Pentax K-3 Review
What's the best way to describe the Pentax K-3? Well, it's an advanced DSLR with a robust feature set that delivers impressive image quality without making any sacrifices in terms of performance or overall speed. All this is packaged in a relatively-compact, well-built body with full weather-sealing, a user-friendly interface, and exceptional ergonomics. What we really like is that the K-3 delivers superior performance and has some top-notch specifications without sacrificing what we enjoyed about the K-5 and K-5 IIs.
Above: Pentax K-3 shown with the HD Pentax 55-300mm WR Lens
This camera is truly a high-performance DSLR. The K-3 addresses the shortcomings of its predecessor while delivering perfection in areas in which the K-5 was already strong. The new Pentax flagship turned out to be just as impressive in real life as it was on paper, something that isn't often the case due to quirks, limitations, etc. that might normally be discovered throughout the course of a review.
Prior to the arrival to the K-3, an interesting paradox existed in the Pentax DSLR lineup: the flagship K-5 II/IIs had the best build quality and many advanced features, but the entry-level K-30, K-50 and K-500 cameras had a more sophisticated video mode, smoother live view, and faster contrast detect autofocus. The K-3 addresses this disparity and the new flagship is now better than the more basic models in all key areas, as it should be.
We can safely say that the K-3 is the most compelling Pentax DSLR that has been produced to date, and it may also be the most sophisticated APS-C DSLR currently on the market for shooting stills. At $1299 it is very competitively and fairly priced, and it is a great value. Because the K-3 has been improved in so many areas compared to its predecessor, however, it is tough to summarize its performance without taking a closer look at each area individually.
The K-3's 24-megapixel sensor really packs a punch when combined with the new metering system and white balance module. It allows the camera to capture a high level of detail without making very many sacrifices. The K-3's white balance is very accurate, and its metering system has been tuned to avoid overexposure whenever possible. Native noise levels may be a bit higher than what we've observed from Pentax's 16-megapixel sensors, but the K-3's added resolution allows the noise to be controlled just as well after post-processing and/or scaling. At the end of the day, the only real drawback is that the K-3's files occupy 50-100% more disk space compared to 16-megapixel files, a small price to pay for the increased image quality.
The benefits of the K-3's filterless sensor are best observed with top-shelf lenses, such as DA limited primes or DA* lenses. For when moire does become an issue, we can't forget to mention the K-3's innovative AA filter simulator, which is very effective at reducing the presence of moire on demand. Fashion shooters will love this feature!
The live view autofocus system found in the K-3 is one of the best contrast detect autofocus implementations that we've seen to date in any DSLR. It rivals the speed of fixed-lens cameras when combined with lenses that have short focusing throws. The K-3's live view autofocus is significantly faster than that of the K-5 II, and it locks focus much more decisively.
Users of lenses with screwdrive autofocus will enjoy up to 50% faster focusing speeds from the K-3, as it has been fitted with a more powerful motor.
We think that any Pentax user upgrading from the original K-5 or any older body will greatly enjoy the improvements made to the K-3's autofocus. However, we also find that the K-3's 27-point viewfinder autofocus system isn't "the next big thing" that Pentaxians have been waiting for, as under the hood, it seems to work very much like the K-5 II's 11-point SAFOX X. The K-3's denser 27-point layout might make it better for specialized applications, but the focusing speed has not been improved in practice over that of its predecessor (not counting the faster screwdrive AF that we've already mentioned). One can't overlook that the K-3 can focus in extremely low light (down to -3EV), but for sports and tracking, the competition is still ahead.
With that said, the K-3's autofocus system is really quite good overall. Stills shooters will likely never be hindered by the K-3's viewfinder autofocus. Over the years, many online reviews and discussions have been complaining about the Pentax AF system, but with the latest modernizations that Pentax has been rolling out, such complaints are no longer valid for the vast majority of use cases. The next step is for Pentax to modernize its lens lineup with more fast-focusing lenses.
Pentax has made the K-3 its fastest DSLR to date, and it's the first that can leverage the speed of UHS-I memory cards and USB3 connectivity. Everyday tasks such as reviewing photos, bracketing, and applying lens corrections are carried out noticeably faster than on earlier cameras. The K-3's 8.3 FPS burst framerate not only makes it faster in continuous mode, but it speeds up bracketing and HDR shots, and makes shooting quieter.
The only drawback in this area is that if you pair the K-3 with a slow memory card (even a standard class 10 card without UHS-I), its files will take much longer to be saved due to their larger size. In addition, the K-3 tends to lock up for a bit too long than we'd like when saving RAW files, even after a short burst or bracketing.
The K-3's video mode has been enhanced with higher frame rates, a headphone jack, better audio sampling, and full manual controls. But because the video autofocus is still rather poor, the K-3 isn't the ideal choice for everyday "snapshot" videos. More seasoned videographers might be turned away from the K-3 due to its run-of-the-mill video image quality, or from Pentax in general due to lack of community support and lack of dedicated video accessories or cine lenses. Video has never been a key focus for Pentax, and the K-3 is no exception to this trend. We are happy, however, that the K-3 has been modernized to a reasonable extent.
Handling, Interface, and Ergonomics
The K-3 feels great in your hands, just like the K-5 before it did. Pentax has improved the K-3's grip so that the camera is even easier to hold, and it is actually big enough to allow you to single-handedly support the weight of larger lenses such as the DA* 60-250mm without a problem. The K-3 has gotten a little heavier: at 800 grams, the camera is 60 grams heavier than the Pentax K-5. The added weight might be felt with small lenses, but it actually otherwise helps balance larger lenses on the camera.
Even though it might be hard to tell the difference between the (100% coverage) 0.92x viewfinder of the K-5 and the 0.95x viewfinder of the K-3, the latter's viewfinder is best-in-class. While it's still dwarfed by film-era finders, no other current APS-C camera can do any better.
The new 3.2" rear LCD screen has an aspect ratio of 3:2 rather than 4:3, which means that there will be no black bars in live view or playback mode. This is one of our favorite improvements to the body itself. Pentax has also made the K-3's viewfinder slightly larger than that of its predecessor, but this change was very small and can't be appreciated in practice (the K-3 continues to use the same focusing screens as the K-5).
Pentax has changed the button layout a bit on the K-3, and some of the changes are good, while others aren't as great. The new AF mode button slows down switching between the various AF modes, and its positioning isn't optimal. On the other hand, this change allows settings to be saved to the K-3's USER modes or changed via the status screen, which adds a new level of flexibility. An example of a positive button change would be the AF button, which has been moved much closer to the rear e-dial so that it's easier to press. The AE-L button has been moved off to the side in order to not get in the way.
There are a few problems with the ergonomics of the new button layout. First of all, the RAW/FX button is placed too close to the "hump" housing the headphone jack, which means that it can easily be pressed accidentally when handling very small lenses. Second, when shooting verticals through the viewfinder, your forehead can accidentally depress the red live view button, potentially causing you to miss the moment. Third, the button duplication in the 4-way pad feels like a bigger burden now that the K-3 has more context-sensitive menu screens, such as the dedicated AF point selection mode.
The K-3's menu interface continues to be very user-friendly, but it has become much more complex than on earlier bodies due to the addition of many new options. Therefore, it is at times a bit difficult to navigate due to the number of button presses required, or simply because the screen might be too cluttered with icons (i.e. the drive mode screen or the control panel). There are a few interface quirks overall, but many of the issues that we have dicussed earlier in the review could easily be addressed via a firmware update.
- Exceptional detail at low ISOs
- High-resolution 24-megapixel sensor
- Accurate metering and white balance
- Fantastic auto white balance performance in artificial light
- Innovative and effective AA filter simulator
- In-camera moire removal
- In-camera HDR with RAW support
- Sensor-shift shake reduction stabilizes all lenses
- Fantastic main grip makes the camera easy to hold
- Excellent build quality
- Relatively compact body
- Fully weather-sealed design
- Friendly, face-lifted user interface
- Large and clear 3.2" 3:2 rear LCD
- Handy info screens for stills, live view, and video mode
- Mode dial lock can be toggled on and off
- Very fast and decisive contrast detect autofocus
- PDAF focuses in extremely low light (-3EV) and is very accurate
- Faster screwdrive autofocus than earlier bodies
- AF button conveniently placed
- Handy e-dial customizations
- Dense 27-point AF makes it easier to focus on smaller subjects
- Live view focus peaking
- Shooting modes can be changed without leaving live view
- Support for an external microphone and headphones
- Dedicated video info screen
- 3 USER modes and more customizable settings
- Great overall performance
- Fast in-camera lens corrections
- 8.3 FPS continuous shooting
- Very large continuous buffer
- Quiet, durable shutter rated for 200,000 actuations (best-in-class)
- 1/8000s maximum shutter speed
- Best-in-class 0.95x pentaprism viewfinder w/ 100% coverage
- Tethering support over Wi-Fi*
- Battery grip support*
- Dual SDXC card slots
- High-speed data recording (UHS-I card support and USB3)
- New manual flash discharge mode
- Exceptional backwards-compatibility
- Excellent selection of compact Pentax lenses
- Certain menu screens have become overly-complex
- Camera locks up for a prolonged period while writing RAW files
- Phase detect autofocus area unchanged
- Viewfinder AF tracking speed not significantly improved over the K-5 IIs
- Poor video autofocus
- Video recording freezes briefly while zooming/changing aperture
- Not possible to start video recording from stills live view
- Not possible to capture stills in video mode
- No focus peaking during video recording
- Not possible to select primary card slot for stills in sequential mode
- 1/180s flash sync speed
- Cycling through screens in playback mode is tedious
- Live view button may touch your forehead while shooting verticals
- No video quality/compression options, 1.2x crop
- New AF mode button is somewhat slow to work with
- Large JPEG (~14Mb) and RAW (~30Mb) files require faster memory cards
- Noise sets in earlier than on 16-megapixel sensors
- Slightly less dynamic range than the K-5 / K-5 II
- Live view still does not offer a real-time exposure preview
- Somewhat heavy at 800g (but better for larger lenses)
- USB cord not included
- Manual is unexhaustive and hard to read (small 2-up pages)
- Third-party lens support is lacking
The K-3 sets new benchmarks for APS-C image quality, framerate, and buffer size: something that other manufacturers should be very jealous of!
- demanding photographers seeking excellent still image quality
- users looking for a compact yet versatile high-end DSLR
- outdoor shooters
- users who frequently use live view with AF lenses
Not so good for:
- sports shooters
Where to Buy
The Final Verdict
The Pentax K-3 is a pleasure to use, and it has exceeded our expectations in many ways. We think that this will be a dream camera for many enthusiast photographers, but it will certainly not be out of reach at its reasonable price of $1299. With the K-3, Pentax has successfully improved on their old flagship and addressed virtually all of the generational issues associated with it. This was undoubtedly no easy task, as the K-5 II was already a top-rated DSLR to begin with.
You can expect the Pentax K-3 to deliver great still image quality no matter where you take it. The new 24-megapixel sensor will give you an unprecedented level of detail in a K-mount DSLR. We are confident that it will stack up well against the competition, and that the gap between it and 24-megapixel full-frame DSLRs is smaller than you might think (stay tuned for a separate post on this topic).
We have very few complaints about the K-3, as most of the issues that we've identified were quirks that won't get in the way of everyday shooting or that could be addressed via firmware. Our main gripe is that the K-3's video capabilities aren't quite as "professional" as Pentax has described them in its marketing materials. The basic video autofocus, lack of control over compression/quality, and intermittent freezing while zooming with variable aperture lenses, among other things, makes this camera's video mode neither consumer- nor pro-friendly. Apart from this, once you get used to the K-3's complex menu systems and new button layout, all you'll need to worry about is the location of the live view button while shooting verticals- the K-3's only real ergonomic defect.
To take full advantage of the K-3's filterless sensor, you will need to have some sharp lenses in your bag. We stand behind the following lenses as the best of the best from Pentax (or for Pentax):
- FA 31mm limited
- DA 35mm limited macro
- DA 70mm limited
- FA 77mm limited
- DFA 100mm macro
- DA* 55mm
- DA* 60-250mm
- DA* 300mm
- Sigma 35mm F1.4
- Sigma 85mm F1.4
- Sigma 70-200mm F2.8
Ricoh's influence on the Pentax brand seems to be a positive one so far. The Ricoh logo on the back of the K-3 is well-deserved if Ricoh Imaging plans on taking the technology in Pentax DSLRs to new heights in the future, as they've done with the K-3. The bottom line is simple: the K-3 is an absolute winner no matter how you look at it, and we're in love with it. But despite its impressive specifications and capabilities, this camera isn't groundbreaking enough help the Pentax brand regain its lost market share- at least not on its own.
*There are a few aspects of the K-3 that we weren't able to cover in this review, such as its optional D-BG5 battery grip, the FluCard wireless tethering, Eye-Fi support, and the O-GPS1 GPS accessory. Sections about these accessories and the features that they deliver will be added at a later date. The production FluCard is expected to be released in the US in December, so we will not be able to comment on its performance or features until that time.
Update as of Dec, 2013: we have added a section on the battery grip.
Update as of Mar, 2014: the FluCard started shipping in March, 2014. We have posted our in-depth review of the FluCard separately.
Should You Upgrade?
As we've already shown in great detail, the K-3 is an upgrade in just about every area when compared with any other Pentax DSLR currently on the market. Whether or not you will want to upgrade to this camera will depend on your needs and on your budget. If you want more resolution, better live view autofocus, or faster overall speed, then you should strongly consider the K-3. On the other hand, if you already have a Pentax K-5 II and your primary interest is to get better low-light image quality or faster viewfinder autofocus, the upgrade to the K-3 might not be that big of a leap. We can't make this choice for you, but we hope that our review has helped you decide which camera is right for you.
What we can say is that if you simply want the best that Pentax currently offers, don't hesitate to buy a K-3. Just be sure to pair it with a high-speed memory card!
If you aren't currently a Pentax user, but are coming from a Nikon D7000, D7100, Canon 7D, or any other DSLR, the K-3 might very well be right for you if image quality, compactness, and handing is a priority. Other brands have a more mature lens selection in many ways, however, so you should not base your decision on the camera bodies alone, as they become obsolete much more quickly than the lenses and accessories that you may have already invested in.
Have questions about the K-3 or want to see what our users are saying about it? Visit our Pentax K-3 forum.
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