We've taken some of our best shots with Pentax digital SLRs, so we have high hopes for the latest affordable addition to the family, the K-r. It sits above the well-received K-x and just below the semi-pro K-7 and newer K-5 in the current range. Our first impression of the 12.4-megapixel K-r is that Pentax has merged its mid-range and entry-level dSLRs into one snapper.
As always, Pentax will have a hard job convincing those upgrading from a compact to a DSLR for the first time to choose one of its cameras rather than one from the more extensive ranges provided by market leaders Canon and Nikon. The Canon EOS 550D and Nikon D3100 are perfectly decent entry-level options after all.
So what can the K-r offer to convince anyone who's wavering? For starters, there's the price. You can expect to pay around £580 for the body plus a standard 18-55mm lens, which is an affordable and decent set-up for new dSLR users.
The K-r has very similar dimensions to its big brother, the K-7. The major handling differences are that it doesn't feature a secondary, top-mounted LCD display (enabling a quick glance at your chosen settings), and its handgrip is less contoured and so less comfortable. A large and obvious shooting-mode wheel sits where that display was located on the K-7, to the right of the built-in flash and vacant hotshoe. A forward-slanting shutter-release button sits atop the grip, encircled by a power switch.
Hold the camera in your right hand, and your thumb rests against a command dial on the back that's identical to the one on the rear of the K-7. This allows users to zoom into an image in playback mode to check detail, or alternatively display a series of thumbnails. There's no second command wheel on the front, like the K-7 has.
Flick the K-r's power switch to 'on', and you can be up and shooting as fast as your finger can find the shutter-release button. That's what we like to see.
With the camera set to autofocus mode, the K-r is similarly quick to pick out a target and determine focus and exposure, thanks to an 11-point autofocus. The lens motor whirs noisily yet impressively as it does so. The sound of the shutter firing is also loud and definitive. While these sounds mean that the user is reassured everything is working like clockwork, the K-r isn't the best tool for surreptitious snapping.
Steady as she goes
One advantage that the K-r has over Canon and Nikon's cameras is that Pentax has built anti-shake technology into the body. It's of the sensor-shift variety, so any lens immediately becomes image-stabilised. No specialist optics are required, and it's actually surprisingly effective. This also helps when shooting in low light, and Pentax has pushed the boat out in this respect by offering light-sensitivity settings up to a see-in-the-dark ISO 25,600. That's the kind of spec found on semi-pro and pro dSLRs.
That said, getting to grips with the K-r shouldn't trouble first-time users who've traded up from a compact, thanks to a control layout that's generally spacious, with large buttons and obvious labelling.
There's also the opportunity to leave the camera set to 'auto picture' mode, or any of the pre-optimised subject-specific settings, and simply snap away. Among the 14 choices on the shooting dial are settings covering portraits, landscapes, close-ups, action shots (with the Pentax offering up to 6-frames-per-second continuous shooting, for up to 25 JPEGs), and shooting at night. As your experience increases, there's then the opportunity to move onto the creative likes of program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual.
The natural inclination is to use the optical viewfinder for composing images. It's reasonably bright and clear, and boasts a large and comfortable eye relief. But there's also the opportunity to switch to live-view mode and make use of the 3-inch, 921,000-pixel LCD screen, which otherwise displays shooting information. It's useful for deploying on those low- and high-angle shots, while anyone focusing manually will find it provides a larger point of reference than the optical viewfinder.
For quickly activating the screen and lining up a shot, Pentax has provided a dedicated 'LV' (live view) button. Although you have to momentarily pause, while the camera's mirror mechanism flips out of the way, before an image appears on screen, you don't have to wait long at all. If you point the lens at your subject in LV mode and half press the shutter-release button, the camera rapidly zooms in on a close detail, providing a magnified view, and, once it has done so, automatically jumps back to show the entirety of frame. That provides another quick method of checking focus in AF mode, although more experienced enthusiasts may find that such hand-holding grates.
On a positive note, take a shot with the K-r and a full-quality JPEG writes to the SD or SDHC memory card in just over a second. A raw file writes in just over 2 seconds.
As we now expect at this level, the K-r can record high-definition 720p video in a wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio. It records at 25 frames per second rather than 30fps, but it can stretch to that speed if you're prepared to accept a resolution drop, to 640x480 pixels.
The relevant movie mode needs to be first selected on the shooting-mode dial. Once it has been, filming commences and ends with presses of the shutter-release button. An initial press once the user has selected video mode automatically activates the rear screen's live-view feature. There's no dedicated video-record button but we didn't find its omission to be a big deal. There's no HDMI output for hooking the K-r up directly to a flat-panel telly either, and that seems like much more of an oversight.
Power to the people
Unusually, Pentax has provided space in the base of the K-r's handgrip for inserting either the provided rechargeable lithium-ion battery or, should this run out of juice at an inopportune moment, a quartet of AAs instead. That option could potentially prove really useful.
Everything works how you'd expect it to. You can pick this camera up straightaway and start taking sharp, colourful pictures in a matter of seconds. Its pictures will knock spots off those you'd get with the majority of digital compacts, which is exactly what you want from your dSLR.
In terms of image quality, we were really impressed by the well-saturated colours that the K-r delivered under its default settings. Colours are pleasingly warm and vivid when shooting JPEGs, so you won't often feel the need to try to add visual punch in Photoshop. If you do want to tweak your images, there's an opportunity to do this in-camera, courtesy of a smattering of digital effects filters and custom image modes. That's all pretty standard fare at this level perhaps, but it's good to have as an option, especially on duller days.
Ultimately, the Pentax K-r is a mid-range dSLR that's accessible to entry-level users. We feel the K-r offers slightly more bang for your buck than an equivalent beginner's dSLR. It's basically a K-x crossed with a K-7.
That said, at the time of writing, we managed to track down a K-7 kit for just £100 more than the newer K-r. For that modest supplement, you'll get a more rugged construction, better grip, HDMI connectivity and a handy top-mounted display, which would appear to make the K-r the more sensible purchase. That's especially true since the K-7 with a lens originally retailed for around £1,000. For those on a tighter budget, however, the K-r is still a great first-time dSLR option.
Edited by Charles Kloet