Pentax K-3 DSLR - First Impressions & Samples

On Friday, I received the Pentax K-3 I pre-ordered the day it was announced. While I haven't had much time to shoot with it yet, I want to share some first impressions and early pictures from the camera. First a word about my weakness for things Pentax. My first 'serious' cameras were a Pentax ME and a ME Super. I beat the hell out of them. I fancied myself a photojournalist and battled with other photographers to get good shots of riots or a close-up portrait of the pope when he visited Holland. This involved lots of elbow work and my poor Pentaxes clanging against much sturdier Nikons and Canons, the ones the real pros were using.

We're always happy to get some real brassing on our old-timers, but the damage to my ME Super went beyond brassing.

It still works, though. And I would kill to have the combination of the split-line, prism and matte glass to manually focus on a modern SLR. I was fast with that thing. I used it from the 70s to the 90s. When our first child was born, I upgraded to some plasticky Pentax because I already had some Pentax lenses, albeit manual focus ones. But it wasn't much of a camera and I forgot about Pentax in the following years.

My interest was rekindled after I read Mike Johnston's articles about the beautiful line of Pentax 'limited' lenses, lenses that are a joy to hold and render great. At some point, I decided to sell the Canon 1D Mark II I had but didn't really need and I bought a Pentax K20d and three 'limited' lenses, the 21, 40 and the 77mm. Often, though, I opted for my remaining Canons with more versatile lenses when going out shooting and the Pentax languished on the shelf.

Still, I couldn't get myself to part with the system. The K20d easily had the best interface of any DSLR I knew and those lenses were just great. I decided to buy a K5 II and see if it could rekindle my love for things Pentax.

While I was waiting for my Pentax to ship, Ricoh, the new owner of the Pentax brand, announced the K-3. I canceled my order and ordered the K-3 from Pentax USA. As I said, it arrived Friday.

This is not a review, because I have so far hardly used the camera. These are just first impressions. And despite my admitted nostalgic weakness for the brand, the first encounter was a bit of a letdown.

First there was the packaging. Ricoh opted for bubble wrap and simple carton packaging inside the box. This always looks cheap to me on a product that costs a small fortune. The Olympus OM-D EM-1, which costs just about the same, is a joy to unpack and gives you the feeling you're unwrapping something special. This is not the case with the K-3 at all. A pity.

And then I held the camera and the sculpted grip didn't feel right. Grips are very important to me. The Fuji X100S was a pain to hold until I got the thumb grip. The Olympus OM-D EM-5 with a lens is similarly a pain for me without the optional grip. On this Pentax, the indent for your middle finger felt too deep for my average-size hand and it wasn't comfortable at first.

I say 'at first,' because I don't notice this anymore when I actually use the camera for shooting. After a little while, the camera did fall naturally to my hand. I haven't shot one full day with it yet, so I will not pass final judgment on the grip yet.

I should add that the camera feels extremely solid. It's clearly built to high standards. All buttons are easily reachable and feel just right. Pentax offers more shooting modes than its competitors, which is something I still have to play with. The only thing that bugged me about the menu was how many steps it took to get to formatting the cards. I have to see if there's a quicker way.

All the shooting I did so far were a couple of quick snaps in the house and some shots in Bear Mountain State Park. In the house, the auto white balance under tungsten light was off. I will try more shots under tungsten light to see if this was just a coincidence.

Focusing is speedy for a camera in this class, but doesn't match my Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800. It had trouble focusing on the water ripples in the shot below.

Pentax K-3 with Pentax-FA 50mm f/1.4

The K-3 shoots in JPEG and/or one of two RAW formats, Pentax's own proprietary format or Adobe's universal DNG format. Since the camera is brand new, I shot in DNG and in JPEG. The camera has two card slots and I used one card for RAW and one card for JPEGs.

That led to a shock. I put the first card with the DNG files on Lightroom and they rendered nicely. Colors were good. Pictures were sharp. It's clearly a good sensor.

Then I loaded the card with the JPEGs and everything was way off. Clearly, my in-camera JPEG settings were wrong. I checked and found that my JPEG output was set at 'bleach bypass.'

This was actually something I feared. That's because the arrows on the back control either a combo of flash/drive/white balance and JPEG parameters or they control your focus points. There's a button that switches between the two. I had obviously been fiddling with the right arrow for the JPEG settings thinking I was changing focus points. It's something I have to keep in mind when using the K-3.

The camera has no anti-aliasing filter, but has a function that performs as a filter if you so desire. This got quite a bit of attention at the time of the announcement, but it's not really played up in the manual. I haven't tried it yet and unless I run into a situation where I fear moire might be a problem, I'm not likely to try it. I like my cameras without an AA filter.

Even though I love Pentax as a brand, I'm really not upset about seeing Ricoh on the back of the camera. Why would I? If Ricoh continues the gutsy design line of Pentax, I wish them all the best. I wish someone had saved the Contax brand and product line before that venerable brand faltered in the digital revolution.

I'm aware that these first impressions don't sound as coming from a Pentax afficionado. So, let me add that the camera is actually a joy to use. It's responsive. The continuous drive is blazingly fast. It feels like a real machine. The files look great. I don't have any recent experience with APS-C cameras like this one, but I wouldn't be surprised that those who do will conclude that this is the most capable APS-C camera of the current lot.

I will shoot a lot more with the K-3 this week and report back.

By John van Rosendaal


Below are some full-resolution shots I took today, as posted on Flickr. These are all straight out of the camera with the DNG to JPEG conversion done in Lightroom.


Pentax K-3 with Pentax-FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited - 1/320, f8, ISO 200


 Pentax K-3 with Pentax-FA 50mm f/1.4 - 1/640, f5.6, ISO 100


Pentax K-3 with Pentax-DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited - 1/250, f8, ISO 100


Pentax K-3 with Pentax-DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited - 1/200, f8, ISO 200


And the Bleach Bypass JPEG parameters