Though most of the recent action in the digital SLR market has been with entry-level models from Canon, Nikon, and Sony, Pentax made some waves in the prosumer category this morning with its new 14.2 megapixel Pentax K-7 digital SLR.
Like the recently announced Canon Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000, the Pentax K-7 also shoots high-definition video. But unlike those two models, this compact yet very solid DSLR from Pentax is aimed squarely at advanced photographers and aspiring pros.
Details about the K-7 have leaked out to the Internet in recent weeks so most of the camera’s top-line specs have already circulated to blogs and digital camera review sites. In case you missed it, here are a few of the “official” highlights for the K-7, a camera which will replace Pentax’s previous flagship DSLR, the K20D.
• New 14.6MP CMOS sensor with 4-channel output instead of two to lower noise and more quickly process images and HD movies
• Compact and lightweight yet solid camera body with stainless steel chassis and magnesium alloy shell
• 720p HD movie at 30 frames per second
• External 3.5mm stereo mic jack
• Weather resistant, dustproof, and coldproof (14º F, -10º C)
• 5.2 frames per second shooting speed thanks to Prime II processing engine
• New 77-segment exposure metering system
• High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode which combines three images
• Shake Reduction (SR) in-camera stabilization that compensates for sensor rotation
• Electronic level function to help you maintain even horizons in landscape photos
• Improved dust reduction
• Compatible with all Pentax K-Mount lenses
The Pentax K-7 digital SLR will start selling in July 2009 for $1,300, body only. Though the Pentax K20D will be phased out, the entry-level K2000 ($600) will remain in the lineup. Pentax will also begin selling the new D-BG4 battery/vertical shooting grip in July for $230; and two new weather-resistant lenses, an 18-55mm ($200) and a 50-200mm ($250).
DemystifyingDigital.com was one of a select group of websites that got exclusive hands-on time with a pre-production version of the K-7 ahead of this morning’s launch. Though I shot hundreds of images and dozens of video clips with the K-7, since this was a pre-production, aka “beta,” version of the camera, Pentax is only allowing us to display the images here at low resolution. Also, we were not permitted to display shots captured at over ISO 1600 (the camera can shoot between ISO 100-6400), nor were we allowed post video shot with the K-7.
Having said that, I got over a week to play with the camera which was more than enough time to discover that this is a very significant new digital SLR from Pentax that should attract many users who take photography seriously.
I paired the K-7 with three high-quality lenses from Pentax – DA* 55mm f/1.4 SDM; DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8ED; and 15mm f/4ED AL. I also shot with an excellent lens from Sigma in a Pentax mount, the 24-70mm, f/2.8 IF EX DG.
Read on to find out what I thought of this new flagship DSLR from Pentax.
Small & Sturdy
The K-7 is a nice little spark plug of a camera. Though it’s not as small or as lightweight as the entry-level Canon Rebel T1i or Nikon D5000, it’s more compact than the competition in the prosumer category. According to Pentax, the K-7 is 24% smaller than the Canon 50D and Olympus; 17% smaller than the Sony A700, 13% smaller than its predecessor the K20D, and 7% smaller than the Nikon D90.
While I had no real way of testing those estimates they seemed about right. Personally, I’m not really too concerned with size of a digital SLR. Any way you slice it, you’re got going to get a DSLR to fit into your pocket so why try to make it tiny, as with the Panasonic G1 and GH1 models?
What’s important though is that the K-7 doesn’t “feel” small – as opposed to micro-DSLRs like the Canon Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000, which I compared to a dainty teacup. The K-7 has a comfy rubberized grip which fit my whole hand and had good balance overall.
Of all the digital SLRs out there right now, the K-7 actually reminds me the most of a junior version of the Olympus E-3, a comparison which I’m sure neither Pentax or Olympus would be happy with. To me that’s a real compliment though.
The E-3 is a sturdy, weather-resistant camera that’s built with a magnesium alloy chassis and the Pentax K-7 has a similar ruggedness and durability. There’s no flip-out screen as on the E-3 – and as on the Nikon D5000 – but the new 3-inch, 921,000-dot LCD is an improvement over the previous model’s display.
Images and HD video I captured with the K-7 were rendered crisply on the LCD and I was easily able to see the screen feed in Live View before I snapped a picture. Speaking of Live View, though no one has gotten the autofocus process to be as seamless as I’d like, Pentax does a fairly good job with its system. Just hit the LV button on back, frame your subject, and then press the AF button above. The back screen will black out for a second and you’ll be able to see the camera focus by looking through the optical viewfinder. Sort of strange to have to switch your eye between the screen and the viewfinder but not a lot weirder than most other Live View systems out there.
The K-7′s optical viewfinder is a good one, offering 100 percent field of view with 0.92x magnification.
There are some other more subtle changes to the K-7 from the K20D. For instance, instead of having a function wheel on back, Pentax now includes a circle of small buttons for changing White Balance, shooting speed, flash, and color filters. The color filters are another feature I like about this camera. You can either choose between seven different pre-set color schemes – including a black-and-white setting – and then, if you’d like, go back and manually tweak each setting to suit your specific taste.
Another nice touch is that all the function buttons are now on the right side of the rear of the camera so you don’t need to use more than one hand to change settings. Though it’s more boxy looking than the previous model, the K-7 is ergonomic and well thought-out. I also like that Pentax kept the dedicated RAW button on the camera which makes it easy to switch between RAW and JPEG image shooting on the fly.
Where I really stumbled though was with the new locking mode dial. While I understand the thinking in this feature – more serious photographers are going to want to lock in their settings so they don’t have to worry about accidentally changing the dial – the knurled knob on my pre-production K-7 was small, awkward, and very difficult to change quickly.
Where it caused the biggest problems was when I wanted to quickly change from shooting still images to shooting HD video. Unlike competing DSLRs which use a button to let you switch between still and video, on the K-7 you turn the mode dial to the movie camera icon and then press the shutter. While in theory this sounds simple, to turn the locking dial you have to press a button in the middle of it. That’s a lot to do if you’re in a hurry.
While shooting a basketball game I ran into trouble when I quickly wanted to capture some video of a dunk that I saw coming. I was able to change to HD video just in time to capture the action but it was a close call. Despite that glitch, the K-7 offers a high-quality camera build with a straightforward design that’s easy to use.
I was most impressed by the K-7′s overall speed. Along with firing off at a healthy 5.2 frames per second, the camera’s top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second help me freeze the action while photographing the basketball game.
The new 11-point SAFOX VIII+ (lousy name) autofocus system was also quick and reliable even in this pre-production camera. The system uses 9 cross sensors, 2 wide-angle sensors, and has a dedicated assist lamp to help target your subject while shooting in low light. Speaking of low light, I was impressed with how quickly the pre-production camera locked in its focus in uneven and downright bad lighting.
According to a Pentax product person I spoke with, the K-7′s new autofocus system detects colors and wavelengths of light which helps its locks in autofocus in tricky lighting conditions such as tungsten. I experienced very little to no “lens hunting” which was a big plus.
As an HD camera, there’s not a lot I can say since I was dealing with a pre-production unit and the video function was clearly a little wonky in the model I was testing. For instance the sound syncing was off – something Pentax mentioned to me about the beta firmware I was using – and occasionally the video would split in half. But yes, this was most likely just a pre-production glitch.
Though I was disappointed there’s was no 1080p capture mode (there is a 1080i video output) and that the K-7 only shoots 1280×720 in 16:9 at 30 frames per second – no 24p simulated film mode – I was pleased that Pentax includes a mic jack on the camera, which is a feature that’s sorely missing from the Nikon D90, along with the D5000 and Canon Rebel T1i.
A Good Start
Though I can’t pass any official judgment on the still images or the video quality because of the camera’s pre-production status, I have to say I was impressed with what I saw even from this early version of the K-7.
For instance, though Pentax was adamant about DemysityfingDigital.com not posting any images from the K-7 shot at above ISO 1600, I was very pleased with the low noise levels in most of my shots. Much of this, likely, has to do with the new image sensor in the K-7 and the pumped-up camera processor.
The lenses I tested with he K-7, particularly the Pentax DA* 55mm f/1.4 SDM ($700) and Sigma 24-70mm, f/2.8 IF EX DG ($899) were top-notch, and made me remember how much I used to enjoy shooting with quality Pentax cameras.
Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I’ve viewed Pentax as a serious contender in the advanced digital SLR market but if my early time with the K-7 is any indication, they just might surprise a lot of people with this new camera. They’ve already surprised me.