Review – Pentax K-x Part 2: Features, Menus, Ergonomics
by Peter Zack
In the first section we had a quick look at the primary features most shooters look at first. In this section, we’ll have a closer look at setting up the Pentax K-x and using it. Since receiving the camera, I’ve taken about 1000 shots. Some keepers and many test images. This is giving me a fairly good impression of what a new user will experience.
You have 2 ways to see critical shooting information. First, through the viewfinder you have all the basics there:
- Scribed marks that show the AF points approximately and help with rule of 3rds and keeping an image straight.
- Spot metering and center point focus circle
- Flash status
- Auto Picture settings. I’d like to see the user settings here as well. So you know if you are in P mode or Av etc.
- SR (anti shake) status
- Shutter speed
- F stop
- Focus confirmation
- Number of recordable image (how much you can cram on the SD card and EV Compensation value
- Focus Mode. This is a little odd. It shows you if the camera is set to MF but not AF.S or AF.C and I think this would be a good idea.
- AE lock.
The display is good and tells you mostly what you need to know at any moment. The only thing I found and this seems a bit too common, is it could be brighter on sunny days. I see this in other models and brands as well, in bright sunlight, the display is tough to see at times. Otherwise the image in the veiwfinder is very bright for a penta-mirror design (96% 0.85x) and is surprisingly comparable to penta-prism finders. The veiwfinder also has dioptre correction (-2.5 – +1.5). The following comment can also be applied to most models and brands. I wish the eye cups supplied would stick out more and still give the same view of the screen. The human face has a nose and mine touches the screen with my eye to the VF.
Rear LCD Screen, Info and Menus
The second information screen is the rear LCD. It is a TFT, 2.7 inch with approx. 230,000 pixels. Beside showing the photos and being used for Live View, the screen displays 3 different information panels. 1) exposure information (status screen), 2) Info button adjustments and 3) Menus. My other bodies have top screens as well and they are valuable for night shooting or indoors when the light is poor. They are handy on a tripod as well if the camera is down low. I thought I’d really miss this screen but the K-x rear screen’s GUI (graphical user interface) is very good. Like any new layout, it will take a few minutes to get used to but it becomes intuitive very quickly.
This is a nit-pic but the menu has multiple tabs and each tab has several pages. I would like it if the menu would go back to the last page you viewed if it’s turned off accidentally or in time out mode. For example, if you are adjusting something and hit the wrong button that takes you out of the menu, I’d like to be able to hit the menu button again and have the page I was last viewing, reappear. As it is now, it begins back at the first tab and first page.
1) The “status” screen comes up when you turn the camera on and displays all the information above and several other settings. The control buttons are displayed and show the white balance setting, drive mode (single, continuous etc), flash, ISO and focus point. Also displayed is the file type, File size, Shooting mode, EV comp graph, shutter speed, aperture, shot counter and custom image. One feature I really like about this screen is the white balance setting is displayed at a glance and you can see which mode you are in. How many times have you had the camera set for indoor light. Then taken outside pictures after wards that came out blue because you forgot to check the white balance. With a touch of the correct button, you can adjust each of these settings very quickly.
2) The Info button gets you into some similar settings and a few others. In RAW or RAW + mode the following extra settings are shown: metering mode, highlight correction, shadow correction. In Jpeg mode also added are: cross processing, digital filters, HDR capture, distortion correction and lateral CA correction. The last 2 only work on selected Pentax brand lenses. Both screen versions have a button to change the file recording type. Again this is an easy screen to make some of the adjustments you will do less often. The display makes sense and at the top, whatever item you want to adjust is briefly described.
3) Finally is the menu. This is so detailed, I’m not going to go into it in depth. It contains 4 sub menus and each one has from 1 to 4 pages. About a quarter of the manual is dedicated to adjusting the various menu items. Most of these settings you will not use that often. This is more for initial setup of the camera to your liking. Notable feature adjustments you might go in to change are D-range (Dynamic range enhancement on or off), Jpeg file quality, Multi exposure, Dust removal and dust alert and Green button adjustments (assigning what the button does).
The most important sub menu is the Custom setting. It allows you to set up the camera in ways that suit your shooting style. For example, EV steps, expanded sensitivity, high ISO NR and so on. Each of these settings has several choices to set the camera up just the way you want. In total there are 22 adjustments and if you really mess it up, there’s a default reset button to start over again.
Before we leave the menu features, I’d like to note the manual itself. 315 pages and very well written. We are used to Asian to English translating in many of these manuals that don’t quite make sense. This one reads easily and you can figure out most info quickly. I hope that holds true for other languages.
I’d like everyone who decides to buy this camera to read the pages on the histogram. It’s a good clear explanation about an often confusing subject. But, yes there’s always a but the index isn’t that great. For example, Custom Images makes significant adjustments to the Jpeg files. Look under Jpeg and you won’t find that listed. For those unfamiliar with Pentax terms, this could be frustrating. Indexes should have every significant item that the manual discusses and this index is missing some items.
The camera, at first glance seems too small. Especially for a larger man’s hand. But the body shape works very well. In fact I used the camera outside for about 5 hours on April 11th with shooting gloves on (actually they are Motocross gloves that are perfect for colder days) and really had not issue changing settings and using the camera. Button placement is fairly good and changing settings is rapid once you get used to the interface (which won’t take long). One noticeable improvement over the K-7 is the SD card slot. With the K-7, removing the card is a little difficult as it’s too close to the open cover. On this body, the SD card is easy to remove and replace. Seems simple but if the card fills up just before your son blows the candles out on the cake, fumbling with an SD card will be frustrating. Another interesting improvement is the camera does not shut down when changing cards.
Mode Select Dial
One disadvantage over the K-7 is the locking mode dial. The K-7 is slightly older (only by a few months) but incorporates a push button that locks the mode dial in place. I think it’s a great feature and I was surprised that the K-x was missing this feature. I don’t baby my gear. It’s well cared for but well used also. So when I’m out shooting, the camera will be over the shoulder and rarely in a bag. Lenses are in a Lowepro street and field waist belt. I found that the mode dial could be too easily and accidentally changed. The mode setting detents are not stiff enough to hold the setting in place if the body rubs up against your jacket the wrong way. So some care is needed to double check the mode setting is still where you had it last. It seems an odd omission from this body.
Give me AV or give me death
I just wanted to see if you were still awake! Normally, I’ll shoot in Av mode or Manual mode. So all the Point and Shoot camera type mode settings are a waste, or so I thought. There might be occasions where the experienced shooter will use a few of these modes. Let’s say you are shooting landscapes in Av mode and something happens nearby that requires fast reaction times. You have the AF set to “S” and need “C” (continuous) to track something moving. Then you want high speed shooting instead of single shot. Well instead of taking a minute to change these and other settings, quickly flip the mode to sports (looks like a runner on the dial) and you are in the high speed mode in a split second. It might mean the difference between getting the shots or missing them. Second advantage is for the novice shooter. They may be familiar with what a Point and Shoot camera offers and this camera can do the same thing. So while you are learning all the features of an SLR, you can always fall back to the mode settings you may already understand.
The only button I find a little hard to use is the Green button. For shooters of other brands, this button isn’t common. Pentax decided years ago to have this button reset the exposure settings to normal (program line) if you mess up the exposure settings. It’s also used to take a meter reading in manual mode (M). So in M you want the camera to set the aperture and shutter speed to match the meter reading. Push the green button and the settings are adjusted. With this body, the Green button can perform the function described above but also do a number of other functions in various modes. So you might assign the button to be optical preview or custom image in a particular mode.
As a note, I wish the optical preview was somewhere else on the body. Possibly as a seperate button in another spot. The green button as an exposure ‘reset’ that is it’s best use in my opinion. That means you have to go into the menu to use the optical preview if you have the button programmed for some other function. For some shooters, this could be a limitation, having to choose which way the button works. Particularly macro shooters and those that relish Bokeh (which to some, is nearly a religion). The positive is there’s another way around this, sort of. Using the live view can give you a look at the scene if you have a second to use it. But this is cumbersome at times.
Also, the Green button is in an awkward placement for my hands. It’s too close to the right edge of the body. If I was designing the body, I would have put the button on the side of the flash/prism housing directly opposite the shutter button. Even small hands could easily have the index finger reach the button.
One item of note. After shooting with the camera for nearly a month now, I’ve come to like the rear LCD a lot more. As mentioned before, in bright sunlight, the data in the viewfinder can be tough to see. This is true with many brands and models. With the data all on the LCD, even in the brightest sun, you can see your settings very quickly. A nice backup feature when required.
Playback and Info button
The playback button of course allows you to review your images. In combination with the info button you can assess your shots with 4 different information screens. First is just the image filling the screen. You can use the rear E-dial to magnify the image up to 16x. Next push of the info button adds the basic shooting data to the bottom of the screen. In this screen you can push the down arrow to make adjustments to the image (see the next paragraph). 3rd has the histogram added and the last button push brings up a thumbnail image and all the relevant shooting settings.
With the screen shot above, there is a little green indicator in the lower right corner. Push the control pad down button. This opens up a range of in camera editing possibilities. Note; only image rotation can be done on RAW files. The editing features are rotation, various digital filters, downsizing a RAW file, cropping, slideshow, printing options and a few viewing options. The first time shooter might use these from time to time or when away from home. But I see these as mostly gimmicks that are better done on a computer with proper editing software, such as our list of: freeware editing software.
I’m not a technical tester. I could set up a mic, record frame rates, get out the stopwatch to record power on etc. But there are much better reviews of this elsewhere. This being a user review, the camera is very fast. Power off to taking a first shot is nearly instant (under a second) and the frame rate seems to live up to spec at 4.7 fps. The only limit being the buffer filling up rather quickly. AF speed and low light AF are very good an a noticeable improvement from the K20D. In fact in very low light, I could focus, shoot then refocus, shoot 2-3 times in the same amount of time it took the K20D to focus one shot. To be fair, the light was so bad in this little test, you would never use either camera without a flash. The point being, in low light, this camera can lock focus very accurately and quickly.
If you’ve got kids and want to chase them around the rec room, I think this camera will do a very good job. I’m not going to comment too much on SR. The anti shake system (SR) with Pentax DSLR’s is built into the current bodies. They claim upwards of 4 stops improvement. Any test is very subjective and is so dependent on your physical fitness, controlling your breathing, how windy it is, are you on stable ground etc, that I see test shots as a little pointless. I’ve taken sharp shots at 1/8th of a second without difficulty on a 50mm lens. I think it’s safe to say that almost any user can get a 2 stop advantage and someone with very good technique can get upwards of the claimed 4 stops. The big plus with in body SR vs the lens type is every lens you buy or own will get the benefit which includes older legacy glass still readily available on the used market.
The only other feature to mention is the pop up flash. In my experience, they are all pretty similar across brands. Good for 12 feet or so and you’ll only use it in a pinch or around the house. It does offer AF assist in low light but I don’t normally use this feature. It offers some good features and can operate as a wireless controller with the correct off camera flash. Otherwise for serious flash use, you’re going to add an accessory flash.
It’s a small camera and the benchmark camera I’ve been using to test the K-x against is the Pentax K20D. In the final section we’ll also use the Nikon D40 as a comparison camera.
Here’s a view of the size vs the K20D
Some sample images
So here’s a few sample shots with the K-x vs the K20D. The lenses used were; K20D and DA*16-50mm f2.8. On the Kx was the Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 XR Di IF. Both excellent lenses that can render very similar and high quality images. I would have switched lenses back and forth but it was a very windy day and dust on the sensor is always a consideration. All shots were hand held and as close as possible to the same FOV. They are converted in ACR default settings straight from the RAW image with no enhancements. All images shot in Av mode and using center weighted metering. With Av mode I let the camera select the shutter speed. ISO was 200 with DR on in all shots.
Click on the thumbnails for a larger version. For even larger, click the image a second time for even bigger.
What you will notice with the next shot, is the Pentax metering setup. Pentax has always set the exposure toward slightly under-exposed. The thinking is to preserve the highlights. If you look at the image on the left, it’s straight from the camera. The whites have detail and very little signs of being blown out. The darker areas are slightly underexposed. Most of us will use some form of software to edit photos and it’s much easier to enhance dark areas of a shot. If the whites are blown out, you’ve lost all the data and can’t fix the image.
The shot on the right below is the auto exposure setting in ACR, which added +1EV (1 stop). But if you look at that adjustment, the white spray now has blown out areas that have lost all detail. I’d much rather take the first version and use a little shadow recovery and keep the whites as they were shot. The same goes for the lighthouse images above.
So you be the judge from the shots above. As I mentioned, Pentax under-exposes around 1/2 a stop in most cases. Sometimes as much as a full stop. With software you can lighten the dark areas of a tough scene and save whites from blowing out. This is also dependent on the scene, metering mode and where the meter reading is taken from.
The final shot can show how well the camera can shoot in tough light (a single CFL bulb) at ISO 3200. I used the camera to do a little shooting at a wedding. The camera performed well, focused in low light accurately and provided well detailed high ISO shots (3200 and 6400). There was a big improvement over the K20D in tracking moving subjects and getting a sharp image. I can’t share the work with you here, so you’ll have to take my word on that with the one sample image above.
Part 2 final thoughts
A few comments to end Part 2 of this review; I feel the button layout and body feel is excellent with the exception of my note above on the Green button. In part 1, I was wishing for a grip and I still think that should be available, I like the body feel, the more I shoot with it. There’s a lot to be said for a small and light camera that makes you “want” to carry it everywhere. Image quality is excellent and is very close to the much more expensive K20D and K-7 models at the upper end of the line. For the price, this is a camera that is hard to overlook.
Also a note for those that have never shot with in body anti shake (SR), you may notice a faint ‘clunk’ when the camera is off. The sensor floats on a magnetic chassis and can move a little within it’s limits. It’s normal for SR.
Stay tuned for the final section and conclusions.
Cheers and good shooting. –Peter Zack
Part 3 of this review can be found here: K-x review conclusions.
 one of the ‘rules’ in photography was to shoot your focal range or as close to it as possible. So if the lens was 50mm, the minimum shutter speed is 1/60th, if the lens was 300mm then shoot at 1/250th and up. As an example, if you got a 4 stop advantage on a 50mm lens, you (in theory) could get a shot as sharp as shooting 1/60th without SR or a tripod. 4 stops = 1/8th (1 stop table: 1/60th, 1/30th, 1/15th, 1/8th, 1/4th etc.)
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- Review – Pentax K-x Part 1: First Look
- Review – Pentax K-5, Part 2
- Review – Pentax K-x Part 3: Conclusions
- Review – Pentax K-5
- Review – Olympus Pen E-PL1, Part 2: Using the Camera
Tags: Cameras, DSLR, Pentax K-x, Photography, Reviews