Pentax K-3 II Conclusion

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A couple of years ago, I reviewed Ricoh's flagship APS-C DSLR camera, the Pentax K-3, and I loved it. Packed to the rafters with clever tech and featuring a well-designed, rugged and weather-sealed body with excellent ergonomics, the K-3 was more than up to the task of shooting really great photos.

From the outset of my Pentax K-3 II review I've known that I was going to enjoy shooting with it, because in essence it's the exact same camera, albeit with some functional changes in a few areas of the design. The image pipeline was essentially unchanged, though, and so too was the majority of its body design.

60mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200

The Pentax K-3 II is the same great camera, but now with a GPS instead of a popup flash

So I knew the K-3 II would most likely offer great single-shot image quality, excellent performance, and great handling, just as did its closely-related sibling. Of course, I tried everything again regardless, shooting in all manner of real-world environments and closely examining the results to be sure all was well -- and it was.

What I really wanted to see, though, was how the changes affected the experience. The most significant change between the Pentax K-3 II and its closely-related sibling, in hardware terms, is that it forgoes the flash in favor of a built-in GPS receiver. And this change alone will tell many photographers which camera is for them.

Pixel Shift Resolution, 172mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 800
See the single-shot version of the same image here

The Pentax K-3 II has been tweaked for the outdoorsman

The inclusion of a built-in GPS instead of a flash tells you straight away for whom this camera is intended. Make no mistake, the K-3 II is aimed at the outdoorsman amongst us. If you love to get out in the big, wide world, traveling and shooting photos as you go, then the K-3 II is for you. Your photos can be geotagged with their capture location and direction, making it easy to find them on a map once you get back home.

And as an added bonus, the GPS receiver can also be used with the clever Pentax AstroTracer function to freeze star trails, making this an interesting camera for astrophotographers. Both uses make perfect sense in a camera that's able to handle not just rain showers, but also dusty or even freezing environments.

Pixel Shift Resolution, 90mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 400
See the single-shot version of the same image here

Belt-and-suspender types and off-camera flash fans should consider the K3 instead

On the other hand, though, if you're not a globetrotter or outdoor explorer, the GPS may not be so useful for you. If you like to pack light, or perhaps you're a belt-and-suspender type who appreciates a built-in flash because you can never accidentally leave it at home, the popup flash may prove to be more useful for you.

Sure, not everyone likes built-in strobes, and for good reason: They tend to be underpowered, and their illumination is harsh, unnatural and unflattering. If you can avoid using them, it's almost always best to do so. If you forget to bring your external flash, though, and find yourself with presented with an unexpected, poorly-lit photo opportunity, your opinion of the built-in strobe may change somewhat.

And it's important to note that since Pentax uses built-in flash to control remote strobes in its wireless setups, if you're a fan of off-camera flash the Pentax K-3 II's lack of a built-in strobe will mean you'll have to either run a cable to the nearest off-camera unit, or buy an extra strobe to mount on the camera as the master. Either way, that means spending more money for a less-convenient setup. And again, this should push you towards the K-3 instead of the K-3 II.

Pixel Shift Resolution, 60mm-equivalent, 1/800 sec. @ f/5, ISO 200
See the single-shot version of this image here

Autofocus and stabilization are great on both Pentax K-3 II and K-3

There are a couple of features mentioned as uprated by Ricoh back when the Pentax K-3 II was first launched which, in my opinion, shouldn't swing your decision between either of these closely-related cameras. Continuous autofocus tracking for subjects moving towards or away from the camera was said to have been improved, and so too was image stabilization performance.

With the caveat that unfortunately I didn't have both cameras in-hand for a side-by-side test, I did try out both features. And honestly, I didn't notice a significant real-world difference between the K-3 and K-3 II in this area. That's not to say that there hasn't been an improvement, but rather that performance was already pretty good for a camera of this class, and that any additional improvement that has been made isn't likely to be noticeable for most usage.

Pixel Shift Resolution, 132mm-equivalent, 1/160 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200
See the single-shot version of this image here

Burst capture is definitely faster on the Pentax K-3 II

One surprise, though, was that we found continuous burst capture speed to be noticeably faster on the newer Pentax K-3 II. That's doubly surprising because as far as we're aware, both cameras share the exact same imaging pipeline. Still, whether shooting in raw or JPEG formats (or even both at the same time), the Pentax K-3 II proved to be a full frame per second faster than its earlier sibling.

Now, it's perfectly possible that were we to go back and retest the Pentax K-3 that we'd find its performance had been similarly improved by firmware updates subsequent to our review. Even if not, though, for much burst shooting the difference will be negated, and that's because autofocus, too, matters. (And here, we found continuous autofocus performance to be near-identical to the earlier K-3 in terms of burst capture rate in focus priority mode.)

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

The K-3 II's greater burst performance could be a big deal if you prefocus or your subject doesn't move a lot

If you're shooting subjects where autofocus isn't an issue, though -- either because they stay at a relatively constant distance from the camera, or because you're prefocusing and then rattling off a burst of shots as they pass the point on which you'd prefocused -- well then this could be a worthwhile reason to choose the K-3 II over its earlier sibling, though.

I've not managed to get to a big race since last year's Indy 500, but were I a regular motorsports shooter for example, I'd probably opt for the Pentax K-3 II over the K-3. The distance to the cars at any given point on the track tends to stay pretty similar, so prefocusing works well, and the extra frame per second would give me a better chance of nailing the shot at just the right moment. And the GPS would let me organize my photos not just by track, but even by which corner of the track they were shot from.

202mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100

The Pentax K-3 II's Pixel Shift Resolution is great news for static scenes

Of course, we couldn't conclude our Pentax K-3 II review without calling attention, one last time, to the spectacular Pixel Shift Resolution function. Yes, it only works on static subjects -- at least, unless you're willing to shoot raw and then roll your sleeves up in the digital darkroom. And yes, you're going to need a reasonably good lens to get the most from the feature, although there's a noticeable difference even with consumer-grade glass like the smc Pentax-DA 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 ED AL [IF] DC WR.

But with those provisos borne in mind, you can get a very noticeable improvement in per-pixel sharpness out of the Pentax K-3 II, and with very little fuss indeed. Your shots just have a feeling of clarity and presence that's missing when viewed 1:1 in regular shots, and they're much more resistant to moiré as well. Sure, Pixel Shift Resolution would be even more useful with motion correction -- a feature of the just-launched Pentax K-1 which we'd love to see backported to the K-3 II -- but even without this, I found it to be very worthwhile.

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

For my money, I'd buy the Pentax K-3 II over its flagship sibling

And for me, Pixel Shift Resolution coupled with the greater AF-S burst performance would probably sway my purchasing decision in favor of the K-3 II over its sibling, because I do shoot quite a lot of shots which would benefit from Pixel Shift Resolution's detail-boosting technique.

I can buy a flash to throw more light on the K-3 II's subjects if I want to make up for the lack of a built-in strobe. I could also buy Ricoh's available GPS accessory to add geolocation and AstroTracer functionality to the original K-3, were I favoring that camera instead. But there's no accessory I can buy that will add Pixel Shift Resolution to the original K-3, and nor can I do anything to increase its performance, short of buying another camera body a few years down the line when there will likely be even greater cameras to choose from, of course.

200-frame multiple-exposure stack, average mode, 25mm-equivalent, 1/15 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

Which camera you should buy will depend on your priorities

Your mileage may vary, and so I can't make this decision for you. What I can do, though, is to tell you what features (or the lack thereof) will make your own decision. Do you want an in-camera flash and support for off-camera slave strobes without any extra accessories? If so, buy the Pentax K-3. Do you want geolocation, AstroTracer star trail cancellation, a bit more performance and the ability to render reasonably static scenes in razor-sharp per-pixel detail? The Pentax K-3 II is the model for you!

At current pricing, both of these cameras are spectacular bargains, and realistically both are going to prove very satisfying additions to your camera bag, whether you're a Pentaxian already, about to jump mounts from another brand, or just stepping up to a DSLR for the first time. The original Pentax K-3 was a clear Dave's Pick, and with its tweaked feature set we think the Pentax K-3 II is just slightly better than its already-spectacular sibling.

60mm-equivalent, 1/80 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400

Both the Pentax K-3 II and K-3 are spectacular value, and extremely capable cameras

That means Ricoh scores itself a double-whammy, earning Dave's Picks both for the K-3 II and its flash-equipped sibling! If you're ready to buy the Pentax K-3 II -- and I highly recommend you do -- then click here to check out current pricing, and order through one of our affiliates! It adds no extra cost to you, and helps support in-depth reviews like the one you've just read!

 

 

Pros & Cons

Image Quality

  • Vibrant, punchy images straight out of the camera
  • Superb image quality with Pixel Shift Resolution enabled
  • Excellent high ISO performance for an APS-C sensor
  • Very good dynamic range
  • On-demand low-pass filtering (AA Filter Simultation) works well and is unique to Pentax DSLRs
  • AA bracketing helps take the guesswork out of knowing whether you should use AA Filter Simulation or not
  • Flexible and effective built-in lens corrections
  • Very good dynamic range
  • Very flexible noise reduction options
  • Default sharpening and saturation may be a bit too high for some (but can always be turned down)
  • Warm Auto white balance in tungsten lighting

Performance

  • Very good burst framerate of just over 8fps, up from just over 7fps from predecessor and no longer lags its manufacturer-claimed burst rate
  • Generous buffers
  • Fast autofocus
  • Able to autofocus in very low light (using phase-detect AF)
  • Very fast USB 3.0 connectivity, if your computer and OS support it

  • Slow buffer clearing

Video

  • Good movie image quality
  • Headphone jack for levels monitoring
  • Microphone jack for external audio input
  • Supports single autofocus during movie capture (albeit slowly and very obviously)
  • No continuous autofocus during movie capture
  • Mode dial position ignored in Movie mode; have to set mode in menu

User Experience

  • Unusually compact for an enthusiast DSLR
  • Great ergonomics and comfortable handling
  • Weather-sealed and freezeproof; many weather-sealed lenses and accessories to choose from
  • Plenty of autofocus points and good tracking; most AF points are cross types
  • Large (for APS-C camera), bright pentaprism viewfinder with excellent coverage
  • Optional Mode dial lock prevents accidental changes but can be disabled if changing frequently
  • Useful Shadow and Highlight Correction options
  • Decent in-camera HDR mode
  • HDR and Pixel Shift Resolution images can be saved as raw, split back into separate source images
  • Speedy dual UHS-I card slots
  • Supports two raw formats (DNG and PEF)
  • Remote control and live view possible via optional Flucard


  • Pentax's smaller market share means less third-party support
  • AE-lock button is small, hard to reach
  • Can't use the same battery grip that was shared by the earlier K-7, K-5, K-5 II and K-5 IIs
  • Exposure bracketing and AA bracketing can't be combined
  • Most third party software doesn't recognize HDR raw files; many apps also won't recognize Pixel Shift Resolution raw files (but both of these can be worked around)
  • Popup menu when changing display modes is annoying and unnecessary
  • Menus, while clear, look quite dated compared to rivals
  • Optional Flucard for Wi-Fi functionality is expensive and only available in 16GB size
  • Below average battery life for a prosumer DSLR

Optics

  • Pentax K-mount offers best backwards lens compatibility in the business
  • In-body stabilization with every lens
  • Not available in an official bundle with lens at discounted pricing

Flash

  • Supports GPS geolocation at the same time as using camera-mounted flash
  • No built-in flash strobe
  • Can't control strobes wirelessly without an extra strobe to act as master, or a cable to the nearest off-camera strobe

 

Buy the Pentax K-3 II



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