Review – Pentax K-x Part 1: First Look

Pentax K-X shown with FA50mm f1.4 lens which is not included in the kit. Battery for size reference.

by Peter Zack

  

As a very active shooter I’m always looking at new gear to see what’s happening with all brands. I was also looking for a camera that could serve a few different uses: 1) I wanted something small that my wife would enjoy because my regular camera bodies are far too big and heavy for her to take any interest—she’s wanted to learn how to use a DSLR but these cameras have stopped her cold. 2) A camera that was even better in low light than my existing gear and could take the same lenses as it could serve as a supplement to my primary bodies. 3) A travel and “pocket” DSLR for vacations or days when I don’t want to lug the big body around.

This review will be in parts and the next section will be more of a hands-on user report, my impressions of what the camera is like to use in the real world. As time passes, I may add some further thoughts to the following sections. The review is not meant to be hyper technical; you can find those types of reviews elsewhere on the web, but hopefully this will be more of what an everyday user might need to know when considering the purchase of a Pentax K-x or any other entry price point camera model.

This body seemed to fit the bill on paper for what I personally wanted. So lets have a closer look and see how it does.

Pentax KX

What's in the box. Body cap installed.

  

What’s in the Box

  • Hot Shoe cover Fx
  • Eyecup Fq
  • Body mount cover
  • USB cable I-USB7 (not shown but included)
  • Black and Red Strap 0-ST53
  • Software on CD S-SW99
  • 4 AA batteries (mine had 4 Energizer Ultimate Lithiums)
  • Owners Manual 0PKX00101/Eng (or your home country language)

Note: Missing is the viewfinder cover that is in the box with upper-end models from Pentax. This is useful for long exposures to prevent light leaks. I think it should be part of the kit.

  

Camera Specifications

Summary of the highlights:

  • 12.4 megapixel CMOS sensor
    High resolution 12.4 megapixel CMOS image sensor features sensor-shift Shake Reduction for stabilized image and video capture up to 4 stops max.
  • 2.7 inch LCD with Live View and Face Detection
    Large 2.7 inch LCD features Live View with contrast, phase difference, and Face Detection autofocus (up to 16 faces).
  • 720p HD Video
    Capture widescreen HD video in full 720p resolution (1280×720) at 24 FPS cinematic frame rate, using any PENTAX 35mm lens.
  • Compact Body
    Highly compact DSLR body design allows for 1 handed operation and comfort when traveling.
  • Auto Picture and Scene Modes
    Powerful automatic modes, including PENTAX Auto Picture and scene modes, ensure the perfect shot in any situation, while helping new photographers learn DSLR photography.
  • Creative Processing and Filter Modes
    Creative processing and filter modes produce high quality finished images, while offering the ability to explore artistic freedom through unique special effects.
  • HDR Image Capture
    True HDR image capture blends 3 bracketed images into a single picture with outstanding shadow, highlight, and midrange detail.
  • 4.7 Frames per Second
    Fast 4.7 FPS capture speed and 1/6000 second maximum shutter speeds are possible with the PENTAX PRIME II image processing engine.
  • 11 Point Wide Angle Focus
    Responsive 11 point wide angle SAFOX VIII autofocus system focuses quickly and accurately, and can easily track moving subjects.
  • AA Batteries
    Capture up to 1900 shots with universally available, easy-to-find AA lithium batteries (also compatible with AA NiMH rechargeable and alkaline batteries).
  • Dimensions (W x H x D)
    approx. 122.5 x 91.5 x 67.5 mm (4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7 inches).
  • Weight
    approx. 515g (18.2 oz.) without battery or SD memory card.
    approx. 580g (20.5oz.) loaded and ready with lithium batteries and SD memory card.
    approx. 615g (21.7oz.) loaded and ready with alkaline batteries and SD memory card.
  •   

    First Impressions

    Even before the camera arrived, I was wishing for a grip accessory. I have big hands and also often shoot in portrait mode, so it would be a nice option. In all fairness, that’s not the intended market Pentax was directing this camera at; people considering this camera want it light and easy to carry. This body certainly fits that niche and adding a grip would defeat the purpose of a small and light camera. Having it now in my hands, portrait shooting is quite comfortable. The body is remarkably small and easy to use in either shooting mode.

    It would still be nice to have this accessory as an option, even if it provided no electrical connections and served as a storage compartment for a set of spare batteries, IR remote and SD card.

      

    Price

    The first thing to consider for any camera purchase is budget and price. This camera comes in various forms: You can buy a body alone at places like B&H and Amazon for approx $559.00 and a few different kit versions for not much more with a couple of lens options. Lenses like the DA-L 18-55mm, DA-L 50-200mm and DA-L 55-300mm are available. Also the camera is available in various colours. At the time of this writing, it can be purchased in white, red, navy blue and standard black outside Japan, although I hear other colours may become available in Europe. In Japan you can pick from 100 different combinations.

    The Menu button on right will access this screen. You use the 4 buttons around the OK button to navigate and change settings.

      

    Ease of Use

    As soon as the camera arrived I wanted to see how easy it would be for a first time user to navigate the menus and set it up to use. So like my friend Miserere, I purposefully left the manual in the box. There are 4 sections in the menu for setup, each containing several ‘pages’. In 15 minutes I had the camera working just the way I’d like. It’s very customizable like its higher end siblings. I think the first time user to Pentax will find the camera easy to use and the menus quite straight forward. There’s lots in there to customize the setup as well and for an “entry level model” it’s going to offer a lot to most photographers.

    Clearly this camera has inherited many features and advancements from its big brother, the K-7, a semi-pro spec’d camera body. Things like HDR (3 image bracketed capture combined in camera), 720p HD video recording at 24 frames/sec, creative digital filters (JPEGs only), color profile micro-adjustments, lens correction options (Lateral CA and Distortion correction ), D-range adjustments for shadow and highlight tone curve, and so on. A few of the most noticeable features it does not share with the K-7 are the Stereo Mic plug, HDMI jack, Remote Plug, weather-sealed body and top panel LCD. In the latter case everything is either available on the rear LCD (230,000 dots) or the viewfinder. I should note that you can adjust the font size for easier viewing. This is a great feature I haven’t seen on many other models and a welcome addition. It has an increased frame rate from the earlier K-m and K200D models, now reaching 4.7 frames per second for approx. 17 JPEG frames in the buffer until the memory clears to the SD card. The only limitation is the buffer will fill fairly quickly and seems a bit small for a high fps camera. Of all the cameras I’ve looked at in this class, the K-x has the highest frame rate.

    HDR is a nice additional feature that we will explore more in part 2 but this feature works by combining 3 images that can be bracketed by 3Ev. So you can take an underexposed image, a normal exposure and a slightly over exposed image and the camera will combine them to increase the dynamic range. For those who have never tried this (previously only available in software after you take the shots), it will allow you to better capture tough scenes, situations where the sky is bright and the foreground subject is dark. HDR will help preserve the sky and lighten the foreground. To some it may seem to produce an unnatural image or be a gimmick better done in software, but others will like it and find uses for it.

    The camera takes 4 AA sized batteries. Note the gold-plated contacts, which is a nice touch; most electronics that cost as much or more use cheaper Nickel-plated contacts.

    AA Batteries are another interesting choice. This has been a common feature of entry level Pentax models for a long time. The higher end models take dedicated rechargeable batteries. Although I like the dedicated versions, the AA choice makes sense. This camera is directed at the first time shooter and photographer on a budget. So you could spend $40-50.00 for a spare battery (like most more expensive cameras offer) or get an extra set of top quality rechargeable AA’s (Nm-HH, 640 shots) for your new K-x at less than half this price, and these are easily replaced when needed. On vacation or away from home, even a set of good quality Alkalines can do in a pinch (210 shots), although they will give you far fewer shots (Lithium’s would be preferred and provide a whopping 1900+ images). But that beats missing Grandma’s 90th birthday party because you forgot to charge the battery last night.

      

    High ISO

    ISO 6400 taken in typical bar light. f/4 1/160s 55mm hand-held. Click for larger size. Direct conversion in ACR

    In this section you’ll see a few quick sample shots at ISO 6400 and 12,800, all taken in poor light. Click on the thumbnails for a larger version.

    The very first thing I wanted to test was the claims of better high ISO shooting. From my initial observations, the camera does seem to perform well at higher ISOs. It does a very good job at 3200, easily usable shots at 6400 and passable at 12,800 depending on the shooting scene. Although at this setting I would have to be somewhat desperate to be taking critical photos. My estimate that seems to be backed up by tests elsewhere is that the camera is at least one stop better than a K20D or K-7 and really more like 2 stops better at 6400. There certainly is grain at higher ISOs but it appears more manageable and there are only a few signs of banding, so using a de-noise program to clean up the image will yield good results. Images like this have a grain that would make good black and white conversions with “film-like” grain. We’ll test this much more in the coming sections and conduct some comparisons vs. the K20D.




    ISO12,800 ISO12,800 Crop

      

    Autofocus Speed and Accuracy

    The second thing I wanted to test was AF (auto focus). Was it faster to lock on? Could it track better than previous models? The answer is a clear yes. I went out and played in traffic using the DA*16-50mm f/2.8. Tracking cars moving from about 10 meters at approx 60kph (37mph) was almost fluid with the SDM lens. With a screwdrive lens (in-body motor) you could hear the micro adjustments constantly adjusting to the moving subject. I would pick a car at my far left and pan/track it till it was straight in front of me and take the shot. After about 45 shots like this I missed 2. Although I didn’t try as many coming directly at me or driving straight away, the few I tried provided similar results. It would seem in this area, the Pentax K-x is a big improvement over previous models. Compared to a Nikon D300S I tried recently, it might not be quite as fast in locking focus, but not far off in a much lower priced camera.

     

    Low light focus was strong in the high ISO shots above and there was very little hunting unless the scene had very little contrast. Generally you will find the focusing accurate and fast with very few missed shots. I’ll try to do some sports shooting shortly and see how well it performs in what can be the toughest situations. The only limitation I see here is the lack of AF points in the veiwfinder. There are 11 AF points but Pentax has chosen to not illuminate them in the display, reportedly to keep the camera smaller and costs down. Most shooters I speak to use the center point anyway and the camera has an etched pair of semi circles right in the center of the viewfinder. Line up your subject in that spot and focusing is not an issue. Although I prefer having the AF points light up, after approx 500 shots, this has not been an issue.

    In this shot the focus was on the tip of the branch and I was able to shoot nearly wide open to limit the depth of field and get a sharp branch tip. Click on image for a larger size.


    ISO 200 f/4 1/500s Heavily cropped. Don't let the bland colour fool you. It's March in Canada. Plus I had the EV set to +0.7 from some earlier tests. Oops.


    This wraps up our first look at the Pentax K-x. We’ll go into much more detail on the features and performance in the next sections. In the final part of this review series I will report after using this camera to take some shots at a wedding, which is one of the toughest lighting situations facing any photographer and their gear.

    While you are waiting for the next section, you can have a look at a comparison of several models in the same entry-level DSLR class reported in AlphaMountWorld.com. Also see how the camera compares to some of the best DSLRs available today in the DxO K-x rank. DxO extensively tests each camera and you’ll see the Pentax K-x comes in at 19th in the top 100. Only 2 cameras with an APS-C (cropped) sensors came in higher, all the rest in the top 20 are either 24x36mm (Full Frame) or Medium format sensors.

    Without going into great detail, DxO designs (among other software tools) digital RAW converters that are fine-tuned and optimized for your particular camera. They need to know your camera’s abilities and limits as well or better than the engineers that designed it. From their web site: Perfect photos with no optical flaws. Automatically correct distortion, vignetting, lack of sharpness, chromatic aberrations and colored fringes. Color and detail at the highest ISO settings, push your camera up to two stops above its limits.

    We appreciate the support of our readers, and if you choose to purchase through our links to B&H, Amazon and Adorama, you help us keep EtL going. Plus, it’s at no extra cost to you when using these links!

    Cheers and good shooting –Peter Zack

    Part 2 of this review can be found here: K-x review continues.

      

    Purchase the Pentax K-x from Amazon.com
    Purchase the Pentax K-x from Amazon.co.uk
    Purchase the Pentax K-x from B&H
    Purchase the Pentax K-x from Adorama

    Note: Links in this article might be to one of our affiliate stores. Purchases made from our affiliates through these links will benefit Enticing the Light at no extra cost to you.

    Related posts:

    1. Review – Pentax K-x Part 2: Features, Menus, Ergonomics
    2. Review – Pentax K-5, Part 2
    3. Review – Pentax K-x Part 3: Conclusions
    4. Review – Pentax K-5
    5. Review – Olympus Pen E-PL1, Part 2: Using the Camera


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20 Comments

  1. I have this camera too. Its part of the team i have put together. I like its smallness but I also customized a grip for it for when I do paid work, it makes the camera look a little more formidable, and improves handing and reducing vibrations since the camera is so light. The grip is non functional but serves as a great storage place for more batters and even an sd card if you can fit it.

    You can see a pic here of the kx with battery grip and flash…

    http://photolog365.blogspot.com/2010/01/meeting-yourself-at-right-time.html

    Though the grip is smaller on the kx it is still a whole lot better than the d90….

    • Frank, That’s very interesting. I’d like some more details and would appreciate it if you would email me from the Contact page here http://enticingthelight.com/contact-us/
      We may add this info to one of the future sections of the review.

      Thanks for your input and posting.

      Peter

    • On the blog http://photolog365.blogspot.com/2010/01/meeting-yourself-at-right-time.html you leave a comment about pentax k-x battery grip. I also asked a question on this site. But got no response (it may be fake?).
      And could you get an answer about battery grip on pentax k-x?
      I really want to buy this product, but I do not know where to do it, because pentax does not issue this accessory for K-x model.
      If you know how to make such device, I would be very grateful for help.
      Best regards, Alexey

      • Alexey, I wrote them some time ago and never got a reply either. So I don’t have any information about this mystery grip. So I can’t be of any further assistance. Pentax certainly never made one as the camera wasn’t designed with a grip in mind (there is no contact plate on the bottom of the body).

  2. So Peter,
    If you had to choose between the K20D and KX what would it be?
    :)

  3. the kx is like a little sports car
    the 20 is like a hummer.

  4. Javier, I don’t think I’m quite there yet to decide that. More testing is required. I’m almost looking at this like film. One’s good for task A,B,C and the other for D,E,f etc. As is often commented, there’s no perfect camera. For someone who wants to travel light and small (vacation, street shooting) this could be ideal. Also for indoor shooting or chasing the kids.

    I’ll have a better opinion in the final section after more testing with both.

  5. Hi Peter. Hopefully we’ll see some practical tests to show comparative noise levels. I have a K20D and K-x and IME (no formal testing) the K20D at ISO 6400 looks like the K-x at ISO 12800, so one stop difference. I’ve read a lot of tests and I don’t believe I’ve seen the two stop claim vs a K20. DXOMark measured a 6-point differential, and their metric says 5 points is roughly one stop, but I don’t know if they’re looking at detail preservation in their tests or just noise levels. The K-7 does appear to be a fraction of a stop (1/3?) behind the K20D in noise performance.

    I’m anxious to see the rest of this review for your always pragmatic and real-world views on the K-x.

    • Off the top of my head, I seem to remember that the ISO DxO Mark charts measure 1 stop per 3 units, so a difference of 6 would be 2 stops. But as you point out, this says nothing about detail preservation or annihilation. From the tests I’ve seen, both the K20D and K-x do very well at preserving detail (which has long been a characteristic of Pentax DSLRs at high ISO), but the K-x is just so much better at reducing chroma noise that it makes the K20D (and K-7) look very bad in comparison, even though they’re not bad at all. It’s like they sprinkled fairy dust on that K-x sensor or something… :-D

      I don’t know if Peter will be posting any high ISO comparisons—they take up a lot of time and have been done on many sites already. We’re trying to provide a review based on using the camera in real situations to take real pictures.

  6. Greetings and thank you for an inspiring site.

    dSLRs have been shrinking and m43 compacts are less compact than their smaller siblings. So I wonder how comparable their form factors really are? I’ve been considering both the Pentax K-x and the Olympus Pen E-PL1 since both have a promise of good image quality, fairly compact size with the respective optional pancake lenses, and affordability to boot!

    Since you happen to have both cameras in the house, I’d be really interested in hearing how they compare physically in use; in the hand, around the neck, in the bag, shutter sound, touch-and-feel, lugging them around for some hours, and so on.

    Best regards,

    GeeBee

    • Hi GeeBee, and thanks for your kinds words.

      Yes, we do have both cameras in the house, except…ours is a very big house, stretching across the Eastern seaboard of the North American continent, from Boston (U.S.) to Prince Edward Island (Canadia) :-)

      It’s only thanks to the internet that we’re able to keep this house together. Peter lives in the North Wing, so to speak, while I live in the South Wing. He has the K-x in his hands, while I have the E-PL1, so it’s going to be impossible for me to photograph them together. Maybe Peter can pop round to his local camera store and ask them to see the E-PL1 and take a photo of them side by side, but he’s a busy guy (and doesn’t get paid to review cameras), so don’t be offended if he can’t. I’d go myself, but none of my local stores carry Pentax.

      One thing I can tell you is that these are two different cameras. The K-x is a DSLR, which means it will offer faster and better autofocusing, more FPS, longer battery life and a sturdier build. In the case of the K-x, it will further provide much better high ISO performance. It also comes in red ;-) The E-PL1 is smaller and can be put in a coat pocket while still offering good IQ and allows you to mount just about any lens on it. The Olympus 17mm f/2.8 pancake is much smaller than any of Pentax’s pancakes.

      Peter will probably chime in later on and post his own comments.

      • GeeBee, I’ll see if any local stores offer the Olympus for a comparison. I’d mirror Miserere’s comments about performance between the 2 cameras. The Oly with a pancake lens is going to be smaller and fit in a jacket pocket better than the Pentax. But either are good small choices for the class.

        So it’s going to be a decision between the size and the type of shooting you may want to do.

        • Thanks. The two nice locations certainly provide you with more attractive sceneries!

          My form factor and weight pondering started with the realization that I have accepted a bulky and pretty heavy compact (Canon G9) as a carry-around camera for some years now. It really only sits well in the pockets of winter coats, and then only if balanced with keys and a Blackberry in the other pocket. So, once one accepts that the “compact” will spend a fair amount of time on the strap around the neck, in bags and so on…what is available within that “hefty tourister” range? My guess is that weight may matter, especially for tourism uses. I noted that you’re also doing the NX10 and look forward to learning more.

          Cheers,
          GeeBee (Denmark)

  7. GeeBee and others, I checked the local camera shop and they didn’t have the Olympus in stock to make a comparison shot. So I guess you’ll have to look at the specs and weights to determine which one will work for you.

    Part 2 of the review is now posted.

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