Hands-On Review: The Pentax K-3 II

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The new Pentax K-3 II’s advanced features, image quality, ruggedness, and performance will be no surprise to Pentax loyalists. Those photographers have known that Pentax’s DSLR cameras have been at the technological forefront for years. As these Pentax shooters are out making great photos, they do so confidently, knowing that their cameras have unique and useful built-in features that even the top-level professional cameras from the major competitors do not have at their disposal.

With its latest flagship, Pentax has raised the APS-C DSLR bar even higher.

By the Numbers

  • Magnesium-alloy and metal chassis
  • 24.35 effective megapixels on an APS-C CMOS sensor
  • 27-point SAFOX 11 autofocus module
  • 8.3 frames per second shooting
  • 100% 0.95x optical viewfinder
  • 92 weather seals
  • H.264 full HD movie capture at 1920 x 1080 60i/30p
  • 4K-resolution interval timer mode
  • Wi-Fi capable with FluCard
  • 3.2" 1037k-dot LCD
  • Built-in shake reduction effective to 4.5 EVs (a full stop better than the K-3)

The sensor is free of an image-softening anti-aliasing filter, something you have to pay a lot more for on other cameras, and the camera's Prime III image processing engine allows the sensor to operate at ISO settings up to 51200. The SAFOX 11 autofocus module has an incredible working light-sensitivity range of -3EV to +18EV. 25 of the 27 sensors are cross-type and three central points work at f/2.8 aperture. The SAFOX 11 uses an advanced AF algorithm and the Pentax Real Time Scene Analysis System for impressive subject-tracking capabilities.

Those details and specs indicate that the Pentax K-3 II is a capable machine built to exceed the capabilities of the direct competition, as well as the much more expensive flagship offerings from other companies.

New For the II

What do you get new on the K-3 II besides a Roman numeral painted on the front of the camera? A lot.



 


 

Pixel shift: Exquisite micro-control of in-camera image stabilization systems has allowed Olympus, and now Pentax, to follow the lead of Hasselblad's medium-format H5D-200c camera’s sensor-shift capabilities. I discussed the Olympus system in my hands-on review of the OM-D EM-5 Mark II, where the stabilization system shifts the sensor exactly 1/2 the width of a pixel (that is crazy small) and it captures and combines eight separate images as the sensor shifts. The Pentax K-3 II's system is slightly different—it takes four images shifted one pixel width apart and combines them into an image that offers increased image quality while maintaining the same resolution. What is improved is detail, color, and reduced noise when higher ISO settings are used. Basically, with an RGB sensor, the shift allows the camera to expose a red, green, or blue pixel at every pixel position. The end result is higher image quality due to the multiple pixel sampling.



 

Anti-Aliasing Filter Simulation: As I mentioned above, the camera does not come with an anti-aliasing filter, and its absence maximizes image sharpness. However, there is sometimes a need for the capabilities of the AA filter, and the same precision that allows the sensor shift composite image also lets you simulate an AA filter if you need to remove potential moiré in an image. You never know when a subject will suddenly arrive in your frame with a small-print plaid shirt or another moiré generator will appear in your composition. This feature gives the Pentax the best of both AA filter options and provides a flexibility that is not available from the competition.

Shake Reduction: The pixel-shift mode is just one sweet feature of the capable in-camera image stabilization system. With a full-stop improvement over the K-3, the 4.5EV-capable K-3 II stabilization also adds the ability for the camera to account for panning motion. If your subject is moving across the frame, feel free to pan and let the Shake Reduction system counteract the movement in the non-panning axes.



 

GPS: Sorry, built-in flash fans, the K-3 II has removed the K-3's flash and replaced it with a GPS receiver to geo-tag images, give shooters an electronic compass, and track your steps off the beaten path, along with another unique feature I will discuss later. The K-3 II's built-in satellite position capability mirrors that of the separately sold O-GPS1 that is available for other Pentax cameras as an accessory.

Design

The K-3 II presents a clean, utilitarian appearance with a nod toward "serious." The design is unobjectionable, sharp, and handsome. I am a fan of the harder angles of the pentaprism housing, versus the rounded and sculpted prism housings on some of the competitors. Those familiar with the K-3 will see that the K-3 II has an enlarged housing to make room for the GPS circuitry.



 

The port side offers a locking mode dial with mode labels more familiar to Canon shooters than the PASM camera crowd. The standard Program Auto (P), Shutter Priority (Tv), Aperture Priority (Av), and Manual (M) modes are joined by Sensitivity Priority (Sv) that allows you to command a specific ISO setting, and the Shutter and Aperture Priority (TAv) mode that automatically chooses an ISO based on your aperture and shutter orders. The Full-Auto (green square) mode accompanies three custom options, as well as Bulb and Flash X-sync Speed.



 

The starboard side contains the backlit LCD screen. I am a total sucker for Timex Indiglo-like electroluminescent backlighting, and the K-3 II's bright green display is high on my list of awesome LCD screens. [Hey, other camera companies, stop taking the cheap option when it comes to backlighting your LCD panels! Electroluminescent is way cooler!]



 

Handling

Most high-end cameras feel solid to the touch when you pick them up. A Leica feels like a big chunk of brass. Canon and Nikon pro DSLRs both feel solid in hand. However, there is something subtle about the Pentax K-3 II that, when you pick it up, you honestly believe that no part of the camera is hollow. Somehow, some way, the Pentax K-3 II feels more solid than other cameras that yesterday you thought were rock solid. When you shake it, there is no rattling or noise of any sort. It is as solid as solid gets.



 

Belying this, the Pentax K-3 has a well-deserved reputation for rugged performance that the K-3 II will undoubtedly share, as the K-3 II is also designed to resist water while dealing with dust, sand, fog, snow, and frigid temperatures that send many cameras running back to repair centers.

I continue to be a fan of Pentax ergonomics, but I find the K-3 II’s shorter stature (when compared to its direct competitors) means my little finger feels almost as if it is left out of the handgrip equation. It’s a minor gripe, but others around B&H Photo voiced similar thoughts after handling the camera.

Menus and Controls

It did not take me very long to get accustomed to the menus and controls of the camera. With cameras from other manufacturers, I sometimes would navigate somewhere on the LCD screen menu and scratch my head while thinking, "That is quirky," or, "That makes no sense." This did not happen with the K-3 II. Every camera manufacturer has its own interface, and getting used to it takes time, but the Pentax was as straightforward and easy to use as any camera I have tried.

All of the buttons and controls have a positive feel that goes along nicely with the ruggedness of the K-3 II. Nothing felt too heavy or too light. The camera just feels like a high quality piece of machinery.



 

What really stood out was the information screen on the LCD. First of all, it is very colorful—more so than any others I have used—bold colors, big text. Really nice to look at and use. The wonderful thing that the LCD offers is that it aids in navigating the shooting options with visual cues to help guide you to where you want to go or make adjustments to your settings. For example, if you are shooting and want to change your ISO setting, you can depress the ISO button on the top right side of the camera. On the LCD, the box showing your current ISO setting will become highlighted to indicate that you have selected ISO as an alterable setting. Not only is it highlighted, but a small icon in the ISO box will show you a symbol that lets you know that the front or rear command dial will be the one responsible for changing your ISO when and if you turn it. It is a subtle thing, but it makes you feel like the Pentax K-3 II is a camera that is trying to help you navigate its brain so that you can concentrate on shooting and not find yourself looking for the owner’s manual in your bag or searching your smartphone for answers. Not many other cameras give me that feeling. Actually, none do.

Astrotracer

First seen in the O-GPS1 add-on unit compatible with several Pentax cameras, the Astrotracer feature, built into the K-3 II, is one more example of the prowess of the camera's internal stabilization system. The system takes position information from the camera's GPS unit, as well as the internal magnetic and acceleration sensors, and then shifts the sensor during long-duration exposures to eliminate the star-trail effect and show the stars and other celestial bodies as points of light.



 

I studied celestial navigation in college, so I know a few things about how the spinning earth moves beneath the stars, but this feature of the newest Pentax camera makes my head spin. I would have loved to put the Astrotracer function to the test, but I have the unfortunate pleasure of living in what may be the worst above-ground location for shooting stars and planets—New York City. If you live somewhere with dark skies and a desire to capture stars with your camera, this unique feature might just be the thing you need to make stunning images free of star trails, without investing in an expensive telescope and tracking mount digiscoping system.

Summary

These days, there is not a great deal that separates one DSLR from the others, until you pick up the Pentax K-3 II and see what is under the hood. When compared to its direct competition in the upper echelons of the APS-C DSLR world, the Pentax K-3 II delivers everything the competition has, and a lot of things they do not. If those Pentax-only features make sense to you, your decision is simplified. Pentax brings an advanced camera to the photographer with weatherproofing, ruggedness, and all the essential flexibility that comes with a DSLR. And, if you are about to step into the brave world of DSLR shooting and you do not have a closet full of lenses from other manufacturers, the newest offering from Pentax is, without a doubt, a camera and camera system that should be considered.

The K-3 II gives its photographers a solid and confident shooting experience, complete with uncompromising image quality, unique features, and a helpful electronic interface. And, it does this at a competitive price. What else could you ask from the K-3 II?

Discussion 20

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A video mode that is not insulting the whole brand, maybe? The one area where SR would actually be useful is left out again .. and for what? Fringe frolicking and crippled functionality.

This is a field camera.  Must not be for you.  Only crippled for those looking for a camcorder in their still image camera.

Don't get me wrong, I am trying very hard to love this camera and appreciate much about it. But the K-5 II had real SR and a good enough codec which they both killed for worse replacements. Now they flaunt marginal still increases while others eat their cake. Also, battery life, DR and ISO all decreased a bit, yet no one at their HQ seems to mind much.

There _really_  is a lot that could be improved and they focused on such non-issues.

P.S. I like the missing flash though.

Dear MJPEG,
Have you have had access to the camera in order to evaluate its image quality?
How much exactly has dynamic range and ISO performance improved? Or were you referring only to the DXO lab tests of the K-3?
Have you noticed any improvement that can be atributed to the use of the Prime III image processing engine, slso used in the 645z? Is this what you were referring to when you wrote "marginal still increases"?
Cheers,

Thank you for the review, of both the K3 II, and of the Pentax brand.  It was helpful in expanding consideration beyond just the top two market share companies, and seeing that other very good options are available.

Hey Russ,

Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment! Yes, there are definitely other options out there and good ones at that! Good luck!

Hi Todd....As I was reading your review of this camera I was thinking that it has to be at least a $2,500 body. I linked to its' page on B & H and was kind of shocked to see that it's under $1,100! Seems like a true bargain.

Hey Tom,

Pentax has a well-deserved reputation for delivering a lot of features for the given price point. The K-3 II is no exception to this. Thanks for reading!

So you were expecting below average performance in a 5 year old body for 2.5k?

You should visit Europe, where buying this plus the only FF 70-2000 will cost just

about that -- praised be Ricoh's global pricing. Freaking Canon is more sensibly

priced than this luke-warm improvement.

[Seriously though, if you're paid to push this brand at least do a better job.]

Hi Made-Up Much?,

Thanks for reading and thanks for your questions and comments.

I had no expectations for this camera, as this was the first time I had shot with a Pentax. Also, please know that I am not being paid to push any particular brand; only to review gear and give my honest opinion. None of the sales staff at B&H Photo work on commission, therefore their job, and mine, is to give you our honest opinions on gear in the store and on the blog.

Thanks, again, for reading the B&H Photo blog and shopping at B&H!

A measured response, Todd, against the sort of intemperate comment that the Internet cloak gives to license to. Difference is looked on with contempt by closed minds.

Thank you, Rob, and thanks for reading!

Hallo

thanks for the interesting info, I see however you do not dwell much on the performance of the sensor shift system, does it really deliver significant image improvements? Also, if it puts all three colours on a pixel, thus emulating a Foveon sensor if I understand correctly, does it still need an antialiasing filter? What about moving subjects? Or is it usable only on a tripod? If so shake reduction would also be eliminated, otherwise it would be mindboggling to have at the same time the calculation and performance of three different movements.

Word on the Pentax Forums web site is that to use the pixel shift tech, the subject has to be completely still and the camera on a tripod. Any vibration or movement will cause ghosting. So, SR is irrelevant due to the constraints and probably not even possible as the sensor shift capability is being used for the pixel shift process.

Hi Steve,

I believe you are correct. As I understand the sensor shift functions of the Hasselblad, Olympus, and Pentax K-3 II, any movement of the camera (or subject) will create issues in the composite image.

Thanks for helping a fellow B&H customer and thanks for reading!

Hi Fly101,

Regarding pixel shift, you are correct, I did not spend too much time on it as I feel that the technology has gotten a fair amount of press in the past year with the Hasselblad and the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II. But, since you asked, I will tell you that the camera must be still for the sequence, and there should not be any motion in your image. This is ideal for distant landscape work or maybe even commercial still life imagery. The Olympus system combines 8 images, where as the Pentax K-3 II only shoots 4. This will allow the sequence to be captured faster if motion or movement is a concern.

I would hesitate to say that it emulates a Foveon sensor, as the Foveon exposes three different color layers, where the Pentax just shifts a single-layered sensor. However, the end result is similar as all three colors are exposed at every pixel.

The Pentax K-3 II does not have an AA filter, and, if I understand the pixel shift composite process, I do not think the camera will be doing its AA simulation during this process.

I hope this helps answer your questions!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

I welcome the new innovations in Pentax! The pixel shift for greater detail and color and image stabilization may yet set the trend for ALL DSLRs. If this along with raising the megapixel ***** is added to the new Pentax 645Z, the brand may well be rsnked with the best such as Hasselblad, not just Nikon and Canon!

v. anand,

Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments!

Pentax is certainly giving more for the money. I would like to see a test of the pixel shifting, determining in what situations it does the most good.

Hey Henry,

Sorry we do not have a pixel-shift image to share. However, I am sure there are some out there on the interweb.

As far as situations for use, my guess is that studio still life images and landscapes is what it is designed for. However, in landscape use, nothing can move while the camera takes its four images - no blowing leaves, roaming wildlife, or flying birds.

Thanks for reading!