The Pentax K-7 is the company's first pro-grade DSLR, and it's been a long time coming. What Digital Camera tests out the K7...
The Pentax K-7 is the new jewel in the company’s crown, with a long list of specs well beyond any previous Pentax DSLR. Existing Pentax users will be pleased to finally see a much-wanted pro-level upgrade, whereas those familiar with other manufacturers’ systems may also be drawn in thanks to an all-encompassing features list.
Pitting itself against the already well-established Nikon D300 (and the recently announced D300s) and Canon 50D mid-level pro DSLRs it’s no doubt that the K-7 has more than one hard act to follow. But with the Pentax name synonymous with photography for so many decades, and with excellent – if underappreciated – performers such as the K20D already under the belt, now is the time for Pentax to go for gold and achieve the kudos that has, in general, been lacking in its digital age. The K-7 looks like the DSLR to really lift the lid, so how does it perform?
Pentax K-7 review – Features
The K-7 has been built from the ground up by Pentax and, unlike the K20D and K10D which had Samsung GX20 and GX10 equivalents, is a standalone venture. The build quality is a key sell; ruggedly made, but following Pentax’s ultimately ‘classic’ design, the body is made from a magnesium alloy that’s both dust and weather-sealed at 77 points. Shooting in sand, getting splashed with rain or other treacherous conditions need not be a bother and, despite this upgrade, the whole camera is even marginally smaller and lighter than the previous K20D. The featured 18-55mm kit lens follows suit, as does the optional D-BG4 battery grip (which offers both AA and li-ion battery options) to complete a fully weather-and-dust-sealed unit in its entirety.
A high-resolution 14.6MP CMOS sensor is at the heart of the K-7′s body, which whilst not a step up over the K20D in terms of resolution, does double the number of output channels. The result? More information can speed through the K-7′s buffer for faster continuous shooting than ever before – a firm 5.2 frames per second sees the K20D’s 3fps barrier officially trounced; ideal for those looking to shoot sports or action photography.
Unlike its key competitors – namely the Nikon D300 and Canon 50D – the K-7, like many Pentax DSLRs before it, incorporates Shake Reduction (SR) into the camera body itself. Crucially this means even old K-mount bayonet-fit lenses can benefit from this function, and new lenses will not cost as much as their (hypothetical) stabilised counterparts.
A notable – and very much ‘flavour of 2009′ – feature is the inclusion of a 720p HD movie mode, plus the inclusion of a superior 1536×1024 capture that can be output at 1080i, though this is not ‘Full HD’ capture. Mono sound is recorded from the camera’s body, or there is the option to use the 3.5mm jack socket to plug in a microphone and record in stereo. Aperture can be set as fixed via the camera body for recording or there’s an automatic variable aperture mode, which adjusts the aperture according to the amount of light available throughout recording. Whilst in-camera shake reduction can also be used to full effect, it is not possible to autofocus whilst recording – though it is entirely plausible this will be possible in the future, if the clever bods at Pentax fix up the necessary firmware.
In keeping up with the competition, the K-7 adorns a 920,000 dot high resolution 3in LCD screen. Whilst it’s not a tilt and swivel screen as seem to be creeping into a number of camera bodies of late, it does auto-rotate images on the screen itself and, in keeping with orientation, has a virtual horizon level too – a really nice touch when in live view mode.
With customisable white balance settings, a shutter speed up to 1/8000th second, 77 segment metering system, the new SAFOX VIII+ 11-point AF system with AF illuminator lamp, in-camera HDR, and D-Range shadow and highlight adjustment options, the features list is certainly bulging. The K-7′s viewfinder has the much-sought after 100% field of view too, ensuring what you see is exactly what you’ll capture.
Pentax K-7 review – Design
Anyone familiar with Pentax’s DSLR design will be comfortable with the format of the K-7. The marginally smaller K-7 body makes some minor adjustments to the right hand side grip for the AF illuminating light to have enough space to operate. Otherwise it’s very much business as usual – and that’s no bad thing; the Pentax system, given the company’s years in the business, is intuitively laid out and wont spring any nasty surprises.
In hand the body sits well, though the inclusion of the battery grip makes for extended comfort with additional body to grip for those with larger hands. The 100% viewfinder’s eye cup sits comfortably to the eye, even when wearing glasses – there’s dioptic correction available which offers an excellent way to adjust viewfinder focus without necessarily removing your spare eyes. Furthermore the K7′s light-up display panel is a fetching green colour that’s easy to read in all light sources – from bright to total darkness – and displays all the need-to-know key information when not looking through the viewfinder.
For the most part the quick-access ISO, exposure compensation, one-touch Raw and other buttons will thankfully keep you out of menu digging most of the time. The main menu is a less impressive fare given the amount of up/down scrolling you’ll find yourself doing to find various options. Some options, such as the movie settings, do not describe themselves in more conventional terms either – for example, whilst most will be familiar with ‘720p’ or ‘720×1080′ will have to settle for Pentax’s ‘0.9M 16:9′ listing format instead. It would seem this is to differentiate the 16:9 format ratio from the 1536×1080 which is captured in a 3:2 format.
Overall though, the K-7 is well designed, feels good in the hand, and is easy to use. Whether an existing Pentax user, a convert, or brand new to DSLR photography, it takes no time at all to pick up the system – it’s a legacy of intuitive layout, with only the main menu being a letdown.
Performance page 1
Pentax K-7 review – Performance
Pentax K-7 review – AF system
With an 11-point AF system, as per the K20D, the onus isn’t on throwing additional focus points at the K-7’s system. Instead Pentax has improved the focus algorithms over previous generation K-series cameras with the introduction of the SAFOX VIII+ system. The result, at least in continuous focusing mode, is a significant improvement on previous performance. However, that’s Pentax vs Pentax, and the Nikon D300 or Canon 50D certainly both offer more advanced autofocus and AF-C performance. On the one hand the improvement is pleasing, and yet it’s just a little below the bar, which may come as a disappointment to many users.
There’s also a new AF illuminator lamp, though in some cases it fails to deploy to assist with focus. Furthermore, flat surfaces or single colour planes can cause difficulty with the camera’s ability to attain focus. For single shot however, the AF is more than ample and does its job well; the focus points light up red in-camera when focus is attained – this is also particularly handy when manually focusing too.
Pentax K-7 review – Continuous shooting:
From a faster autofocusing system to a faster continuous burst rate, the Pentax K-7 can whirr off a bundle of shots inside a single second – 5.2 to be exact. This works up to 15 shots when shooting Raw files, or 40 frames when shooting JPEG, using a Panasonic 4GB silver class SD. Once you’ve hit that wall the buffer does clog up though, and you’ll be waiting a number of seconds before it’s totally free to shoot again. You can interrupt after a few seconds and continue to shoot, though not at the same speed. When the on-camera flash is deployed it’s possible to shoot between 2-3 frames per second, given the time taken for the power to juice the flash back up to full.
Pentax K-7 review – Shake Reduction / Image Stabilisation
The in-camera Shake Reduction is one of the key sell points for the K-7. Without getting into the argument of whether sensor-based or lens-based stabilisation is better, given the backwards compatibility with old K-mount lenses in-camera sensor-based is sensible option. Not only does this offer stabilisation for lenses of old, but crucially keeps the costs down upon purchasing new glass too. For those on a more sensible budget this should really speak volumes when considering which system to adopt. Were you to opt for, say, the Nikon D300 then you’d need to fork out considerably more money to buy into stabilised lenses, whereas Pentax equivalents will be more sparing on your purse. Should you intend to use or buy into a number of lenses then it’s always worth considering the additional cost these will bring over time.
In action the Shake Reduction really does stabilise your images. With a claim to four stops, it seems actively effective to two – at least, that is, if you want to keep a sharp frame. In testing at around 1/15th second handheld there was a minor difference, though with longer exposures of 1/8th second and beyond there was notable retention of detail. Certainly a thumbs up. However, disappointingly, there are no options to specify horizontal or vertical shake reduction only – it’s either ‘off or on’, which may be a little disappointing for those who intend to pan fast-moving subjects.
Pentax K-7 review – movie mode
The K-7 was the first DSLR in its class to introduce a movie function, which was quickly followed by the recent announcement of the Nikon D300s and, daresay, Canon is more than likely to be hot on the heels soon after. But Pentax has come through with a first – offering 720p HD recording (termed as ‘0.9M 16:9’ in the menu) plus a higher resolution 1536×1080 mode (termed as ‘1.6M 3:2’ in the menu – though note this isn’t ‘Full HD’) which can be upscaled to conform to a 16:9 output at 1080i.
As more manufacturers allow the ability for autofocus in movie modes, this is a notably lacking from the K-7’s functionality. It’s entirely possible that at a later stage, by a future firmware update, that this level of functionality could be introduced. Cross your fingers as it seems this camera can only get better over time. Manual focus whilst recording is smooth, but the format of a DSLR camera makes it tricky to adjust the lens whilst holding the body at the same time – an unavoidable conflict.