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Pentax K-30 hero (1024px)
Pentax K-30 hero (1024px)

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Pentax K-30 review

A good camera doesn't have to be fragile

Pentax may not be the first name you think of when you shop for a digital camera, but the company has a history of making good DSLRs — the K-5 is a favorite of many photographers, for instance. As we've seen with the Q and K-01, Pentax also likes a gimmick: the Q was impossibly small, the K-01 impossibly odd-looking. The company's latest DSLR, the K-30, isn't quite so jarring in its design, but it does have a trick up its sleeve: the camera is totally weather-sealed, so you can take it out in a thunderstorm and shoot without worry – or at least, without worrying about the camera.

The K-30's rugged body protects solid internals, too: it shares its 16-megapixel APS-C sensor and Prime M processor with the K-01, promises six frames per second shooting, and can recording 1080p video at 30 frames per second. That it all costs only $899.95 with a kit lens is enticing, but the entry-level DSLR market is getting more impressive all the time — Nikon's D3200 and D5100 are both solid DSLRs, as is Canon's Rebel T4i. Can the K-30 hold its own? Let's see.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

There's a fine line between feeling rugged and cheap

To look at it, the K-30 is a fairly inconspicuous DSLR. Pentax's K-5 is well-known and well-liked, and the company evidently didn't think it needed to change much for the K-30. At 5.1 inches wide, 3.8 inches tall and 2.8 inches deep (all without a lens attached), it's neither the largest nor the smallest DSLR I've seen. Oddly, I wish it were a bit taller: there's not quite room for my pinky finger on the grip, so the K30 is a little uncomfortable to hold (plus it makes me feel very dainty, with my pinky out while I shoot). It weighs 2.3 pounds with the 18-135mm lens, which is on the heavy side, but it doesn't feel particularly heavy in your hand. Squared edges give it a slightly blocky look just like the K-5 — overall there's nothing extraordinary about its design. There are a couple of optional glossy colors that stand out a bit more, but my all-black model easily blends into the crowd.

If you close your eyes and pick up 100 different DSLRs, though, I'd bet dollars to donuts you'd know the K-30 immediately by its feel. Its polycarbonate body is a mix of rubberized textures and smooth edges, and the whole thing feels somewhat softer and cheaper than most other DSLRs. Everything gives a bit when you press it, again a texture thing rather than a design flaw, but I'd say you won't get a lot of envious looks carrying the K-30 around.

You know what you will gets looks for, though? Carrying your DSLR out into the rain, or splashing around with it at the beach. The materials Pentax used are designed to completely weather-seal the camera, so it's impervious to splashes or even cold weather. I took some liberties in testing its weatherproof abilities, and as advertised, you needn't fear taking it out on a boat or getting caught in a downpour. You can't, however, submerge it in water. (Let me say that again: do NOT buy a K-30 and try to take pictures underwater. It will go poorly.)

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The elements have nothing on the K-30

I took the camera out in the midst of a fairly epic New York City rain / thunder / hail storm, and shot for about 30 minutes without the K-30 ever missing a beat. The camera was absolutely soaked, and so was I, but it kept right on shooting without any issues. The more I used the camera, too, the more I realized how nice it is to not have to fret when you're at the beach, or on a boat, or just want to take pictures of miserable people caught in a rainstorm. I worried about the camera constantly as I was shooting in the rain (and I got a lot of worried looks), but the K-30 is more than capable. It also comported itself well at the beach, on a boating trip, and when I "accidentally" spilled my iced coffee all over it.

With the ruggedization and weatherproofing does come compromise. The K-30's materials feel cheap, every dial is a little harder to turn, every button feels a little more rubbery, and every port is harder to access — it keeps water out, but it keeps you out too. There's a single SD card slot on the camera, hidden underneath a resistant sliding door; the battery flap on the bottom is hard to open as well.

Display / viewfinder

Display and viewfinder

You can't beat an optical viewfinder
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Articulating or tilting displays are an increasingly common feature on DSLRs — the new Canon Rebel T4i has a great one — so it's a shame that the K-30's 3-inch LCD is stuck to its location for weather-proofing purposes. It's a great screen, filled with 921,000 dots. It's sharp and accurate, with great color reproduction, and though it's not especially bright it's still relatively usable outdoors. Viewing angles are excellent, which makes it slightly easier to do without any articulation, but I'd still prefer a more flexible display.

The K-30 also has an optical viewfinder, which is in my opinion a must-have feature for still photographers. The viewfinder is big and comfortable, offers 100 percent coverage, and by virtue of being an optical viewfinder (rather than electronic) gives you a near-perfect preview of the image you're shooting. My only minor gripe with using the OVF is that between shots, the LCD comes back on to either review the photo you just took, or show settings — the light coming from below makes it even harder to see through the viewfinder in less-than-ideal lighting situations. I'll always take an optical viewfinder over an EVF (and either over neither), and this one's a solid implementation.

Controls

Controls and interface

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Pentax strikes a great balance between giving you plenty of controls and not overwhelming you with them. The company seems to assume that most people buying the K-30 won't have owned a DSLR before, so it gives you everything you need without burying you in options. There's a mode dial on top, along with an exposure button and a function button marked with a green circle. The shutter press is just in front of those two bottoms, and is surrounded by the power switch. There are two scroll wheels on the camera, one in front of the shutter button on the grip for your index finger, and one on the back for your thumb — both are easily accessible, and having two wheels makes shooting in manual a breeze.

On the back are five more buttons, plus a five-way directional pad. They're pretty standard fare — access to basic settings, playback controls — but they're clearly marked, smartly laid out, and easy to understand and use. My one gripe is that the Live View / viewfinder toggle is up on the left, far away from your fingers as you hold the camera. On the left side, near the lens, there's a switch for toggling manual or automatic focus, plus a button for switching between RAW and JPEG capture; I quite like the latter, and haven't seen it on many cameras.

Great for the basics, terrible for the harder stuff
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Why can't anyone fix the camera menu?

Other than being slightly difficult to press thanks to the weatherproofing, all the buttons are easy to find and hit without looking while your eye is up to the viewfinder. The rear scroll wheel is a tiny bit too far inset, in my opinion, but your mileage will vary with your grip style and hand size. I definitely prefer this layout to the K-5's, which feels a little more crowded.

It's a good thing the controls are useful, because the K-30's menu interface is awful. It's not necessarily complex or unusable — it's text on text, and there's a reasonably useful default screen that shows your current settings — it's just terrible looking. The most glaring problem is fortunately fixable: the hideous blue / green / teal color scheme can be changed, and the first thing you should do is navigate to LCD Display and change the scheme.

The other problem is a more systemic one, of which Pentax is but one of a number of guilty parties: it just takes too long to find and access settings. For instance, changing the LCD color scheme takes 16 taps, and you'll have to read about 100 menu items before you figure out that LCD Display is in the first page of the section with a wrench icon. How the hell are you supposed to figure that out? A few cameras, like Sony's NEX lineup, are starting to come up with smarter and simpler ways to organize and surface settings and options — Pentax needs to get on board.

Fortunately, as with the smaller K-01 you won't have to access the K-30's full menu very often. In addition to the buttons and wheels, there's a really useful guide that pops up when you hit the Info button while shooting. It gives you quick access to metering, filters, HDR settings, drive mode, and much more, all in a simple and somewhat graphical interface. "Info" may not be the most obvious button for this menu, but it's a smart and handy system that makes tweaking most settings a one- or two-click affair.

Features

Features

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Instagram-style filters are typically the province of cheap cameras, but Pentax found a way to incorporate more advanced versions for the K-30. Broken (somewhat confusingly) into two categories — Digital Filters and Custom Images — they tweak white balance, saturation, and more to put a different spin on your photo. They're all completely customizable, too, so if you want the High Contrast shots to be toned down just a tad, you can easily make it so. There are 18 options in all, but those are basically just presets — you can screw with your photos to your heart's content.

Otherwise, there's not much in the way of shooting modes or nifty features on the K-30. You can easily enable HDR from any mode, though the effect isn't exactly impressive. Again, the K-30 mirrors the K-01: you're better off using bracketing and adjusting your shots later.

Adjusting in post is made easier by the K-30's clever RAW mode. When you're shooting in JPEG, in single-shot mode, the K-30 automatically records your photos in RAW as well, saving them to a separate buffer. If you review a shot and realize it's going to need some post-processing, just press the exposure control button, and the RAW file gets saved to your card. It's a really handy feature when you need it (white balance issues are much more easily solved with RAW files, for instance) and it doesn't get in the way at all if you don't. It saved my shots on the K-30 more than a few times.

There's a pop-up flash in the pentaprism hump atop the K-30, but I feel about DSLR flashes the way I feel about tablet cameras: nice to have, but you should avoid using it if at all possible. The K-30's flash is powerful, but harsh, and if you use it you'll blast your subjects with light while having a pitch-dark background. You can point it downward a bit, but that doesn't help but so much. Many modes won't even let you use the flash, which is telling — you're far better off taking advantage of the K-30's hotshoe and buying an external speedlite.

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Quality

Image and video quality

Unsurprisingly (it is a DSLR, after all), the K-30 takes excellent photos. Its 16-megapixel APS-C sensor is average for a DSLR, but it still does its job admirably. I tested the camera with a weatherproof 18-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 lens, and I'm impressed with its sharpness — you definitely lose a bit of clarity as you move toward the corners, but the fact that I could make out individual blades of grass in the corner of a photo is pretty impressive. Colors are accurate for the most part — reds and blues were occasionally the slightest bit over-saturated, but never to the point where it was a problem.

Low light performance is flat-out impressive. Pictures look noise-free up through ISO 1600, and you'll notice almost no noise even when zoomed in. ISO 3200 still looks great, though you'll start to see noise at larger sizes. ISO 6400 and 12,800 are both noisy, to be sure, but zoomed out or at normal sizes they're still totally usable. You should feel absolutely comfortable shooting up to ISO 3200 if you're just uploading to Tumblr or Facebook. I recommend avoiding the upper two settings if you can, but I did set Auto ISO to go as high as 12,800 and never regretted it.

The only force working against your taking great photos is the K-30's autofocus system, which is, frankly, pretty poor. There are plenty of autofocus points and settings, but try as you might you won't get fast focusing performance. The K-30 usually finds the right focus point (though not always), but it can take a half-second or more to do so, by which time you may have already missed your shot — fast shooting's no use if the camera can't focus quickly. The bright green focus assist light helps a little, but there's still a lot of hunting and waiting, especially in poor lighting environments. The K-30's a great reason to get comfortable with manual focusing — and thanks to a handy focus peaking feature that shows the portion of the frame in focus at any given time, it's relatively easy to do.

Every ISO setting is in play

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Great stills, weak video

You can shoot 1080p video with the K-30 at 30 frames per second, or in a variety of other resolutions and framerates, in H.264 formats. That's good, but I'm not particularly impressed with the footage — colors are too saturated and contrasted, and if you move at all while you shoot the jello-like rolling shutter effect rears its ugly head. The stereo mics record pretty good sound, but have next to no noise cancellation; rain in particular drowns out almost anything else.

You can autofocus and zoom while recording video, but zoom is jumpy and stuttery, and autofocus is bad enough to be basically unusable. It's not even really "auto" focus — you have to press the AF / AE-L button on the back to get the camera to look for a new focus point. When it does refocus, it's incredibly loud, and since there's no input for an external mic you're absolutely going to hear every noise the camera makes in your footage. There's no continuous autofocus to be found, either, unlike the D3200 or the awesome hybrid autofocus system in the T4i. Bizarrely, the focus peaking feature isn't available when shooting video either, so even manual focus is harder than it needs to be. It's all well and good being able to shoot 1080p video, but neither the experience nor the footage is good enough to make the K-30 an appealing option for video fans.

Lenses

As I mentioned earlier, I tested the K-30 with Pentax's weather-sealed, 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, which I quite like. But Pentax has a huge selection of other lenses as well, which are all compatible with the K-30's K mount. It's not quite as large as Canon's or Nikon's ecosystem, particularly in the long-zoom category and with some more specialty lenses, but for an average shooter looking to buy a DSLR and buy more glass over time, Pentax is a solid third option to Canon and Nikon.

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Performance

Performance

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There's no two ways about this: the K-30 and its Prime M processor absolutely fly. The camera can turn on and capture a photo in about 1.3 seconds, and can capture two or three shots per second even in single shot mode — it rarely lagged behind my index feature repeatedly pressing the shutter. Even more impressive is the continuous shooting mode, which shoots at six frames per second. It shoots six fps up to about 30 frames, but can shoot at three or four per second for a near-infinite time after that. I have a fast SD card, sure, but I've used it in a lot of cameras and rarely seen results like this. There are slight fluctuations in speed as it shoots — it would shoot slightly slower for a half-second, then pick back up — but the K-30 is really, really fast. There's basically no shutter lag, either.

The rest of the camera's performance is equally speedy. Whether I was flipping through menu systems or scrolling through aperture stops, the K-30 always kept up. The camera switches between Live View and the viewfinder almost instantly, switches modes without a hitch, and can go from shooting stills to video in less than a second. Have I mentioned it's fast? Unfortunately, no matter how well everything else works, you're still boxed in by the poor autofocus; sure, you can capture 100-plus shots a minute, but in the full second the K-30 took to focus you may have already missed your moment. The K-30 really does make a compelling case for manual focus.

Other than its pure power, Pentax also boasts of the Prime M processor's low battery consumption. The company's not lying: in the course of using the K-30, I took nearly 2,000 shots and about 20 minutes of video, and spent plenty of time reviewing photos and tweaking settings. I charged the battery fully exactly twice, plus one quick 30-minute top-off. I tested the K-30 with a Lithium-Ion battery pack, but there's also an optional accessory that lets you power it with AA batteries; that could be great if you're traveling and won't have chargers handy.

The K-30's battery life is quite impressive, but the meter's not: much like the Samsung NX20, the K-30 reported full battery for about 70 percent of the camera's life, before quickly diving through the other levels and dying.

So what I'm saying is, it's fast
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The K-30 is basically the Pentax K-01 in a larger, more rugged body. (I also think it's much better looking, but that's up to you.) It has the same positives — fast performance, solid manual control, excellent image quality — but also the same negatives, like weak autofocus, unimpressive video performance, and some clumsy design decisions. I'd recommend the K-30 over the K-01 any day: it's a far more ergonomic camera, and the addition of an optical viewfinder makes it far more useful for still photography.

The competition is fierce, though. For about the same $899.99 you'll spend on the K-30, you could buy a Canon Rebel T4i, with its vastly improved focusing system, articulating display, and support for Canon's wide range of lenses. You could also buy a Nikon D5100, another stellar entry-level DSLR, for even less. There's a definite appeal to the ruggedization, and there's nothing about the K-30 that would make me tell you to stay away from buying it, but unless you plan to get caught in the rain a lot there are better ways to spend your $900.

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