What Digital Camera’s review of the Pentax K-r discovers whether the K-r adds something extra to the recent run of promising Pentax DSLRs. Read our full Pentax K-r test…
Pentax K-r review – Features
Built around the same 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor and Pentax PRIME II image processor used in the entry-level K-x, the Pentax K-r improves on the specifications of the K-x in several key areas and even outperforms the more expensive K-5 and K-7 models in some respects too.
Indeed, for a mid-range model the Pentax K-r boasts some pretty impressive headline specs. For example, the camera’s standard sensitivity runs from ISO 200-12,800 but can be expanded to ISO 100-25,600. In addition, the K-r is able to shoot continuously at six frames per second (6fps) – one frame more than the K-7 can muster. In addition, the K-r also benefits from Pentax’s in-camera, sensor-based Shake Reduction technology that allows for up to an apparent four stops of image stabilisation.
The Pentax K-r uses company’s latest SAFOX IX autofocus system that offers 11 AF points in total, nine of which are cross-type sensors. The cross-type AF points are arranged in a square (three rows of three) formation within the centre of the viewfinder, with two vertical line AF sensors located to either side on the horizontal plane, offering a fairly generous overall scene coverage. The liberal use of cross-type sensors also means that autofocus remains equally as accurate regardless of whether the camera is being used in portrait or landscape orientation.
The K-r offers the full range of Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual shooting modes (PSAM) along with a fully automatic point-and-shoot option. There’s also a Sensitivity priority option that allows you to select a desired ISO, leaving the camera to make all the other calculations. In addition, the K-r also offers a number of Scene options such as Portrait, Landscape, Macro and Moving Object.
Further adding to the Pentax K-r’s feature set are a number of creative digital filters and effects that can be shot in real time or applied to shots afterwards. These include such things as cross processing, toy camera effects, softening filters, starburst, a fisheye effect and a colour reversal filter. There are also distortion control and HDR modes available also. While advanced users might prefer to apply these effects using dedicated post-processing software, there’s no denying they are fun to play with in order to add instantaneous creative effects to your images. Plus, when shooting Raw + JPEG, you’ll always have the original unedited file to play with alongside the manipulated JPEG version.
One final thing that Strobist fans in particular will no doubt be pleased to learn is that the K-r supports wireless flash operation, meaning the pop-up flash can be used to operate a dedicated flashgun positioned off camera without the need for PocketWizard transmitters or similar such devices.
Pentax K-r review – Design
The first thing that strikes you when picking the Pentax K-r up for the first time is its reassuring solidity. Constructed from an internal steel frame and outer polycarbonate shell the camera isn’t weather-sealed, although there is an internal dust removal system that’s programmed to automatically activate upon start-up.
The K-r’s finger grip is fairly deep and easily accommodates three fingers. There’s a small recess at the top, just under the shutter button, that allows the middle finger to sit more comfortably. A moulded thumb grip adorns the back of the camera, giving the thumb added purchase too. Overall, it’s a very comfortable and ergonomic camera to hold and use.
Buttons are nicely spaced and easy to reach. The selection wheel sits on the back of the camera next to the thumb rest where it is easily operated without having to adjust your grip. Pressing the Info button while the camera is in shooting mode brings up a tiled menu of key settings – from Custom Image settings to AF and Metering mode selection. This ‘quick menu’ is neatly laid out and easy to navigate, which actively encourages you to experiment with different settings, filters and effects. The Menu button, meanwhile, accesses more in-depth settings and adjustments. There’s also a dedicated LV button for live view on the back of the camera, although to record movies you’ll need to move the Mode dial on the top of the camera to the movie icon position.
Power is supplied via a rechargeable li-ion battery that comes with the camera. Alternatively, four AA batteries can also be used via an adaptor – it’s a shame that an adaptor’s needed rather than direct compatibility with both. Battery performance for the supplied 1950mAH battery was impressive, allowing a full day’s shoot and over 300 images with plenty of power to spare.
Pentax K-r review – Performance
In use and the Pentax K-r’s AF performance in good light is as good as instantaneous, and remains quick in less than ideal conditions too. In really poor light conditions the K-r employs a green-tinted AF-assist light to help find focus and prevent any prolonged focus hunting. With options for spot and single-point AF, the K-r helpfully indicates which AF points are being used when set to automatic AF. The viewfinder is bright and clear enough, but does only covers 96% of the frame.
A fixed 3in, 921k-dot LCD adorns the back of the K-r. It’s bright and easily viewable from all angles, but does become much harder to use in bright sunlight. In review mode the K-r’s Info button toggles between histogram and general shooting information for each recorded image, while the selection wheel allows you to magnify each image to check for sharpness.
The Pentax K-r’s live view mode uses the contrast-detection method and is pleasingly quick to achieve focus – not quite as fast as Sony’s Alpha range of DSLRs, but certainly on a par, if not quicker, than comparable Nikon and Canon models. We also like how the K-r automatically zooms into the central focusing box to confirm accurate focus before zooming out again to letting you capture the image.
The provided 18-55mm kit lens feels pretty solid in comparison to many of the standard kit lenses offered by rival manufacturers, but it’s also rather noisy. In fact, noisy operation is a bit of an issue with the K-r generally as the shutter mechanism is far from quiet too. In many situations this won’t be a problem, but at a wedding or when shooting wildlife, or indeed anywhere where a noisy camera might be an issue, it’s worth noting that the K-r is almost certain to make itself heard.
In addition to long-exposure and high ISO noise reduction controls, the Pentax K-r also offers a distortion correction feature that can correct barrel and pincushion distortion, along with a feature that automatically removes chromatic aberrations from high-contrast borders. Be warned though: switching either of these two features on significantly increases processing time (by several seconds, no less) making continuous burst shooting all but impossible.
The Pentax K-r also offers an in-camera HDR function that takes three successive images at different exposures before blending them together into a single image. The results aren’t bad, but to use the feature effectively the camera really needs to be used on a tripod as there can otherwise often be evidence of notable ghosting.
Pentax K-r review – Image Quality
Pentax K-r review: Tone and Exposure
In terms of exposure metering, we found the Pentax K-r to be generally decent, with just an occasional tendency to slightly underexpose. Dialling the exposure compensation by about a 1/3rd of a stop easily fixes this though. The highlight correction tool can also help to retain highlights, although applying too much of this – or its shadow correction counterpart for that matter – can make images look unnatural. Image tones are very much affected by the choice of the Custom Image setting used, and while the Natural setting is a little flat, the Bright and Vibrant settings both produce images with more tonal contrast.
Pentax K-r review: Colour and White Balance
Again, the choice of Custom Image setting has a fairly dramatic effect on colour. Used in Fully Automatic mode, or with the Natural custom image setting, colour is a little flat straight out of the camera. However, the Bright and Vibrant Custom Image settings both produce images that are noticeably more vibrant. Add to this the range of filters and effects that can be accessed and it’s possible to produce everything from muted to high-contrast images without having to use any post-processing software. We especially liked using the Colour Reversal effect that mimics classic slide film for images that are rich and saturated in colour. We found the Automatic White Balance setting to be thoroughly reliable too.
Pentax K-r review: Raw vs JPEG
The Pentax K-r offers the option to record Raw files in either the universal .DNG Adobe standard or in Pentax’s own .PEF format. We couldn’t see any discernable difference between the two though. JPEG processing leads to sharper images than their Raw counterparts, and JPEG images shot at higher ISOs also benefit from greater noise reduction. Of course, there’s much more scope to alter both the sharpness and noise content of Raw image files than their JPEG counterparts. As well as being able to record Raw and JPEG files simultaneously, the K-r helpfully allows you to make and save a Raw image from the last recorded JPEG file when the camera is in review mode, just so long as the data for the recorded image is still in the camera’s buffer.
Pentax K-r review: ISO Sensitivity and Image Noise
Noise control on the K-r is really very impressive. Noise is all but imperceptible at lower sensitivities of up to ISO 400, even when images are viewed at 100%. At mid-range sensitivity settings of between ISO 800 and ISO 1600, image noise only makes a small impact with plenty of detail still present at higher magnifications. By ISO 3200 image noise does become more noticeable as sharpness and detail begins to degenerate, although even at this setting most images remain perfectly u
seable. By ISO 6400 image noise becomes much more pronounce. The highest available settings of 12,800 and 25,600 aren’t especially useful, however, as they produce images that lack any fine detail and display an abundance of colour noise.
Pentax K-r review: Sharpness and Detail
Coupled with the 18-55mm SMC Pentax DAL kit lens the K-r is capable of delivering acceptably sharp images, especially when stopped down to an optimum aperture and used at low to mid-range sensitivities. Sharpness does decrease with each rise in ISO however. We had no problems with fringing on high-contrast borders at all.
Pentax K-r review – Movie/Video Mode
Pentax K-r review: Movie/Video Quality
The Pentax K-r is able to record at a maximum resolution of 720p at 25fps, with a further option to record VGA (640 x 480) movies at either 25 or 30fps. Movie files are recorded in the Motion-JPEG format, which offers quality reproduction and near universal media player support, but comes at the price of much larger file sizes than the alternative AVCHD format. It’s worth noting that there’s no HDMI output on the K-r either.
Pentax K-r review: Movie/Video Record Time
Pentax claims a top continuous recording time of 25 minutes or 4GB, whichever is reached first. In our tests, we found the K-r to record HD movie files at the rate of 270MB per minute, meaning a top continuous recording time of about 15 minutes. This will vary depending on what you’re shooting, as compression will differ based on content.
Pentax K-r review: Movie/Video Focusing Modes
While it’s possible to focus on a subject prior to recording movies, continuous autofocus is disabled once recording starts. This means that you must use the manual focus ring on the attached lens. On the 18-55mm kit lens this proved to be somewhat clunky owing to the resistance of the focus ring. Furthermore, it also generated audible noise that the built-in microphone can pick up (see below). Although autofocus on many other DSLR systems in movie mode is available it can often be disappointing, but for Pentax to continue to entirely omit this feature is a shame.
Pentax K-r review: Movie/Video Sound
The K-r’s buil
t-in microphone only records in mono and sadly there’s no socket in which to plug a stereo microphone either. While using the camera to record movies in a quiet location we found that the built-in microphone picked up the internal whirring of the manual focus ring as we adjusted it.
Value & Verdict
Pentax K-r review – Value
Released in the autumn of 2010 with a recommended retail price of £530, the K-r has not really fallen in price all that much, with current street prices from reputable photographic dealers falling between the £450-£490 mark.
Compared to the similarly-priced, albeit older, Canon 500D the K-r does hold up relatively well though. While the K-r lacks the 1080p video capabilities of its rivals – an area where other DSLR manufacturers are placing a lot of focus.
Since Sony discontinued the Alpha A450, the nearest rival it has to the K-r is the cheaper Alpha A390, which when compared side-by-side against the better-featured K-r, comes off a distant second best. The Sony A560 might well be better placed to challenge the K-r more directly.
Pentax K-r review – Verdict
It’s hard not to like the K-r. Reassuringly solid build and yet surprisingly compact, it sits nicely in the hand and is easy to operate. The menu layout actively encourages you to experiment with the built-in custom image presets and digital filters, combining one or more for fun effects, or even creating your own unique look with. Purists might argue that this is something best left to dedicated image-editing software at the post-production stage, however as the K-r is able to shoot perfectly neutral Raw images as well.
Video recording is more of an added extra than a standout feature, and we were disappointed that the K-r isn’t able to autofocus while recording. But aside from this there is little else to fault about the K-r and plenty to praise. In the end, most users are going to judge their camera on its image quality and in this respect we’re happy to report that the K-r is capable of delivering consistently good results, with high ISO performance especially noteworthy.