Pentax KP Field Test Part I

Compact, capable and customizable: Ricoh's alternative to mirrorless gets a real-world test!

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42mm-equiv., 1/400 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 400

Regular readers will know that I've long been a fan of Ricoh's Pentax DSLR lineup. In fact, when I don't have anything in hand to review -- admittedly, a somewhat rare occurrence -- and I want to shoot an interchangeable-lens camera, it's usually my own Pentax K-5 or K-3 II that I'll reach for, and I've been a K-series shooter for close to a decade now, all the way back to 2009's Pentax K-7. So when the Pentax KP arrived at Imaging Resource headquarters, there was no question who'd be handling the real-world portion of our testing!

I've been eagerly looking forward to reviewing the Pentax KP ever since I first had the chance to handle a pre-production camera early this year. In particular, I've found myself intrigued by its clever interchangeable handgrip design, which is one of the key factors behind the KP's compact size, by DSLR standards. I've also been keen to try out its high ISO capabilities, as well as its evolution of the Smart Function dial first seen in the K-1. And of course I've also been looking forward to trying out its uprated stabilization, autofocus and exposure options. And I'm thrilled with its new tethering capabilities, something I've been asking the company for over the course of more than a few reviews.

How the Pentax KP compares to its siblings

But before we get to all of that, let's start with a quick look at where the Pentax KP sits in the company's lineup. If you're not familiar with the Pentax brand, that can be a little less than obvious.

Looking at Ricoh's current lineup, probably the nearest models to the KP in terms of capabilities are the Pentax K-3 II and Pentax K-70, both of which I've previously reviewed. The K-3 II is technically the flagship sub-frame Pentax DSLR, although it's now rather long-in-the-tooth. It's fast approaching its second birthday, and the basic design is almost 3.5 years old, as it's a relatively modest update of the preceding Pentax K-3. The K-70, meanwhile, has been on the market for less than a year as of this writing (April 2017), but is aimed more at affordability than is the Pentax KP.

So what do you gain or lose over those cameras by opting for the Pentax KP? Let's find out! (If you want a little more detail than you'll find in the summaries below, click the links to see a more in-depth comparison against either model.)

90mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/10, ISO 200

Pentax KP vs. Pentax K-3 II

Compared to the flagship K-3 II, there are a fair few significant enthusiast or pro-friendly features that the KP lacks. The K-3 II sports an in-camera GPS receiver for geotagging photos, as well as dual SD card slots for redundancy or better organisation, a somewhat higher burst capture rate with a much deeper buffer, a slightly larger and higher-res (and subjectively, brighter and richer) rear-deck LCD, a top-deck LCD info display for quick confirmation of basic setup, and more connectivity options including an HDMI video output and a headphone jack for levels monitoring. And yet because of its age, the K-3 II now lists for around US$100 less than does the KP, which is a spectacular deal if you don't need to be on the cutting edge.

But the Pentax KP bests the earlier model in several ways too, with a much higher maximum sensitivity despite the same resolution and sensor size, as well as a tilting LCD monitor instead of a fixed-position one, a built-in flash (something the K-3 II dropped from the earlier K-3 to make room for its GPS receiver), and built-in Wi-Fi connectivity instead of the somewhat clumsy Eye-Fi or FluCard-based Wi-Fi connectivity that was optional on the K-3 II. The Pentax KP also adds a swift 1/24,000-second electronic shutter (but the K-3 II's mechnical shutter is faster than that of the KP), and it's said to have better stabilization and autofocus than the flagship model, to boot. It also adds exposure features like such as depth-of-field or motion bracketing.

90mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/10, ISO 200

Pentax KP vs. Pentax K-70

In a head-to-head comparison with the K-70, meanwhile, the Pentax KP fares rather better. The newer camera shoots images a bit faster than its mid-range sibling, has more sophisticated autofocus and (especially) metering systems, an uprated stabilization system, a much higher maximum sensitivity and a speedy electronic shutter option. It's also significantly lighter when loaded and ready to shoot, offers interchangeable handgrip options and an available portrait / battery grip, and has more exposure options including depth-of-field and motion bracketing.

But the K-70 still manages to best its higher-priced sibling in some respects. For example, it sports a more versatile side-mounted tilt/swivel display instead of the Pentax KP's tilt-only screen, adds on-chip phase-detection AF pixels for live view and movie shooting (although we didn't find movie AF on the K-70 to be terribly usable regardless), and also sports an HDMI port for high-definition video output. Its JPEG-mode buffer depth is also rather greater, although that's likely in part due to its slower capture rate. And of course, it's also quite a bit more affordable.

127mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800
A surprisingly comfortable body, given its focus on reduced size

But enough of the on-paper spec comparisons, how does the Pentax KP handle in the real world? On taking the Pentax KP out for some real-world shooting, I have to say the answer is pretty darned well. It's surprisingly comfortable to shoot with, especially when paired with smaller, lighter optics like the excellent Pentax Limited prime lens lineup, even when shooting single-handed.

With somewhat larger optics like the 18-135mm travel zoom, I definitely preferred to shoot two-handed for better stability, but still found it perfectly comfortable to do so. The unusual vertically-mounted front dial might not look like the most ergonomic idea ever, but it's actually pretty easy to reach. And while it's not quite as comfortable as the more traditional front dial of the K-3 II, it's doubtless a contributor to the Pentax KP's much slimmer body.

127mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200
Three different handgrip options to suit your tastes and hand size

For my review, I had all three handgrips available to me, and although I didn't have access to the optional portrait / battery grip with which the largest of the handgrip options is supposed to pair best, I gave all three a try. Of the trio, I found the mid-sized grip to be the most comfortable for my larger-than-average hands, its ergonomic counters allowing my middle finger to wrap around comfortably beneath the front control dial.

The smallest grip option was also perfectly comfortable with smaller lenses like the Limited primes, but with my larger hands I felt that it didn't give me as much purchase on the camera body, leading me to grip the camera tighter instead. For smaller hands, though, this might be the best option of the bunch.

90mm-equiv., 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200

Finally, the largest of the three grips was, for my money, the least comfortable because it lacks the mid-sized grip's contouring for your middle finger. In fairness, though, I didn't get to try this bundled front handgrip with the Pentax KP's optional portrait / battery grip accessory, with which it's really supposed to be paired. And its generous depth certainly gave it the most secure handhold of the trio.

Plenty of physical controls and a cleverly-redesigned Smart Function dial

With its smaller-than-typical body for a DSLR, the Pentax KP debuts a new control layout compared to past models. There are almost as many physical controls as there are on the K-3 II -- 24 for the Pentax KP, vs. 27 for the earlier flagship model, not counting the lens mount release button -- but the KP aims to make up for its slightly lesser selection of physical controls through the use of a Smart Function dial similar to that seen first on the full-frame Pentax K-1.

However, where the K-1 almost overloaded us with no less than nine different preset functions for this top-mounted control, the Pentax KP simplifies things by providing three preset functions, and a further three programmable functions. The presets are for exposure metering, HDR capture and continuous burst shooting speed, options which struck me as sensible to make easier to access.

And by default, these are joined by Custom Image mode, AA filter simulation and Outdoor View controls on the custom positions, which again seem to eminently sensible choices. If there's something else you'd prefer to control with the dial, though, there are a total of 15 different functions which can be assigned to these custom positions. And as in the K-1, there's also a Disable position on the dial to prevent accidental function changes if you turn the adjacent Set dial by mistake.

The new Live View control is great, but I missed the K-3 II's optional Mode dial lock

And as for the remainder of the control layout, I found everything positioned pretty well, and with good button feel. I definitely liked the new Live View / Movie lever, which sits under the Smart Function dial, as it's a little easier to use by touch than the equivalent control on the K-3 II, and the combined AE-L / AF button is also rather easier to reach than is the corner-mounted, dedicated AE-L button of the earlier flagship camera.

25mm-equivalent, 1/250 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200

But I did miss the ability to temporarily disable the locking mechanism for the Mode dial, one of my favorite features of the K-3 II, since it prevents accidental mode changes most of the time, but lets me jump back and forth between modes more quickly and easily should the need arise. And I personally preferred the dedicated top-deck ISO button and decoupled AE-L / AF buttons of the K-3 II. Given the Pentax KP's much slimmer body though, that's pretty easy to overlook if wanting to travel light.

And it's worth noting that the Raw/FX, horizon correction and exposure compensation buttons are all programmable, so if like me you want to see a dedicated control for ISO sensitivity rather than simply placing it as a secondary function of the four-way controller's Up button where it's harder to locate by feel, well... you can fix that. And I have to say that I thought it was rather cool to see the horizon correction function surfaced on its own control. In the past, I've tended to leave this on all of the time, but now it's much quicker and easier to enable or disable on the fly by default.

112mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1600
Autofocus is swift and confident, but any improvements are minimal

Among the features Ricoh called particular attention to when unveiling the Pentax KP was its autofocus system. It's based around the same 27-point SAFOX 11 autofocus system as used in the flagship K-3 II, and it offers up a generous 25 cross-type AF points that are sensitive to detail on both the horizontal and vertical axes. (Basically, there's a five-by-five grid of cross-type AF points at frame center, with a single linear AF point to the left and right of this main array.)

As in past models, I found the Pentax KP to have swift and confident autofocus that was able to achieve an accurate focus lock on the first attempt the overwhelming majority of the time, even in surprisingly low light. If I was able to see my subject through the viewfinder well enough to accurately frame it, the camera was usually able to focus on it too, even if I'd have struggled to do so manually without switching to live view mode.) Continuous autofocus performance isn't quite up to the best from Canon and Nikon at this price point, but it's pretty close, and should satisfy most users, I'd say.

127mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200

But as for that autofocus improvement, which was said to have been achieved in software through updated algorithms... Well, I struggled to notice any difference, if I'm honest. Even shooting the Pentax KP and K-3 II side-by-side with the same lens model on both cameras, I really didn't think there was a significant difference in AF speed or accuracy, with both cameras managing about equally well.

I should note, though, that it's quite possible that the K-3 II itself has already achieved the same improvements in firmware updates issued since its release, given that the improvements apparently don't involve hardware tweaks. If so, I wouldn't have expected to notice a difference. Either way, I think the Pentax KP does pretty well in this area.

79mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200
Exposure metering is pretty accurate, if perhaps not quite up to the K-3 II

The Pentax KP also shares its 86,000-pixel RGB metering sensor with the K-3 II, while the K-70 relies on a much coarser-grained 77-segment metering system. I found that exposures were metered pretty accurately most of the time, with perhaps a slightly greater tendency to overexpose than the K-3 II, but only by perhaps 1/3 to 2/3 EV. (And I was frequently shooting under late afternoon sunlight with a mixture of bright skies and partly-shaded subjects, conditions under which many cameras would've faced similar issues.)

Good performance, but the buffer is a bit abbreviated

In terms of performance, the Pentax KP sits nicely in between the K-3 II and K-70. Its burst capture rate tested at around 7.0-7.1 frames per second which is right on the money for Ricoh's claimed performance, just a tad slower than the K-3 II's 8.1-8.2 fps, but equally a tad ahead of the K-70's 6.1 fps. Depending upon the file format, though, buffer sizes were about 1/2 to 2/3 less than for the K-3 II, and the KP actually trailed the K-70 a little in JPEG mode as well. (Although in fairness, it was shooting more images than that camera in any given timeframe.)

127mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800

If you're a sports shooter -- and especially if you shoot raw files -- I'd recommend looking to the K-3 II instead because of this. The limited buffer size is not ideal if you're needing to keep up with the action, or you're a fan of the spray-and-pray approach. But for most other purposes, or for lighter sports fare like the kids' football games or something along those lines, the KP should offer plenty of performance and seldom keep you waiting. Buffer clearing times are still a weak spot as is usually the case for Pentax DSLRs, but that's less of a concern since you can change settings and keep shooting without first having to wait for the buffer to clear entirely as in some cameras.

Excellent daytime image quality

Thus far, my shooting with the Pentax KP has predominantly been in the daytime with good lighting, so my verdict on high sensitivity capture is still to come in my second Field Test. However, thus far I'm really liking what I'm seeing from the Pentax KP. With a sharp lens mounted on the camera, it delivers clean, attractive images with loads of detail, and if your subject is amenable to a multi-shot approach, its Pixel Shift Resolution function can deliver even more fine detail straight out of the camera.

127mm-equivalent, 1/320 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200

Colors are pretty lifelike, too, if perhaps a little on the consumer-friendly (read: oversaturated) side by default. (Pro tip from a long-time Pentaxian: If you want more realistic color straight out of the camera, then try changing the custom image mode to "natural".) And I thought the white balance system did a great job almost all of the time, with no untoward color casts and keeping hold of just enough golden hour warmth without going overboard.

More to come soon, watch this space!

Of course, before I can render a final verdict, I'll want to do some high ISO / low light / long exposure shooting, something I've not yet finished with. You can expect to hear more on this front, as well as a look at the new electronic shutter function, bracketing functions and the Pentax KP's movie capture capabilities. Watch this space for my second field test, coming soon!

187mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 800

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