Camera Review: Pentax K-30

July 2, 2012

By Dan Havlik

As far as camera introductions go, it was one of the stranger—though not unenjoyable—experiences I’ve had. To help launch its new Pentax K-30 digital SLR for prosumers and photo enthusiasts, Pentax gave select members of the press early sample units of the camera and then put us on a large, rented double-decker tour bus and drove us around to some of the biggest tourist sites in New York City.

And yes, we were asked to take pictures … lots of pictures.

That the event happened to take place on one of the hottest and longest (aka summer solstice) days of the year was only part of the “fun.” The important part though was the K-30, a fully weather-sealed, small beast of a digital SLR that uses a 16-megapixel, APS-C sized CMOS image sensor with an image capture area of 23.7 x 15.7 millimeters.

So no, this isn’t a full-frame DSLR and, unlike the recent spate of full-frame sensor cameras introduced by Nikon and Canon, the Pentax K-30 is not targeted at professionals but, rather, photo enthusiasts and prosumers. And with a price tag of $849, body only; or $899 for a Pentax K-30 kit that includes the DA L 18-55mm zoom lens, it’s not nearly as expensive as the Nikon D800, Canon 5D Mark III, etc.

For professional photographers who might still have a stash of their favorite Pentax lenses lying around, the K-30 makes a very viable “second” camera option for when you don’t want to bring the heavy gear but still need a durable digital SLR that can shoot high-quality images. For aspiring pros and enthusiasts who want a sophisticated camera but aren’t necessarily tied to Nikon or Canon systems, the Pentax K-30 is a great all-around shooter to get your feet wet with for more serious photography.

Let’s take a closer look.

Camera Build
As mentioned already, the Pentax K-30 is a tough beast of a camera though it doesn’t feel that way. Its dimensions are 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.8 inches and it weighs 23 ounces, making it slightly smaller and lighter than the 16.3-megapixel K-5, Pentax’s top-of-the-line (at the time of this writing) digital SLR, which we gave a positive review last year.

Unlike the all-metal K-5 ($1,599), the less expensive K-30 is primarily made from polycarbonate. But where some polycarbonate cameras can feel “plastic-y,” the Pentax K-30 handles like a higher-end camera. Part of this is due to the camera’s weather sealing, which is noticeable in the extensive use of rubber on the exterior (including over the port covers); the camera’s tight, angular build with its sharp, jutting pentaprism (which houses the pop-up flash); and it’s very comfortable, large handgrip that has a notched slot for your forefinger.

For a sub-$1,000 DSLR, the Pentax K-30’s build is impressive. Even better are the parts you don’t see. The K-30 has weather sealing throughout its entire body, not just over the ports and battery doors. In total there are 82 different weather seals, over every button and every screw hole. The camera uses high-density foam seals that won’t crack in freezing temperatures, making the K-30 cold proof to -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).

While this wasn’t a major factor during our bus tour—we only had to deal with 95-degree heat and 100 percent humidity—a few days later when I took the K-30 out for a shoot, I got stuck in a late afternoon rainstorm, and rather than panic and have to quickly stow the K-30 in my camera bag, I kept shooting without worrying. It helped that I was also using a weather-sealed Pentax SMC-DA 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AL [IF] WR lens ($529) with the K-30.

Another distinguishing feature is the K-30’s 3-inch, rear LCD display that has a healthy 920,000 dots of resolution. Though it’s not a flip-out articulating screen which would have been preferable—though very difficult to weather seal—it’s a great display, that provides crisp image playback and made reading and scrolling through menus a breeze.

It’s also worth noting that the the K-30’s optical viewfinder offers 100 percent field of view, which is a pro-level feature. Looking through the viewfinder to frame shots of the frenetic New York cityscape as our double-decker bus roared by, I got a clear picture of what I was photographing, even while what I was photographing changed by the second.

Oh, and if you’re bored with all-black camera bodies, the K-30 is also available in electric blue or “Stormtrooper” white.

I had some performance issues with the K-30 during my testing, which seem to have been resolved with a recent firmware update. I think it’s worth noting them here, however, since we were told that the Pentax cameras we were loaned were final test units. Hopefully, by the time this camera starts shipping to photographers, the issues have been fully resolved.

The most noticeable issue was that the K-30’s autofocus system—the 11-point (9 cross, 2 wide angle) SAFOX 1X+ autofocus system, to be precise—would go to sleep after a few minutes of non-use. What this translated to was several missed candid shots of people, places and things. For instance, after setting the camera down for a minute or so and then spying an interesting street scene, I’d mash the shutter down and nothing would happen. After I pressed the shutter again, the camera would take a picture but it would be a second too late to capture the moment.

Several other journalists on the bus trip had the same issue with their cameras. After bringing the problem to the attention of one of the Pentax representatives on the trip, we were told the issue was caused by the default Auto Power Off setting in the K-30, which put the camera to “sleep” after one minute to save battery power. Once we turned off the setting, it wasn’t a problem. Hopefully, a firmware update will change the default power save setting—which is buried in the K-30’s menus—to “off” or at the very least, to “30 minutes.”

Though I couldn’t tell if it was related to the power save setting or not, every once in a while the K-30 would get stuck while taking a picture or between photos, and I had to either press the shutter a couple of times to reset it or turn the camera on and off quickly. Apparently, this is another issue that was supposed to be resolved with the K-30’s new firmware update and while I didn’t experience the problem after installing it, I only tested the camera with the new firmware briefly.

It’s a shame that these glitches marred my initial experiences with the camera. When it was cooking along, the Pentax K-30 was fast, accurate and a real joy to use.

Pentax offers plenty of exterior control on its DSLRs and while it’s not as extensive as what you get with a K-5, it covers most of the essentials. Best of all, like many pro cameras, there are control dials on both the front and back of the camera for quickly adjusting shutter speed, aperture, etc. I also like Pentax’s choice of putting a one-touch RAW button on the front left of the camera—they’ve done this with many of their recent models—since it makes it easy for JPEG shooters to quickly grab a RAW shot if they want it.

The Pentax K-30 uses the PRIME (Pentax Real IMage Engine) processor, which helps the camera shoot six frames per second with a maximum shutter speed of 1/6000 of a second. The processor’s real contribution though is for the camera’s full 1080p HD video shooting, which can capture video at 30p in the h.264 compression format. The K-30 also has sensor-shift Shake Reduction, which, in effect, allows for in-camera optical image stabilization with most lenses.

Image Quality
As for image quality, the K-30 is about on par to K-5, which is to be expected because the image sensor is very similar to the one in that camera. In fact, the K-30’s sensor is exactly the same as the one in the new, Marc Newsom-designed Pentax K-01 compact system camera, which is a tweaked version of the chip in the K-5.

Most of my shots from the top deck of the bus—some of which are embedded below as full-resolution JPEGs—were in fairly bright shooting conditions. But as the day wore down and shadows crept into the side streets of New York City, we got a good sense of the Pentax K-30’s abilities in low light, mixed light and for scenes with high-contrast. Overall, we were impressed with the K-30’s expansive dynamic range and its ability to capture extensive detail, despite using “only” a 16-megapixel image sensor.

In their default settings, Pentax’s DSLRs have always tended to produce slightly oversaturated images in JPEG mode and while some photographers might like that, I’d suggest using the Natural color setting rather than the Bright or Vibrant in the Custom Image function. I was able to get some candid portraits of New Yorkers—some down on the street and some at double-decker eye-level in the second floors of buildings (see below)—and to capture the best skin tones, go with the Natural or Portrait settings. Otherwise, you get a ruddy, sanguine complexion in your subjects, that I didn’t care for.

As part of our tour of New York City, we stopped at the USS Intrepid, which is a former aircraft carrier that has been turned into a museum on the Hudson River. In the dark hanger deck of the Intrepid, I photographed fighter jets that have been preserved using the K-30’s high ISO range (it goes up to ISO 12800 equivalent) without a flash. Results were surprisingly good even up to ISO 6400, although, as with most “enthusiast” cameras, the K-30’s image processor smoothed out detail to combat noise. It was only noticeable if you looked closely though and I was impressed with how well the K-30, despite having a smaller APS-C sized chip.

Check out these sample shots. A few of them have been slightly cropped though they have not been edited otherwise. Click on each shot to expand it to its full resolution.

ISO 400, 1/400 @ f/4.0 (click to enlarge)

ISO 400, 1/80 @ f/5.6 (click to enlarge)

ISO 200, 1/320 @ f/6.3 (click to enlarge)

ISO 200, 1/640 @ f/8 (click to enlarge)

ISO 100, 1/160 @ f/6.3 (click to enlarge)

The Bottom Line
It’s great to see Pentax, which has become sort of an underdog rival to Canon’s and Nikon’s DSLRs, continue to produce compelling, well-made cameras that take great pictures. While the Pentax K-30 is designed more for photo enthusiasts and prosumers than for professional photographers, it offers a pro-level, weather-sealed build and pro-level features at a fraction of the price of true professional cameras. While we experienced a few troubling performance issue during our testing, most of those should now be fixed with a recent firmware update. Otherwise, the rough and rugged Pentax K-30 is a great, small DSLR option for jobs where you might get splashed, snowed on or covered in dust. If you have Pentax lenses already or plan to buy some soon, the K-30 is a great way to get acquainted with them even when shooting in stormy conditions.

Pros: Very comfortable, fully weatherized camera build; excellent image quality even in low light at up to ISO 6400; optical viewfinder has 100 percent field of view coverage making it easy to compose images

Cons: Some performance issues from early firmware; default setting is to slightly oversaturated JPEG images; skin tones have slightly reddish hue in default settings

Price: $849 (body only);

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