Pentax K-30 Review

Field Shooting Impressions

To try out the K-30 in everyday use, we took it to downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a pleasant Sunday evening. Arriving around 6pm, our goal was to capture the look and feel of the western United States' oldest city around the magic hour, and to find out if this camera lived up to its specs in the real world. This is what we found out.

(All photos on this page are straight-out-of-camera JPEGs using the default "Bright" setting.)

This is an extremely fun camera to use.

Though we've been spoiled by the K-5's ergonomics for a couple years now, we have to say that for us the K-30 is a very close runner-up. Surprisingly (because it has been an essential addition for us on the K-5) we rarely missed the add-on grip during our time in the field. The K-30, for some reason, just feels right as-is. Some might quibble with specific button placement (the Green button is a little out of the way, we have to admit), and there were definitely moments when we wished the K-5's metering and AF mode switches had made the cut for the K-30 design, but overall it developed a supremely harmonious relationship with our right hand.

The size and heft are near-perfectly balanced, in our opinion. During this outing we shot without a strap (unusual for us), and at no point did we fear for the safety of the camera. At all times, we had a solid, reassuring grip. Carrying the camera and a shoulder bag stocked with a total of six Pentax Limited lenses, we never felt overburdened over the course of the two or three miles we walked.

Operation is fluid, and while we initially experienced a few hiccups searching for the proper menu options in the heat of the moment, we quickly learned to use the INFO menu to solve the vast majority of our problems. We also found we didn't miss the top LCD very much—the ever-present status screen worked just as well. However, we do imagine it would be substantially more annoying when shooting in a dark environment, since it's several orders of magnitude brighter. In such a setting, we'd probably simply turn it off and make do with the viewfinder's info readout.

As ever, the dual control dials make a world of difference when you're trying to shoot fast. Even if the margin is only a second or two, the ability to change any setting without significant menu diving provides a real sense of confidence. K-5, K-7, K20D, and K10D users have known this for some time, but those upgrading to the K-30 from a K-r, K-x, or an even older entry-level model, are in for a treat. Once you master the control scheme, the K-30's user interface can really feel like a natural extension of your creative mind. To some extent, this is true of all camera UIs, though we have to say that in our years shooting Nikon, we've never gotten as comfortable with their labyrinthine menu system as we have with Pentax's.

One thing we immediately noticed after taking a few shots was that the K-30's LCD presents a punchier, contrastier image than our K-5 when left to its default settings. Blacks are blacker, whites are whiter, colors are more vibrant, and the image even seems a little sharper than the one on the K-5. In fact, it's probably even a little sharper than what you get from the actual image, whether due to being resized to fit or something else. The image on the K-30's screen is also displayed larger than on the K-5's. Where the K-5 has a black band at the bottom of the playback screen where the basic EXIF info is shown, the K-30 has the same info in a transparent overlay atop the photo. As a result, the photo takes up more screen real estate. (We like this.) To test our initial impressions of how the two cameras handle playback, we took our memory card out of the K-30, cloned its contents to a second memory card, and displayed the same photo on both cameras. Turns out we were right—the K-30's display is brighter, punchier, and sharper by default—but the difference wasn't as big as our minds made it out to be. Anyway, the K-30's screen makes your photos look good... at times, deceptively good.

The other thing we noticed was the decisiveness of the autofocus system. We're not sure how to put this into words, since it's a feeling rather than something scientifically quantifiable. But the K-30 just feels confident when focusing. It starts focusing, it stops focusing, and that's it. There is no hunting (except in extreme low-light or low-contrast settings). There are very few fine readjustments once it's locked on (often none). It just goes, stops, and sticks. Where the K-5 would always readjust a little bit if you'd gotten lock and then reactivated the AF, the K-30 just beeps and doesn't even twitch. And the result? When we got home, we had snapped a total of 167 photos. Some were good, some were crap (can't win 'em all), but there was one common thread uniting them. They were ALL in focus. Every single one. For a moment (just a moment), we believed in miracles.

Now, bear in mind that on this walkabout we were shooting some pretty compliant, photographer-friendly subjects. Landscapes, architecture, flowers (though those little guys can be pretty tricky in a stiff breeze)—the kind of subjects you'd expect to get in perfect focus. And obviously we can't guarantee that if you buy a K-30 you'll never again experience the agony of an out-of-focus shot. You will. It's a fact of photographic life, and it's not going away any time soon. Even so—even if our subjects weren't that demanding—the results are still remarkable. Doing a similar walkabout with our K-5 or our former K-r, the focus would probably be slightly, annoyingly off in at least a few (maybe 5%) of our shots. Not so with the K-30. It's also possible that our K-30 was a fluke—the Platonic ideal of a K-30. But, somehow, we doubt it. In our opinion, the K-30 just does what it's supposed to do. It's a supremely consistent performer in the field.

This impression might seem to be at odds with the results of our controlled AF accuracy tests, which showed the K-30 to be no better than the K-5. However, remember that the AF accuracy tests were designed explicitly to test the K-30 under the kind of conditions you don't encounter every day. On this expedition, we were shooting in decidedly everyday conditions. So, while the K-30 may fare no better than the K-5 at extremes, it clearly excels where it really matters.

So, with that out of the way, what else is there to say?

How about metering? In general, the K-30's matrix metering system knocks it out of the park. On this walkabout we arrived with full sunlight, experienced about 45 minutes of deeply cloudy weather, and then were treated to the kind of spectacular sunset New Mexico is known for. The K-30 kept up every step of the way. Overall, it has a strong tendency to meter to preserve highlights, which is the behavior you really want; its sensor, as we have seen, clips highlights much more readily than shadows. Only once or twice did we feel the urge to contradict the metering system, and both cases occurred when shooting the DA 15mm Limited with large amounts of sky in the frame. 

As we learned some time ago with the K-5, the 100% coverage, .92x magnification viewfinder is a godsend. Framing shots and knowing that what you see is what you'll actually get is a real confidence-booster, and we find that our shots generally need less post-processing work as a result. Manual focusing on the stock screen is as good as it's ever been on a Pentax body. Down to f/2.8 or so you can trust the green viewfinder hex and AF confirmation beep pretty well, but beyond that point you have to get really familiar with how each lens behaves on your specific camera. Our Pentax-A 50mm f/1.2, for instance, was quite tricky to focus wide open, but after a few hours of trying we managed to get the hang of it pretty well.

Battery life seems to be pretty good... not great, but at least no worse than the K-r or K-01. We really do wish Pentax had foregone AA compatibility in favor of a bigger battery, but we know others will disagree. As usual, shooting video, using Live View for stills, or spending a lot of time reviewing your shots will drain the battery a lot faster than regular old shooting. And of course, even under optimal conditions, it doesn't get anywhere near the battery mileage of the K-5 (which has a larger-capacity battery, a less power-hungry top LCD, and the option for a backup battery in the grip.

Beyond these points, there's not much else to say about the K-30. Despite its updated looks, it's very much a Pentax dSLR in the traditional mold. If you've liked the feel of Pentax bodies in the past (particularly the K-7 and K-5), you're very likely to love this one. If you've liked (or come to accept) Pentax menus on other bodies, you'll feel right at home here. And if you want a bargain and a half, this is it.


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