Pentax K-3 Review – It’s Good, Buy It, Unless You Don’t Need It

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Pentax K-3 with Pentax-DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited – 1/100, f/6.3/ ISO 1600

I don’t really like to beat around the bush, so I spare you a lot of reading if you want to know my conclusion: the Pentax K-3 is a truly capable camera, probably the best of the APS-C DSLR bunch. Probably, because your humble reviewer doesn’t have enough experience with modern-day APS-C DSLRs to go beyond that qualifier.

That’s it. If you like Pentax and you want or need to move up from your current Pentax, buy it. If you like top-quality DSLRs that deliver a lot for a reasonable price and you don’t insist on full frame, buy it. If you rather have smaller top-quality lenses than the ones Canon and Nikon produce on a body that performs admirably, buy it.

So, there you have it. I’m done.

Kidding.

I won’t keep my K-3. Whenever I read reviews, I always wonder if the reviewer is going to keep or buy the gear he’s reviewing. I want to know if he puts his money where his mouth is. Push comes to shove, and all. So, I’ll tell you I’m going to sell my Pentax, despite the fact that this is a really awesome camera that offers a lot in a really attractive package for a really attractive price.

That’s because the world is moving on and I’m moving with it. I haven’t used an APS-C sensor in a DSLR in ages. I don’t need what people perceive as the extra reach you get with your tele lenses. For me, a DSLR is something I buy if I want full-frame, not APS-C. (For full disclosure, this site – about which I know nothing – says the K-3’s image quality is better than the full-frame Nikon D600).

Below full-frame, I prefer the smaller form factor of mirrorless cameras. So, whereas a few years ago, I might have kept the Pentax as a small DSLR outfitted with small Pentax primes for when I don’t want to carry a heavy Nikon or Canon kit, I now prefer the Fuji X100S or the Olympus OM-D EM-1 when I want a small, top-quality setup.

So, that’s my conclusion: the Pentax K-3 is a gold-standard camera in its class, but only you can decide if you’re interested in buying an APS-C DSLR in this day and age.

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Pentax K-3 with Pentax 50 f/1.4 – 1/400, f/5, ISO 100

Review

I’ve saved you some time by offering the conclusion right away, but if you want  details, keep on reading. It’s rather boring, though, because the camera just works. And because I don’t go into detail about the specifications and all of its capabilities. I figure that if you’re interested in this camera, you have already read those on the Pentax site, a retailer’s site or some other more dedicated review site that seeks to score search engine hits by writing as much as possible.

I did the mainstay of my testing by walking on or around the High Line in New York City, so maybe the pictures make up for the lack of drama in the text.

First the boilerplate disclaimer: I don’t do video. I’m not qualified to judge it, so I won’t talk about it. I also don’t do art scenes, HDR or whatever fancy stuff camera makers add to their gear these days in an effort to compete with iPhones and Instagram.

I’m a simple man (that’s a lie) and just bother with the classic stuff, like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus, EV and such. I then open the files in Lightroom and see how well I like them.

The last APS-C DSLRs I used before this one were the Pentax K20d and the Canon 30D, both now several generations old. So, I cannot compare the K-3 with its current competitors, other than by looking at spec sheets. Those who say they follow these things assume that the sensor in the K-3 is the same as in the Nikon D7100.

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Pentax K-3 with Pentax -DA 21mm Limited – 1/160, f/8, ISO 100

Feel & Handling

The K-3 is solid, no question about it. I have a bunch of cameras lying around at the moment. Pretty good ones, like the Canon 5D Mark III, the Nikon D800e, the Fuji X Pro-1, the Fuji X100s and the Olympus EM-1 and EM-5. The Pentax feels the most solid. Seriously. The only modern cameras that felt as tight a package to me were the Sony RX-1 and the Leica M.

In my initial impressions, I wrote that I wasn’t comfortable with the grip. After a day of carrying the camera in New York and shooting with it, I got used to the grip and have no complaints about it.

The only quibble I have was the fact that the rubber enclosure of the viewfinder didn’t really wrap around my eye. This meant that with the fall sun coming in from the side at a low angle, back light entered the viewfinder unless I positioned my eye to prevent it.

I happen to like the layout Pentax uses. I think the buttons and dials are in the right place, quickly accessible and have locks or resistance to prevent unintentional movement.

What I had to get used to, however, was the fact that the arrows on the back control both a set of functions such as flash/drive/white balance and JPG output as well as the AF points. What they do when depends on yet another button you push. So, unless you’re consistent, you might find yourself moving AF points while you meant to change the flash settings. I wish they had split these functions in some way.

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 Pentax K-3 with Pentax-DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited – 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 100

Speed

Nothing to complain about startup or drive speed. It’s one of these cameras that just starts snapping away and takes a couple of shots before you think of lifting your finger off the shutter button. It’s one fast machine.

Focus is fast as well, though not at the top of the heap. It might do some searching in low-contrast situations.

Continuous focus is decent for most day-to-day situations, but doesn’t match the focus speeds of sports-oriented cameras. That’s not what you would buy this camera for.

In terms of speed, the only drawback was the limited buffer considering the 8.3 frames per second the camera is capable of. Once the buffer gets full, it takes quite a while for it to process the files and shooting slows down markedly.

Image Quality

I’m not one to go on and on about image quality. Come on, this baby produces 24mp files. Its metering system is generally spot on, the lenses I used are sharp. You put these files in Lightroom and go to 100% and you’re bound to be impressed. Colors are great right out of the camera. Files are clean.

Oh, yes, my 21mm lens isn’t great in the corners. That showed. Bad for the lens. Good on the sensor.

Dynamic range was impressive, although some shadow banding shows up when pushed. It’s better than on my Canon 5D III, I think, but not as good as the Nikon D800e.

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The same image: above, out of the camera; below Shadows notched up to 100 in Lightroom

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I didn’t really go out and do high ISO tests. What I did do was use higher ISOs if I needed them and they were easily usable up to ISO 3200, with some leeway up to 6400. I should add that my feelings about high ISOs are a bit mixed. I’m impressed we can shoot at ISO 3200 at all and would only go higher if I really needed to. I’m not too concerned what something looks like at ISO 12,800 because if I have to shoot at that level, it better be a Pulitzer-prize situation and nobody is going to care about noise.

Auto White Balance was good. As I wrote in my first impressions post, the very first pictures I took under tungsten light were off. I have since tested the camera under different kinds of artificial light and the white balance hasn’t failed since.

The K-3 doesn’t have a Anti-Aliasing filter, but can use its shake-reduction function to act as an AA filter in case you’re afraid of moiré, which can show up if a camera lacks the filter. I haven’t used this feature at all. Life is too short to start looking for moiré.

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Pentax K-3 with Pentax-FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited – 1/125, f/8, ISO 400

Ricoh Pentax

The K-3 continues the tradition of the Pentax brand, now owned by Ricoh. To me, Pentax has guts. They make cameras that are just a bit different in a good way at a good price point. They make top-notch lenses and a very nice line of ‘limited’ lenses. Unlike their competitors, they managed to keep the size of their lenses relatively small.

They also have a relatively inexpensive medium-format kit, which I hope they will update with a higher-resolution sensor to compete with the high-resolution Nikon D800e and the Sony A7R.

What they don’t offer is a full-frame DSLR or an attractive mirrorless camera. What they also lack is marketing prowess in the US. They weren’t represented at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York last month and have a minuscule presence in American retail stores.

They’re more popular in Europe and Asia and I hope that that popularity allows them to continue to follow their gutsy path. I can’t wait for them to roll out a full-frame DSLR or competitive mirrorless kit.

I will sell my K-3 because I don’t need a DSLR with an APS-C sensor, but every time I pick up this Pentax I’m impressed with it and its capabilities. Like the Sony RX-1 that went before it, I will miss this one.

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Pentax K-3 with Pentax-FA 77mm f/1.8 – 1/640, f1/8, ISO 200

You can order the K-3 here (affiliate links to B&H and Amazon):

Pentax K-3 DSLR Camera (Body Only)
Pentax K-3 DSLR Camera with 18-135mm Lens
Pentax K-3 Premium Silver Edition DSLR Camera (Body Only)

Pentax K-3 Pentax SLR 24MP SLR Camera with 3.2-Inch TFT LCD- Body Only (Amazon)

Comments

  1. I agree with your review’s conclusion. 5 — even 3 — years ago this camera would have been a no-brainer. I used a K5 for a couple of years and loved it. In fact it was so good I eventually sold it off because it made photography boring. Great for work, not so fun for personal stuff. Yet, it was the best of the APS-C breed indeed.

    But as you say, APS-C is now a no-man’s land. Mirrorless for entry level, smaller sensors. Full frame for DSLRs. APS-C no longer serves a useful purpose. Which is a shame, because Pentax (and Ricoh) deserves to be rewarded for their continued courage.

    I hope Pentax will find a way to shrink the K3 into something the size of an OMD, just as their K5 was the real successor to the superb Olympus E1.

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