Pentax K-30 Review

Image Quality

The K-30 is the third Pentax camera (after the K-5 and K-01) to carry a variant of the 16-megapixel Sony sensor, a sensor that's also found in the Nikon D7000 and some Sony NEX models. The specific sensor in the K-30 appears to be identical to the one used in the K-01, providing the same ISO range, the same video specs, and so on. And that's very good news indeed, because the K-01, while not quite on the same level as the K-5 in terms of ultimate image quality (according to sources such as DxOMark), is an excellent all-around performer.

Below we've put our K-30 test unit through the wringer to find out what it can do with regard to dynamic range, high-ISO noise, and more. We've put it toe-to-toe with the K-5 in a number of these tests, and as you'll see, it manages to hold its own quite impressively.

Sensor Dynamic Range

For this test, we pitted the K-30 against the K-5 to see which camera has the better dynamic range capabilities. Each of these bodies offers ±5EV of exposure compensation, so we set them up on a tripod pointed at a scene containing a very broad range of brightness levels and shot them at -5EV, -3EV, a baseline 0EV shot, +3EV, and +5EV.

Due to the fact that the K-30 and K-5 metered the scene a little differently (the K-30 typically exposed .7 to 1EV brighter), we shot the K-30 first and then shot the K-5 at the same shutter speeds to try to get identical exposures. They ended up pretty close, though slight framing differences might have produced slightly different results. This was our setup:

  • Pentax FA 31mm f/1.8 Limited at f/5.6
  • Single-point autofocus (center of scene)
  • ISO 100
  • Recording RAW+JPEG (highest quality)
  • White balance set to Auto
  • Auto-exposure for K-30, matched shutter speeds for K-5; Multi-segment / Evaluative metering
  • Custom Image mode set to camera default ("Bright")
  • All in-camera dynamic range extension off
  • Camera on tripod, 2-second self-timer

Dynamic Range Test: Original JPEGs

K-30, Original Exposure, -5EV
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K-5, Original Exposure, -5EV
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K-30, Original Exposure, -3EV
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K-5, Original Exposure, -3EV
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K-30, Original Exposure, Base EV
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K-5, Original Exposure, Base EV
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K-30, Original Exposure, +3EV
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K-5, Original Exposure, +3EV
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K-30, Original Exposure, +5EV
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K-5, Original Exposure, +5EV
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Dynamic Range Test: Recovered RAWs

K-30, Recovered RAW, -5EV
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K-5, Recovered RAW, -5EV
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K-30, Recovered RAW, -3EV
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K-5, Recovered RAW, -3EV
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K-30, Recovered RAW, Base EV
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K-5, Recovered RAW, Base EV
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K-30, Recovered RAW, +3EV
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K-5, Recovered RAW, +3EV
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K-30, Recovered RAW, +5EV
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K-5, Recovered RAW, +5EV
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Our real-world dynamic range test is another virtual dead heat. As you can see, the two sensors share some common characteristics here: tons of shadow recovery room but not so much in the way of highlight recovery potential.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Shooting

Though we're pretty steadfast HDR haters (or at least we hate what passes for HDR photography on Flickr, etc), it seems like the fad is here to stay a while. Like several models before it, the K-30 features an in-camera HDR mode that blends three exposures to create a single high dynamic range photo. The HDR submenu allows you to choose the Exposure Bracket Value, an entirely new feature for Pentax cameras. The bracketing can now be done in ±1, ±2, or ±3 steps. (On other models, it was permanently set at ±3.)

There are four HDR settings: HDR Auto (camera decides the strength of the effect), HDR 1 (weakest), HDR 2, and HDR 3 (strongest). The desired HDR effect can be chosen through either the HDR submenu in the main menu system, or through the INFO menu. In the HDR submenu, you'll also find a checkbox for Auto Align, which lets the camera try to line up the three exposures if you're shooting HDR handheld. In general it works pretty well, but there are definitely limits to what it can do.

Below are examples of a scene shot first with HDR off, and then with each of the four HDR settings.

HDR Off

HDR Auto

HDR1

HDR2

HDR3

HDR Auto and HDR 1 do an okay job here, while HDR 2 and HDR 3 quickly descend to the level of unicorn vomit. Your mileage may vary, depending on the makeup of the sceen you're shooting, but we're willing to wager that HDR 3 will never not be overkill.

Shadow/Highlight Correction

Just like every other Pentax dSLR of the last couple generations, the K-30 offers shadow and highlight correction. These modes work by using different ISO settings for different areas of the frame. Highlights get a lower ISO setting and shadows get a higher one, pulling and pushing them, respectively. Like the K-01, the K-30 has an Auto option for each, which lets the camera decide when shadow and highlight correction need to be deployed, based on analysis of the current scene.

Shadows can be corrected (pushed) by three stops, while highlights can only be corrected (pulled) by one stop.

Drange Hi Shadow

In our opinion, highlight correction can be left on at all times, if you don't mind shooting higher than the base ISO (highlight correction requires you to shoot at ISO 200 or higher, so that it can lower the ISO setting for overexposed areas). When it's not needed, it won't be used, and when it's needed it can't really go overboard since it can only pull back a maximum of one stop.

Shadow correction is a bit more unpredictable. What works well for one shot won't necessarily work well for another. In the scene below, we'd say that somewhere between 2 and 3 is about right for shadow correction, but your mileage will definitely vary.

No Correction

Shadow correction auto, highlight correction auto

Shadow correction 1, highlight correction on

Shadow correction 2, highlight correction on

Shadow correction 3, highlight correction on

High-ISO Performance

In this test, we also pitted the K-30 against the K-5. We shot the same scene (a crowded bookshelf in our office) with both bodies paired with the DA 35mm f/2.8 Limited Macro, set to f/5.6. We shot the K-30 with Noise Reduction turned all the way off in RAW+JPEG mode, and have presented both the out-of-camera JPEGs and the developed RAWs below. We developed the RAWs through Lightroom 4 with no added sharpening or any other processing. We also tested the K-30 with Noise Reduction set to Auto, and have presented those shots as SOOC JPEGs.

For the K-5, we shot one set of RAW+JPEG tests with NR turned fully off, and presented the results as both SOOC JPEGs and developed RAWs (using the same developing process outlined above).

All of the images in this test are crops from the center of the frame.

  • Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Limited at f/5.6
  • Live view autofocus, center point
  • White balance set to Auto
  • Auto-exposure; Av mode at f/5.6; Multi-segment / Evaluative metering
  • Image mode set to camera default (“Bright”)
  • Dynamic range extension off
  • Camera on tripod, 2-second self-timer

As you can see, the K-30 is a great performer throughout its ISO range. ISO 100 to 3200 are perfectly usable and retain great detail in most situations, and even 6400 and up can be made to work if the situation requires it. With Noise Reduction set to Auto, the camera takes a pretty conservative approach. There's not really much between the photos with NR off and those with NR on up until ISO 6400, and a major difference is only really visible at ISO 25600, where the un-treated JPEG shows a lot more detail than the smeary NR Auto shot.

Versus the K-5, the K-30 stands up well. The two produce virtually identical results throughout the ISO 100-25600 range when shooting RAW, with the K-30 maybe producing slightly less noise at the extreme far end. When shooting JPEG, the K-30's images look much better at high-ISO; we definitely prefer the K-30's output from ISO 6400 onward.

JPEG vs RAW

On the default "Bright" image setting, the K-30's JPEG engine does a great job of retaining detail while giving the image a subtle punch. Nothing is overdone, including sharpening, and when noise reduction is set to "Off", there's virtually no smearing or watercolor effect. We still prefer shooting RAW for the extra flexibility it provides, but we have no doubt that habitual JPEG shooters will be satisfied by the results they get from the K-30 on default settings.

The Bottom Line on Image Quality

Long story short: if you liked the image quality you got out of the K-5 or K-01, you'll like what you get here. We've always loved our K-5's images, so we're very happy to see its standard being upheld by the newcomer.

The RAW files you get out of the K-30 stand up to sharpening well, require little noise reduction, and have superb dynamic range (particularly in the shadows). Really, it's amazing what you can recover from a seemingly pure black image, though we can't say we recommend shooting that way on a regular basis. JPEGs are nearly as good, taking great advantage of the same dynamic range and color depth available in the RAWs, while not sacrificing much in the way of detail.

Low-ISO images are virtually noise-free. Higher-ISO images have their fair share of noise, but still retain impressive detail. The noise that is present is of the luminance (finely textured, monochromatic), rather than the chroma (blotchy, colorful) variety, and it can even add a sense of gritty, film-like nostalgia to some shots. In-camera JPEG noise reduction is kept to a sensible level if set to Auto, which we recommend.

Simply put, if you get the K-30, you're getting some of the best APS-C class image quality available today.


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