Sunday, May 24, 2009

Evaluating The New Pentax K-7

photographyPentax has announced a new camera to great excitement. Features of the K-7 were leaked slowly from several sources, leading to a frenzy of interest on websites like Pentax Forums. You can read over 4000 posts in just a single thread -- and that's just one thread of many! Instead, I recommend you save many hours by reading this article. I won't go into excruciating detail but will cover all the new features of the camera from my own (rather more reserved) perspective.

I am doing this to provide a bit of an antidote to the gadget-crazy feeding frenzy that results whenever a camera with new features is announced. I don't think this has ever happened in the Pentax world to the extent it is happening now, for good reason. Pentax have been lagging behind the big camera manufacturers (Nikon and Canon, but perhaps also Sony and Fuji) in sheer quantity of features. Now they have caught up and perhaps even lapped the competitors, so of course people are interested.

However my perspective is simple: will this camera make me a better photographer? Does it include features that are useful or features that are gimmicks? Of course this must be a personal examination. I shoot different photos than the next person, so my priorities are different. I prefer still lifes, macros, landscapes and sometimes street scenes. But I also shoot events, especially art events. This involves portrait and action shots. I hate compromises in usability or image quality (IQ). I prefer portability and natural shots and so rarely use a tripod or flash. I have very good lenses that highlight any camera deficiency.

One very large proviso before you read the following critique. Since Pentax did not deem it necessary to give me a K-7 ahead of the official release, I am working from literature found online. My opinions might well change once more details are known or when I get my hands on the actual item.

OK, that's a long enough introduction. I will now compare the K-7 to the flagship K20D (I also own the K100DS) on a point by point basis.

Magnesium shell
While the substrate is the same robust stainless steel as before, some will find reassurance in a metal instead of a plastic outer body. Those who work in the cold might not prefer this. Besides, the plastic was already very robust. Pentax build quality is excellent!

Cold-resistant to -10°C
Pentax are here marketing a feature that has always existed. Previous models have been used in Antarctica, northern Finland and even sent into space!

Improved dust removal
This worked very well before -- I have not cleaned the K20D sensor in five months! I assume this is press hype then.

SD compartment latch
The nice secure latch on the K20D is missing in action. But the battery compartment latch is the same as before, thank goodness.

Focal plane marker
It's nice to have this marked on the body. It costs nothing and is useful when testing lenses.

Smaller and lighter
This means a lot to me, but let's look at the facts. Loaded with a battery and SD card we have to carry 754g instead of 802g, a negligible savings of 48g. The low-end K-m is 590g, which is more like it. In terms of size we have a crude estimate of 928 cubic centimeters. This lies closer to the K20D at 1004 than it does to the K100DS at 831. Though any reduction is welcome, this is not a significantly smaller camera.

Viewfinder coverage 100% versus 95%
A nice improvement, though there is little disadvantage to having slightly less than full coverage. All this means is that one gets a bit more of the scene than expected, which can actually be a nice safety net. Someday I would like to see a camera with 110% coverage, which would certainly help composition, especially for moving objects entering the frame.

Viewfinder magnification 92%, down from 95%
Oh dear. This will hamper visibility, especially for manual focusing (MF). As a workaround I have tried magnifier add-ons but as these restrict reading the full viewfinder I have abandoned them.

3" LCD
A nice improvement over the 2.7" screen, with four times the previous resolution! While this is not to be sneezed at, one should still never make image decisions based on the back panel.

New battery and grip
These accessories are no longer compatible with the K20D and K10D, which is a pain if using different bodies in the field. The battery has been changed to get a few percent more shots out of it. I would have preferred maintaining compatibility, especially as the K20D battery has excellent life. The grip has improved features like the ability to use AA batteries. As I never use a grip, this is irrelevant to me. But the AF button will be a welcome enhancement for those who do.

Natural-Bright-Matte III focusing screen
Apparently this will improve the ability to manually focus. I do hope so!

Improved SR
Wonderful if true. I find this to be a killer feature for natural light photography (which is 99% of what I do). In-body SR is one way in which Pentax trounces the competition; every lens ever made for k-mount is stabilised! (To be fair, Sony and Olympus also make cameras this way. But they do not have the same inexpensive quality lenses available.)

14.6 MP sensor
As before. Though the K-7 sensor now has four-channel output and has been rebuilt "from the ground up" we'll have to wait and see if there is any improved IQ. I am skeptical it can be significantly enhanced over the K20D, which has the best APS-C sensor images in the business. I am glad, however, that there is no arbitrary increase in megapixels just to pump the numbers.

Multi-pattern metering in 77 zones
Up from 16 zones. Will this improve metering? Maybe a little, but the camera can never guess the photographers intention, so manually overriding (with exposure compensation or otherwise) is always going to be a necessity.

Exposure compensation +/-5 EV
I've never needed more than +/-2 but I guess there's no harm in having more.

ISO 100-3200
The same range as before, with 6400 available only when using the "extended" feature. I would have liked ISO 50 for ultimate clarity and further depth of field (DOF) control.

Shutter rate up to 5.2 frame per second (fps)
Good for up to 15 frames in RAW mode. Improved from 3.0fps. This will certainly suit those who need to "machine gun" their shots. Though I perhaps use this term disparagingly, I understand the need to capture as many shots as possible when action is too fast for the eye.

Shutter speed to 1/8000s
One stop faster. Great!

Flash sync speed remains at 1/180s
A lot of people are crying out for 1/250s. It means nothing to me, and I can't see how a third of a stop is a big deal, but others say it is.

Improved Live View (LV)
Continuous shooting is now possible in live view, and there are improved focus modes. It's nice to see this feature getting better, but I'll keep using the viewfinder, thanks. If there was an articulated screen LV would be handy for macros and such, but there isn't.

Face recognition
Why not happy mood recognition?

Built-in AF assist light
This should improve auto-focus (AF) ability and is certainly a welcome feature. But I never expect my camera to work miracles and often manually focus for ease, precision or simply because it's more fun.

Improved AF
The SAFOX VIII processing engine has been upgraded to SAFOX VIII+. Er, great, I guess. [EDIT: Sorry for being obtuse. What I mean is that it is impossible to judge this on the basis of a spec sheet.]

Lens distortion and chromatic aberration (CA) corrections
Since this only works in JPG mode it is useless to a serious photographer. It also will not work with any M, K, A, or even FA lenses -- most of what I use. [EDIT: Some have stated that serious photographers do sometimes need JPG. While this may be true, to my way of thinking not shooting RAW is like burning your negatives.]

Electronic level adjustment: Keeping the camera level is not one of my problems. In any case, fine adjustments will be almost impossible in the field, unless using a tripod. Post-correction will remain necessary in many cases.

Copyright embedding
Enter your personal info and it will be stamped into the EXIF of each image file. Handy.

720p HD video
Various 30fps modes are available with AF and SR operational. There's a built-in microphone and stereo mini plug. This is a great feature for those who need it, but let's not be distracted -- it's strictly a frill on a still camera.

KAF2 "crippled" lens mount
This has not changed. The green button allows us to stop down manual lenses, but there is no physical aperture coupler. I must say that this is still better than all the competition (except perhaps Fuji).

No permanent ISO display
This has not changed. One must choose between displaying shots remaining and ISO. This really bothers some people and I must admit it is a rather silly limitation.

Cannot set back dial to ISO in M mode
This is a personal gripe. I have the back dial set to control ISO, but the firmware will not let me do so in Manual mode, where I spend at least half of my time. This means I must shift control use depending on the mode I am in, which totally sucks.

Two new white balance modes and new image processing options
Whatever. I shoot RAW. This is certainly a lot easier than fussing with WB in the field.

HDR mode
Enables extended dynamic range capture in-camera. This is best handled with computer software that can control dozens of different parameters, not the simple three settings one gets here.

Composition adjustment
This cute new feature allows minute adjustment of the image framing using the same mechanism that controls SR. This is handy to avoid repositioning a tripod.

Dynamic range adjustment
Previously one could switch this feature on and off, now there are also separate menu options for shadow and highlight correction, giving us more control.

Quieter shutter action
I have not heard this yet, except on video footage, but reports state the shutter is about half as loud as before. Fantastic! This is my number one favourite feature of the K-7.

In my next article I will look at the physical layout of the body, including changes to the controls. I will do this from a usability design perspective.

For full details on the camera see the USA Pentax site or the preview at Digital Photography Review.


1 comment:

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