The Pentax K-7 marks something of a turning point for the company's dSLR division. Once a company that scrambled to catch up with its rivals (recall their late-to-the-party *ist D), with the K-7 Pentax vaulted momentarily to the head of the "prosumer" dSLR market. It has already been given the Camera of the Year award by at least one major photography magazine, and has turned a lot of heads toward a brand they otherwise might never have heard of. Offering a lightweight magnesium-alloy body, full weather sealing, HD video, small profile, and a new range of matched, weather-resistant kit lenses, as well as a bevy of new controls and shooting modes, the K-7 made a splash just when the company needed it most. Let's see if it's worth the hype.
Design and Ergonomics
Ergonomics have always been a strong point for Pentax dSLRs and the K-7 is no exception. Though small by semi-pro standards, the camera fit comfortably even in my big hands. The excellent construction is immediately apparent, with a density and solidity that is lightyears away from what you'd find in any entry-level camera, or even in the vast majority of its semi-pro competitors. You can feel the metal frame beneath the polycarbonate skin and there is virtually no flex on any area of the body. The grip is deep and has a finger notch just where it needs to be.
Pentax has addressed the concerns of many K10D and K20D owners by adding several welcome physical features to the K-7, including dedicated ISO and white balance buttons. Instead of the four-way control dial found on the previous models, the K-7 sports four individual buttons with direct-press functions (which used to be buried in menus). The mode dial has been upgraded with a central lock button that must be pressed in order to turn the dial and change modes. This prevents unintentional shooting-mode changes when you're pulling the camera out of its bag, for instance. An autofocus-assist lamp has finally been added, projecting a bright green beam when the camera tries to focus in low-light.
The rear LCD is a marvel. The 920,000-pixel IPS panel offers excellent clarity. In shooting mode, it offers a heads-up display with all of the relevant shooting settings highlighted. The screen's behavior can also be customized if you don't like the constant info display. The top LCD has also been improved, displaying more information including ISO setting and horizon leveling. Finally, the viewfinder is much improved over its ancestors, with 100% frame coverage (what you see is what you get) and 92% magnification. Like its predecessors, the K-7's focusing screen is excellent for manual focusing and further supports Pentax's excellent reverse compatibility with legacy manual-focus lenses.
The optional D-BG4 vertical battery grip is another impressive piece of work, allowing the photographer to use either AA or the camera's proprietary lithium batteries. It also includes dual dials, an AF button, Pentax's signature "green button" for metering with manual lenses, and an AE-lock button as well as the traditional vertical shutter release. Like the body, the grip is weather-sealed and incorporates magnesium alloy into its construction.
Menus and Handling
Pentax is often criticized for a user interface that seems perpetually stuck in the late 1990s. With the K2000, this began to change, and with the K-7 they've shifted utilitarian menu design. Unlike Pentax menus of yore, the options are broken up into several "pages" per section to avoid vertical scrolling, and gone are abbreviated options like "Swtch dst msr pt" in favor of complete words. As usual, the "custom menu" section is riddled with options to tweak the camera's behavior, from setting sensitivity and EV steps to manipulating the behavior of various buttons and dials. An adventure through the mammoth manual might be in order to decipher some of these, but on the whole they're fairly self-explanatory.
Shooting with the camera is as intuitive as can be, though users migrating from earlier Pentax dSLRs will have to acclimate to the lack of left-side buttons and new placement for the EV-compensation and green buttons. The dual dials, common to all pro and most semi-pro cameras, make changing aperture, shutter speed, or ISO setting a breeze. The displays on both the top and rear LCDs are bright and informative, meaning you never have to dig to figure out what settings you have selected.
Long-time Pentax users and newcomers alike should appreciate the K-7's improved performance. The autofocus speed is much faster, especially in poor lighting, though it's still not quite on a level with competing Canon or Nikon models. The continuous shooting rate is also much faster, shooting full-resolution images at up to 5.2 frames per second in burst mode, for 40 JPEGs or 15 RAW files. (As a reference, Canon's T1i performs at 3.4fps while the pricier 50D shoots at 6.3fps; over in Nikon-land, the D90 captures 4.5fps, and the far more expensive D300 pulls in 6fps.)
Overall the K-7 is quick and responsive, rarely hunting for focus and hardly ever failing to lock on when the subject is in range. The K-7's new shutter has been redesigned to accommodate this faster rate and fires in as little as 1/6000th of a second. This means that shooters will more likely to be able to capture creative depth of field effects in bright sunlight, and will also be a big plus for sports shooters. It's also whisper-quiet, which will be a boon to wildlife shooters and will help with candid portrait-taking. It's particularly impressive in low light and as with any dSLR, shutter lag is negligible.
A few new additions to the shooting experience are quite helpful. One is a built-in leveling meter that can be accessed through the viewfinder or the top LCD panel to gauge if the horizon is straight. Another is composition adjustment, which is accomplished by physically moving the sensor via the camera's in-body shake-reduction mechanism. When the camera is mounted on a tripod and live view is activated, this function can be used to correct composition in lieu of recomposing, by physically aiming the camera—it's quick and intuitive and frankly, a brilliant addition.
Live view itself is a disappointment (though you'd be hard-pressed to find any dSLR with a truly usable live-view mode). The autofocus method is slow and clunky, only really appropriate for tripod work with stationary subjects. Part of the K-7's autofocus troubles lie in the primary imaging sensor and contrast-detect autofocus for live view, while some competitors use a dedicated, secondary live-view sensor that is specifically designed to provide fast phase-detection autofocus. However, live-view mode is quite brilliant when using a manual focus lens, thanks to the rear LCD's high resolution.
The K-7 carries a subtle redesign of the K20D's 14.6-megapixel Samsung CMOS sensor, so the image quality isn't revelatory, but it is very, very good. Up to roughly ISO 800, image quality is excellent, easily the equal of any of its competitors, with lifelike color and a smooth look. However, like its predecessor, the K-7 has issues with apparent noise above ISO 800. Continuing Pentax's long tradition in this regard, the camera tends to preserve image detail at the expense of higher noise levels, eschewing the aggressive in-camera noise reduction used by other brands. In fact, testing has shown that the K-7 preserves some of the best high-ISO detail in its class. While this leads to noisier out-of-the-camera results, these issues can be managed by shooting in RAW format and post-processing.
Another major improvement in the K-7 when compared with previous models is the automatic white balance (AWB). Pentax dSLRs have had a nasty habit of producing a strong yellow cast under incandescent light. This problem has been fixed in the K-7, which offers "subtle" and "strong" correction settings for "AWB in Tungsten Light." In my testing, these settings worked fabulously to give correct color reproduction even under the most difficult lighting conditions.
Pentax has introduced a number of innovative in-camera processing options with the K-7, the most interesting of which is the in-camera HDR function. This option records three bracketed exposures and combines them (with either a "standard" or a "strong" setting) for a result with a greatly expanded dynamic range. Since the HDR mode is only available shooting in JPEG format, you'll need a tripod to get the best result—shooting handheld may result in a set of images with slight differences that will lead to blurred edges or "ghosting" when they are combined.
The camera also offers in-camera-distortion and chromatic-aberration corrections. These modes post-process shots to remove barrel or pincushion geometric distortion, as well as lateral purple fringing for images taken using Pentax DA- or D-FA-series lenses. It's worth noting, however, that these modes reduce the effectiveness of the 100% viewfinder (as distortion corrections may subtly crop the image) and slow down continuous shooting (due to the brainpower required to process the images).
High-definition video is a new addition to the company's dSLR line, and the K-7 performs as well as any other manufacturer's dSLRs in this respect. In addition to its standard 16:9-aspect 720p shooting mode, the camera offers an odd-duck, 3:2-aspect, 1536 x 1024 pixel mode, sort of like a squared-off 1080p picture. Both modes record at 30fps but not the film-like (and more desirable) 24fps. The maximum video length is limited by the camera's SDHC storage media, whose FAT32 file system can only support files of up to 4GB in size.
Like many of its rivals, the K-7 does not offer autofocus in video mode. The aperture setting can be fixed before shooting begins or the camera can automatically decide. Obviously, when using manual focus lenses or AF lenses with physical aperture rings, the user can change the aperture on the fly. However, doing so will cause a slight shift in exposure (a sudden brightness or dimness) until the camera can compensate. The camera's in-body shake reduction system can be used with video recording, and does a good job of minimizing the infamous "jello effect" caused by the CMOS sensor's rolling shutter. Unlike many of its rivals, the K-7 offers a jack for an external stereo mic in addition to its onboard mono audio recording, as well as an HDMI-out jack.
In short, the K-7 is a revolutionary leap forward for Pentax's dSLR line, and perhaps the first camera to put the company on an even footing with its rivals. It offers improvements in most major areas and has class-leading specs in several key categories. Though the MSRP for the body-only kit was $1,299, street prices have already dropped down around $1000, shuffling it into the same price range as the Canon 50D or the Nikon D90. Image quality is great from base to ISO 800. The 720p video mode is among the best in its class—check the professional-looking movies scattered across YouTube and Vimeo for evidence. The ergonomics and build quality are simply unparalleled at this price point, and the weather-sealing and metal body are a godsend to rugged, outdoorsy types.
The K-7 still has its faults—high ISO images could stand to be smoother (though they retain great detail), the live view is virtually useless, and the video mode lacks autofocus and many manual controls. But all things considered, this is really a remarkable little package that offers a unique combination of features not found in any other camera in the same price ballpark. If you're going prosumer, strongly consider the Pentax K-7.