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Pentax K-x – taking shots at Nikon and Canon

Pentax K-x: Background

I’d really looked forward to getting my hands on this camera. The reviews had been tantalising. Imaging Resource said: ‘the Pentax Kx has enormous value, thanks to its remarkable image and print quality, fine build, and class-leading burst speed, all combining to make one impressive digital SLR camera.’ http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/KX/KXA.HTM .

The boys at DP Review were no less effusive: ‘Pentax has managed to squeeze what is … an impressive feature set … image quality, especially in low light, is the best we have seen so far in the entry-level bracket of the DSLR market … compared to the closest rivals, [the K-x sells at a] very attractive price point.’

So it was a genuine surprise when the first test camera fell short on these fronts:

  1. Exposure was wayward (often too dark) in AV and P modes.
  2. Highlights blew out too easily, while shadows were impenetrable
  3. Sharpness in middle to long distance shots was absent
  4. There was considerable noise in poor light shots

I had no idea what the problem was, but suspected the lens’s AF function. When even manual focusing didn’t improve things, I asked the distributor for another camera.

K-x red, white and blue

Value Proposition

Before we get into the hands-on part of the second test, let’s recap what the K-x has going for it. The Pentax website tells to ‘BREAK ALL THE RULES. Choose a camera that redefines the entry-level digital SLR category. The PENTAX K-x offers high-end features including Live View, HD video and photographic performance that challenges higher class models.

One thing is clear: for an asking price of just US$650 for the basic kit, the Pentax delivers plenty of features, including

  • High-precision 5 or 11-point AF sensor
  • Live View mode
  • In-body sensor-shift image stabilisation
  • Fast 4.7 frames/ second burst mode
  • Dust Removal for image sensor
  • High dynamic range function for creating composite images
  • Automatic compensation of lens distortion and lateral chromatic aberration
  • Video recording at 1280 x 720 at 24 frames a second with mono sound, for up to 11 minutes at the HQ setting. For still photography
  • A shutter rated for 100,000 actuations (uncommon for cameras at this price)
  • Optional wireless flash, using built in flash as master
  • Depth-of-field preview
  • Support for all Pentax K-mount lenses plus older lens via adaptor

A key part of the value proposition is the new sensor Pentax has endowed the K-x with. Here is a DxOMark comparison that makes the point more succinctly than any number of mouthwatering technical specs.

DxOMark comparison

On this objective RAW sensor evaluation http://www.dxomark.com/ , the K-x is clearly up there with the Nikon D5000/D90 sensor – the current class leader – and ahead of the Canon 550D by a fair margin.

Pentax K-x Build Quality & Handling

It’s a solid, well-built camera of about the same size as a Nikon D40. It’s a little heavier with 4 AA NMH rechargeable batteries tucked up in it’s handgrip, but that’s a minor grumble. Materials are of good quality, with no sign of skimping to keep the cost down. My only aesthetic quibble is a line of chrome around the body, which looks a bit old-fashioned in contrats to the fashion colours the K-x comes in.

The viewfinder retains the K2000’s penta-mirror, with 96% coverage and 0.85x magnification. It’s not especially bright and the numbers on the bottom row could be a little clearer for shooting in daylight. Missing are the autofocus points, which is a real puzzle. The screen on the back is not up there with the latest offerings at 2.7 in and 230,000 pixels, but it’s perfectly adequate for most situations. These are about the only signs of Pentax cost paring.

More importantly, all the buttons are where they should be, big enough and clearly marked, including a button that pops up the flash. The four-way control wheel on the back provides quick access to White Balance, Shooting mode and ISO – the operation of the camera is well-thought-out.

Pentax K-x – taking shots at Nikon and Canon

Menus and Modes

Navigation is just as easy: hit the info button and all the major settings are accessible via a single panel which you can navigate using the 4-way control wheel. The menu button opens up a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of treasures for control freaks, with granular settings that provide control over every aspect of shooting and image quality. Again, the menus are logically laid out and easy to navigate.

For my test, I turned every setting to normal, neutral, standard, natural or off in order to get shots out of the K-x with a minimum of manipulation. I didn’t shoot RAW this time as I suspect most buyers of this camera will be shooting JPEGs.

I said in my first review that the K-x manual impressed me, and I want to make that point again after receiving a Canon EOS 550D for review yesterday. The 550D’s manual is one of those small, cramped, thin-paged things with writing that brings tears to the eyes of anyone older than 29. It’s very similar to my Canon SD 960 manual, and not at all fitting for a $1,000 DSLR.

Pentax K-x Performance

The K-x is a responsive camera with no delays in normal operation. The autofocus is snappy if a bit noisy, and response to the trigger is immediate. The K-x’s burst mode really lets fly with almost 5 frames/sec. It will do that for five RAW or 17 JPEG frames before running out of buffer space.

The range of shutter speeds, from 1/6,000 to 30 seconds, is just as impressive for an entry-level DSLR, and a shutter durability rating is unheard of. In terms of speed and handling, the K-x punches about its weight.

It’s a different story Live View mode, with the autofocus doing a lot of hunting in less than optimal light, but the same applies to the Nikon D5000 and Canon EOS 550D. They all have a way to go on this front.

Much the same applies to video. Starting a video recording is fiddly, you can’t autofocus while shooting video, you can’t set the aperture or shutter speed from the camera once the video is rolling, and you can’t take a still shot. Nikon’s D90 doesn’t do it any better, but Canon has upped the ante with the new EOS 550D.

Still Image Quality

With this new K-x, sharp shots came out of the camera with no effort at all, which is what we’ve come to expect from today’s DSLRs. This is a 100% crop, unedited.

K-x 100% crop

The noise in low light shots turned out to be a result of the camera’s tendency to underexpose. Once I worked out the right degree of exposure compensation needed, the K-x’s low light performance was impressive for a camera in this price range.

K-x Low-light test

The left shot was taken at ISO 3200, the right one at 6400. These are not 100% crops but even at that rate, there’s not a lot of noise visible at 3200 and not much more at 6400. On the higher setting, real life shots take on a slightly manipulated look and I found ISO 3200 a better working limit.

K-x test 3

With this K-x sample, the transitions in high contrast scenes were much improved. And this time around, the colours were spot on too, rich and warm without over-saturation.

The kit lens turns out sharp photos in most situations, but landscape shots tend to go soft away from the centre. The K-x still had a tendency to underexpose in AV-mode, my favourite shooting mode, especially in early or late daylight which are the best times for landscape photography. Dialling in some exposure compensation took care of that most of the time.

In terms of detail, the K-x delivers more than enough as this shot shows.

K-x close-up

Verdict

Pentax makes bold claims for the K-x but does it deliver on the promises? On the whole, the answer is YES. The K-x is a well-built camera loaded with features. Despite the long feature list, the K-x is as simple to use as you want while offering a host of fine settings for control freaks.

Overall, the camera works well and fast and fuss-free. It’s sensor is up there with the best in class, despite the sharp $650 price tag. The Nikon D5000 costs around $800 and the Canon EOS 550D $900. So yes, Pentax has broken the rules and thrown out a serious challenge to the Canikon camp with a strong value proposition.

There are some gripes, but the list is not a long one:

  • No autofocus points in viewfinder, probably the most serious omission
  • Auto-exposure tends to the dark side in low light settings
  • The shutter is quite noisy, not suitable for candid shots
  • The LED could be a little bigger and sharper
  • Autofocus is slow in Live View
  • There are serious limitations in video mode
  • Auto-ISO doesn’t work in manual mode
  • K-x uses 4 AA batteries

The last point means more weight to carry. The upside is that, when travelling overseas to countries with different power arrangements, you can take or buy disposable batteries.

A word on my methodology

I don’t test or review cameras the way DP Review or Steve’s Digicams do. I test cameras as a user, and that means I look for good design, ease of use and logical operation and navigation. Good design is about a great user experience, something very few companies are good at. Here’s a piece of my mind on the subject http://www.technoledge.com.au/pdfs/user-experience.pdf

Additional Resources

I’ve posted more shots from this round of testing on my blog in a Pentax K-x gallery http://briard.typepad.com/get_the_picture/pentax-kx-test-3-gallery.html

Get a Price on the Pentax K-x on Amazon

A very detailed review of the setting options the K-x offers http://www.dcresource.com/reviews/pentax/kx-review/using

Very comprehensive review of all types of Pentax lenses http://photo.net/equipment/pentax/

List of Pentax lenses on the company’s website http://www.pentax.com.au/pentax/index.php?q=node/179

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Pentax K-x
Author Rating
4

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Kim Brebach

Kim Brebach is a marketing professional whose experience spans over 3 decades in the IT industry. His interests include photography, cool technology, great music, theatre and books, wine and food, tennis and chess. You can find his photo blog at Get the Picture.

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