- Review Date: 02/29/2012
- Bottom line:
The entry-level Pentax K-r boasts fast continuous shooting and does a good job in low-light, but this D-SLR ships with a kit lens that is anything but sharp and lacks autofocus capability during video recording.
Fast continuous shooting. In-body shake reduction. High-resolution rear LCD.
Small viewfinder. Poor kit lens. No autofocus during video.
As Pentax's entry-level SLR, the K-r ($699.95 direct with 18-55mm lens) has a bit of a storied heritage. The company's K1000 was the student camera of the 1970s—thousands of photographers cut their teeth on that 35mm SLR. The K-r offers full compatibility with the K-mount lenses used by the K1000, but that's where the similarities end. The 12-megapixel K-r is a fully automatic D-SLR with a high-resolution rear LCD and the ability to grab photos at close to 6 frames per second. The camera is a bit behind in terms of video technology—it doesn't support any type of autofocus while recording—and the bundled kit lens is pretty poor in terms of sharpness. The camera poses no danger to our Editors' Choice for sub-$1,000 D-SLRs, the Nikon D5100 ($899.99, 4.5 stars), but if you're interested in shooting with Pentax's line of compact prime lenses, take a look—assuming that you're willing to ditch the included 18-55mm lens and shoot with something of better optical quality.
Design and Features
The K-r doesn't offer as much of a size advantage over entry level D-SLRs as the Pentax K-5 ($1,649.95, 3 stars) does over mid-range bodies. It measures 3.8 by 4.9 by 2.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 21 ounces, making it a bit larger and heavier than the 3.75 by 4.75 by 2.5-inch, 17.4-ounce Nikon D3100 ($699.95, 4 stars). Like most entry-level D-SLRs, the K-r uses a pentamirror viewfinder—which provides a dimmer, smaller image than the more traditional pentaprism design. Pentamirrors are less expensive to produce and are also lighter, but it's unfortunate to see that the industry has decided to sacrifice quality for lower production costs. The only entry-level model currently available that doesn't use a pentamirror is the Sony Alpha 35 ($699.99, 3 stars)—that D-SLR uses an electronic LCD viewfinder.
Pentax offers the K-r in three color choices—black, white, and red. Most D-SLRs are available only in black, but if you're not concerned about being inconspicuous when shooting, the red body is striking. Its 3-inch rear LCD offers a 921k dot resolution—three times that of the Pentax K-x ($599.95, 4 stars) that the K-r replaces. This makes it possible to review shots in the field to verify critical focus, and is also helpful when focusing in Live View mode.
Unlike its big brother, the K-5, the K-r doesn't feature any sort of weather sealing. Aside from preventing you from shooting in a downpour, the lack of sealing makes for a louder camera. I found the K-r to be one of the louder D-SLRs with which I've shot—especially at high frame rates, in sharp contrast to the K-5, which is one of the quietest.
The camera has the standard physical controls that you'll find on most entry-level SLRs including dedicated buttons to control White Balance, the Flash mode, ISO, the Drive mode, and EV compensation. They are configured in a manner that makes the back of the camera less cluttered than the Canon EOS Rebel T3 ($599.99, 3.5 stars), which squeezes a dozen buttons onto its rear plate. The Pentax engineers placed two buttons—the EV compensation control and the programmable Green button—on the top plate, which makes them easier to access without removing the camera from your eye. In addition to the standard SLR shooting modes, the Mode dial also has presets for several scene modes—which should make the camera more comfortable to use if you are transitioning from a point-and-shoot model.
Pentax has built a nice menu system into the camera for those times when you need to adjust a shooting setting that doesn't have a physical control. Hitting the Info button scrolls through various rear displays, one of which is a laundry list of common settings—15 in total—that can be quickly adjusted, without having to dive through numerous menu screens. To adjust more esoteric settings, you get a more-detailed text menu. The design should be familiar to Pentax shooters—it's basically the same one that was in the company's first generation D line of D-SLRs.
Performance and Conclusions
The K-r does not disappoint when it comes to speed, starting up and grabbing a shot in about 0.7 second, and recording a scant 0.1 second shutter lag. It also does quite well in terms of continuous shooting, grabbing a photo every 0.17 second—just shy of 6 frames per second. This is very impressive for a camera at this price point—most of its direct competitors, including the Canon Rebel T3, Nikon D3100, and our Editors' Choice Nikon D5100 top out at 3 frames per second. The same-price Sony Alpha 35 is able to grab 5 frames per second, thanks in part to its pellicle mirror design. The K-r is able to capture 7 photos at this rate before its buffer fills, and requires about 20 seconds to write all that information to its memory card after the burst.
I used Imatest to measure the sharpness of the included 18-55mm kit lens and found it to be a disappointing performer. Typically, kit zooms are not of the highest optical quality, but this one worse than others, especially in the telephoto range. A sharp image requires 1,800 lines per picture height of resolution, a number that the K-r's lens was never able to hit. It grabbed 1,416 lines at 18mm, 1,527 lines at 35mm, and a pretty-awful 1,098 lines at 55mm.
The K-r fared a bit better in the noise test. As you increase a camera's ISO—its sensitivity to light—the level of noise in a photo increases in kind. When an image is made up of more than 1.5 percent noise it starts to look very grainy, making it unsuitable for general use. The K-r is able to keep the noise below this threshold through ISO 1600, and only records 1.7 percent at ISO 3200. Both the Nikon D3100 and D5100 do better in low light—keeping noise under control through ISO 6400, a setting at which the K-r crosses the 2.3 percent noise barrier—which makes for a very grainy photo. The camera does provide in-body shake reduction, so your photos will be stabilized regardless of the lens that is attached. This makes it possible to take blur-free photos using longer shutter speeds, reducing your need to push the ISO higher in some situations.
Even though it doesn’t support 1080p capture or autofocus during recording, the K-r camera is capable of capturing some very nice video—both sharp and colorful. It records footage in the AVI file format at 720p25, which produces a rather cinematic look. You may find this limiting if you're shooting action and desire a faster frame rate—if that is a concern, take a close look at the Sony Alpha 65 ($999.99, 4 stars). The camera is a bit more expensive, but gives you plenty of options in terms of resolution and framerate, topping out at 1080p60.
As you'll need to focus the lens manually, the sound of your hand moving the focus ring is audible on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, there is no microphone input jack on the camera as there is on the Pentax K-5, so you'll have to take care when adjusting focus or focal length. The K-r uses a proprietary USB port for computer connectivity and can accept standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards. It ships with a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery, but you can purchase the D-BH109 AA Battery Holder ($39.95) if you'd like to use standard AA batteries to power the camera.
The K-r is a bit of a mixed bag. Its fast frame rate is great for capturing action and its high ISO performance is, while not the best in the field, respectable. The included kit lens is of poor optical quality, and the video recording is limited to 720p25 sans autofocus. The K-r's pentamirror finder is par for the course with cameras in this price range—you'll have to lay out more than $1,000 for a camera with an old-fashioned pentaprism. If you've already bought into the Pentax system, the K-5 is a better camera, albeit a much more expensive one.
If you're searching for your first D-SLR, the Nikon D3100 or our Editors' Choice D5100 are worth a close look. The D3100 is the same price as the K-r and offers full-time autofocus during video recording and better high ISO performance. If you aren't married to the idea of getting a D-SLR with an optical viewfinder, consider the Sony Alpha 35—it almost matches the K-r's frame rate for the same price, but uses an LCD viewfinder, which is very sharp, but suffers from lag issues that make it more frustrating to use than a pentamirror finder. There is also the $1,000 Sony Alpha 65, which can shoot at 9 frames per second and features a very nice OLED finder that eliminates the lag issue—but, again, the kit lens is unremarkable. It's tough to find the perfect entry-level D-SLR, as there are tradeoffs that must be made to keep costs under control—but remember that big advantage of an interchangeable lens camera is the ability to upgrade to a higher-quality lens down the road.