My brother is 5 years younger than me and, since finishing matric not long ago, has been thinking about what he wants to study after high school. After much thought (and changing he’s mind countless times) he’s decided to follow in my foot steps and study photography and so asked me what I’d recommend for his first camera. Like me, he has a soft spot for Pentax and wanted to buy into their system after witnessing the experience I’ve had with Pentax and has decided to commit to the brand. And being a beginner, naturally he’s interested in the entry level models Pentax has to offer. This is an easy decision as the option list isn’t varied since Pentax only has one entry level DSLR, unlike it’s rivals Nikon, Canon and Sony who have many options with various specs and price ranges. This isn’t a bad thing though. Despite Pentax’s K-r being their base model camera, it has a far higher specification sheet than any of it’s rivals. So in effect, you’re forced to have to get a greatly spec’ed camera whether you like it or not. To my knowledge I don’t think anyone ever complained about having too good of a camera. I decided to grab his camera for a Saturday and see what my brother was going to be in for at the beginning of his photographic career.
When first holding the K-r you notice it’s bulky design. Actually, bulky isn’t the right word. It’s not a big camera. It’s actually quite compact for a DSLR. It’s about on par with rival entry level models. Maybe marginally on the larger side but not by much. But it has a solid look to it. With a strong and angular design, you could say it’s probably the most “manly” looking entry level SLR available. I’ve never been a fan of Nikon’s and Canon’s entry level camera designs. I find them too curvy and a bit on the feminine side. Looks don’t make a difference to image quality so therefore shouldn’t be important, but in this case it does make a difference to the handling. The K-r has a thick hand grip section with well designed ergonomics making it very comfortable for users with larger hands and is coated with thick, high quality rubber making it very slip resistant. It’s a pleasure to use for many hours.
The internals of the K-r have been essentially been taken out of Pentax’s old top of the range K7, which is a very good starting point for an entry level camera. In some cases they even improved some of the specs from the K7. For example, the K7 shoots at 5.4 frames a second. On the K-r they upped that to 6 frames a second. That opens up a whole new world for beginner photographers who would normally find it very restrictive when shooting sports and wildlife. This for me is probably the single most impressive feature of the K-r compared to it’s competitors, as it leaves the Nikon D3100 and Canon 550D in it’s dust, shooting twice as fast the Nikon at 3 fps and 1.6 times faster than the Canon at 3.7 frames per second.
Low light is not as good as on the Pentax K5, but judging from what I’ve seen after messing around with the K7, it is better than Pentax’s former ranger topper. I imagine owners of the K7 would have been quite angry that a newer entry level Pentax was out performing their flagship model in both low light image quality and frame rate, but unfortunately that’s the way digital cameras advance. Specifications from old high end cameras tend to pass down to newer entry level models. Colors, as usual with Pentax, are vivid and skin tones are natural. Auto focus felt on par in terms of speed with my K5 and as accurate as well. Test shots were pin sharp, but that also possibly had to do with the test lens used (Sigma 17-50 2.8 OS HSM.)
Unfortunately the feature I wanted to test most was the frame rate and response in a sports environment. As I only had the camera on loan for a day, and there was no motor racing happening on the day I had the camera (motorsports photography being my sports of choice for testing a camera) I could not test how great it was in a real shooting situation, or compare it to other Pentax’s I’ve used. I have organised to have the camera on loan again from my brother sometime in the future when there will be a sports event in progress. When I have finished testing this aspect, I will post an update. But from my fiddling with the camera in the short day I had it, I doubt it would perform anything short of what a beginner photographer would be able to throw at it, or even from advanced users such as me. At only 1 frame per second slower than my K5, it shouldn’t perform very differently in theory.
Those used to Pentax’s menu system will feel at home as everything has remained the same as previous models, but has been slightly improved for more efficient and faster use. It is virtually the same as the K5’s, with exception of a few omitted features that the K-r doesn’t have. Buttons that were situated on the upper right of previous entry level models have moved to the right of the LCD to bundle more of the buttons in groups instead of being spread throughout the body. My main complaint about the buttons was with the 4 way directional buttons. They’re a lot smaller than on older or higher end models and getting a positive feeling from the buttons is difficult and usage is more difficult than what it should be. Overall the whole body feels like a smaller, simpler version of the K5.
I gave the camera back feeling very impressed. Pentax crammed a lot of performance in to their entry level camera, making first time buyers hard pressed to seriously ignore the K-r.Pentax’s previous entry levels, the K-m and K-x, gathered a few complaints, like omitting light up viewfinder auto focus points, and rightfully so. The K-r remedies many of it’s flaws and improves everywhere else. Other than the (marginally) slower frame rate, plastic body, more simple control layout and lower quality high ISO performance, it isn’t far behind the K5 in performance, and considering it’s price, wouldn’t be a bad idea as a back up camera for K5 users. I’m looking forward to testing the camera further in a sports environment and have high hopes for it. My brother is quite lucky to be starting off his photographic studies with such a competent camera. It should serve him for many years as it has plenty of area for growth and development. I don’t regret my decision to recommend the camera to him at all. If it’s good enough to be recommended to family, well then…