It's best in class on a number of specification fronts, but does this entry-level DSLR deserve its 'Super' moniker?...
Of the others, Pentax is one of the oldest and most respected names in photography – its Spotmatic was one of the best-selling SLRs of the 1960s. But in the digital era, the company has been rather quiet – its current range consists of just two models (if you exclude the K110D variant).
But quantity shouldn’t be confused with quality – we gave Pentax’s flagship K10D a 90% rating and a Gold Award. So what of its entry-level offering, the K100D? Since it launched it has been quietly selling by the bucket-load, despite its low profile.
Age catches up with us all eventually, though, and with no sign of a replacement, Pentax clearly felt that it needed to do something to freshen the K100D up a bit. The list of additions and improvements is somewhat short: the inclusion of a dust-reduction system, and the addition of the required contacts to make it compatible with Pentax’s new range of high performance, motor-driven SDM lenses. Oh, and the addition of the word ‘Super’ on the body. But is this superlative deserved? We’ll see.
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The first thing you’ll notice is that the K100D Super only has a 6MP sensor making it, along with the Nikon D40, the lowest-resolution DSLR on the market. However, as we’ve repeatedly argued, it’s not the number of pixels that counts it’s what the camera does with them. Six megapixels is ample for cracking A4 prints, which is all most people need. In fact there are advantages to fewer pixels – smaller file sizes take up less space on your card and PC, and are quicker to download, open, process and print.
The sensor is a CCD suspended between electro-magnets. These are linked to gyros that detect camera shake and enable the sensor to be shifted to compensate. This sensor-based anti-shake has an advantage over lens-based systems in that it works with whatever lens is attached to the body, and thus saves on the extra cost of stabilised lenses. Whether it works as well as lens-based IS is a matter of heated debate in techie circles, but it’s obviously much better than having no IS at all.
The K100D’s sensor vibrates on start-up, with a vigour that you can both hear and feel, to shake off any dust that may have landed there. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Olympus’s high frequency dust-removal technology works better than methods that use the IS mechanism, like the K100D Super’s, but this is something that’s difficult to test empirically. Either way, it only adds about 1/2 a second to the start-up time. (There’s also a Mirror-Up mode for manual sensor cleaning, should that be necessary.)
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The K100D Super is well specified for an entry-level model. For example, its SAFOX III focusing module uses 11 focusing points, spread across the frame, to achieve accurate focusing. This is the best in its class. (In contrast, Canon’s EOS 400D has nine and the Nikon D40 and Olympus E410 just three.)
The ISO range extends from 200 up to a true 3200 (also best in class) and you can pre-set the upper limit of the Auto ISO range right up to ISO 3200, which is unusual. There’s the usual range of metering modes (including spot, and 16-zone multi-segment), while the obligatory P,A,S,M semi-automatic exposure modes are supplemented by a dozen fully auto scene modes (four of them accessible on the mode dial itself). And again, Pentax goes one better with an Auto Pict setting, which analyses the situation and chooses the correct scene mode by itself. So it’s an auto mode that chooses which auto mode to use. I suppose this could be useful for forgetful users who might otherwise find themselves taking night shots in ‘Surf and Snow’ mode.
The K100D Super can shoot at a respectable 2.8 frames per second, though it lacks stamina and runs out of puff after five JPEGs, unlike its fitter rivals that can keep going till the card fills up. You can also shoot Raw files, but disappointingly not at the same time as JPEG, so you have to make a choice.
For direct printing enthusiasts the K100D Super offers various digital post-processing effects that convert selected images to mono or sepia, or applies soft focus and other effects, saving the new image as a separate file.
When we reviewed the almost identical predecessor the K100D a year ago we commented on its small size, but in the wake of new models from rivals it’s now the biggest and heaviest of the entry-level DSLRS, thanks in part to its stainless steel chassis. This isn’t a criticism – you couldn’t call it a ‘big’ camera, and I find it a good fit in my hands, but this illustrates the trend among most manufacturers for increasingly compact entry-level DSLRs (perhaps to address the rapidly growing female DSLR user-base).
Pentax has chosen to keep the number of external buttons to a minimum. Consequently it doesn’t look intimidating to the novice, though experienced DSLR owners may wonder where some of the major functions are hidden. Chances are they’re behind the Function (‘Fn’) button. Pressing this reveals a compass point interface on the LCD screen directing you to the ISO, White Balance, Drive Mode and Flash Mode controls. On more-advanced cameras some or all of these controls would be individual buttons on the body, for quicker access, so this method effectively adds two button presses to the process of changing these settings. Since these are settings you’ll usually adjust at the beginning of a shoot and then leave alone, this is unlikely to be an issue for most buyers, and at least they aren’t buried in the menu, like the metering mode selector, focus point selector and auto bracket functions.
The menu itself is ugly but generally self-explanatory. I say generally, because there are a few strange entries that seem to have been added by a phone-texting teenager. For example, under ‘Swtch dst msr pt’ you’ll find the option to select just the central focus point. You soon get used to what these headings mean but to me this is poor interface design. I’m surprised Pentax didn’t revisit it before launching the Super, because it was also universally criticised on the K100D.
The top-mounted data LCD panel displays the basic shooting info (aperture, shutter speed, battery status, frame counter, flash/drive modes). More detailed data (ISO, file format, quality setting, metering/focusing modes etc) is displayed on the rear colour screen when you press the Info button. (In playback mode this button scrolls between data, histogram and highlight warning displays.) Changing the shooting settings, such as aperture or shutter speed, is achieved via the command dial on the back of the camera, while in manual mode you have to press and hold the exposure compensation button to change the aperture. Settings can be made in one-third or halfstop increments (selectable in the custom menu). Sadly the top-plate LCD lacks a backlight, making it hard to see in low light. Conversely, the viewfinder display is quite difficult to view in bright light.
There’s no traditional Depth of Field preview button on the K100D Super, and this would be a major black mark were it not for the fact that it has something arguably better. The preview feature (shown as an aperture ring icon on the collar around the shutter release) takes a picture and displays it on the LCD screen but doesn’t save it. This enables you to check the depth of field on screen before taking a picture to see how your shot will look. While a bit slower in operation it’s arguably more user-friendly than a traditional DoF button, where you have to scrutinise a darkened viewfinder to see if your relevant parts are in focus, and quicker than taking an actual picture and then deleting it.
Pentax has created a confident performer in the K100D. Start-up is brisk if you switch off the dust buster, and focusing is sure-footed if a little noisy with the 18-55mm kit lens (Pentax’s new SDM lenses are quieter). Exposures are mostly accurate even when shooting non-average scenes, such as a large expanse of white wall, though it occasionally produces inexplicably duff exposures. Auto White Balance is accurate in daylight but slightly less so in artificial or mixed lighting, where my results were not always consistent, and it was necessary to set it manually more often than I’d have liked.
There are no such issues with the anti-shake system, however, which performs with distinction, giving a good three stops of extra usable shutter speeds compared with when it’s switched off.
Another area in which the performance excels is the battery life. The K100D Super uses 4x AAs, or 2x CR-V3 Lithium cells, rather than a dedicated Li-Ion cell. While this might put some people off, to others (such as travel photographers) it’s a benefit – you can get AA batteries anywhere. What’s more, after about 500 shots using CR-V3s my battery life icon still shows as ‘full’
The K100D Super stands as proof, if any were needed, that six megapixels is enough for most people. Images are clean and nicely saturated (some may say too much so, but the default setting can be adjusted in the Set Up menu) and pleasantly free from annoying digital artefacts. Even shooting high-contrast subjects straight into the sun failed to produce any significant fringing around the edges, and noise is very well controlled. One of the benefits of not cramming too many pixels onto the CCD is that the pixels can be bigger and therefore collect more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signal (which increases noise) to get a good exposure. Even at ISO 3200, noise levels are tolerable at normal shutter speeds. It’s only when you start shooting at night, with longer shutter speeds and large areas of underexposure, that it rears its ugly head – but then no more than you’d expect. The kit lens is an able performer too, delivering sharp images with minimal distortion, and the sensor-based anti-shake delivers that sharpness at much slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise expect.
Value For Money
Coming in at about £100 less than entry-level offerings from Canon, Olympus and Sony, the K100D Super makes a good case for consumers canny enough not to worry that it only has six megapixels. Only the Nikon D40 can match it for price among current models. The K100D Super offers more features, pound for pound, but where it really scores is that, for photographers on a budget, there’s the knowledge that thanks to its backward compatibility with millions of old K mount lenses (mostly manual focus, admittedly, but some AF ones too), many of which can be bought for peanuts on the second-hand market, you can build up a substantial system more cheaply with this camera than with any other DSLR brand.
This makes it an ideal choice for students and low-income hobbyists. Of course for just £100 more you can buy a much more advanced camera, but whether it’s worth spending the extra money is a matter of personal choice. That £100 could also buy you two or three extra lenses for the K100D Super on eBay.
This clearly feels like a stop-gap camera to wring a few extra months of life out of the K100D until a proper replacement came along (the K200D), but it’s no less worthy for that. It’s nicely designed, performs well and delivers great results. There are some negatives of course – the lack of simultaneous Raw+JPEG recording, poor burst performance (making it a bad choice for sports and action), the clumsy menu and the need to use it too often to access key features – but overall this is a good camera at a fair price.
Its use of the K-mount lens system, and the millions of old lenses that fit it, make it arguably the best option for photographers looking to build a quality system on a tight budget.