Pentax K-S2 Field Test Part I

Small town drama or big city glitter: This tiny DSLR handles it with gusto

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75mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200

For quite a few years now, I've been a big fan of Pentax and its interchangeable-lens cameras. Pentax DSLRs are unusually feature-rich for their price-points, and the Pentax K-S2 is no different. Not only does it offer up a bright, clear glass pentaprism viewfinder instead of its rivals' pentamirrors, and photographer-friendly twin control dials when competitors provide just one, it even includes weather sealing so you can shoot with confidence even when the heavens open up.

And despite all its many features, the K-S2 is exceptionally compact. According to brand-owner Ricoh, it's the smallest weather-resistant DSLR to date! (If weather sealing isn't important to you, and small size is your primary goal, you might also want to consider the Canon SL1, which is the smallest and lightest DSLR we've reviewed. That said, the K-S2 is only 0.2 inches wider and 0.1 inches deeper, despite a much longer list of features).

Some important firsts for Ricoh

What made me particularly keen to get my hands on the Pentax K-S2, though, was that it also marks a number of firsts for Ricoh. Most exciting of all is the tilt/swivel vari-angle LCD monitor, which promises to make live view shooting more versatile, and also protects the display when it's closed facing inwards. The K-S2 is also Ricoh's first DSLR to include Wi-Fi wireless networking in-camera, removing the need for fiddling with cables or flash cards if you want to get your photos onto your smartphone or tablet.

55mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

And for quick-and-easy pairing, the Wi-Fi function also comes accompanied by an NFC radio which sets up the connection automatically if you tap the camera against your Android phone or tablet. As if that wasn't enough, there's also a new kit lens which -- despite featuring a retractable design (another first for Ricoh) -- is also weather-sealed!

Colors mean your camera matches your personality

Of course, what I first noticed when I saw the Pentax K-S2 at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year was its unusual color scheme. By default the K-S2 features a traditional all-black design, and a white-and-light-gray version is also available, but the most unusual (and for some, controversial) of the K-S2 Standard Collection designs pairs a black body with dark gray grips and an orange base plate.

The Pentax K-S2 is available in a wide range of body colors beyond the standard all-black version. The animation above shows just a few of your choices, which are grouped into the Standard, Sports and Nature collections.

The effect looks somewhat reminiscent of a sports shoe, and I must admit that I wasn't a fan initially. In the time since CES it's grown on me, though, and there was perhaps a tiny tinge of disappointment when I opened the box to see an all-black review sample in front of me.

75mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200

Sure, the colorful variants aren't as serious-looking, but I've come to realize that as photographers, we sometimes take ourselves rather too seriously. We don't limit ourselves to just black, white or silver for our cars, phones, or plenty of other important tools that we use on a daily basis, so why not put a little of ourselves into our cameras, too? We photographers are, after all, very visual people by our very nature!

If you feel as I now do, you'll be pleased to see that Pentax offers a total of nine other color combinations in the US market, letting you stamp your personality on your camera. (These are sold in two distinct groups: The Sports Collection and Nature Collection, with the former opting for bolder colors and the latter for more muted ones.) And if you don't, well -- there is still that plain black version for you.

Hands-on with the Pentax K-S2

Color choices aside, the Pentax K-S2's body is fairly stylish as DSLRs go. The top deck on either side of the pentaprism / flash housing is mostly flat, tapering off slightly at the left shoulder and front of the handgrip. It's inset with trim pieces that give it an attractive look and feel, and the rest of the body is similarly quite angular.

I found the K-S2 quite comfortable in-hand overall, although the handgrip is just a touch shallow for my large hands, leaving my fingertips pressed into the camera body just slightly. (I'm 6'1" tall, so if you have smaller hands you're likely fine.) The smaller-than-average body also meant that there wasn't quite room for my little finger on the grip, but it curled under the base of the camera just fine.

75mm-equivalent, 1/250 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100

All of the controls were easy to reach, and for the most part they were comfortable to use as well. Button feel wasn't quite as good as that of the flagship K-3 II, but was typical of rival cameras at this price-point.

27mm-equivalent, 1/500 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200

There was only one control that really troubled me much -- the Power switch which encircles the Shutter button. I found that unless I was very careful, I often turned the Power switch too far and set the camera for movie capture, then had to turn the switch back a click to the On position for still image capture. A little stronger detent at the On position would have helped, but this is a pretty minor quibble, all things considered.

Finally, a versatile tilt/swivel LCD!

We've seen articulated LCDs on DSLRs before, but for Ricoh, the presence of such a screen on the Pentax K-S2 is big news. Doubly so because it's a tilt/swivel type, which I vastly prefer over the more common tilt-only screens.

I have two reasons for that preference. Firstly, tilt/swivel screens like this can be closed facing inwards. That not only protects the screen from accidental bumps and knocks, it also means that it's not getting smudged by my nose when I bring the viewfinder to my eye. And secondly, tilt/swivel screens provide for a much greater range of viewing angles.

With the Pentax K-S2, I can frame images in live view mode over my head, from the waist or low to the ground, regardless of whether I prefer a portrait or landscape orientation, and still have the screen facing directly towards me. It makes the live view mode a much more attractive option, and I enjoyed being able to shoot from awkward angles without having to prostrate myself or simply point and pray, guessing my framing as I've done before on cameras with fixed displays.

34mm-equivalent, 1/250 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 100

Yes, the articulation mechanism is probably rather more fragile than a fixed-position screen would be, but with that said, it feels pretty rugged and sturdy. I'd only worry about it breaking if I dropped the camera with the screen extended. Regular usage isn't likely to hurt the mechanism, even in the rain. (This is a weather-sealed camera, remember, and while I've yet to shoot with it in a downpour I've been thoroughly impressed with other Pentax models' ability to shoot without issue even in driving rain.)

User-friendly selfie framing is a nice touch

While I'm not personally a big selfie shooter, the Pentax K-S2 has an added trick here that I really like. When the screen is facing forwards to allow for self-portrait framing, the regular shutter button -- which like that of any DSLR is a bit tricky to reach with the camera facing towards you -- swaps its role with the Wi-Fi button. To reinforce this change visually, there are illuminated rings around both buttons, and the ring for whichever is acting as the shutter button will light up green.

These aren't the only buttons which can light up, incidentally. There's also an illuminated ring around the OK button that sits at the center of the four-way controller on the rear deck. This lights up in blue when the camera is configured such that button can be used to switch the four-way controller buttons between focus point selection and their labeled actions.

75mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100

You can choose two different brightness levels for all three of these illuminated rings, as well as disabling illumination altogether. (That comes in handy when you're shooting in low light and don't want to call attention to yourself, or to destroy your night vision.) The switch of shutter and Wi-Fi button functionality when the screen is facing forwards can also be disabled, if you'd prefer to use the regular shutter button while allowing your subjects to see themselves.

A more modern-feeling user interface...

27mm-equivalent, 1/160 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 100

Another change in the Pentax K-S2 compared to most of its predecessors can be found on-screen, where Ricoh has overhauled the menu system. This change actually took place in the entry-level K-S1 model first, but I didn't personally get my hands on that camera while it was in our offices, so it's with the K-S2 that I get my first introduction to the update.

No question about it: The updated menu system looks great on the Pentax K-S2's tack-sharp and extremely clear LCD monitor. It has a much more modern appearance with cleaner, more readable fonts and no more skeuomorphic faux-tabs lining the top of the screen. Instead, there are subtle rule marks between icons for the different menu sections, and these are separated from the menu items beneath with a darker background color. The menu page numbers for all but the currently-selected page are also absent, replaced with small dots that indicate there are more pages of options available.

...but it's much the same UI beneath the skin

The interesting thing is that while it's a night-and-day difference visually, in terms of its functionality the menu system is almost completely unchanged. (Not that this is a bad thing, for the most part, as it's pretty straightforward and self-explanatory.)

75mm-equivalent, 1/640 sec. @ f/10, ISO 200

There are still the same number of options per screen, and many of the more obscure options are accompanied by icons which attempt to enlighten users as to the camera's settings and their purpose, sometimes more successfully than others. A new icon at bottom right of the screen is an example of the latter, showing what seems to be a waveform covered by a bidirectional arrow and a dot, all alongside a semicircle that's used to indicate a rear-dial function.

New users are more likely to figure out that this implies you can roll the rear dial to switch between menu tabs by simply trying the dial, rather than by looking at the icon. And there's no corresponding icon to tell you that you can roll the front dial to switch pages within a given menu tab, which seems a little inconsistent.

75mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

But while these icons could use a little work, there's no question that I prefer this updated menu system to those of past models for its fresher feel and greater readability. I can only hope that the same system is introduced in the flagship K-3 series cameras sooner rather than later. (Perhaps a feel-good firmware update for existing owners would be in order, Ricoh? Just a thought!)

A much smaller (but rather finicky) kit lens

One thing I'm not a fan of is the Pentax K-S2's new 18-50mm retracting, weather-sealed kit lens. On the plus side, when retracted it's significantly smaller than the 18-55mm zoom which has come bundled with many of Pentax's DSLRs over the last few years, from the entry level right the way up to the company's enthusiast-grade APS-C flagships. And yes, it's also weather-sealed, which is an impressive feat in a retractable lens. Image quality is also fairly good, by affordable kit-lens standards.

36mm-equivalent, 1/50 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 400

So why didn't I like this new optic? There are a few reasons. Perhaps the most frustrating is that its retraction mechanism is incredibly finicky. It would often get itself bound up, and no reasonable amount of force on the zoom ring (which serves double-duty as a retraction control) would either extend or retract the lens when this happened with frustrating regularity.

This problem seemed to happen more frequently with the camera facing lens downwards, but in no position did it seem to happen 100% of the time, and nor did any particular orientation of the camera body seem to completely eliminate the issue, either. The only way around the problem was to relax my grip, then have another try at retracting or extending the lens from the point at which it had become bound up. The second or third try would always achieve my intention, but I've never seen a problem like this on a retracting lens before, and I feel it's not unreasonable to expect the mechanism to work on the first time, every time.

75mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

I should note at this point that the problem is not specific to the sample lens I have in-hand. I had the opportunity to handle multiple copies of the same lens back at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier in the year, and noticed the exact same thing at the time. I'd merely written it off as a pre-production issue, presuming the lenses to be hand-assembled from preliminary parts, though, and thought no more of it at the time. Now I find myself wishing I'd spoken up, although realistically the design was likely finalized at that point anyway. (And I can't have been the only one to have noticed the issue.)

A rather narrow zoom ring...

The problem is exacerbated somewhat by the fact that the zoom ring is rather narrow. Sure, that's partly of necessity thanks to the lens' compact dimensions when retracted, but there's a small fixed-position ring that sits between the focus and zoom rings, and many's the time I found myself wishing that fixed ring were a bit narrower, and the zoom ring a bit wider. It's simply too easy to grip both the zoom ring and that fixed ring, then have to adjust your grip so that you can actually turn the dial.

...and it's simply too easy to retract the lens by mistake

And then there's the locking button which prevents the lens from extending when not in use, or from being retracted when you're shooting with the camera. It's both extremely small and a bit fiddly to press when you want to retract the lens, and yet I found myself accidentally pressing it with some regularity while zooming, resulting in my accidentally moving the lens past the 18mm position and retracting it just ever so slightly.

75mm-equivalent, 1/160 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

At this point, if shooting through the viewfinder, there is no real indication that anything is amiss. Sure, a tiny "MF" indication appears in the viewfinder display, indicating that the lens cannot autofocus, but otherwise the camera appears to be functioning completely normally. Your first indication that anything is amiss comes when you half-press the shutter button and nothing happens -- by which time you've potentially already missed your shot. The camera is clearly aware that something is amiss, as there's a huge warning on the main LCD monitor, but with your eye to the viewfinder there's no way to see it.

A lens for those who value compact size, first and foremost

55mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

I'd really like to see this addressed in a firmware update, as it would seem eminently possible to use the existing digits of the viewfinder display to show the word "LENS" or similar when you've strayed past the limits of the optical zoom, providing an immediate indication that something is amiss. Even were that fixed, though, I couldn't in good faith recommend this optic unless size is the be-all and end-all for you.

I simply found myself shooting with the 18-50mm lens as if it weren't a retractable optic, leaving it extended all the time (unless it was retracted accidentally), and only intentionally retracting the lens at the end of a shoot when it was time to pack my gear away in a camera bag. That rather defeats the purpose of the lens being retractable in the first place.

That's no knock on the camera itself

And of course, my issues with the lens don't reflect on the camera itself, at least beyond the fact that the lens is included in the kit. The whole point of an interchangeable-lens camera like this is that you can replace the lens whenever you want to, and the Pentax K-S2 will work just fine with other K-mount optics. For my first shoot, I stayed with the new retractable lens just to see what it was capable of. For my next Field Test, I'll likely switch to some of my other Pentax lenses, and see how the K-S2 handes with them.

On the road in search of great subjects

That first shoot, on which I shot the many images you'll find throughout this report, took place on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to nearby Nashville, Tennessee. I wanted some new subjects for my lens, and find it more inspiring to shoot in a new location. Although it's only a few hours down the road, I don't get to Nashville very often, so it seemed a good choice.

75mm-equivalent, 1/25 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 12,800

As these things have a tendency to do, though, the plan morphed when I stopped for lunch en-route in Cookeville, a small, historic railroad town that I'd always driven straight by in the past. It turned out to be a very photogenic place, and most of the photo in the gallery were shot there.

Shooting with the K-S2 is lots of fun

42mm-equivalent, 1/60 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 3200

Shooting with the Pentax K-S2 was, other than the lens, a very pleasant experience. Framing images through the glass pentaprism finder was a delight, and the camera happily kept up with me as I rattled off bracketed bursts of raw+JPEG images. Focus was swift and confident, and the images looked great for a camera at this price-point.

Slightly inconsistent metering, but great image quality

That's not to say everything was perfect. I did find the K-S2's exposure metering a bit inconsistent, and had to opt for one of my bracketed exposures more often than I'm used to. That's likely down to the use of a much coarser 77-segment metering sensor as used in most of Pentax's DSLRs, rather than the newer, much finer-grained 86,000 pixel metering sensor that I've grown used to since it was introduced in the Pentax K-3 in late 2013. However, simply bracketing exposures as I did was enough to save the day, and the K-S2's raw files contain enough leeway that if shooting raw only, I likely wouldn't have even bothered bracketing my shots.

Out of the box, the K-S2's colors were pretty accurate if a bit on the saturated side, and with blues tweaked to yield more attractive (if less realistic) skies, as Pentax's cameras tend to do. I personally quite like the rich look that Ricoh's DSLRs provide by default, but if you find them too vivid, it's easily tamed by dialing the saturation back just a little, or switching to a different custom image mode. (The Natural mode in particular provides a good rendering of the real world, and when I shoot in JPEG mode with my own Pentax DSLRs, I typically use this myself, then bump the saturation up a bit in post-processing for a punchier look.)

My respect for photojournalists and firefighters continues to grow

While shooting in Cookeville, I happened on one particularly unexpected subject. While shooting in Dogwood Park, I noticed smoke pouring from behind the trees nearby, and quickly made my way in that direction to find the sad site of a home engulfed in flames. (And that's no exaggeration -- sheets of flame were occasionally rising as much as 30 feet or more beyond the rooftop, and I could easily feel the heat from the fire despite staying a good couple of hundred feet back.)

75mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100

Photojournalism isn't really my niche, but I like to exercise my skills when I get the opportunity, and so I spent a while and rattled off dozens of photos from a variety of angles, trying to get a shot that truly captured the drama of the scene as firefighters battled the blaze. What I quickly learned is that shooting a fire is a very difficult task. For very good reason, law enforcement was working to keep everybody well back from the scene, and every time I thought I'd found a good angle, the wind conspired to carry thick, black smoke in my direction, making it darned-near impossible to shoot anything.

75mm-equivalent, 1/160 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 100

Between that and the fact that the firefighters had set up in a location that was hard to see from any vantage point available to me, it was clear that I wasn't going to win any awards. It was still interesting to step into the shoes of a photojournalist just briefly, though, and my respect for those who shoot the photos we see alongside the headlines on a daily basis has grown immensely. (Not to mention that for the firefighters: I have some firefighting training in my past, and I know just what a spectacularly tough job it can be!)

There's still plenty more to come!

After the fire, I headed on to Nashville, arriving much later than planned as the sun was setting. No matter -- although I wasn't entirely satisfied with my photos from the fire, I'd already gotten plenty of other images around Cookeville that I was quite happy with, and the Pentax K-S2 had performed admirably throughout. I wrapped my evening up with a few evening shots at moderately high sensitivities, all of which you'll see in the gallery.

34mm-equivalent, 1/50 sec. @ f/4, ISO 1600

And that brought my day's shooting to an end. In my second Field Test, I'll head out for some proper night shooting, testing out the Pentax K-S2's low-light chops. I'll also test the Wi-Fi functionality, and take a look at the K-S2 from a video standpoint as well. Hop on over to Part II of my Field Test now to see how the Pentax K-S2 fares!


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