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Monday, February 28, 2011

Hands-On with the Pentax K-r

Text and images by Melanie Beus

Announced on September 9, 2010, the K-r is the new entry-level DSLR, designed with the new user in mind. The design and features are aimed towards the person who is beginning with their first DSLR experience from a point and shoot style of camera. The K-r features many of the settings and modes familiar to the point and shoot photographer, as well as the basic, more manual types of settings found on DSLRs aimed at advanced users.
The K-r is essentially the replacement body for the K-x, but as both cameras are geared for the new DSLR user, to say that the K-r is intended to be an upgrade for current K-x users would not be entirely accurate. It is still the step between compact cameras and the more advanced DSLR body. Keeping this in mind, while some comparisons to the K-x will be made where there are obvious new features added, point-by-point comparisons between the two cameras will not be made.

Read the Full Review after the jump...

First Impressions

This is a rather small and lightweight DSLR. As with other cameras in its class, it has the convenience of a point and shoot with the image quality of a good DSLR. There are several scene modes to choose from, with multiple customization options within those modes for some basic control over what the camera is doing. However, when giving control over to the camera to make decisions on how to expose, it seems to be making good decisions usually results in a quality image.

Manual mode is very easy to use: the E-dial controls shutter, iso has dedicated button, then EV button controls aperture. Other modes are similarly controlled--with the rear e-dial and use of the EV/AV button.

There are also some things that could be better designed. The most noticable negative point is that the shutter could be much quieter. While shooting with it in a museum, the sound of the shutter was literally echoing throughout the room. There is also only one remote control reciever, on the front of the body, which can make tripod shooting with the use of a remote a bit cumbersome.

But in spite of these two points, this is a very nice, and deceptively powerful little camera. One feature that Pentax consistantly includes with their cameras that carry scene modes, is that when a scene mode is selected, there is a brief description of what that mode aims to accomplish. This is a fantastic feature, especially for those who are new to photography, or to cameras that give them multiple options, as one is not required to refer back to the manual to determine the use of the various modes. This feature is also found in Pentax compact cameras.

What's New

New features from the K-x include an improved AF systems with the SAFOX IX with 11 focusing points, an additional white balance preset setting, addition of high-speed sync flash mode, increased continuous mode shooting speed of 6fps, rear lcd screen increased to 3 inches (up from 2.7 in the K-x) and the addition of superimposed AF points in the viewfinder.

One obvious change from the K-x is the battery configuration. While the K-x operated solely on the use of AAs, the K-r comes provided with a proprietary lithium-ion battery that fits into the same compartment that can also hold AAs with the use of an adaptor. The adaptor is available for separate purchase.

Battery Compartment

Another change from the K-x is the addition in the K-r of an AF assist light. This light kicks on with a green beam of light, when attempting to use autofocus in extreme low light. The light comes on when the shutter button is depressed half-way in engaging the auto-focus. It can also be turned off in AF-S mode (Custom Menu page 2, option 11).

AF Assist Light

A fun new feature in the K-r is the ability to exchange image data with other devices via infrared transmission. Data can be transferred between K-r cameras or other devices that support this type of transmission, such as cell phones. There is even a "Dueling Images" game that can be played between two K-r cameras using the IR transmission.

Slow shutter speed noise reduction can be turned off for exposures longer than 30 seconds, a feature shared with the K-5.

High ISO noise reduction is customizable for each individual ISO setting, or the same setting can be used throughout, or the camera can be allowed to determine the amount of noise reduction based on the ISO value, sensor temperature, and other factors, a feature also shared with the K-5.

Auto-focus function is customizable. AF-S and AF-C can be customized to focus-priority (shutter cannot be released unless the subject is in focus) or release-priority (shutter can be released even if the subject is not in focus), another feature also found in the K-5.

Cross Processing, a JPEG output feature, simulates the cross-processing effect of developing color film in the wrong kind of developer for that particular film. When selecting cross-processing, there are three presets and random (for a little serendipity in your photography). Each image will come out a little differently. When a desired result is achieved, the settings can be saved for future use. Up to three custom settings can be stored. The purpose behind this feature is rather unclear as it seems that similar results can be achieved by application of the various digital filters, with their wide range of customizing ability.

HDR capture capabilities have been enhanced with Auto-Align, a feature that can correct for minor misalignment of the images used in the HDR creation in the event that the shots are taken handheld. Night-scene HDR uses setting optimized for low-light exposure when capturing the images to be combined into the final HDR image.

Auto-Align Off

Auto-Align On

Auto-Align On, HDR High

Other Exciting Features

Backwards Compatibility: As with every Pentax body, the K-r is compatible with every Pentax K-mount lens made, dating back to the 1970s. Older screw-mount (m42) lenses can be used with an adaptor.

Scene modes on mode dial: The most commonly used scene modes are selectable right on the mode dial on the top of the camera. This makes for a quick selection of optimized settings for modes used most frequently: Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object, and Night Scene Portrait.

Lens Correction: Like the K-5, the K-r has the ability to correct for lens distortion and lateral aberration in all DA, SA L, D, FA and select FA lenses. The corrections are applied directly to jpg files. In RAW files the information is applied automatically by the Digital Camera Utility software in post-processing.

Dynamic Range Adjustment: The dynamic range in the K-x can be expanded to give better coverage in both shadows and highlights. Changing the dynamic range, however, will change the lowest and/or highest ISO level attainable. Below are some examples of results from the various D-range settings.

D-Range normal

Highlight Correct On

Highlight Corrction On, Shadow Correction On Med

Highlight Corrction Off, Shadow Correction on Med

Digital Filters: These fall into the category of "a lot of fun." They can be applied to the image while shooting when the camera is set in JPEG capture, or can be applied after the fact when shooting in both JPEG and RAW capture modes. Each filter also has multiple customizing features to create a truly unique image. Some examples are below (not including starburst, which is also greatly customizable). All filtered images were created from one image with the filters applied after the shot was taken.

No Filter Applied
Toy Camera
Retro - shifted to blue
High Contrast
Water Color
Color Extract (two colors selected)

What's in the Box

The K-r comes packaged with the usual assortment of accessories typical for a DSLR camera:

  • Camera Body
  • Body Cap
  • Rechargeable lithium ion battery
  • USB Cable
  • Battery Charger
  • AC plug cord for charger
  • Software CD-ROM
  • Camera strap

What's in the Box

The sample used for the review was part of the 35mm kit and included the DA 35mm f2.4 AL with front and rear caps.

What's NOT in the box:

  • AA battery adapter
  • Memory Card

It is important to note that the camera body carries no internal memory storage so acquiring a card prior to shooting is essential.

Getting Started

It is recommended, that while unboxing the K-r for the first time, to leave the packaging as intact as possible in the unlikely event that a return may be necessary. Also, as with any complex electronic device, reading the manual before using is highly recommended. It's a good idea to become familiar with all the buttons and external features of any new camera, as doing so will not only help learning their uses, but also establish a language in common with the manual.

>External Controls

When the K-r is first turned on it will ask for language, date, and time information to be set up. Copyright and photographer information can also be established.

While in shooting mode, the back screen will display basic shooting/exposure information. In order to quickly change setting, a press of the info button will reveal a grid with options to choose from to change. Options can be changed by either using the scroll wheel to change the options within a selection, or using the 4-way controller to make a selection, press, okay, and change the options within the menu for that selection.

If one has never shot a DSLR before, the basics, with a camera such as this, are simple really. The user can simple put the camera in AutoPict mode and let the camera do all the work. Depressing the shutter half-way down will engage the autofocus like most point and shoots, and when the focus is confirmed, pressing the shutter the rest of the way down will result in a picture. After mastering the location of the controls and becoming familiar with the camera, reading the manual with camera in hand will familiarize the user with the various functions and controls, and the use of the more user-controlled settings such as AV, TV, SV and M modes.

Recommended Settings

With the seemingly limitless combinations and personalization of the K-r possible, it's difficult to recommend settings, as shooting styles can be highly personal. There are, however, a few settings that are recommended. First, to take advantage of all the K-r offers in terms of it's great low-light capabilities, in page 1 of the custom menu, option 3 is Expanded Sensitivity. Change this to choice 2:Expanded Sensativy On. This will enable ISO sensitivity from 100 to 25600. When this is on 1: Off, the ISO range is limited to 200 to 12800

Another recommended setting is to change the Aperture Ring to "allowed." This is in the custom menu, page 4, option 22 (choice 2). This will allow the use of the aperture ring of older lenses to work to control exposure when not set on "A".

In the Custom Menu, page 3, option 16, is the setting "Release While Charging." It is recommended to set this choice 2, "on," allowing for the shutter to release while the flash is still charging. Otherwise, if the flash is not fully charge, there is no picture-taking capability.

Overall Image Quality

There is really nothing to complain about here. The camera renders colors quite true-to-life, with output in JPEG and RAW in two formats (proprietary PEF and DNG format), or RAW+JPEG. They are sharp and clear, and there is really no discernable difference between the quality of images shot at ISO 100 and ISO 200 as can be seen in the examples below, both shot JPEG, custom setting natural, SV priority. ISO 100, however, does seem to pull out just slightly more detail in the shadowed areas comparet to ISO 200. If there is any difference in the highlight areas, it is not easily discernable.

ISO 100

ISO 200

The JPEG output is customizable to the shooter's perferred look with several settings, with further adjustments that can be made within those settings. Raw images can be developed in-camera using the same output settings available for shooting.

Custom Image settings

Bleach Bypass
Reversal Film
Natural +2saturation +1contrast +2sharpness

Autofocus: AF Speed and Accuracy Testing

The following video clips demonstrate the new SAFOX IV Autofocus system with both a DA* lens that utilized the SDM AF motor, and a DA lens that utilizes the screw-driven motor. Focusing mode was AF-A, letting the camera choose between AF-S and AF-C. The camera was set on single point spot focusing, with the point set to the center of the frame. The subject matter being focused on was a an object with a decent amount of contrast, but in a indoor, not very bright, setting.

Demonstration of AF Speed with SDM Lens

Demonstration of AF Speed with Screw-drive Lens

Neither style of lens caused the camera to hunt, however it did seem that the SDM lens would find the focus and lock on slightly faster than would the screw-drive lens.

The final AF video clip is shot through the viewfinder, to demonstrate the speed at which the image is brought into focus and the point on the image at which the focus is aimed. Single point focusing is used. Following the video is the resultant image. As can be seen, the spot at which the AF confirmation dot was located is the spot of the image that is in focus. Aperture for this image was f/4.

Demonstration of AF Speed and Accuracy

Resulting Image


While a comprehensive test of accuracy and speed are difficult to undertake as to the tests easily being prone to user error, the K-r with a DA 55-300 lens mounted was used while shooting a youth (U-19 Boys) recreational soccer game, along side a K20D with a DA* 50-135/2.8 lens and a K-7 with a Sigma 70-200/2.8 HSM lens. An overall feel for the speed and accuracy of AF-C mode was obtained. The K-r outperformed the K20D easily, and seemed to yield a better rate of in-focus images than the K-7. This is difficult to quantify, however, as the nature of the subject being photographed is prone to user error and inaccuracies. These comments are based on the general impression of the performance of the camera based on field-use.

Shot Using AF-C in Continuous Shooting Mode

High ISO and Noise Reduction

The K-r features a higher ISO range than previous models, and as such can shoot at higher ISO settings with lower or acceptable amounts of noise than previous models. Out of the box, the camera is set to reach ISO 12800, but can be set to extended ISO, reaching up to 25600 (see recommended settings).

High ISO Noise Reduction: Up to 3200 noise reduction is really not needed. Even at 6400,the resultant images are more pleasing without it. Above 6400, it's a draw. There is definitely less noise with the in-camera noise reduction on, but there is reduced detail as well. High NR at 12800 resulted in a smoother image, less noise, but again, less detail as well. Using in-camera noise reduction at the higher ISO settings should be at the user's discretion.

NR Auto ISO 1600
NR Auto ISO 3200
NR Auto ISO 6400
NR Auto ISO 12800
NR Auto ISO 25600
NR Off ISO 25600
NR Off ISO 12800
NR Off ISO 6400
NR Off ISO 3200
NR Off ISO 1600
NR High ISO 25600

Generally speaking, with each generation of camera, high-ISO performance improves. The K-r is no exception to that generalization. Images shot at ISO 3200 are very pleasing with good detail. Images at 6400 are quite usable. Of course the noise level increases as one goes up the ISO scale, as is expected, but the bar between usable image and non-usable image, is pushed higher with each generation.

ISO 3200
ISO 3200
ISO 3200
ISO 5000
ISO 6400
ISO 3200

In-camera HDR

In camera HDR can be achieved in two different ways: Engaging the in-camera HDR capture mode and letting the camera create the final HDR image (see previous example with auto-align enabled) or with the application of the HDR digital filter to a single image after it is taken. With the selection of HDR capture, various levels, or auto can be chosen to vary the effect of the HDR image. Having the camera build the HDR image from the three it takes results in a generally more pleasing image at the lower levels. Since the process is automated, there is no human judgement in blending the image. Thus, at the higher levels of HDR, the image tends to become washed out and overly low in contrast. The HDR filter applied to an image after it is shot, creates a look that is somewhat choppier, with harder contrast edges, than using the HDR function, but can create some interesting and artistic effects.

HDR Auto
HDR Normal
HDR Medium
HDR High
HDR Digital Filter

Movie/Video Mode

The K-r is essentially a digital still camera that does movies. As such, the primary focus of this camera's abilities are in the production of still images. The movie function in the K-r is not much changed from it's predecessor, the K-x, with the exception of recording at about 25fps, compared to the K-x's 24fps. Custom Image, Cross Processing, and Digital Filters can all be applied while recording. Sound recording is monoaural and there is no place to plug in an external microphone, so sound recording while recording video is limited to what the in-camera microphone can pick up. As with previous models, the autofocus system does not engage during recording so all changes to focus once recording has started must be done manually. Again, it is prudent to remember that the K-r is a still camera that has an additional movie mode and not necessarily intended to be primarily a video camera. For serious video shooters it is best to consider the use of a dedicated video recorder.


The Pentax K-r is an excellent entry-level DSLR, effectively bridging the gap between point and shoot compact cameras and higher-end, more advanced DSLRs. It gives the user the choice of a variety of automatic modes, designed for a wide variety of shooting, in an easily understood and accessed format, and the ability to shoot in more manual, user-controlled style. The image quality produced by the K-r are high quality and pleasing. While this camera is aimed at first-time DSLR users, it packs plenty of power and tools to for the more advanced photographer to achieve stunning results as well. The K-r would make a nice second camera for an advanced photographer, to serve as a more compact "grab and go" camera, when the advanced features of a higher end DSLR are not necessarily needed. It is easy to use, yet sufficiently flexible to appeal to a wide-range of users.

A multitude of accessories are available for use with the K-r. A list and description of such has been compiled in the review of the K-5. Please see Pentax K-5 Review for a discussion.

A variation of this article was first published at

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