Pentax K-500 review

The Pentax K-500 boasts top-notch image quality, and a pentaprism viewfinder, which is unheard of at its entry-level price point.
Photo of Pentax K-500

The Pentax K-500 ($599.95 direct with 18-55mm lens) is the company’s current entry-level D-SLR. It boasts a number of refinements that are unheard of in this class, including a solid glass pentaprism viewfinder that delivers 100-percent frame coverage and continuous shooting that clocked in at 5fps. The 16-megapixel camera is essentially the company’s midrange K-50, minus weather-sealing, so it’s not surprising that it performs better than its price would have you believe. It doesn’t manage to oust our favorite sub-$1,000 D-SLR, the Nikon D5200 as Editors’ Choice, but it’s a solid option for photographers who want are looking for a low-priced D-SLR that doesn’t cut corners on performance or image quality.

Design and Features
The K-50 is fairly compact, measuring just 3.8 by 5.1 by 2.8 inches (HWD) and weighing in at 1.4 pounds. It’s not that far off in size from Nikon’s entry-level D3200 is a bit lighter at 1 pound, but its size is about the same (3.8 by 5 by 3.1 inches). The K-500′s pentaprism viewfinder accounts for its extra mass. A pentaprism is a solid piece of glass that redirects light from the camera’s mirror to your eye, correcting its position as it does so. It delivers a larger, brighter image to your eye than the series of mirrors, referred to as a pentamirror, found in other entry-level and midrange D-SLRs. If you want a viewfinder of similar quality in another camera system you’ll need to move up to the Nikon D7100 or Canon EOS 70D.

There is one key difference between the viewfinder in the K-500 and K-50: The K-500 does not show you the active autofocus point in the optical finder, you’ll have to move up to the K-50 if you want that feature. The active focal point does show on the rear display, assuming you’ve set it to manual control. If you set it to automatic control you’ll just need to place your trust in the camera.

Also setting the camera apart from others in this class is a dual dial control system with programmable functionality. Advanced shooters will love the ability to assign EV compensation, ISO control, and other common shooting settings to a dial that would normally go unused when shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes. If you’re not as knowledgeable about the ins and outs of photography, you can set the K-500 to operate in auto or program mode and fire away as it takes control of settings. There are also a number of Scene modes available. These aren’t quite as user-friendly as the Guide Mode found on the D3200, but do give some explanation as to when they are applicable.

There are enough physical controls packed into the K-500′s compact body to keep advanced shooters happy, though not as many as the the company’s top-end K-3—a more advanced camera that features a PC flash sync connector and a dedicated control to select the active AF point, both of which are absent here. You’ll find buttons that adjust the ISO, activate exposure lock, control the flash, set the self-timer and drive mode, and control white balance on the rear, as well as a reprogrammable Raw button and a switch to toggle between autofocus modes on its left side.

The rear LCD is 3 inches in size and has a 921k-dot resolution. It’s fixed, unlike the tilting display found on the Sony Alpha 58, which makes it a bit harder to use the camera if you need to shoot from an odd angle. The display is extremely sharp, though, and when you activate live view mode you have the option of using focus peaking as a focusing aid. This feature highlights in-focus areas of your frame to improve accuracy when focusing manually. Peaking works for stills only—the camera’s processor isn’t quite up to the task of keeping it active during video recording—but is a boon to anyone with a library of older, manual focus Pentax lenses. Like the company’s other D-SLRs, you can use any K-mount lens without the need for adapters—that’s close to 40 years worth of glass at your disposal. Like other Pentax SLRs, the shake reduction is built into the body, not into the lens, so any glass that you attach will benefit from stabilization. In-body stabilization allows the company to deliver some impressively small prime lenses for the system, including the 40mm and 35mm Macro lenses that were used to capture the sample images in this review.

Unlike most D-SLRs, the K-500 ships in a configuration that supports AA battery power. It uses four cells, and you can actually get more life out of a set as compared to rechargeable Li-Ion battery. The camera is rated to capture 1,250 shots with a set of Lithium AAs, but only 480 with the standard rechargeable battery. If you do want to swap out the AAs for a rechargeable battery you’ll need to buy a battery and charger separately—to the tune of about $120. If you prefer a rechargeable battery, the weather-sealed K-50 becomes a more attractive option; its price is $180 more than the K-500 if you get the camera with an 18-55mm lens.

Performance and Conclusions
The K-500 performs similarly to the K-50, but it’s not identical. Both cameras start and shoot in about 1.4 seconds and record a 0.1-second shutter lag. But I clocked the burst rate of the K-500 at 5fps when using AA batteries. It was able to keep that pace for 7 Raw+JPG, 8 Raw, or 58 JPG captures before slowing. The K-50 shoots at 5.9fps, with similar limitations as to the number of photos shot before slowing down. The 5fps rate is still impressive for a camera at this price point; the Canon EOS Rebel T3i can only keep up its 3.7fps pace for 11 JPG shots before slowing down.

The K-500′s autofocus system is quicker than the Nikon D3200 or Canon T3i. If an image is completely out of focus, the K-500 can bring it into sharp view and snap a photo using the 18-55mm kit lens in about 0.4-second (compared to 1.2 seconds for the D3200). In dim light the camera focuses in about 0.9-second using the optical finder. Live View focus lags behind a bit; in good light it requires 1.4 seconds to lock on, and can take as long as 2.1 seconds in dim conditions. The Sony Alpha 58, which uses an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one, also does a good job with autofocus. Regardless of whether you’re bringing the camera to your eye or using the rear LCD to compose shots, it can bring an out-of-focus frame into sharp view in 0.2-second in good light. In dim light it’s a bit slower than the K-500, requiring 1.4 seconds to lock on.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the included 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. It delivers typical performance for an 18-55mm design. At its widest angle it shows noticeable barrel distortion, about 2.5 percent, and is sharper than the 1,800 lines per picture height that we require of a photo to be considered sharp. The resolution at f/3.5 is 2,005 lines, measured using a center-weighted method. The edge performance is very weak, only 712 lines. Stopping down to f/5.6 is recommended; it improves the overall score to 2,507 lines with edges that score 1,479 lines.

The lens is at its best at 35mm, where the maximum aperture narrows to f/4.5. There’s no distortion, and the overall sharpness is an impressive 2,460 lines, with edges that hit 1,939 lines. Stopping down to f/5.6 improves the center-weighted score to 2,715 lines.

At 55mm the lens shows just a little bit of pincushion distortion, about 0.8 percent, and records 2,033 lines at its maximum f/5.6 aperture. Edges are just a bit weaker here than at 35mm, about 1,709 lines. Stopping down to f/8 improves the score to 2,497 lines with edge resolution of 1,914 lines. Overall the lens is a better performer than the 18-55mm that Sony bundles with its Alpha 58 camera; it manages 1,800 lines at its widest angle, but it drops to 1,615 lines at 35mm and 1,605 lines at 55mm. The Sony lens also shows more distortion—3.7 percent at 18mm.

Imatest also checks images for noise. The K-500 uses a 16-megapixel APS-C image sensor, and is capable of capturing images in Raw or JPG format. I tested its JPG output at default settings; the camera allows for extensive customization of the amount of noise reduction that is applied to images at high ISO settings. It’s able to keep noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600, and is only barely over that mark at ISO 3200. I was quite impressed with the JPG detail at ISO 3200, and wouldn’t hesitate to shoot in that format at ISO 6400 in a pinch. But at higher settings images start to lose detail from smudging.

It’s always a good idea to shoot in Raw if you are willing to take the time to process your images, as it gives you complete control over noise reduction using advanced software like Photoshop Lightroom. I looked at Raw images from the camera on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. Image detail is impressive at ISO 12800 when shooting in Raw mode, and quite useable even at ISO 25600, but there’s an excessive amount of grain at the top ISO setting of 51200. If you opt to pick up the K-500 and don’t want to deal with a Raw workflow, you should play around with the noise reduction settings at each ISO setting so that you can balance the amount of detail and the graininess of photos to suit your tastes.

In terms of video capture, the K-500 records 1080p30 or 720p60 footage in QuickTime format, with supports for 25fps and 24fps options at either resolution as well. The footage looks good, especially when ones of Pentax’s better lenses is attached, but autofocus is a disappointment. Focus during video is slow, and it must be initiated manually by hitting the AF button. You can see what area of the frame is active during focus before you start recording, but that disappears when video is actually rolling, so there’s a little bit of guesswork involved in knowing what the camera is attempting to focus on. You can record video in program, aperture priority, or manual mode, but settings are locked once the recording begins. There’s no mic input, so you’ll be limited to using the camera’s internal microphone for audio. Depending on which lens you pair with the camera, it can be quiet or loud during focusing. The Pentax SMC FA 43mm f/1.9 Limited captures some beautiful video with a shallow depth of field and sharp details, but it’s insanely loud if you try to engage autofocus when recording. If video performance is key, consider a camera like the Alpha 58—its video autofocus performance is one of its strongpoints. The only ports to speak of on the camera are a proprietary USB connector and a remote control port. It supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.

The K-500 is one of the best SLRs out there in terms of balancing price and performance. Its image quality, continuous shooting rate, and autofocus performance is on par with midrange D-SLRs, and the viewfinder is more on the level of a pricey body like the Nikon D7100. In-body image stabilization steadies any lens that you attach, and dual control dials put image capture settings at your fingertips. It’s not perfect; the video autofocus lags behind the competition, and there’s no mic input so don’t think about using it for pro video work. The AA battery power system is going to appeal to some shooters, but the cost to add a rechargeable battery almost bridges the price gap with the next model up in the Pentax SLR lineup, the K-50. That body is weather-sealed, a feature that the K-500 lacks, and is a better choice if you are turned off by the idea of a AA-powered D-SLR. Neither camera manages to earn our Editors’ Choice award. The current sub-$1,000 winner is the Nikon D5200; its viewfinder isn’t the equal of the K-500, but a hinged rear display and better video autofocus support give it an edge in regards to versatility.

Specifications
Dimensions 3.8 x 5.1 x 2.8 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, Remote
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported AA, Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.2 seconds
LCD dots 921000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2005
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 51200
Type D-SLR
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.4 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 27 mm
Weight 1.4 lb
Lens Mount Pentax K
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization In-Body
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 82 mm
Shutter Lag 0.1 seconds
Sensor Size APS-C (15.7 x 23.7mm) mm
GPS No
Viewfinder Type Optical

Verdict
The Pentax K-500 boasts top-notch image quality, and a pentaprism viewfinder, which is unheard of at its entry-level price point.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc