Pentax K-r Review

Using the Pentax K-r

Record Mode

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.

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
4288 x 2848
RAW (PEF/DNG) 20.4 MB 98
*** 7.1 MB 281
** 4.0 MB 495
* 2.1 MB 975
3936 x 2624
*** 6.0 MB 332
** 3.4 MB 585
* 1.8 MB 1138
3072 x 2048
*** 3.7 MB 543
** 2.1 MB 945
* 1.1 MB 1807
1728 x 1152
*** 1.2 MB 1617
** 716 KB 2793
* 391 KB 5121

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 1
  • Custom image (Bright, natural, portrait, landscape, vibrant, muted, bleach bypass, reversal film, monochrome) - see below
  • File format (JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG)
  • JPEG recorded pixels (see above chart)
  • JPEG quality (see above chart)
  • AF mode (AF-A, AF-S, AF-C) - AF-S locks focus when you halfway press the shutter release. AF-C keeps focusing, even with the shutter pressed. AF-A selects between the two based on what's going on in the scene
  • AE metering (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • Select AF point (Auto 5-point, auto 11-point, manual 11-point, spot)

Shooting options 2

  • Cross processing - see below
  • Digital filters (Off, toy camera, retro, high contrast, extract color, soft, star burst, fisheye, custom) - see below
  • HDR capture
    • HDR mode (Off, auto, standard, strong 1 - 3)
    • Auto align (on/off)
  • Multi-exposure
    • Number of shots (2 - 9)
    • Auto EV adjustment (on/off)
  • Interval shooting
    • Interval (1 sec - 24 hrs)
    • Number of shots (1 - 999)
    • Start interval (Now, set time)
    • Start time
  • High ISO noise reduction (Auto, off, low, medium, high, custom) - the custom option lets you adjust how much NR is applied at each stop in the sensitivity range. Wow!
  • Slow shutter speed NR (Auto, on, off) - the "auto" option applies NR as needed; the "on" option always applies it for exposures longer than one second

Shooting options 3

  • Movie settings
    • Recorded pixels (HD, VGA)
    • Quality level (***, **, *)
    • Sound (on/off)
    • Cross processing - same options as in still mode for next two options
    • Digital filter
    • Movie aperture control (Fixed, auto)
    • Shake reduction (on/off)
  • Live view settings
    • Autofocus method (Contrast detect w/face detection, contrast detect, phase difference) - described this earlier
    • Show grid (Off, 4 x 4, golden section, scale)
    • Info overlay (on/off)
    • Histogram (on/off)
    • Bright/dark area (on/off)
  • Instant review - post-shot review
    • Display time (Off, 1, 3, 5 secs)
    • Histogram (on/off)
    • Bright/dark area (on/off)
    • Enlarge instant review (on/off)
  • D-Range setting - see below
    • Highlight correction (on/off)
    • Shadow correction (Off, low, standard, high)
  • Lens correction
    • Distortion correction (on/off) - see distortion chart later in review
    • Lateral chromatic aberration adjustment (on/off) - see below

Shooting options 4

  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • RAW file format (PEF, DNG) - take your pick
  • Green button
    • Function (Green button, custom image, optical/DOF preview, digital preview, digital filter, cross processing, one push file format) - here's how to get a depth-of-field preview on the K-r
    • Action in M mode (P line, Tv shift, Av shift, off) - these next two are only when the Green Button is set to the default
    • e-dial in Program mode (Program shift, Tv, Av, off)
  • AF/AE-lock button (Enable AF1, enable AF2, cancel AF, AE lock) - the AF2 options disables the shutter release button for focusing
  • Memory - which settings are stored when the camera is powered off
  • Shake reduction (on/off) - here's where you turn image stabilization on and off
  • Input focal length - you may need to do this to make old Pentax lenses support shake reduction

Playback options

  • Slideshow
    • Start
    • Interval (3, 5, 10, 30 sec)
    • Screen effect (Off, fade, wipe, stripe)
    • Repeat playback (on/off)
  • Quick Zoom (Off, x2, x4, x8, x16) - whether the playback zoom jumps to a preset value when you rotate the command dial
  • Bright/dark area (on/off) - whether over/underexposed areas of a photo are shown
  • Auto image rotation (on/off)
  • IrSimple - for beaming images to other IrSimple devices (not that you'll ever encounter one)
    • Send and receive
    • Automatic resizing (2M, 0.3M, off)
    • Transmission method (IrSimple, IrSS)
  • Delete all images

Setup options 1
  • Language
  • Date adjustment
    • Date format
    • Date
    • Time
  • World time - select another city for when you're traveling
  • Text size (Standard, large)
  • Beep
    • Volume
    • In-focus (on/off)
    • AE-Lock (on/off)
    • Self-timer (on/off)
    • Remote control (on/off)
    • One push file format (on/off)
    • Press OK for 1 sec (on/off) - I think this mutes everything when you hold down the OK button
  • Guide display (Off, 3, 10, 30 secs) - how long info screens stay on when you turn the camera on or change shooting modes
  • Status screen display color (1-6) - for the shooting info screen

Setup options 2

  • LCD brightness level (-7 to +7)
  • LCD color tuning - adjust the color balance of the screen in the green/magenta and blue/amber directions
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • USB connection (MSC, PTP)
  • Folder name (Date, PENTX)
  • Create new folder
  • Copyright information - you can embed the photographer name and copyright holder into the EXIF headers of a photo
    • Embed copyright data (on/off)
    • Photographer (enter name)
    • Copyright holder (enter name)

Setup options 3

  • Auto power off (Off, 1, 3, 5, 10, 30 mins)
  • AA battery type (Auto detect, lithium, NiMH, alkaline) - for use with the AA battery holder
  • Reset - back to default settings

Setup options 4

  • Pixel mapping - removes dead pixels from the sensor
  • Dust alert - checks for dust on the sensor and shows you where you should be doing manual sensor cleaning
  • Dust removal
    • Dust removal - run it manually now
    • Start-up action (on/off) - or when you turn the camera on
  • Sensor cleaning - flips the mirror out of the way for manual sensor cleaning
  • Format memory card
Custom options 1/2/3/4
  1. EV steps (1/3, 1/2 EV)
  2. Sensitivity steps (1 EV, same as EV steps)
  3. Expanded sensitivity (on/off) - opens up ISO 100 and 25,600
  4. Meter operating time (3, 10, 30 secs)
  5. AE-Lock with AF locked (on/off)
  6. Link AE to AF Point (on/off) - for multi-segment metering only
  7. Auto bracketing order (0/-/+, -/0/+, +/0/-, 0/+/-)
  8. Superimpose AF area (on/off) - a much needed new feature on the K-r
  9. AF-S setting (Focus priority, release priority) - whether the shutter can be released if the subject is not in focus
  10. AF-C setting (Focus priority, FPS priority) - whether focus tracking or maintaining capture frame rate takes precedence
  11. AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  12. WB when using flash (Auto, unchanged, flash)
  13. WB in tungsten light (Subtle correction, strong correction) - whether the "warm" tone of tungsten light is kept or removed
  14. AF with remote control (on/off)
  15. Remote control in bulb (Mode 1, 2) - whether you press the remote to start and stop a bulb exposure, or have to hold it down
  16. Shutter release while charging flash (on/off)
  17. Flash in wireless mode (on/off) - whether the flash fires as the master or the controller when in wireless
  18. mode
  19. Save rotation info (on/off)
  20. Save menu location (Reset, save) - whether the camera stores where you were in the menu system
  21. Catch-in focus (on/off) - when on, camera will take a photo with subject enters focus zone
  22. AF fine adjustment (on/off) - allows you to fine-tune the focus for the attached lens
  23. Using aperture ring (Prohibited, permitted) - for older lenses
    Reset Custom functions

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
  • Toning
    • 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:

HDR off
View Full Size
HDR Auto
View Full Size
HDR Standard
View Full Size
HDR Strong 1
View Full Size
HDR Strong 2
View Full Size
HDR Strong 3
View Full Size

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
View Full Size Image
Highlight correction on
View Full Size Image

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
View Full Size Image
Shadow correction low
View Full Size Image
Shadow correction med
View Full Size Image
Shadow correction high
View Full Size Image

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:

Lens used: Pentax F2.4, 35 mm

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.

Lens used: Pentax F4.0-5.8, 55 - 300 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 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

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:

ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 12800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (ACR)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800

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:

ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 12800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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!

Movie Mode

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!

Click to play movie (40.7 MB, 1280 x 720, 25 fps, QuickTime format)

Playback Mode

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
  • Slideshows
  • 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.