The Pentax K-x was a camera that took a lot of people by surprise. Offering a killer combination of features and low price, it bought the company a lot of the name recognition it had been sorely lacking in the entry-level dSLR market, and won ample attention from critics, industry insiders, and consumers alike. It's been our favorite entry-level dSLR at Digital Camera HQ for the better part of the past year, beating out rivals from Canon, Nikon, and Sony. However, despite its successes, the camera was not without its notable issues. Perhaps most glaring was its lack of illuminated autofocus points in the viewfinder. Some also decried its lack of a dedicated lithium-ion battery, as it instead ran on AAs.
The new K-r arrives as an incremental upgrade. It's clear that the engineers at Pentax were tasked with addressing the aforementioned user concerns, but the new model also offers refreshed cosmetics, a revised version of the much-loved 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor, expanded ISO range for added low-light sensitivity, and a new autofocus system identical to the one found in the flagship K-5 model. In reality, the K-r is less a direct K-x replacement and more of a midway point the K-x and K-5. A smattering of software features from the K-5 have migrated down to the K-r, and its price is positioned somewhat above that of its predecessor.
Since the K-x was introduced, competition in the entry-level market has only gotten more intense. Ever-increasing numbers of point-and-shoot users are migrating to interchangeable lens cameras, either traditional dSLRs or the smaller mirrorless options, and today's entry-level models are increasingly feature-packed. In this kind of environment, it really takes something to stand out from the crowd. Thanks to its rich feature set, outstanding sensor, and reasonable price point, the K-r looks like a winning proposition -- but a good camera is more than just a good spec sheet.
Body and Design
Compared to the K-x, the K-r is marginally bigger and heavier, though it's still quite small by dSLR standards. The camera weighs in at 598 grams with its battery (or just over 1.3 pounds), and its dimensions measure just 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7 inches. This is smaller than any of its competition -- including the Nikon D3100, Canon T3, and Sony A55 -- but slightly heavier. Built on a stainless-steel chassis, the heavy-duty polycarbonate body feels extremely solid in your hand, with no flex at all. The slight added heft is actually reassuring, and helps to steady your hand when composing shots.
Though the overall shape is similar, several cosmetic changes have been made since the K-x. First of all, the rubberized grip material continues all the way around the front of the body to its left side, making the camera easier to hold onto. Second, the tough plastic used for the entire casing has a new matte finish that's more in keeping with upmarket models. The K-x had a shinier plastic finish with chrome trim, which struck some as gaudy; in contrast, the K-r is all business. Continuing with this theme, the bright blue power-LED that was placed just behind the K-x's shutter release is now an indented white stripe that's much less distracting. A focus-assist lamp has been added between the lens housing and the hand grip, nullifying another user gripe about the K-x design. The prism and flash assembly is now somewhat larger and more angular, presumably due to the addition of illuminated AF points in the viewfinder. This new profile gives the K-r a passing resemblance to the K-5, but unlike it's big brother and like its predecessor, the camera can also be ordered in a number of different colors (up to 100 different body/grip color combinations, if you live in Japan).
Aside from the lack of a power light, the top and rear of the camera are identical to the K-x, at least in terms of button and dial placement. As before, the power switch encircles the shutter release on the right side of the camera. Just behind are the EV compensation and "green" buttons, and closer to the rear is the mode dial. Along the upper edge of the rear face is a combined flash release/trash button to the left of the viewfinder, and the sole e-dial and an AF/AE-lock button to its right. Below, to the right of the LCD screen, are buttons for playback, live view, Info, and the main menu, as well as a 4-way control dial and OK button. Each of the 4-way buttons provides direct access to a vital setting, such as white balance, flash, ISO, and self-timer. Speaking of the LCD, the K-r is equipped with a new 3-inch, 921,000-pixel IPS screen -- exactly the same screen found on the $1,600 K-5. It's brilliantly bright and sharp with great viewing angles, and the increased resolution is a great help when focusing in live view or reviewing images for critical sharpness.
As with most Pentax bodies before it, the K-r's ergonomics are superb. Even though it's a tiny body, the vital buttons fall perfectly under your right index finger and thumb. Every control is just where it should be. The grip is contoured to fit the hand, with an ident for your index finger, though the size of the body requires that most users curl their pinky under the bottom.
Where the K-x took only four AA cells, the K-r accepts either the included proprietary Lithium-Ion unit or AAs (via a separate adapter). The 1050mAh battery that ships with the kit is a bit on the small side, probably since it's made to fit inside a compartment big enough for AAs. Battery life is rated at about 470 shots, though I got closer to 370 when shooting mainly still images without flash, mixed with some 720p video recording. AAs, particularly disposable lithiums, may last longer.
Inside, the K-x's 12.4-megapixel, Sony-manufactured sensor has been replaced by a new model, also 12.4 megapixels and also made by Sony. This new sensor offers a native ISO range of 200-12,800, which can be expanded to 100-25,600 -- truly remarkable for an entry-level model. The shutter assembly has also been upgraded, now maxing out at a top shutter speed of 1/6000 of a second. This higher shutter speed allows for shallow depth of field shooting in bright daylight, greatly expanding your creative possibilities. Finally, the autofocus mechanism has been upgraded from the K-x's SAFOX VIII to the new SAFOX IX system. The K-r is equipped with 11 focusing points, 9 of which are "cross type."
The software user interface is Pentax-standard. The main menu is grouped into four main categories (shooting, playback, setup, and custom settings), each of which has several pages of options. The array of custom settings is pretty dazzling, allowing for control of EV and ISO steps, bracketing order, metering time, and other more esoteric options. When shooting, the rear display takes the place of the dedicated top LCD found on higher-end cameras. It shows live aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and EV compensation settings, as well as recording mode, quality, remaining shots, and so on. Pressing the INFO button brings up quick settings for all frequently-used controls.
Performance and User Experience
Like nearly all dSLRs, the K-r provides a no-muss, no-fuss shooting experience. Startup is virtually instantaneous -- you can shoot less than a second after turning it on. Shutter lag is an absolute non-issue when you've pre-focused, and autofocus speed is a definite step up from the K-x. In good light and at apertures smaller than f/1.8 it's quite snappy and deadly accurate. However, at f/1.8 or wider I did notice some accuracy issues, both with auto and manual focus. In manual focus mode, the green hexagon in the viewfinder would sometimes light up to confirm focus, but the resulting shot wasn't always correctly focused. Granted, it's extremely difficult to maintain precise focus at such wide apertures, even with a crop-sensor camera, and it could simply be that my hands aren't the steadiest.
Continuous shooting has been bumped up to 6fps, which beats most rival models by a sound margin, and the AF system does a good job for the most part in keeping up with the action. For the K-r, Pentax has introduced a new AF mode called AF.A, which bridges the gap between AF.S (Single) and AF.C (Continuous) autofocus, basically letting the camera guess which of the two modes to use. In practice it works quite well, refocusing on the fly when you're tracking a subject and not fidgeting too much when the target is static.
Live view autofocus has been drastically improved since the nearly unusable implementations found in the K-x and K-7. The speed is really quite remarkable, and the contrast-detect AF system never misses focus. It's quite helpful for macro shooting and other kinds of photography where you want pinpoint accuracy and clarity, and have time to set up your shot (e.g., landscapes). When using live view, the center portion of the image zooms in, achieves a focus lock, and then returns to the full image view before snapping the shot. Unlike mirrorless cameras and some of Sony's newer hybrid systems, the K-r still needs to flip up its mirror when entering live view mode, and has to perform some mechanical operations between pressing the shutter release and actually recording the image, so it's not recommended for action shots.
In addition to its bevy of standard shooting modes (including Auto, Program, Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Sensitivity Priority), the K-r offers a selection of 16 scene modes that may help point-and-shoot photographers make a smooth transition to dSLR photography. The more common of these scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Macro, etc.) are found on the physical mode dial, while the remainder (Food, Stage Lighting, Candlelight, etc.) are activated via the INFO menu when SCN mode is selected on the dial.
Within the main menu, users can also select a few "creative" modes borrowed from the K-7 and K-5. Like those cameras, the K-r has a Cross Processing mode, which emulates the look of film developed in the wrong chemicals. This mode produces strange magenta, cyan, and green color casts, wild variations in contrast, and other interesting effects. Users can choose one particular "look" that they like best, or let the camera's software produce random variations. A number of Digital Filters are also included, which produce everything from Holga-like "toy camera" effects to artificial fisheye and selective color shots. Users can even mix and match these effects to create custom sets.
Finally, in-camera HDR capture has been passed down to the K-r. This mode records three shots -- one underexposed, one properly exposed, and one overexposed -- and blends them via software to create a final photo with increased dynamic range. In the final HDR version, dark areas are brightened, bright highlights are toned down, and the resulting photo has a more even exposure across the frame. Users can select how aggressively the HDR process is implemented, with three intensity options. Since this mode takes three separate photos, it's recommended to use a tripod to minimize camera shake, but the software can also auto-align the three images to the best of its ability. In practice, this mode can produce some nice results, particularly for some specialized applications like real estate photography. For example, in-camera HDR could allow you to get both a home's interior and its grounds properly exposed in the same shot.
The rear screen is, as previously mentioned, quite high-res, matching the best in any level of the dSLR market. Despite its glossy cover it's plenty usable in bright light, and if you have problems making it out, the brightness can be bumped up significantly from its default setting (at the cost of battery life, of course). While it doesn't fold out or swivel, it's perfectly adequate for video recording in most situations. When used on a tripod or, in a pinch, handheld, it's also quite good for capturing stills. When using the LCD for still shooting, you can press the INFO button to zoom in on the center of the image in steps of 2x, for up to 10x magnification.
Video recording is available in either 720p HD (1280x720) or VGA (640x480), both at 25fps. This seems a bit lazy on the part of Pentax's engineers, since other entry-level cameras offer full 1080p HD and other framerate options including the standard 30fps and the more cinematic 24fps standard. (It's also a little strange, since the K-x recorded at 24fps.) More aggravating, Pentax has once again failed to add a dedicated video recording button, meaning that any time you want to begin recording a movie, you need to turn the mode dial to the Movie setting, compose, and press the shutter release -- for some, this may be a significant inconvenience. Unlike such rivals as the Panasonic GH2 and the Nikon D3100, the K-r doesn't have a continuous autofocus option during video recording. This isn't a huge problem since most dSLRs don't offer video AF, and those that do provide jerky, slow, and unreliable service. Still, it would have been nice to see evidence that Pentax is working on a solution. Users may choose either fixed or automatic aperture control during video recording. Fixed is recommended, as automatic control causes sudden changes in exposure as the camera's software compensates for the changing quantity of light coming through the lens. There is no external audio jack, so you'll have to settle for the onboard mono mic.
As have all Pentax dSLRs since 2006's K100D, the K-r has a sensor-based shake reduction system. This system allows the sensor to essentially "float" within a certain range of tolerances, compensating for movement of the camera or the user's hand. As a result, you can shoot at lower shutter speeds and in lower-light environments without as much movement blur as you'd see in from an unstabilized sytem. Pentax claims a gain of up to four shutter speed stops when the system is activated, and in my experience that figure holds true. The biggest advantage of this technology is that on a Pentax body, any lens becomes a stabilized lens -- even manual-focus glass from as far back as the 1950s. Nikon and Canon's in-lens stabilization technology is arguably more effective, but also results in much higher lens prices. It's also worth noting that in-lens stabilization produces a stabilized viewfinder image, while in-body tech does not.
Image and Video Quality
The sensor found in the K-r is truly a marvel. At the base ISO of 200, files don't show a single trace of digital noise. What's really surprising is that they stay that way all the way to ISO 1600, and remain usable straight through the penultimate ISO setting of 12,800. Take a look at the ISO test photos to the right of this review and you'll see that the tiny white writing on the spine of The Raw Shark Texts is legible at ISO 12,800 -- quite a remarkable feat. At the expanded max setting of ISO 25,600, the image has visible noise even at web size, and a lot of the fine detail is destroyed, but the image could still be used in a pinch.
In the real world, when not shooting the spines of books, the K-r is similarly excellent. In natural light, the sensor records exceptional levels of detail, and the 12.4 megapixels are plenty for most kinds of prints, even with a little cropping. In low light, the K-r shines as a party or bar accessory, though a fast lens certainly won't hurt. JPEGs out of the camera look quite good, with generally accurate white balance and vibrant color. White balance under incandescent light has long been a problem for dSLRs, but the K-r has a two-level custom menu setting to correct this issue, which works exceptionally well. The camera has a number of "Custom Image" settings, each of which tweaks the color profile and adjusts several other JPEG processing options. The images found in this review were taken using the default "Bright" Custom Image, which includes slight sharpening and contrast boosts.
If there's one significant failing of the camera's default output, it's that the multi-segment metering tends to overexpose images that contain a broad dynamic range. Previous Pentax dSLRs tended to underexpose to preserve highlights, while the K-r seems to want to preserve shadows. In the harsh New Mexico winter sunlight, this often led to blown-out adobe walls. The good news is that this problem only manifests itself in extremely bright sunlight, and, more importantly, it can be easily fixed in post-processing (particularly when shooting RAW). The K-r's sensor captures impressive dynamic range -- 12.4 stops as measured by DxO Labs -- which means that dark and bright areas alike can be saved.
The K-r also seems to suffer more than some cameras from purple fringing in high-contrast areas. Though this problem is typically regarded as a byproduct of certain lens design compromises, it's generally accepted that the sensor plays a role as well. The effect in K-r images definitely varies depending on which lens is mounted on the camera; the FA 77mm Limited, particularly known for this characteristic, certainly exhibited it more than most in my testing. This is a minor concern in the bigger picture -- fringing can be somewhat corrected in post-processing, and is an issue to one degree or another with all camera bodies -- but it's worth noting here. Also worth noting is the fact that when using modern Pentax lenses, users can select in-camera lens correction. This function post-processes your shots to automatically remove distortion and color fringing, based on the current lens's specific performance profile.
Flash performance with the onboard P-TTL flash is about what you'd expect these days from a dSLR flash. The guide number of 12 is equal to that of the Nikon D3100 and somewhat better than what's found on the new Canon Rebel T3. It produces very even exposures, accurate skin tones, and good white balance in regular use. There are six flash modes, including manual, manual + red-eye reduction, slow-speed sync, slow-speed sync + red eye, and trailing curtain sync. It can also be used as a trigger for a wireless flash. In the flash menu screen, the user can dial in flash exposure compensation using the rear dial. As with most onboard flashes, this one will not clear certain larger lenses, though it works fine with the kit DA 18-55mm lens. There is of course a hotshoe atop the viewfinder prism that can mount external flashes.
The K-r's HD video quality is unimproved from the K-x, and what was impressive on an entry-level dSLR in 2009 isn't quite so captivating in 2011. Having just spent some significant time with the Panasonic GH2, a contemporary and particularly skilled video-capable camera, the faults in the K-r are pretty glaring. To begin with, the video can show a lot of noise even at base ISO, especially in areas with a lot of detail (i.e., distant tree branches). This noise shows up as ugly, multicolored splotches, which are quite visible. It does better with close-ups of people, but even here a lack of detail and excessive graininess are noticeable. On the plus side, the familiar CMOS "jello" or rolling shutter effect seems to have been significantly tamed -- it was hardly noticeable in use. HD video files from the K-r are Motion JPEG .avi. These are certainly easier to work with in post-production than the increasingly popular AVCHD, but they're also much larger and far less efficient with memory card space.
It's tempting to read what I've written above, absorb the negatives, and call the K-r a middling beginner dSLR. However, that's not at all the case. Despite its issues, I still consider the K-r to be by far the best value in the entry-level category. Building on an incredibly solid base, it has fixed the few universally decried shortcomings of the K-x and added a number of appealing features, most of which are noticeable in everyday use. High-ISO capability, focusing speed and accuracy, and continuous shooting speed are all unmatched by the competition at this price point. Where some entry-level cameras focus on marketing glitz over actual photographic capability, it seems the goal with the K-r was to make a camera that's really, really good at taking photos -- a refreshingly simple goal in today's market, and one at which the K-r succeeds admirably.
The shortcomings are mostly peripheral to good basic photography. Most noticeable is the anemic HD recording function, with an odd 25fps recording mode and grainy image quality. While other companies are going all-in with full-HD 1080p recording and lots of framerate options, it seems that Pentax has shoehorned in video recording simply to check off another item on the competitive feature list. Good-quality video capability is very important to certain consumers -- parents and amateur videographers in particular -- and Pentax would do well to recognize that fact.
The K-r's MSRP of $799.95 is a step or two higher than that of the Nikon D3100 ($699.99) and the upcoming Canon T3 ($599.99), but its street price has already dropped to just above the $600 mark. This is a bit more than the street price of the D3100, and nipping at the heels of the as-yet-unreleased T3. For all intents and purposes, it's a dead heat as far as price goes (it will fluctuate throughout the year), and in my opinion the cost/benefit analysis definitely falls toward the K-r. In many ways it's more on a level, in terms of features, with more expensive mid-range consumer cameras like the Canon T2i and Nikon D5000.
That said, there are bound to be concerns associated with buying a camera from a smaller player in the dSLR realm. Nikon and Canon enjoy a huge edge in brand recognition, and due to their massive market share they have the resources to offer an array of specialty zooms and primes on top of their more consumer-friendly glass. For this reason, and to ensure an upgrade path to full-frame dSLRs, it's often said that those who have ambitions toward becoming pro photographers would be better off buying into one of those two systems. On the other hand, most users -- particularly those who are looking for their first dSLR -- will have little interest in exotic (and expensive) super-telephotos and simply want to take good photos without remortgaging their houses. To this end, Pentax's selection of mainstream zooms and renowned boutique primes would be more than sufficient.
It would not be a stretch to say that the K-r's biggest competition comes from its predecessor. Despite being discontinued by Pentax Japan, the K-x is still on sale at deep discount prices from numerous online retailers in the US, sometimes as low as $480 with the kit lens. The K-r is a better camera in many respects -- with slightly better high-ISO range, a touch better ergonomics and build quality, a larger and higher-res rear LCD, illuminated viewfinder AF points, and an AF assist lamp -- but it may not be $130 better. Over time the K-r will settle into its niche and its price will drop further, but for now budget-conscious buyers can get much the same image quality for a substantially lower price if they can overlook the K-x's few shortcomings.
Ultimately, the ability to express your personal creative vision is what photography is all about; a camera is simply a tool that helps you get that done. As a tool, the K-r is versatile, feature-rich, and, most importantly, doesn't get in your way. The camera is quick and responsive, image quality is stellar, and the user interface is simple and easy to navigate. Everything that made the K-x one of our favorite cameras is here, and much of it is improved. So if you're looking for an ideal introduction into the world of advanced photography, this is it.