Pentax K-r Review

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

Photo Gallery

Check out our photo gallery to see how the K-r's photos look!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.