Friday, December 07, 2007

Pentax K10D… a year later

About this Review


Since I don’t think that the world needs yet another K10D review or that I can (nor want to) compete with the cohorts of highly talented and meticulous professional reviewers, I decided to focus on what makes the K10D unique and innovative and not waste your time going after the minute details of each and every options.

All my comments about Image Quality are based on images shot in RAW mode. I never bother shooting jpeg.

Introduction


Time runs! It has been a year since I started using the Pentax K10D. Back in December 2006, the K10D was already a very affordable DSLR (about $900 at that time, around $550 now with rebate, body only), loaded with very nice features: improved shake reduction, dust-proof weather resistant body, large viewfinder with a glass pentaprism… definitively a step up to the already very nice K100D camera I played with for a couple of months before deciding to invest a bit more into the Pentax System.

Back in 2006, my workhorse camera was the excellent Nikon D200. I used it for pretty much everything: studio work, landscape photography, candid, weddings, sports and street photography. My only issue with it was it size. I like small cameras.

So in September 2006, I gave the K100D (the K10D older/little brother) a try. I was so impressed with this camera that I decided to take it with me when I had to travel to Shanghai for business. To my surprise I found that I exclusively used the Pentax during this 3 week long trip, leaving the Nikon in my hotel room all that times! In fact I liked the Pentax so much that as soon as the K10D became available, I decided to buy one and after few weeks using it I retired my D200.

So why am I reviewing now a camera that as been released more than a year ago? Because I truly believe that in order to publish a reliable photographer review (as opposed to a geek review), one needs to spend more that few days or weeks with the camera. After taking tens of thousands of images in freezing cold winter (Colorado) and in hot and humid summer (Texas), from sea level to 10000 feet elevation, with a multitude of different Pentax lenses, I think it is time for me to share a couple of things I discovered while using this fantastic camera. Not to mention that with its new bargain price, the K10D is now more appealing than ever.

The Camera


The K10D is Pentax’s most advanced digital SLR, as of today. It offers a plethora of advanced and original features, like Share Reduction (SR), dust-proof weather resistant body, very clever exposure modes and 11 point AF with 9 cross sensors. The imager is the Sony 10 mega-pixels APS-C size CCD also used by other manufacturers.

Handling


The K100D is a very nicely build camera that feels right in my hands. It’s unfortunately bigger than the K100D, but definitively smaller than the Nikon D200/D300 or Canon 40D.

All essential settings can be adjusted directly using the numerous dials and buttons available to you: metering, auto-focus, ISO, shake reduction, bracketing. You only need to navigate the menus for white balance, flash settings and drive mode. You can assign different roles to the front and rear dials, to the AF button and to the “green” button. For instance, I like to have the front dial controlling the ISO in Aperture Priority mode (the rear dial being used to set the aperture value).

The AF mode lever can be set to Manual, Continuous or Single. No need to dive in the menus to switch between C and S, as it is unfortunately too often the case with entry level cameras.

The viewfinder (glass pentaprism) is big, bright and precise, with no distortion whatsoever. Manual focusing is nevertheless a challenge with all auto-focus SLRs that lack split image / microprism focusing screens. The viewfinder status bar provides all the information I need and the AF point LEDs and frame are not distracting.

Conclusion for Handling


Pros

  • Excellent construction and ergonomics, very logical and convenient controls.
  • Excellent viewfinder and viewfinder information.

Cons

  • I could use dedicated white-balance and drive mode controls.
  • I don’t like the position of the lens release button (right side, when holding the camera). I prefer when it’s on the left (no pun), like with all others manufacturers but Leica. This way, you don’t need a third hand to change lens.

Auto Focus


Let’s cut to the chase: the K10D 11 point AF system (with 9 cross sensors) performs very well. It might not be the fastest, but it is reasonably accurate, even in very low light. Also, the AF points are ideally spread over the frame.

The other good news is that ALL the 9 cross sensors can be trusted, so you are not stuck with the central AF point (no need to “focus then compose” because you can only rely on the central AF point, as it is too often the case with other DSLRs).

Continuous focusing is another story. As far as I can tell, the Pentax AF module doesn’t implement any kind of predictive AF, so with subjects quickly moving toward or away from the camera, the AF lags behind. This might be a deal breaker for some.

Auto Focus Quirks


It’s like all DSLRs regardless of brands or models have been jinxed when it comes to AF. In the case of the K10D, the jinx is an annoying case of front focusing that happens when shooting under artificial (tungsten) light. To make things worse, this is usually when you need to use your lens wide open.

Of course, you can always try to micro adjust the AF when the camera is in service mode and neutralize this front focusing problem, but it is not recommended by Pentax and only possible with firmware 1.10. I really hope that Pentax will add an AF adjustment function to its future DSLRs (Canon did it with the 1D Mark III and Nikon with the D3 and D300). But in the meantime, I’ll keep using the service menu…

Although most of the Pentax lenses I use behave consistently, AF wise, I found that the FA 50mm f/1.4 and the DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited can be problematic. The FA 50mm tendency to front focus under tungsten light is more pronounced than with the other primes lenses.

As for the DA 21mm (or at least with my copy of this lens), the problem is more complex than that: this lens back focuses in daylight when the AF is performed with the aperture between f/3.2 and f/5.6 but it focuses perfectly when AF is performed with the aperture set to f/6.3 and beyond and then reset to f/3.2 right before taking the picture. In other words:

  • Case 1: aperture priority at f/3.2, AF is performed, picture is taken: back focus

  • Case 2: aperture priority at f/6.3, AF is performed, then camera set to Manual Focus and aperture set to f/3.2: perfectly focused.

Go figure…

Conclusion for Auto Focus


Pros

  • Very consistent AF, very accurate and sensitive.
  • All 9 cross sensors can be trusted. No need to “focus then compose”.
  • Ideal positioning of the 11 AF points.
  • Access to service menu let you fine tune the AF (not recommended nor supported by Pentax).

Cons

  • No predictive AF, continuous AF is lame.
  • Camera front focuses under tungsten light condition.
  • A couple of Pentax lenses show some inconstant AF results.

Metering


Not too much to say about metering and the K10D: it’s excellent. Everything is as it should be: multi-segment metering is adequate in most situations, spot metering is very precise and the controls are ideally located so switching from the different modes is easy and intuitive. Also, Pentax provides us with a couple of “smart” modes, like Sv (Sensitivity Priority), TAv (Shutter and Sensitivity Priority) and a very flexible Program mode. In review mode, the usual RGB histogram and the flashing clipped highlights and shadows are also very helpful to fine tune the exposure.

Shake Reduction (SR)


For SR, the K10D is at least one stop better than the K100D. It gives you 2 to 3 stops advantage, depending on the lens. And after using it for a year, I found that SR is indeed very valuable with normal and wide lenses. Just to give you an idea, I am consistently getting sharp pictures at 1/10s with a 40mm lens.

This is definitively a feature I would sorely miss and I would really hesitate to buy a camera without SR.

Image Quality


Image quality is very difficult to evaluate, since so many things contribute to it. I honestly think that the IQ can’t be assessed without taking in account the real world parameters that can influence it: AF performance, metering, camera shake (and shake reduction), etc.

In other words, I don’t care if a camera has a fantastic sensor if this very camera cannot accurately AF or meter properly. Or requires using a tripod because of mirror slap induced vibrations.

Back to the K10D, I already said the AF was good, the metering excellent and SR very effective. That’s definitively a good start! So what about the 10MP sensor? Well, over all, it’s not too bad:

  • Noise is well contained up to ISO 400, acceptable at ISO 800 and passable at ISO 1600. Unfortunately, the K10D has a “bug”: the processing engine introduces a Vertical Pattern Noise (VPN) that might show up in high ISO images, or if you “push” the levels in post processing. It is not often visible, but when it is, I found that it’s almost impossible to get rid of.
  • The anti-aliasing filter is a tad too weak in my opinion, but I know that most people prefer it this way. In my case, I would have preferred a stronger high quality anti-aliasing filter.

Bottom line for Image Quality


If you always manual focus and always use a tripod, then you can definitively find better sub $1000 DSLR cameras than the K10D, IQ wise. But in real world situations, the K10D is a winner. I wouldn’t recommend shooting above ISO 800/1250 though, mainly because of the VPN “bug”.

Compared to…


Before using the K10D, I used Canon (D60, 10D, DRebel), Olympus (E-1), Nikon (D100, D70, D2H, D200) and the Pentax K100D. I won’t be comparing the K10D against all these cameras but only against the Nikon D200 and the little brother, the Pentax K100D.

What I prefer in the K10D vs. the Nikon D200

  • Shake Reduction: this is a big one. As I wrote earlier, the K10D SR system will provide you with at least 2 to 3 stop advantage against the D200. Not only because it is very efficient, but also because the D200 shutter is vibration prone.
  • Cross AF sensors: the D200 AF system is definitively more advanced than the one on the K10D, but the Nikon has only one cross sensor compared to nine for the K10D. With the Nikon, I always had to “focus and recompose”, since the accuracy of the external AF sensors was not that great. Not such thing with the K10D. You can trust and rely on all 9 cross sensors to accurately focus.
  • Smaller body: you mileage may vary on that one, but I prefer small cameras.
  • Pentax Pancake Limited lenses: that was the reason I bought into Pentax in the first place.

What I prefer in the Nikon D200

  • Both shutter lag and blackout time are noticeably shorter.
  • Continuous AF: this one is a no-brainer. I am not even sure that the K10D has predictive AF (if so, Pentax forgot to mention that in the K10D manual).
  • Lens offering: hundreds of lens to choose from.
  • Better anti-aliasing filter. It forces you to sharpen you images in post processing, but it prevents artifacts.
  • Better automatic ISO.

K10D vs. Pentax K100D

I found that the K10D is better at everything but the size and the high ISO performance when compared to the K100D. Even though, I love the K100D. It is small and simple to use yet very effective. So if you care for better SR, larger image buffer, weather sealing and/or better controls, I would recommend the K10D. Otherwise, go with the K100D.

Conclusion


It's hard not to like the K10D: great handling, excellent build quality, plenty of innovative and advanced features, capable AF system (with some quirks), great image quality (up to ISO 400/800)... and the ability to mount these extraordinary Pentax Limited lenses. All that for about $600.

Just like any other camera, the K10D shows also some weaknesses and limitations, like the less than stellar continuous AF (AF-C) performance, the noise level and noise pattern above ISO 800 or the lack of telephoto lens in the Pentax lens lineup.

I would love to see Pentax releasing a K10D in a smaller body, with better high ISO performance and auto-focus calibration. But overall, for me and for now, the K10D does the trick.

4 comments:

Mattp9 said...

I totally agree. I like it more and am continually finding more ways the camera challenges me almost one year later. Yes, I look forward to the next generation, more so because of how photographer friendly the K10D is. I look forward to the continuation of the Pentax line, and your article on your experience with this gem of a camera.

Pavel said...

Looking forward to the review!

* johnny favorite * said...

I hope I'll finally buy myself K10D this year...
And I wish you a happy New Year!:)

Sune said...

Hi Mskad,
thanks for your thoughts and experiences with the K10. I've had it since summer, and continue to discover new uses and possibilities.

I definitely agree that one needs to spend more that few days or weeks with the camera.

And I'm happy to see that you like the general AF ability, but that they need to work on predictable AF-C.


There were some threads about VPN, and what to do about it on DPr. I believe some showed some software that could take care of it. I think this thread has links to it :
http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/readflat.asp?forum=1036&thread=23853688

Else the K20 should have gone to lenghts to avoid the possibility.

Thanks for your fine blog
Sune