Hands-On Review: The Pentax K-3 II
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.
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!]
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.
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.
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?