The Swiss Army knife, a review of the Pentax K-x
OK, it may not open a bottle of wine for you or unscrew something, but other than that the Pentax K-x has a lot going for it. The camera is aggressively priced when comparing its features list with fellow entry-level cameras, such as the Canon T1i and Nikon D5000 (read my review). Between you and me, summarizing the K-x review was actually a bit though. The camera just has soooo many features that making sense of them all took a little longer than usual.
So what does the Pentax K-x have to offer?
Solid hunk of steel
According to the Pentax website, the camera is "fibre reinforced plastic polymer covers around a rugged stainless steel chassis". Sounds fancy and makes for a very nice body. Comparing it to the outer of my Nikon D700 it actually looks quite similar. Now that's impressive given the significant price difference. Kudos to Pentax.
The traditional control lay-out making it easy for pocket camera users to pick up the camera and start shooting.
The controls are traditionally laid out with a four-way controller for drive mode, ISO, flash and whitebalance. Like on other cameras, it makes it very easy to change those core settings. To get to other settings, such as metering and focus point select, you have to press the info button and navigate a small menu.
The top-wheel lets you choose between (semi) manual modes, such as aperture and shutter speed setting, to the more automated modes of "portrait", "macro" and "action". The picture modes even have explanatory images, such as a nice portrait briefly displayed when selecting the "portrait" mode. Very helpful.
Functional, but not sexy
Agree, menus do not necessarily have to be sexy to be functional. But it doesn't hurt if they look good at the same time as working. Just look at Apple. There is almost something 'German' about the Pentax menus. As if "ordnung must sein" took a clear edge over aesthetics, or "it's gotta look good", when the designers put the menus together. In short, it works but it's not pretty
The menus are clearly laid out with four tabs for shooting, playback, setup and custom. There is no scrolling within the menus which makes it easier to get a good overview. One functional grievance I came across is that the menu does not remember where you exit. Say, I am messing around with the digital filters and turn on "toy camera". Cool, I shoot away and get the look I want. I put the camera down for five minutes, a new scene comes up that I do not want to capture with the "toy camera" effect, but when I enter the menu it is 'reset' to the first section in the first tab.
Sigh! Now I have to remember where the digital filter is turned on, navigate to it and then turn it off. On other cameras I have tested, the menu let me enter where I last exited.
Shake reduction - finally!
I have to give kudos to Pentax for the video implementation. First of all, there is a dedicated video setting on the top-wheel. You turn the wheel to video, the mirror flips up and you are ready to record. Easy-peasy. Now, why can't all DSLRs have such an effortless implementation. Secondly, the K-x is the first DSLR video I have seen with the build in shake reduction working.
Here is a sample video shot with the Pentax K-x from West Vancouver's lighthouse park.
While testing the video quality of the K-x I noticed some clicking sound (@ 0:22, 0:47, 1:08). This, according to Pentax, is probably the built-in shake reduction (SR) working away. This is a good thing, as it helps produce steadier shots overall without using a tripod, but if you are bothered by the slight noise, it can be eliminated by either turning off the SR when shooting video, or using an external microphone.
Focus still happens contrast-based directly off the sensor, meaning it is as slow as the focus you get on other video DSLRs, such as the Nikon D5000/300s or Canon T1i/T2i. Controls are also limited when shooting video.
Where did the focus points go?
OK, the first thought that went through my mind when picking up the K-x was: "uh! where did the focus points go?". After some digging in the menu and googling, I learnt that the camera does not use small light indicators pointing out which point is in focus. Like it or not, it is something you have to get used to if shooting with the K-x. Small lit-up points or not, the Pentax boasts of the same fousing speed as similar entry-level DSLRs.
For every day, casual shooting the no points works fine. But because it actually is possible to change focus point, it seems some what contradictory that you cannot get an indication of the point selected.
Especially, if you do select a point, shoot with the camera and then put away. Next time you pick up the camera, you probably have forgotten all about the focus point selected which totally will throw off your focus until you change the point again. And with no indicators, it my take some time (that is, several un-focused frames later) before realizing you have to reset the focus points. Hm! could have been better implemented.
The Pentax K-x is packed with a multitude of digital filters. The camera allows for two ways to apply the filters. First of all, this only works if you shoot in JPG. That's the way it should be, as you are baking the filters into the image which is not possible with RAW. But for some reason, the filters do not work with RAW+JPG selected? Go figure.
Cross process filter, a film processing legacy where film (the old celluloid kind) deliberately would be processed in chemicals intended for a different film type. Funky results, but not something I would frame. Maybe I'm just too conservative?
Instead of baking the filter effect irrevocably into the JPG image, the K-x gives you the option to apply it as save-as-a-new-file. Pretty cool. You can do this by either accessing the filters from the menu and apply whatever you want to the last frame, or via the playback menu select any image and apply the desired filter. Nice touch.
Other than being a tad too 'funky' for my taste (though, a lot of folks would probably embrace the creative flexibility of the filters), my main caveat is the added processing time. Because the extra data the camera has to process when using the filters, it takes 5-10 seconds for the image to write to the memory card. The added write time is quite fair, as the camera has to process considerably more data. It just slows your photography down a bit. So plan for not being able to shoot immediately after you have taken a JPG+filter shot, and use it for getting creative rather than fast-paced kids or sports photography.
Oh! and here is something I don't understand. Once the image is written to the card and displayed on the LCD, I like to immediately go back a couple of frames to compare what I just shot to previous shots. This is possible on other DSLRs, but not the Pentax K-x. To access the previous frame, you have to press playback first. Just a minor quirk in my eyes, but I wish Pentax would save me that extra button press. Just put me straight in playback when the image is displayed on the LCD. Thank you.
High Dynamic Range - HDR
The K-x has also added a much touted HDR function. HDR is High Dynamic Range where a series of photos are taken in quick succession, each slightly differently exposed. When put on top of each other to form one image, the image tonality gets the best from each of the individual photos making for clearer shadows and highlights.
Well, at least that's the theory. Here is some HDB - High Dynamic Blur.
The camera correctly takes three images with slightly differing exposures. Unfortunately, the images are not taken quickly enough, meaning you will need to steady the camera with a tripod, or put the camera down on a solid surface, to get usable HDR shots. With this camera mainly being aimed at first-time DSLR buyers that to me could have been better implemented. Enthusiats photographers in that segment rarely carries around a tripod, heck I don't even carry around a tripod. Just too cumbersome.
For my occasional HDR shots I use Photomatix. The software allows you to process HDR images from just one RAW image, and the standard version is free to boot. Sweet.
AAs, the upside and the downside
Having shot with the Pentax K-x over a couple of weeks, I have come to realize that the fact it uses AA batteries instead of a proprietary battery is both speaks to camera's strength and weakness. Very practical, if you are out shooting and run out of power. Simply buy four fresh ones at the nearest store. Something that's possible regardless of the fact if you are in Minnesota or Mozambique. Very handy.
Do your camera a favor and buy 8 rechargeable AA NiMH batteries the day you pick up the camera. Only use standard Alkaline AAs in a pinch.
The downside lies in the fact that camera packs so many battery intensive features (video, HDR, digital filters to name a few) the approach of using AAs puts the photographers user experience at risk if he or she chooses cheapo batteries. My test was solely done on off-the-shelve, inexpensive Alkaline AAs, not fancy Lithium or other exotic metals batteries. As a consequence, my user experience was poorer compared to if I had chosen better, longer lasting batteries. With Alkaline AAs and standard to heavy use (video, HDR + filters), I got maybe 4-5 hours.
So, be sure not to get to cheap route and get your run-of-the-mill alkaline batteries (even though they are *fancy* Duracell). Instead do yourself and your camera a favor and get either Energizer Lithium batteries or rechargeable NiMH batteries. I know they are more expensive than the regular alkaline. The most economic investment would probably be to buy 8 rechargeable (equal to 2 sets, as the camera takes four AAs) the day you pick up the camera. Consider them your power source, as if they were the batteries that came with the camera. Only difference is, if you ever get in a pinch and run out of juice, you can always stop by the nearest grocery store and pick up 4 AAs, unlike your buddy with his Canon XSi. Hehe.
By the way, here is what Pentax recommends:
"The camera is designed to use AA batteries but we do suggest using either Energizer Lithium AA batteries, these are the most energy dense power source currently available, with a life with flash half the time of 1,100 shots and 1,900 shots without flash or to use rechargeable NiMH AA batteries, with 1900 mAH batteries and flash half the time about 420 shots, 640 without flash, we do not recommend Alkaline batteries except in emergencies."
It should be noted that I did not test the camera with either the Lithium or NiMH batteries (I went the cheap, Duracell way. Sigh!). Likewise, I did not test the camera in a way so I could quantify the number of shots on one set of batteries, bur rather looked at how long the batteries would last under Average to intense usage with both HDR, filters and video. But I think we can take their word for it.
Great looking images
So, in the end this is what really matters. So maybe the battery system is poorly thought through and the image processor is a bit on the slow side, but if the image quality is there all that sorta diminishes. And the Pentax K-x doesn't disappoint.
The sample photos are taken with the Pentax 16-45mm f4 DA lens. An excellent lens:
To my taste, the K-x saturates the images a tad too much. But I know a lot of people prefer that. Not surprisingly with all its functionalities the camera does allow you to make a custom image setting. Here you can tweak the saturation along with sharpness, contrast, etc. Other entry-level cameras gives you a handful of preset image settings (portrait, standard, neutral, etc.) that you then can tweak if desired. Pentax just makes it a little more manual where you have to tweak it all yourself.
RAW images from the camera does not have any setting applied, and thus are not as saturated. As a really cool feature Pentax allows you to select the non-proprietary DNG format straight out the camera. Very cool. And frankly, something all DSLRs should have as an option. On top of that, you can actually process your RAW images right in camera. Cool when you need a JPG right then and there. But I do prefer converting my RAW images on a computer, if not for anything else then the larger screen allowing you to more properly view and tweak the image.
With its 12MP CMOS sensor, the K-x handles high ISO really well. Pitting it against fellow entry-level DSLRs, a non-scientific comparison gives it a clear edge over the Nikon D3000, Sony a330 and Canon XSi, and a slight edge over the Nikon D5000. Now this is pretty impressive, as the D5000 sensor previously was one of my favorites when it came to high ISO performance. Sweet!
As a final note, I was kindly lent the Pentax 16-45mm f4 DA lens for this test. A great lens with superb build quality and optics. The lens produces great sharp images with a good colour rendition and contrast. Yes, it basically covers the same focal length as the 18-55mm kit lens. But the better build quality, constant aperture and great optical quality makes it worth the extra $$$, if you are looking for a replacement for your kit lens.
All in all
I was pretty excited about shooting with and testing Pentax K-x. It was the first Pentax I have shot with, so trying something else than Canon, Sony and Nikon was great. The camera did not disappoint on the image quality front, delivering great images. Perhaps a bit too saturated straight out of the camera as JPGs for my taste, but that is what a lot of people prefer.
The camera has so many bells and whistles, more than I have ever seen in any entry-level camera, that up until now I have needed more than 2,000 words to just somewhat cover them from a photographic and practical perspective. Truly the camera world's equivalent to a Swiss Army knife.
Shooting with the Pentax you also get the sense that the manufacturer wants to offer its own solutions to how photography can be done, and not necessarily follow what its competitors are doing. Quite refreshing. But if you come from another DLSR system, you will in some cases have to be a bit patient in getting used to the K-x's approach. But overall the camera delivers outstanding image quality, some of the best seen in entry-level DSLRs, and on top of that enough creative venues to keep you busy for a long time.
All product shots are with the Nikon D700 and Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR Micro lens. Additional light was added with two speedlights bounced off a white ceiling.
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