Cameras

Pentax K-r Review

The Pentax K-r boasts solid image quality and performance, but it fails to truly outshine the competition.

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Introduction

The Pentax K-r is an entry-level DSLR designed for newcomers to higher-end photography. It features a stainless steel chassis beneath a mostly plastic body, a 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor, and a 3-inch 921k-dot LCD display.

Designed for simple operation, the K-r offers great handling, very extensive menu options, and enough performance to make it worth a long look for anyone in the market for an entry-level DSLR. In typical Pentax fashion, the camera is available in a number of colors, including black, red, and classic white, for an MSRP of $899.

Design & Usability

The K-r has a shutter that could wake the dead.

First, the Pentax lens mount is actually one of the most complete systems on the market—a great deal of legacy lenses are compatible with the K-r, and many of them are somewhat less expensive than competing system counterparts. The camera itself features a steel chassis, so despite its smooth plastic shell, it is quite durable. The only real quirk? It’s just so darn loud. The focus motor and shutter release are both noisier than most other DSLRs, so this is not the camera to get if you’re taking photos in a quiet recital hall or similar venue.

The most frustrating design aspect is the omission of a button for AF point selection.

As for the rest of the hardware, the 18-55mm kit lens handles very nicely, with hard focus stops and a fair measure of resistance on the focus ring. An optical pentamirror viewfinder has approximately 96% coverage, with a Natural Bright Matte II focusing screen. A 3-inch, 921k-dot, fixed LCD serves as a rear display. Live view displays the usual batch of shooting information and a built-in, pop-up flash is on hand if you need it, though its cast is rather bright and harsh. If you need extra light, we’d recommend an external flash. With regards to connectivity, the K-r is behind the times, featuring just a proprietary PC/AV jack—HDMI is left out of the scheme.

The K-r's buttons are fairly low profile, but they offer solid travel and a nice, audible click when depressed. The mode dial does not feature a lock, but it solidly clicks with each turn. The most frustrating design aspect is the omission of a button for AF point selection. Instead, users must hold the OK button, which activates an AF grid on the rear LCD. The four buttons around the OK button then serve to navigate and select the desired point. Unfortunately, you must hold OK again to return functionality to those buttons, even after a shot has been taken. It’s a frustrating design choice.

Features

Like most even entry-level DSLRs, the Pentax K-r offers a large variety of features that can be staggering if you're not already in-the-know.

The K-r offers a great deal of customization in the way of color profiles and digital filters, with the option to cross-process with multiple color modes and even save them as favorites versions of those. If you’re a fan of smartphone applications like Hipstamatic, you’ll likely enjoy what you find on the K-r.

This is a thorough mix of modes, and just about all of them can be tweaked with various “custom image” filters.

A traditional mode dial offers a fine batch of modes: manual, aperture/shutter-priority, sensitivity-priority, scene, bulb, movie, landscape, macro, an array of auto selections, and several more. The scene modes cover night scene, surf, snow, food, and many more. This is a thorough mix of modes, and just about all of them can be tweaked with various “custom image” filters. Nearby, users will find a green, programmable function key called the “Green Button.” Placed conveniently just behind the shutter release, it can assume a number of functions, including depth of field preview (optical or digital), color mode adjust, one-push file format (RAW, RAW+, and JPEG), and more. Otherwise, it can simply be used with program and manual shooting modes for quick exposure adjustments.

The K-r features an 11-point phase detection autofocus system with nine cross-type sensors. In live view, autofocus can still take advantage of phase detection, but it is very loud compared to other cameras, and a little jarring to hear at first. The motor is clearly audible on the internal microphone during video recording, too. As for phase-detection autofocus, it's still quite loud, but focus is very snappy, in proper SLR manner.

Performance

The Pentax K-r’s performance doesn’t stand out in any particular way, for better or for worse.

There isn't a category in which the K-r soundly outperforms its competition, but nor is it notably outperformed. This camera's biggest assets aren't performance marks, but breadth of control and digital effects. The 18-55mm kit lens wasn't particularly sharp across the entire aperture range, but Pentax lenses do offer a minimum aperture of f/40, resulting in slightly softer images. The color modes on this camera are more plentiful than what most DSLRs offer, and considering the price point, color accuracy is pretty solid, too.

Bottom line: the camera didn’t produce the crispest or the sharpest video, but it was smooth for the most part.

The K-r produces noisier images than other entry-level DSLRs, but it also offers three noise reduction settings, low, medium, and high, which help to tone that down. This Pentax has a maximum ISO range of 100-25600, but only 200-12800 when the camera’s ISO speed is set to auto, oddly excluding ISO 100.

In keeping with the rest of the K-r's performance results, we've definitely seen better video, but we've also seen worse. In testing, motion looked very smooth. There was some blur in the pinwheels we recorded and some artifacting as well, but the moving images didn’t appear choppy, at least. The bottom line: the camera didn’t produce the crispest or the sharpest video, but it was smooth for the most part.

Conclusion

The Pentax K-r certainly breaks up the long march of black-bodied, entry-level DSLRs with their collection of innovative, control-rich, colorful cameras.

Those looking for a steady performer with great handling and in-depth controls will enjoy the K-r, as it offers great value for its price point. Overall, its performance was average, with decent noise results beneath ISO 12800, improved color accuracy over the K-x, fine dynamic range results at low ISO speeds, and sub-par resolution results with the 18-55mm kit lens.

The Pentax K-r put up some attractive numbers in our video performance testing, but the bottom line is that there are plenty of superior DSLRs on the market for recording video. The K-r’s limited control options (no autofocus) and lack of a Full HD record mode were its biggest downsides, as well as the fact that Pentax insisted on using the outdated Motion JPEG compression system for its video record mode.

The K-r ... is a reliable camera for any beginning or intermediate user.

Even still, there are a number of in-menu controls that other entry level cameras lack here, such as the ability to apply digital filters in playback, as well as interval shooting, in-camera HDR, and in-depth tweaking and cross-processing of the camera’s many filters and color modes. The K-r also offers a solid amount of automatic and scene modes for the beginning user, and though there isn’t much for menu customization, the camera does sport a customizable green button that can assume a number of functions. The K-r isn't crème de la crème, but it's a reliable camera for any beginning or intermediate user.

Science Introduction

At an MSRP of $899, the Pentax K-r is a solid entry-level digital SLR. It's an improvement on last year's K-x, and makes up for a wholly average performance with a plethora of customizable options and ease-of-use features, making it a solid choice for serious photographers on a budget. The science page is here to explain in further detail the strengths and weaknesses of the Pentax K-r.

Image Stabilization

The K-r features a sensor-shift stabilization system that was very effective overall.

The K-r's sensor-shift stabilization system offered about a 25% improvement in sharpness across the board. We marked improvement at every shutter speed slower than 1/500 of a second that we tested. At that fast of a shutter speed, stabilization systems tend to over-correct by the time the next shot is fired, resulting in a blurred image at both low and high shake testing.

In our high shake testing, the K-r’s stabilization system resulted in a 20% reduction of sharpness at 1/500 of a second, but it offered a big improvement at every other speed. The improvement was more drastic at faster shutter speeds of 1/250s and 1/125s than at slower speeds. In lower shake testing, there was improvement at every shutter speed, though it was most consistent at speeds slower than 1/60 of a second. In general, we can recommend just leaving the stabilization on whenever shooting except at speeds faster than 1/250 of a second.

White Balance

The K-r’s performance under the ultra-warm orange glow of incandescent light was its best and its worst quality.

While the camera’s automatic white balance setting handled indoor light poorly, its custom setting diagnosed this light as accurately as just about any camera we’ve seen.

Automatic white balance ended up being the K-r’s best friend in daylight conditions, though, as it had a color error of less than 90 kelvins—practically on the money. Under compact white fluorescent light, it was off by more than 580 kelvins, however, and under tungsten light, that error skyrocketed to more than 2000 kelvins. The K-r does seem to favor keeping warmth in tungsten light specification, with a custom option to turn that off. That option only results in minimal improvement, though.

When taking the time to record a custom white balance, there understandably should be less tolerance for error. We found that, even by that higher standard, the K-r performed very well. Under daylight and compact white fluorescent conditions, the K-r produced a color error of between 200 and 260 kelvins on average—generally acceptable despite the extra effort required. Under tungsten light, that error dropped to less than 100, better than most cameras we’ve seen.

Noise

The K-r returns more noise totals than other entry-level DSLRs, but it offers several noise reduction options to dial that down.

The K-r offers four noise reduction settings: low, medium, high, and off. Unlike some cameras, the K-r doesn't go overboard with noise reduction, even when it is turned up to the highest setting, but it does apply it even at ISO 100. Some cameras only apply it at levels above 800, but we detected less noise across the board. At ISO 6400, the different levels really begin to separate, with low returning 2.62%, medium returning 2.10%, and high keeping just 1.53% noise. We'd recommend at least turning NR to low, but medium and high don't smear away that much detail, and high is a necessity if shooting at anything higher than 6400 ISO.

One of the big changes touted by the K-r over the K-x is its expanded ISO range. While it's true the K-r can shoot at ISO 25600, it does so with a great deal of noise. When shooting at ISO 25600, 5% of the image was noise. Typically, we don't like to see higher than 2% noise, so this mode is only there for emergencies. Otherwise, the K-r returned typical results, with just 0.53% noise at ISO 100, rising to 2.68% at ISO 6400. That total dropped to just 2% at ISO 12800, with noise reduction supposedly off, but we believe there's some kicking in anyway (though there's little detail lost).

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