Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pentax K-7: Hands-On Preview

Note: This is just one of the many introductory reviews you can read about the K-7, with others notably by Yvon Bourque, Mark Dimalanta, Dan Havlik, Mat Gallagher (with video), Jack Howard of Adorama, Mike Johnston, and the mighty DPReview. I'd like to thank Michelle and Chris of Pentax USA for going out of their way this spring to let us all get a good look at this exciting new camera, and I sincerely hope internet readers everywhere appreciate the variety of good writing they can find about the K-7 thanks to their hard work.


About three weeks ago, at the end of April, I met up with Pentax USA's PR Manager Michelle Martin and Product Manager Chris Pound in Manhattan. Looking for a space where we could have some privacy, I suggested we leave Starbucks and head over to a nearly deserted local bakery with plenty of empty tables that I had just passed by (the sign said Japanese Bakery, but it was decidedly Chinese). We took a table in the corner and for the next hour Chris and I went over the latest DSLR camera from Pentax, the new flagship model slated to replace the K20D for summer 2009: the Pentax K-7 ($1299 MSRP, shipping in late July).

"We think this will really appeal to K10D or *ist users, classic users, advanced amateurs or budget pros" Chris said. And with that he handed over his K-7, fitted with a DA Limited 15mm pancake lens. Admittedly, I got giddy from that point on.

What surprised me at first about the K-7 was what a lot of people will notice right away. For a flagship advanced "prosumer" camera along the lines of the Canon EOS 50D, the K-7 is decidedly small (about 24% smaller than the 50D). It's not as small as the K-m (K2000), but it has obviously inherited some of that micronizing know-how. Both Chris and I were able to handle it gingerly, because the smaller magnesium alloy body was very strong but light. The ergonomics are still the best in the industry, but with the button pattern having evolved, I dare say they've made a good thing better. The review and trash buttons now reside in the top left over the 3" LCD, and the menu array buttons have adopted the style familiar to K-m users (complete with the Fn button working as in the K-m's methodology), with the special addition of a new Live View button. The top mode dial is "locking," which is to say that now you have to depress a center button to release the dial to change modes. The exposure compensation button (and new ISO button!) have moved to the top of the camera, above the top LCD. In short, there's less confusion for your fingers to make.

With this demonstration, the pancake lens really lightened the weight considerably, and showed off the compact size and the K-7's slightly more "boxy contours," which look impressive up close. The casing design seems inspired by mixing the smooth and rounded corners of the K20D with the retro appeal of older SLRs of the past, like the LX. Don't let it escape your attention: the externalized camera strap latches are an intentional return to the old school style, replete with triangle clips. However, this isn't your Dad's Pentax. It's completely weather sealed (every single port and button has been overhauled) and boasts a Pentax first: durable in the cold to 14°F (-10°C). The weather resistant sealing has even been extended to the kit lenses, the DA WR 18-55mm and 50-200mm lenses (with new grip surfaces), which will retail for $199 and $249 respectively.

New Sensor

Importantly, the K-7 has a completely redesigned 14.6MP CMOS sensor (23.4mm x 15.6mm) and PRIME II processing engine. This affects so many different areas, it's easy to see why Pentax is so pleased with the result, even though there really isn't a big boost in megapixels over the K20D. Chris explained to me that the agenda by Pentax's design team was to increase memory bandwidth potential (now capable of writing 1GB/sec) and the efficiency of the 4 color channels so that highly detailed and color accurate images get processed more quickly. Case in point? The camera can now comfortably write 5.6FPS in RAW mode. However, there were other significant benefits: the White Balance now uses native color sensing for increased accuracy in Auto WB mode (indoor WB and mixed light colors aren't the problem they used to be), and there's less sensor noise (the new sensor limits "electron creep" because its tiny switch gates aren't as grossly affected by leaks as the older sensors). While the engineering sample we looked at wasn't a final shipping model, it was obvious that at ISO 1600 there was much less visible noise than on the K20D. Expanded ISO range on the K-7 can go up to 6400.

The strength of the new sensor really shines in how Pentax has implemented sensor integration with the camera's operating system, heralding new tricks for Shake Reduction, Live View, Raw Developing, and HD video with incredible sophistication. The camera's GUI interface now resembles the K-m's (what I call the "Hyper" menu—and with the new gyro sensor, it even goes vertical when you rotate the camera), but that doesn't mean you get anything over-simplified. It's a setting tweaker's paradise.

Better SR and Manual Compensation

Shake Reduction now handles rotational compensation, which is a very welcome addition (for when you accidentally tilt the camera on a horizontal axis). But you can now control the sensor's placement within the SR mechanism for what Pentax calls "Compensation Adjustment." Essentially, by using the 4-direction menu buttons, you can slide the sensor in any direction on its plane so that you are changing the field of view. For example, imagine you have your camera set up on a tripod and, for whatever reason, the camera must stay put. Then, just outside the frame is something you wish was inside the frame. You can't move the camera: but you can move the sensor. It's like changing the cropping of a picture that had a wider focal length—mechanically, not digitally. Something like this is where Live View really shines. You can't see the adjustment through the viewfinder, because this is the sensor we're moving. You watch your new frame adjustment taking place on the screen.

Better Live View and HD Video

Speaking of Live View, even though the Pentaprism viewfinder (100% field of view) is gorgeously bright (and you'll soon be able to order a new replacement screen that has no markings at all), Live View is now behaving more like what we expected the first time around. You can now make all your exposure adjustments with a vivid 3"screen representation, instead of just an animated Depth of Field Preview (per the K20D's implementation). And this extends to enabling HD video. Finally. With inboard HDMI and microphone connections (eat that, Rebel Ti), the K-7 has moved into competitive territory with some of Nikon and Canon's best cameras. But the K-7's sensor actually exceeds 720p and allows for a top end 1536 x 1024 pixels at 30fps (sorry, no 60 fps yet).

Using HDR Capture

And how's this for a new trick? Not only is there 77 segment metering (which is very competitive for this market segment) but now there's HDR capture. Okay, I wouldn't say that this is the same as what you'll find on the Ricoh CX1, but it's a fun gimmick. By enabling this mode, you can take 3 pictures and merge them into one for an extended dynamic range (exported as a JPG). Chris and I played at this one for a while. It works best with a tripod, which we didn't have on hand, so we hand held a shot as carefully as we could (with SR on). You can choose between a standard or strong setting, although the exposure +/- differentiation isn't made clear (standard looks about -3, 0 and + 3). You can't take 3 pictures in a burst, so you have to press the shutter release 3 separate times (the mirror is locked up during this time). What follows is a screen black-out while the camera processes all three shots together. If they don't align properly, the results will look blurry, but when everything is in line it works really well, if a bit strong for my tastes (the over-baked look was definitely happening). Shadows are lightened with detail and blown out areas get filled in. Is this going to replace bracketing and Photoshop? No, but it will be fun to play with.

Additional new settings include electronic level detection and the ability to correct for chromatic aberrations and lens distortion for JPG post-processing in camera (though the last 2 are designed specifically to work with Pentax "A" lenses that the K-7 can recognize and match with its internal registry of data, and FYI the DA 10-17mm will always have distortion because it was designed that way as a fish-eye). Yep, they work. As does the new metadata setting that lets you stamp a personalized copyright from within the camera. Also of note: the new dust filter system with "piezo-ceramic" vibrations should be effective, but you can't tell from just one short sitting. At any rate, no more sensor shake at start up to dislodge particles.

Fast Focusing

And last but not least, I'm happy to say that to my satisfaction the new SAFOX VIII Plus auto focusing system is now more accurate and speedy, especially indoors and with artificial light. And yes, the Face Detection feature works just as you've come to expect it on point-and-shoots. While some people might be balking that the KAF2 lens mount is making life difficult with non-A K-mount lenses (to me, it's a non-issue: I don't expect auto functions from 30 year-old lenses, I'm just happy they still work), users should be impressed with the overall increased AF speed, which is more responsive to color and temperature variations thanks to the new sensor, by taking the best of the 4 colors to find the strongest contrast. Aiming around the bakery, everything snapped into focus quickly. At one point, Michelle, Chris, and I looked for a way to initiate the new AF Assist light (on the front left of the camera), which shines bright and green in low light. With 1/8000 shutter speed, the camera does fast and bright easily, but how would it do in the dark? The bakery was too light, so we had to point the camera under the table and at a black bag. And then there was projected green light beaming from the camera. It doesn't overlay a grid, like some AF Assist flashes do, but it is a great improvement over requiring the pop-up flash to pulse, as in previous models. And while it wasn't a deal breaker, autofocus (with assist or without) would not work in movie mode (manual only).

While it wasn't on hand for me to see, Chris said that the new BG-4 grip was entirely new, just like the new K-7 battery. They will not be backwards compatible with older models. But you gain a lot of extra life (up to 900 shots), and the ability to use 6 AA batteries with the grip (via a special tray). The camera can auto-detect whether you're using Lithium, NiMH, or Alkaline (or you can tell it yourself via the menu) to optimize battery performance.

Conclusion

After an hour, I was surprised the time passed so quickly. Chris and Michelle were excellent hosts. I found the K-7 to be delightful to use (and quiet!) and I only wish that I had the chance to post-examine the pictures we were taking. However, this was an engineering sample, so I expect that Pentax was still looking to make improvements on overall image quality before it ships at the end of July. I'm not going to judge it unfairly until Pentax has deemed it ready for the real world. And then I'll be looking forward to getting my hands on one. In many respects, last year's K20D is still a wonderful camera, and at half the price of the K-7, it represents a fantastic deal until its sold out. But the K-7 represents the eagerness Pentax has to compete with all the new features their competitors are bringing to the field. I'm anxious to try it out and push some of my own personal boundaries. So if you've got the itch to drop more than $1000, start saving up, because this camera is on its way.

8 comments:

Sune said...

I like how they made it durable for even lower temperatures. The mindset of the camera is clear, this is a take-anywhere cam.

I love that they kept the sensor, really looking forward to it. (I have the K10 at the moment).

5.6FPS in RAW mode, sounds great.

Very interesting that they worked on the White Balance as well.

Wild that the sensor can be moved by the user.

A Good read

Miserere said...

Thanks Michael, this was a very useful review. I'm pleased to read about the improved high-ISO and AF performance.

Alunfoto said...

Michael,

Cross-posting from PDML, just in case. On the issue of crawlers doing autotranslations, take a look at this site for how the crawlers work:

http://www.robotstxt.org/

Hope this can be of some help.

Jostein

Michael said...

Jostein, thanks for your help. I appreciate it.

Unfortunately, my site is dynamically served by Google/Blogger, and consequently I don't have the ability to upload a robots txt file unless I publish to a hosted web server. If I ever did use a host server for this site, I'd likely switch to Word Press, too. But it's not a switch I can do without a lot of planning, so that won't be happening any time soon.

johnami said...

Thanks for the interesting and informative read. Still a few weeks before this body is on the market. I hope this gives enough time to the Pentax boys to sort out the software.
A real opinion of the K7 can only be given once a 'good driver' is installed. ;-)

Cheese

Anonymous said...

So after several weeks using the K-7, I fail to see what the improvement is with this new sensor over the one in my K20. What I've seen is actually slightly more noise from the K-7 (jpeg shooting) and what appears to be less dynamic range as well. My concert pictures now suffer from blown-out highlights that never happened previously in similar lighting situations/camera settings with the K20. I'm asking this at the time when Canon now comes out with their new 18mp APS-C sensor in the 7D that seems to best the D300 in high ISO noise levels. Puzzled.

mkarwin said...

well all they need is add some kind of 16-2xx f/4 da* or da wr lens for the camera to be even better stunner, as for the moment it's kind of a weird creature - while pixelpeeping and even just cropping and pc/tv screen admiration shows the noise to be slightly weeker than k20d (not to mention c/n/s counterparts), the prints do hide this weakness a bit... heh, weird that hoya or pentax still haven't found resources/talent to make a special kit lens (comparable to c18-200 in c50d or n18-200 in nd300 kit sets) - weather sealing, sdm and the hyperzoomrange in a single lens would make it better than the 2 lens kit now on offer (maybe not 100% optically but in usage, 1lens solution would work better in challenging weather conditions).

John said...

I am not at all experienced with a digital camera,so I need some serious replies please.I have a seven year old who is very active in sports and want to capture every moment I can.I would like to find something with great claity,super zoom,easy to use and a great price.Can someone please offer me some ideas.
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