Hands-on with the Pentax KP

A stylish, high-performance mid-range DSLR

By PF Staff in Hands-On Tests on Feb 9, 2017
Hands-on with the Pentax KP

Ricoh Imaging's official announcement of the new Pentax KP left us and the community with a number of questions.  Who is this camera for?  Where does it fit in?  What's new and special about it?  How does it compare to the existing Pentax models?

Fortunately, a production version of the KP was on display at WPPI 2017. After handling the KP hands-on and having a Q&A session with Ricoh, we learned a lot about the camera and would like to share its "real" highlights!

The KP's key design aspects include customizability, compactness, and image quality.

Customizability

Pentax cameras have always been fairly customizable through buttons and options.  But the KP takes things to the next level by combining a K-70-inspired user interface with two additional fully customizable buttons (for a total of 3) as well as a customizable settings dial.  In total, that's six user-configurable physical controls.  On top of this, you get a customizable 20-setting control panel, 5 USER modes, and customizable e-dials.

In other words, even though the button layout may look like that of the K-70, the KP allows you to make the button mappings your own!  In essence, you can tailor the user interface to your liking rather than having to remember a control layout that the camera forces upon you.  This also applies to the customizable control panel (originally introduced in Pentax K-1 flagship), which can be a huge time-saver as it puts your most common settings on a single screen.

New 2-page button customization menu

We aren't including a screenshot of the second tab of this menu, but each of the C's on the function dial on the right side of the camera can be configured to control one of the following (when the third e-dial is turned):

  • Program line
  • Shutter mode (electronic or normal)
  • Resolution
  • AA filter simulator
  • Grid display
  • LCD display options
  • Image magnification
  • Outdoor view setting
  • ISO
  • EV compensation
  • Bracket value
  • Custom image
  • AF mode
  • AF area
  • Focus peaking

Similar mappings can be made for each of the three FX buttons.

Speaking of USER modes, Pentax engineers have made a very thoughtful addition: U4 now defaults to configuring all the necessary settings for shooting with manual lenses, thus making it easy for newcomers to Pentax to get older lenses up and running.

New manual lens preset

Compactness

With a slim form factor, interchangeable hand grips, and an available silver finish matching the Pentax Limited lens series, it's evident that the KP targets users who might also be considering making the switch to mirrorless.

We think the silver/black version of the camera looks far more elegant than the standard black, and when paired with silver Limiteds, it's both stylish and compact.

Pentax KP with small grip and HD DA 40mm Limited lens

Indeed, the KP comes with small, medium, and large grips in the box.  A hexagonal wrench is used to switch between grips.


Large and Medium Grips

Removal Tool

Each grip gives the camera a different feel, so you can experiment and see which one works best for you (and your lenses).

Ultimately, while the KP sure looks small, it's not light at 703g— a side-effect of its durable construction and pentaprism viewfinder.  When hand-holding the camera even with this tiny lens, we favored the larger grips to help balance the back-heavy body.

Image Quality

The KP wouldn't be a Pentax without delivering image quality near the top of its class.  Like all recent Pentax DSLRs, the KP focuses on delivering superior still image quality through features such as Pixel Shift super resolution, an AA filter simulator, and sensor-shift stabilization.  This time, though, it's gotten some new hardware to take things further than other models.


Main board with PRIME IV
& image accelerator unit

New sensor and stabilization system

We asked Ricoh Imaging representatives about the sensor in the KP, and they told us that it's one of the latest APS-C sensors on the market— much newer than the old 24 MP sensor found in the Pentax K-3 family.  The KP also adds an "image accelerator unit" and inherits the K-1's PRIME IV processor and 5-axis stabilization.  The accelerator unit combined with the new sensor design allows for exceptional high-ISO performance.  We were told that the accelerator works to improve both JPEG and RAW image quality, and that it was essentially test-driven in the K-70, which already greatly benefited from it compared to the K-3.

The KP, though, can shoot all the way up to ISO 819,200- a 3-stop increase over the K-70 and 2-stop improvement over the K-1.  Of course, the newer generation APS-C sensor doesn't make up for its smaller size compared to a full-frame sensor, but it can easily outperform the likes of the K-3 and allow you to comfortably use higher ISO settings, such as 25,600 or 51,200.  The accelerator unit delivers particularly clean JPEGs without the need for post-processing.

This isn't all that's new in the KP, though.  The camera also debuts two new advanced bracketing modes: motion and depth.  These modes, which have been added to the drive mode menu, allow you to get the camera to automatically cycle through a range of shutter speeds or apertures, respectively.  So, if you don't know how strong of a bokeh is best, you could enable depth bracketing (while in Av mode) and get the camera to shoot a series of photos at different aperture settings.  This kind of bracketing is something our users have suggested in the past, and we're happy that it has finally been implemented!

KP burst shooting

The shutter unit in the KP is new: based on the shutter in the K-3, it is rated for 100,000 actuations and can shoot at up to 7FPS through the viewfinder.  When testing the camera, we got the impression that live view bursts were even faster (see the video above).  Representatives at the show were not sure about the final live view burst specification, as this was still "TBA" in the KP's latest documentation.  They agreed that the live view framerate seemed faster, however.

As far as sound goes, the shutter is also fairly quiet— far better than the noisy unit used in Pentax's entry-level line.

On top of the camera, there's a little pop-up flash (GN 6).  While not powerful, it supports wireless flash control— a feature missing from the K-1 and K-3 II, since neither has a flash, as well as the entry-level models.

Finally, while not directly related to image quality, the tilting LCD can make shooting in a variety of situations much easier.  We'll admit we miss the larger 3.2" display from the K-3 II, but if we could only pick one, the tilting mechanism would be the way to go.

Tilting LCD screen

This concludes our discussion of the KP's core design areas, but there is of course more to talk about!

Autofocus

Autofocus is a sensitive subject for many Pentaxians, who often feel like it's a step behind the competition in terms of speed.  Ricoh representatives have told us that the KP's autofocus module (the same SAFOX 11 hardware as in the K-3) has received significant software tweaks for continuous shooting performance.  They said the tracking performance is especially good when paired with the 55-300mm PLM lens (which sounds about right- this is hands-down Pentax's fastest-focusing lens), and continued to show us some excellent sample action photos from earlier that day.

So, even through it's not being marketed as a sports camera, it's reasonable to expect that the KP will outperform the K-3 family in terms of tracking performance, though it has a smaller buffer.

The KP also has new focus peaking options, though this is something we didn't get a chance to check at the show. 

In video mode, the KP uses on-sensor PDAF for continuous focusing, much like the K-70.  We will evaluate its performance in our upcoming first impressions review and of course the in-depth review.

Build Quality

Pentaxians have come to expect every new DSLR to be fully weather-sealed, and the KP delivers on that point.  The transparent model picutred below shows the weather seals in pink:

It also upgrades the K-70's mostly-plastic exterior with a metal frame similar to the ones used for Pentax flagships.

Pentax KP metal body

The KP's metal body doesn't span the top of the camera, but this doesn't affect the color or feel or the finish. You can see where the seams run in the photo below:

KP top panels

Ultimately, this isn't a bad compromise between build quality and affordability, as the KP still feels exceptionally solid.  Inside, there's another metal chassis holding everything in place.


KP chassis

Battery Grip

The KP is the first non-flagship since the Pentax K200D of 2008 to get a dedicated battery grip.  The D-BG7 (sold separately) matches the feel of the KP's "large" interchangeable grip, and shares the camera's unique design and button layout.  As designed, it makes the camera very easy to hold vertically.

Pentax KP with grip

The grip can accommodate either the D-Li109 that fits in the KP, or the larger D-Li90 battery used in flagship models.  What's more, the D-li109 only requires a different insert rather than a second tray, which enhances the portability of the system.

Summary

We hope we've cleared up some of your questions about the Pentax KP!  This camera represents a bold reactivation of a true "mid range" DSLR product line.  It has most of the high-end features from the Pentax flagships while also boasting a unique style and being a little more compact and affordable.  So far, what we've seen from the new sensor is highly promising, and we're sure that the KP will deliver.

If you're a photographer who values still image quality and wants all of Pentax's advanced features but doesn't want to lug around as much gear or spend too much, the KP could be a perfect fit for you!  Want to get one now?  Pre-order your KP for a chance to win the camera for free!

Pentax KP bodies, grips, hardware, and Limited lenses on display

We are confident that this camera will become popular among photographers, but of course this will depend on the actual image quality improvement (versus the K-3 and K-70) as well as aspects such as handling and ergonomics, which will be a key focus of our upcoming in-depth review review.  After all, the KP has seen significant changes in terms of its dials and switches, such as the horizontal front e-dial.

It's evident that this camera is a bid for Pentax to cling on to enthusiast users within the DSLR market— one that's being increasingly threatened by mirrorless offerings from the likes of Fuji, Sony, and Olympus.  The KP's unique aspects and powerful technologies will certainly allow it to be competitive, but only if customers know what this little camera is capable of!  Unfortunately, the press release made it look less special and skimmed over some of the key points we've made in this article.

Black Pentax KP body

A poorly-lit exhibition hall isn't the best place for taking sample photos, so we don't have much to share- but here's a ISO 25,600 shot straight out of camera taken at 1/800s.  That's enough to freeze almost any kind of motion, and normally the kind of shutter speed you'd only get to use outdoors on a sunny day!

The shot may be a little noisy, but the text is clear enough for you to discern even the small pink "weddings and engagements" sign in the middle of the photo.


Pentax KP sample - ISO 25,600, JPEG, 1/800s F9 (click for original size)

Pre-order your KP

If you pre-order your KP at Adorama, you will automatically be entered for a chance to never be charged and instead get your camera for free!  The camera will start shipping around February 23rd, so time is running out for this special offer.

Order now for a chance to win!

Feeling Lucky? Pre-order Your KP from Adorama and Win!

Are you excited about the KP?  Does this camera sound right for you?  Tell us in the comments below!

Or, if you have any questions about the camera, don't hesitate to post in our KP forum.

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