Cameras

Pentax K-30 Review

The Pentax K-30 can venture into conditions that other sub-$1,000 DSLRs simply won't survive.

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Introduction

The Pentax K-30 is the latest, and also the least expensive Pentax DSLR to feature weather-proofing. This camera can venture into conditions that other sub-$1,000 DSLRs simply won't survive. The K-30 also offers the company's usual excellent handling, a 16-megapixel Sony-sourced APS-C sensor, and a new and improved autofocus system.

With a standard 18-55mm kit lens, this Pentax is available in black, blue, and white colors for an MSRP of $899.95. It's worth noting that this kit lens does not have a weather-resistant rubber gasket around its mount, leaving the camera susceptible to dust and moisture. Pentax does make a weather-resistant variant, so if it's important to you to have this type of kit, just look for the all-important "WR" version of the lens.

[Note: Since this review was written, Pentax has released a version of the K-30 kit with a WR lens. It's priced at around $850, available at various online retailers, but curiously not available on Pentax's own site.]

Design & Usability

The K-30's menu is great once you learn your way around, but beginners have quite a learning curve to contend with.

While the DSLR market is figuratively owned by the big three—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—Pentax has quietly produced some of the better cameras of the last couple years. With excellent handling, a superb sensor, and the same sort of weatherproofing, the K-5 has long been a favorite of the staff here at DCI.

Pentax is still the best in the business when it comes to handling on these mid-range DSLRs.

This camera puts a strong focus on both ergonomics and weather sealing. The result is a camera that handles great, offers a great deal of direct control, and can take a heck of a beating—all for less than $1000 with a lens. It's not a perfect design—we liked the old K-5's grip a little better—but it shows that Pentax is still the best in the business when it comes to handling on these mid-range DSLRs.

The K-30 is a camera for someone unafraid of experimentation and customizable buttons. If you're very particular about your control setup, the K-30 offers two user-customizable shooting modes right on the physical dial, which can easily be accessed easily at any time. There is a great deal of control at your fingertips, but a steep learning curve comes with it. The camera comes loaded with more scene modes, filters, and editing effects than most other DSLRs, but there's little in the way of in-camera hand holding. A beginner can definitely pick up and shoot with the K-30, but it's not as foolproof as the Canon Rebel cameras, for example.

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Features

The K-30 has lots of high-end features to satisfy advanced shooters, and full weather-sealing to boot.

With the right lens, the K-30 is coldproof, dustproof, and rainproof, and it also includes the usual complement of in-camera editing options, digital filters, scene modes, interval timers, multi-exposure modes, and accessory functionality that we've come to expect from Pentax cameras. This is a level of functionality that exists in the higher-end models from Sony, Canon, and Nikon, but that rarely makes it down into the sub-$1,000 DSLR market. Again, many of these things will be superfluous for beginners, but it's great to have them there to learn and grow with, and they do help set the K-30 apart.

For hardware, the K-30 offers a 16.3-megapixel APS-C sensor, reportedly the same as the one found in Pentax's recent Marc Newson collaboration, the K-01. You can frame using either live view or the excellent optical viewfinder, which has 100% coverage and 0.92x magnification. The finder is brighter than what you get on most consumer DSLRs, since it uses a pentaprism rather than a pentamirror—it's one of the real joys of shooting with the K-30. It's perfectly reliable for manual focusing, but each of the 11 autofocus points (9 cross-type) also light up with a red box in the finder for easy confirmation.

If you are looking for a DSLR that excels at capturing high-end HD video, the Pentax K-30 is not for you.

Interestingly, we were dismayed to see the lack of an HDMI port on the K-30. While it's certainly for space-saving reasons, it's basically a white flag from Pentax, indicating they're not seriously tackling HD video with this camera. If you are looking for a DSLR that excels at capturing high-end HD video, the Pentax K-30 is not for you.

Performance

Great dynamic range and reliable noise reduction are held back somewhat by poor color accuracy.

Since the K-x, Pentax has had a reputation for delivering APS-C sensors that are exceptional in low light, and the K-30 does nothing to sully that tradition. Once the full ISO range is unlocked (via a custom menu entry), the sensor tops out at ISO 25600. The K-30 kept noise in check throughout the base ISO range. With the help of any of the three levels of noise reduction, shots are usable all the way through ISO 12800. With NR turned "off," noise begins to overpower images by ISO 6400. Either way, the only way to avoid the in-camera noise reduction's aggressive smearing of fine detail is to shoot in RAW and process later.

The K-30's performance is very similar to one of our favorite recent cameras, the K-5.

The K-30's sensor also provides great dynamic range, helping you to capture realistic renditions of high-contrast scenes. If you're into editing your images heavily, this also provides a large amount of detail in the shadows, which can be brought out in editing suites like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. On the whole, the K-30's performance is very similar to one of our favorite recent cameras, the K-5.

We were a little put off by the K-30's tendency towards pushing saturation, though. You can tone this down a little in-camera, but the color errors remain in most JPEG modes. This is puzzling, since the white balance system is very accurate. If color accuracy is vitally important to you, we recommend that you just shoot in RAW and process later.

At least the K-30 works quickly, offering snappy autofocus and a respectable 5.7 frames per second in both JPEG and RAW. The main difference is that JPEG tops out at 30 shots and RAW fills the buffer at 8. Lastly, the battery life seemed to be somewhat limited—after 500 shots or so of normal usage, we had to stop to recharge the battery. This is to some extent to be expected, since the K-30's battery is quite a bit smaller than the K-5's—in part because it makes room for a AA-battery adapter, and in part due to new battery laws in Japan.

Conclusion

This $899 camera makes a few missteps, but offers many competitive advantages in its price bracket.

The Pentax K-30 made a splash—quite literally—when it was first introduced earlier this year. While the associated marketing push made its weatherproofing seem like some brave new innovation by Pentax, the truth is, they've been making hardy, weather-resistant DSLRs for years. Like last year's well-received Pentax K-5, the K-30 combines great handling, solid design, a top-of-the-line APS-C sensor, and the ability to take on extreme environments, including common camera-killers like dust and moisture.

The Pentax K-30 offers a little something for everyone, making it a great deal at its base kit price of $899.99.

A downpour isn't the only thing the Pentax K-30 can handle—it also offers photography chops that rival or exceed midrange cameras like Nikon's D5100 and Canon's Rebel T3i. With shot-to-shot times of up to 6 frames per second, a great 16-megapixel image sensor, and heaps of control and features, the Pentax K-30 offers a little something for everyone, making it a great deal at its base kit price of $899.99.

One group that is going to be sorely disappointed with the K-30, however, is videographers. The K-30 can capture full 1080/30p HD video, but it lacks anything resembling high-end video capability—no mic port, no HDMI output, and only a monaural built-in mic. Also, the K-30's grip could be more comfortable, and photos weren't as crisp as we'd like with the 18-135mm WR lens, though image quality was very nice on the whole.

Nevertheless, we'd recommend the K-30 to anyone looking for a sub-$1,000 model to take to an environment where dust or moisture are a constant concern. Even if that's not an issue, the K-30 still handles great and offers performance similar to Canons and Nikons at this price point. It's not for absolute beginners and it's certainly not for video shooters, but the K-30—when paired with the appropriate weather-sealed lens—can go places other similarly priced DSLRs simply cannot.

Science Introduction

We typically rate cameras in four key performance areas: noise, dynamic range, color accuracy, and resolution. The Pentax K-30 did quite well in dynamic range and noise, but we found it was fairly average in the other two categories. That doesn't make it a bad camera by any stretch, but if you are looking for the sharpest possible combination of camera and lens, the K-30 and 18-135mm WR lens probably won't fit the bill. Overall, the K-30 does well, producing pleasing images with solid low light performance that put it among the better options under $1,000.

Color Accuracy

Undone by oversaturated default settings, this camera's color accuracy trails the competition.

Testing the Pentax K-30, we were surprised to see just how oversaturated the default settings were. Even using the "natural" color mode, with saturation toned down, we found that the lack of accuracy and consistency rather troubling. This won't have any real effect if you're using the K-30 for most types of photography, or if you're willing to shoot in RAW, but for JPEG reproduction work or for shots where color accuracy is paramount (portraiture, etc), the K-30 may not be the best bet.

Each picture setting on this Pentax offers a standard color accuracy algorithm, with specific sections of colors pushed or suppressed to achieve the intended effect. We found that "natural" was the best mode, yet it was only capable of a 3.22 color error, which is quite a bit worse than most cameras on this level. The main problem, with nearly every mode, was oversaturation. The camera does allow you to tone down saturation, but we found doing this in the most accurate modes (natural and portrait) only decreased the color error to 3.11.

Noise Reduction & Detail Loss

Noise reduction is effective but aggressive, showing up even in the "off" setting.

The Pentax K-30 offers four levels of noise reduction, as well as the ability to turn it off. The four levels include low, medium, high, and automatic. The automatic setting returned noise results similar to the "low" and "off" settings, moving up to about a medium level at ISO 6400 and above.

In truth, even the "off" setting on the Pentax K-30 still results in a fair amount of noise reduction when shooting JPEGs at high ISOs. When you shoot in RAW, the images are much noisier, so you'll have to rely on your RAW converter's noise reduction function to keep it in check. Generally we feel that noise levels at or below 2% result in usable, printable images, and by employing any of the K30's noise reduction levels, you can capture usable pictures at ISO 12800 with ease. If you turn NR off, you can use up to ISO 6400 before you hit that 2% limit.

With NR activated, detail loss up to ISO 12800 is not terribly significant, but setting noise reduction to the "off" setting in JPEG does result in a somewhat sharper image. One thing to note, though, is that noise reduction at any setting but "off" or "auto" begins to smear detail even at the minimum ISO of 100. Our recommendation is to keep NR off up to ISO 1600, and use "auto" for any shots that need a higher ISO speed than that.

Sharpness

The weather-resistant 18-135mm kit lens is not the sharpest, and it has some distortion and chromatic aberration problems.

We tested the Pentax K-30 with the weather-sealed 18-135mm lens, which is available kitted with the camera for a little over $1,100 (as opposed to the $899 standard 18-55mm kit). The 18-135mm lens follows designs similar to those from other manufacturers, and we found some common problems. Its longer zoom range exacerbates diffraction, especially at longer focal lengths and smaller apertures. As you'd expect, at f/40 and 135mm, sharpness is practically non-existant away from the center of the image.

If you're going to shoot with the 18-135mm lens, we suggest trying to keep the aperture around f/8, since significant issues plagued the corners of images taken with wide-open and extremely narrow apertures. This kept the K-30's sharpness score down, but we found that the camera had no problems when shooting with a sharper lens, such as the 35mm f/2.4 prime lens.

Video Quality

The K-30's videos simply look bad, lagging well behind even the most basic entry-level DSLRs.

The Pentax K-30 rendered motion fairly well, but it struggled with some artifacting and ghosting around select areas in our motion test. Sharpness also continued to be distractingly bad, with finer patterns seemingly fluxing as moire overpowered the image in parts of our motion rig.

It also struggled in our dedicated video sharpness test, unable to replicate more than 500 lp/ph of detail from our standard sharpness chart. Both horizontally and vertically, the sharpness of the final video image was limited by aliasing and averaging, resulting in heavy moire and gray beyond that point.

In our low light testing, the K-30 required only 11 lux to render an image that hit 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. 50 IRE is a standard for what is considered visually acceptable brightness for broadcast. That puts the Pentax in the middle of the pack as far as DSLRs are concerned. Video quality is basically an afterthought on this camera.

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