Pentax K-3: First Impressions Review

A closer look at Pentax's new flagship

By PF Staff in Hands-On Tests on Nov 4, 2013
Pentax K-3: First Impressions Review

After three long days with the Pentax K-3 in the field and in the studio, we're ready to share our first impressions of this camera, as well as give you an early verdict about its performance!

Based on what we've seen, we are tempted to say that the K-3 is the best APS-C DSLR currently on the market.  Rest assured that even as a Pentax-oriented editorial staff, we're normally hesitant to make such conclusions. The K-3 is unquestionably superior to its predecessor (the K-5 II/IIs), as it brings marked improvements in terms of features, overall performance, speed, and image quality.  It may not outperform the competition in all areas, but at the moment there simply isn't any other enthusiast APS-C DSLR out there than can deliver the same level of sophistication, build quality, and handling in a single package. 

The remainder of this article is broken up into a number of sub-sections that take a closer look at various aspects of the K-3.  Enjoy!

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Build Quality and Ergonomics

The K-3 sports a weather-sealed magnesium-alloy body and it's clear that no compromises have been made in terms of workmanship.  Nothing on the camera feels flimsy, and its buttons and switches provide great feedback, being neither too loose nor too tight.

No noticeable improvements have been made in terms of build quality when comparing the K-3 to the K-5 II, for the latter already had an outstanding build for its class.  As a variety of external changes have been made to the K-3, it's good to see that no corners were cut in doing so.

Pentax K-3 Back ViewPentax K-3 Back View

The weight of the Pentax K-3 has gone up by about 60 grams (it now weighs 800g vs. the K-5's 740g), and you might notice this when using smaller lenses.  However, the camera is still rather compact, and its grip has been improved, which makes it feel great in your hands.  Compared to competitors such as the Nikon D7100 or D600, there's no question that the K-3 has a better grip.  It should also not be overlooked that Pentax produces some of the smallest APS-C lenses on the market!

The ergonomics are a bit better with the K-3 also because the AF button is now more conveniently-placed, the mode dial lock can be permanently disabled, allowing you to change modes with a single hand.

User Interface and Button Layout

Unsurprisingly, the K-3's interface is very similar to that of other current Pentax DSLRs.  The K-3 menus are essentially a mix of the K-5 interface and the K-50 interface, with a few new screens and settings as needed. 

One key thing we'd like to mention in this section is that the K-3's larger 3.2" LCD screen is big upgrade.  Even though its resolution (pixel density) could have been higher (it has 1037k dots vs. the K-5's 921k dots), the key selling point is that the new screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio.  This means that the live view image as well as images in playback mode will fill the entire screen! The increased area is of course also a plus.

When viewing images in playback mode, the K-3 now tells you when you've reached 100% magnification (on 24-megapixel files, an "100%" icon is shown at 8.3x zoom).  This will give users peace-of-mind as overzoom might make images look worse than they actually are.

Enjoying a 3:2 aspect ratio in playback modeThanks to the screen's 3:2 aspect ratio, you won't be seeing any black bars in live view or playback mode

With our discussion of the screen out of the way, let's get back to the user interface itself.  Overall, the interface is just as user-friendly as it's always been, but a few key changes have been made that will affect the way you use the camera.

The most important change is connected to the new button layout.  To change AF modes, you must now hold down the AF Mode button on the side of the camera while simultaneously turning the front control wheel (to cycle through AF.A, AF.S, and AF.C) or the rear control wheel (to cycle through AF point selection).  Similarly, you change metering modes by holding down the metering button while turning the rear e-dial.  All changes are shown both on the top LCD and the rear LCD, if enabled.

Top LCD and rear LCD indications while holding down the AF mode button

Having a physical switches for both of these things was nice, and it's a shame that Pentax is doing away with them.  This was inevitable, though, as it would have been hard to accommodate more than 3 AF modes on a physical switch.  Still, the new interface for AF and metering modes does slow things down a little bit, as you will have to look at the screen to verify your mode selection.  It also introduces a bit of button duplication: for example, the 4-way pad cannot be used to access sub-menus as long as SEL mode is highlighted.

The sheer number of features packed into the K-3 gives rise to a second issue with the interface: complexity.  Almost every menu screen now has more fields and more settings, which makes things a bit harder to navigate on the fly.

http://www.pentaxforums.com/content/uploads/files/1/p1103/dm5-0_IMG_5351_a.jpg
The drive mode and info screen menus are now littered with options

Interval shooting and multiple exposures are now part of the drive mode menu, and the info screen grid now contains many more options.  The same goes for the K-3's main menu tabs and playback mode info screen.  Like on the K-50, the info button in playback mode no longer allows you to cycle through info screens directly.  Instead, it brings up a sub-menu that requires you to select the desired tab (a mild nuisance).

The added menu complexity does bring some nice additions, however: new to the K-3 is a dedicated vignetting correction setting, which was previously linked to the distortion correction setting. 

The K-3 also simplifies life for beginners: selecting shadow/highlight correcting will no longer prevent you from accessing ISO 100, as it did on previous models.  The feature will simply not operate at minimum ISO, as it requires ISO 200 or higher.

Many of you have been asking how the new Stills/Video switch works.  It's simple: when the switch is set to stills (i.e. pushed downwards), the red button toggles live view mode.  When the switch is set to video, live view engages automatically, and the red button controls when recording stops and ends.  In video mode, the info button will automatically pull up a dedicated info screen for video mode. The Stills/Video switch design isn't thought through to the end as you cannot capture stills while in video mode, and you cannot capture videos while in regular live view. 

Overall, you do need to spend a bit of time to get accustomed to the K-3's facelifted interface.  After a while with your camera, finding the right settings becomes second nature, and at that point you can start taking full advantage of Pentax's intuitive interface.

Speed

Historically, one of Pentax's key weak points has been processing speed.  On the K-5, an hourglass icon would often be shown even when performing routine tasks.  We are happy to report that the K-3's PRIME III processor delivers a huge improvement in overall performance, which is impressive given the fact that image file sizes have gone up.  If the camera's ability to shoot up to 200 JPEG frames at 8.3 FPS isn't convincing enough, what if we told you that you'd no longer get the hourglass with in-camera lens corrections enabled?  When pairing the K-3 with a UHS-I memory card, you will hardly ever have to wait for the camera to finish writing files to the card so that playback mode can be accessed.  The bottom line is that Pentax has finally solved a big problem that plagued most if not all of the older models.

The K-3's new shutter/mirror mechanism is faster than before yet even quieter, to the point where bracketing almost feels the same as taking a single shot.  This is nothing short of professional-grade.

With that said, there is still room for improvement.  After shooting a long burst, the camera still locks up and prevents you from accessing the menu system until all the files have been processed.  File deletions still aren't instant: a progress bar is shown, even for individual files.  Unlike earlier models, the K-3 doesn't exit out of live view when you change the shooting mode.  The mirror does go down if you try accessing the info screen from live view, which slows things down considerably.

As an aside, note that the K-3 produces JPEG files averaging around 12-13Mb, while its RAW files are just over 30Mb.  These files will require more processing power on your PC compared to the K-5's 6-7MB JPEGs and 20Mb RAWs.

Movie Mode

While the K-3's movie mode isn't a key focus of this article, we feel obliged to mention that the K-3 features the most robust movie mode of any Pentax to date.  You can record at 720 or 1080 resolution at 24p, 25p, 30p, 50i, or 60i.  P, Av, TAv, and M exposure modes are supported (accessible via the menu, not via the mode dial), which means that you can choose to manually control and exposure parameter if desired.

There is on-demand autofocus, but the implementation is very basic, much like in the K-50.  Focus peaking is still not available during recording, unfortunately.

New to the K-3 is a headphone jack, which allows you to listen to the audio as it is being recorded.  The K-3 also features an improved audio sampling rate of 48 kHz.

Shake reduction in movie mode is electronic, and the recorded image is therefore subject to a noticeable crop.  The implications of this as well as an analysis of the video image quality will make it into our in-depth review.

Autofocus

Most of you are expecting big improvements in autofocus, especially if you're coming from a K-5, which had an early (and therefore sub-par) live view focusing system.  The K-5 II, while great in low light, still only had 11 AF points for its phase detect autofocus (PDAF), something that many Pentax users wanted to see increased.

The more significant improvement to the K-3's autofocus, based on our experience so far, can be observed in live view mode.  The K-3 seems to have a more powerful screwdrive motor, which when combined with new focusing algorithms delivers much faster and more decisive contrast detect autofocus.  In live view, and when using screwdrive lenses, the K-3 focuses slightly more quickly than the K-50, and therefore generally twice as quickly as the K-5 II.  With SDM/DC/HSM lenses, the K-3 doesn't have much of an edge over the K-50, but improved algorithms still allow it to greatly outperform the K-5 II.  The CDAF implementation in the K-3 has been changed so that hunting is now a last resort rather than an everyday occurrence.

http://www.pentaxforums.com/content/uploads/files/1/p1103/IMG_5543_a.jpgVideo live view AF showing two areas in focus

In more practical terms, we find the K-3's live view autofocus to now be both fast enough and reliable enough to satisfy the needs of demanding photographers (barring rapidly-moving subjects).  Unless you get unlucky, the CDAF should no longer be to blame for missed shots.  This is the type of autofocus that should have made it into the mirrorless K-01!  We will provide more details on how the K-3's CDAF works in our in-depth review.

The viewfinder PDAF system in the K-3, on the other hand, didn't fell like as big of an upgrade as the new CDAF.  In terms of speed, the system behaves very much like the one in the K-5 II.  It is just as decisive, but it certainly does not seem faster when used on stationary subjects (the faster screwdrive motor makes a negligible difference for PDAF).  The K-3 does have more focus points than any other Pentax DSLR (a total of 27, 25 of which are cross-type points), but the fact that they cover the same area makes the new AF system feel very much like the old one.  Certain advanced users will surely enjoy the fact that the AF points have become smaller, but the everyday user will not.  If you were to take the K-5 II's autofocus system and add a point in between every pair of points in the central grid and then fill the remaining gaps, you'll essentially end up with the K-3's AF.

If you've been looking for an improvement in continuous autofocus performance, the K-3 has a host of new options, including SEL-25 and SEL-9 AF area expansion ("tracking") as well as a new custom function that enables focus priority for the first frame only.  After a quick outdoor test, we found the K-3's continuous shooting capabilities to be slightly better than those of the K-5 II.  More tests will be required before we can offer a definitive verdict on tracking performance, but we will say this: the fundamental way in which the system works hasn't been changed.  Only 1 or 2 AF points can light up at a time, so the underlying algorithms probably haven't seen much change.  The AF point density and/or faster processing speed would be the only contributing factors to overall AF performance.  It's a shame that more of the viewfinder isn't covered with AF points, like on the Canon 7D or Nikon D7100.

With that said, the new 27-point autofocus system is certainly a step in the right direction for Pentax, and we think that it is already more than enough for anyone that isn't a sports shooter.  Fundamental algorithmic changes will need to be made if this system is ever to be as robust for sports/action as those of the competition.  As Pentax already has best-in-class low-light focusing, we'd expect future improvements to focus on tracking and simultaneous use of multiple AF points. 

As a side note, improvements to in-lens focusing systems are arguably just as important as in-camera improvements.  If Pentax were to add high-speed silent AF motors to more lenses in the future, we're sure that users would be able to better appreciate the AF performance of the their cameras.  As great as screwdrive AF has been over the years, we feel that it's time to move on.

Image Quality

And thus we arrive at the most important aspect of the K-3: the pictures that it's capable of capturing!  Given Pentax's track record for squeezing as much performance out of a sensor as possible and the fact that it's been over three years since Pentax has put a new sensor in one of their cameras, our expectations of the K-3 were high. 

We'll get straight to the point.  The K-3's new 24-megapixel sensor is capable of delivering noticeably improved resolution at lower ISOs while not doing any worse than the K-5 at higher ISOs.  Our studio tests of the K-3's dynamic range aren't yet complete, but based on what we've seen in the field, the results are promising: the K-3 may offer a bit more than the K-5!

Detail vs. Noise

As we mentioned above, a key advantage of the K-3 when compared to its predecessor is increased resolution, which generally translates to better image quality.

In the sample below, which was taken with the same (physical) lens at ISO 100, notice how the K-3 produced more detail in the radio masts atop the tower.  The photo from the K-3 was scaled to match the size of the K-5 IIs image.

K-5 IIs Image
K-3 Image

At ISO 1600, it's a much closer call, at least in this JPEG photo shot with auto-NR.

K-5 IIs Image (ISO 1600)
K-3 Image (ISO 1600)

Below are links to some full-size downloads for further exploration:

Keep in mind that the above photo was taken at a distance.  For close-ups, the K-3 should still hold a more noticeable advantage at high ISOs.  Below are two samples shot at ISO 6400:

Pentax K-3 (left) vs Pentax K-5 IIs (right) at ISO 6400, developed from RAW w/o denoising - Click to Enlarge

As was to be expected, the files from the K-3 exhibit more noise, but the added resolution should aid in noise reduction and therefore yield the same clean image that you'd get from the K-5, with slightly more detail perhaps.

We can therefore conclude that current K-5 users who primarily shoot at high ISOs will not benefit quite as much from the K-3's added resolution.  The K-3 is not built specifically for high-ISO shooting, but it's also no worse than the K-5 if you spend the extra time in post to scale down and reduce noise.

Metering

The new metering system in the K-3 seems to be doing its job.  The K-3 doesn't have as much of a tendency to overexpose as the K-5 II did, and it properly exposed almost all of test photos that we posted yesterday.

White Balance

Although we have yet to test the K-3's multi-segment AWB feature, so far it seems that the camera's standard auto white balance does a much better job of avoiding color casts than any previous Pentax.  During the day, the K-3 favors more neutral color tones compared to the K-5, while at night, we didn't see the yellowish hue that plagued photos from our K-5 II.  See below for an example.

http://www.pentaxforums.com/content/uploads/files/1/p1103/IMGP0718.jpg http://www.pentaxforums.com/content/uploads/files/1/p1103/IMGP3502.jpg
Left: Pentax K-3 (ISO 6400) Right: Pentax K-5 IIs (ISO 6400)

We will be performing additional tests to offer a definitive conclusion about the K-3's white balance in our in-depth review.

Anti-Moire System

The K-3 features an innovative mechanical moire reduction system known as the "AA-filter Simulator".  Since the K-3's sensor lacks an anti-aliasing filter, Pentax have decided to make clever use of the SR system in an attempt to suppress moire artifacts when desired.  When enabled, the AA-filter Simulator vibrates the sensor in such a way that it emulates the effect of an anti-aliasing filter, spilling a bit of light from each pixel over to its neighbors.  This helps reduce aliasing when the camera goes to produce a full color image from the sensor's Bayer pattern.

We tested this system today and compared the resulting images to those from the K-5 IIs and K-5.  Our findings were as follows:

  • With the AA-filter Simulator disabled, the K-3 reproduces noticeably more detail than the K-5 IIs
  • With the AA-filter Simulator set to Type 1, the K-3 reproduces about the same level of detail as the K-5 IIs but makes moire harder to discern
  • With the AA-filter Simulator set to Type 2, moire is almost completely eliminated yet there is still more detail than what the Pentax K-50 can produce (and the K-3 shows less moire than both the K-5 IIs and the K-50)

So, we can conclude that the system works as advertised and does a good job of emulating a hardware filter without any unexpected side-effects.  We will do some additional testing of this system for our in-depth review just to make sure that there aren't any hidden surprises.

Shake Reduction

Pentax claims that the SR system in the K-3 has been improved by "about half a stop".  We were able to get sharp hand-helds at 1/8s (@31mm), but this was also true when we tried the K-5 or even the K10D, the first Pentax with SR.  What has unquestionably been improved is the sound the system makes: the SR system's resetting in-between shots is now practically inaudible.

Overall

While the overall improvement to the core image quality in the K-3 seems to be incremental rather than monumental, if we combine the K-3's new metering system, more accurate white balance, and handy moire-reducing tools, it's actually a fairly big improvement over anything that Pentax has marketed to date.

Conclusion

To wrap things up, it's clear that the K-3 is an excellent DSLR not only within the Pentax realm, but also when compared to the other APS-C DSLRs that are out there. We are confident that this camera will be very successful on the market, and that reviewers on other sites will agree with our findings.

This first impressions preview omits a few of the K-3's key selling points, such as the dual card slots and support for Wi-Fi tethering via a special "FLU" SD card.  Our in-depth review, which we plan on publishing early next week, will of course cover these topics.  We will also offer a more elaborate conclusion about this camera, as it's still too early for us to sign off on a verdict.

The Pentax K-3 is an upgrade over its predecessor in many ways, but there's no denying that some upgrades are more significant than others.  Our favorite thing about this camera so far is its exceptional speed, which has seen a big improvement compared to the K-5 II (and even the K-50) despite the increase in resolution.  The quiet shutter, fast burst mode, and overall build quality of the camera are equally impressive.  We've also been greatly enjoying the larger 3:2 LCD in the field, and the improved image detail and superior metering/white balance is just icing on the cake.

Should you make the switch to the Pentax K-3?  It depends on your needs.  If you value speed, if you want improved autofocus performance, or if you want the best possible image quality in a Pentax, then we'd recommend that you consider this camera- especially considering that at $1299, it's an exceptional value.  If you already have a Pentax K-5 and you primarily use your camera at high ISO settings, then perhaps the K-3 wouldn't be the best choice if its other features don't interest you.  If you use any other Pentax camera, the K-3 will do better in just about all areas, but again it all boils down to your needs.  Stay tuned for our in-depth review and if you're still having trouble deciding, why not start a thread on the forum?

Convinced?  Click here to order your K-3 at B&H Photo and get a free 32GB UHS-I SanDisk card!

Note: If there is anything that you would like to request that we test in our in-depth review, please post your suggestions in the comments section below.  We will do our best to accommodate your requests!

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