You might be wondering why a web site such as SeriousCompacts.com is featuring a review of a digital SLR camera like the Pentax K5? After all, are we not compact camera users? Did we not throw our heavy, bloated, expensive, cannonball-sized DLSR cameras overboard in favor of cameras that can go where we go, when we go, every time? Well, the reality for many of us is that while we might be fans of compact cameras many of us still own and use DSLR cameras when needed for various reasons and many of us who no longer own a DSLR but may have owned one in the past and know of their capabilities and potential for making great (maybe even spectacular) photographs.
Okay, so I can already hear people grumbling about the fact that 4/3rd and micro 4/3rd cameras have been around for awhile and are as small (if not smaller) than the K5. This is may be true however, the K5 is very close in size to cameras like the Panasonic GH2 and other 4/3 cameras that are similar in shape to a standard DLSR design. The important thing to realize here is that the K5 offers features that 4/3 cameras do not usually have such as a true viewfinder (no EVF here), a well proven design and interface, a medium-sized CMOS sensor, Pentax lens compatibility (which are arguably some of the finest lens made), and a weather-sealed body. I decided to review this camera because, while size and weight are still two very important variables for me when deciding which camera to take, image quality and speed are equally important at times and since I own a single camera (a Ricoh GRD3 at the time of writing this review) I know I will need to round out my camera range and a DLSR beckons in the not too distant future. The Pentax K5 is what I would call a bridge-camera between two worlds.
The Pentax K5 sports a 16.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, a 920,000 pixel LCD screen, and all of the various features, settings, and shooting modes you would expect from a DLSR. The camera also features a number user-customizable options. In fact, just about every button and function on the camera can be customized and set-up exactly how you like. A DSLR camera though can really only be fully measured by evaluating the camera in combination with the lens you use. After all, the lens is what dictates image quality to a large degree. For this review, I used a Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited Lens and a Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited Lens both of which are superb lens and with the 1.5X crop factor of the sensor, gave me a range of 31.5mm to 52.5mm. The camera body comes with the basics (body cap, neck strap, manual, battery and charger, plus AV and USB cables). The street price for the K5 is $1,350 USD (plus lens).
The K5 is a very solid camera (a small cannonball if you will). Holding the camera feels very comfortable and with either of my two test lens, the camera was well balanced. Yes, it is a bit on heavy side when compared to a compact camera but it much lighter than my Canon 5D ever was. One thing about the size though, the body is on the petite side when compared to other DSLRs (including consumer models from the likes of Canon and Nikon). The grip feels good but I can see where someone with large hands would not have a place for their pinky finger (it would naturally slide under the body when gripping the camera). Again, this was not a problem for me but those with large hands may want to try a K5 first and see if this will be a problem.
Size not withstanding, everything else on the camera (dials, buttons, etc.) are placed logically and in natural positions for effortless shooting. In fact, you will find the LCD screen and all of the controls to be roughly the same size as any other class-leading DSLR. The set-up and menu screens are well organized and easy to navigate. I particularly liked the level of customization one has in assigning or reassigning various functions to buttons and such. This is no small feat and Pentax really has nailed the ergonomics of how DSLRs should be designed.
The other great feature of the K5 is that it is weather-sealed. What this actually means is that it is essentially waterproof to a certain depth for a certain period of time (I was not able to get the actual numbers on this from Pentax) however, I have seen videos of people taking the K5 into the shower with them and firing off shots, submersing it entirely in a tub of water and shooting while submerged, and someone even took it snorkeling and made photos with the camera underwater for periods of time. All of this without any ill effect. Just towel it off and you’re good to go. To be frank, I’m more interested in how the camera would perform in wet weather (I rarely make photos while showering) and I would have absolutely no problem using this camera in rain or snow. There is currently no camera on the market that has full weather sealing under $5,000 USD (body only) so to find this kind of feature in a camera priced under $1400 is incredible and a very attractive feature.
In the Field
All of this attention paid to the user experience by Pentax has resulted in a camera that is actually a joy to use. It is very fast and very responsive. The weight and physical size of the camera made it easy to carry around my neck without any fatigue and I frequently wrapped the neck strap around my wrist and carried the camera hanging down from my hand (something that was very difficult to do with my Canon 5D for long periods of time due to the weight).
As I mentioned, all of the controls are well laid out on the camera and I was able to quickly and easily customize the buttons for my preferred set-up. The LCD is bright and of a high resolution. The viewfinder is huge (almost 100% coverage) and bright. I’ve gotten used to using the LCD with compact cameras (and can do this as well with the K5) however the viewfinder is really quite nice and I enjoyed using it even it if it was a bit like riding a bike after several years of not doing so.
Focusing with this camera in autofocus mode is lightning fast (sorry, no numbers here but it blows the Canon 5D out of the water). I also found it easy to do both manual focus as well as zone focusing. The lens for the K5 are built like little tanks (all metal) and have engraved markings for distance settings on the barrel (something you usually only find with Leica lens these days) which made it very easy to zone focus the lens for different situations. Because many of the photos I took for this review were action photos, I also used the continuous shooting mode and was equally happy with the write-speed of the K5 with RAW files.
In actual use, the K5 was a lot of fun to use, so much so that my wife kept giving me a worried look because I was enjoying myself so much this camera, she described me as giddy at one point . . . a sign that a possible purchase might be around the corner I guess. An important thing for me though is whether the camera becomes invisible to me as I’m making photos. In others words, do I forget about the camera as I work so that I can focus on my photography and not the gear and although the K5 is indeed a DSLR and is bigger and heavier than my Ricoh GRD3, for example, I have to truly say this camera (while not entirely outside of my consciousness) would be a camera I could use on a regular basis for my photographic work. That said, due to the size and weight, the K5 would still not be the type of camera that I would carry around with me on a daily basis in my bag.
Well all of the great features, handling, etc. don’t mean anything unless the image quality is there and the K5 again comes up as not just competent in this area but on par with the image quality of much more expensive cameras and even rivals cameras that sport full-frame sensors (in my opinion). Yes, image quality is also a matter of the lens you use however, once you are a part of the Pentax family, you will also be using some of the best glass ever produced.
All of the photos in this article were made using available light (no flash). I used Lightroom 3.0 to edit the photos where I used the auto feature to adjust exposure and white balance. No other editing was done to these photos. As you can see from the photos, the K5 did an excellent job not only with color rendition but the metering. The metering on the K5 was very accurate and was able to balance backlighted situations with proper exposure of my subjects. The color out of the camera was also spot on (shooting in RAW).
Below are photos made at a local soapbox derby race which happens every year just around the corner from my house. Most of these photos were shot using continuous shooting mode using the Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited Lens:
Below are photos made at a festival. Most of these photos were shot using continuous shooting mode with the Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited Lens:
The Pentax K5 is truly an excellent camera. Sure, it may not be a compact camera by our definition, however, the K5 is smaller than most DSLRs and goes head-to-head with any professional DSLR camera out there today (including full-frame cameras) for image quality. It is also hard to nail down the competition for this camera. The obvious suspects are other DSLR cameras at the mid and high-range (Canon and Nikon come to mind easily enough) but I can see the K5 giving the M4/3 cameras out there a run as well. Granted, the price tag is higher (by almost $600 or more on average) however you get a lot of camera for the money.
The big question for me is would I buy a K5 and the answer is most definitely yes . . . if I was looking for a DLSR camera that is. I still want, need, and use compact cameras for most of my work so a DSLR would just sit in the bag at home most of the time unless I had a particular project that I needed it for (or for a truly weather-sealed camera). If you are looking for a compact DSLR, the K5 is definitely worth considering.
Paul Giguere is a photographer based in the United States. His current focus is on social documentary photographic projects that show the positive aspects of society and community. He is the host of the podcast Thoughts on Photography (www.thoughtsonphotography.com) and you can also visit his personal web site at: www.paulgiguere.com. -Amin
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