First Look: Hands-On Review of the New Pentax K-3 DSLR

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The Pentax K-3 DSLR is getting a lot of praise for a camera that was only announced three weeks ago. Specifically, the first-of-its-kind selectable anti-aliasing simulator is garnering attention for an optional function that, prior to the K-3, required two separate cameras to achieve. But in my short time with this camera it became clear that it’s not just the anti-aliasing filter option that makes the K-3 a camera worth talking about.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the Pentax K-3 DSLR is that it is solid as a rock, and I mean that in the best possible sense. It felt like I could put it through a wall and it would come out still shooting on the other side. That said, it’s not overly heavy. It feels good in the hand, is well balanced and the rear rubber thumb grip and front finger cutout allow you to hold it comfortably. When I attached the BG-5 Battery Grip, the setup felt even better. With grip attached, it is the perfect size for one-handed control and shooting. It really felt like an extension of my hand and the grip itself offers rubber-coated indentations in the ideal spots for comfortable vertical shooting. Its compact, squared-off Pentax form factor has a slight retro feel and its magnesium-alloy body over a steel chassis is weather sealed in 92 places to thwart dust and moisture—and it is operable down to 14°F (-10° C). If you are accustomed to operating previous Pentax DSLRs such as the K-7, K-5, and K-5 II, then the K-3 will be familiar, but its control placement has been updated for the better.

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk specs. The K-3 features a new 23.35MP APS-C CMOS sensor and the PRIME III image processor. It produces high-resolution stills and Full HD 1080i/p video with impressive low-light sensitivity up to ISO 51200. It can shoot 8.3 fps up to 22 consecutive RAW images and 60 consecutive JPEG images. The maximum shutter speed is 1/8000-second and its SAFOX11 autofocus system uses up to 27 AF points, with 25 cross-type points, for accurate and truly fast AF speed. In-camera Image Stabilization provides compensation against camera shake and was particularly useful when using the longer focal lengths of the new DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8 ED WR lens.

First Image: At 55mm (85mm Equivalent) Focal Length
Second Image: At 300mm (460mm Equivalent) Focal Length
(Click to zoom)

Pentax supplied me with the camera and several wonderful K-mount prime lenses. I used them all throughout my day with the K-3, but probably had the 55-300mm lens on the camera most often. For a lens that has a focal range similar to 85-460mm on a full-frame body it is very light, easy to zoom, and smooth in manual focusing. It reached focus quickly and, using selective AF points, rarely hunted, even when shooting construction scenes dense with girders and rebar.

25 centralized cross-type focus points enable flexible and precise zone and spot autofocus.
(Click to zoom)

Often, when testing a new camera, the menu setup will pose a stumbling block to quickly getting the most out of the camera. The menu on the K-3 could not have been easier to navigate; it followed intuitively from setting to setting. My one-day test of the camera was at New York’s High Line Park and, in the 10 minutes it took me to walk there, I was able to locate the most important settings and features via the menu and also via the info button shortcut and various dedicated control buttons. In a very short time, I felt that I really knew the camera.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of intuitive adjustment controls, especially on such a feature-heavy camera. The dedicated ISO sensitivity button is located conveniently next to the shutter and the four-way controller was just below where my thumb rested. It provides quick access to white balance and custom image function and by pushing the selectable image card playback button (yes, it has one), the 4-way controller adapts to select AF point placement. A lock on the mode dial prevents accidental changes. Live View activation, video mode switch, command dials, and the menu button were all well-placed and the info button made it easy to get right to the controls you need most, including the selectable anti-aliasing filter button, which is the camera’s most notable new feature.

The impressive selectable anti-aliasing feature works in three modes: Type 1, Type 2, and Off. When in the Off mode, you are able to shoot with the utmost resolution and detail but run a risk of creating moiré and false color artifacts in certain shots. Choose Types 1 or 2 and the camera’s sensor is provided with an anti-aliasing simulator. It is not the same as physically removing the optical anti-aliasing (or low-pass) filter, as is done with the Nikon D800E and other increasing numbers of cameras, but the simulator reproduces the effect of the filter by applying microscopic vibrations to the sensor, thus minimizing moiré. In Type 1, the vibrations are minimal in order to strike a balance between high resolution and moiré correction and in Type 2, moiré compensation is prioritized. What makes this function notable is that it trumps a growing trend with camera manufacturers to produce two similar camera models that differ only in their inclusion or exclusion of the low-pass filter, thus forcing the photographer to choose between better resolution or minimized color artifacts.

I put this function to the test and was pleased to see that it works as described. I shot venetian blinds, distant brick walls, and the dress shirts of numerous colleagues and noted clearly the minimized moiré patterns when the anti-aliasing simulator was engaged and the crisp details and texturing when in its native no-anti-aliasing filter setting.

First Image: With Type 1 Anti-Aliasing Simulator
Second Image: Without Simulator
(Click to zoom)

The 3.2” LCD monitor is an update from previous Pentax K-series cameras and is an Air Gapless LCD with a resin layer between the LCD and protective panel to cut down on glare. The protective panel itself reduces scratching and wiped clean of finger smudges easily. Pentax is known for their pentaprism viewfinders and the finder on the K-3 is large and clear with 100% coverage, improved 0.95x magnification, a knobby diopter adjustment dial, and effective digital level. The Auto Level Adjustment function helps out if you’re rushing too much to be exact in your composition. Dual SD card slots are provided with simple controls to customize their use as well as a dedicated display to keep you clear on which card you are using and with which format.

While I was not able to test the FLU card, a dedicated Pentax-branded 16GB FLU memory card provides wireless functions with the K-3, including image transfer to iOS and Android devices and remote camera control from these devices.

Chelsea Sunset (Click to zoom)

In terms of video, the K-3 has taken a large leap forward from the K-5 and K-5 II. HD 1080p with H.264 video compression in 30, 25, and 24 fps, 1080i in 60 and 50 fps and 720p in 60, 50, 30, 25, and 24 fps provide multiple options and advanced touches like external microphone and headphone jacks, manual exposure control, audio level controls, and HDMI and USB 3.0 output make this a real option for HD videographers.  Also, new control buttons for video mode and live view have been added, which enable easier switching from live view and viewfinder still photography and between still and video capture.

As mentioned, the K-3 is able to shoot up to 8.3 fps in full resolution and for extended lengths. In part, this is due to the camera’s innovative three-motor mechanism, which controls the action of the shutter, mirror, and diaphragm independently. A newly designed Mirror-bounce Damper system absorbs the shock of the mirror’s up-and-down movement, enabling more stable and therefore more precise and faster autofocus and auto exposure. Pentax notes that its shutter unit is tested to withstand more than 200,000 actuations.

Construction Along the Highline (Click to zoom)

My favorite aspect of shooting the Pentax K-3 was its autofocus. Compared to the high-end cameras that I usually use, I found the new SAFOX 11 AF on the K-3 to be fast but, moreso, quick and to the point. That may be a hard-to-clarify distinction but I suppose an automobile analogy like “stopping on a dime” may be the closest cliché. Really impressive was the way it jumped off the pole and slammed on the brakes without skidding (to abuse the analogy). Its 27-point AF system has 25 central cross-type sensors and is optimized for shooting with fast lenses and is sensitive in low light. A 9-point AF zone can be selected and moved around the frame as needed and, in conjunction with the camera’s Real-time Scene Analysis System, AF tracking performed nicely when following even fast-moving subjects. In addition, the SAFOX 11 module is encased in a shock-resistant and airtight housing to protect it from the rigors of low temperatures and rough handling. In manual-focus mode, focus peaking assistance is supported for precision.

Sensor-shift type in-camera image stabilization provides shake compensation for all lenses that fit its K-mount, not only late-model telephotos, as is the case with other lens-based systems. And image-stabilization function can be activated when the camera is utilizing the anti-aliasing simulator. The K-3, of course, offers a hot-shoe mount for external flash and other accessories such as a microphone, light, or monitor when shooting video. It provides special-effect shooting such as multiple exposure, interval shooting, and a host of digital filter effects that all performed as desired. A vibrating dust-removal function for the sensor is bolstered by a dust-alert system, which detects dust particles and even indicates their location on the sensor. Finally, a nice touch in this age of digital distribution is that the copyright and photographer name information can be embedded directly into the original image file.

First Image: Natural Imaging
Second Image: Retro Digital Filter
(Click to zoom)

For a photographer who has gone his whole life without shooting a Pentax DSLR, I am very impressed with this camera. Of course, it rightfully boasts its innovative anti-aliasing simulator and the brand-new PRIME III image processor, but for me the K-3’s fundamental features of focus, function control, resilient build, and easy handling has me appreciating what Pentaxians have known all along: They make great cameras.

For more information, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.

Sensor Type CMOS
Sensor Size 23.5 x 15.6mm
Total Pixels 24.71MP
Effective Pixels 23.35MP
Color Depth JPEG: 8 bits/channel
RAW: 14 bits/channel
Resolution 6016 x 3000
4608 x 3072
3072 x 2048
1920 x 1280
Dust Removal DR II (ultrasonic vibration to low pass filter) with Dust Alert function
Still File Formats RAW (PEF, DNG), JPG (EXIF 2.30), DCF 2.0 compliant
Movie File Formats MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 (MOV)-JPEG (AVI) for internal movie record
Lens Mount Pentax K AF2
SDM Function Yes
Power Zoom Function Yes
Focus System SAFOX 11 TTL Phase Matching
Focus Points 27 (25 cross-type center focus points)
Focus Modes AF Single (w focus lock, focus/shutter priority selectable), AF Continuous (w focus/FPS priority selectable), Manual
Metering System TTL open aperture metering using 86K pixel RGB sensor
Sensitivity Range EV -3 to 20 (ISO 100, 50mm f/1.4)
Metering Modes Multisegment, Center-weighted, Spot
Exposure Compensation +/-5 EV (1/3 and 1/2 steps)
Exposure Lock Yes
Exposure Bracketing Yes (2, 3, or 5 frames, up to +/- 2 EV in 1/3 or 1/2 steps)
ISO Sensitivity Auto, 100-51200 (1, 1/2, 1/3 steps)
Auto White Balance Modes Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Fluorescent Light (D: Daylight Color, N:Daylight White, W:Cool White, L:Warm White),  Tungsten Light, Flash, CTE
Manual White Balance Yes, manual WB, Color Temperature Configuration
Shutter Type Electronically Controlled, vertical-run, focal plane shutter
Shutter Speed 1/8000 to 30 sec (1/3 or 1/2 EV steps), Bulb
Capture Modes Green, Hyper Program (P), Sensitivity Priority (Sv), Shutter Priority (Tv), Aperture Priority (Av)
Shutter and Aperture Priority (TAv), Metered Manual, Bulb, X-speed, USER (3 presets)
Drive Modes Single, Continuous (H, M, L), Self-Timer (12s, 2s), Remote (0s, 3s, continuous), Exposure Bracketing,
Mirror Up, HDR Capture, (3 shots at 1EV, 2EV, 3 EV)
Multi-Exposure Composite Mode (2-2000 images), Interval (2000 shots, 2 sec. to 24 hours)
Maximum Continuous FPS 8.3 fps (60 jpeg, 23 RAW)
Self-Timer Yes, 2 sec. or 12 sec.)
Remote Control Yes, infrared (0s, 3s, continuous), cable switch
Viewfinder Type Pentaprism
Viewfinder Coverage 100%
Viewfinder Magnification 0.95x (w/ 50mm f/1.4 at infinity)
Standard Focusing Screen Natural-Bright-Matte III (interchangeable)
Diopter Adjustment -2.5m to 1.5m
Depth of Field Preview Optical (diaphragm stop-down), Digital
Monitor Type 3.2" TFT Color LCD
Monitor Resolution 1,037,000 dots
Wide-Angle View Yes
Live View Type TTL by CMOS image sensor
Field of View 100%
Display Modes Magnification, Grid Overlay, Histogram, Bright/Dark
Built-in Flash Type Retractable P-TTL popup flash
Guide Number 13 m (ISO 100)
Coverage 28mm wide angle (35mm equiv.)
Flash Modes Auto, On, Redeye, Slow Sync, Slow Sync + Redeye, Trailing
Curtain Sync, High-speed Sync, Wireless, Manual
Flash Exposure Compensation -2 to 1 EV (1/2 steps)
External Flash Hotshoe (P-TTL), High-speed Sync, Wireless, X-Sync Socket
Sync Speed 1/180 sec.
Storage Media SD, SDHC, SDXC, EyeFi, FLU
Interface USB 2.0, AV out, HDMI out, DC in, cable switch, 3.5mm stereo
microphone, X-Sync Socket
Video Out HD (via HDMI), PAL, NTSC
Image Stabilization Type Sensor-Shift Shake Reduction with Rotational Compensation
Electronic Level Function Yes
Power Supply D-LI90 rechargeable Li-Ion Battery
D-BG5 Battery Grip (optional)
K-AC132 AC Adapter (optional)
System Requirements Windows: Windows 8 (32 bit/64 bit) / Windows 7 (32 bit/64 bit) / Windows Vista (32 bit/64 bit), Windows XP SP3 (32 bit)
Mac: Mac OS X 10.8/10.7/10.6
Construction Material Magnesium-Alloy Shell over Metal Chassis
Weather Resistant Yes (92 special sealing parts)
Operating Temperature 14-104°F (-10 to 40°C)
Dimensions 5.17 x 3.94 x 3.05" (13 x 10 x 7.8 cm)
Weight (with battery
& memory)
28.2 oz (799 g)
  HD Pentax-DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8 ED WR Lens
Focal Length 55 - 300mm
35mm Equivalent Focal Length 84.5 - 460mm
Maximum Apertures  f/4 - 5.8
Minimum Apertures  f/22 - 32
Camera Mount Type Pentax K
Format Compatibility Pentax Digital (APS-C)
Angle of View 29° - 5.4°
Minimum Focus Distance 4.59' (1.4 m)
Magnification 0.28x
Diaphragm Blades 6
Optical Construction 12 Elements /8 Groups
Autofocus Yes
Filter Thread Front: 58mm
Dimensions (DxL) 2.80 x 4.39" (71 x 111.5mm)
Weight 1.03 lb (466 g)

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I'm pleased to see you doing a pretty informative quick review of this new model which is bound to become a classic. Pentax/Ricoh are indeed building beautifully working cameras for people who care more about photography than big names stitched on camera straps. Also, great that you include some shots taken with the HD-updated 55-300mm consumer telephoto zoom, which is now even weather-sealed. Hopefully, your review will help to get more photographers actually try out these cameras and come to love them for the unique shooting experience they can give you.

Hello and thank you for the well written first look review.

There are quite a few questions about the upcoming Pentax version Flu card specially designed for the Pentax K3. We'd really appreciate a Q and A with Pentax on the details. So far little is known for the many applications, such as for astrophotography or for other applications. As you likely know, little can be found on searching the subject, and the photographers would really appreciate the clarifications when they are available.

Thanks again.

Excellent review. I am one of those Pentax users that normally gets strange looks from Canon and Nikon aficianados. Pentax has been building great gear and I am glad B&H is supporting the product line. Would like to hear more about the FLU card as well in another review perhaps.

Very nice!! What is the price !

I have a Pentax K10 and am looking to upgrade to the K-3.  I have multiple lens, battery grip, and flash.  Will all accessories work with the K-3?

Thanks in advance.

Scott Van Hart.

Your lenses and flash that you use with your Pentax K-10D are compatible with the K-3 model as well.  The battery and battery grip for the K-10 are not compatible with the K-3 however.  You may click here to view the K-3 on our website.  Under the "Acceossories" tab we list the compatible battery grip, spare batteries and many other accessories for the camera.