Pentax K-r £599
18th Nov 2010 | 10:00
With full specs, price, sample images, high ISO samples and more
Pentax K-r: Overview
Pentax has long been the bridesmaid of the DSLR market. As professionals almost exclusively opt for Nikon and Canon bodies to get access to top-end lenses and accessories, that apathy towards Pentax trickles down to consumers.
That hasn't stopped Pentax putting out some cracking consumer DSLRs, though. The Pentax K-x has long held a place in our hearts for its excellent image quality and top-notch kit lens, and the Pentax K-r is effectively its bigger brother.
Like the K-x, the K-r sensor is APS-C at 12.4 megapixels, and, also like the K-x, boasts a 720p Motion-JPEG video mode. It also has the same image processor as the K-x: the Pentax PRIME II.
There are improvements and changes elsewhere. The screen on the smaller, cheaper K-x has long felt a little tight at 2.7in; the Pentax K-r wisely upgrades to an industry-standard 3-inch LCD, and the resolution has increased sharply as well. The Pentax K-r also takes a unique approach to the K-x's double-edged sword of only accepting AA batteries, allowing you to fit either the included rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, or AAs depending on what you have to hand.
Pentax is playing a dangerous game, though. The K-x remains hugely desirable at just £400, while the circling sharks of Canon and Nikon's mid-range DSLRs are never far away. Can Pentax convince us it's worth the cash?
Pentax K-r: Build quality and handling
The Pentax K-r body has grown a little compared to the Pentax K-x – it's slightly larger in every respect, but it's still a fantastically easy camera to hold. The grip at the front is covered in chunky, textured rubber, and the left-hand edge gets the same treatment.
In truth, we'd prefer the contorted grip on the back where your right thumb grips the camera to be textured instead, but even so the K-r is very comfortable to handhold.
The control layout is traditional: there's nothing above and beyond the normal body-mounted buttons to be found on most entry-level DSLRs. The back of the Pentax K-r body has a directional pad whose compass points act as shortcuts to the self-timer, ISO, white balance and flash modes, while a solitary button on right-hand shoulder acts as either AE or AF lock depending how you define it in the menu.
Unfortunately, when the option to select the AF manually is selected the navigation buttons loose their shortcut functions. As there's no other way to set the white balance, self-timer, sensitivity or flash options, this is likely to be a pretty serious issue for enthusiast photographers looking for a budget DSLR.
It means that the flash options, for example, must be set before the K-r is set to manual AF point selection mode and the AF point set. Alternatively, users can set the Pentax K-r to use the central AF point only and then use the focus and recompose technique.
The top of the Pentax K-r body features a rather busy mode dial, which has dedicated notches to scene modes such as sports and panoramas, as well as the aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes favored by more experienced photographers.
As with other Pentax DSLRs, the manufacturer has supplemented the usual PASM exposure mode options with a sensitivity priority (SV) mode. In this mode the user sets the desired sensitivity setting while the camera selects what it calculates are appropriate aperture and shutter speed settings.
There Pentax K-r body also features a customisable "green button", which can be set to perform one of seven functions (revert to default settings, set custom image settings, display the optical preview, display the digital preview, set a digital filter effect, set the cross processing effect or change the file format).
Next to the green button is an exposure compensation button, also used in manual mode to switch between controlling the shutter speed or aperture size - essential as the K-r only has one dial on the back. An extra on the front would make controlling it in manual mode simpler.
Although the Pentax K-r body seems well built and nicely constructed, the buttons on the rear of the Pentax K-r are hard to distinguish by feel alone when it is held to the eye. This makes selecting the desired AF point more fiddly than it should be.
Pentax K-r: Controls and features
The Pentax K-r AF system has been upgraded compared to the Pentax K-x, and the new SAFOX IX system didn't steer us wrong in testing. You still get 11 autofocus points overall, including nine cross-type sensors clustered in the middle of the frame.
This compares favourably, say, to the Nikon D5000 or Canon EOS 550D's single central cross-type points – though opting to manually select the AF point with these cameras isn't at the expense of the ability to select the white balance setting.
As with virtually all live view enabled DSLRs (with a few notable exceptions from Sony), framing shots on the LCD switches to contrast detection AF unless the feed is interrupted. Our experience was broadly positive, though, with lens acquiring a subject reasonably quickly even in contrast detect mode and low lighting conditions.
The monitor itself is what we'd have dubbed large 18 months ago, but is now merely par for the course. The 3-inch diagonal means there's plenty of space for checking focus, while the 921,000-dot resolution means there's more detail visible and the menus look more defined than they do on the Pentax K-x.
That said, the menu system still lacks a little sophistication compared to that of Canon and Nikon competitors. It all makes sense and can be navigated with reasonable speed, but it's a tad basic in terms of its design.
Of more importance – and disappointment – is the Pentax K-r HD video mode. Full HD video mode is becoming more commonplace in DSLRs and it is rather a shame that Pentax isn't keeping pace with the frontrunners.
Canon has offered 1080p on the EOS 550D since it was announced in February this 2010, and Nikon is in the process of updating its range to include H.264, 1080p recording with the likes of the D3100 and D7000. Either is a notch ahead of the Pentax K-r, which offers the less competent, Motion-JPEG format, while its resolution is capped at 720p.
You maintain a reasonable level of control while recording, with the aperture value available, and two stops of exposure compensation either side of normal. The ability to record up to 25 minutes or 4GB of footage makes time lapse possible, and quality is generally good, but the jump to H.264 would be welcome. Another indication that Pentax intends the K-r body only as a stills camera first and foremost is the omission of a separate microphone jack.
Pentax K-r: Image quality
One significant change compared to the Pentax K-x is the newly expanded K-r ISO range. With a slight adjustment to the custom settings menu you can set the ISO as high as 25,600. That's twice as sensitive as the Pentax K-x and Canon 550D, and four times that of the Nikon D5000.
So what can you do with it? We're pleased to report that below ISO 1600 you won't really need to worry about your images – our tests came back virtually indistinguishable from each other. You can even set up the Pentax K-r to prevent it reaching for undesirable ISOs: set the maximum at ISO 1600 and we doubt you'll ever have a serious problem with noise.
The higher you go the softer images become. At ISO 3200 noise is still fairly well controlled, and the Pentax K-r samples we took provided commandingly accurate colours – sharpness appeared to be the only casualty.
Go a stop further and you'll begin to hit problems, though. ISO 3200 provided us with an image in which smooth textures had been replaced by mottled JPEG compression, and sharpness was all but gone. Go further still and colours begin to shift badly – the final two stops are best avoided unless you're presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The SMC DAL 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL Pentax K-r kit lens is another treat: it's light weight and, while its specifications are run of the mill, like the kit lens on the Pentax K-x, it's pretty sharp and chromatic aberration is kept to the barest of minimums. Our only complaint is the audible noise: the Pentax K-r's in-body focus motor sounds decidedly old-school and will definitely prick up the ears of any quietly grazing wildlife.
Our review unit came as a package with an SMC DA 50mm-200mm F4-5.6 ED lens as well, with which we were less impressed. When it was mounted the K-r had a little trouble picking out fine details in our test shots, and although the Pentax K-r image sensor shifting Shake Reduction (SR) is built-in, we struggled to get sharp images at 1/60sec when using the 50-200mm lens at its longest point, our video tests were particularly badly affected by shake. Take a tripod!
Pentax K-r: Sample images
1/160sec at f/8, ISO 400 (Click to view full size)
1/30sec at f/5.6, ISO 800 (Click to view full size)
Retro effect: 1/4000sec at f/5.6, ISO 12,800 (Click to view full size)
Toy camera effect: 1/60sec at f/5.6, ISO 800 (Click to view full size)
Pentax K-r: ISO samples
ISO100 (Click to view full size)
ISO200 (Click to view full size)
ISO400 (Click to view full size)
ISO800 (Click to view full size)
ISO1600 (Click to view full size)
ISO3200 (Click to view full size)
ISO6400 (Click to view full size)
ISO12800 (Click to view full size)
ISO25600 (Click to view full size)
Pentax K-r: Verdict
The Pentax K-r, like the K-x before it, is a superb camera for keen photographers who either don't want, or can't stretch to the likes of the Nikon D300 or the Canon 550D. Certainly you lose nothing in terms of image quality – we were delighted with the high ISO performance of the K-r, and the kit lens is pretty impressive.
Video quality is more mixed – for our money those looking for a low-end DSLR that shoots decent video files will do better with the Nikon D3100, which feels a little cheaper in the hand but shoots 1080p, H.264 video rather than 720p Motion-JPEG.
Although the K-r is a good choice, the current Pentax system simply can't contend with the breadth and quality of lenses, flashes and accessories supplied by Canon and Nikon – a point well worth considering. It's worth bearing in mind that there a many compatible second-hand optics available though.
With current systems in mind, you should consider the excellent Nikon D5000 before spending money on the Pentax K-r. Nikon's camera currently costs around £100 less, has the same resolution sensor, and has an almost identical video mode to the K-r.
You also get a Vari-angle monitor and, as mentioned, compatibility with Nikon's vast range of DSLR accessories. The Pentax K-r is a great little camera that's easy to fall in love with, but the Nikon D5000 should be higher on your list.
Pentax K-r Ratings
Build quality: 5
Image quality: 4
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