Playing The Long Game: Outdoor Photography With Telezooms

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review

John Riley reviews the new Pentax K-3, the flagship Digital SLR with new 24 megapixel sensor and advanced features.

| Pentax K-3 in Digital SLRs

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (3)
The Ricoh takeover of Pentax now seems to have firmly bedded in, with a whole new range of revamped HD Limited lenses and, leading the pack, the latest flagship DSLR, the K-3. With a breath-taking array of features on offer, we now look more closely to see if the K-3 delivers the goods, and indeed whether it throws down the gauntlet to the brand leaders and offers some serious competition.

Pentax K-3 Features

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (4)

As before, we have a rugged, weatherproof body in a compact package, this time sporting 92 seals to keep out moisture and dust. The effectiveness of this is well proven and Pentax is starting to be seen as the outdoor camera for adverse conditions.

Firmly sticking to the APS-C format, the new 24MP sensor, manufactured by Sony, is mounted in the usual shake reduction mechanism. This time a very innovative new feature has been added, using this same mechanism as an “AA Filter Simulator”. This enables two levels of moiré reduction to be switched on if required, using the SR system to vibrate the sensor by a half pixel, this emulating the slight blur of the conventional AA filter. One model now gives all choices.

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (6)

Twin SD card slots can be used individually, sequentially or one for stills and one for video. Video capture has been extensively updated, now using MPEG-4 encoding. A headphone jack and adjustable sound level is also on offer.

The AF is also upgraded, the new SAFOX 11 system having 27 focus points, 25 of which are the cross type. Sensitivity still extends down to -3 EV. Add to this a new 86,000 pixel light metering sensor, an 8.3 fps frame rate, a new 3.2 inch monitor with no air gap, an upgraded viewfinder system with 95% magnification, a shutter tested to 200,000 cycles and compatibility with the new Flucard for smartphone control and we have a very impressive package.

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (5)

Key Features

  • 24.35MP APS-C sensor with AA Filter Simulator
  • Pentax KAF2 bayonet mount
  • In-body shake reduction
  • Glass pentaprism with 100% field of view
  • Larger 0.95x magnification viewfinder
  • 3.2 inch LCD monitor with 1,037,000 dots and no air space
  • 86,000 pixel light-metering sensor
  • SAFOX 11 AF module sensitive to -3EV
  • 27 AF points, 25 cross type
  • Weather resistant construction with 92 seals
  • Magnesium alloy shell
  • 8.3fps maximum frame rate
  • ISO range 100 to 51,200
  • 17 Digital filters
  • DNG/PEF RAW format
  • Dual SD Card Slots
  • Eye-Fi Card compatible
  • Flucard Compatible
  • Shutter tested to 200,000 cycles
  • Full HD Movie Mode
  • MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 Movie Format

Pentax K-3 Handling

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (8)

Handling has always been a strong point of Pentax SLRs and DSLRs and the K-3 continues this tradition. Existing Pentax users will find some buttons moved and some controls altered slightly, but nothing major that can't be quickly adapted to. New users may well appreciate the “photographic feel” of this new camera, with its well-designed menu interface and ergonomic layout. There has been much of this that has carried forwards unchanged from the previous K-7 and K-5 model ranges, and there is no need to change things for the sake of change.

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (11)

There are nonetheless some minor tweaks that are useful. The dioptre adjustment wheel is much more convenient, the SD card access is improved, the mode dial now has a lock that can be disengaged if desired. The rear screen now sports a status display very similar to the other DSLRs in the Pentax range. This is a very convenient way to change many parameters. There are still plenty of dedicated buttons and a new switch to select either still or video photography.

Having a traditional glass pentaprism viewfinder is now common to all the Pentax DSLR range. This may be the more expensive option in terms of manufacture, but it reaps dividends in the sheer clarity of the view. The gapless monitor should avoid condensation under the cover glass and the screen is bright, sharp and clear.

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: Pentax K 3 Black (10)

The battery is the same as used for the K-5 range and most accessories are also identical. The previous battery grip is, however, slightly different so a new D-BG5 grip is available for the K-3.

Battery life is similar to the K-5 and bearing in mind new batteries need a few charges to become totally effective, 500 shots with plenty of use of playback still left plenty of life available. It looks as though the CIPA figures quoted, 560 shots with 50% flash usage, will be very reasonably achieved.

Speed - We took a number of shots to test the camera's responsiveness, from switch on to first photo, shot to shot, focusing speed etc. We take a number of shots and then use the average to ensure accurate and consistent tests, making it easy to compare with other cameras.

  Pentax K-3
Shutter Response 0.05s
Wide - Focus / Shutter Response 0.2s / 0.8s in live view
Full zoom - Focus / Shutter Response 0.2s / 1.7s in live view
Switch on Time to Taking a Photo 0.5s
Shot to Shot without Flash 0.5s
Shot to Shot with Flash 1.0s
Continuous Shooting - JPEG
(shots before slow down)
Continuous Shooting - Flash 2.4fps
Continuous Shooting - RAW 8.2fps

The first thing that strikes the new user is that the shutter is so, so quiet and smooth. This is probably the quietest DSLR I have experienced from any marque. It is also totally free from vibration, so the damping of the mirror mechanism must be exceptional. When the shutter is released, apart from a slight click we feel nothing at all, it's quite uncanny.

The camera is highly responsive, with minimal delay when firing the shutter. The AF seems to lock on in the dullest light with no difficulty and the speed has been significantly improved. Of course this will depend also on the lens used, but in general I feel that AF is slightly faster and much more reliable in the lowest lighting conditions. The new focus point array should make focus tracking more effective.

The buffer exceeded specification and at 8.3fps I achieved 67 JPEG images and 23 RAW images respectively. The maximum frame rate is very fast and almost as fast as many cameras with translucent (non-moving) mirrors. The new shutter having a potential life of 200,000 shots seems to be quite an improvement.

The Flucard deserves a mention, although one was not provided for this review. This new card, currently Pentax specific, makes the camera compatible with smartphones for remote operation. There is obviously potential there for the future. Eye-Fi compatibility is also included with the K-3.

Pentax K-3 Performance

Additional sample photos and Pentax K-3 shots are available in the Equipment Database, where you can add your own review, photos and Pentax K-3 ratings.

Pentax K-3 Sample Photos

Sample Photos - Exposure was accurate and very similar to the K-5, full exposure being given without tending to blow out the highlights. The options remain as to matrix, centre-weighted or spot measurement.  One option that has been lost from previous models is the Premium JPEG setting. Looking at the number of images obtainable though this seems to be a renaming of the levels rather than a reduction in quality. The very fine quality of Pentax JPEG files remains intact. The options for RAW shooters also remain intact and either PEF or DNG files can be chosen as the RAW format.

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: AA Simulator Off | 1/6400 sec | f/4.5 | 18.0 mm | ISO 6400 Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: AA Simulator Type 1 | 1/6400 sec | f/4.5 | 18.0 mm | ISO 6400 Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review: AA Simulator Type 2 | 1/5000 sec | f/4.5 | 18.0 mm | ISO 6400
AA Simulator Off | 1/6400 sec | f/4.5 | 18.0 mm | ISO 6400 AA Simulator Type 1 | 1/6400 sec | f/4.5 | 18.0 mm | ISO 6400 AA Simulator Type 2 | 1/5000 sec | f/4.5 | 18.0 mm | ISO 6400

The AA filter simulator is an interesting idea. There have been many discussions about the value of removing the AA filter, but it has become clear that for many the increased crispness of the shots makes the risk of moire acceptable. In the event, generating moire proves to be a very difficult task and in normal use I doubt very much that it will be a problem. I was eventually able to induce moire using images on my monitor and the two levels of AA simulation worked. Level 1 reduced the effect and level 2 removed it. Now this will depend on the frequency of the pattern so judging when to apply correction may be the difficult part. By choice I would leave the AA simulator switched off. Switching it on and at what level will become a matter of judgement from experience and where we get it wrong it will be back to software solutions. However, what a fantastic idea to incorporate this feature at all. It offers a unique opportunity to fine tune yet another parameter.

I checked the electronic level and found it to be accurate. It isn't a feature that I use routinely, but it can be very useful.

In terms of the weather resistance, this in itself makes the Pentax K-3 a viable choice. The camera cannot be immersed in water, but it will quite happily function in downpours and cold conditions. In practice, I would be happy to take this camera and lenses out in any weather that I felt I myself wanted to venture out into.

Pentax K-3 Lens test images

Lens Performance -The SMC Pentax-DA 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AL [IF] DC WR was supplied with the camera and it is an ideal companion for it. Clearly the lens has enough reserve resolution to handle the increased pixel count and it performs better with the K-3 than with the K-5 cameras. CA seems reduced and images are cleaner. It would confirm that it is the combination of sensor and lens that dictates final image quality, not just one or the other.

The 18-135mm produces clean, crisp images and complements the K-3 perfectly. Flare is well controlled, although it is always a good idea to use the included lens hood. For those who want to compare images from the 18-135mm with other camera bodies my review of the K-5 IIs includes images of the same location with another copy of the lens. Not 100% the same lighting and general conditions, but it might be interesting. There are many other options in the Pentax range, including new HD lenses with improved nano coatings. More lenses are planned, so the range looks set to grow significantly.

Pentax K-3 ISO test images

ISO Noise Performance - The new 24MP sensor is full of detail and is a major benefit of the K-3. Looking very closely at the images and comparing them to the K-5 IIs in particular, the finest detail is crisper and clearer without a doubt. Noise levels might be expected to be slightly higher with the increased pixel density and although this is true it seems more than made up for by the cleaner reproduction of detail. As with the K-5 variants I would be quite happy to use the K-3 up to and including ISO 1600. Noise has started to creep in at this level but it becomes more noticeable at ISO 3200. By ISO 12800 sharpness is maintained but the noise is becoming more obvious, but it is still acceptable. ISO 25600 and 51200 are best used when necessary only as noise levels are slightly higher than the 16MP cameras. Having said that, the detail that is present is sharper and better defined than with the previous models.

Pentax K-3 White-balance test images

White Balance Performance - White balance is another area where I have always appreciated the colour balance of Pentax cameras. This too is preserved, although the Ricoh input into the design gives an extra variety of AWB, labelled AWBA. The theory of this is that with mixed light sources the camera can offer multiple white balances across a frame. So, for example, a subject lit by flash with a background lit by tungsten lights can be measured separately to give an overall balanced effect. The results seemed little different from just using AWB.

Pentax K-3 Outdoor images

Pentax K-3 Other sample images

Pentax K-3 Digital filters

Digital Filters - There are a vast number of digital filters and custom image options and examples are shown above.

Video - There have been significant changes to the video capability with the K-3. The encoding is now AVC/H.264, provision is made for stereo sound recording using external microphones and a headphone jack is provided. The sound levels can be adjusted in the camera and level metering is provided for this. All in all, there is an increase of sophistication and easier access with a dedicated video/still switch. Initial impressions are favourable, with smooth reproduction and SR helping to reduce shake. Digital Filters and Custom Image are also available in movie mode.

Value For Money

Value for money covers many aspects, but there is little doubt that here Pentax have a product that includes almost anything that we could imagine we want in a flagship APS-C camera. The level of possible customisation is very high, the results are very good indeed and right from the start trade in offers have been introduced that help to reduce the cost. In this instance I feel we have excellent value right from the start, with the Pentax K-3 available for £1099 body only. Alternatives to consider include the following:

Nikon D7100, 24 megapixel no AA filter, weather sealed, 6fps, £765 body only
Canon EOS 70D, 20 megapixel, 7fps, weather sealed, Wi-Fi, £969 body only
Sony Alpha A77, 24 megapixel, 12fps, IS, weather sealed, GPS, £729 body only
Olympus OM-D E-M1, 16 megapixel no AA filter, 10fps, IS, weather sealed, Wi-Fi, £1299 body only
Panasonic Lumix GH3, 16 megapixel, 6fps, weather sealed, £869 body only

You'll also need to buy a memory card and a case or bag to keep your camera safe and protected - have a look at our complete guide to camera bags.

Pentax K-3 Verdict

Pentax have been consistently producing outstanding DSLRs, well specified and rugged. The K-3 continues that tradition, but honing areas that needed attention such as the AF tracking system and the video capability. The increased resolution and the clean images it produces all set off a well-rounded package that comes very close indeed to challenging very much more expensive kit.

Looking at the APS-C competition, Pentax now seems have nudged into the lead with the K-3 and for a rugged, well specified all weather camera it may well be that we need look no further. The marriage of Ricoh and Pentax expertise looks to have become a happy one indeed.

Pentax K-3 Digital SLR Review:
  The Pentax K-3 is a well-rounded package with impressive specification and technology.

Pentax K-3 Pros

Superb clarity in image quality with 24MP sensor
Rugged weather sealed construction with 92 seals
Flucard and Eye-Fi card compatibility
Shutter rated to 200,000 exposures
Some unique prime lenses in range
AA Filter Simulator
Glass pentaprism viewfinder with 95% magnification
Backwards lens compatibility
In body shake reduction
Low light AF to -3EV
Wide selection of built in effects and filters
DNG or PEF RAW format
8.3fps frame rate

Pentax K-3 Cons

Lack of long zoom lenses
Current lack of lens support from some third party manufacturers


Pentax K-3 Specifications

Effective Magnification1.5x
Image Sensor
Pixels24Mp (Megapixels)
Pixels (W)6016
Pixels (H)4000
Sensor TypeCMOS
Sensor SizeAPS-C
Sensor Size (width)23.5mm
Sensor Size (height)15.6mm
Aspect Ratio
  • 3:2
  • 16:9
LCD Monitor
LCD Monitor3.2in
Screen resolution1037k
Touch ScreenNo
Focusing modes
  • Autofocus
  • Manual
  • Spot
  • AF Tracking
  • Multi
  • Centre
  • AF Fine Tuning (Micro Adjustment)
Exposure Control
Shutter speeds shortest1/8000sec
Shutter speeds longest30sec
Bulb modeYes
Exp modes
  • Program
  • Aperture-Priority
  • Shutter-Priority
  • Manual
  • Scene modes
  • Program Variable
  • Centre-weighted - Average
  • Multi Pattern
  • Spot
ISO sensitivity100 - 51200
White balance
  • Auto
  • Manual
  • Outdoors/Daylight
  • Cloudy
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent
  • Shade
  • Flash
Exposure Comp+/-5
MagnificationNo Data
Shooting Options
Continuous shooting8.3fps
Movie modeYes
Video Resolution
  • 1920x1080 FullHD
  • 1280x720 HD 720p
Video FPS60i, 50i, 30p, 25p, 24p
Stereo SoundNo
Optical Zoom with VideoYes
Other Features
Image StabilisationYes
Card Type
  • SD
  • SDHC
  • SDXC
File Type
  • RAW
  • JPG
  • RAW + JPG
Power Source
Battery TypeRechargeable Lithium-ion Battery D-LI90P
Battery Life (CIPA rating)560shots
Box Contents
Box ContentsNo Data

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Photographs taken using the Pentax K-3

Himalayan windflowerThe Fortune TellerOff with his Head!Fuchsia in IceCool Flower for the Warm WeatherSprig of HeatherRaindrops on FeatherHairy CaterpillarLove BirdsAphid on Sweet PeaRose Bay Willow Herb Abstract #2Rose Bay Willow Herb AbstractFoxglove LeavesHoverflyCleavers or Sticky Willy

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mille19 Avatar
mille19 16 13 United Kingdom
14 Nov 2013 10:33AM
I've owned a K3 for a week and would say this is a fair review, good work John.
This really is a nice camera, ergonomics & Image Quality are spot on.
josa Avatar
josa 11 25 Czech Republic
14 Nov 2013 11:33AM
I think it needs a better lens than 18-135mm...
johnriley1uk Avatar
14 Nov 2013 12:36PM
Probably js12. There are some 43mm and 100mm Macro shots in there as well, so hopefully that helps.
kodachrome Avatar
kodachrome 11 789
14 Nov 2013 3:20PM
I have always admired Pentax, and this camera review is no exception, it really is superb and has to be one of the most ergonomic DSLR's on the market, all the buttons and controls just where you want them. I have to agree re the 18-135, A tamron or Sigma would probably be the best bet for this camera or go high end prime. The Sony sensor has come up trumps again for Pentax.
liukaitc Avatar
14 Nov 2013 5:02PM

Quote:Probably js12. There are some 43mm and 100mm Macro shots in there as well, so hopefully that helps.

I believe those shots are still taken from that 18-135 lens.
I agree can not see the real power of that 24mp sensor from that lens. Some photo are still relative soft at f8.
johnriley1uk Avatar
14 Nov 2013 5:17PM
I can assure you the one labelled 43mm was shot with the 43mm Limited lens. The ones labelled 100mm Macro were shot with the SMC Pentax DA-f 100mm Macro.

None of the shots have been sharpened, leaving them ready for you to download and experiment with.
pablophotographer Avatar
pablophotographer 12 2.2k 450
14 Nov 2013 7:04PM
Another well made Pentax camera. I wonder if they will ever bring out a DSLR with a full frame sensor rather than an APS-C one. The 645D is medium format and between their professional and advanced line of products (K5, K5II, K3) there is a gap both in prices and offerings.
FeelgoodPhotography Avatar
I want one of these pretty badly but my local camera dealer is only offering a £200 trade-in against a mint K-5 and 18-55mm WR. I paid £1100 for it a year ago and it's supposedly lost £900 in value? Harumph.
johnriley1uk Avatar
16 Nov 2013 11:33PM
Pentax dealers are offering an extra £85 trade in, so why not check some out? I think you could also get much better than £200 by selling on eBay.
petebfrance Avatar
17 Nov 2013 5:09PM

Quote:I want one of these pretty badly but my local camera dealer is only offering a £200 trade-in against a mint K-5 and 18-55mm WR. I paid £1100 for it a year ago and it's supposedly lost £900 in value? Harumph.

There are a number of dealers in France using an 'agreed value,' and for a K5 with 18-55 the amount (converted from Euros) would be between £326 and £478 dependent on condition / amount of use etc. It looks like you need to shop around - there must be a UK dealer who will give a better deal than that. Still, from £1100 it looks like it will be a big drop unfortunately......
FeelgoodPhotography Avatar
Thanks for that, John and Pete. I'll look into that. The annoying thing is I know he's just gone on Ebay and looked for two K-5's at that price. I know I'll have to take some sort of a hit on the cameras' value but with boxes, manuals and leads in mint condition it's not worth £900 less than it was a year ago.
ec4florida Avatar
18 Nov 2013 2:56PM
Thanks for getting the first full review of the K3 posted, I look forward to upgrading from the K5.
krasitsky Avatar
18 Nov 2013 8:04PM
Great review but I want to play with real-life raw files. Can you add them?
johnriley1uk Avatar
18 Nov 2013 10:13PM
The review was done with best quality JPEG capture, so no RAW files I'm afraid, apart from the ISO pictures.
K_Paxian Avatar
K_Paxian 12 3 United Kingdom
20 Nov 2013 8:11PM
No demonstration of lowlight capabilities, or AFspeed/tracking. Frankly disappointing review as nothing there to separate it from other reviews, I would have expected the differences from the current line up to have tested and demonstrated to point out the worthiness of an upgrade from say the 5iis
johnriley1uk Avatar
20 Nov 2013 11:27PM
If it helps K_Paxian, I've made a couple of blog entries comparing the K-5 IIs and K-3 plus others on my Blog. It's something anyone can do for themselves as the location (unfortunately not the time of day) is the same for the basic lens test shots. AF speed has been measured in both cases and is in the figures given in both reviews. Tracking will have to wait for a suitable event, but not for this review as the K-3 has now gone back.

Hope that helps!
annatefkah2 Avatar
annatefkah2 13 14 United Kingdom
20 Nov 2013 11:27PM
I collected my pre-ordered K3 up as soon as they became available. I bought mine with the Pentax 18-270 lens and am well pleased with it.
I was amazed when I took a hand held photo looking towards Canary Wharf from Darenth Country Park in Kent. The camera was set at ISO 400 and the shot was at 1/800 @ f7.1 and the zoom at 270mm (35mm (full frame) equivalent of 405mm). The distance was just over 13 miles, and even with the air pollution and distant mist, you can count the windows on the tower blocks.

The one thing I wish Pentax would do is put some camera strap anchor points at the bottom of the camera like they did on the old LX. That would be very much better when having a long lens attached so that when walking, the lens points downwards instead of sticking out at right angles to one's chest. That would make it so much more convenient when walking, especially when I have my dogs on lead. Perhaps Pentax could make a screw on base plate to attach the straps to.?????
test404 Avatar
21 Nov 2013 9:31AM
Hi! I've registered just to write this comment:

RICOH stated ( many times that AA simulator works best (or maybe even works at all) with shutter speed of 1/1000th and slower, and you guys test it with 1/6400 sec and 1/5000 sec. Hello, are you reading specs at all?

It would be ok to make this test to know the real limits of the feature, but in order to test if simulators works as advertised - you SHOULD stick to maker's recomentations!
johnriley1uk Avatar
21 Nov 2013 9:43AM
Thanks for the comment test404. I'm sure you're right, but the problem is that it's all but impossible to actually generate any moire. In the end, after a couple of hours or more trying everything that could be found to try, a picture emerged showing the effect. So that was the one I had to settle for. I was not alone in having this problem.

Actually, the conclusion really is that resolution of the K-3 is so high that moire is even more unlikely to be a problem that before. Hopefully that in itself is encouraging.
test404 Avatar
21 Nov 2013 10:35AM
Well, you could always take a resolution test chart. AFAIK it gave pretty cool moire patterns with k-5 iis Smile
johnriley1uk Avatar
21 Nov 2013 10:49AM
To be honest, it's the real world that's relevant though, isn't it? Most of us don't photograph test charts, but real subjects. As it is I had to use something less than I'd hoped as real subjects were not causing me a moire problem.

Very fine silks might do it, but we don't have any very fine silks here!
test404 Avatar
21 Nov 2013 11:21AM
yes, that's true, with 24mp on aps-c to expirience moire you have to have objects patterned at ~0.5 angular minute (horizontal) at 18mm and at ~0.1 minute at 135mm, That is 2-5 times more than eye can see. That is why it is hard to find moire with k-3 - if you don't see pattern with your eyes - you don't even take a photo to test it SmileSmile.
pentaxpete Avatar
pentaxpete 18 745 1 United Kingdom
24 Dec 2013 12:57PM
It still has the 1/180th fastest flash synch speed though doesn't it ? I do a lot of fill-in flash outdoors -- even on a Canon T90 I have on loan from a Camera Club member it has 1/250th second flash synch and so does the Nikon FE 2 and others.
johnriley1uk Avatar
24 Dec 2013 1:12PM
Yes, it still has a 1/180s synch speed. In the studio this isn't a problem, outdoors it's tolerable for most situations. A Pentax flashgun will provide high speed synch up to the top speed if needed.

Leaf shutters only synch up to their usual 1/500s top speed, so 1/250s is only 1 stop behind and 1/180s another half stop behind that.
Wildstar Avatar
12 Apr 2014 12:16AM
Owned this camera for a couple of months now, it's brilliant. HOWEVER, it seems to suck in dust like no camera I've ever owned. The focus mirror and sensor are so contaminated that it needs servicing already. Not at all impressed! This thing is supposed to be weather and dust resistant, NOT. Tried the internal dust removal mechanism, but it ain't shifting it. Had a Canon 50D for 3 years and no probs whatsoever. Time for a Pentax sale me thinks!

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