Pentax K-70 First Impressions Review

One of the most compelling Pentax models to date

By PF Staff in Hands-On Tests on Aug 3, 2016

The long-awaited Pentax K-70 DSLR finally made its debut last week!  Attractively priced at just $649 in the US and £559 in the UK, this camera makes a host of advanced features quite affordable—including features normally reserved for flagship models.  Most notably, it packs a 24-megapixel sensor with 14-bit RAW files and Pixel Shift super resolution, a technology that allows for noticeably better image quality when shooting a stationary subject from a tripod. All three of these features are a first outside of a Pentax flagship model.  The K-70 is also the first Pentax ever to feature on-sensor hybrid phase detection autofocus, which promises to improve live view focusing speed and enables continuous focusing during video recording.  Beyond these new hardware additions, the K-70 has seen some firmware tweaks, too.  We'll cover all this in detail later in this post.

K-70 with 18-135mm lens (click to enlarge)

All-in-all, the K-70 delivers everything you'd expect from a modern Pentax.  It bears a stark resemblance to last year's Pentax K-S2, with the following highlights:

  • a weather-sealed body
  • dual control wheels
  • built-in Wi-Fi (for remote control via a smartphone)
  • built-in Shake Reduction
  • an articularing LCD screen
  • full set of shooting modes, scene modes, and user modes
  • full HD video with external sound input

As more of a mid-range camera, the K-70 is suitable not only for beginners who desire good image quality and full automation, but also for more experienced users who appreciate manual control and high-end features.  Furthermore, the weather sealing makes it a great choice for outdoor shooters.  It's clear that the K-70 brings quite a lot of versatility to the table.

Expect to see our full in-depth review of the K-70 in September.  For now,  read on for our preliminary impressions of the camera!

To set a context for comparison, we recommend that you read our Pentax K-S2 review first, as the K-70 is identical to the K-S2 in many ways (such as button layout, menu styling, and viewfinder AF).

Construction and Handling

One of our complaints with the K-S2 pertained to the small main grip.  While some users had no problem with this, we found grip to be less comfortable than on earlier Pentax models like the K-50 or K-30.  The K-70 effectively addresses this issue by offering a deeper grip that also feels wider thanks to additional padding on the right side of the camera.  This gives the grip a unique shape, but it works well!

The 4-way controller now also has an improved tactile feel to it, as the edges of each of the buttons  bulge outward.

Padded grip, Wi-Fi/Fx2 button (click to enlarge)

While the button layout of the K-70 is the same as that of the K-S2, the Wi-Fi button on top of the camera (now also referred to as the Fx2 button) has received more customization options.  It can control the AF area, toggle the electronic level, trigger optical preview, toggle the outdoor view/night vision setting, toggle Wi-Fi, or change the file format.  The same options are available for the RAW/Fx1 button.

Another minor change includes the addition of a third User mode (U3) to the mode dial.  This takes the place of Advanced HDR, which is now accessible through the main menu or Control Panel.  We feel that this was a great decision, since the Advanced HDR effect only applies to JPEGs and is arguably too exaggerated compared to standard HDR.  For those who might want to use it right away, though, Pentax has pre-programmed the U2 setting to work just like A-HDR did on the K-S2.

The shutter sound is on the noisier side and similar to that of the K-S2, K-50, and K-30.

Overall, the K-70 feels great with your hands and balances nicely with small and medium-sized lenses.  The articulating LCD is handy for a variety of situations out in the field.  This section also wouldn't be complete if we didn't give a shout-out to the K-70's bright pentaprism viewfinder: something you won't find in entry-level Canon and Nikon models.

Software Additions

The K-70 has received a number of new menu options, some of which we're seeing for the first time, while others have been passed down from the recently-launched K-1 full frame.

Customizable Control Panel (default icons shown)

Most notably, the K-70's Control Panel is now fully customizable.  This is extremely useful, since the Control Panel offers shortcuts to many common camera settings and can be accessed at a single press of the Info button.  With the customization feature, you decide which of the dozens of available settings will show up on this screen.  You can also move icons around.  The new Outdoor View setting (originally launched on the K-1) and the Night Vision setting (debuting on the K-70) are among those that can be accessed through this screen.

Night Vision display setting

This takes us to the next major feature, though it certainly fills a niche: the Night Vision screen mode.  With the appropriate setting enabled, the screen adopts a dark red color palette which will not bother your eyes while you are out shooting in the dark (i.e. astrophotography).  This setting affects all menu screens as well as live view.  It can be combined with the Outdoor View setting to further dim or brighten the display as needed.

We won't cover other changes in more detail for now, but here is a list of other tweaks that we've spotted while strolling through the menu:

  • Bulb mode allows the selection of shutter times up to 20 minutes
  • 3 new selectable display color schemes were added with bright outlines for highlighted items
  • On the ISO sub-menu, the camera will now show the selected shutter speed and aperture
  • The Clarity enhancement setting now has an adjustment range from -4 to +4 (as on K-1)
  • A Skin Tone adjustment setting has been added (as on K-1)
  • A new viewfinder overlay sub-menu has been added to house the AF point illumination and electronic level settings (as on K-1)*
  • A C18 custom function has been added to allow the 4-way controller to change AF points by default, rather than providing access to the four sub-menus by default (as on K-1)

*note that the K-70 still uses red LEDs in the viewfinder, just like other Pentax APS-C models

In terms of everyday performance, the K-70 doesn't get in your way, and is generally quick and responsive. 

Image Quality

The K-70 is the first non-flagship Pentax to offer a 24-megapixel sensor.  This is an improvement over the 20-megapixel resolution from the previous generation (K-S2, K-S1), and the 16-megapixel resolution of the generation before (K-50, K-30).  When combined with Pixel Shift functionality, the K-70 promises to bring out more pixel-level detail than any other camera in its class.  Its maximum ISO has also been bumped up to 102,400.

Sample photo taken with the K-70 & DA 18-135mm, hand-held, 135mm, ISO 200, F6.3, 1/320s

What's more, the K-70 saves 14-bit RAW files in .PEF or .DNG format, just like flagship bodies.  This means that it can deliver better shadow and color detail compared to older 12-bit cameras.  A positive side-effect of this is that the K-70 also ships with Pentax's Digital Camera Utility 5 (DCU5) software, which is useful for applying in-camera settings retroactively to RAW files.  DCU5 is also a good tool for processing files taken with Pixel Shift.

The K-70 ships with the full version of the Digital Camera Utility 5 software

Due to the amount of testing required, we will leave the analysis of the K-70's image quality for our in-depth review.  Full-size samples will follow in a separate post prior to the review, however.

For now we can say that things are looking great, and there is nothing to suggest that the K-70 can't deliver the same level of image quality as the Pentax K-3 II (which also has a 24-megapixel sensor and Pixel Shift support).

Below are two more samples taken with the 18-135mm lens.  Click to enlarge:

18mm, ISO 400, 1/25s, F3.5
18mm, ISO 1600, 1/40s, F3.5

Live View Autofocus

After reading the K-70 press release, we were excited to hear that the K-70 would be incorporating a hybrid live view autofocus system with sensor-plane phase detection sensors.  These sensors work just like the viewfinder autofocus system and can potentially help speed up live view autofocus, which otherwise works through trial-and-error contrast detection.

Sadly, we became quite disappointed when we discovered that the K-70's live view focusing speed/behavior was really no different in practice than that of the K-3, K-S2, or K-1.  The camera still uses contrast detection and can be painfully slow if it overshoots the correct focus point.

The live view AF options are 100% unchanged compared to the K-S2.  Continuous focusing has not been added, nor is there any setting/indication suggesting phase detection operation.

While Pentax's contrast detection implementation in live view is quite good to begin with for real-world shooting, the K-70 certainly doesn't live up to the hype of an overhauled live view autofocus system.  Perhaps the camera is in need of a firmware update or PLM lens to fully unleash its power; while we doubt this possibility, it is something that we will be investigating.

Video Mode

So what about video mode? Thankfully, in this mode the K-70 does have the promised continuous autofocus setting (when a lens with DC or PLM autofocus is mounted).  The main menu and Control Panel give access to AF.S and AF.C along with three AF point modes that can be active during recording (these are the same as in live view, on the K-70 and other models).

Again, though, the K-70 left us unimpressed.  While its continuous autofocus is in fact faster and more decisive than the rudimentary on-demand video AF offered in prior Pentax bodies, it still feels like a pure contrast detection focusing system.  If anything, the phase detection points are being used to confirm focus or the lack thereof, but we couldn't tell for sure based on how the camera behaved.  It still regularly overshoots the focus point and can be quite slow to adjust the focus if the scene suddenly changes.  Compared to the Nikon D5100 that we tested four years ago, the K-70's video focusing feels dated.  One nice thing about it, though, is that you can finally select the area for the camera to focus on.  Previous Pentax models evaluated the entire scene and thus had a mind of their own, oftentimes.

Although the K-70's continuous AF support is a step forward in the grand scheme of things, it's a baby step at best and is mainly going to be useful for beginners— at least for now.  We feel a bigger improvement can be observed with AF-S on-demand, since in this mode the camera does not need to guess when it should start focusing, and thus users can fully benefit from the improved speed and decisiveness of the AF system.

The image quality and other video features seem identical to those of the K-S2; like its predecessor, the K-70 does not offer focus peaking or digital zooming while recording.  Selectable framerates on the K-70 include 1080/60i/50i/30p/25p/24p (Full HD) and 720/60p/50p (HD), and shooting modes include full manual (M), full auto (P), aperture priority (Av), and shutter/aperture priority (TAv).  Unlike the K-1, the K-70 does not offer shutter priority (Tv) exposure in video mode.  An external mic port is available as a supplement to the built-in stereo microphone.

With video image quality that's average at best and only digital stabilization, the K-70 does not make for a particularly compelling model based on its video features alone.  Existing K-1 and K-3 users thus need not panic, as these cameras' video modes have certainly not been rendered obsolete by the K-70.

We'll end this section with a small disclaimer: we can't offer a definitive verdict on video focusing performance until the release of the new 55-300mm PLM lens.  Since the motor in this lens was specifically designed for fast continuous AF, and since it also debuts smooth aperture adjustments, it's possible that certain functionality will be added to the K-70 via firmware, or that maximum performance will only be attainable when this lens is mounted.

The sample videos that follow were both taken with the DA 18-135mm lens in AF-C with a centered 3x3 grid of points in "Auto" mode.  We frequently changed the distance to the subject to see how the camera would react.

Sample Clip A

Sample Clip B

Sample Clip C

K-70 or K-3?

We've repeatedly hinted at the fact that the K-70 can do just about everything that a Pentax flagship model like the K-3 or K-3 II can.  Well, that's mostly true, but there is still a very clear distinction between a mid-range/entry-level body like the K-70, and a more advanced model such as the K-3.  Why would you opt for a K-3 rather than the latest-and-greatest K-70, since they are both about the same price in some markets?

Pentax K-3, also with the DA 18-135mm

First of all, cameras in the flagship line have magnesium alloy bodies (i.e. an all-metal exterior), whereas the K-70 and its siblings are made of plastic on the outside, with only an internal metal chassis.  Both are weather-sealed and feel well-built, but cameras like the K-3 are unquestionably designed to last longer. 

Along these lines, the K-3 has a quiet shutter rated for 200,000 actuations, while the K-70 is noisier and its shutter bears no advertised rating.  Based on a recent survey of more than 100 forum users, we found that most K-S2/K-50/K-30 owners never exceeded the 30,000 frame count mark, though a few ventured as high as the upper 70,000's.  If you're a power user, you'll be best served by the flagship line.

With their more durable shutters, flagship models also offer faster framerates and larger burst buffers, particularly in RAW mode.

High-end models also have more external buttons, including a dedicated ISO button and a faster interface for changing AF modes.

The internal dust removal mechanism is different on the K-3, which uses a practically inaudible ultrasonic system. The K-70 physically shakes the sensor assembly using the Shake Reduction mechanism, which generates a rumble sound.

Flagship models generally have more advanced viewfinder autofocus systems, and this holds true here. The K-70 only has 11 points, while the K-3 has 27 along with a larger suite of focusing modes.  However, both cameras are equally accurate in low light, being sensitive in as little as -3EV.

There are plenty of subtle distinctions, too.  Flagship models (currently only the K-3, since the K-3 II has no flash at all) allow the on-board flash to act as a wireless controller, while the K-70 would require an external P-TTL flash for this purpose.  Similarly, every flagship model since the *ist D allows the user to choose from different program lines (such as those with a high shutter speed or wide-aperture preference), while the K-70 masquerades these options as Scene modes.

Where does the K-70 hold an edge over its aging flagship competitors?  It has features such as on-board Wi-Fi, a face-lifted menu system, more in-camera image processing options, the articulating screen, and of course the new continuous video autofocus.  Ultimately, whether or not you opt for the K-70 over the K-3 will depend on your level of experience, your priorities as a photographer, and your expectations from the camera.  For example, less experienced users may prefer the simpler button layout of the K-70, while advanced users might be frustrated by the lack of the ISO button or top LCD screen.  User interested in a camera that will last for 4 or 5 years would be best off with a K-3, while users who don't plan to use their camera as much might prefer the K-70 for its features.

Preliminary Verdict

Even though it appears that the Pentax K-70's live view and video focusing capabilities were over-hyped, it is still by all means a fantastic camera.  With new professional-level features at a $649 price tag ($100 less than the K-S2 at launch), the K-70 is arguably one of Pentax's most widely appealing DSLR models to date.  It will satisfy beginners, experienced users, and even some enthusiast photographers.

The K-70 will be a tempting upgrade path for many current Pentax owners thanks to this combination of low price, modern features, and powerful imaging capabilities.  Owners of cameras such as the K-30 or K-50 may see the K-70 as a "no-brainer", while users of older flagship models such as the K-5 may likewise be tempted.  The K-70 can also serve as a capable backup body for users of the K-3 or K-3 II.

At today's pricing, the K-70 ($649 body only, $899 with 18-135mm) is competitive alongside other DSLRs such as the Nikon D5500 ($749 body only, $849 with 18-55mm) or Canon Rebel T6i ($749 with 18-55mm), which are certainly not as feature-packed as far as stills are concerned, though they do fare better for video.

With its new low price of $499, the K-S2 is also not to be forgotten: it is very similar to the K-70, apart from the 20-megapixel sensor with 12-bit RAW, and lack of Pixel Shift.

To learn more about the K-70, read the official announcement and view its specifications. Stay tuned for our in-depth review!

Discuss the K-70 or ask questions in the Pentax K-70 forum.

Already know the Pentax K-70 is right for you?  Order yours today.

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