(Pocket-lint) - In my 20-odd years reviewing camera gear, it’s fair to say Pentax has consistently built excellent cameras and while their market share might not be what their kit deserves, the introduction of the new Pentax K-7 is typical of the company: a feature-rich camera that looks an excellent proposition indeed.
And like the K20D it superceedes and the K10D before that, the K-7 is a robust camera here with a new magnesium alloy and steel chassis on plastic shell, with comprehensive environmental (dust, dirt and water) seals.
The redesigned body has a host of new features too, as we’ll see, but the new shape is a much nicer looking, it’s a more compact model than its forbear too and one of the most significant new additions is a revamped pentaprism viewfinder that offers a 100% field of view, compared with the 95% from the K20D.
The finder’s bright and clear to use though the info display across the bottom can be a bit gloomy to use in brighter conditions. However, the automatic electronic (spirit) level system is a welcome addition, akin to the similar level system in Olympus’ E-30 for example.
However it is overly sensitive when used hand-held but is ideal for use on a tripod, for the all-important flat horizons in landscape shots for example. The camera’s new metering system provides a 77-segment set-up that covers almost the entire scene to be shot when in use. Spot and centre-weighted metering join the fray, of course, but overall the metering is extremely reliable, although if I have a niggle, there seems to be a slight propensity to underexpose by around half a stop.
The AF system has been updated too and is the best yet for a Pentax DSLR, the camera sporting the SAFOX VIII+ (Plus) module and it’s both fast and accurate and now an AF illuminator has been included, adjacent to the deeply sculpted handgrip, for assistance in low light focusing chores. The Illuminator works well enough for most situations as long as the camera-to-subject distance does not get too great.
Like the K20D before it, the K-7 has a feast of other features, some of which are equal to some much more expensive cameras from other makers on the market. For example, the new sensor provides a 14.6-megapixel resolution with a four-channel readout that allows faster output, something critical for the new and excellent HD Movie mode; this is Pentax’s first movie-shooting DSLR.
Movies can be recorded at HD 720p resolution, with other options available, with mono sound, but there’s no AF in movie shooting which is a real shame as moving subjects, those coming towards the camera in particular become problematic to keep sharp.
However, the camera also has a port for an external microphone, so you can combine movies with better sound quality if you wish. The movie mode means the K-7 keeps pace with the "Joneses", as most other camera makers are also crow barring HD movie recording into their respective DSLR models too.
A new battery pack (there’s an optional battery grip available too, with extra controls) is not backwards compatible with previous models but gives a much-improved boost to shooting performance in terms of the number images that can be shot from a single charge.
I used the camera for 4 days before the battery needed to be charged, with plenty of reviewing and flash use. Incidentally, that built-in flash is a little underpowered but is better than nowt; of course you can fit an accessory flash to the hot shoe. Another shooting option I like is the very useful TAv mode, here turning the control wheel adjusts both the shutter and aperture settings as required with sensitivity changing to ensure an as metered exposure.
Aperture and shutter priority are in there along with full manual control and there’s sensitivity priority too, where you adjust the sensitivity and the camera adjusts the shutter/aperture combinations. In short, there’s an excellent range of manual and semi-manual shooting options that will make most enthusiasts sit up and take notice.
Like the K20D, the camera's program mode also utilises the other neat shooting mode on the K10D: Hyper Program mode. Hyper program is unique to Pentax DSLRs and very useful. It allows you to use the camera as a point and shoot model, but by turning the front or rear control wheels, you can adjust shutter speeds or apertures respectively.
Effectively you have aperture and shutter priority at your finger tips even in the Program mode. Other neat touches include the direct RAW button that allows you to switch quickly to RAW shooting from any mode except the green Auto shooting mode, throw in USB PC/AV, HDMI and DC in ports, X/sync flash, user savable settings, direct flash, white balance, drive and image "looks" buttons on the back plate's jog control and you have a comprehensively specified DSLR indeed.
The camera's APS-C sized 15.07-megapixel sensor, gives 14.6-megapixels of effective resolution; there is a new iteration of Pentax’s PRIME image processing engine (PRIME II) that does the image and movie image calculations. While images are somewhat softer than I’d find ideal, by default, the camera can shoot in two RAW formats, Pentax’s PEF or Adobe’s DNG RAW formats and with JPEG capture at the same time too.
Of course, there are loads of other customisation settings on offer and include six image "looks" such as portrait, vibrant and the like; there are adjustments for saturation, hue, high and low key settings, plus fine sharpness settings, and separate highlight and shadow contrast adjustments. Phew!
As well as the shooting modes and settings there are 37-custom functions to play with and to get at all these controls and settings, the new camera’s control layout is straightforward to use.
A single mode dial is the main entry point into camera’s shooting modes. There’s a unlock button in the top that needs to be pressed to turn the dial or to advance the metering mode switch, which snuggles very tightly to the mode dial’s base. This is fiddly to use if you have larger fingers and I found it all too easy to accidentally activate the pop-up flash, which I found disconcerting, I worried I’d end up knocking it off!
The same fiddliness is encountered when using the dedicated ISO and exposure compensation buttons, behind the combined shutter release, on/off/depth of field preview control. The problem here is the compact new body - and my large fingers and hands.
In terms of the camera’s lens mount, it’s the Pentax K (KAF2, KAF3, KA, and KAF) mount compatible with older Pentax K-mount lenses but with restrictions, as these older lenses lack the electrical contacts required to communicate with the body.
But even so, that makes well over 23-million lenses that will sit on this system camera. The K-7’s new kit lenses, an 18-55mm zoom and a 50-200mm zoom, both have been built with environment seals and protection similar to the body, meaning you can use your camera and lens with confidence even in challenging environmental situations.
Another big plus for the K-7 is the new 3-inch colour screen with its 920k-dot resolution, and despite having a slight yellow cast (at the default setting) as with most things on the K-7, this is easily adjustable via menus. But this means, you must set the screen up properly (particularly to match your PC monitor) as otherwise it is hard to assess the colour/white balance performance which all takes time and patience.
Once the new screen’s corrected, it makes reviewing and manual focus assessment in Live View (LV) a joy: no more squinting to check focusing in playback or with the magnification tool in LV. The menu system is much improved to, particularly compared with Pentax’s earlier efforts in its earlier DSLRs, where you had to contend with a seemingly infinite list of scrollable options. Now a series of tabbed pages and a comprehensive (rotating to match the camera angle) info panel on the screen, allows you to quickly find and adjust settings.
Where options in menus have more text than the screen allows, the menu item’s text will scroll, enabling you to thoroughly understand, as far as the text permits, what the menu options do/provide in terms of control. Other key controls include control wheels, one fore and one aft behind the top plate data LCD. These are large, knurled and easy to use aiding handling somewhat, compared with the other, aforementioned, more difficult to use controls.
Overall then, the balance is about right for the controls, but certainly the fiddly mode dial is something that could and should be looked at.
And so onto the all important image quality. The new CMOS sensor, much like technology used by Canon and Nikon, should provide better image noise performance at higher ISO’s, here the top setting is ISO 6400.
Or rather it should, because the K-7 appears to be rather noisier than I’d have liked. The noise is granular rather than damaging-to-the-image, but it is there.
At ISO 3200 and 6400 noise is noticeable but on longer exposures at higher ISO’s images become unusable, with colour and luminance noise creating with a deeply lined, stripy look to the noise.
Colour, white balance and detail below ISO 800 are all good, however – and despite some rather soft JPEGs at the default three star setting (you get one, two three and four star compression modes to choose between) – there’s loads of detail to eek out as can be seen when processing the RAW files. Highlight and shadow detail are also good at lower ISO’s plus there’s the highlight and shadow optimiser settings to help get even more from them. And you get plenty of headroom in the RAWs for teasing out more detail when processing those yummy RAW files.
The Pentax K-7 is the company’s new flagship and as such, it comes to the market replete with great features at a reasonable price. The need for the new CMOS sensor might be something required for the new movie mode and has allowed HD quality movies to be recorded on the camera, even if there is more noise on longer exposures at higher ISO than I ‘d have liked.
The camera’s new kit lens is suitably sharp and benefits from the weather sealing; I used the 18-55mm kit zoom for this test and performance is very good, but in the final analysis, what we have here is a camera that is well made, provides a stunning array of features, has superb build and styling and is perfectly suited to the market into which it is pitched.
A slightly keener price might help and perhaps those long exposure noise issues can be sorted via a firmware update in the weeks/months to come?