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Home / Photography / DSLR Cameras

Pentax K-7 Review

By Mike Perlman, Thursday 16 July 2009
GALLERY
Pentax K-7
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Pentax K-7
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Pentax K-7
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Pentax K-7
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Pentax K-7
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Pentax K-7
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The wait is finally over for our comprehensive Pentax K-7 review, complete with RAW image and HD video samples. Can Pentax's new commander-in-chief lead the pack with valor? Read on to find out.

Review summary of the Pentax K-7:
Scoreboard »      Features »      Side-by-side »      Gallery »
Pentax K-7 The big bad Pentax K-7 has surfaced upon the infoSync shores, and we’re here to tell you that the tides of time have brought many impressive features and slightly improved image quality to the company’s current lineup of intermediate/semi-professional DSLRs. The K-7 was one of the most feature-rich DSLRs we’ve ever tested, with an interface that made shooting much more enjoyable than the average bear. We felt as though the well never ran dry when it came time to compose our shots, and we’re sure there are still a few untapped features lying within the K-7 that we just didn’t have time to discover during the course of our photographic adventure. RAW image quality was highly impressive, and we feel as though the K-7 is the company’s best representation of how a DSLR in this class should perform. The HD video mode still needs to be tweaked, but we managed to capture a few excellent clips to prove that Pentax is on the right track, and can only improve on models to come. In this price range, not many models offer the specified level of advanced control offered by the K-7, but we feel as though the camera met its match in the image quality department with the Nikon D5000, which is currently the budget DSLR to beat this year. If you want oodles of features and highly amenable lens compatibility, then the Pentax K-7 is waiting in the wings. We were big fans of the Pentax K-7, and are not looking forward to sending the camera back. Release: July 2009. Price: $1300.
Pros: Great overall RAW image quality. Packed to the brim with features. Excellent lens compatibility. Cushy handling and advanced interface made shooting a delight.
Cons: Inconsistent HD video quality. Menu graphics could use a little sprucing up. Certain features like HDR mode require more effort than expected.
Poor
Mediocre
Good
87%
VERY GOOD
Excellent
Full Pentax K-7 Review:
Design – Very Good

When the long-awaited Pentax K-7 fell into our clutches for a more prolonged stretch of testing, we were reminded of its uncannily rugged construction and significant heft. Built to be weather resistant and extra durable, the Pentax K-7 endured rogue splashes from a frothy fountain and even withstood a few gravitational plunges. We were able to roll around in the dirt and weeds with the Pentax K-7 without being steeped in apprehension. Pentax went with a magnesium alloy shell that housed a stainless steel chassis and tacked on hefty rubberized port enclosures that featured sealing gaskets to minimize foreign particle intrusion. Why magnesium alloy? Well, in the motorcycle world, magnesium is known to be lightweight and durable. Although the Pentax K-7 tipped the scales at over a pound and a half without the lens, the magnesium shell softened the blow a bit. We can't wait until Titanium becomes more popular in the DSLR world, but that would require some serious benjamins.

Architecturally, the Pentax K-7 felt like a K-20D and K2000 hybrid, offering comfort with the chiseled right hand grip and ultimate traction with the textured rubberized paneling. In fact, Pentax festooned the K-7 with rubberized panels in more than one location, including the left grip side and rear thumb rest. Everything on this camera felt solid, and we had no major issues on the handling front. The plastic pop-up flash and battery hatch did feel a trifle cheap, but the remainder of the K-7's body was like a boulder. To prevent the battery hatch from inadvertently springing open, we had to lift and turn a small tab. Even the battery hatch door featured a weatherproof gasket, and the SD/SDHC card door had a large rubberized panel that sealed the slot snugly. We liked the soft compound of the viewfinder cushion, and the Pentax K-7 was riddled with external controls, which we'll tackle in the next section.

The Pentax K-7 also brought a few coolness factors to the table. The top-mounted LCD screen actually lit up a bright green, allowing us to view our parameters and settings at night. In addition, the K-7 featured faux leather strap grommet covers that enhanced style and omitted the bare look of a gleaming metal hinge. The Pentax K-7's included neck strap was not professional grade, but it was still comfortable to use, thanks to the smooth textured inlay and medium width. The Pentax K-7 was a stealth machine that handled like a loaded Cadillac compared to other contenders in its class, and the camera did not give us much to complain about.

Interface – Very Good

This is one of the realms in which the Pentax K-7 succeeded in kicking serious behind, for the camera offered one of the best interfaces we've ever seen on a DSLR in this price range. First off, the Pentax K-7 gave us oodles of external controls and buttons that we actually used. Take the ISO button, for example. All we had to do was tap it and use the thumb dial to instantly set the sensitivity without having to delve into a convoluted system of menus. The Pentax K-7 had a White Balance button that belonged to the four-way directional pad and a separate Exposure Compensation button that functioned the same way as the ISO button. The four-way directional pad even offered a Color Mode quick function that enabled us to adjust saturation, hue, sharpness and a slew of other options, including presets, on a whim. We especially liked the Mode dial because it could not be shifted unless the center unlock button was pressed. At first, this was a royal pain in rear, but the Mode dial never wandered into unwanted territory, which happens so often when a camera is tossed into a bag.

The conjunction of the front and rear control dials made adjusting Shutter Speed and Aperture a breeze, and the Pentax K-7's Function menu provided an adequate view of our adjustments. Although the K-7's menu system was identical to the Pentax K2000's we were still able to navigate with ease. The Pentax K-7 had an Auto Rotate function that rotated images and menus according to the orientation of the camera and Playback mode packed in a plethora of image information down to the focal length. Canon's menu structures are still the menu interfaces to beat, and we think Pentax could have stepped it up in terms of the K-7's menu graphics. However, they were functional and got the job done, which is all that matters at the end of the day.

The Pentax K-7 also had Live View, which was great for setting up the composition of a shot and then switching over to the optical viewfinder to snap away. The best part about the viewfinder was that it was 100% field of view, so we were able to frame our shots perfectly. The resolution in Live View was impressive, thanks to the Pentax K-7's 921,000-pixel LCD resolution. We also liked the fact that Pentax slapped a giant 3-inch screen on the back of the K-7. The screen not only provided a very sharp display, but it resisted solarizing at steep angles. At this price, we still would have liked to see a rotating LCD in order to capture those hard-to-reach shots, so hopefully Pentax will integrate that technology into the next wave of K models. The Pentax K-7's optical viewfinder featured brackets to aid composition and embedded image information including ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture, just like a good DSLR should.

A few honorable mentions go out to the designated RAW button, which enabled us to toggle back and forth between JPEG, RAW and RAW+ JPEG shooting modes without having to dive into the menu. The Pentax K-7's Green button allowed us to reset all of our manual adjustments to the default Program AE settings. For instance, if we shifted the front or rear dials in Program AE, the Pentax K-7 would automatically jump into Hyper AV or Hyper TV modes because we had now officially taken control of a specific parameter. Pressing the Green button shipped us right back to Program AE's exposure settings and allowed us a fresh start. In Live View, we could not Auto Focus, unless we used the AF button, which took longer than expected to hone in on the right focal length, so we did most of our Auto focusing with the viewfinder. All in all, the Pentax K-7 was a blast to navigate, and we had minimal complaints.

Features - Excellent

After playing with the Pentax K-7 briefly at our press meeting a few months back, we knew the new flagship model was a harbinger of advanced control in addition to classic features found on any typical DSLR. However, we never really predicted the army of image controls we were to be ambushed by this time around, and at the end of our photographic journey, there were still features that kept sprouting up when we least expected it. Like the Pentax K2000, the Pentax K-7 offered Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Sensitivity Priority, Program AE and Manual shooting modes, and we got a true taste of each one. There was also a new User shooting mode that packed in several new additions that we hadn't seen on the Pentax K2000. The Pentax K-7 included a Flash X-Sync mode designed specifically for shooting with an external flash, in addition to a full Auto mode for times when turning a dial is just too much of a chore. So, with a fully stocked Mode dial and catalog of extensive features, we were never left stranded in the field.

We'll start with the Pentax K-7's User mode, which was crammed with several options that weren't available elsewhere on the camera. This is where the Pentax K-7's Digital Filters lived, and we had a blast with High Contrast, Color Extract and Fish-eye, though images could only be captured as JPEGs. The Digital Filters were nothing new, for the Pentax K2000 offered nearly the same setup, though this time around the K-7 let us create our own Custom filter by combining all of the parameters from the available filters. The Pentax K-7 also focused on dynamic range with an HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode that could be set to two different intensity levels. We experimented with the K-7's HDR mode and had minimal luck. Because the camera is combining two images together to provide a more well-rounded exposure, our test images displayed notable dosages of ghosting, as we could actually discern the separate highlight and shadow images. HDR mode is best used with a tripod for static subject matter, and we found that out the hard way in the eye of the tornado that is Times Square.

The Pentax K-7 offered a few more dynamic range features, including Highlight Correction and Shadow Correction. We noticed a slight improvement by using Shadow Adjustment, though Highlight Adjustment was not a monumental alteration. We found that the best way to achieve a more even exposure was to employ the Pentax K-7's flash and use it to fill the shadowy areas. There were a few Priority modes available in User mode, called Program Lines, which consisted of High-Speed, DOF Shallow and DOF Deep presets. We still preferred manually adjusting the Pentax K-7 at the end of the day, but these features would definitely come to the aid of a beginner of intermediate shooter. In addition to the digital light meter, the Pentax K-7 featured a digital level that helped us keep the camera parallel to the horizon. We also tested the Composition adjustment, which digitally shifted the preview frame a few degrees to the right or left on an angle. Both features were welcome additions and functioned without a hitch.

One of the most impressive feature sets was the Pentax K-7's color option spread. In addition to a stellar White Balance program that allowed us to manually set the Kelvin temperature via a Blue, Green, Amber and Magenta color grid, the Pentax K-7 had a gaggle of color presets with individual sliders that enabled us to finetune our hues to the T. We could adjust Saturation, Hue, High/Low Key, Contrast and Sharpness, to name a few, and some of our most vibrant and sharpest images were achieved by fiddling with the Color parameters. For Shutter Speed, the Pentax K-7 could dip down to 30 seconds, and had a designated Bulb mode that allowed us to keep it open for longer if we needed to. The big news was the 1/8000-second top shutter speed, which allowed us to capture moving objects dead in their tracks, though a mountain of light was needed in order to make this happen with a decent exposure. Aperture was dependent on the lens, but we were able to close down to f/22, which was plenty of depth for most of our long DOF shots. ISO reached an impressive 3200, and the Pentax K-7 was fairly average in terms of core image adjustments. We would like to see a longer shutter speed on the next K model, but the Pentax K-7 dazzled us in the feature department, and we haven't even gotten to its HD video yet.

Hardware – Very Good

The Pentax K-7 is equipped with a 14.6-megapixel 23.4 x 15.6mm APS-C size CMOS sensor, just like the Pentax K20D, though the K-7 features the latest Pentax Real Image Engine (PRIME) II processing designed to keep noise to a minimum and enable the camera to perform 5.2 frame-per-second shooting. In fact, all of Pentax's DSLRs have the same size sensors with varying attributes. Both the Pentax K2000 and Pentax K200D have 10-megapixel CCDs with the first-generation PRIME processing while the K20D gets the boost to 14.6-megapixels but retains the generation one processing as well. Since the Pentax K-7 did not receive any major internal overhauls, we experienced many parallels in image performance across all four models. However, the Pentax K-7 did surprise us with some highly impressive shots, which we'll get to in a moment.

The Pentax K-7 received the latest in Shake Reduction, compensating for rotational sensor movement via a tag team of metal plates that isolated the sensor using magnets and ball bearings. For the most part, the Pentax K-7's Shake Reduction system functioned very well, though there's not much one can do about slow shutter speeds. In addition, the Shake Reduction system really didn't come to our aid in HDR mode, and we feel that some shooting environments just couldn't be helped. The Shake Reduction system was most noticeable in HD Movie capture mode, for nearly all of our clips were well balanced and refrained from jittery movement.

Since the Pentax K-7 is set to ship as a body only, Pentax gave us two different DA lenses to shoot with. We used the Pentax DA 18-55 II and Pentax DA 50-200 lenses, which covered most of our shooting grounds. We liked both lenses because they offered the ability to Auto Focus and the DA 18-55 lens did not vignette like the first generation DA 18-55. The good news is that the Pentax K-7 accepts every applicable lens in the company's history, so if you don't mind manually focusing every shot, you can dust off that old fixed aperture SLR lens and mount it right up. For power, the Pentax K-7 runs on a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery that offered a decent amount of stamina throughout an entire day of shooting. The camera records JPEG and RAW still images and MJPEG AVI videos to SD/SDHC cards.

Image Quality – Very Good

And now, it's the moment we've all been waiting for. Just what exactly is Pentax's flagship model capable of? Well, as stated earlier, we encountered many parallels in the K-7's image quality when compared to the other models in the company's lineup. What can we say? Pentax is one of the top manufacturers when it comes to image quality on the intermediate/semi-pro level, and we knew we would be capturing a few magazine quality shots here and there. At ISO 100, we experienced microscopic levels of noise, if it even existed. The new processing succeeding in reducing noise slightly, and noise is a difficult thing to stave off, especially with a high-resolution sensor. Colors were stunning, and the level of control we had over hues and tones was nearly overwhelming. The Pentax K-7 also captured images with razor sharpness, though we had to adjust the sharpness level on a few images in order to dial back the intensity. We also rarely encountered any fringing, and we achieved some of our best shots at night with awesome exposures, courtesy of a slow shutter speed.

We are, of course, talking about the K-7's RAW performance, for the JPEG quality was nowhere near its quality. JPEGs exhibited more noise, some fringing and less overall detail, and we strongly suggest shooting in RAW+ JPEG in order to compare. In RAW mode, we did encounter some light patches of noise in low light at the lowest ISO, and shots with higher ISO levels did exhibit increased noise levels as well. Also, dynamic range was impressive on the whole, but there were a few instances where we could have used a shadow or highlight boost when we didn't have a tripod for HDR mode. However, the Pentax K-7 proved to be the company's best performer yet as far as still image quality was concerned. We used the included Pentax Digital Camera Utility 4 to process our RAW images into the highest quality JPEG files with no image adjustments, so what you see is straight from the camera.

First Lap

  • Skyscraper


  • Skyscraper with Fish-eye Filter


  • Gushing Spike Ball


  • The Art of Pollination


  • Mr. Bee Close-up


  • Ducks in the Park


  • One single shot in Program AE mode was all we needed to capture the first image, and the results were great. The Pentax K-7 handles the contrast of the building with ease and lines are sharp. Detail is intricate amongst the billboard block lettering and signs, and the sky resists blowing out. We can catch a little minute stepping along left edge of the building and a few traces of fringing way at the top of the building, but the image's overall performance overshadowed these minor flaws. We played around with the Fish-eye filter in the second shot, which could only be taken as a JPEG, and the quality difference is significant. Although a nifty looking image, the second image is noisier and lacks the fine detail present in the first image.

    We used Shutter Priority mode to capture the water droplets in mid flight in the third image, and for an image captured at ISO 800, the noise levels are barely traceable. The Pentax K-7 settled on a 1/640 shutter speed, though we feel we could have gone a tad faster. Still, the third image is highly impressive, especially for a camera-governed shutter speed with a great ISO performance.

    At close range, detail was superb. We went for a soft manual focus in the first image, which looks like it was given a feathering effect. The colors are fantastic and we achieved just what we set out to do. We went sharp for the second image to attain a handle on how much detail the K-7 could dish out, and the results were excellent. We can discern every flower spike and vein in the bee's wings, and shooting up close was not an issue for the Pentax K-7. We began to see slight effects of ISO noise in the last image, which was captured at ISO 400, though detail is still excellent and noise levels are not as intense as we would have expected them to be.

    Colors, Shapes and Structures

  • Color Dream


  • Color Dream Muted


  • Promenade Leaves


  • Do Not Enter


  • Headless Models with High Contrast Filter


  • We jacked up the saturation and hue in the first image just to see what would happen and we ended up being treated to an electric color show. We don't mind the slight oversaturation, since that's what we were going for, but the colors look amazing. Borders are maintained, bleeding is nonexistent and detail is great. We achieved an entirely different look by using the Muted color preset, and the image looks as though it was pulled out of an old trunk from the 60's.

    The Pentax K-7 was capable of capturing true, lifelike colors as well and we used a neutral palette for the third image. Not only is the detail within the leaves highly impressive, but the colors are also harsh and realistic, just as we saw them that day as we buried our face into the pavement to capture the shot. The fourth image is an example of the intricate detail the Pentax K-7 was capable of, and the uncanny sharpness exhibited along the edges of the barbed wire and chain link fence are prime examples.

    One of our favorite Digital Filters was the High Contrast mode, and we can see why in the final image. Because the shot is a JPEG file, we lack the detail and sharpness present in our RAW samples, but the effect is ultra cool. We had a blast with the K-7's Digital Filters, and the images looked even better sized down a tad.

    A Few Specified Tests

  • Promenade Sunset


  • Flatiron


  • Times Square in HDR2 Mode


  • The first image is an example of what happens when you sprint to the Promenade in time to capture one shot before the sun ducks its weary head behind the Manhattan skyline. This was our first shot of the sunset, and though we could have used a shadow boost, the noise levels are extremely low and detail is spot on. The Pentax K-7 proved itself as a camera that could perform under pressure.

    We used the 50-200mm DA lens for the Flatiron Building, and with just an f/7.1 aperture, we were able to focus nearly the entire building. We did lose a little focus at the tip of the building and along the far right side, but the contrast is very impressive.

    The final image is an example of what we were talking about with the HDR mode. Two images were captured in succession and blended together, but the lag time was too slow, leading to motion blur and ghosting when we shot moving subjects without a tripod. HDR mode exposure looked great, but this particular setting requires a little extra work and a lot of patience.

    Nightfall

  • Big Green with Flash


  • Trash


  • Peace Pipes


  • Peace Pipes with Extract Color Filter


  • Magic Playground


  • Money Shot


  • We'll start with the built-in flash, which created a fairly decent fill for Big Green, rather than blowing out the chrome lettering and silver clutch lever. Also, look at the detail along Big Green's left turn signal and road-rashed fairing. We actually enjoyed shooting with the Pentax K-7's flash, and most of our images exhibited great results. We dipped down to a 2.5-second shutter speed in Manual mode to capture the Trash window, and relied on an Auto White Balance, which performed very well. Despite the blast of neon lighting, the Pentax K-7 was still able to render the contents of the filthy window with great detail.

    We employed our favorite maxed out custom Color mode with the peace pipes, shooting at full saturation and hue, which provided a bluish color temperature. In order to capture the depth, we used an f/20 aperture, which worked fairly well with the DA 18-55 II lens. We toyed with the Color Extract Digital Filter in the second incarnation of the peace pipe documentation, though its DOF and detail could not hold a candle to the manually-configured RAW version.

    The last two images were shot at f/14 apertures with very slow shutter speeds to achieve a bright exposure in very minimal lighting. Here's where we see our heaviest dosages of noise, even at ISO 100. The noise is mostly detectable at full resolution, but it's actually not as bad as we would have expected. Compared to the Pentax K2000's noise levels, the K-7's are about the same in low light. Still, the detail, colors and exposure in both images prove that the Pentax K-7 can hang with the big guns.

    Video Quality

    We captured numerous HD video samples in a variety of shooting environments and compiled a fleet of the Pentax K-7's best examples. The K-7 is capable of capturing 1280x720p, 1536 x 1024p and 640 x 416p resolutions, all at 30fps. We shot in primarily 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios and uploaded them to YouTube. The clips should be viewed in HD mode to get the full effect, though some minor compression artifacts might be present.

    So, let's break it down. The Pentax K-7 was a part-time video allstar, meaning there were certain shooting environments and content factors that hindered its performance at times. In bright light, static subjects with minimal to no motion looked beautiful on our HD monitor via HMDI. However, more intense motion led to screen breaks, in which the top half of the screen would lag behind the bottom half, acting like a glitch. In addition, we encountered some extreme moiré patterns along heavy patterns, as you'll see in the first clip of Times Square.

    In low light, the Pentax K-7 did an admirable job of adjusting the Auto exposure, and we loved the ability to zoom in and out. However, noise levels were off the hook in extremely low light environments, but at least the Pentax K-7 provided a visible display. The Canon EOS 500D (Rebel T1i) could not even handle to low light whatsoever, so the Pentax K-7 took the edge there. We feel that the Pentax K-7's HD video quality suffers from first-generation syndrome, but based on the quality of some of the camera's top video clips, we can only expect great things in the future.

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