The Pentax / Samsung relationship has been something of a strange affair when it has come to their DSLR output, continually resulting in two products that can only be separated by the maker's name and price...
Both combine high-end specification, a ‘professional’ build quality and a price that won’t leave you struggling to pay the mortgage for months to come.
Until the launch of the K10D, Pentax’s DSLRs had been resolutely married to six-million-pixel CCDs. This was fine to start with but, as other manufacturers moved to 8 or 10MP sensors, subsequent Pentax – and Samsung – models started to give the impression that both companies were beginning to fall off the pace.
So it was really good news that the Pentax K10D and Samsung GX10 beat with a 10.2MP CCD heart. This APS-C sized chip delivers an image measuring 3872×2592 pixels, to give an oversized A4 print size of 13×8.6in / 33x22cm at 300ppi, with only a slight drop in resolution achieving an A3 output.
Another welcome inclusion is the CCD-based stabilisation system first seen in the Pentax K100D. Not only does this mean that any compatible Pentax KAF lens gains Shake Reduction (SR on the Pentax K10D) or Optical Picture Stabilisation (OPS on the Samsung GX10) to counter the effects of camera shake, but it’s also triggered on start-up to remove dust for blemish-free images.
The photographic side of the cameras is equally impressive, with Raw or JPEG capture (or both simultaneously) and two Raw file formats to choose from on the K10D.
How necessary this is is debatable, but there’s an option to record either Pentax’s own .PEF Raw files or ‘open standard’ .DNG Raw images. Samsung GX10 users only have the .DNG option, but this is still ideal if you intend to take your images straight into an Adobe-based workflow, or want to use the in-camera Raw processing to convert your Raw images without using a PC.
To ensure your photographs get the best start in life there’s a wide range of shooting modes in both models, starting with a fully automatic ‘green’ mode, through the now-standard PASM quartet to manual for complete control over the aperture and shutter speed (from 30-1/4000sec, plus Bulb).
The K10D and GX10 are also honoured by two new exposure modes – TAv and S – on the mode dial. The first – TAv – is shutter (time) and aperture priority, where the photographer chooses a preferred shutter speed and aperture pairing and the camera attempts to deliver this combination by automatically setting an ISO sensitivity to suit from its ISO 100-1600 range.
Alternatively, in Sv (sensitivity value) mode you choose a working ISO and the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed. This may sound very much like using the Program mode (and in reality the two are very similar) but you can set the ‘Program line’ in the custom functions to high speed, depth of field, MTF priority or ‘normal’, whereas Sv simply gives you what the camera decides on. This does rather raise the question ‘why’?
Yet regardless of the shooting mode there’s 16-segment multi-area metering, with centre-weighted and spot patterns options to help determine the exposure, with a similarly wide range of white balance settings covering everything from automatic to manual with eight presets and three custom settings that allow a precise Kelvin or Mired-based colour temperature to be set. With the exception of the auto WB you can further fine-tune the colour bias for absolute precision.
Precision is also the name of the game when it comes to focusing accurately, with Pentax’s Safox VIII AF system underpinning the K10D, and although not stated by Samsung it’s 99.9% certain that the same 11-point system also deals with focusing on the GX10.
As with all modern DSLRs there’s the usual choice of leaving the decision over the point of focus to the camera or manually intervening and selecting a single AF point yourself. There’s also the compulsory single shot and continuous AF options, with a continuous drive mode delivering up to nine Raw frames in a burst, or up to the capacity of your memory card if you record JPEGs – assuming your card can match the speed of the camera, that is.
For flash users things are a little less rosy, with the built-in flash delivering a weaker-than-most output with its guide number of 11 (GN11m@ISO100) and the 1/180sec sync speed failing to set hearts racing. There is a hotshoe when you need more flash power, but one of the more disappointing facts is that neither model has a PC sync socket for plugging in studio flash units. It may sound like we’re asking a lot seeing as no camera at this price point has one, but given the otherwise ‘pro’ spec of the cameras it seems like an obvious way of making these particular models appeal to studio photographers, especially in the portrait environment.
However, there really are very few gripes overall as there’s little that these cameras seem to lack and plenty of innovations they offer over their rivals. At the same time, there’s also very little to separate the K10D from the GX10 in terms of specification – a second Raw mode on the Pentax seems such a minor point that it’s largely irrelevant.
Like the specification there’s very little to separate these two cameras, but a vast chasm puts them ahead of their similarly priced peers. Weatherproof seals around the terminal cover, locking card slot and battery compartment – not to mention a rugged, rubberised outer shell – give them the robust feel of Nikon’s D200 or Canon’s EOS 5D that suggests they will withstand a little rough handling without complaint.
We particularly like the inclusion of a Raw button on the front left of the lens throat that gives the immediate option to record a Raw file without the palaver of navigating the menus, and the ‘Fn’ (function) button gives easy access to the white balance, ISO, flash and drive modes. Similarly, separate control points for the metering mode (surrounding the main mode dial on the top left) and AF mode (around the four-way control pad) also means that changing the camera’s set-up is not as menu-driven as some other models.
However, when looking at the controls, differences appear between the two cameras, with Samsung using larger, flush buttons on the GX10 and Pentax employing slightly smaller, raised buttons on the K10D. While the buttons serve an identical purpose, we prefer the raised Pentax controls, simply because they’re easier to use with cold – or gloved – fingers.
A more obvious difference appears when you activate the menu system, with the Samsung’s cool blue menus contrasting strongly with the more colourful, *istD-style interface of the Pentax. The content of the menus is the same – albeit in a slightly different order at times – but this time round the GX10’s sophisticated-looking menu is more in keeping with the camera’s refined build and style.
Ultimately though, we really are starting to pick at details in order to try to separate these two cameras – differently-shaped buttons and menu styles are hardly Earth-shattering and neither is enough to swing a buying decision one way or the other.
The camera’s relative performance isn’t likely to make you rush for the Pentax shelf over the Samsung shelf (or vice versa) at your local dealer, because once again there really isn’t anything between them. Raise either model to your eye and you see the same view through matching viewfinders that offer a respectable 95% coverage of the scene through the lens. Yet while the viewfinder is bright, the eye relief seems a little short, so you will find yourself having to move your eye around the ‘finder to read the information relayed on the LCD beneath the focusing screen and scan the corners of the frame.
We have no real complaints about the performance of the AF system, though. The active AF point or points are picked out in red on the focusing screen when the camera gets a lock, which is generally as immediate and as precise as it needs to be. Even when you find yourself in low light with a slow lens (such as the kit lens) there’s only the slightest hesitation in getting a focus lock, and even that disappears if you’re using the built-in flash to fire a stroboscopic ‘AF assist’ burst.
The positives continue when we look at other areas that have obviously been considered at the design stage, such as the novel white balance ‘check’. With the white balance options called up on the rear LCD you can use the depth of field control to get a low-resolution preview of your image. As you scroll through the WB settings the preview is updated ‘live’ on the LCD, enabling you to see which gives the ‘best’ result. You can also fine-tune the WB before taking your final colour-accurate photograph.
Obviously, if you shoot Raw files this is largely redundant as the white balance can be tailored at the processing stage, but for the photographer who wants print-ready JPEGs – with or without an accompanying Raw file – I have yet to see a more comprehensive solution.
With such an impressive spec, build quality and price tag, the K10D and GX10 appear to be every photographer’s dream, but if you’re a novice looking for your first DSLR these cameras might not be for you. The reason is, both require a little work to ensure things come out ‘right’.
The 16-segment multi-area metering is readily thrown by highlight areas so you need to keep an eye on the histogram if you want print-ready JPEGs, or edit your images ‘after the event’. Better still, a rudimentary knowledge of when and why you might want to use centre-weighted metering will help no end.
It’s a similar story with the white balance, which can deliver cool-looking images when left to its own devices, while the pre-set WB settings aren’t always the answer either – giving overly warm results in overcast conditions, for example.
However, when it comes to noise we have no complaints whatsoever. At the lower end of the scale (ISO 100-400) images can be considered ‘noise-free’ up to an A3 print size, while at ISO 800 noise isn’t an issue with a 300ppi A4 sized print. Even when viewed at 100% on screen it’s luminance texture, rather than coloured (chroma) noise that starts to creep in.
What impresses us most, though, is that at ISO 1600 the images don’t ‘fall apart’. There is some base texture in darker areas of A4 prints, but this is by no means obvious, or indeed disruptive to detail. Also, as the noise is primarily luminosity noise rather than chroma noise, photographs have a ‘filmic’ appearance rather than a telltale digital look.
What we’re looking at here is a pair of cracking DSLRs – the Samsung GX10 and the Pentax K10D – that redefine what we should expect at this price point. If you think ‘Nikon D200 at a D80 price’ you won’t go far wrong and I’m genuinely shocked to be saying that in many ways Pentax/Samsung are now ‘class leaders’ and certainly not the ‘also-rans’ they had risked becoming.
The key to getting the best from them lies in how much work you are willing to put into your photography. If you want to shoot Raw, have a basic understanding of exposure metering and white balance then you won’t go wrong, but if you just want to point and shoot you’ll be better served elsewhere.
As for whether you buy the Pentax K10D or the Samsung GX10, I have to say the final decision has nothing to do with the cameras themselves, or the images they produce. While the respective manufacturers may talk about ‘firmware tweaks’ it remains a mystery what tangible difference they make; certainly if you make comparative prints up to A3 in size you aren’t going to separate them, hence there’s no choice but to give the same overall score for both models.
However, if you want me to pick one over the other it’s the additional 12 months’ peace of mind offered by Samsung’s two-year warranty that swings my vote to the GX10.