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27.01.09

Pentax K20 Review

Pentax K20D

T­­­he K20D boasts a whopping 14.6-megapixels, Live View and a novel burst shooting mode that captures images at 20 frames-per-second. It feels rugged and robust in the hand and Pentax claims the body has 72 rainproofed weather seals.

I can testify that during a rainstorm, the camera kept on working even when I was soaked through. It’s a comfortable if weighty camera to hold. At just over a kilo with lens and battery, one-handed shooting gets quickly uncomfortable. However, as lighter cameras tend to mean less robust build quality you know what you’re getting with the K20D. It’s a tank and on a par with the Nikon D300 and Canon EOS 40D in terms of build quality.

The grip’s a tad small for my hands, but that’s a personal gripe. Shutter operation is a soft clunk that doesn’t jar. I like the AE-L button on the rear, which functions as an exposure lock. In manual mode it will keep exposure constant while you whizz up and down the shutter or aperture range. Why don’t all cameras do this? I like it a lot.

In manual mode, you can also press the green button on the top fascia to take and set an exposure reading. That’s a brilliant addition and a welcome move for all manual exposure fans like myself. You may prefer to shoot in one of the K20D’s auto modes and it performed great in all of them, coping well with a bright scene like the boats on Whitstable beach, right. In conclusion, handling is excellent in all respects.

Pentax claims that in auto mode the AF system recognises objects that are closer to the camera and focuses on them. This works as stated and autofocus is swift and accurate in general use. I personally prefer to use a single focus point when shooting. You can switch to this without going into menus using the collar switch on the rear. I like that switch a lot – no more fussing around in menus.

Live View is accessed using a rocker switch on the shutter button, which was previously assigned to depth-of-field preview on the K10D. Interestingly, the same depth-of-field symbol is retained on the rocker used by the K20D. AF is actioned by pressing the rear AF button, though the camera flips the mirror back to focus. If you want a depth-of-field preview in the viewfinder you have to navigate the custom menu to activate it. This means you can’t access Live View at the same time.

The K20D also sports a further 35 custom modes from expanding ISO sensitivity to ISO 6400, whether high ISO noise reduction is wanted or not, and allows you to tailor various other button functions around the camera housing. Finally, the K20D uses a 16-segment meter to determine exposure. Sixteen zones seem few compared to the Sony A200’s 40 segments, but exposures are good despite this – though, like all metering systems, it’s thwarted by very light or very dark subjects.

Pentax’s Shake Reduction is turned on using a switch on the rear and you can get decent shots down to 1/15sec handheld, even 1/10sec if you’re super steady yourself. Dust removal is taken care of by vibrating the sensor and an internal adhesive sheet collects dust.

On the side of the camera is a button marked Raw that allows you to quickly change file format – for example from JPEG?to Raw without menu navigation.

Well, how did the camera fare in automatic mode? Auto white-balance turned in a good performance in mixed lighting and the metering was sound in most situations.

When you want to change white-balance, the camera displays the last picture you shot, which is a good idea. You can then fine-tune to your heart’s content using a simple graph and the rocker switch.

In practice, however, the rear LCD is not colour calibrated so when I loaded up my carefully fine-tuned white-balanced image later on my computer, colours were very different from the LCD version.

Particularly useful are the added Sv and TAv modes, exclusive to Pentax. The first lets you adjust ISO values using the rear thumb wheel while the camera sets aperture and shutter values; the latter allows you to choose shutter values with the front wheel and aperture values with the rear wheel while the camera chooses the right ISO value. This means that if you want to quickly shoot a dark interior using a small aperture, the camera will set a high ISO to compensate. The aperture and shutter values can be automatically adjusted if you press the green button in this mode.

Pentax claims the K20D’s new sensor is more true to life. And in my tests, it does take some impressively detailed pictures that are well balanced and exhibit good colours.

You’d assume a very high level of image quality with a 14.6-megapixel sensor, but as the sensor is the same size as a 10-megapixel one, the individual pixels have to be smaller to fit on. This increases vulnerability to noise but the K20D’s amount of digital noise is comparable to a 10-megapixel camera, thanks to the processor. At ISO 100 JPEGs are full of colour and punchy straight from the camera and its 14.6-megapixels is fine for large prints with fine detail.

Convert a Raw image in Adobe’s Camera Raw to an 8-bit TIFF file and you get a file that’s 40x26cm at 300ppi – not far off A3 (42.0x29.7cm). Interestingly, the camera gives you the choice between shooting two Raw formats: Pentax’s PEF Raw format or the public DNG format developed by Adobe. Both look the same after processing.

The kit lens is an 18-55mm zoom (27-80mm 35mm equivalent). Like all kit lenses, the emphasis is on cost effectiveness and quality obviously has to compromise. As with all cameras, I advise buying a better lens as your images will be so much sharper, especially at the edges. That’s not to say you can’t get some decent images with this kit lens, but there’s little point in having 14.6-megapixels when your lens is too soft for your images to benefit.

By the way, the K20D fits KAF and K mount lenses and with an adaptor, 35mm screw thread and Pentax 645 medium-format lenses.

The K20D is designed to attract experienced photographers and the £800 price for the kit could put it out of reach of novices. Although pitched in price against the Canon EOS 450D and Sony Alpha A350, in terms of build-quality it’s more in line with cameras like the Canon EOS 40D and even the Nikon D300.

As always, I have a couple of niggles. Live View on this camera really doesn’t function well when you want to activate AF. In fact, the process is rather pained and laborious. By way of comparison, the Nikon D300’s Live View is far speedier and efficient. The Sony Alpha A350 with its tilting LCD screen or the Olympus E-420, with live AF action, offer more value here.

Another moan is the SDHC card format. It’s fine for 10-megapixel cameras but writing the K20D’s 23MB Raw files to the fastest SDHC 133x card is still slow.  With these file sizes, you really need the speed only a 300x UDMA CF card can deliver. 

20 FPS HIGH SPEED BURST MODE

Switch to this mode and the K20D will take 115 JPEGs, each at 1.6MB and at an amazing 20 frames-per-second, which is near video speed. The quality is fine for 10x15cm prints, although any larger with interpolation would reveal artefacts.

They’re also absolutely fine for newspaper reproduction. This is perfect for sports photographers and photojournalists, as they can high speed ‘burst’ an action scene at 20fps and carefully select the right frames in editing afterwards. Wow, that’s all I can say and why hasn’t Pentax trumpeted this feature more? It was tucked away in the press release, but to me, it seems to be the future of DSLRs. Expect to see more of this on top DSLRs soon.

SPECIFICATION

Price     £800 with 18-55mm kit lens
Distributor     www.pentaxslr.com
Resolution     14.6 million (4672x3104) effective pixels
Lens mount     Pentax KAF2/KAF/KA (K mount, 35mm screwmount, 645/67 medium-format useable with adapter)
Magnification     1.5x
Sensor     23.4x15.6mm CMOS
Autofocus     11-points
Exposure     16-segment pattern, 
system     centre-weighted and spot
Exposure     Program, shutter-priority,
modes     aperture-priority, manual, sensitivity-priority, shutter and aperture-priority
ISO range     100-3200 (1/3 steps)
Shutter     30-1/4000sec, flash sync speed 1/180sec, plus B
White-balance     Auto, six manual modes settings with fine-tuning and manual
Monitor     2.7in 230,000pixel TFT LCD
Integral     Yes, pop-up with button flash release, GN 13 (100/m)
File formats     JPEG (Fine, Standard), Raw (PEF/DNG, 12-bit)
Drive Modes     Single, continuous 3fps, 20fps burst (115 at 1.6MB JPEG), self-timer (12sec, 2sec)   
Storage     SD/SDHC media    
Drive     Up to 3fps system    
Interface     USB 2.0
Battery     Rechargeable Li-ion D-LI50
Dimensions     142x102x70mm (wxhxd)    
Weight     900g with lens and battery

PROS AND CONS

14.6-megapixels, build quality, weatherproof body, burst mode, ergonomics and handling

Uses SD cards, pained AF in Live View, no DOF preview option with Live View selected

THE VERDICT

Its solid, robust and pro-spec design will win many fans while its ease of use and intuitive handling show there are lots of clever people behind the scenes at Pentax

During the test I was taking pictures in heavy rain, but I didn’t worry because the Pentax K20D is rainproofed enough to survive the most inclement of conditions. Its solid, robust feel will win many fans while its ease of use and intuitive handling show there are lots of clever people behind the scenes at Pentax. Live View is an added bonus, although it’s annoying to wait while the mirror flips down to focus.

The K20D is up against the Canon EOS 450D and the Sony Alpha A350 – both serious contenders. Take a look at the EOS 450D review. As to the winner, my money’s on the K20D, it’s more ruggedly pro-spec. However, as I own Canon lenses, I could be swayed by the EOS 450D.



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