Pentax K-70 Field Test
Pentax K-70 Field Test
Mid-range features at an entry-level price: Is Ricoh's latest DSLR right for your camera bag?
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 10/15/2016
I've been a big fan of Pentax's cameras for the best part of a decade now, ever since the launch of the flagship Pentax K-7 all the way back in early 2009. After my review of that camera, I bought into the Pentax brand myself, jumping ship from Canon and replacing my gear with Pentax equivalents.
I've stayed with the brand ever since, and while there are more than a few reasons for that -- not the least of which being that I now have a significant investment in Pentax glass -- the company's reputation for offering exceptional value for money is perhaps the key.
The Pentax K-70 is no different in this respect. Affordably priced at US$650 body-only, it includes some really important features which its nearest rivals from the likes of Canon and Nikon lack. Since I like to get a feel for how cameras compare before I head out for a review, let's start with a quick comparison against the K-70's closest competitors.
In Canon's lineup, the closest rival is probably the EOS Rebel T6i. Both cameras have similar pricing as of this writing: US$650 list for the Pentax, and US$750 list for the Canon.
For the extra cash, the T6i does include a couple of significant features its Pentax rival lacks. It features a touch-screen display, for example, and has a more sophisticated autofocus sensor with 19 cross-type AF points, where the K-70 has a total of 11 AF points, nine of which are cross-types. The T6i is also a fair bit lighter body-only, and includes an NFC antenna for quick-and-easy Wi-Fi pairing with Android phones, where the K-70 requires that you pair manually.
In most other respects, though, it is the Pentax K-70 which has the edge despite its lower list price. For one thing, the K-70 has twin control dials instead of the T6i's single dial. That makes for a more intuitive shooting experience, with dedicated dials for shutter speed and aperture control. It also has a bright, clear and accurate glass pentaprism viewfinder, where the T6i opts for a lower-cost pentamirror viewfinder. And where the Pentax K-70 includes comprehensive weather sealing for dust and moisture resistance, as do many of its available lenses and accessories, the Canon T6i isn't weather-sealed.
The Pentax K-70's sensitivity range is far wider as well, and its top shutter speed of 1/6,000-second will better freeze the action than will the 1/4,000-second shutter of the T6i. The K-70 also shoots both JPEG and raw images around 1.2 frames per second faster than its Canon rival, yet offers an even deeper raw buffer depth. (Canon answers this with an unlimited JPEG buffer depth, but with the K-70 offering a 47-frame buffer depth, it's no slouch in this area either.)
And all of this is before we even get into the features enabled by the Pentax K-70's in-body image stabilization, which the Canon T6i forgoes in favor of lens-based stabilization. All of your lenses will be stabilized without extra cost on the Pentax, and that's not all. It can also use its sensor-shift mechanism to increase per-pixel image sharpness for static scenes; combat moiré and false color artifacts without a resolution-robbing optical low-pass filter; and automatically prevent tilted horizons or allow subtle fine-tuning of composition. With an optional GPS receiver accessory, the system can even be used to freeze star trails, a handy trick for astrophotographers.
Compared to the Nikon D5500, meanwhile, the Pentax K-70 again has a lower list price by some US$100, with the Nikon listing for US$750 body-only.
Like the Canon T6i, the D5500 bests its Pentax rival with a touch-screen display. It also has an even more point-dense 39-point autofocus system, a whopping 28 more than the K-70. The majority of these are linear points, however; the D5500's nine cross-type points are equally matched by those of the Pentax K-70. In fairness, though, the Pentax includes on-sensor phase detection autofocus pixels, a feature the D5500 lacks; that should give the Pentax the edge in live view shooting.
The Nikon is also much lighter than the Pentax, provides almost double the battery life, and has a significantly deeper 100-shot JPEG buffer. (Although as noted previously, the K-70's 47-shot buffer is still pretty respectable, especially given that it's shooting at around 1.1 frames per second faster than the Nikon.)
But just as in the Canon comparison above, there's a whole laundry list of features offered by Pentax but missing in its Nikon rival. Just as with Canon, Nikon forgoes twin control dials, a pentaprism viewfinder or weather sealing, allowing the Pentax alone to shine in this area. And the K-70 also has a wider sensitivity range, a faster top shutter speed, and the aforementioned greater burst-shooting performance. Plus all of those features provided by in-body image stabilization, as we noted in our comparison against Canon. Nikon, likewise, opts for in-lens stabilization rather than in-body.
The Pentax K-70 heads out for a real-world shoot
But enough of the paper comparisons: The spec sheets can only tell us so much, and it's how these cameras shoot in the real world which really serves to differentiate them. To find out how the Pentax K-70 performs in day-to-day shooting, I grabbed a fully charged battery and Ricoh's smc PENTAX-DA 18-135mmF3.5-5.6ED AL[IF] DC WR travel zoom lens, a pairing which provides a generous zoom range that hits all the bases when traveling light.
In-hand, the Pentax K-70 is pretty comfortable to hold for the most part, a trait which it shares with most of its recent siblings. With my larger-than-average hands, I did note one slight form-over-function quirk, however. (I'm 6'1" tall, so unless you're similarly lofty this likely won't concern you.)
The K-70 is comfortable to hold, but the SR badge gets in the way for larger hands
I found that the small, hard plastic "SR" badge reflecting the K-70's Shake Reduction image stabilization system was poorly placed, pressing uncomfortably into the tip of my little finger with my hand wrapped around the grip. It's easy enough to just curl that finger underneath the body, and that's precisely what I did, but were that badge not there I could have easily fitted all my fingers comfortably on the grip.
In other respects, the K-70's plastic body is a pleasure to hold, however. The small protrusion just right of the thumb grip, in particular, ensures a very solid grip without taking up too much space, which is important on a smaller camera like this. And with the sole exception of the tilt / swivel LCD monitor, whose articulation mechanism definitely has a little play to it, the remainder of the K-70's body feels sturdy and solid. There's not a hint of creak or panel flex to be found anywhere.
The controls are well positioned, too, and most of them are fairly comfortable in use, even if they don't exude quite the same feeling of quality as on higher-end Pentax models. The majority of buttons have good feel, although I found the four-way controller buttons a little too deeply profiled for my comfort, and the Raw / Fx button was too spongy. All three control dials had a good, firm click detent that was enough to prevent accidental control changes without being hard to turn if shooting single-handed.
A superb pentaprism finder that puts rivals pentamirrors to shame
One of the nicest features of the Pentax K-70 is its viewfinder, which stands head and shoulders above the dim, tunnel-like finders of many entry-level DSLRs. Thanks to its pentaprism design, the K-70's viewfinder is both brighter and clearer than those of rivals. It's also significantly more accurate, with close to 100% viewfinder coverage where the Canon T6i and Nikon D5500 offer 94% and 95% coverage, respectively. (All figures having been measured in our lab.)
Given that the viewfinder is perhaps the most significant reason for choosing a DSLR over a mirrorless camera, I really can't overstate the importance of having a good one. There's no question that the Pentax K-70 scores a win in this area, as only its siblings can offer this feature at such an aggressive price-point. If you want a pentaprism finder from Canon or Nikon, you're going to need to opt for an older camera or spend a good bit more money. Possibly even both.
A versatile tilt/swivel LCD helps users take advantage of fast AF in live view mode
On the rear of the Pentax K-70, you'll find a three-inch LCD monitor mounted on an articulated tilt/swivel mechanism. Given the K-70's newfound on-chip phase detection autofocus, the tilt/swivel design -- which is now commonplace in entry-level DSLRs -- proves to be much more useful than in the past.
Last year, I reviewed the Pentax K-S2, which was the company's first DSLR to feature a tilt/swivel screen. I did use the articulation some of the time when shooting in live view mode, but mostly only for relatively static subjects as it relied on slower contrast-detection autofocus.
With the K-70, there are an unspecified number of phase-detection AF points on the sensor. This allows for much quicker focusing in live view mode, making framing on the LCD a much more useful proposition. With the 18-135mm kit lens, the K-70 seemed to focus almost as quickly in live view mode as it did when shooting through the optical viewfinder.
With that said, AF tracking performance in live view mode isn't yet up to the best I've seen from competitors, but it's certainly good enough to be routinely usable unless you're shooting sports or other very active subjects. I did occasionally notice some occasional hunting or focus racking, but not enough to be too bothersome.
And because of this more capable live view autofocus, I found myself using the articulated LCD monitor a whole lot more frequently.
I didn't shoot much in the way of selfies, by the way -- I'm no fashion plate, and prefer to be behind the camera -- but if you're a selfie fan then a nice benefit of a tilt/swivel mechanism like this over the more commonplace tilt-only designs found on many cameras is that it is selfie-friendly, allowing the LCD to face forwards for selfie shooting. You just have to remember to look away from the LCD right before you press the shutter button, so you're not looking off to one side in all of your selfies.
What I did find myself doing pretty frequently was to close the LCD facing inwards, another feature which tilt-only articulation can't provide. Being able to close the screen in this manner adds a little protection against minor knocks and scrapes, and also helps to keep the screen free from smudges as well.
Good performance for its class, but battery life is a weak spot
After a while spent shooting around my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee with the Pentax K-70, I came away pretty impressed with its performance, bearing in mind its entry-level class and pricetag.
In most respects, the K-70 is a reasonably swift camera, although there is the occasional area of weakness. It's buffer clearing could certainly be faster, and it's perhaps just a little on the slow side to start up, a problem which is compounded by a rather abbreviated battery life, since I didn't feel comfortable leaving the camera powered on all the time. (I only had one battery pack on hand, so running out of charge would've meant some downtime waiting for the battery to be recharged using an inverter in my car.)
To CIPA testing standards with 50% flash usage, Ricoh rates the Pentax K-70 as capable of around 410 shots on a charge when using the optical viewfinder. By way of comparison, the Canon T6i manages some 440 shots (around 7% better than the K-70), while the Nikon D5500 will still be up and running for its 820th shot, literally double what the K-70 can manage.
But in other respects, the K-70's performance is mostly on par with its peers, if not better. It focuses quickly when shooting through the optical viewfinder, and matches its manufacturer-claimed burst shooting performance of six frames per second, a full 1.1 to 1.2 frames per second faster than its nearest Canon and Nikon rivals.
And despite shooting faster than either the T6i or D5500, it also provides deeper raw file burst depths than both. Switch to JPEG mode, and while it does have a more abbreviated buffer depth than the D5500, it will still manage a generous 47 frames or seven and three quarter seconds of non-stop burst shooting.
The Pentax K-70 yields great-quality still images
And image quality is great by entry-level standards, as well. Although the available 18-135mm kit lens is a bit of a mixed bag -- it can be pretty sharp when stopped down, but suffers from soft corners at wide or tele, vignetting at wide-angle, and strong chromatic aberration at telephoto -- the Pentax K-70 itself is capable of capturing loads of fine detail with a suitably-good lens.
With the exception of when shooting at night under Knoxville's city street lighting, which most cameras struggle with, white balance was good in my experience. And as is typical for Pentax, images were quite punchy at default settings, a look which entry-level photographers tend to favor. (You can, of course, dial back the saturation and contrast, and tweak the look of images to your tastes, if you prefer more natural-looking colors.)
Exposure accuracy was fairly good as well, with the metered exposure being closest to my recollection of the scene in probably 95% of shots, other than those which would fool most any camera's metering system. With that said, the K-70 wasn't quite as accurate as the flagship Pentax K-3 in this regard, likely due to the K-70's use of a much less fine-grained 77-segment metering sensor.
I was quite impressed with the K-70's high-sensitivity image quality, as well. All the way up to ISO 6400-equivalent, grain was tight and film-like, and I wouldn't hesitate to shoot at sensitivities within this range. Even ISO 12,800-equivalent was very usable, although the grain does become quite noticeable by this point. ISO 25,600-equivalent, in fact, could even prove useful in a pinch and for smaller print sizes. That's pretty amazing, for such an affordable entry-level camera.
It's worth noting that ISO 12,800 is the maximum sensitivity even offered by the Canon T6i and Nikon D5500, and on the Canon you'll need to enable ISO expansion to access it, suggesting that the company isn't satisfied with image quality at this highest sensitivity. The Pentax K-70 will let you roam even higher, but personally I thought image quality wasn't sufficient to justify shooting at ISO 51,200 or 102,400-equivalents unless you have no other choice in terms of a slower shutter speed or flash usage.
Video capture is adequate for short clips, but movie AF still needs improvement
All things considered then, the Pentax K-70 has really rather impressed me, in terms of its abilities as an affordable, entry-level DSLR for still image shooting. Movie capture, though, is an area in which Pentax has long lagged its rivals -- but it was also one in which I was expecting to see a significant improvement given the newly-available on-chip phase detection autofocus pixels.
Unfortunately, after having played with it for a while, it strikes me that Pentax still has some work to do in this area. Yes, the new phase-detection autofocus is much snappier in live view shooting, but in movie mode I found it had a tendency to hunt a little -- certainly enough to be noticeable -- when close to the point of focus, and to lose focus altogether too easily, sometimes racking through the whole focus range.
If you're shooting relatively less active subjects in your movies, or are willing to control focus manually, this isn't such an issue. However, movie image quality isn't quite up to the best of the K-70's rivals, especially if image stabilization is enabled. That's because although it has an in-body mechanical stabilization system, that's disabled in movie mode, just like all other recent Pentax DSLRs.
It's likely a decision made to reduce both ambient noise levels and perhaps concerns about cooling the sensor and stabilization assembly as well, but I really wish Pentax would give its users the option of enabling mechanical stabilization as an alternative to the digital stabilization currently used, which tends to induce a somewhat nauseating jello-like effect in your stabilized movies. Especially since external microphone connectivity is available, which would allow K-70 owners to negate any ambient noise concerns.
Nor are more advanced features like 4K ultra-high definition or high frame-rate capture, clean HDMI output, and audio levels control or monitoring available in the K-70. In fairness, though, these aren't features which are common in entry-level DSLRs, although some mirrorless or fixed-lens cameras at this price-point can offer them.
As-is, I think the K-70's movie capture is enough to allow for short movie clips, but only if they're not your primary focus. If movie capture is of great importance to you, though, you'll likely either want to consider a second camera, or a rival platform.
Wi-Fi is the K-70's Achilles' heel, but it can be worked around with third-party solutions
And so we come to the last point I want to address: Wi-Fi connectivity for wireless sharing of your images. This was a feature first introduced on last year's Pentax K-S2, but one which I said in my review of that camera was not yet ready for prime time. My concerns mostly revolved around pairing issues, slow image transfer and an unintuitive, slow and clumsy smartphone app.
Sadly, a year later, Ricoh has addressed none of these issues in the Pentax K-70. Even the app itself seems not to have been improved in the least, and in terms of the camera's hardware capabilities, wireless communication has actually been downgraded somewhat. For the K-70, Ricoh has removed the NFC radio which the K-S2 used for (in theory) faster pairing with Android devices.
Admittedly, I found that the feature didn't really work as advertised in that camera, and typically had to pair manually regardless, so the removal of NFC from the K-70 isn't a deal-breaker. I'd rather have seen Ricoh fix it in this newer camera than remove it altogether, though, as NFC is a big part of why I love the Wi-Fi feature set of Sony cameras so much -- it makes it really quick and intuitive to transfer and share a handful of images at a time, just as consumers are likely to want to do.
Basically all of my complaints about the K-S2's Wi-Fi features are also applicable to the K-70, though, and that's disappointing. The problems started when it came time to pair with my Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone, a fairly recent Android model with a powerful quad-core processor and Google's Android Marshmallow, the most recent version that's broadly available.
With no NFC radio or QR code support in the Pentax Image Sync app, you have to pair completely manually, entering an eight-character alphanumeric password. By default, the last six characters of the password are also shown in the network name, making it completely pointless in terms of security -- someone wanting to maliciously pair with your camera (if such a person exists) merely has to guess the remaining two characters to gain access.
Of course, realistically the chances of anyone doing so are basically nil. But given that there's no security advantage to this clumsy password anyway, I really don't see why something easier to remember wasn't chosen as the default, saving you having to dig through the menu system to find the hard-to-remember default password.
When you first open the Image Sync app -- which is locked in portrait orientation at all times, even on tablets or when trying to view landscape-orientation images or the live view feed -- you're prompted to connect to the camera, or to indicate that you've already connected manually. If you opt to connect to the camera, you have to choose yours from a list of model numbers, then enter the password to connect.
On choosing the K-70 repeatedly, closing the app and even restarting my phone or power-cycling the camera in between times -- and having quadruple-checked I was using the right password -- the Image Sync app was never once able to bring up a connection to the camera. Every time, it would wait for 20-30 seconds, then complain that the connection couldn't be established. The only way I was ever able to use the app was by pairing manually through Android's own Wi-Fi dialogs using the exact same password that wouldn't work in Ricoh's own app.
Once connected, Image Sync works much as it did with the K-S2, right down to the same incredibly unintuitive user interface. There's absolutely no help provided, you're just thrown in at the deep end, and even figuring out how to transfer an image from camera to smartphone is a challenge.
If you're a K-70 owner trying to figure out the process, I'll give you some much-needed help: After tapping the list icon and selecting some images, you're meant to guess that the next step is to press-and-hold on the screen until a bizarre circular array of buttons -- most of them grayed out or blank -- appear around your touch point. Then you tap on one which looks vaguely reminiscent of a Wi-Fi logo, and your transfer will start.
It's at this point which you should go and make yourself a coffee and perhaps a small meal. Image transfer is unbelievably slow, taking a minute-plus to transfer each full-res JPEG image from the Pentax K-70, when rival cameras are able to accomplish the same task in just a few seconds. If you've selected a raft of images to transfer, you could find yourself waiting for a very long time indeed, and there's not even an indication of how far the transfer has progressed, just how many images are waiting to transfer. As for movies, while you can also send these via Wi-Fi (a fairly rare feature), don't expect to do so unless you want to wait around even longer. And there's no way to cancel an ongoing transfer without simply force-closing the app, or at least I could find no way to do so.
Realistically, the slow transfer speed means that you'll want to rely on transferring downsampled images. On the K-S2, the only way to do so was to use the Facebook button from that circular array, and images had a fixed (and extremely low) resolution of 576 x 386 pixels, which will likely make your DSLR-captured images look worse than those shot on your smartphone.
Why am I repeating what the K-S2 did, though? Well, that's because I was never able to successfully transfer an image to Facebook using the Image Sync app and Pentax K-70 body. No matter what I did or which image I chose, the Facebook button remained stubbornly grayed out. Only once did I ever see that button show without being grayed out, and when I pressed it, I was prompted to choose my Wi-Fi network on which to transfer the image to Facebook. I did so, and after a 20-30 second wait, the Image Sync app suddenly threw me back to the thumbnail view without ever having transferred anything. I tried going back and selecting the very same image, but the Facebook button was once again grayed out, without any rhyme or reason.
And it's not just in image transfer that the app is slow. Generating thumbnails when you first connect to the camera is also slow, even when the phone and camera are almost touching each other. Frequently, I could see the tiny thumbnails being generated one by one, with each taking anywhere from half a second to a full second apiece. And you can't even just wait a minute or so and then come back to the app, because it only generates the thumbnails a page at a time, once you scroll down the list to reveal the next page. Leave it sitting idle for 30 seconds, then scroll down another page, and you're forced to wait while the next group of thumbnails render. If you have hundreds or thousands of images on-camera, even just browsing the thumbnails is an absolutely infuriating experience.
And once you've transferred some full-res images, you'll find that the Image Sync app is also painfully slow at letting you interact with them. Industry-standard operations like drag-to-pan or pinch-to-zoom are supported, but they're ludicrously slow even on what was, just two years ago, a powerful, flagship smartphone. If you pinch or drag on the screen, the app will frequently lock up for a second or two, then suddenly change the zoom or pan long after you've already let go of the screen. Open the exact same image in a different application on the phone -- Sony's Album app in my case, for example -- and these same interactions are completely smooth and seamless, so it's definitely not the phone's fault.
As in my K-S2 review, the Image Sync app used with the Pentax K-70 shows you a pannable / zoomable (but still fairly-low res) still image if you tap on a movie file without first transferring it to the camera. Once downloaded, though, that image is replaced with a generic movie icon. There's nothing to suggest it to be possible, but if you tap on that icon the Image Sync app will at least attempt to open the image in another app on your phone.
The list of apps shown, though, won't necessarily be able to deal with the file. For example, in my case one of the suggested apps was Ricoh's own Theta S app, but if I selected this it would simply complain that it needed to be fed a spherical image and then exit. And of course, since you're only seeing generic icons, there's no way to know which movie you're going to be opening ahead of time, if you've forgotten which you downloaded.
Then there's the remote live view functionality. This, too, refused to work for me initially -- no matter what I did, with the camera connected and lens cap removed, I was never shown a live view feed. Until, that is, I tried taking a photo using the on-screen shutter button in the Image Sync app. Then, the app complained that I first needed to change the drive mode to single-shot. (That being the case, the app or camera should really have selected that mode for me ahead of time, but of course they didn't.)
Once I'd changed the drive mode, there was still no live view feed, but this time pressing the shutter button on-screen captured a photo -- and immediately that I'd done so, the live view feed suddenly sprang to life, sort of. The live view did at least work, but even with phone and camera just inches apart, the feed was jerky and regularly locked up for multiple seconds at a time.
I tried separating phone and camera, and as I walked just a few feet away from the latter with my body in between both devices, the live view feed vanished and the camera disconnected. I tried again, but this time backing away to ensure my body didn't interfere -- and even then, I could only get six feet away from the camera before the live view feed froze for so long that I finally gave up.
So if anything, the Wi-Fi feature set of the Pentax K-70 is even less useful than it was on the K-S2, and it was already pretty weak then. And it's not just me who thinks so. I noted in my K-S2 review that the Image Sync app for Android had a pretty poor 2.5/5 average score from users. A year later, there are now five times as many reviews, and the rating overall has actually fallen another tenth of a point to 2.4/5 as of this writing. Far and away the most common rating is a single star, something that should long since have told Ricoh that some work is needed to make Image Sync usable.
Of course, that's on the Android platform, as was all of my testing. I didn't have access to an iOS device during my review, and the camera had to be returned to Ricoh before I had a chance to have my colleagues in Atlanta try it with iOS for me. (They did last time, with the K-S2, though, and found many of the same concerns as on the Android version.) And the rating from users for the iOS version is no better than that on Android, so I doubt the platform will make terribly much difference to Image Sync's usability.
In my K-S2 review, I noted that many -- perhaps even all -- of these concerns are fixable if Ricoh improves its app and perhaps updates the camera's firmware. However, given that there's been no progress in the app over the last year, I can't offer that same optimism in this review. Expect the app as it is now to remain much the same over the life of your Pentax K-70, and you'll not be setting yourself up for disappointment.
As-is, I would recommend simply telling yourself that the K-70 isn't a connected camera out of the box. Far better options are available, whether you choose to use Pentax's optional FluCard Wi-Fi equipped SD card accessory, or a third-party product like Eye-Fi's Mobi card series. Neither is going to provide as seamless an experience as a robust in-camera Wi-Fi implementation, but they'll both handily outperform what's possible with the built-in Wi-Fi of the K-70.
Closing thoughts on the Pentax K-70
And now as I reach the end of my field test, I find myself experiencing a certain sense of déjà vu. A year ago, I wrapped up my second field test of the earlier K-S2 by noting that from my Wi-Fi experiences, you might think I didn't like the camera. Once again, Wi-Fi concerns have presented themselves, and once again, I have to say that despite these issues I do think that the Pentax K-70 is a great value for the money.
So long as in-camera Wi-Fi and superb movie autofocus aren't your priorities, the K-70 is an excellent camera which can provide superb image quality and at least fairly good movie clips as well, once digital stabilization is disabled. And in a lot of ways -- those which will matter to more experienced shooters, such as a pentaprism viewfinder, twin control dials, weather-sealing and so on -- the K-70 will give you important features you simply won't find from current rivals at this price-point.
Would I consider buying a K-70 myself, were I in the market for an affordable entry-level DSLR? Absolutely! I just wouldn't touch its Wi-Fi mode, and would look into a third-party solution to help put my photos on Facebook. If you're an entry-level Pentaxian wanting an upgrade, or you're looking to step up to your first DSLR, I would recommend that you do the same!