The Top Hidden Features of Pentax Cameras
Sometimes overlooked photographer friendly features to enhance the shooting experience
By wadge22 in Articles and Tips on Mar 28, 2022
Pentax has been designing and manufacturing SLR cameras since 1952, when they (then called the Asahi Optical Company) released the Asahiflex, the first Japanese SLR camera. In the following 70 years, they Pentax has introduced new cameras, new designs and features, has changed its target consumers, changed mounts, and changed ownership. This history continued through into the digital era (Pentax's first DSLR was in 2003 with the Pentax *ist D) right up to today's lineup of the full frame Pentax K-1 II, the entry level Pentax K-70, and the newest and most advanced offering, the Pentax K-3 III.
Through this long history, Pentax has learned much about what photographers are looking for in a camera, and gained intimate knowledge about the way that their tools are used to take pictures. They have embedded this deep knowledge into their camera designs to create cameras with features and layouts that are, in both obvious and subtle ways, intuitive to use yet packed with advanced and unique capabilities. In the camera marketing environment today, camera articles and reviews often focus primarily on stats and specs, side by side pixel peeping comparisons, and improvements over the previous generation or the competition. This type of coverage frequently misses some of the basic usability advantages or glosses over some of the robust specialized features that are present in a camera. Pentax, not known for the best self promotion of its strong points, likely suffers from this environment as much or more than any manufacturer.
In this article, we will cover a few of the overlooked or hidden features of the current Pentax cameras that really make them such a joy to use and such a great value for the photographer. This list will not be exhaustive, and indeed few single photographers likely know and utilize every feature of the complex machines they use every day. The article will, however, highlight a few specific features that Pentax has as an advantage over much of the competition, which will hopefully benefit those considering the brand for their next camera, as well as those who already have a Pentax but may be overlooking useful aspects of what is available to them in their camera right now.
Ergonomics and Interface
There are many features that make Pentax cameras terrific and intuitive tools for the photographer. Pentax has used its long history with SLR and DSLR cameras to bring us products that anticipate the way we interact with our devices, and make it simple to access commonly used controls without diving through menus or searching though a manual. Special attention is paid to the physical layout of the controls of the camera to ensure that they are right where you need them to be, when you need them, without taking your eye from the viewfinder or moving your hands from the shooting position.
Customizable UI features like the control panel, the user modes (all of the current models have at least three user configurable modes on the mode dial), and the "Fx" buttons allow each camera's user to tailor their device to their particular needs and tastes. The control panel in particular, which is accessed by pressing the "Info" button, is a great tool to customize to save time, and once set up may take the place of menu diving for almost all commonly used actions. The user modes should not be neglected, either, as they can save combinations of settings to be ready quickly for particular shooting tasks.
Another interface advantage for Pentax cameras is the well thought out exposure mode settings. The familiar M (manual), Tv (shutter priority, called S on some other brands), Av (aperture priority, called A on some other brands), B (Bulb), and P (program) modes are of course present, but there are also Sv (sensitivity priority, which works like program mode but with manual ISO), and the very useful and unique TAv mode, which lets the user set shutter speed and aperture manually with auto ISO to get the correct exposure. TAv mode is extremely useful in many situations, giving the photographer full control over their depth of field and exposure time, while still letting the camera's computer and metering system ensure proper exposure effortlessly.
On Pentax cameras, P mode is made more versatile than in other brands via a feature that Pentax calls Hyper Program Mode. This is automatically available any time P mode is used, and allows the user to manually set the aperture or shutter speed manually by turning the rear or front dial (all current Pentax DSLRs have at least these two dials). The camera will then essentially function as if in Tv or Av mode, leaving the manually adjusted value as set while adjusting the other two values to gain the correct exposure. To go back to full Program mode, the user simply presses the green button. In another instance of the green button making a familiar mode more useful, the normal M mode is augmented by Pentax's Hyper Manual mode, where a press of the green button will automatically choose all three settings as though in program mode for one instant, then allowing the user to make any desired changes from there as is normal for manual mode. Hyper Program has been a Pentax feature on every DSLR they have released, and even featured on film SLRs starting with the 1991 Pentax Z-1.
These useful exposure mode features may not seem at first glance to be particularly groundbreaking, but the exposure triangle is the key to every shot. Anything that a camera manufacturer does to make controlling these three values more effortless and natural will help the photographer concentrate on other aspects of the shot, or even simply enjoy themselves a little bit more!
Build Quality and Value
One aspect of the Pentax brand that comes up often when users are asked why they use like the brand is the build quality and the value of the cameras. Build quality is hard to define on a spec sheet, but it's something that you can feel in your hands when you hold the camera: a lack of flex, quality materials and finishes, a feeling of solidity, even the slightly higher weight of a DSLR compared to the increasingly prevalent mirrorless bodies these days. Pentax cameras just feel solid and high quality. The value is displayed by the fact that with Pentax, even lower tier offerings sport all of these great attributes.
One aspect of the build quality, and a very tangible one, is weather sealing: Pentax has included weather sealing on all of its bodies, including entry level offerings, since at least 2015. A weather sealed lens must be used along with the weather sealed body in order to offer weather protection. Weather sealed lenses are designated as either "WR," or as "AW," which means they provide additional dust sealing. Do note that while Pentax weather sealing is some of the best in the business, that does not mean the cameras are water proof; they are protected during light to moderate rain or snow, not submersion or heavy water sprays.
Another feature that makes it in to every model is Shake Reduction, the Pentax version of in body image stabilization. Shake Reduction is also called SR, as the badge on every Pentax camera featuring the technology styles it. This has been on every Pentax DSLR since 2006, barring one model, the 2006 K110D. Since SR is a mechanism that moves the sensor in the body, it works on every lens you mount on the camera, even M42 lenses from decades before optical stabilization was introduced. Not only that, but the next few features we will discuss make use of the sensor positioning mechanism that is used for Shake Reduction, allowing every current Pentax camera to do some impressive tricks.
Pixel Shift Resolution
Pixel Shift Super Resolution uses the SR system's ability to move the sensor very precisely in order to create an image with increased resolution, dynamic range, and color accuracy. It does this by taking four shots in quick succession with the sensor moved exactly one pixel between each shot, then combining them into one image with full color data for each pixel. The results can be impressively sharper and less noisy. This feature is available in even the entry level Pentax K-70, and the higher end models allow for more advanced functionality with this feature such as the ability to take shots handheld or of subjects with motion. Pixel Shift is not useful for all types of photography, but for many genres such as product photography and still life, architecture, landscapes or cityscapes, for copying negatives, slides, or artwork, or anything else with relatively stationary subjects, Pixel Shift creates images with detail otherwise only available in cameras with larger sensors.
The difference displayed in this straight out of camera JPG example shot is subtle but noticeable. Some subjects will display greater advantages, as well as show benefits that can only be realized through post processing of RAW files, such as for shadow recovery.
Astrotracer and Night Photography
Astrotracer is another function that makes use of the sensor shift capabilities, this time with a very specialized purpose: to track the slight but important movement of stars and other space objects over the time the shutter is open to take a photograph. Originally this tech used a GPS, which is built in to the K-1, K-1 II, and K-3 II, although the new firmware for the K-3 III allows Astrotracer without a GPS. Note that while the K-70 is capable of taking Astrotracer shots, it requires a separate O-GPS accessory to use the function. Using the GPS info as well as focal length data (or a reference shot and advanced computation, in the case of the K-3 III), the camera moves the sensor in just the right directions and speed to follow the movement of the stars, something which for most cameras requires an expensive star tracker mount. Using Astrotracer, simply astounding shots of the night sky, the milky way, or deep space objects are possible even for those without additional sophisticated equipment.
Before moving away from night photography, we will quickly discuss a couple more clever features in Pentax cameras that aid those going out shooting at night. First, all of the current bodies offer a Night Vision LCD display setting for the rear screen, which turns the screen red and dims the intensity, to make it easier to view without interfering with the sensitivity of the user's vision in the dark. Second, on the K-1 and K-1 II, there is another clever feature for shooting in the dark: lights on the camera body to help see the controls and aid in changing lenses. There is a button on the top of the camera to turn these lights on and off, and settings in the menus to customize which lights will be illuminated and how bright (there are lights on the back side of the rear screen, in the SD card slot, on the front of the camera for lens changes, and a backlight for the top LCD). This is great for astro photographers, or just anyone out early or late trying to get those dawn and dusk shots.
Composition Adjustment and Automatic Horizon Correction
There are a couple more unsung features that make use of the shake reduction mechanism. The composition adjust feature can come in handy when using a tripod and live view, allowing you to re-frame your shot slightly without having to adjust the tripod or head. This function can be accessed by turning on the composition adjustment feature and then turning on live view. Slight movements of the sensor can be dialed in left or right, up or down, as well as tilting either left or right. While there is not a large range, sometimes this will be just enough to save needing to move tripod legs or otherwise mess with a stable setup, or the make very precise changes that are hard to achieve with some support gear. It may also come in handy when no tripod is available and the camera is set on a hard surface that may not itself be level.
The automatic horizon correction is a related feature, but needs only to be turned on in order to function. Any time it is on, a small area close to the center of the electronic level in live view will be highlighted. This area represents about one degree of tilt when SR is turned on, and about two with SR off. As long as you have the camera level within that range, the automatic correction will do the rest and make sure that your shot is perfectly level. This is useful both on a tripod and particularly handheld, and it allows you to focus your attention on other aspects of composition and shooting. While correcting the horizon is not difficult with a slight crop of the image on the computer, using the camera's built in horizon correction feature will give a full resolution shot, help reduce time post processing, and create better pictures straight out of camera.
Composite and Frame Averaging
One last set of features we will cover in detail is perhaps the most overlooked set of tools on this list, and that is multiple exposure composite and frame averaging. These functions use multiple exposures to create one image with image data from all of the shots. This offers numerous exciting possibilities for creative shots, some of which may just save photographers from having to invest in additional expensive gear.
That's because frame averaging can replace one of the major uses of neutral density filters; reducing the intensity of light getting to the sensor in order to allow a long exposure. Pictures with clouds, waterfalls, or the surface of a body of water can have a very pleasing effect when smoothed out by a very long exposure, and so can star trails or the lights from traffic at night. Another use is shooting a long exposure of a busy site such as a landmark, with the long exposure making the people who come and go in the frame "disappear." Typically in order to get these kinds of shots, photographers put a neutral density filter in front of the lens to allow very long exposures. However these filters can be expensive, particularly for wide angle lenses with large or protruding front elements that may require special holders and very large filters. There's the monetary cost, as well as the time fitting the accessories and the weight and size to carry it all into the field. With frame averaging, the same kinds of shots can be taken with just the camera and lens itself. The photographer sets their exposure normally (any shutter speed can be used, even short ones), enters the number of frames (the total exposure time will be the number of frames multiplied by the shutter speed), the time between each shot, and then lets the camera take all of the shots and averages the data into one image.
There are a few ways to get to access and use feature, but the easiest to use is found in the interval setting. This is by default found on the top or "up" button of the direction keys, to change the drive mode. Select interval as the drive mode, then choose interval composite. Press the "Info" button to change the desired conditions, deselect "save process" (unless you want a file saved for each individual shot in addition to the composite image), and be sure to select "average" as the composite mode to get the type of long exposure we have been discussing. "Additive" and "bright" have other creative applications, and this tool likely requires some experimentation to discover the many possibilities. The other option for frame averaging is to use the composite mode, which will require the shutter to be pressed multiple times or held down in drive mode. A preview of each shot will appear as it is taken, and then a ghosted image will remain on the screen in live view to help align the next shot.
This tool truly is a very powerful and often overlooked feature. It offers access to the same type of artful shots that would typically require expensive filters, straight from the camera. While it is possible to do the same thing with any camera using multiple images and post processing software, that method is time consuming and requires saving and transferring many more files, which for long exposures is very memory intensive. Fortunately for Pentax shooters, the camera takes care of all of that for us and gives us one finished image.
In this example image, not only was the waterfall smoothed out, but tourists coming and going on the platform below and the bridge above the falls were effectively removed by the long total time of the exposure (a faint ghost of one onlooker is still visible next to the sign on the platform).
The Photographer Focus
In 2022, it's hard to go wrong with a camera from any brand. Essentially all modern sensors deliver exceptional performance. The competition among the brands over how many megapixels, how many frames per second, or how many focus points have more or less maxed out at higher numbers than most photographers need, and enthusiast consumers are instead choosing based on the more complete package of the ownership and user experience of a camera brand. It's in this area that the other manufacturers have catching up to do with Pentax.
Pentax has always been, and still remains, focused on the photography experience as much as the camera itself. This is evident in things like the new viewfinder in the Pentax K-3 III, which is the largest and brightest of any APS-C DSLR, rivaling those in full frame models and giving a unique connection between the photographer and the world on the other end of the lens. It's evident in the continued support for 47 years worth of K mount lenses that are already sitting our cabinets or being handed down to young photographers from a previous generation. It's evident in the the joy of a budding shutterbug discovering and experimenting with an impressive feature on their first camera and actually making images, rather than rushing out to buy a specialized accessory to get the same shot. It's this focus on the photographer, and on the joy of the photographic process that is the Pentax advantage.
Do you know of any other great Pentax features or advantages not listed in this article? Let us know in the comments section!
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