Monday, March 31, 2008

A Closer Look At Pentax Cameras

photographyFourth in a series that gently explains digital photography and makes helpful recommendations.

In the article Which Digital SLR? I explained the three main benefits of the Pentax camera bodies over others in their price range: weather-sealing, body-based image stabilisation and lens compatibility. In this instalment I'll give you an idea of what you can expect to pay to get started in digital SLRs, and compare the available models. I'm not going to go into excruciating detail here; it's easy enough to Google for reviews and spec sheets if you really want to get technical. The prices I quote will be the best I can find this week... by the time you read this they will likely be lower.

I will avoid grandiose claims along the lines of "buy Pentax and be a great photographer". These cameras are ultimately just tools. But you may as well get the best tool for your money, no?

First up is the K100D Super, an outgoing model that can be found in kit form (that is, with the standard 18-55mm zoom lens) for £270. At this bargain price you get all the amazing features of the Pentax line, except the weather-sealed body. It's got a 6 megapixel sensor (all you need) and runs conveniently off AA batteries, which last a good long time. It's a solid build at 560g.

Because it's targeted at beginners it's got a slew of automatic scene modes. Personally I think the inclusion of these was a bad decision. Everything you need to do automatically you can do with the regular "P" for Program mode. That would have been simpler and would accustom the user more quickly to understanding SLR use and terminology. But I understand it's a way of converting point'n'shoot users.

Still, that is no reason not to buy this camera, the best bargain in the SLR world. Just ignore the scene modes and chuckle at how much money you just saved over the "other brands".

The K10D was the previous flagship model, now discounted to £400 with lens. Improvements over the K100D include a better viewfinder, weather seals, a dedicated RAW button for switching file modes and a button for auto exposure bracketing. It drops the scene modes but has some sophisticated new modes which I believe are unique to Pentax. For example TAv mode allows you to set aperture and shutter; the camera will adjust ISO to keep them constant.

Additional improvements are less obvious but still important. For instance the camera responds quicker to actions, and has a larger buffer. Rather than a single thumb dial it has two of them, which improves the ergonomics. Buy this one if you want the handling improvements (grip available). I also like the fact that the LCD displays separate RGB histograms -- wish the K100D had that.

There are several areas in which the K10D could be considered inferior to the K100D. Rather than easily-sourced AA batteries it has a proprietary battery. It's larger and heavier at 785g. And the extreme low light handling is actually poorer than in the K100D, though it has an ISO 100 setting the other camera lacks.

Recently released are two new models that have a dust alert, a bigger LCD display (2.7" versus 2.5") and dynamic range enlargement to provide 1 EV more exposure range. More important, these have a new sensor that appears to produce significantly nicer images. They are also quieter and quicker in operation than their previous counterparts.

Besides those improvements the K200D gets the weather seals, RAW button and 10 megapixels of the K10D, but not its second dial or other benefits. It also still uses AA batteries like the K100D. Available for £470, I would hate to have to decide between this and the K10D.

The K20D has the largest ISO range yet, 100-6400, and the highest pixel count, 14.6 MP. This is enough of an advance over the K100D (eg. more than double) to consider it a significant upgrade for those of you who need to print posters. It has a 20fps burst mode when using JPGs and in-camera RAW file processing to TIFFs. Sophisticated extras include user focus calibration for wayward lenses and self-repairing sensors to remove stuck pixels. We're getting into the realm of science-fiction with this one!

A one-touch auto-bracket mode will appeal to fans of HDR photography. There's also an intervalometer; the camera can take up to 99 photos in a sequence of regular steps, set from 1 second to 24 hours (!) apart. The K20D has a live view feature but I consider these mostly a gimmick on SLRs, due to the limitations in use.

The price for the lens kit is £800 but that is only high in comparison to the bargains I listed previously. Compare this camera to what is available from other manufacturers and it stands out a mile.

My advice on which of these to get? The cheapest! Grab a K100D Super while you still can; down the line you can buy a second body and keep this one as a backup. Any money beating around in your wallet in the meantime can be invested in good lenses, one of the real treats of the Pentax range.

And lenses are what I'll look at next. See you then!

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1 comment:

CheekyGeek said...

Good post. I'm in the States and Pentax came on my radar thanks to reviews in MacLife magazine. I read the new review there for the K200D and said "Whoa! that's a lot of nice features for the money." Looked into it (and the rebate didn't hurt) and just placed my order with Amazon.com today. Stores around here are selling the Canon XT and the Nikon D40 for the same amount that I paid for my K200D kit.

Can't wait for it to get here. If I wasn't in the process of paying for three daughter's weddings, I'd probably have been looking at the K20D. 6400 ISO is amazing!

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