Monday, February 16, 2009

Your First DSLR: The Pentax K-m

photographyThis winter Pentax added a third camera to their line-up of digital SLRs. Rather confusingly it's called the K2000 in North America and the K-m everywhere else. This model joins the mid-range K200D and the top-of-the-line K20D. I find naming systems like this, where you have to count the number of zeroes, to be idiotic, but apparently camera manufacturers enjoy making us work to read their product names. Whatever happened to the rest of the alphabet?

Anyway. I will call this camera the K-m and make a few comments from my perspective, as owner of a K20D and the K100D Super. First I will summarise its advantages, then look at where compromises were made, and finally I'll refer to the Digital Photography Review analysis of the Pentax K-m, since this popular site influences a lot of readers. As a counterpoint I'll give you six other reviews to digest.

Advantages

How does the K-m compare with the rest of the line? Essentially it is based on the K200D engine, with the same excellent 10.7 MP sensor. This is more than enough for most purposes; heck, even a 6MP sensor is perfect for anyone not making massive prints for gallery walls.

The ISO range has been boosted to cover 100-3200, plus there's a shadow compensation feature I am not fit to comment on. Here's something that rarely gets mentioned: Pentax is very honest about their ISO figures. The other big brands often significantly fudge the exposure curves to make their cameras look like they have better low light handling.

Several aspects of the internal engine have been improved, though, as usual, Pentax does not make a big deal about this in their marketing. For example the AF system is reportedly significantly better. Also the continuous shooting rate has been upped from 2.8fps to 3.5fps for RAW images. It's now faster than the competitor's Nikon D60.

Like the previous K100D range, but unlike the K200D and K20D, the K-m is powered by four AA batteries. In a pinch you can find AA batteries anywhere in the world. This can be considered a distinct advantage if you are a global traveler. The power consumption has been tweaked to be very low. Pentax says you can get over 1600 shots on one set, which is truly remarkable. As always I recommend you buy two sets of Eneloop batteries. These have a discharge rate and current pattern that suit these cameras to a T. Avoid everything else!

A further advantage of the K-m is its size. A rough estimate of its volume comes to 757 cubic cm., where the K200D is 939. However, it is smaller than that in the hand, tinier yet than the Olympus E-420. However it is no lighter than competing models.

The K-m retains its one big advantage over other brands, in that it has Shake Reduction built into the body, so every lens you attach benefits from 2 or more stops of stabilisation. This is a killer feature.

There is a new Help button which provides nice easy-to-read instructions for the various functions. The menu has been improved -- all the reviewers love it.

The dust-removal system is still here, augmented by a setting that clearly displays dust on the sensor, so you know when a sensor cleaning is in order.

For beginners the auto program mode has been updated so that it automatically chooses the best mode setting based on an analysis of the viewfinder. As well there are improvements to some of the different modes ("toy camera" has been added) that I never use anyway.

For more sophisticated users the innovative sensitivity-priority mode has been retained. This allows you to alter the ISO dynamically; the camera will set both aperture and shutter speed.

You still have the freedom to select between multi-segment, centre and spot metering. This does not seem like a dumbed-down camera at all.


Compromises

Since there is less space on the body several switches and buttons have disappeared. The SR switch has changed to a menu selection, which I don't think is a big deal as I only turn SR off when using a tripod. The Fn button, which provided quick access to four different settings, has vanished, but the OK button in combination with four directional buttons does the same thing. The AE lock button is gone. However there is still an AF button, so you can set the camera to auto-focus using this instead of the half shutter-press, a feature that is more sophisticated than one might expect on an entry-level unit. Finally, there is no dedicated RAW button, but again I never used that either.

For the first time on a Pentax DSLR, but similar to entry-level models from other brands, there is no top LCD. However, the back panel is just as large as the K200D.

The AF system has been limited to a 5-point system. I'll come back to this more in a moment.

This camera is not weather-sealed. No-one should expect that from an entry-level model, but as the other two Pentax bodies offer this high-end feature for a lower price than any other manufacturer, it is worth mentioning. Nonetheless, the chassis is steel, so the camera can be expected to be quite rugged. I've dropped and smashed my K100D Super with no ill effect. (Not that I recommend this practice, but stuff happens!)

This camera has no Live View implementation, which might bother some stepping up from a point'n'shoot. However it is not something I care about at all. On the plus side the viewfinder produces a larger and brighter image than other entry-level cameras... or so say those who have compared.

Finally, there are two "new" lenses offered with the camera. The DA L 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 and DA L 50-200mm F4.0-5.6 are similar to pre-existing non-L ("lightweight") lenses but have a plastic mount and are slightly lighter. They also lack a focus scale and the very handy Quick Shift (for focus) feature. There is no way I'd recommend these lenses when much better Pentax optics abound. In fact, I think it was a major mistake to compromise on the famous Pentax glass in this way, all for the sake of a few grams.


Reception

Now, let's get to that infamous dpreview article. Here are the points the author used to downgrade the K-m, together with my comments.

"Default JPEGs too contrasty and poorly sharpened". This is a matter of opinion. And besides, the JPG settings can be changed to suit any preferences. Besides, anyone using a DSLR will be shooting RAW more times than not. Pick up any entry-level magazine and they recommend time after time "shoot RAW" -- even beginners know this. Default JPG quality is the last thing I would knock any camera for. Especially when the results from this sensor are, in fact, fantastic.

"JPEG engine not making the most out the camera's RAW data (regardless of settings)." See above. It's hard to imagine that this point needed to be made twice. I sense some serious desperation at dpreview. "We must find a way this camera is worse than a Canon!"

"No orientation sensor (get used to landscape images)." Um, what is software for? I suppose no-one ever shot portrait orientation on film cameras either. What a dumb criticism.

"Dynamic range in the highlights slightly below average (but efficient D-Range option)." OK, whatever. I have no way of comparing this feature to other systems, but I do know that the Sony sensors in the Pentax system produce great images.

"Limited continuous shooting capability, slower than average and small buffer." This has traditionally been true of the entire Pentax range compared with the competition. But now, for the first time, we have a Pentax camera that is actually better in this regard than the competing Nikon! So this should be a positive point, no?

"Flash must be raised for AF assist (although AF improved in low light)." Not really a big deal to most. Be thankful there is a decent flash to use!

"No Kelvin white balance option." Sheesh! This is a beginner's camera. For what it's worth I have never adjusted white balance even on my K20D. That's what shooting RAW and post-processing is all about.

"Unsophisticated, uninformative AF system with no indication of chosen point in viewfinder." I have saved this criticism for last, since it is the only one worth considering as a limitation of the K-m. The fact that you cannot manually select between the 5 AF points is a significant limitation of this model. However, the camera will automatically determine the best point to use. According to less biased reports, this is done in a clever, even sophisticated, manner. Auto-focus is quicker and more accurate than on previous models, even though those are more expensive. This goes some way to addressing a continuing limitation in the Pentax system.

Let me stress here than you do not need to use the automatic point system. Instead, switch the camera to use centre-point focus. Then it acts like every other SLR since time immemorial. Focus on the centre and recompose with the shutter half-pressed, if you wish. The K-m in this mode does not limit the photographer in any way.

Finally, I should address the claim that there no focus confirmation in the viewfinder. What is missing is the little red square that lights the AF point. However, to say that there is no focus confirmation is dead wrong. First, the camera beeps to confirm focus. Second, an icon appears in the viewfinder bar. The red square would be nice as well, but it is not a deal-breaker.


Further Reading

"The K2000 is a fantastic new option and a great value besides" says DigitalCameraReview.com.

"The K-m continues the recent Pentax tradition of producing well-thought out DSLRs that offer great image quality" opines PhotographyBLOG.

"The K2000 should help Pentax hold onto its stellar reputation" thinks Pop Photo.

"Newcomers to DSLRs have another option to look at and it's a really good one" thinks ePHOTOzine.

"With a better lens, the K-m could be a budget classic" say cnet uk. (Rightly too.)


Recommendations

This camera seems to have made the right compromises between size, usability and features. The main problem is not with the camera itself but with how it is being sold. In the UK one can buy it with a one-lens or two-lens kit, but both of these are substandard, as noted previously. In the US one can get it in a kit with the low-end Pentax flash... again, not so enticing.

I advise instead that you buy the body on its own (sans kit) and pair this with a lens of your choosing. In the UK this will currently cost you only £249, after a promotional cash-back refund (so long as you buy it at the same time as a lens).

Which glass do I recommend? The pancake-thin DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited will give you the smallest possible SLR combination. The dc watch site has some great photos of the K-m, especially this one showing how petite it is with the Limited lenses. The text is in Japanese however.

For a classic "fast 50" the FA 50mm f/1.4 is unbeatable. If you prefer a zoom, the DA 16-45mm F/4 is a huge step up from the kit lens. These combinations will run you £478, £408 or £449 respectively after cash-back.

That said, I can only recommend the K-m if size or user-friendliness are the ultimate factors in your decision-making process. That's because the top of the line K20D is available for only £290 more, a fairly negligible amount once you start investing in lenses. It's the true bargain in the Pentax line-up.

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5 comments:

Robert S. Donovan said...

Excellent review. You clearly point out some serious holes in the dpreview review. There are only a few points I question:

1. Beginners don't shoot RAW. In fact, most photographers don't shoot RAW. It's really only us advanced amateurs and wedding photographers that shoot RAW (the ones who read the photography magazines). How this effects the K-m varies.

2. All this talk about AA batteries being ideal for "world travelers" seems a bit overrated. I have traveled the world with dedicated Li-Ion batteries and have never found myself wishing I could just pick up some AAs. If you can't remember to charge your batteries they will be dead no matter what kind they are. IMO using AA batteries is a cost saving measure and nothing more.

3. I'm not sure why smaller tends to equal better with DSLRs. Logic would say that there is an ideal size and shape from an anthropometric standpoint and an ideal control layout from an ergonomic perspective. Continually shrinking camera bodies requires design and engineering compromises in each area. I think Pentax got it right with the K10/20D bodies. Everything else seems too small and cramped.

4. You say Pentax compromised on the quality of the "glass" with the new kit lens. Is the IQ compromised or just the handling and construction?

5. No orientation sensor? Come on, those have been standard in even the cheapest point and shoot cameras for years! Having to manually rotate my images in iPhoto seems like a pretty big step backwards for such an otherwise mature camera system.

6. I agree that using the center focus point is a reasonable solution to the lack of focus point indication in multi-point AF mode. SO, why bother with the multi-point AF in the first place? Seems like a good way to make a potentially useful feature seem like a gimmick.

robin said...

Wow, thanks Robert for the detailed and thoughtful comments!

"1. Beginners don't shoot RAW."

It would be interesting to know the stats on this.

"2. All this talk about AA batteries being ideal for "world travelers" seems a bit overrated."

Twice in 9 months I've been caught in a situation where I needed to run to a store for some quick AAs, generally because I had a drained set of rechargables in my bag by mistake. Can't do that with proprietary batteries, because the corner store won't have them. It does happen and not just to me!

"3. I'm not sure why smaller tends to equal better with DSLRs."

There are a good number of people who want small at all costs. This marketing need is driving much R&D at the moment. I have known people online who've sold off their kit to go to micro 4/3 format or whatever, just to get something smaller. That's why I'd recommend the DA40 as a good lens to pair with the K-m, even though it's not a lens I own (it's too small for me).

"4. You say Pentax compromised on the quality of the "glass" with the new kit lens. Is the IQ compromised or just the handling and construction?"

Well, the K20D comes with the Mk II 18-55mm which is known to have better IQ than the regular 18-55mm. So even if the L model is as good as the regular one it's still a step down. I've got two of the three variants but, quite honestly, don't think it's really worth the time to compare them when better choices exist.

"5. No orientation sensor? Come on, those have been standard in even the cheapest point and shoot cameras for years!"

I have lived without this on an older model DSLR and never missed it. But sure, it must be easy enough to include it. Must have been a bean counter thing.

"6. I agree that using the center focus point is a reasonable solution to the lack of focus point indication in multi-point AF mode. SO, why bother with the multi-point AF in the first place?"

Because, according to those with more K-m experience, the auto AF actually works really well. It's a beginner's feature on a beginner's camera, to help make the whole experience more automatic. Same with the auto-scene detection. That's a point'n'shoot feature appearing for the first time in a Pentax DSLR. I doubt I'd use either, but I am not the target market for this camera. For the target market I think this camera is incredible.

Robert S. Donovan said...

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I say beginners don't shoot RAW because I work with beginners on a daily basis and none of them know anything about RAW. Most of the hits I get on my blog are "what is RAW" and "how do I shoot bokeh."

I agree with the idea of AA batteries in cameras for certain uses. IN fact, I just recommended a K200D to a friend who is planning on spending the summer hiking the Appalachian trail precisely so he wouldn't have to worry about charging proprietary batteries. I think I'm just biased since my first DSLR was an Olympus E-10 whose AA NiMh batteries were dead every time I picked it up :-/

I agree that marketers make people think smaller is better. Hell, I'm a former VP of marketing for the largest iPod accessory company. I KNOW that's how companies sell products. I'm also and industrial designer by training and that means I also know that usability and ergonomics are often forsaken for the purpose of marketing.

My disagreement about the multi-point AF on the Km is the fact that the user doesn't know where the camera is focusing unless they manually choose the center point. Most novices won't know to do this and will potentially end up confused over the number of "mis-focused" images they get with the Km. At least if they could tell which point the camera chose they'd have a fighting chance at understanding what was happening.

Thanks again for your great review and comments.

robin said...

Good points. I have any number of devices that were designed without any thought to usability, including those from companies like Sony who get praised for their "design". I sometimes wonder how large firms can get away without any HCI expertise.

robin said...

Quick update: Some time ago this camera was replaced by the more capable K-x. Though the K-m was not worth me buying, I do have a K-x as a backup camera and "pocketable" DSLR.

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