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Pentax K-3: And now for something completely different (hands-on)

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For its latest top-of-the-line dSLR, the K-3, Pentax overhauls the K-5 II/IIs inside and out: it's got a new sensor, new body design, new AF system, new metering system, and improved performance. I had a chance to spend some time with an early model that displayed some not-unexpected firmware wonkiness that prevent my reporting on image quality or performance, but it looks like a promising start with some interesting twists. As for Pentaxians who don't need the latest and greatest, the K-5 II and IIs will remain in the line at lower prices, although Pentax hasn't announced what those will be yet.

Like the IIs (and the Nikon D7100), the K-3's new 24MP drops the optical low-pass filter (OLPF) entirely. But sometimes you want the slight blurring effect of the OLPF, especially if you know moire will be a problem -- and Pentax takes a novel approach to addressing that concern. The K-3 can use its sensor-shift shake reduction mechanism to slightly offset the pixels with circular, horizontal, or vertical movements. It doesn't seem to be available in movie mode, however. To compensate for the increased vulnerability of the sensor, there's now a vibrating piece of coated glass over it for dust protection and removal.

The new autofocus system unfortunately doesn't have any Live View optimizations, though Pentax says that five of the AF sensors are specifically for low light, and even the preproduction model was able to lock focus in some pretty dim conditions. Pentax also takes a leaf out of Nikon's and Canon's book, implementing a more granular, RGB metering system and using the data from the light meter to supplement the autofocus. Like the Canon EOS 70D, it now implements Zone Focus, though it doesn't display the zone -- just the selected focus point -- on prefocus. It does seem to select the center of the zone more often then not (which is good). The camera retains the expanded area AF as well.

Per Pentax, the new viewfinder has improved coatings on the prism for better refraction and reflection for sharper image, with slightly increased magnification, and while I don't see a perceptible difference it's still a nice viewfinder. It's also the first camera to support USB 3.0 -- I'm not quite sure of the implications yet, as that depends on implementation, but it does open the door for faster download speeds to the computer and improved bandwidth for tethered shooting.

Performance enhancements include a boost to 8.3fps continuous shooting with a usefully deeper raw buffer, which in ostensibly puts the K-3 ahead of its class. It also potentially delivers improved image stabilization (an extra stop) and better shutter durability. Pentax brings its movie mode into parity with the rest of the world with 1080/30p and 720/60p options, along with a mic and headphone jack, and it now has peaking for manual focus. There's also a new 4K (3,840x2,160) option for interval shooting. Filters now work in raw+JPEG and movie modes.

The body design, while not completely overhauled, does have many significant changes over the K-5 series. The mode dial is now lockable, though I'm not sure about the implementation; there's a lock switch that you use in conjunction with the more typical central button. It seems a bit overkill to me. Pentax has also adopted the convention of a switch for toggling between movie and still capture, with a dedicated Live View/Record button.

The new navigation buttons are cleverly designed for moving diagonally (as you'd want to do when selecting focus points), and I think I like Pentax's approach better than Nikon's or Canon's controls.

Pressing on the raised edges allows you to navigate diagonally, and the elevated sides deliver a little more tactile feedback from the somewhat flat buttons. Sarah Tew/CNET

Overall, I really like the camera's interface, which should be familiar to any recent Pentax shooter; though the buttons have moved around from where you might be used to encountering them. I also find the company's interactive control panel a little counterintuitive after being away from it for a while. On other cameras, on the brief info screen you hit a button and then navigate around the screen, changing settings. On a Pentax, you see all the important settings on the control screen, but have to hit different buttons to change each setting. To change multiple settings from a single screen, you have to go to the more crowded and difficult to quickly parse (because all the icons have similar visual weight) Info screen. On the K-50, which has fewer features, this isn't so bad. On the feature-packed K-3, though, it's more to wade through.

These types of control screens are hard to parse when you're in a rush.

There are some disappointments, too. For one, it's got a fixed rather than articulating LCD; oddly, Pentax is the one manufacturer that resists incorporating movable LCDs. Flash junkies will notice it still has a pretty slow sync speed. And it lacks built-in Wi-Fi, instead opting for SD-card-based solutions, though there will be a custom Pentax Flucard option to support wireless tethering options via Web browser.

  Canon EOS 70D Nikon D7100 Pentax K-3 Pentax K-5 II/IIs
Sensor effective resolution 20.2MP CMOS
14 bits
14 bits
14 bits
22.5x15mm 23.5x15.6mm 23.5x15.6mm 23.7x15.7mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
OLPF filter Yes No No Yes/No
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 12800/25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 51200 ISO 80 (exp)/
100 - ISO 12800/
51200 (exp)
Burst shooting 7fps
16 raw/65 JPEG
(7fps in 1.3x crop mode)
23 raw/60 JPEG
8 raw/30 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) 98% coverage
100% coverage
0.92x/ 0.61x
Autofocus Dual-Pixel CMOS
19-pt phase-detection AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8
51-pt phase- detection AF
15 cross- type; center to f8 or faster
(Multi-CAM 3500DX)
27-pt phase-detection AF
25 cross-type
(SAFOX 11)
11-pt phase-detection AF
9 cross- type
AF sensitivity -0.5 - 18 EV -2 - 19 EV -3 - 18 EV -3 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync
Shutter durability n/a 150,000 cycles 200,000 cycles 100,000 cycles
Metering 63-zone iFCL 2,016-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 86,000-pixel RGB 77-segment
Metering sensitivity 1 to 18 EV 0 to 20 EV -3 to 20 EV 0 to 22 EV
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p 1080/60i/50i/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV
(60i/50i only in 1.3x crop mode)
1080/60i/50i/ 30p/25p/24p; 720/60p H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/25p; 720/30p/ 25p Motion JPEG AVI
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input; headphone jack Mono; mic input, headphone jack Mono; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Shutter only Yes n/a
Maximum best- quality recording time n/a 4GB/29:59 min 25 min 4GB/25 min
IS Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift
LCD size 3-inch articulated touch screen
3.2-inch fixed
1,228,800 dots
3.2-inch fixed
1,037,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,000 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC/ SDHC
(SDXC requires firmware upgrade)
Wireless connection Wi-Fi None None
(Pentax-custom Flucard, $99.95)
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 920 shots
(210 Live View)
950 shots
560 shots
740 shots
Size (WHD, inches) 5.5x4.1x3.1 5.3x4.2x3 5.2x3.9x3.1 5.2x3.8x2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 27.2 27.3 28.2 26.1 (est)
Mfr. price $1,119 (body only) $1,199.95 (body only) $1,299.95 (body only) $1,095.95/
$1,199.95 (body only)
$1,349 (with 18-55mm STM lens) $1,599.95 (with 18-105mm lens) $1,699.95 (with 18-135mm WR lens) $1,249.95 (with 18-55mm WR lens)/n/a
$1,549 (with 18-135mm STM lens) n/a n/a $1,449.95/ n/a (with 18-135mm WR lens)
Release date August 2013 March 2013 November 2013 October 2012

The lack of any Live View-optimized autofocus enhancements is a real drawback, though I find Pentax lenses are pretty slow movers anyway. However, I think current Pentax photographers who've been waiting to upgrade may find significant reasons to do so for the K-3. I look forward to seeing it when it's fully baked.

Discuss: Pentax K-3 (Body Only)

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Digital Camera Type Enthusiast dSLR
  • Weight 25.22 oz
  • Sensor Resolution 23.35 pixels
  • Optical Sensor Size (metric) 15.6 x 23.5 mm
  • Optical Sensor Type CMOS