From time to time I’ve been accused of giving Pentax an “easy ride”, but I think if you look at my recent reviews of some of the company’s compact cameras, such as the Optio VS 20 or the waterproof Optio WG-2 you’ll see that’s not necessarily the case. I will however readily admit that I have always liked Pentax’s film and digital SLRs, for the simple reason that most of them have been very good, and even the mediocre ones have been generally well-made and easy to use. At their best, Pentax’s DSLRs are a match for anything the more popular brands can produce, and an excellent case in point is the camera I’m looking at today, the K-30.
Launched in May 2012, the K-30 is technically the entry-level model of Pentax’s three current production DSLRs, although the lower-spec K-r from 2010 is still available new from some retailers. With a 16.3-megapixel resolution, 11-point autofocus system and 6fps continuous shooting, the K-30 has a specification that puts it on the same shelf as most other manufacturers’ mid-range models, but has a price tag that makes it competitive.
It’s currently available for around £450 body-only, compared to £349 for the 16.1-megapixel Sony Alpha SLT-A37, £399 for the 24.2-megapixel Nikon D3200 or £519 for the 18-megapixel Canon EOS 650D. There are current DSLR cameras that are significantly cheaper, such as the Nikon D3100, launched in 2010 and available for £309, and the 2011 Canon EOS 1100D, currently selling for around £280, but both of those models have a much lower specification. The 2011 Nikon D5100 is also still available for around £350.
Design and features
The K-30 shares some of its features with Pentax’s previous top-of-the range model the K-5, including its 23.7 x 15.7 mm APS-C sensor, PRIME processing engine and 3in 921k dot monitor, as well as a development of its excellent SAFOX IX+ AF system. It also shares the K-5’s weatherproofing, to the extent that Pentax is marketing the K-30 as “The Outdoor SLR”. The body has 81 seals on the panel joins, controls and hatches, rendering it splash-resistant, dustproof and cold-resistant down to -10 degrees centigrade.
It is sold as a kit with Pentax’s weatherproof DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR lens or as a two-lens kit with the DA 50-200mm f/4.0-5.6 ED WR as well. Unlike the all-metal K-5, the K-30 has a polycarbonate shell over a steel frame, but it feels very solid and robust, especially when compared to other plastic-bodied rivals like the Canon EOS 650D. The build quality is up to Pentax’s usual high standard, with tight panel seams and well-sealed hatches. It is 90g lighter than the K-5, but only a couple of millimetres smaller, although to the eye it looks a lot more compact. The body shape is something of a departure for Pentax, a company previously known for relatively conservative styling. The K-30 has a modern-looking angular body with cosmetic flourishes like the patterned rubber grips and the purely decorative fins on the left of the body. Nonetheless it handles extremely well, with excellent balance and a firm, comfortable grip. It’s available in several colours including blue, red, silver and white, as well as the more traditional black.
Like most Pentax SLRs the K-30’s controls are simple and well laid-out. There’s a large main exposure mode dial on the top plate, a five-button D-pad, and a selection of other buttons, all of which are large, clearly labelled and positioned so that they can be operated with one hand. Unlike the K-5 and K-7 the exposure mode dial doesn’t lock, but it does turn with a nice positive click. The K-30 has two exposure adjustment wheels, one next to the thumb rest and the other on the front of the handgrip.
The control interface is complemented by a comprehensive graphical information display on the monitor screen, again derived from and an improvement on previous models. As well as this is offers the same comprehensive menu system as the K-5, with extensive customisation options. Other menu options include the in-camera multi-level HDR shooting option. The monitor itself is very good, a 7.6cm (3in) TFT LCD screen with an angle of few of around 170 degrees and a good anti-reflective coating. The pentaprism viewfinder is another feature inherited from the K-5, and is extremely clear and bright with a large viewing area, 100 per cent field of view and 0.92x magnification. Information available in the viewfinder includes the build-in tilt-detection, with both pitch and roll levels available in live view mode.
Video shooting has become a major selling point of DLSRs, and the K-30 offers some interesting features, including manual aperture and exposure control, manual sound level control and interval timer automatic shooting. Movies are of course recorded in full 1920 x 1080 HD in H.264 compression, and It offers some in-camera video editing, including capturing a JPEG still from a video frame, but audio is only mono with no external microphone connection, and it also lack an HDMI output. It can shoot decent video, but if this is your priority than the K-30 is probably not your ideal choice.
One unique feature is the K-30’s battery compartment. It hold a rechargeable 1,050mAh lithium-ion battery of a new design different from that in previous models, but it can also take four AA batteries, for those times when you find yourself away from mains electricity for extended periods, a feature which is sure to be welcomed by travellers and explorers.
Since its processor and other internal systems are derived from the professional-quality K-5 it should come as no surprise that the K-30 has outstanding performance. It can start up and take a picture in approximately one and a half seconds, but this drops to about half a second if you turn off the start-up sensor cleaning. In single-shot mode with all options set to automatic it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately half a second, and in continuous shooting mode it can blaze away at 6fps, for 36 shots in JPEG mode or nine shots in raw mode. It also has a 3fps continuous mode.
The SAFOX IXi+ autofocus system is extremely impressive. I don’t have a K-5 on hand for a direct comparison, but it’s certainly significantly faster than my K-7. It is also very good in low light, focusing quickly and accurately even at around -2EV. It’s still not quite as good as the Nikon D5200 in this respect, but it’s not far off.
One area where the K-30 scores over most of its competition is its live view focusing. Like most other DSLRs it uses contrast detection AF in live view mode, but unlike Canon and Nikon it actually works well, focusing quickly and accurately even in relatively low light situations. It’s not as fast as it is in viewfinder mode, but compared to the disappointing live-view AF of most of its rivals it’s a significant selling point.
One of my few complaints is reserved for the exposure metering system. I found that it had a tendency to slightly under-expose in high-contrast lighting, leading to some murky shadows on some shots. This is by no means a major problem, and is easily corrected in raw mode, or by using exposure compensation, but it does stand out as a minor flaw in an otherwise outstanding camera.
The battery duration is excellent. Pentax claims 410 shots if the flash is used half the time, or 480 if no flash is used, and this seems to be borne out by my experience. I charged the camera up a month ago when it arrived, and I’ve taken over 300 shots with it over that time, but the battery indicator is still showing a full charge.
When I’ve reviewed Pentax compacts this is usually the point at which it all goes horribly wrong, but there are no such problems for the K-30. I took around 300 test shots with the K-30 in a variety of lighting conditions, and found that the overall image quality is as good as or better than any of its direct competitors. Colour reproduction is particularly good, with the automatic white balance managing to capture subtle changes in lighting conditions throughout the course of a day.
Some people may consider the K-30’s 16.3-megapixel resolution to be low when compared to some of its rivals, but it’s more than enough for most purposes, and unless you’re regularly blowing your photos up to the size of a billboard you aren’t going to notice any difference. The sensor is superb, recording a huge amount of detail, and the larger photocells produce outstanding low-light results, which are among the best I’ve seen from any DSLR, in terms of both overall noise and recorded detail. Dynamic range is also superb, especially in raw mode or when using the in-camera range enhancement. It does have a tendency to clip highlights in high-contrast lighting situations, but there is a menu option to protect highlight detail, so even this isn’t really a problem
It is the high-ISO noise reduction which is arguably the K-30’s real party piece however, and its image quality at 1600 ISO and above are among the best in its class, as you’ll see from the test shot results on the following page.
My only minor criticism of the image quality is the slight over-sharpening in JPEG mode, but this is a nit-picking quibble; the JPEG results are excellent by any standard, but for even better results using raw mode will really bring out the camera’s full potential.
I’ve tried hard to be critical in this review, but it’s very difficult to find any fault at all with the Pentax K-30. I’m not alone in this, because it has been collecting glowing reviews from every direction. It is an extremely impressive camera by any standard; tough, light, compact, stylish and extremely capable, with excellent performance, comprehensive creative versatility and picture quality as good as or better than anything in its class. It really does offer semi-pro performance and quality for a very good price. If you aren’t already tied into another system you’d be foolish not to consider it.
This is the full frame at 200 ISO, the minimum setting. All the ISO test shots were taken using tungsten studio lights and manual white balance, with +1.7EV exposure compensation.
The shots were taken in JPEG mode at progressively higher ISO settings. View the slideshow below to see the results:
- Image quality
- No HDMI output
£450 inc. VAT (body only)