Friday, October 19, 2007

Review: 6 Months With A Pentax K10D, Part 1

At home in my storage room, which is a tiny little room in our miniature apartment in Brooklyn, most of my camera gear sits clean and organized in milky plastic boxes I bought at Ikea a few years ago. I like to keep things orderly and well cared for when I'm not using them, if only so that if we ever move to a bigger space everything is all ready to go. My tripods and light stands are in a special durable nylon zipper bag, and the smaller items like extra lens caps, cloths, blowers, and flash cables are kept in transparent art supply tote cases. But aside from all this, I have one special waterproof camera bag, a Domke Dri-Safe Pouch, where I keep the stuff I'm most likely to use any given day. I call this my "go bag." Padded inside with a protective wrap for cushioning, it's just big enough for a flash gun and a large camera, but light enough to throw on my shoulder or inside a messenger bag. The camera that gets the coveted go bag position is the one I want to use most, not necessarily the one that's the most expensive.

For the last six months I've been using a Pentax K10D as the camera in my go bag. A lot has already been written about this camera, and I highly recommend Bruce Robbins' or Carl Weese's blog and the K10D Book. My own impressions are a bit less strict than simply relating to you all the features I've found or judging the quality of the output. I wanted to share with you first how the camera eventually won me over to go bag status.

Why The K10D Came Home To Roost

The idea of getting a K10D and trying it on for size appealed to me because none of my other cameras had shake reduction, a 10MP sensor, or could control off-camera wireless P-TTL flashes. All of these functions, to me, seemed to offer improvements that would save me effort and allow me to better concentrate on image content. I could rely a little more on handheld shots, I could print a bit larger, and I could finally move away from sync cables and vari-power flashes.

The special bonuses I thought I might find appealing were that it would allow me to control ISO speed with one of the two e-dials (such as in Sv mode) and that it was the first Pentax camera in a while to support motorized lenses (I've yet to use one, though). Everything else, such as the battery grip, the special Raw to JPEG processing features, etc., were all things I considered gravy and not really pertinent to my photography or workflow. I don't tend to use up all the battery power on a single outing, and I've never printed directly from a digital camera, because I almost always do post work on every batch.

When I first got the camera, I panicked at the size increase of the K10D over my previous go bag camera, the *ist DS. The K10D is substantially larger, and heavier than a small steel bodied classic like the ME Super. It's about the same size as a comparable Nikon DSLR, like the D200, but I was afraid the new girth was going to upset the routine I had with my go bag, with its easy in and out access. I didn't yet have a Pentax pancake lens and I knew the it was going to be a tight fit. This is one of the reasons I never put a medium format camera in there, even though there have been days I wished I had. So, I kept the K10D out of the go bag for the first few weeks, in a sort of "getting acquainted" period. This was more influential than I thought at the time. The weather was really nice in late May here in NYC and I decided it wouldn't hurt to try to just wear the camera, like I used to when I was younger (and more fearless about nicks and scuffs.)

On The Town

Within the first week that I had it, the camera was manhandled by strangers in a few awkward situations. One was at a test screening for the film "Hot Rod," when the studio asked if they could keep it outside in a cardboard box for the duration of the movie. Of course they were going to ask that no cameras be present in the theater, but for some reason I thought they'd ignore my DSLR if I was nonchalant about it. Nope, didn't work. I squirmed in my seat all through the movie, wondering about my camera's fate with the concierge crew. Another time was when Homeland Security inspectors played with it when I went out to JFK airport to speak with an immigration officer (because obviously I didn't learn my lesson at the theater). And then it was whisked around by a waiter when I had it occupying a chair next to me. Please handle the food, not my camera. Suffice to say, by the end of the week I learned my lesson that a nice DSLR is conspicuous these days and that people love to touch them. I also learned that the camera was none the worse for wear but that it deserved to be in the go bag if I was going to be hauling it around so much.

Since then, I've still been carrying the camera with me as often as I can, even cramming it in my Jack Spade office bag for my daily commute on the NYC subway so that I have it with me when I'm at my office. I made a point of trying it out with small studio shoots, street photography, and landscapes. I went through all sorts of vintage and new lenses. Most of this I did because that's what I do with my cameras. I really enjoy getting out and around, taking pictures, and looking at things differently in that detached way a camera makes you see. And as I went along, I really found myself happy with the camera.

One afternoon this summer I dragged my friend Amos out to Prospect Park to put the K10D to work. He's a really gifted professional actor and he can pull these tremendous faces that you'd swear he was molding on his face like play dough. Because we were in a park with plenty of overhead foliage, I brought along the 360FGZ flash to use as a fill light, but mostly to use off camera in wireless P-TTL mode, which I thought would be very good "strobist" fun. Right away, Amos chose a really terrific stance, like he's Clint Eastwood in "For a Few Dollars More." I took out my DA 70mm Limited lens to get a good close-up, and as I twisted it on my K10D, I noticed I'd need fill light, but only to his left. So I got cracking and set up a light stand about 10 feet away with the flash covered by an OmniBounce facing towards Amos so that it was really diffuse. No need for manual slave with vari-power, just wireless P-TTL. And it all works, as easy as that.

Amos, studio outtake with K10D and FA 50mm 1.4

A few weeks ago, I was up in Massachusetts and my wife's extended family was all together for a birthday, so we decided we should go apple picking and get pumpkins at a farm. This is standard Kodak Moment stuff that no one needs to see anymore, but I already had my K10D out there, so a few pictures were going to be taken regardless. At one point, I decided ruthlessly that I'm going to take every shot at F/11 and that my exposures will always be set at ASA 100. I like a struggle. Things were going well, because it's was a sunny day, but then farther into the orchard there were some big trees casting deep shadows over all these apples. Let me tell you, these shaded apples spoke to me like Wordsworth himself. Suddenly I needed a shutter speed of 1/3rd of a second if I was to try for it and not break the rules of my game. Thanks to shake reduction and good breathing, it's in the bag. Well, sort of. It's a good exposure, but I think Wordsworth shut up during the camera black out.

Hamilton Orchard, MA

So, that's how it's been going. The camera has been venerated in my mind for a while now.

Ruminations on the Experience

I waited patiently to see if my initial reactions to the K10D would change over time, and they have. I think the camera has proven to me on a number of occasions, both professionally and casually, that it overcame the superficial detractions I had at the beginning.

In the first month I had the K10D, I tried to clear my head of all the clutter I'd read about the camera, and luckily the things that were nagging me at the back of my mind were soon put to rest. You see, before I even had the camera, I'd read some accounts of the flaky indoor white balance, ISO noise above ISO 800, the dreaded low-light "banding," and the "softness" of the camera's JPG files. Various reviews have looked at these issues, which became pretty contentious with pixel peepers when the camera was first released, before any of the subsequent firmware updates. Did I end up having any of these problems? No, not like I expected. So let's just address these now to get them out of the way.

First of all, the visible noise is overrated. Above ISO 400, I can see it, but it's nothing that shows up in print until above ISO 400, and it's still better looking than the noise on any other comparable camera. The noise on the K10D is remarkably grain-like and I've actually come to appreciate it as a feature, especially compared to the noise with a Nikon D200, which is more like television static. And, of course, software can clean it up anyway. I once saw the ghostly sensor banding that was occasionally reported when the camera first came out, but that's because I really pushed the limits of rescuing an under-exposed shot. I gather that the banding was mostly fixed by firmware updates, although it might still happen in really low-light, but at least it's been okay for me. Indoor Auto White Balance is flaky, yes, but I notice it because I'm a stickler. Luckily, it's amazingly easy to correct in camera. And finally, DP Review's tests of the K10D's sharpening filter had me worried that I'd be left a little envious of Nikon and Canon, but now I honestly think that DP Review's methodology is less than fair if they judge solely on in-camera processing merits., which uses ACR, has MTF tests that show the K10D getting between 2200 and 2350 LW/PH with more than a few lenses, so obviously the capacity is there for tack sharp prints that rival the best from Nikon and Canon. Besides, I don't even have a bone to pick with the K10D's internal sharpening and Pentax Photo Lab's software sharpening. Ultimately, I think that consumers need to worry more about the quality of the lens they use.

The K10D has been available for almost a year, which some might consider past the mid-point of a product cycle, but this camera shouldn't be obsolete any time soon, despite the current pre-Christmas market. My reasoning on this is that what it offers now should suffice nicely for quite some time. I'm as anxious for faster ISO performance and live view as anyone., but the feature set of the K10D already represents the fulfillment of many years of DSLR technological aggregation. The most requested advanced amateur camera features, like weather-sealing, a Pentaprism viewfinder, replaceable view screens, spot and multi-segment metering, 11-point autofocus, built-in shake reduction, sensor dust reduction, wireless flash control, RAW+JPG, WB fine-control, SSM lens control, and fast ISO speed, have all been accommodated in a camera that's under $800US. What comes next, like less noise, more resolution, live view and faster ISOs, will be nice improvements, but the underpinnings are all here right now, including a system of lauded and small prime lenses, weather-sealed motorized zooms, and wireless flashes.

From what I gather, Pentax designed this camera by targeting photographers who've not only graduated beyond auto settings, but who are particular about using functions that are usually considered professional, just not the "really" professional functions like sYCC color space, and encryption they will never use. I would characterize the demographic as reasonable adults who expect a versatile camera to be amenable to their creativity and effort even if they aren't uploading their photos to Reuters nightly. These people deserve capable tools. I do know some professionals who have adopted a K10D or two because they enjoy it, but the camera is really best suited for an advanced amateur. It's not a replacement for the specialized cameras journalists need to withstand a daily grind, with high-speed RAW continuous shooting, crop modes, GPS and wireless data transmission, etc. The camera was never designed with those users in mind. You also can't expect it to replace medium format cameras for fine art or commercial photographers, at least not without limitations. And so it seems Pentax got it right. The camera is gaining popularity with people who take their camera on special photography trips and who enjoy exploring and documenting. Even wedding photographers and small studios with tight budgets.

Coming next in Part 2: Notes on Setting up the K10D For Personalized Use


Dred242 said...

I too own the Pentax K10D and find it to be an awesome DSLR. This camera forces me to pay attention, and think about what I'm doing when capturing an image. My first "real" camera was the Pentax K1000 when I was a kid, and I had to learn everything there was about that camera's settings in order to take good photos with any sense of regularity. That's how I feel about my new K10D....I love it. I have co-workers with DSLR who have no ideal how their cameras work or whats going on before and after they press the shutter release button. It's a point-n-shoot mentality that's all too common in digital photography today. I'm glad my K10D makes me work hard.

Looking forward to Part 2.

Stewart Pratt said...

"still not as heavy as a small steel bodied classic like the ME Super"

The K10D is more than half as heavy again as an ME Super (the K10D is 710g, the ME Super 445g).

OK-1K said...

I made a change in the text to read "heavier than" the ME Super because, Stewart, you're right. Mind you, on my ME Super I have the 50mm F1.2, which grossly affected my appreciation of the weight of the camera, so much so I guess I forgot about how much that glass weighs. That's what I get for being anecdotal!

Tony said...

I'm also a happy K10D owner and agree with everything you've written in this first part. I've really enjoyed my time with the K10D so far. My only disappointment is when I show people the camera they say "Pentax? They're still around?"

Pentax should be pushing this camera much more than they are.

ataratics said...

Okay, you convinced me. I'd been holding off, partly as a result of the DPR comments, but I ran across your blog last week and decided the time had come. Got my K10D yesterday and love the way it feels and works. Now just have to get out and put it to the test.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with the excellent content of this article. I compared Canon D400 (too light, too flimsy).. Nikon D40 (horrible).. Nikon D80 (slightly better than D40 but again flimsy).

Bought the K10D Grand prix kit and then invested in 16-50 F2.8 D* lens.. reesults are stuning, delighted with build quality, love the Battery Grip vertical functionality.

I have colleagues with Nikon D200 and Canon D40... we compare results against K10d and can not find any difference in quality with same kind of lenses used.

In my opinion the K10d is the best DSLR quality and value combination on the market. I look forward to releae of D*60-250 lens soon.

K10d is my first DSLR purchase, after baptism with excellent Canon G5, which I still use.

Well done Pentax. Thank you for such an informative and objective article.

Anonymous said...

So i finally retired my P30 & P30N in favour of the K10D, Awesome!!.
it is just like my old cameras but with instant reward.
I love the extra weight this is better at reducing shake then the sensor, even with the shake turned off i'm still getting an extra stop at least.
Best of all i have set the user mode to be basically a P30 and the camera produces the same crystal pictures.
my best friend has a D200 which he never takes out of auto the K10D blows it away!!
It is worth the grief from the cook for spending so much money on 1 camera

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