Pentax has long made very good digital SLRs that offer excellent image quality with simple, intuitive interfaces. And while their latest cameras pack a thorough selection of high-end features, they also have something that a lot of other SLR vendors don’t: style. For example, consider the Pentax K-r, a mid-range 12.4 megapixel SLR priced at $850 with an 18-55mm lens, or $800 for body only. A compact, lightweight, but very sturdy camera, the K-r is available in red, white, and of course boring old black. We looked at the white K-r, which is very striking and a nice break from the usual black cameras. Fortunately, the camera’s also got features and good image quality to back up its pretty looks.

Body and design

Like most mid-range SLRs, the K-r is very compact and lightweight, making it easy to carry for an entire day of shooting. The grip design is good, making the K-rs very comfortable to hold. As with other Pentax SLRs, the K-r feels very sturdy, weighing in at 21 oz with the battery and a memory card. While not fully weatherproofed like Pentax’s higher-end offerings, the K-r has a solid, creak-free build that feels very nice in the hand.

Pentax has always made streamlined, simple interfaces and the K-r is no exception. A single mode dial on top gives you quick access to the camera’s thorough selection of auto, manual, and scene modes. All critical functions - exposure compensation, program shift, ISO selection, white balance and flash control - are easily accessed via external camera controls.

Settings and camera status are displayed on the camera’s bright, 3-inch LCD screen. While the LCD screen has a well-organised on-screen menu, it does not turn itself automatically when you raise the camera to your eye to look through the optical viewfinder. Instead, you must turn it off and on manually. If you’re shooting in low light, having the screen on while the camera is up to your eye can be very distracting. Fortunately, the in-viewfinder status display is so thorough that you’ll rarely need to use the LCD screen and can probably leave it off. The viewfinder itself offers 96 percent coverage and is clear, though a little dim.

The K-r uses a stabilised sensor, which means any lens that you put on the camera will receive the benefits of in-body stabilisation. And the Pentax stabilizer is very good, easily smoothing out most small jitters. Unfortunately, there’s no depth-of-field preview button on the K-r, which can make assessing depth of field at a given aperture more difficult.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this is not a quiet camera. The K-r shutter release is fairly loud, so if you intend to shoot performances, shy wildlife, or other situations that demand discretion, this may not be the best choice.

Features abound

The K-r has a very well-rounded feature set. It fits between the higher-end K-7 ($1100, body only) and the entry-level K-x ($750 with kit lens) in Pentax’s DLSR line-up. It has the same sensor as the K-x, but the K-r does improve on the K-x in a number of ways. It has a higher maximum ISO (12800, expandable to 25600), sports a larger and higher-resolution LCD screen, can shoot more frames per second in continuous shooting mode (6fps), and has a number of new effects, such as HDR and Cross Process.

The 11-point autofocus system from the K-7 has been brought to the K-r and it’s very good. Pentax has included its PRIME II image processor - the same one used in its K7 and K-x, and this makes the K-r a very speedy performer. Boot-time, image saving, and menu navigation are all very quick and responsive on the K-r.

Sensor cleaning is built-in, along with a unique feature that will show you exactly where dust is on the sensor. Live view is provided, for using the LCD screen as a viewfinder, though autofocus is very slow, as it is on most SLRs with Live View. The K-r can shoot 720p HD video at 24 fps, and includes a built-in mono microphone. As with most SLRs, shooting video takes some skill and practice due to the lack of autofocus.

The built-in HDR feature shoots a burst of three JPEGs and automatically merges them into a single image with seemingly expanded dynamic range, while the D-Range feature automatically corrects highlights and shadows in an image. The HDR feature is pretty unforgiving of camera shake, as it makes no attempt to align image before merging. You’ll need a tripod to get good results. Several HDR 'strength' settings are provided, offering a range of HDR results. The Custom Images feature lets you specify in-camera image processing that you want applied to an image, and in addition to the usual saturation and contrast adjustments, the K-r includes stylised looks such as Bleach Bypass.

Many other features can be found within the on-screen menu, but one of the most curious and unique features is actually on the mode dial. Sensitivity Priority (marked by SV on the dial) mode works like a Program mode - it automatically chooses a shutter speed and aperture that’s right for your current ISO - but allows you to change ISO by simply turning the dial on the back of the camera, rather than having to dig into the usual ISO menu. If you’re working in low light, and need to carefully ride ISO, this is a very handy feature to have.

In addition to a long-life, proprietary, rechargeable battery, you can also run the K-r on lithium batteries, which aren’t too hard to find. This gives you another power alternative if you’re traveling and need power in a pinch.

Image quality

As with most SLRs these days, the K-r takes very good pictures. In JPEG mode, the in-camera processing yields images with nice colour and contrast, and the kit lens delivers a reasonable level of sharpness for the price. Noise is very low all the way to ISO 1600, but 3200 and 6400 are still quite usable. Even 12,800 and 25,600 produce nice print images, though they look noisy on-screen.

In our lab tests, the K-r received a word score of 'Good' for exposure, 'Very Good' for colour, 'Good' for sharpness, and 'Very Good' for distortion. 

The K-r delivers very good HD video quality. In fact, it’s kind of amazing that you can get such a high-quality HD video camera at this price. That said, as with most SLRs, shooting video with the K-r comes with some caveats. There’s a slight rolling shutter problem, which can make objects appear to wave and wobble if you pan too quality, (or if those objects are moving quickly on their own) and there’s no autofocus when shooting video. Finally, the ergonomics of shooting video with an SLR are just trickier than they are with a real video camera.

Here are sample clips that we shot in bright indoor lighting and in and low light with the Pentax K-r. For the highest-quality clips, select 720p from the drop-down menu in the lower-right corner of each player.


OUR VERDICT

If you’re looking for a small, lightweight, inexpensive “starter” camera, then the Pentax K-r is a great choice. With its huge array of features and nice image quality, it might end up being the only SLR you never need. Even if you’re a more serious shooter who already has an investment in Pentax lenses, the K-r’s very usable high-ISO capability, and speedy autofocus make it an ideal second body.