting Full HD 1080p at 25fps in the Motion-JPEG format (as AVI files).
Plus there’s yet more to be found in the details: as well as a fully weather-sealed body (and any ‘WR’ kit lens), the K-5 can shoot at an impressive 7fps, has a PC socket for hard-wiring a studio flash trigger and an AF-assist lamp on the front side for improved focus in dim conditions.
Pentax K-5 review – Design
In terms of look and feel the K-5 is barely different from its K-7 cousin. The bodies of the pair are nigh-on identical, though there’s an ever so slight adjustment to the rotational mode dial to the camera’s top right. Despite this dial being slightly taller it still has a lock button to its centre that needs to be depressed in order to release for rotation. Although this is a staple in Pentax design it feels relatively unnecessary and is fiddly to operate. The metering collar that surrounds this is yet more tricky to easily adjust as the textured edge doesn’t protrude from the camera’s edge particularly prominently. Of course there needs to be a balance to avoid accidental and unwanted adjustment, but the controls here feel a touch too rigid.
Elsewhere and the layout is a success: front and rear thumbwheels feature for easy adjustment of options; exposure compensation and ISO quick access buttons sit atop the camera; a rear d-pad and a variety of one-touch and quick access buttons are on the back; and a Raw/Fx button to the front left side of the camera body, just behind the where a fitted lens sits. The top LCD panel lights up for display in darker conditions and is easy to read.
The body itself is weather-sealed at 77 points (as per the K-7 body) and the chassis is made of stainless steel, making it among the most tough and durable in its class. Whereas the Olympus E-5 is also fully weather-sealed, its £1500 body only asking price is considerably more expensive by comparison.
As for the internal menu system, this sees little change. Some may argue that this is now dated and old, but it still proves perfectly functional, easy enough to navigate and, crucially, for any existing Pentax users, provides a seamless move from one camera to another.
Pentax K-5 review – Performance
In use the K-5 is generally very adept indeed. The new focusing system is relatively fast – certainly the company’s best yet – and this is down to its light-wavelength sensor that not only relies on the presence of light, but the colour of that light too. Although a certain improvement, it’s the overall AF system that may simultaneously be the K-5’s sticking point: there’s nothing at all wrong with it, and the fact it has a wider and faster array than previous releases certainly deserves kudos, but if there’s one thing lacking from Pentax’s digital arsenal then it’s a more complex focusing system. The last year has seen the company release an impressive 645D medium format digital system, a number of lenses and DSLR camera bodies and, given a little more work in the AF stakes, there’s nothing else holding the Pentax brand back at all. For now its big steps rather than that giant leap – something, perhaps, to look forward to if the company launches a more professional grade DSLR in the future.
The live view mode is similar to that that released when the Pentax K-r was launched – the focus square area zooms right in to 100% in order to attain focus. This helps confirm to the user that the focus area is the correct one and it looks rather nifty too. Where there is limited contrast the focus may drift through the full range, but where the system detects prominent contrast it’s very quick to lock on and find focus. It’s an impressive system that’s as fast as the competition out there, if not better than many. And it doesn’t end there: in use there’s the option of a real-time vertical and horizontal level display that helps ensure perfect alignment. It automatically adjusts for portrait and landscape orientated shooting and, for landscape-orientation only, also displays in the viewfinder too.
The viewfinder itself offers a full 100% field of view, meaning that what you see is what you get. And with 0.92x magnification it’s a relatively large screen that’s very almost the same size as close-run competitor cameras have to offer. It’s the crucial full field of view that’s the real winner here though, as even the relatively similar Canon 60D offers a marginally restricted 96%. The only slight qualm with the K-5’s relatively shallow eyecup and a little more negative diopter adjustment wouldn’t go amiss for glasses wearers.
From decent viewfinder to decent screen: the 3in offering on the rear of the camera is amply resolute and certainly does the job. However, assessing exposure in brighter conditions can be tricky, especially in the black areas – always ensure you rely on the histogram options or, for extra caution, the auto bracketing option certainly also proves useful.
As well as a super-fast 1/8000th second shutter speed, the K-5 is more than a bit fast when it comes to burst shooting. The ability to capture 7fps in continuous shooting is certainly impressive, but just make sure you have a fast enough card to maintain a sustained burst. We managed 20 frames using a Class 4 (15MB/s) SDXC card and this huge stream of files took just over a minute to clear – however the camera is not entirely inoperable during this write period and additional shots can be taken at a far slower pace if needed. Go with JPEG only shooting and, surprisingly, only expect to reel off the same 20 frames before there’s a pause in shooting (though the buffer is cleared in less than 20 seconds ).
The K-5’s kit purchase offers an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 WR (Weather Resistant) option, though this feels to be a bit of a mis-match. When spending over £1000 on a camera, a basic 18-55mm lens really isn’t likely to be at the top of your wish list and it’s a shame that Pentax has taken so long to release the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 WR (also a kit option), as this latter package, despite its £1530 street price, is relatively more suited. Other WR lenses are becoming available – including the 100mm f/2.8 Macro and 50-200mm f/4-5.6 – as the company releases more product, but this is an area that ought to see further investment, as well as faster, brighter aperture options.
Overall, though, the K-5 camera is a real treat to behold, and perhaps more of a step up from the K-7 than it would otherwise appear at first glance. The battery life is equally impressive too and will last for several hundred shots per charge (though the basic three bar battery gauge could do with being more accurate or even a percentage value).
Pentax K-5 review – Image Quality
Pentax K-5: Tone & Exposure
The K-5 feels fundamentally different to its predecessors, particularly in the exposure stakes. Whereas a common observation has been for slight underexposure, the K-5 bucks this trend by providing exceptional metering and exposure. Indeed a number of shots required the exposure compensation to be dialed down a third of a stop at times in order to hold just that touch more highlight detail.
Tonally shots can come across a little flat at times, though this is perfectly adept for life-like realistic prints, but may not have quite the level of expected punch on screen.
Pentax K-5: RAW/JPEG
It’s possible to shoot either Pentax’s 14bit PEF Raw format or select the more universal Adobe DNG format. Whichever you choose is of little consequence to final quality.
The JPEG files show a degree of added contrast and brightness in processing, as well as pixel smoothing to limit the presence of image noise. At the lower ISO settings this produces a more appealing final image than the untouched Raw file, though at higher ISO settings it’s a different story: the Raw files, without any noise reduction applied, are far grainier, yet don’t suffer from any limitation to sharpness and should be the files to work with if high ISO shots are generally what you work with.
Pentax K-5: Colour & White Balance
Colours are punchy to look at, but not overly so. A little added saturation in post-production makes for greater vibrance for screen-based work. Outside of the ‘standard’ shooting mode, however, there’s an abundance of Digital Filters, including an HDR Capture mode and even in-camera Cross Processing. These are potentially great when shooting JPEG only, but frustratingly cannot be applied when shooting Raw + JPEG. Of course, if this were possible, the Raw file would still be the original and untouched version, but it would be nice to have the option of in-camera adjusted JPEG and original Raw file available in tandem.
Auto White Balance was generally accurate – warmer for interior shots, a little cooler and more neutral for exteriors, but pleasingly so on all accounts of our testing.
Pentax K-5: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
The new sensor coupled with the K-5’s processing does an absolutely fantastic job of handling image noise. At the lower ISO settings the K-5 provides quality that can easily rival the Canon 60D and Nikon D7000. Where it gets extra special, however, is in the mid-high ISO settings where the processing does an exceptional job of keeping colour noise to a minimum. Granted this is going to be at the expense of sharpness as the ISO increases, but up to ISO 3200 images can still be taken of an acceptable quality.
There is some presence of colour noise from as low as ISO 400, particularly in the shadow and black areas, but this doesn’t become problematic until the particularly high ISO settings.
Although the option of ISO 51,200 was added at the last minute (the pre-release model was set to top-out at ISO 25,600), it has to be said it doesn’t really add any value. The top two to three most sensitive settings (ISO 12,800-51,200) will have limited use due to the significant presence of luminance noise.
All in all, if these results were pitched side by side against similar-spec cameras then they would more than hold their own. Very good quality indeed.
Pentax K-5: Sharpness & Detail
Similarly to ISO sensitivity, detail diminishes pretty quickly when heading to the upper settings. ISO 51,200 delivers little discernable detail, but dip into the lower ISO 80-800 and hair-line detail can be seen, even to some degree at ISO 1600.
The 18-55mm WR kit lens is reasonable in terms of sharpness, though the previous versions we’ve tested have been just ever so slightly less sharp than the non weather-sealed versions (though for real world imaging this is unlikely to cause any discernable difference). Of course there are many other Pentax lenses, old and new, and the sensor at the heart of this camera is more than capable of delivering the detail in droves: the better the lens you can get hold of, the better your results can be.
Pentax K-5 review – Video/Movie Mode
Pentax K-5: Video/Movie Quality
The Pentax opts to use the Motion-JPEG capture format that, while inferior to some other processing codecs such as H.264, is delivered with high quality here. The Full HD 1080p clips sustain around 40Mbit/s, while the 720p clips were higher still at around 51Mbit/s and even in dim lighting conditions held decent quality. However this does mean around 20 seconds of shooting is 100MB of hard drive space, so the files aren’t especially small and can take a fairly long time to process once cutting a single take (with most competitor cameras this is relatively immediate). There is a menu option to compress video quality to allow for longer recording times – based on a three star system with low, medium and high quality results.
Pentax K-5: Video/Movie Record Time
Pentax officially tops out recording time at 25mins maximum (in the UK/EU), but this is dependant on the recorded file being no larger than 4GB. At high quality when shooting 1080p this means video files will max out at approximately 8mins (though M-JPEG has a variable bitrate, so this could be shorter or longer depending on what you’re shooting).
Pentax K-5: Video/Movie Focusing Modes
The major comeuppance of the K-5’s video mode: it’s single focus only. Attain focus in live view prior to recording, hit the record button and the focus remains fixed. This is irrelevant of whether AF-S or AF-C is selected and there are no buttons to readjust focus during recording, with the exception of manually focusing using the lens ring.
Pentax K-5: Video/Movie Manual Control
There’s relatively little manual options available in video mode. Focus up, select aperture and start to record, but none of these settings can be adjusted in real time during recording.
However the various Digital Filters and Cross Processing (not HDR however) can be selected and utilised during recording for quirky effects, and it’s possible to pre-set the white balance manually also.
Pentax K-5: Video/Movie Sound
When recording using the camera body the sound is 16-bit, 32,000kHz mono audio, compared to stereo when inputting an external microphone via the 3.5mm mic port. The quality isn’t as good as it could be (44,000kHz or above would be recommended as minimum). As autofocus isn’t possible the camera body won’t pick up focusing noise, though be cautious of any sounds your lens may make in manual mode.
Value & Verdict
Pentax K-5 review – Value
For £1180 the K-5 offers a whole lot for the money. Weather-sealing and super-fast continuous burst options aren’t going to be easily found elsewhere at this price point. However, both the Canon 60D (£920 with 18-55mm kit lens) and Nikon D7000 (£1160 with 18-105mm) are, at the time of writing, more affordable purchase options, and both options have either faster or more complex focusing systems, so it’s still a bit of a shame that Pentax hasn’t broken considerable new ground in this area.
Weighing up everything that’s featured for the cash and this camera is still a very attractive purchase option with a variety of unique features that will certainly appeal. Whether K-7 users will see an immediate need to upgrade is questionable however, given that the bulk of underlying construction and features is relatively similar.
Pentax K-5 review – Verdict
At first glance the K-5 may seem a lot like the K-7. While, in some respects, this is true, it’s actually a camera that delivers quite a lot more. Image quality is stunning through a large portion of the ISO range and some of the unique features such as Auto Level Compensation really do add extra value. The fully weather sealed body and WR lenses make for robust use and the 7fps bust mode is great to have. The K-5’s autofocus is the best yet, though we’re still waiting for that truly next generation system to grace a Pentax camera. And while the K-5 may offer 1080p HD video, it’s still some distance behind the competition – something that stills traditionalists are unlikely to be too fussed about. Apart from this and the limitations of an 18-55mm kit lens (we suggest you pick the more expensive 18-135mm kit), the K-5 has bags to offer, is generally good value and arguably the very best digital Pentax camera we’ve ever seen.