It’s been more than four years since Ricoh scooped up Pentax, and whatever misgivings “Pentaxians” may have had about the fate of their brand have almost certainly been relieved by now. As Pentax President Jim Malcom told us at WPPI, Ricoh is helping the company accelerate its technological development while keeping its prices competitive.
So it should have been no surprise that a little more than a year after launching the well-received K-3 DSLR, Ricoh would be out with a sequel. Together with New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño, we explored whether the company could keep up the pace.
So how much new tech has made its way into this sequel? The short answer: not all that much.
Many of the core features of the K-3 have migrated into the K-3 II, including the image processor and 24-megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor with a native sensitivity range of ISO 100–51,600. There’s no anti-aliasing filter, but there is an option to use Ricoh’s innovative anti-aliasing filter simulator if you want to trade sharpness for a reduction of moiré or false colors.
As for what’s new, you’ll now find GPS, an electronic compass and an updated real-time Scene Analysis System for improved subject tracking autofocus. Image stabilization has been improved by a stop, from a CIPA-rated 3.5 stops on the K-3 to 4.5 on the K-3 II. Also new is a Pixel Shift Resolution mode that shifts the sensor to capture a higher-resolution image than the K-3 II’s 24-megapixel sensor could achieve. The shifting sensor and GPS combine to empower another feature, dubbed ASTROTRACER, which was previously available using an accessory GPS unit but is now integrated with the camera. ASTROTRACER keeps stars sharper in the night sky by syncing the imager with the rotation of the Earth during longer exposures.
There’s no built-in Wi-Fi, which is an odd omission given the K-3 II’s status as top-of-the-line. If you want wireless capability, you can spring for Pentax’s own FluCard wireless SD, a less-functional take on the Eyefi Mobi Pro. There are two SD card slots on the K-3 II.
The K-3 II is quite comfortable to hold, though Patino felt that esthetically it looks a bit antiquated—and not in a good way. To make way for the GPS unit, Ricoh eliminated the pop-up flash, though it’s difficult to tell from the prominent bulge atop the camera.
The 3.2-inch display features a tough, tempered glass panel that proved a bit difficult to read in bright sunlight. The display can’t be tilted or rotated and isn’t a touchscreen. The K-3 II is well-appointed with external controls, with just about every critical feature a finger-press away. The camera’s weathersealed build is reassuringly sturdy and while it’s heavier than rivals like the D7200, we think the durability is worth the weight. The durability extends to the shutter, which is rated for an impressive 200,000 releases.
Still images from the K-3 II look excellent, with consistent color reproduction and excellent sharpness when used with the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited lens attached, Patiño told us.
While its 24-megapixel sensor is delivering plenty of pixels for cameras in this class, Ricoh, like Nikon, is able to squeeze out extra sharpness by dumping the anti-aliasing filter (AKA the optical low-pass filter). Unlike Nikon, however, Pentax hit upon a truly useful compromise. While there’s no filter in place, the K-3 II (like its predecessor) can simulate the effect of one by shifting the sensor. It’s useful to employ when you’re worried about the possibility of moiré. There’s also a bracket mode so you can evaluate your images with the filter effect on and off.
Similar to the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, the K-3 II uses its shifting sensor to take higher-resolution photos, compiling multiple photos into a single, large file. Unlike the Olympus, the K-3 II’s sensor only makes four movements, not eight, and moves the entire length of a pixel as opposed to tinier increments. This pixel shifting captures all the color information in a single pixel, instead of the normal practice of capturing just one color per pixel and interpolating the rest—a process that can introduce noise and diminish sharpness.
The result is a RAW file that balloons from about 20–30MB (depending on ISO) to about 110–150MB. Unlike the Olympus files, the Pentax files don’t need a special plug-in to process before you can view or edit it. Similar to our experience with the E-M5 Mark II, Pixel Shift Resolution does coax out finer details that are only noticeable as you zoom in. Noise also drops, though again, the results require some pixel-peeping to appreciate. Due to the moving sensor, this high-res mode can’t be used without a tripod or on moving subjects.
(Left: an unretouched RAW image shot normally. Right: an unretouched RAW file shot using Pixel Shift Resolution.)
While Ricoh is keeping pace with its competitors on the stills side of the camera, it’s definitely a few steps behind on video. The K-3 II performed well at 1920x1080p30. Unfortunately, the video switches from progressive to interlaced above 30 frames per second. You do get mic and headphone jacks, but there’s no clean HDMI output. You can apply some of the same filter effects available on stills to video, but Patiño described them as not “useful ones.” You can adjust exposure settings before and during shooting, but there’s no AF available during video recording.
We enjoyed a speedy shot-to-shot performance from the K-3 II and an equally quick startup time. The camera delivers 8.3 fps in burst mode up to 60 JPEGs and 23 RAW frames. That’s excellent performance for a DSLR and clocks in faster than Nikon’s D7200 and Canon’s 70D. Patiño told us that AF speed was slower than he’d expected and when paired with the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro lens, it would hunt noisily.
We did like the focus peaking option, but we missed real-time exposure preview as you’re adjusting settings like shutter speed and aperture. Battery life registers at an underwhelming 720 shots per charge, behind competitors like Canon’s 60D and Nikon’s D7200.
Pentax promises 4.5 stops of shake reduction based on CIPA standards thanks to its gyro-based sensor-shifting technology, a full stop over its predecessor. The updated stabilizer can also detect when you’re panning. We enjoyed good handheld results down to about 1/8 sec. Results were equally solid during video recording, even using a 50–200mm zoom at the end of its focal length.
If you own a K-3, it’s tough to say the addition of features like GPS and Pixel Shift Resolution are must-haves worthy of an upgrade. With an identical sensor, similar AF speeds with older lenses and similar burst modes, buffer and battery life, the K-3 II isn’t a quantum leap in performance from its already impressive predecessor. If you’re simply in the market for a high-end crop sensor DSLR, though, the K-3 II is an excellent value with a feature set and image quality as solid as its weatherproof build. Ricoh continues to deliver a lot of photographic bang for the buck.