Introduction and features
Pentax has stepped up the rate at which it releases new DSLRs of late, and the K-3 II marks the third launch in a year. The company’s latest top-of-the-line DSLR replaces the K3, and introduces some new features designed to steal the enthusiast camera thunder of market leaders Canon and Nikon.
Sitting at the top of Pentax’s lineup, although only featuring an APS-C sized sensor, the K-3 II competes most closely with mid-range or enthusiast cameras such as the Nikon D7200 and Canon EOS 70D; it’s certainly priced to compete with such those models.
The highlight feature of the K-3 II is what Pentax calls its Pixel Shift Resolution System, which follows the same sort of idea as the High Res Shot mode in the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II.
With Pixel Shift Resolution mode enabled and the K-3 II mounted on a tripod, the camera captures a series of images in close succession with just a one pixel shift between them. These are then combined in-camera to produce a high-resolution image of a quality you arguably can’t get from a regular single-layer sensor.
There are limitations to normal sensor technology. Resolution is limited to the number of photo sites (aka pixels) the sensor holds, while each one is sensitive to only red, green or blue light, which means the camera has to interpolate, or estimate, the full colour data for each pixel. However, if you shift the sensor you can potentially overcome such limitations by having each pixel capture full colour.
The downside to such technology is the huge file sizes that are produced, so you can disable Pixel Shift Resolution and shoot in a conventional way, saving the high-resolution mode for when you really need it. It’s also not possible to shoot moving subjects with the mode enabled.
In most other respects the K-3 II shares its specifications with the K3. It has a stainless steel and magnesium weatherproof body, with no less than 92 seals to keep dust and moisture out. Pentax also claims the camera also capable of operating in temperatures as low as -10 degrees.
As in the K-3, the 24 million pixel APS-C sensor also has no anti-aliasing filter, which should bode well for sharpness and detail. If you’re photographing fine patterns and textures, you can enable an AA filter simulator to counter moire patterning.
Also as in the K-3, the continuous shooting speed is 8.3 frames per second (fps), with a buffer capacity of 23 raw format files, or 60 JPEGs. Further similarities between the two cameras are twin SD card slots, a body-only weight of 700g, a promised 720-shot battery life and the 27-point SAFOX 11 autofocus system.
The K-3 II has a PRIME III image processing engine, which facilitates sensitivity settings ranging up to ISO 51,200.
A couple of new features come in the shape of built-in GPS technology, which can be used to record location, as well as latitude, longitude, altitude, UTC and direction using an electronic compass. There’s also improved SR (shake reduction), which offers up to 4.5 stops of compensation.
Pentax says that AF Tracking in AF Continuous Mode has been enhanced, meaning that the K-3 II has the most responsive subject tracking of all Pentax DSLRs. This is thanks to what Pentax calls a ‘state of the art AF algorithm’, along with the company’s own Real-Time Scene Analysis System.
There’s no inbuilt Wi-Fi connectivity, but the camera is compatible with the Pentax FLU SD card which can be used to create a Wi-Fi connection if required.
Other specifications include a 3.2-inch LCD monitor with approximately 1,037,000 dots, full HD movie capture in the H.264 format, and a pentaprism viewfinder offering 100% coverage.
A few creative features are on hand for those who like to experiment with the look of their images in-camera. There are digital filter effects (Toy Camera, Retro and so on), various scene modes, HDR (high dynamic range) capture, and the option to create multiple exposures in-camera.
Build and handling
The K-3 II looks and feels like a solidly built piece of kit. There’s a textured coating around the grip and in other areas, which give you a good bit of extra purchase and add to the camera’s high-quality feel. Your middle finger sits comfortably in an indent on the grip, and there’s a pronounced thumb rest on the rear of the camera.
The array of dials and buttons on the K-3 II confirm that this is a camera aimed at enthusiast photographers rather than pros. A scrollwheel on the back of the camera sits nicely under your thumb, while another, in front of the shutter release, sits under your forefinger. By default, the front dial controls shutter speed, while the rear dial is for aperture. Both will work if you’re in Manual mode, while one or the other will work if you’re in Shutter or Aperture priority mode, and overall it’s a very natural way to work.
The exposure mode dial is on the top-left of the camera. In addition to the usual auto, semi-auto and manual options are two Pentax-specific modes: Sensitivity priority – you dial in an ISO value and the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed; and Shutter-and-Aperture priority – you set the aperture and shutter speed, and the camera selects the ISO.
There are also three ‘custom’ slots, enabling you to configure shooting setups that you use frequently or for particular conditions. The mode dial can be locked with a switch, which is useful if you’re taking the camera in and out of a bag often.
Most of the K3-II’s buttons are grouped on the right hand side of the camera, either on top of it, or on the back. On the top is a button, which, if you press once, will enable you to use the scrollwheel on the back of the camera to adjust exposure compensation. There’s also a very useful green button on the back of the camera that you can press to return exposure compensation to 0 – the same button can also be used to return other settings, such as ISO, to their defaults.
On the back of the camera there’s the ubiquitous four-way navigational pad, each segment of which controls a different function – the left segment, for instance, accesses the white balance options, while right accesses the Custom Image options.
In order to set the autofocus point (if you have Select Point Autofocusing mode activated), you need to press the AF select point button on the back of the camera, and then use the directional keys to move to the point you want. The facility to change the focus point will remain active until you press the AF select point button again, which is handy if you’re going to be changing the point repeatedly.
Pressing the button labelled Info towards the base of the camera brings up a range of options which constitute a ‘quick’ menu. You can navigate to options including ISO, Digital Filter and Pixel Shift Resolution, then use the rear scrollwheel to adjust the setting.
On the side of the camera is a group of buttons that are within reach of your left thumb when you’re supporting the lens with your left hand. There’s an AF mode button, which enables you to select from the modes such as Spot, Auto and Selection. There’s also a switch for quickly moving between autofocus and manual focusing.
As with the K-3, we found a lot to like about images from the K-3 II. Directly from the camera, JPEG images display plenty of punch.
There are several Picture Control options to choose from, so you can select the best look for the particular scene or subject you’re shooting. If, for instance, you want to boost the colours in a nature or wildlife scene, you could choose Bright or Vibrant, while if you want to keep tones a bit more subdued for a Portrait you could use Natural, or indeed, Portrait.
Looking at the DNG (raw format) images, colours are a little more muted, giving you a fair bit of scope for applying your preferred colour enhancements in post-production.
We’ve talked about the Pixel Shift Resolution mode, but images shot without this mode enabled show a good level of detail. If you are using Pixel Shift Resolution mode you’ll need to use a tripod to keep the camera perfectly still, otherwise you may see blurring in parts of the image. While this isn’t too bad when you’re able to use fast shutter speeds, and as long the subject itself is completely still, the image won’t be perfect if you examine it at 100%.
Viewing real-world raw images at 100%, it’s difficult to see a significant difference in detail when looking at DNG files shot with Pixel Shift Resolution switched on, and those without it. Those taken with the high-resolution mode enabled perhaps have a very slight edge, but it’s not something you’re likely to to notice at normal print and web sizes.
One of the other benefits of Pixel Shift mode is an improvement in colour rendition, but again the difference isn’t obvious, and whether it’s worth creating DNG files that exceed 100MB in size in order to achieve such modest gains is debatable. JPEG images shot in Pixel Shift mode aren’t that much bigger than regular JPEGs – around 12-13MB compared with 10MB – but as with the raw images they don’t show a huge amount of difference for most subjects.
Below are two images of the same subject. The first is a regular image, and the second was taken using the K-3 II’s Pixel Shift Resolution mode, and one ‘regular’ image. There is a very slight improvement in fine detail in the Pixel Shift image, but you’ll have to look hard to see it.
Click here to see the full-size image.
Click here to see the full-size image.
I shot images using both the supplied kit lens and a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, to see if there was a more discernible difference when using Pixel Shift Resolution mode in conjunction with more premium lenses. With the 100mm attached detail was better resolved in both modes, as you’d expect, but again it was hard to spot any real difference between Pixel Shift and regular images.
It’s a different story in our labs tests, however, with a measurable difference in resolution scores at lower sensitivity values for raw images (after conversion to TIFF). The difference between JPEGs with and without the mode is again negligible, and in some cases images looked better with Pixel Shift mode disabled.
It’s a similar story with colour. Although in real-world shooting it’s difficult to see much difference in colour saturation with and without Pixel Shift Resolution switched on, our labs again indicate a measurable difference.
With Pixel Shift mode enabled, the colour chart produces a score of 93.3, while with it switched off the score is 115.8. This suggests that colours are less saturated with Pixel Shift Resolution, and therefore more accurate – although of course you may find a more-saturated image more to your liking.
Although there’s no anti-aliasing filter I didn’t encounter any issues with moire patterning, even without activating the anti-aliasing filter simulator. If you regularly photograph patterns and fine textures, however, it’s worth experimenting with the simulator to see how much of a difference it makes.
Noise is well controlled throughout the K-3 II’s sensitivity range, and although noise starts to become apparent at around ISO 800 if you examine a JPEG image at 100%, the overall impression of detail remains very good up to around ISO 1600; ISO 3200 also produces very good results if you need to use it in low light conditions.
ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 are usable at very small print or web sizes, but the highest settings of ISO 25600 and ISO 51200 are best avoided unless you’re particularly desperate to get a shot in low light.
Looking at the amount of noise present in the equivalent DNG files, it’s clear that JPEGs taken at ISO 800 and above are subjected to a fair amount of noise reduction in camera. This gives you a fair bit of scope for applying custom noise reduction in raw editing software.
The K-3 II’s autofocus performance is fast and generally accurate, only struggling in lower light. It’s rare for a false positive to be presented, but one thing to be aware of is the fairly loud sound that the kit lens (the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 WR) makes when focusing – it’s likely to induce a little self-consciousness if you’re shooting in a church or museum.
When you’re photographing a moving subject you have the option to switch to Continuous AF, which coupled with 8.2fps shooting makes the K-3 II a decent choice for shooting sports and other action. The camera is able to keep up with relatively fast-moving subjects quite well, so long as you keep the active AF point on them.
Buffer depth is also good in this respect. When shooting in raw+JPEG mode you have around 5-6 seconds of shooting at 8.2fps before the camera starts to slow down, although if you start shooting again a few seconds later you’ll find that the buffer fills up in 2-3 seconds. Alternatively, you can switch to shooting JPEG only, which gives you around 12 seconds before the buffer slows the camera down – that’s around 100 shots.
While Pentax hasn’t completely overhauled its already very good K-3 to produce the K-3 II, it has added some novel and potentially very useful technology that will encourage many enthusiast photographers to take a second look at a camera that isn’t a Canon or Nikon.
Pixel Shift Resolution Technology is of particular interest, and it’s good to see companies coming up with innovative ways to produce the best possible images. In practice, the difference between regular images and those shot in Pixel Shift mode is barely noticeable for the majority of subjects, although you may appreciate it if you’re the kind of photographer who likes to capture ultra-high detail macro and still life images.
Pixel-shifting aside, images shot in standard resolution are excellent, with plenty of detail and vibrant colours that can be customised to suit particular subjects or personal taste.
As we saw with the first generation of this camera, noise is handled very well. You can go up to ISO 3200 with confidence, and although the higher settings result in grainy and noisy shots they’re usable if getting the shot is important and if you don’t need a particularly large image.
In use, the camera feels solid and secure, with a robust and well-built body that fits comfortably into your hand. Enthusiast photographers will appreciate the plentiful and well laid out controls, and the intuitive and easily navigable menus.
Having a 100% viewfinder is relatively rare at this price point; it’s a great feature to see, and it means you can be sure that everything you see in the finder will appear in your shot. The K-3 II’s rear LCD is also very good although, while I’m not too bothered by the lack of a touchscreen in this case, it would be nice to a least have an articulating device for framing awkward shots.
The K-3 II is a superb camera to handle, and the fact that it’s weatherproof is good news for landscape, nature and travel photographers. It feels like a solidly made, quality piece of kit – which isn’t always the case at this price point. The dials and buttons are well thought out, and adjusting most settings is straightforward.
There are a few things missing from the K-3-II which you will find on the cameras it aspires to compete with: things like inbuilt Wi-Fi (though you can add this with a Flu Card at additional expense) and a touch-sensitive and/or articulating screen.
The K-3 II offers excellent build quality and some interesting features at a reasonable price. It’s a good all-rounder DSLR that’s capable of delivering high-quality images across a range of subjects.
For photographers who aren’t tied into the idea of a Canon or Nikon model, it’s a genuine alternative – if, for example, you’re looking for the next step up from a beginner DSLR and don’t already have a collection of lenses from another stable.
If you’re already a Pentax owner you’ll find a lot to like about the K-3 II, especially if you’re upgrading from an older or entry-level model; although If you own the K-3 there’s not too much here to tempt you to upgrade, unless you’re one of those aforementioned photographers with a penchant ultra-detailed images.
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