Originally Posted: February 13, 2011
Last Updated: April 18, 2011
My original review of this camera used an older version of the 18 - 55 mm lens that was not comparable to what is included in the K-r kit. I have reshot all of the sample photos as well as the distortion test with the correct lens. I apologize for the error.
The Pentax K-r (priced from $599) is a compact, entry-level digital SLR that doesn't skimp on features. Some of the highlights include a 12.4 Megapixel CMOS sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization, a 3-inch LCD with live view, 6 fps continuous shooting, plenty of manual controls, 720p movie recording, and more.
The K-r replaces the K-x, which was introduced back in 2009. I put together this chart so you can compare the two models:
As you can see, the K-r has modest, but not ground-breaking changes compared to its predecessor.
The Pentax K-r faces some tough competition from virtually every camera manufacturer. How does it compare? Find out now in our review!
Due to their similarities, I'll be reusing portions of the Pentax K-x review here.
What's in the Box?
The K-r comes in a ton of different configurations. You can buy it as a body only kit ($599 street price) in black, white, or red. You can also get the camera in those same colors, along with an F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm lens, for $708. If you're sticking to the black body, then you can also find kits that include an F2.4, 35 mm lens ($799), 18-55 and 50-200 mm lenses ($748), or 18-55 and 55-300 mm lenses ($820). Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those:
- The 12.4 effective Megapixel Pentax K-r camera body
- F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm Pentax DA L lens [body + lens kits only]
- F2.4, 35 mm Pentax DA lens [35 mm kit only]
- F4.0-5.6, 50 - 200 mm Pentax DA lens [50-200 kit only]
- F4.0-5.8, 55 - 300 mm Pentax DA lens [55-300 kit only]
- D-LI109 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring Pentax Digital Camera Utility 4
- 350 page camera manual (printed)
As you can see, you have quite a few lens kits to choose from! None of the kit lenses are spectacular, but they will get the job done for the K-r's target audience. The 18 - 55 mm DA L lens that comes with most of the kits is improved over its predecessor in terms of sharpness, though it has a plastic mount and no focus distance markings. If you already have a collection of Pentax lenses, they'll work just fine with the K-r -- even the really old ones. And, since the camera has built-in image stabilization, every lens you attach (with a few exceptions) will have shake reduction built right in. Whichever lens you use, there will be a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio to keep in mind, so that 18 - 55 mm kit lens will have a field-of-view of 27 - 82.5 mm.
As with all D-SLRs, Pentax does not include a memory card in the box with the K-r. So, unless you already have one, you're going to need to pick up an SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory card right away. I'd recommend a 2GB or 4GB card to start with, and it's worth getting a card rated as "Class 6" or higher for best performance, especially if you'll be using the continuous shooting mode frequently or taking a lot of HD movies. It's worth mentioning that I could not get my Eye-Fi Pro X2 card working reliably with the K-r.
The optional D-BH109 AA battery adapter (shown with the white K-r)
One thing that made the K-r's predecessor (the K-x) appealing was that it used AA batteries. The K-r now uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery, but Pentax didn't leave the AA-lovers out in the cold. By purchasing the D-BH109 adapter ($35), you can use four AA batteries in the K-r, just like you could in the old days. Pentax recommends lithium and NiMH batteries, saying that alkaline batteries are best saved for emergencies.
Now let's see how the K-r compares to other compact D-SLRs and interchangeable lens cameras in terms of battery life:
The incredible battery life of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A560 definitely throws things off, doesn't it? Regardless of whether you throw out the two live view-only cameras, the K-r's battery life falls below average. However, if you pick up the AA adapter, you'll be able to get an estimated 550 shots using 2600 mAh NiMH batteries, or a whopping 1000 shots with disposable lithium batteries. By the way, an extra D-LI109 battery will set you back $50, so buying the adapter and using AAs isn't a bad idea.
If you're using live view most of the time, expect greatly reduced battery life. Pentax doesn't publish any live view battery battery life numbers, but it'll be at least 50% less than what you get using the viewfinder.
Pentax didn't offer a battery grip for the K-x, and the same is true on the K-r.
When it's time to charge the D-LI109 battery, just snap it into the included charger. And then grab a cup or coffee (or two), as it'll take upwards of four hours to fully charge the battery. The charger doesn't plug directly into the wall, as I prefer -- you must use a power cord.
Digital SLRs always have plenty of accessories available, and the K-r is no exception. Here are the most interesting accessories that you can pick up for it:
There are plenty of other accessories available, including viewfinder adapters, a macro ring flash, camera cases, and a sensor cleaning strap.
Let's talk about the software bundle now!
Pentax Digital Camera Utility 4 for Mac
Pentax includes a single software product with the K-r, and that's version 4 of their Digital Camera Utility. This software -- for Mac and Windows -- is based on SilkyPix, which is often bundled with many other RAW-capable cameras. Thankfully, the interface in the Pentax Utility is a lot cleaner than in regular SilkyPix, and it can be customized, as well.
This software can be used in a few ways: for acquiring images from your camera, for managing them in a lightbox-style interface, and for performing some pretty heavy-duty edits (for RAW images, specifically). The editing tools are quite powerful, and can be used for both JPEG and RAW images. Here are some of the things that you can do:
- Crop, rotate and "shift" an image
- Change the Custom Image setting (more on this later)
- Adjust and fine-tune white balance
- Adjust exposure and image tone
- Select amount and type of noise reduction applied
- Correction for distortion and chromatic aberration
- Adjust coloring of highlight areas
- Expand dynamic range
- Fine-tune color in a given range
In other words, this software covers just about anything you can possibility imagine.
If you want to use Adobe Photoshop CS5 instead, just make sure you're using version 6.3 or newer of their Camera Raw plug-in.
What's the deal with RAW images anyway? These files contain unprocessed data straight from the camera's sensor. The benefit of this is that you can tweak many camera settings (white balance, exposure, color) without reducing the quality of the image. It's almost like getting a second chance to take a photo. The downsides are the need to post-process the images on your computer, and the huge file sizes, which reduce camera performance and quickly fill up your memory card. The K-r is somewhat unique in that it supports two RAW formats. You can use Pentax's own PEF format, or Adobe's open standard known as DNG.
Pentax always does a pretty good job with their manuals, and that remains the case on the K-r. The manual is thick and detailed, and even the font size is large enough to read without a magnifying glass. There are still a decent amount of "notes" on each page, but overall, the manual should answer any question you may have about the camera. Documentation for the included software is installed onto your Mac or PC.
Look and Feel
The Pentax K-r is a compact digital SLR that looks a whole lot like the K-x that came before it. The only differences on the body itself is the larger LCD and dedicated AF-assist lamp on the K-r. Otherwise, same camera!
The K-r has a plastic exterior shell over a stainless steel chassis, and it feels solid in your hands. The right hand grip is a lot larger than what you'll find on most compact D-SLRs, making it easy to securely hold the camera. The important controls are within easy reach of your fingers, as well. About the only thing missing here is a dedicated movie recording button.
The K-r has a relatively small color selection by Pentax standards -- at least for now
Images courtesy of Pentax
Pentax really went crazy with color choices on the old K-x, but they've been a bit more conservative with the K-r (at least for now). There are three colors available: white, red, and traditional black.
Alright, now let's see how the Pentax K-r compares to other cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:
Ignoring the two mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras for a moment, you'll see that the K-r is above average in terms of both size and weight. It's both a tiny bit larger and heavier than its predecessor, as well.
Let's begin our tour of the K-r now, shall we?
Here's the front of the K-r, without a lens attached. The camera supports all Pentax K-mount lenses -- even the old screw-mount type (though an adapter is required for those). All but the oldest lenses should support autofocus, and most will work with the camera's image stabilizer right out of the box. The more modern DA, DA L, and D FA lenses support automatic aberration and distortion correction, as well. To release a lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount.
The K-r features a sensor-shift image stabilization system, like all Pentax D-SLRs. The camera detects the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos, especially in low light, or when using a telephoto lens. The K-r physically moves the sensor to compensate for this motion. Pentax says that the IS system allows you to use up to 4 stops worth of shutter speeds that would be blurry otherwise. Here's an example of the IS system in action:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
Both of the above photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second. As you can see, the IS system did its job, producing a much sharper photo (the buttons near the top of the photo are blurry because of the short depth-of-field). You can also use the IS system in movie mode (see example), though note that the microphone may pick up the sound of the sensor moving around.
The camera also uses the shake reduction system to remove dust from the sensor, though this feature is not turned on by default. When you do turn it on, the camera will rapidly shake the sensor when it's powered on (and you'll hear it when it does), and you can also run the system manually at any time.
Directly above the lens mount is the K-r's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. This flash has the typical guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is the same as on the K-x. Should you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see in a moment, or cut the cord entirely and go wireless, using the built-in flash as the master.
To the lower-left of the Pentax logo is the camera's pinhole microphone. Just to the left of that is the new dedicated AF-assist lamp. On the K-x you had to pop up the flash in order to use that feature.
The last thing to see here is the receiver for the optional wireless remote control, which is located on the grip.
The LCD has been improved on the K-r, in terms of both size and resolution. Where the K-x had a 2.7" screen with 230,000 pixels, the K-r's display is 3 inches in size, with 921,000 pixels. As you'd expect, the screen is very sharp. Outdoor visibility is good, as is the screen's overall viewing angle.
|The view in live view mode. You can position the focus point anywhere in the frame.||The rather noisy enlarged view (4X)|
As with all D-SLRs these days, the LCD isn't just used for menus and reviewing photos -- you can also use it for taking photos and videos, too. The live view feature on the K-r is well implemented, with all the usual bells and whistles. That means 100% frame coverage, exposure and white balance preview, frame enlargement for manual focus, grid lines and a live histogram, and face detection. In low light, the view on the LCD brightens automatically, so you can still see you subject. One unique thing that the K-r does when it's focusing is enlarge the focus point on the LCD, so you can make sure that your subject is properly focused. While this last feature is handy, I kind of wish that there was an option to turn it off (I guess I'm a traditionalist).
There are three autofocus modes available in live view mode: face detection, contrast detect, and phase difference AF. The first two both use the camera's CMOS sensor for focusing, which can be quite slow. When using face detection, the camera will locate up to sixteen faces in the frame, making sure they're properly focused and exposed. The regular contrast detect option allows you to position the focus point anywhere in the frame, save for a margin around the edges. In either case, the focus times can be anywhere from 1 - 2 seconds, and sometimes longer in low light. The mode I prefer using is phase difference, which turns off live view momentarily while it uses the camera's built-in AF sensor to focus. It's worth losing the live for a moment, though, as focus times are much faster than the contrast detect system, nearly rivaling those of shooting with the viewfinder.
|Info display, with a virtual four-way controller||Press the Info button again to get to this screen, where you can quickly change camera settings|
When the LCD isn't being used for live view, it can be turned into an information display, which shows the current camera settings. An additional screen (accessed by pressing the Info button) lets you adjust numerous camera settings (see screenshot). These settings include:
- Custom image
- Cross processing
- Digital filters
- HDR capture
- Shake reduction
- AE metering
- AF mode
- Select AF point
- Highlight correction
- Shadow correction
- File format
- JPEG recorded pixels
- JPEG quality
- Distortion correction
- Lateral chromatic aberration adjustment
I'll explain all of those in detail when I get to the menu section of this review.
Getting back to the tour now, let's talk about the K-r's optical viewfinder, which has one big change compared to the one on the K-x. The K-x's viewfinder did not show which of the 11 focus points was being used, which was pretty frustrating. Pentax took care of that problem on the K-r, with the active focus points lighting up in red, just as they do on every other D-SLR. Everything else is unchanged. The K-r's viewfinder has a magnification of 0.85X and 96% coverage, and a line of shooting data is shown below the field of view. You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using the diopter correction slider on the top of it.
To the left of the viewfinder is a button which releases the built-in flash, and it also is used for deleting photos. On the opposite side you'll find the camera's one and only command dial (known as the E-dial), which is used for adjusting manual settings, navigating menus, and enlarging photos. I had trouble with this dial on two different K-r review units. On both occasions, the dial was sluggish and sometimes unpredictable. On my original K-r, turning the dial one way would produce the opposite result, so I had to return it for another camera. Guess what -- a few weeks into using K-r number two, the same thing started to happen. I spoke with Pentax about this, and they said that they've had a very small amount of cameras with this issue (I guess I got two of them), and that the issue will be covered under warranty.
Just to the right of the command dial is the camera's AF/AE lock button.
Now let's talk about the four buttons located to the right of the LCD. They include:
- Playback mode
- Live view - turns this on and off
- Info - toggles what's shown on the LCD
To the right of those is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation, selecting a focus point, moving through photos you've taken, and also:
- Up - Drive (Single shot, continuous lo/hi, 2 or 12 sec self-timer, 0 or 3 sec remote control, exposure bracketing)
- Down - Flash setting (Flash on, flash on + redeye reduction, slow sync, slow sync + redeye reduction, trailing curtain slow sync, wireless mode) + flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +1EV, 1/3EV increments)
- Left - White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, fluorescent x 4, tungsten, flash, color temperature enhancement, manual)
- Right - ISO sensitivity (Auto, 200 - 6400)
- Center - OK + focus point select (in 11-point or live view mode only)
There's plenty to talk about before we can continue the tour. Let's start with the drive options, specifically the two continuous shooting choices. There are low and high speed continuous modes, and here's what kind of performance you can expect from the K-r:
Even though I couldn't quite reach the advertised burst rate, the K-x still has the best continuous shooting mode of any entry-level digital SLR. The frame rate is fast, and the sizable amount of buffer memory lets you take quite a few shots before things start to slow down. You don't have to wait for the buffer to clear after a burst, either (at least with a fast memory card). If you're in live view mode, the screen will go dark after the first photo is taken, so this feature is best used with the viewfinder.
The drive menu also contains the camera's AE bracketing feature. With this turned on, the camera will take three photos in a row, each with a different exposure compensation setting. The interval between each of the shots can be as little as 1/3EV, or as much as 3EV.
Fine-tuning white balance
Next up is white balance, for which there are quite a few options. There are the usual presets that we all know and love, and each of them can be tweaked, as you shown above. You can also use a white or gray card for accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting. There's also a unique Color Temperature Enhancement (CTE) option, which Pentax says "keeps and strengthens the color tone of the light source in the image". If you're not in live view mode, you can get a preview of the current white balance setting by pressing the exposure compensation button. The only things you can't do are set the color temperature or bracket for white balance.
Adjusting the ISO sensitivity
In the ISO menu, you have a choice of auto or manual adjustment. The Auto mode lets you select a range of sensitivities that the camera will use (the whole range is available). The manual mode lets you select from sensitivities between ISO 200 and 12,800, and by using a custom setting in the menu you can expand that to ISO 100 - 25,600.
And that's it for the back of the camera!
The first thing to see on the top of the K-r is its speaker, located to the right of the "strap lug" on the left-hand side of the photo.
In the center of the photo is the K-r's hot shoe. You'll get the best results by using a Pentax flash, as they'll sync up with the camera's metering system. The two top-end Pentax flashes (the AF360FGZ and AF540FGZ) also support high speed flash sync, use of their AF-assist lamps, and they can also be used wirelessly. If you're using a non-Pentax flash, you may have to set the exposure on both the camera and flash manually. Unless you're using high speed flash sync, the maximum shutter speed you can use with an external flash is 1/180 sec.
Continuing to the right, we find the K-r's mode dial, which is packed with options. Here's the full list:
The K-r has both automatic and manual controls, which should satisfy just about everyone. On the point-and-shoot side, there's the Auto Picture mode, which selects one of six scenes automatically (two more are available when using live view). You can also select a scene mode yourself, and there are eleven to choose from. One of the new ones is Night Scene HDR, which combines three exposures into a single image for better contrast in low light. Using a tripod is recommended for this, and several of the other low light scene modes.
As for manual controls, you've got the usual suspects: program, shutter priority, aperture priority, and full manual (which includes a bulb mode). There's also the unique sensitivity priority mode, where you select the ISO and let the camera figure out the rest. The K-r does not have the TAv mode that's found on the more expensive K-5, nor is there a dedicated spot on the dial for your favorite camera settings.
Above the mode dial are the exposure compensation and "green" buttons. The former does just as it sounds, with an available range of -3EV to +3EV. It'll also let you adjust the aperture when you're in full manual mode. The green button is customizable, and by default it returns the exposure (or other settings) back to defaults. The green button can also be assigned to perform a depth-of-field preview, or quickly switch between JPEG and RAW formats. I'll list what else it can do later in the menu section of this review.
Just north of those buttons is the power switch, which has the shutter release button inside of it.
There are just two things to point out on this side of the Pentax K-r. The first is the switch between auto and manual focus, with the second being the camera's single I/O port, which is under a rubber cover. This port is for USB and A/V output. Unfortunately, the K-r lacks an HDMI port.
On the other side of the camera you'll find its SD/SDHC memory card slot, which has a plastic door of decent quality protecting it.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the K-r. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount, as well as the camera's uniquely shaped battery compartment. By default the camera uses the D-LI109 lithium-ion battery at right, though you can stuff four AAs in as well, with the appropriate adapter.
Using the Pentax K-r
Flip the power switch and the K-r is ready to go almost instantly. If you've chosen to have the noisy dust reduction system run at startup it'll slow things down by about a second, though you can interrupt the process by pressing the shutter release button.
As usual, autofocus speeds depend on a number of factors, including the lens you're using and whether you're using live view. When shooting with the viewfinder and the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, I found that the camera generally locked focus in 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle and 0.4 - 0.8 seconds at telephoto. In low light focus times usually stayed under a second. The K-r's new dedicated AF-assist lamp helped the camera focus accurately in those situations, as well.
In live view mode, you'll get the best results by using the phase difference AF mode. There, focus times are just a bit slower than they are when using the viewfinder. If you're using either of the two contrast detect AF modes in live view, expect focus times of 1 or 2 seconds, and sometimes longer. Unlike most D-SLRs, the K-r can use its AF-assist lamp with live view, so low light focusing is decent.
As for shutter lag, there won't be any if you're shooting with the viewfinder, or using contrast detect AF in live view. If you're using phase difference AF in live view, there's about a second of lag due to the mirror flipping action.
Shot-to-shot delays are minimal, regardless of the image quality setting or whether you're using the flash.
You can delete a photo right after you take one by pressing the -- drumroll please -- delete photo button!
One neat little thing the K-r can do is save a RAW version of the photo you just took, even if the image format is set to JPEG. To get at it you must first enter playback mode, without taking another photo or shutting off the camera. Once there, you'll see an option at the top-right of the screen that tells you to press the exposure compensation button to save the RAW version of that photo. Very handy!
Now, here's a look at the available image size and quality choices on the K-r. Like on their point-and-shoot cameras, Pentax uses a star system to rate image quality, with 3 stars being the highest.
As I mentioned earlier, the K-r supports not one, but two RAW formats. You can select from Pentax's PEF or Adobe's DNG format, both of which offer the same benefits of the RAW format that I discussed earlier. The camera allows you to take a RAW image by itself, or along with a JPEG of any size or quality.
The menu system is unchanged for the most part compared to the K-x. It still looks outdated and there's no help system, but hey, it gets the job done. It's broken down into four tabs, covering shooting, playback, setup, and custom options. Keeping in mind that not all of these options will be available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of menu options.
Shooting options 2
Shooting options 3
Shooting options 4
|Setup options 1
Setup options 2
Setup options 3
Setup options 4
As you can imagine, there's a lot to talk about before we can move on to our photo tests. Let's start with the Custom Image feature:
Adjusting the saturation of a Custom Image set
A Custom Image "set" contains various exposure and color settings, and there are eight sets built into the camera. They include bright (the default), natural, portrait, landscape, vibrant, muted, bleach bypass (new to the K-r), and monochrome. There aren't any custom sets, though -- you have to modify one of the presets. For each of the Custom Image sets you can adjust the following parameters:
- Saturation (-4 to +4)
- Hue (-4 to +4)
- High/low key [brightness] (-4 to +4)
- Contrast (-4 to +4)
- Sharpness (-4 to +4) - a "fine" sharpness option is also available
- Filter effect (None, green, yellow, orange, red, magenta, blue, cyan, infrared) - for monochrome modes only
- When using bleach bypass (Off, green, yellow, orange, red, magenta, purple, blue, cyan)
- When using monochrome (-4 to +4) - negative is "cold", positive is "warm"
You can get a preview of the Custom Image settings by pressing the exposure compensation button, which takes a quick photo that is not saved to the memory card.
Next up is Cross Processing, which is a technique that dates back to the film days. In those days, cross processing meant that you used the wrong chemicals when developing your film, to get photos that look a lot different than expected. In the digital era, it's something you can use without touching any chemicals. There are three preset "formulas" to choose from, plus a random option. If you find a particular formula that you like, you can save it into one of three "favorite" slots. Here's an example using our one and only macro test subject:
|Cross Processing off||Random CP||CP Preset 1||CP Preset 2||CP Preset 3|
Pretty wacky! You can also use Cross Processing in movie mode (something you couldn't do on the K-x), if you're so inclined. The K-r also has a number of digital filters you can use, such as "toy camera", fisheye, and soft focus. You can also make your own custom filter.
The HDR Capture feature takes three photos in rapid succession -- each with a different exposure -- and combines them into a single image with improved dynamic range. While the camera can try to align the photos for you, using a tripod is strongly recommended. You can choose from auto, standard, and three levels of "strong" HDR, and the example below shows you what each of those does to your photo:
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|HDR Strong 1
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|HDR Strong 2
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|HDR Strong 3
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There's a huge difference between not using HDR at all, and the Auto and Standard settings. The all-white sky in the original image turns into a mix of sun and clouds and the building in the foreground brightens when using HDR. The Auto and Standard modes are the best ones for getting better contrast, as the three Strong settings are a bit over-the-top (though some folks shoot HDR for this very reason). As I mentioned earlier, there's also a Night HDR mode, optimized for taking low light photos. Unlike the regular HDR mode, the Night HDR mode has just an on-and-off switch.
The multi-exposure feature lets you combine anywhere from two to nine exposures into a single image. You can choose to have the camera adjust the exposure (gain) automatically, if you'd like. A feature that's trickled down from Pentax's more expensive D-SLRs is interval (time-lapse) shooting. You can take photos every minute, or once a day, with a 999 shot limit. As you might imagine, the optional AC adapter is basically a requirement for this feature.
There are two other ways in which you can improve the K-r's dynamic range, in addition to the HDR mode shown above. You can preserve highlight detail, brighten shadows, or both. Here are examples of each:
|Highlight correction off
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|Highlight correction on
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The above photo may very well be the last one taken at the famous "purple fringing tunnel of doom" at Stanford University (check the February 2011 news archive to see why). This test illustrates how much highlight detail can be retrieved by using the highlight correction feature. While the HL correction feature doesn't eliminate highlight clipping, it definitely reduces it. The sky is bluer, and the columns have more detail than they did before. Do note that the camera will increase the ISO to 400 (or ISO 200 when ISO expansion is on) when using this feature, but I think it's worth it.
|Shadow correction off
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|Shadow correction low
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|Shadow correction med
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|Shadow correction high
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The shadow correction feature does exactly as its name implies. You may need to use the medium or high setting to really see a major difference, though. Noise levels may increase when using this feature.
The K-r also features two lens correction features. I wasn't able to get a great example of the chromatic aberration adjustment (reduction) feature with the K-r, but you can see one in my K-x review from last year. I'll have an example of the distortion correction feature in a moment.
Before we jump into the photo tests, I should highlight the fact that the K-r has way more custom functions than your typical budget D-SLR. This camera is not stripped!
Alright, let's go through the usual test photos now! I'll tell you which lens was used for each test underneath the photo in question. And with that, let's begin:
The K-r and the available F2.4, 35 mm Pentax DA kit lens did an excellent job with our macro test subject. About the only thing worth noting is that I had to crank the exposure compensation up quite a bit more than normal in order to obtain an accurate exposure. The subject is tack sharp, plenty of detail is captured, and the colors are super-vivid.
The minimum focus distance to your subject depends on what lens you're using. For the 35 mm kit lens that I used, the distance is 30 cm. The 18 - 55 mm kit lens, it's 25 cm. If you think you'll be doing a lot of macro photography, Pentax has four lenses for just that purpose, with focal lengths ranging from 35 mm to 100 mm.
The night shot wasn't nearly as impressive. I had a hard time getting the right exposure -- if I made the buildings as bright as I normally like, the highlight clipping was very strong. If I lowered the shutter speed by 1/3 stop the buildings got darker, without much of a change with the highlight clipping. I decided to stick with the brighter exposures. The color seems a bit off here as well, with a greenish cast to the photos. Sharpness is good at the center of the frame, but starts to fall off as you near the edges (the 55-300 mm lens is a relatively inexpensive lens, so don't expect too much from it). You can take long exposures like this using manual controls, or just by leaving the camera in Auto Picture mode, where the camera should select the night scene mode for you.
Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the K-r performs across its fully opened-up ISO range. That means starting at ISO 100 (instead of 200) and going all the way up to 25,600 (instead of 12,800). Here we go:
ISO 100 (requires ISO expansion to be on)
ISO 25600 (requires ISO expansion to be on)
The photos taken at ISO 100 through ISO 800 are all very clean, with just a bit of noise at that last setting. Things start to soften up at ISO 1600, but I think it's still quite usable for most purposes. Detail loss becomes more obvious at ISO 3200 but, again, it's still usable for smaller prints. It's after that where things really start to drop off, so it's probably a good idea to switch to the RAW format at that point (though the highest sensitivity is beyond repair).
Speaking of which, let's see if we can't make the ISO 6400 and 12800 photos look better with 30 seconds of post-processing:
While my retouched examples are by now means perfect, I think they're better than the original JPEGs. Something else you can try is fooling around with the camera's noise reduction settings, which you can adjust separately for each stop in the sensitivity range.
I had problems with redeye on last year's K-x, but not so on the K-r. I'm not sure why (since the bodies are identical), but hey, I'll take what I can get.
F2.4, 35 mm lens
|18 - 55 mm lens, distortion correction off||18 - 55 lens, distortion correction on|
I've got two (okay, three) distortion test charts for you. The first one is for the F2.4, 35 mm kit lens that is available with the black K-r only. There's minimal distortion to speak of, and no other irregularities. As for the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, there's moderate barrel distortion with the camera at default settings, but if you turn the distortion correction feature on, a lot of that goes away. Corner blurriness is fairly mild, though you will see both vignetting and occasionally strong purple fringing. This lens is definitely better than the one I originally tested the camera with, though.
|Update 4/18/11: Distortion test updated using correct 18 - 55 mm kit lens|
Lens used: Pentax F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm
Alright, now let's take a look at our studio test scene. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare the results from this test with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Don't just view the small crops below, as there's plenty of detail in the rest of the test scene. Let's take a look at the noise levels across the K-r's ISO range:
ISO 100 (only available with ISO expansion on)
ISO 25600 (only available with ISO expansion on)
The first four crops (through ISO 800) all look really clean. At ISO 1600 the image starts to soften a bit, but it's not going to keep you from making large prints at that setting. ISO 3200 shows a bit of noise, but again, still very usable. Detail loss starts to show up at ISO 6400, at which point you'll probably want to switch to RAW. The higher sensitivities, especially ISO 25600 (which requires ISO expansion to be turned on) are really short on detail.
By the way, you may be wondering, why is ISO 200 the base ISO, when there's an ISO 100 locked away? While Pentax doesn't say why, my feeling is that dynamic range is better at ISO 200 than it is at 100, and since there's no real increase in noise at that setting, they might as well make it the default.
Returning to the studio test scene, let's run it through the old RAW conversion + noise reduction + sharpening routine, to see if we can squeeze better results out of the K-r:
There's big improvements for both the ISO 6400 and 12800 shots by following this easy post-processing procedure. When you look at the converted images (before noise reduction is applied), it's pretty amazing just how clean they are, given the high sensitivity. As I mentioned before, you may be able to get similar results from the K-r by fooling around with its customizable noise reduction settings.
The Pentax K-r images quality is a whole lot like the K-x that came before it, which shouldn't be too surprising, as they use the same sensor. Overall, image quality is very good, though underexposure and highlight clipping are still issues. The K-r typically underexposes by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop, so you definitely want to bracket whenever possible. Highlight clipping is pretty strong, and in situations where it occurs, you may want to try either the HDR mode or the highlight correction feature. I've got no complaints about color -- everything is nice and saturated. Sharpness is mostly a lens thing, and the the 18-55 was pretty good in that regard. As you saw in the preceding tests, the K-r keeps noise levels low for quite a long time -- until ISO 3200 in low light and ISO 6400 in good light. Purple fringing levels were moderate (and sometimes worse), especially with the 18-55 and 55-300 lenses.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, maybe printing a few of the photos if you can. Then you should be able to decide if the K-r's image quality meets your needs!
The K-r has an HD movie mode that is quite similar to the one on the K-x. You can record video at 1280 x 720 (25 frames/second) with monaural sound until the file size reaches 4GB, which takes about 11.5 minutes at the highest quality (***) setting. You can lower the quality to ** or * for longer recordings, with time limits of 16 and 22.5 minutes, respectively.
If you don't need HD videos, you can also reduce the video size down to 640 x 480 (also 25 fps). Clips are limited to 25 minutes in this mode.
The K-x allows you to use the image stabilization system in movie mode, though do note that the noise from it may be picked up by the microphone. Once you start recording, the focus is locked, as the camera does not support continuous AF in movie mode. In terms of manual controls, the only thing you can adjust is the aperture -- everything else is fully automatic.
Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec. For some reason, I could never get them to open on my Mac, so I had to convert them to QuickTime format on my Windows system first. Your mileage may vary there.
Below is a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. I converted it to QuickTime format in order to get it to play on all platforms. I don't think the quality of the video was harmed by this. Be warned, this is a large download!
The K-r has a pretty nice playback mode, though you'd never know it by looking at the regular playback menu. The basics are all here, including slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. This last option lets you blow up the image by as much as 16X, and you can then scroll around to check for proper focus, closed eyes, etc. A "quick zoom" option in the playback menu allows you to immediately jump to 2, 4, 8, or 16 times magnification.
All of the other playback bells and whistles can be reached by pressing down on the four-way controller. There you'll find tools for:
- Image rotation
- Digital filters (Toy camera, retro, high contrast, sketch filter, water color, pastel, posterization, miniature, base parameter adjustment [brightness, saturation, etc], monochrome [with filters], color filters, extract color, soft, starburst, fisheye, slim, HDR, custom) - the last option lets you make your own filter
- Image resizing
- Image cropping
- Image protection
- Index print
- RAW development
- Movie editing
- DPOF print marking
- Image comparison - view two images side-by-side
- IrSimple - transmit photos to a compatible device; do note that the devices cannot be more than 20 cm apart
- Dualing Images - an actual game that lets you "battle" an opponent using a K-r with IrSimple. Seriously.
Editing a RAW image in playback mode
The most interesting of those options is the RAW development feature, which lets you edit things like Custom Image, white balance, exposure, noise reduction, shadow/distortion correction, and more -- for one or multiple images -- and then save the result as a JPEG.
In terms of movie editing, you can remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of your clip (a feature new to the K-r) or save a frame as a still image.
The K-r can display plenty of information about your photos, including your choice of histograms. The camera moves from one photo to the next without delay.
How Does it Compare?
The Pentax K-r is one of the best entry-level digital SLRs on the market. No other camera in this class comes close to the K-r when it comes to value. For about $650 you get a camera with very good photo quality (even at high ISOs), sensor-shift image stabilization, a beautiful 3-inch LCD, tons of manual controls (plus several auto modes if you need them), super-fast continuous shooting, 720p video recording, flexible battery options, wireless flash control, and much, much more. Downsides include frequent underexposure and highlight clipping, redeye and purple fringing (with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens), the lack of continuous AF or manual controls in movie mode, and below average battery life.
The K-r is a fairly compact digital SLR that has a plastic shell over a stainless steel chassis. While Pentax didn't go as crazy as they did on the K-x (at least not yet), you can still get the K-r in black, white, or "Pentax red". The build quality of the K-r is quite good for a camera in its price range, with solid-feeling dials and doors. The camera has a good-sized grip, and the important buttons are within easy reach of your fingers. The K-r supports all Pentax K-mount lenses -- even the really old ones -- with a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio. The camera retains the sensor-shift image stabilization system of its predecessor (the K-x), meaning that nearly all of your Pentax lens collection will have shake reduction built right in. A new addition to the front of the camera is a dedicated AF-assist lamp, which is a lot less obnoxious than the old method of using the built-in flash when focusing in low light. On the back of the camera you'll find a 3-inch LCD display with 921,000 pixels -- a huge improvement over the screen on the K-x. As you might imagine, the screen is quite sharp, and it has a nice viewing angle, as well. Naturally, the K-r supports live view, which is well-implemented (though contrast detect AF speeds are slow, as they usually are). The optical viewfinder is mostly unchanged from the one on the K-x, save for the much-needed addition of illuminated focus points. The K-r is unique in that it can use both lithium-ion or AA batteries, though you'll need an adapter for the latter.
The K-r is absolutely packed with features, especially for an entry-level D-SLR. If you want a point-and-shoot experience, just use the Auto Picture mode, which will select a scene mode for you. There are numerous scene modes to choose from, plus tons of special effects and filters. If you're using live view, you'll get the same face detection feature that you're used to seeing on a point-and-shoot camera. Enthusiasts will enjoy the full manual exposure controls, numerous white balance controls (save for color temperature adjustment or bracketing), two RAW formats, wireless flash support, and a boatload of custom functions. Speaking of RAW, the K-r has the unique ability to save the RAW version of a JPEG you just took. Some features that will appeal to everyone include a useful HDR function, shadow brightening and highlight retention options, time-lapse and multiple exposure shooting modes, and a 720p25 movie mode. The movie mode isn't for manual control lovers, though (you can only adjust the aperture), and there's no continuous autofocus available, either. You may also hear the sounds of the image stabilization system when filming in quiet locations. The K-r's playback mode is quite nice, with in-camera RAW processing, movie editing, and lots of special effects (but no redeye removal).
Camera performance was very good in nearly all respects. The K-r is ready to start taking pictures as soon as you flip the power switch, with only a slight delay if you've got the auto dust reduction system turned on. Autofocus speeds were snappy when using the viewfinder, a bit slower when using phase difference AF in live view mode, and pretty slow when using the live view contrast detect AF modes. For action shots, you'll probably want to stick with the optical viewfinder, saving live view for still lifes where responsiveness isn't a priority. I didn't find shutter lag to be an issue (save for a tiny bit of it in phase difference AF / live view mode), and shot-to-shot delays were minimal. The K-r easily has the best continuous shooting mode of any entry-level D-SLR, with the ability to take up to 33 JPEGs in a row at 5.8 frames/sec. RAW shooting is a bit slower but still way better than average, with a frame rate of 4.6 fps until the buffer fills up (which takes 14 shots). Battery life is below average for an entry-level D-SLR when you're using the included lithium-ion battery. However, if you pick up the AA adapter and some NiMH rechargeables (or disposable lithium batteries), you'll do a lot better.
Photo quality is very good, though the K-r has some room for improvement. Exposure was the weak point, with the camera tending to underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop. Highlight clipping was also a common sight. Colors were nice and saturated, save for the night test shot, where there was a greenish cast. The 18 - 55 mm kit lens (the correct one) has good sharpness, though you will encounter sometimes strong purple fringing, as well as mild vignetting. This lens has moderate barrel distortion as well, though you can reduce this by using the camera's distortion correction function. The K-r keeps noise levels remarkably low, with clean-looking photos through ISO 3200 in low light and ISO 6400 in good light (!). You get good results from the highest sensitivities by shooting RAW and doing some easy postprocessing. The K-r had some issues with redeye, but it wasn't too bad. Do note that there's no digital removal tool available on the K-r.
With most entry-level digital SLRs, you usually have to expect to compromise in some areas. They may have a smaller, low resolution LCD, slow burst modes, or crippled manual controls. That's not the case on the Pentax K-r, which is equipped, not stripped. If you read through its feature set you'd expect a price tag of over $1000, but you can pick one up with a lens for under $650. If you're entering the world of digital SLR photography, then the Pentax K-r is a camera that should not be overlooked.
What I liked:
- Great value for the money
- Very good photo quality (especially with a decent lens), with good high ISO performance
- Solid, well-designed body, in your choice of colors
- Sensor-shift image stabilization brings shake reduction to nearly all Pentax lenses
- 3-inch LCD display with 921,000 pixels, good outdoor visibility, and well-implemented live view feature
- Full manual controls, including two RAW formats and unique Sensitivity Priority mode; camera can save the RAW version of the last JPEG you took
- Auto scene selection for the point-and-shoot crowd
- Best-in-class burst mode
- Camera can correct for barrel distortion and purple fringing, preserve shadow and highlight detail, and take HDR photos
- Tons of custom functions for an entry-level camera
- Time-lapse and multiple exposure features
- Built-in wireless flash support
- Lots of digital filters and special effects for in both record and playback mode
- Records HD movies at 1280 x 720 (25 fps) with sound
- Nice playback mode, with RAW and movie editing
- Supports both lithium-ion and AA batteries (with adapter)
- Includes a detailed, easy-to-read printed manual
What I didn't care for:
- Tends to underexpose and clip highlights
- Some redeye; no removal tool in playback mode
- 18 - 55 mm kit lens has strong purple fringing at times, plus moderate barrel distortion (which can be corrected) and mild vignetting on occasion
- Sluggish contrast detect AF in live view
- Can't set white balance by color temperature or bracket for WB
- No manual controls (save for aperture) or continuous AF in movie mode; IS system noise may be picked up by microphone
- Below average battery life when using include li-ion battery; $35 adapter required for using AAs
- No video output cable included; HDMI port would be nice
Some other entry-level digital SLRs worth looking at include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D3100, Olympus E-620, and Sony Alpha DSLR-A560. The mirrorless, live view-only Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 and Samsung NX10 should not be overlooked, either.
As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Pentax K-r and its competitors before you buy!
|Conclusion updated on 4/18/11|
Check out our photo gallery to see how the K-r's photos look!