Ricoh recently refreshed their flagship Pentax K-3 DSLR camera with the Mark II version featuring an eye-catching bump in specs and abilities. These new additions, including built-in GPS, AstroTracer star tracking, and Pixel Shift Resolution in the $1,035 K-3 II are really pushing the meaning of “bang for your buck.” In particular, nature photography enthusiasts should really be paying attention to what Ricoh has created here. In this review I cover how the camera performs shooting nature, landscapes, and wildlife to determine if this feature-rich DSLR is an underrated trail boss that deserves a spot in your pack.
The Pentax K-3 II retains some of the key features that made the K-3 a well-received general shooter. The fully weather-sealed, magnesium-alloy body with top-notch ergonomic construction and dual SD card slots, the 100 percent frame coverage viewfinder with a bright 0.95x optical pentaprism, and the 24-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor which offers native ISO settings from 100 to 51,200 and 8.3 frames per second continuous shooting of up to 23 raw images (or 60 JPEGs) are all still here. The camera also has the same maximum shutter speed of 1/8,000s with a 27-point autofocus system and keeps some other of the niftier features such as a selectable anti-aliasing filter which allows you toggle it on demand, and in-body shake reduction image stabilization.
What’s interesting to me is that Ricoh appears to be steering the Pentax K-3 II towards being a specialist instead of remaining a general audience, everybody's happy camera. The feature set on the K-3 II basically reads like a laundry list of ideas that a nature photographer jotted down as to what would be great if a company just put them all into one very affordable camera. The rest of this review will be organized into sections describing the performance of each of these “list” items, starting with the body’s construction.
Fully Weather-Sealed, Magnesium-Alloy Body Construction
The Pentax K-3 II is built with a stainless steel chassis and magnesium alloy is formed around it to create the body’s design. The body is fully weather-sealed and cold-proof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and Ricoh claims there to be 92 independent seals for moisture and dust resistance. The battery door has a great twist-lock mechanism and all the accessory doors feel very tight and flush. Weighing in at 1.76 pounds (799.5 grams) with battery and a memory card installed, everything on the camera feels extremely solid and a pleasure to hold and use.
The ergonomics is one of the greatest camera experiences I’ve ever had, beating the Nikon D800 as my previous favorite. The deep grip features a well-placed notch to further comfort your fingers holding on. On the back, The K-3 II has the best button placement for back-button focusing I’ve ever dealt with. On other cameras, back-button focusing seems like an afterthought and the best customizable button is usually a quick thumb reach away from the most comfortable holding position. On the K-3 II the button lines right up with your palm’s grip and the thumb just naturally rests in line with the button. It sounds like a minor thing, but the shooting experience becomes so much more effortless and enjoyable this way.
The physical buttons throughout the body have nice placement, and nothing felt weird to press or toggle in any standard holding position. Most of the buttons offer quite a bit of customizable options for setting it up in a way that makes the most sense to you. One exception to this is the GPS button located on the left side of the body, previously where the on-camera flash button was on the first K-3. I couldn’t find a way to customize this button, which is a shame because having a physical button to toggle on and off GPS tracking on the fly doesn’t make much sense to me. There’s no immediacy with such a task, so I would have preferred some customizable settings or if they did away with the button all together to further its weather-proofing.
Built-In GPS, Compass, and AstroTracer
They’ve done away with the ubiquitous entry-level feature of a pop-up flash found in the first K-3 and instead now have a built-in GPS device and compass which also powers the functionality of the AstroTracer.
The built-in GPS unit and electronic compass provide your images with EXIF data in not only location coordinates, but altitude and the direction your camera is facing as well. Apart from the obvious helpfulness this gives, the recorded information is perfect for nature photographers who happened upon a great location, but need to return for better conditions to one-up the shot they got. You can actually access this real-time data from the back of the camera too for a quick look at where you’re heading in the field.
The AstroTracer utilizes the built-in GPS, compass, and sensor shifting technology found within the camera and brings them together for a way to eliminate star trails even during long exposures. The GPS and compass unit figures out where your camera is located and where it’s pointed, and then the sensor will move itself (to a limited degree) during the exposure to fight the Earth's rotation and match up with the stars and prevent trails from forming. You can shoot multi-minute exposures with little to no star trails depending on the focal length of the lens you have mounted. When I had the Pentax 12–24mm f/4 mounted, the camera gave me a limit of five minutes. That’s crazy considering that the “500 Rule” for star photography (shutter speed = 500/[focal length * crop factor]) puts me at about 28 seconds before star trails would appear. The AstroTracer allows me 10 times that.
Shake Reduction Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization
The Pentax K-3 II now sports an improved, more precise gyro sensor which will compensate for camera shake up to 4.5 EV steps. Any K-mount lens past and present will benefit from the three-axis Shake Reduction.
If you’re out shooting nature and wildlife at appropriate times of the day (sans tripod), you’ll find these soft lighting scenarios usually allow you to squeeze just enough shutter speed to capture the moment with no real wiggle room when also trying to get the finest image quality as well. Having a 4.5-stop shake compensation brings you that something extra when needed around daybreak or twilight, or when you are in a well-shaded forest.
Pixel Shift Resolution
Pixel Shift Resolution (PSR) is such a cool feature, and it makes perfect sense to be included along with the other improvements if we keep with the theme of the K-3 II as a trail camera. PSR accomplishes gaining more detail and reducing color noise and moiré by capturing four sequential frames while the sensor shifts by one pixel for each shot. The four images are processed immediately after capture and are outputted to a single image file. The outputted file is the same sensor resolution size as normal images, so this isn’t to be confused by Olympus’ High Resolution Mode which shoots eight images to create a much higher megapixel outputted image. Below is a video that explains what PSR is visually:
The outputted file size is about four times that of a normal image captured in the DNG format. So we are talking about DNG file sizes that for me are around 30–35 MB per normal DNG raw image file bumped to 110–120 MB for PSR DNG raw image files.
If you have a tripod handy and you are in front of a scene that you think has some potential, it is well worth switching on PSR because the results are apparent. Expect to spend much more time per each outputted shot though, as PSR is doing four total exposures. Plus, immediately following the exposures, the camera will give you a “Data Being Processed” screen which disables camera functions and takes about four seconds to get through. Also beware of anything moving within your frame during this prolonged exposure time, such as leaves on a windy day, waterfalls, or moving people. You will get crazy looking, brightly-colored pixelated artifacts in your images. If you want the best of both worlds and you know there will be movement within the frame, I suggest shooting one image with PSR on and one with PSR off and then blending between the exposures for any problem areas in Photoshop (you’ll be on a tripod, after all).
LEFT: Pixel Shift Resolution disabled, RIGHT: Pixel Shift Resolution enabled
LEFT: Movement during Pixel Shift Resolution capture, RIGHT: Pixel Shift Resolution disabled
Rounding Out The Feature List
Some other features on the Pentax K-3 II include a 27-point autofocus system, 8.3 frames per second continuous shooting, and an on-demand anti-aliasing filter.
If you shoot nature and landscapes, you are probably no stranger to live view shooting. With the K-3 II, the contrast detect autofocus in live view is great. It focuses quickly and accurately, and has a few different modes of contrast detect to work with. For the best results, using the movable point or spot autofocus was the most reliable for me. Manual focusing in live view is also something I did from time to time to ensure tack-sharp shots and the K-3 II’s focus peaking and focus assist zoom really helped out in these times.
The K-3 II uses the SAFOX11 autofocus system with 27 phase-detection points and 25 cross-type sensors. It has a 86k-pixel RGB exposure metering sensor that can meter a range of -3 to +20 EV. There are a number of customizable settings to choose from in AF-C mode, such as Auto Tracking, Hold AF (Off, Low, Medium, High - A higher setting means the K-3 II won’t reestablish its focusing for a longer period of time even if your moving subject disappears behind a closer object at times), focus-priority or FPS-priority operation, AF zone select, and expandable area autofocus sizes for tracking (8 points, 24 points, or 26 points). Once you get something that works for you, you can save your autofocus settings to a user mode (the K-3 II has three user mode slots) to quickly get back to them.
For uncomplicated, adequately lit scenes, the K-3 II has no issue with either focus time or accuracy — as one would hope to expect. In the shaded woods during softer light hours, where there are many layers of foliage laid out in front the camera, this is where some true performance could shine. For the most part, the K-3 II could lock on accurately with only minimal hunting tagged on. In some scenarios I faced, such as shooting a bird concealed by a very close branch of leaves with a maxed-out telephoto, I couldn’t nail down the shot (which was frustrating when I saw how cool the shot looked on the everything-looks-sharp LCD screen). While I’m sure the higher-end Nikon and Canon’s would do some autofocus wizardry to get these exceptionally hard shots down, those also cost two to six times the amount of the K-3 II.
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The 8.3 FPS continuous shooting speed is also a big help with wildlife photography. Birds and other little creatures are very fidgety, and sometimes you just need to blast some extra frames in order to get the right expression as it can be near impossible to predict.
Something special with the K-3 II is its ability to toggle an anti-aliasing filter when moiré may pose a problem in your images. For my purposes, I never want a low-pass filter compromising sharpness. But for those that shoot a more broad spectrum of subjects, this is just one of those nice options that can satisfy everyone by utilizing the sensor-shift technology already used in the camera.
What I Liked
- Price-to-features ratio is excellent.
- The feel and handling of the camera is one of the best experiences I’ve had.
- Fully weather-sealed body ready for adventure.
- In-body Shake Reduction image stabilization.
- Pixel Shift Resolution is easy to use with obvious advantages.
- The built-in GPS, electronic compass, and AstroTracer are all great additions to a scenic traveller’s kit.
- DNG raw file support. I wish all cameras would give you this option over the camera manufacturer’s proprietary raw file format.
What Could Use Improvement
- Programmable GPS button in a firmware update.
- There may be some issues with weather sealing to figure out, but a tilt-adjustable LCD display would be so nice to have.
- K-mount lens selection looks a little rough and dated, but will hopefully improve with a full-frame Pentax DSLR supposedly shipping in 2015.
- The autofocus system is nothing really to complain about in the K–3 II for its price point, but this is something that you have to get very right if you are trying to take market share from Nikon and Canon.
Before I wrap up this review, I should make it clear that this camera is not only a nature photography camera. Obviously many of these features make sense in other contexts as well. When I first heard about this camera’s release, it was the AstroTracer that caught my attention. From there, I was curious to know what else it could do for a nature photographer such as myself. Everything then on was looked at from the stance of my genre and what I ended up finding was some very nice pairing in many of the special added features.
The Pentax K-3 II is available now from B&H, and is currently selling for $100 off its normal retail price of $1,035.24. That means for $935.24, a sub-$1K price point, you’d have a camera with some of the coolest special features I’ve seen released so far.