Pentax K-S2 Field Test Part II

It's time for fairground fun as the sun goes down

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60mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 3200

In my first field test of the Pentax K-S2, I found plenty to like about this affordable mid-range shooter. From a pentaprism viewfinder, twin control dials and weather sealing to a tilt/swivel LCD and in-camera Wi-Fi, the K-S2 is positively packed with features. That's doubly impressive when you consider that its body is unusually compact by weather-sealed DSLR standards. (And yet it's also very comfortable in-hand.

At the end of that first test, I'd only really found one fly in the ointment: A retracting kit lens whose tiny controls made it fiddly to shoot with, which also tended to stick while extending or retracting, and which was also too easy to slightly retract. In fairness, though, the lens only adds about $50 to the street price, and you can now buy the camera body-only in the US market if you want to forego it in favor of a more satisfying lens.

Three main features remained for me to test

For my second field test, I left the finicky extending lens at home and set out with some nicer glass in search of new subjects with which to test the remainder of the camera's feature set. Specifically, I wanted to take a look at low-light image quality, both at higher sensitivities and using longer exposure times. I also wanted to try out the K-S2's new in-camera Wi-Fi features, a first for a Pentax DSLR. And finally, I still had video capture on the list to check.

Off to the fair for some night shooting

For my night shoot, I had a subject lined up that would kill two birds with one stone. I wanted something interesting and colorful to point my lens at once the sun went down. I also needed a suitable reward for my six-year old son Geoffrey, who had recently helped carry my camera gear around Jonesborough, Tennessee for my first field-test of Ricoh's flagship Pentax K-3 II DSLR. And so, we were off to the Anderson County fair, a small but quite busy and colorful annual fair that takes place about 20 miles outside of downtown Knoxville.

202mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 3200

Definitely consider the K-S2's higher-end siblings

Incidentally, with a pricetag only $120 higher than the K-S2, the enthusiast-grade Pentax K-3 -- near-identical to the K-3 II that I mentioned above -- should also be on your shortlist if you're considering a new Pentax DSLR. And although the K-3 II itself currently sells for about $180 more than does the K-3 (and $300 more than the K-S2), it too is definitely worth considering if you're a fan of travel, the great outdoors or still-life photography.

54mm-equiv., 1/4,000 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 12,800

I'd suggest reading my Pentax K-3 Field Tests and Pentax K-3 II Field Test for more thoughts on those cameras. You can also compare their features with the Pentax K-S2 at the links below.

Pentax K-S2 vs. Pentax K-3

Pentax K-S2 vs. Pentax K-3 II

Starting off with some high shutter speed, high ISO shots

Although you could count the number of rides at the Anderson County Fair on two hands, they were for the most part quite brightly lit with lights of all different hues, and would lend themselves rather well to long-exposure photography. With no higher ground around the fairground -- at least other than the Ferris wheel, which wasn't going to offer a stable shooting platform -- I would perhaps be a bit limited in my framing choices, but I figured I'd get plenty of good shots nonetheless. I aimed to arrive right around sunset, and then shoot increasingly longer exposures through the transition from light to dark, then switch to handheld, high-ISO photography for the remainder of the evening. (The fair was set to close only an hour or so after sunset.)

To ensure Geoffrey got some time on the rides, I got there a little early. That gave me a chance to try a few quick shots of him on the rides, using higher shutter speeds that would both freeze the motion and push me into high ISO territory, and give me an idea of what to expect. I quickly found that ISO 3200 offered a pretty good balance, yielding sharp and fairly detailed results straight out of the camera. (Pixel-peeping the shot below, even though there's clearly some noise, it's reasonably film-like and you can make out individual eyelashes quite easily.)

202mm-equivalent, 1/1,250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 3200

For that particular shot, I first tried panning to follow him around the ride, using continuous autofocus to keep a lock on him. With so many layers of motion in the frame, though, it proved far too tough a challenge for the Pentax K-S2's autofocus. (And frankly, for my reflexes: It was really difficult to keep a single focus point on him at all times.) Even though the flagship K-3 series cameras have a more sophisticated autofocus system than does the K-S2, I thing they'd have struggled too. In the end, I focused manually and framed the shot I wanted, then kept both eyes open so I could look through the viewfinder, but also see when he was about to come into view. Then it was just a matter of rattling off a quick burst of frames, and waiting for one with a good pose and expression.

The tilt/swivel screen made framing very easy

Soon enough, the sun started disappearing below the horizon, and it was time to set up my tripod. This was the first time I've really tried shooting a fair at night. (Well, I did have a go once, about twenty years ago with a film camera, but the cost of processing and printing my film when I was living near hand-to-mouth meant that I shot relatively few frames, and so only got one or two keepers.) By contrast, shooting digital in live-view mode on the Pentax K-S2's tilt/swivel screen made it very easy to experiment.

31mm-equivalent, 0.3 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

For most of my long exposures, I prefocused using the K-S2's contrast-detection autofocus while the ride was sitting stationary, then switched to manual focus mode so I could get the shot without a delay when the ride was moving as I wanted. I'd made one rookie mistake, though.

Whoops: Left the remote control at home

While I was getting my gear together before leaving the office -- a reasonably sturdy Manfrotto tripod, a few lenses, and of course the camera body -- I also grabbed my remote control. I should've slipped it straight in my pocket, but instead put it on the desk while I went to grab a camera bag, then promptly forgot to pick it up as I packed the bag.

31mm-equivalent, 4.0 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

Without a remote, I didn't want to chance camera shake in a long exposure, and so opted for a two-second self-timer that would give the camera time to steady after I hit the shutter. That made it a bit tricky to time the motion so that the light trails would start where I wanted, though.

The best of twilight was very fleeting

And although this was a learning experience, I had to work very quickly, setting up, waiting for rides to start moving, getting the shot and then moving on to another location. This was the last day I could make it to the fair, sadly: Earlier in the week it had rained every evening that I'd been free. There was no fear of that on this particular evening, though, as the sky was nearly cloud-free. The most attractive skies were about 30 minutes after sunset, with just enough twilight remaining to provide a beautiful dark-blue contrast against the brightly-lit rides, and they only lasted for around ten minutes or so.

Excellent results for long exposures at low sensitivities

31mm-equivalent, 2.5 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

But boy, did those shots I got in that time really pop, with longer exposure times of two to four seconds not just yielding light trails in the foreground, but also bringing up the light levels in the background. One of my favorite subjects was a ride called The Claw, which spun and tumbled riders while simultaneously flipping them almost completely upside down. I struggled to get an angle I liked, but finally settled on the composition shown at right, with the ride sketching a tangled knot of light trails.

All too soon the best of the light was gone, and while shots against an inky-black sky still looked pretty cool, they lacked the impact of those against that rich, deep blue. It was time to break down my tripod and switch to handheld, high ISO shooting.

Very good results at high ISO, too

My earlier testing before the sun went down suggested that I'd want to stick to ISO 6400 or below for the most part, and indeed I did so. At ISO 12,800, noise levels ramped up quite a bit, and by the time I reached ISO 25,600 there was really quite a bit of noise viewed 1:1. Saying that, even at this extremely high sensitivity the images were certainly still quite usable. ISO 51,200 felt like a step too far for me, though. You can see examples across much of the high ISO range throughout this preview.

Having now had a chance to review my results 1:1 on my desktop monitor, I'd probably put the K-S2's high ISO image quality somewhere just a little behind that of Ricoh's current APS-C flagships, the K-3 and K-3 II, and a bit ahead of the previous generation K-5, K-5 II and K-5 IIs. That's a pretty impressive performance for an affordable model that can be had for just a little more than US$600 body-only, or a bit less than $700 complete with kit lens.

The K-S2 is a lot more fun without its retractable kit lens

All things considered, I had quite a bit of fun shooting with the K-S2 at the fair. In fact, probably quite a bit more so than I did in my previous field test, something which I think probably comes down to the fact that I left the rather awkward 18-50mm retracting kit lens at home, and brought a selection of nicer glass along for the evening.

60mm-equivalent, 4.0 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

Pentax's in-camera Wi-Fi is clearly a first-generation offering

Sadly, the same can't be said for the K-S2's built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking connectivity, which arrives in the body of a Pentax DSLR for the first time.

That's not to say that the problems I experienced are necessarily insurmountable -- it's quite possible that Ricoh will be able to resolve some or all of them as it continues to develop its first-generation apps for Android and iOS. And in some respects, there was definitely a glimmer of promise.

Truly incredible (!) Wi-Fi range

The good news is that the Wi-Fi range was incredible, with my phone able to maintain a connection and trigger the shutter from as far away as 100 feet or so, with multiple walls and other objects between camera and phone. The live view feed was reasonably responsive too, at least on iOS. (On a high-powered Android smartphone, there was around a half-second lag, which is more than I'm used to these days.)

31mm-equivalent, 4.0 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

And live view doesn't just allow image capture and touch focus: You can also change exposure variables remotely, so long as you first set the Mode dial on the camera to the correct mode, or are happy to work using Hyper Program mode.

NFC pairing was very problematic

But in many other respects, both apps -- and especially the Android ones -- bore the hallmarks of a first-generation product. For one thing, although the built-in NFC radio of the K-S2 worked just fine and was easily read by my Android smartphone, the two devices failed to pair automatically most of the time.

60mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600

The Pentax Image Sync app would claim to be connecting to the camera, but after waiting some time and then taking a look at my phone's Wi-Fi settings, I'd see that instead of the camera, I was instead once more connected to my office Wi-Fi network. (And never was there an error message to let me know the connection had failed.)

And on the occasions where both devices connected automatically -- or if I manually forced a connection -- it took as long as 15-20 seconds for the link to be established. (On iOS, again, things were a bit faster, but still slower than typical these days.)

Incredibly slow transfer speeds via Wi-Fi

60mm-equiv., 1/1,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 25,600

And once connected, image transfers were unbelievably slow, even with phone and camera right next to each other. Transferring two full-sized JPEGs or a single raw file took around a full minute. That's a rather lacklustre 340KB/second, which would be extremely slow even for a device using the 16-year old 802.11b standard, let alone one claiming to support 802.11b/g/n connections. (An 802.11n device should be able to transfer a 10-12mb JPEG from the K-S2 in just two or three seconds without problem.) And this poor transfer performance was true regardless of whether I was using Android or iOS.

The slow transfer performance is compounded by the fact that -- unlike most such apps -- Pentax Image Sync lacks any way to set the image size for download. Even if you only want a low-res version of your image to review, email, or share on social networks, you must first download the entire full-res, full-quality image to your phone or tablet.

That is, if you opt for the transfer option; you can alternatively use the Facebook option to share directly from Pentax Image Sync, but here you face the opposite problem: A heavily-compressed ~50-60KB file with a very low, fixed image size of just 576 x 386 pixels. That means your DSLR's shots will almost certainly underwhelm compared to photos shot with your smartphone, unless you ignore the built-in Facebook sharing option, download the full image, resize it manually and then share from your phone's gallery app.

Nor can you control live view image resolution or quality, something we've seen on at least a few cameras before. That means you can't prioritize remote live view frame rate over quality if you want to stray a significant distance from the camera.

31mm-equivalent, 1/50 sec. @ f/3.2, ISO 800

Image playback is quite limited, and very slow indeed on Android

Nor was the news any better once transfer was complete. Although it was possible to download JPEGs, raw files and eve movies to your smartphone or tablet -- many cameras limit you only to JPEG transfer via Wi-Fi -- the experience once the files were downloaded was far from optimal. Although thumbnails were shown for both raw files and movies prior to download in the Pentax app, these were replaced by generic icons once the files were downloaded. There was no way to open raw files or movies directly from the Pentax Image Sync app on either iOS or Android devices, or even see a low-res preview of their contents.

60mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 800

And on Android, there wasn't even any way to open JPEGs in your phone's own gallery app direct from the Pentax app. That wouldn't be so bad, except that the preview shown was at relatively low resolution, and yet any interaction with that preview was maddeningly slow.

I should note here that my smartphone is a Sony Xperia Z2, an 18-month old device with a powerful quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM. It flies through just about any task I give it, but simply performing a pinch-zoom or pan of the preview in Ricoh's Pentax Image Sync app would result in a full second or more of delay between my gesture on the screen and anything happening.

Attempting to view images in the built-in Album app on the Sony smartphone was no less frustrating, although that's not entirely Pentax's fault. For whatever reason, no matter what I did the Sony app wouldn't see the images, which Pentax Image Sync stores on the phone's internal memory in /DCIM/Image Sync. Downloading's Google's stock Photos app resolved this, as it had no problem seeing and viewing the photos -- and it allowed me to view my photos without any noticeable delay when pinching to zoom or dragging to pan around the full-resolution image.

A rather clumsy and unintuitive app interface

And I'm afraid my concerns with Pentax Image Sync don't stop here, either. The interface is in some respects very unintuitive indeed. (And it wasn't just me who thought so: I gave the camera to friends and family and asked them to perform certain tasks, then watched as they stumbled at the very same hurdles I'd done.) This, at least, isn't such a huge issue because once you know where those hurdles are you'll have no problem clearing them, but for Ricoh's target market, the hurdles shouldn't be there in the first place.

For example, to download images and movies, there's an obvious icon depicting a list and checkbox. Tap it, and you see empty checkboxes on the various thumbnails. Tap a few, and the icon you first tapped is replaced with a realtime count of how many files you've selected. All great so far, but there's no button to start a download, share the images, or anything else you might want to do with them. Without hesitation, everybody who tried the Pentax Image Sync app -- myself included -- tapped on the count that replaced the first icon, presuming this would start the transfer. It doesn't, though: What it actually does is to clear all the checkboxes and return to regular playback.

60mm-equivalent, 1/1,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 12,800

Instead, to start the transfer -- once you've reselected all the images you'd just finished tagging moments ago -- you're expected to guess that the next step is to tap-and-hold on the screen. There's absolutely nothing in the Image Sync app to suggest this method, nor is it one I've seen used to initiate the next step after a bulk selection in any other app, but once you finally figure it out you're presented with an array of circular buttons, arranged in a circle around your fingertip. Almost all of these are empty and serve no purpose, at least on my phone. Only three of these buttons have a function: transfer, share to Facebook, or delete.

Another similarly unintuitive feature can be found in the ISO sensitivity dropdown when using remote live view. The top option in the list is Auto, but if you select this and then immediately go back into the ISO selection menu, you won't see the radio button next to the Auto option selected. Instead, there will be a dot indicating selection alongside another radio button, that for the sensitivity the camera is currently using. Pan around to a subject with different brightness, and the selection will change, but there's no way to see at a glance that you're using auto sensitivity.

60mm-equivalent, 1/1,000 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 25,600

Poor app ratings from Android early adopters

And I'm not alone in airing these concerns. Although the Pentax Image Sync app hasn't garnered sufficient ratings in Apple's iTunes store, the Android variant in Google's Play Store is currently at a low rating of 2.5/5 from 82 votes, and almost 60% of users have rated the app at two stars or lower, with many users complaining of connection and live view problems, as well as general slowness of the app. (Almost half of users gave the app its minimum possible 1/5 rating.)

There's a good chance Ricoh can fix these problems...

It's important to note that most -- perhaps even all -- of these issues could be fixed with updates to Ricoh's Pentax Image Sync app and perhaps new firmware for the camera itself, however. For example, the clumsy user interface and playback performance issues could certainly be resolved with an app update, as could the connection issues. And as for the slow data transfer, I highly doubt it's a hardware issue, nor is it likely down to performance of the camera itself.

31mm-equivalent, 2.0 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100

If Ricoh can work to improve the app, it could become very useful indeed and a major selling point for the Pentax K-S2. In fact, I'd go a step further: This could, with work, be a very significant reason to choose the K-S2 over its flagship siblings, which can only support Wi-Fi via Eye-Fi or Flucard SD cards that have their own drawbacks, not least of which is their limited capacity.

...but the K-S2's Wi-Fi isn't ready for prime-time so far

As of right now, though -- that is, version 1.0.4 of Pentax Image Sync and version 1.02 of camera firmware -- I really can't recommend the Pentax K-S2's Wi-Fi functionality. Speaking personally, I don't think I'd use it much at all as-is: There are simply too many pain points. Hopefully that will change in the not-too-distant future!

High-def video capture is possible, but quite limited

Finally, we come to the Pentax K-S2's movie-recording capabilities. As a Pentaxian myself, I have to say that video capture has always felt a bit like an afterthought in Pentax DSLRs, and the K-S2 is no different.

13 seconds @ 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, 29.970 fps; 37.5MB

Bleeding-edge features like 4K ultra-high def or high frame-rate videos aren't offered here. Nor do you have much in the way of control over how your videos are recorded: The compression scheme is fixed, using MPEG-4 AVC / H.264 with a pretty low bit-rate (and hence, high compression) of around 20-24Mbps. At Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) you have a choice of 30, 25 or 24 frames-per-second capture. Drop the resolution to HD (1,280 x 720 pixels) and that choice becomes either 60 or 50 fps.

Continuous autofocus isn't possible during movie capture

Perhaps a bigger issue for the consumer photographers who're likely to buy the Pentax K-S2 is the lack of continuous autofocus during movie capture. You can perform single autofocus operations by pressing the AF/AE button, but AF operation is relatively slow and very obvious in the recorded video, so you're better off forgoing autofocus altogether and pulling focus manually -- something which takes a degree of skill and patience which will likely elude many potential K-S2 owners.

13 seconds @ 1,280 x 720 pixels, 59.940 fps; 36.4MB

You'll want to disable Movie SR (and you'll wish you had mechanical stabilization)

Nor is there mechanical image stabilization during video capture. Instead, there's what Ricoh calls Movie SR, which is essentially software stabilization. It comes at a significant cost: An unsightly distortion of the image that, particularly at longer focal lengths, will quickly have your viewers feeling queasy.

If you're familiar with rolling shutter, you know what to expect: A jello-like wobbling of the entire frame, except that this is a double-whammy which happens on both the horizontal and vertical axes. Your only alternative, since few optically-stabilized lenses are available in Pentax's mount, is to use a tripod, put up with shaky videos, or stabilize videos (at the expense of resolution) post-capture in your video editor.

Movie image quality won't win any awards

And speaking of resolution, the Pentax K-S2's video image quality also lags the competition. Results are quite soft even at Full HD resolution, and very much so at HD resolution. Moiré also rears its ugly head too often, especially at HD resolution, leading to colorful, sparkling artifacts. (You can easily see this in the distant reflections off the water in both of my daytime videos.)

10 seconds @ 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, 29.970 fps; 28.8MB

There are some definite positives...

That's not to say the news is all bad: You can, at least, control the exposure mode: Program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual capture are available, and some functions from user modes also apply to video. And digital filters can be applied, although these may cause frames to be dropped, resulting in a stuttery-looking video. You can also shoot interval movies, and here, both the high-dynamic range and clarity enhancement functions are available, although they can't be used with standard movies.

...but you'll probably never use the external mic jack

Surprisingly for a camera whose video capture mode is otherwise quite limited, you can also use an external 3.5mm stereo microphone, and manually control the audio levels in 20 steps, or disable audio capture altogether. The microphone jack is hidden under a small flap on the left side of the camera body. I really can't imagine that the vast majority of users will ever plug in an external microphone, though. If you care enough about your videos to want to improve audio quality, you'll almost certainly be put off the K-S2 by its subpar video image quality.

But be that as it may, it's still better that the Pentax K-S2 offers video capture -- even if limited -- than none at all. You never know when a video opportunity will present itself, and if you don't have a second camera handy, the K-S2 will at least let you get some footage of those unexpected subjects, albeit with limitations.

10 seconds @ 1,280 x 720 pixels, 59.940 fps; 29.9MB

It's time for my closing thoughts

And that brings me to the end of my Pentax K-S2 field test. We'll have our image quality comparison and final conclusion soon, but in the meantime, a few thoughts would probably be apropos.

Having read this field test, you may think I'm not a big fan of the Pentax K-S2, but that wouldn't be fair. Yes, video is a weak spot, and the Wi-Fi connectivity needs quite a bit of work to bring it up to par. And as I mentioned in my first field test, I'm really not a fan of the new retracting kit lens. Now that the camera is available without this optic, I strongly recommend passing on it and selecting another lens -- perhaps the 18-135mm zoom if you want an all-in-one solution, or some of the excellent DA Limited primes if you want to play to this camera's biggest strengths, which would be its very compact dimensions and high still image quality.

(Note, though, that the DA Limited primes aren't weather-sealed. The 20-40mm Limited zoom is a beautiful -- if rather short -- weather-sealed option, and you can also get reasonably good consumer-grade 18-55mm, 50-200mm and 55-300mm zooms with weather-sealing. But I digress...)

Shortcomings aside, there's plenty to recommend the K-S2

Some shortcomings like these aside, I think the Pentax K-S2 definitely has plenty to recommend it, especially compared to the competition from the likes of Canon and Nikon, which opt for lesser pentamirror viewfinders and a single control-dial interface at this pricepoint. With its impressively-compact body, the Pentax K-S2 is a really great all-weather still image shooter, and its tilt/swivel LCD monitor makes it all the more versatile.

The biggest argument against the K-S2? The incredibly impressive Pentax K-3

Honestly, I think that the biggest problem this camera faces is its flagship sibling, the Pentax K-3. With such a small difference in street pricing between the K-S2 and K-3, it's hard to recommend that you buy the mid-range model unless size, weight and the LCD articulation are particularly high on your wish list. While the K-S2 has a great build for its pricepoint, the Pentax K-3 is really unrivaled in terms of its build quality and feature-set among sub-$1,000 DSLRs.

My advice to you, dear reader, is this: Sit down and make a list of a few of the most important features you'll need in your next DSLR, based on the subjects you plan to shoot. If at least three of the top five aren't size, weight and LCD viewing versatility, go and read my Pentax K-3 review now. (You can thank me later!) But if they top your list, give the Pentax K-S2 a very close look -- just be aware that since it represents a brand-new direction for Pentax, it comes accompanied by some teething problems in the Wi-Fi and kit-lens departments.

 



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