Pentax K-m digital camera review

4 out of 5
£399

For

Image quality, price, ergonomics and handling, simple menu system, simple operation info panel, custom setting

Against

Limited flash modes, slow RAW writing, lightweight build, murky viewfinder, LCD lacks anti reflection coating, slight underexposure issues

Pentax’s pared down DSLR, the K-m, is a DSLR for beginners; those trading up from a compact, say, but wanting a less complicated experience. And as such, it does - pretty much - exactly what it says on the tin. However, is that simplicity a step to far?

I ask this since part of the reason you’d surely buy a DSLR is to get some of the very kit missing from this camera, as we’ll see. But what do you get for your £399, a remarkable price that includes the 18-55mm DA L (for lightweight) kit lens?

This camera competes most naturally with Olympus’ E-420, the Nikon D60 and Canon’s EOS 1000D and features a 10.2-megapixel sensor, incidentally, the same sensor as found in the excellent K200D.

Pentax has kept the CCD-shift shake reduction (SR as Pentax calls it) from its bigger brother. The reduced 5-point AF system is linked to Pentax’s excellent SAFOX VIII AF setup and features both wide (automatically chosen) and spot AF modes.

The 5-zone AF setup (down from the 11-zone system in the K200D) is fast and pretty reliable, the addition of choosing a spot mode makes it that little bit more usable when shooting macro or portraits when finer control is important. The small (GN11) built-in flash providing AF assist back up when needed but of course, is limited by the need to have the flash up in the first place.

The K200D’s weather sealing has gone in the K-m as has a lot of the bulk and weight of that model as a result: the K-m is 50g lighter and the new kit lens is also around 24g lighter than the same counterpart optic on the K200D.

The camera is compact at 122.5 x 91.5 x 67.5mm, the design eschews a top plate data LCD for an info display on the rather grainy 2.7-inch 230-k dot colour screen that sits on the back of the camera.

A press of the Info and OK buttons on the back allows you to scroll and select options directly from the large screen, akin to Olympus’ info screen setup. This is nice to use and makes lots of sense once you start to get familiar with the system as key functions such as sensitivity metering modes, flash, image size and quality can all be got at quickly and simply.

As for the aforementioned sensitivity modes, the K-m has an improved range over the K200D providing an ISO 100 to 3200 sensitivity range and includes an auto setting that allows you to control the extent to which the camera digs into the higher settings. So you can ensure it uses ISO 100 to 400 for example or ISO 100 to 1600 no matter what the conditions.

Benefits here include control of image noise due to higher ISO shooting, however it must be said that noise is actually rather well controlled even up to ISO 3200 but images up to ISO 800 are perfectly serviceable with only slight detail and colour leaching at ISO 1600 and above.

Custom controls provide you with 21 modes to play with, so despite the basic bias of the camera overall, the custom modes provide scope to tweak camera behaviours, such as the way noise reduction, AF button function and white balance settings are controlled.

This tailoring of camera behaviours makes it easy to set the camera up the way you prefer. Otherwise, menus are simple and Pentax has dropped its frustrating habit of abbreviating settings, so things are much clearer for the novice user. Added to this are the Help screens, which provide text on various modes and settings so you can learn when best to use them.

In terms of handling, the compact body has a deeply sculpted handgrip that makes it nice to hold, even one handed. The addition of the SR technology makes one handed shooting possible and gives around a two stop advantage.

The swooping top plate hides the penta-mirror viewfinder, which has a good and very comprehensive display but is quite murky to use. Dioptre adjustment means those bespectacled users are well catered for though.

A large top plate mode dial gets all the manual P, A, S, and M modes into play along with a great sensitivity priority mode that adjusts the ISO to that required for a shot without altering the aperture and shutter adjustments.

“Auto Pict” (for auto picture) mode allows the camera to select the correct Scene mode for the scene you’re about to shoot and it works okay, not putting a foot wrong on my test. Scene modes can also be set using the dial with portrait, landscape, sports, macro and night scene all available directly from the dial.

Of the scene modes accessed from a specific scene mode setting you get 10 including night scene, pet and food modes, so there’s plenty of auto and manual options that allow you to grow as you become more confident with the camera.

But there is one area of omissions that is quite mystifying: the flash settings. These are so slimmed down as to be virtually pointless. You get flash on, with redeye; flash off and a wireless flash setting for use with dedicated Pentax flashguns that would sit on the camera’s hot shoe.

But the lack of any slow synch settings means creative flash techniques are not easy to achieve, surely, one of the benefits of a DSLR is to get such control? Anyway, I used my old Pentax AF 500FTz flashgun but all the creativity that this would normally afford has been emasculated by the K-m, which simply won’t allow access to its manual modes to work.

Aside from the flash disappointment in terms of image quality the K-m is rather good, although I did find the LCD difficult to use for exposure assessment, it’s rather dark at the default brightness setting. However, the addition of histogram display allows you to get astride the way the camera’s metering is behaving, but there is a tendency for underexposure.

With the images open on a PC screen they look better but I’d say there’s a half-stop underexposure bias in the 16-zone evaluative metering mode. Focus is however, superb; the colour rendition is good using the “natural” setting, which I did throughout the test.

White balance control had a few issues on the grey and overcast days I had the camera to play with, producing some slight yellow casts, but overall things were rather good.

The ability to shoot simultaneous JPEG and RAW files is great (the 3.5fps continuous drive mode is good too) but buffering the RAWs can take a while once the buffer starts to fill-up. You can shoot five JPEGs or four RAWS at 3.5fps or at 1.1fps; you can shoot to the limit of the card in JPEG mode or seven RAW shots. Modest, then but not bad given the camera’s price and other features.

The shutter speed range is good and provides a 30-seconds to 1/4000th-sec and Bulb, so scope for most tasks there and you get a maximum 1/180th-sec flash sync setting, though again, with the flash mode’s limitations as a caveat.

Other funky stuff includes a range of fun digital filters including Toy Camera, High Contrast, Soft and an Illustration mode for pastel or water colour painting effects, to name a few. The camera’s shadow compensation system is rather good too and helps boost shadow detail without loosing highlights but it does promote noise in the darker areas of a shot.

The new lightweight kit lens is good to use with a large rubber zoom ring but skimpy manual focus control, nevertheless, handling the lens is simple with a quarter turn clockwise zooming from 18 to 55mms. There’s a fair bit of barrel distortion at the wider focal length, which is a disappointment but chromatic aberration is low with only slight purple fringing visible on some high contrast images. It’s reasonably sharp and okay for general snapping.

Verdict

Overall, in the final analysis, the Pentax K-m provides a reasonable balance between ease of use and DSLR flexibility. My major disappointment is in the lack of more advanced flash controls, which is something I feel is (usually) a reason to buy a DSLR.

However, looked at as a point and shoot DSLR, the Pentax K-m is good value and perfectly pitched. It is able to produce very good results for those on a tighter budget, those not requiring the full “manual” treatment afforded by higher priced models, or those that just want that step up to a larger sensor and better control but without the worry of all the fiddling that (might) necessitate.

Despite the limited flash performance, this is a well-priced, simple to use DSLR. It’s one capable of good results too and that will help the transition from compact to lens interchangeable photography much easier and affordable.