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Pentax has a fair bit of history of pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, and it is good to see that Ricoh has let Pentax be its colourful self (pun intended). The rabbit, in this case, turned out to be quite a different animal. The Pentax K-3 is a mid-segment 24MP APS-C DSLR, positioned above the K-5 II and K-5 IIs… cameras that I thoroughly enjoyed using earlier. It does not take much to see that Pentax has improved on the K-5 II in every way, with a huge array of features.
Let us begin with a feature it does not have—an optical low pass anti-aliasing filter. Without this filter, images from the densely packed 24MP sensor can be superbly sharp, but fine patterns, like the weave of fabrics, can sometimes cause moiré. Ingeniously, the K-3 can ‘switch on’ anti-aliasing, in two intensities, by using microscopic vibrations from its sensor-shift Shake Reduction mechanism to blur out moiré during exposure. A sensor-shift system within the camera also allows Shake Reduction to be used with every lens, including the venerable K mount manual focus lenses.
For me, personally, perhaps the most significant feature of this camera is its rugged construction. It is fully made of magnesium alloy on a stainless steel frame, with no less than 92 weather resistant seals. You cannot immerse it in water, but it can withstand unforgiving rains. Of course, you need to use a weather resistant lens. The standard zoom 18-55mm kit lens is similarly weatherproofed, as are many other lenses in the Pentax range.
The K-3 has 27 AF points (25 cross-type), which can focus in very low light levels of -3EV. It is equipped with a 86,000 pixel RGB light-metering sensor for exposure, white balance and AF accuracy. The maximum shooting speed is a blazing 8.3 fps, it has twin SD card slots, and it is one of only two DSLRs available today with USB 3.0 support.
Additionally, the K-3 features a shutter tested for 200,000 cycles, a new 3.2-inch 1037k air-gap-free LCD, a visibly larger viewfinder with 100% field of view, compatibility with Eye-fi (for Wi-fi) and with Flucard (for control with smartphones).
With the K-3, video is a now a significant feature. It sports 1920×1080 30p/60i H.264, and supports it with various exposure modes (including Manual), controllable audio levels, and both stereo headphone and microphone ports. Interestingly, the camera has an Interval Movie Record function that shoots stills at predefined intervals and puts them together as a 4k movie.
Those who read my review of the K-5 II in October would be aware of my affinity for the ‘Pentax style’ of handling. I praised the high level of user customisability too. Except for a couple of changes to accommodate video, the K-3 is almost identical to the K-5 II, in both button layout, functions, as well as handling methodology.
It is the small things that make a big difference. For instance, the shutter is probably the quietest amongst DSLRs yet. Another example is the ability to calibrate the LCD for brightness, saturation and tint… while looking at images on it. Yet another is that you can independently set the level of noise reduction for each stop of ISO. The K-3 also adds a huge level of functionality with extensive RAW processing options, digital filters, and picture settings that can be applied within the camera. The K-3 is filled with plenty of such features that enhance user experience.
None of the criticisms that I had with the K-5 II hold true with the K-3, especially in terms of responsiveness. The camera is wonderfully quick to start, focus, shoot and store images, in various settings.
I am impressed with what the sensor delivers, both in RAW and JPEG. In all the shooting I have done so far with the K-3, I have not come across a situation where I needed to turn on the anti-aliasing simulation. But in the tests where I forced moiré, the simulation worked well enough.
This brings me to my only major gripe within this review… the 18-55mm kit lens. While it worked reasonably well with the K-5 II, it just cannot render enough detail to get the best out of K-3’s sensor.
In the end, I think that the biggest question is whether the camera makes you really want to take pictures. With the K-3, the answer is a resounding yes. I don’t think I have had this much fun ‘playing around’ with a camera for a while now. The K-3 costs $1170 for the body and $1615 with the 18-135mm kit lens [REFRESH PRICES]. This is slightly more expensive than its closest competitors. But then, it also offers a lot more bang for the buck.
In terms of image quality, it is a toss up between the K-3 and the Nikon D7100, but I put the Pentax ahead for its features and sheer level of control over its images. However, your money would be better spent on buying a prime lens rather than the 18-135mm.
Pentax is also not the most popular brand amongst third party lens makers. On the bright side, the secondhand market for old Pentax manual focus lenses is excellent, with some legendary lenses available at throw-away prices.