Between them, Nikon and Canon have the mid-range dSLR market pretty much sewn up, so it's refreshing to see Pentax bounce back with a promising-looking offering. At around £1,050 with a standard 18-55mm kit lens or about £950 for a body-only version, the K-5 is rather expensive but comes with some high-end features. Can it take on its rivals in the image-quality stakes, though?
The K-5 is a tough-looking customer. It's kind of like the camera equivalent of Lee Marvin in Point Blank. It's by no means the biggest or burliest of dSLRs, but you probably wouldn't want to double-cross it and leave it for dead on Alcatraz Island.
There's nothing particularly revolutionary about the device's outward appearance. The body is, however, solidly constructed from a stainless-steel and magnesium alloy and has the benefit of being 'weatherproof'. That's to say the casing uses 77 special seals to keep out dust, rain, cold temperatures and the like.
The grip feels firm and the unit is well balanced and easy to hold steady. Various rubber covers conceal an SDHC card slot, USB/AV port, HDMI connection, sync socket and a stereo microphone input. There's also a DC input socket on the camera itself, as well as an external battery charger. The supplied battery is fairly long-lasting, allowing for around 980 shots between charges.
A pentaprismic viewfinder with 100 per cent coverage perches on top of the camera. It's great for composing shots, and they'll turn out exactly as you see them. Detailed status information is also available via an electronic readout within the viewfinder, as well as via a backlit, monochrome LCD on the camera's right-hand shoulder. On the rear of the unit is a high-resolution, 921,000-pixel, 3-inch LCD screen, which can either be used to display the camera's composition-assisting features, such as an electronic spirit level, or for live view composition.
There are plenty of dedicated buttons, switches and dials scattered over the K-5's body -- everything from a mode dial to a pop-up flash button. Somehow, though, none of these get in the way of operation. Placement is so well thought out that it's pretty hard to press something by accident.
Under the hood, a 16.3-megapixel CMOS sensor handles all the image-capturing duties. The camera uses an image stabiliser that works on the sensor itself, so you can attach a wide variety of lenses without worrying about the wobbles. A built-in dust-removal system cleans away any gunk that somehow makes it through the seals on the case.
The ISO range is an impressive 80 to 51,200 in extended mode. Equally notable is the camera's 7 frames per second continuous-shooting mode.
Video buffs will be pleased to hear that the K-5 can record movies at a 'Full HD', 1080p resolution. At this setting, the frame rate is rather low (25fps) but dropping the resolution to 720p allows you to bump this up to 30fps. The camera's built-in microphone is monaural, so you may wish to consider using an external mic if you're doing much filming with sound.
Despite its obvious semi-pro leanings, the K-5 never tries to overcomplicate matters. Taking photos with the camera is a familiar and comfortable experience. The controls are all sensibly and ergonomically laid out and the menu system is simple to navigate. In addition to all the usual exposure modes, there are also several customisable user modes, so you can conveniently switch straight to a programme that suits you.
Putting the camera through its paces is an enjoyable experience, and the results from our tests were generally extremely good. In outdoor light, we found the camera to produce sharp, detailed images with highly accurate, natural colours.
Indoors, we tried a variety of sensitivity settings and were pleased at how well the K-5 supressed noise up to and including ISO 1,600. Beyond that, the picture quality beings to degrade, but that's to be expected.
Auto functions, including autofocus and white balance, are fast and reliable. Some useful processing options allow you to fine-tune noise reduction, dynamic range and suchlike, and it's definitely worth experimenting with these, along with some of the correction and adjustment features.
The Pentax K-5 is a robust, intelligently engineered dSLR with a broad selection of useful features that go way beyond the main ones we've touched on here. It's extremely pleasant to use and reassuringly solid to hold. Best of all, it can take sterling photographs that are full of detail and rich, deep colour. We get the feeling that there's plenty of potential to unlock with the addition of some quality lenses too.
If you're on a budget, there are certainly much cheaper options available, including Pentax's own K-7. But it's hard not to be impressed by the K-5, even at its current price point, and it's clear that Pentax has worked hard to produce a worthy rival to the Nikon D7000, Canon EOS 60D and their ilk.
Edited by Charles Kloet