Field Test: Pentax K-30

At a Glance

[Rather than giving you a review packed with benchmark numbers and charts, our Field Test series is all about taking technology out of the box and out of the lab. We use the product in our everyday lives, and report what we find.]

The Pentax K-30 ($850) is an affordable, versatile, midlevel DSLR. Its headline feature is a weather-sealed body that stands up to cold and wet. For this field test, I mounted an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens ($1147 for the body/lens kit) on it, and took the Pentax to San Francisco Bay to photograph the Rolex Big Boats Series. Prior to that event, I tested the unit's in-camera HDR option, multiple exposures, and time-lapse movies.

Solid feature set

The K-30 is built around a 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor that produces JPEGs and DNG files. For movie files, it records up to 1080p HD video using H.264 compression (.mov files). Exposure accuracy is good, assisted by the 77-segment metering system. Burst mode tops out at 6 frames per second, which is plenty fast for most action situations. And when it’s time to review your images, you'll see them presented on a lovely 3-inch, 921,000-dot fixed-back LCD.

You can buy the K-30 with an 18-55mm zoom ($846 for the kit), but I recommend opting for the more capable 18-135mm lens with its 35mm equivalent zoom range of 27.5-207mm. Weighing just 15.1 ounces with the lens hood attached, this high-quality zoom will cover most of the shots you want to record, and will deliver excellent image quality. I used the 18-135mm exclusively for my testing.

In the field

Both the Pentax and I got plenty wet zipping around in San Francisco Bay in an outboard motorboat. I put a protection filter on the front of the 18-135mm zoom so I could wipe the splashed water off with my shirt. I greatly appreciated not having to worry about the camera under these conditions, and instead being able to focus on photographing the boat race that was taking place around me.

The camera's waterproof housing let me concentrate on shooting rather than on protecting my precious equipment.

Speaking of focusing, the K-30's autofocus system performed well overall, but I did miss a few shots because it didn’t lock in on my subject quite fast enough. Granted, the conditions were challenging—shooting racing yachts from a bouncing outboard—and I realize that I was working with a kit lens; but the 18-135mm does cost over $500 when purchased separately, so I think it’s fair to set a fairly high bar for its AF performance.

When locked-in on a subject, the optic produced sharp images with good color. In part, the sensor-based image stabilization on the K-30 played a big part in the high percentage of crisp images, even on a bouncing boat. Sometimes the clarity was quite stunning.

Images exhibit stunning clarity.

The camera handled well. I liked its solid feel and substantial grip. Controls are well placed, including front and back e-dials for adjusting program shift, aperture setting, exposure compensation, and other variables, depending on how you configure the camera. The K-30 certainly exudes a air of confidence.

Delightful surprises

As you dig deeper into the K-30 feature set, you’ll discover some delightful surprises. Here are my favorites.

Built-in HDR: The K-30 comes with four levels of in-camera HDR processing, ranging from subtle recovery of highlights and shadows to exaggerated HDR effects.

The Pentax K-30 builds in four levels of HDR processing.

Interval timer: Programmable time lapse movies are a snap with the built-in interval timer. And it’s even easier to use in movie mode, where the K-30 produces the final video file for your sequence. No computer is required.

Multiple exposure: Another in-camera special effect is multiple exposure, which lets you combine up to nine frames into a single final image.

Example of a multiple exposure.

AA batteries: The K-30 ships with a respectably strong lithium power cell. But the battery chamber is also designed to hold four AA batteries. All you need to make the switch is an inexpensive adapter. Then, in the menu, you can select the type of AA battery you want to use (lithium, nickel-metal hydride, or alkaline). It's a great feature if you like to go on extended adventures away from power outlets.

Raw/Fx button: Located on the left side of the camera, the Raw/Fx button allows you to switch quickly to Raw format for the next shot. So when you see a composition that might require a little extra work, you can go from JPEG to Raw with just the press of a button. You can also set this button to remain in Raw mode until you toggle it off.

Green (reset) button: When you’ve used Program Shift to modify the basic Program mode, you can reset the camera to default by pressing the green button at its top. I'd like to be able to customize the green button for other functions, too, but I couldn't find a setting for doing so.

The zoom lens facilitates tight framing.

Drawbacks

I didn’t have many disappointments with the K-30, but I should note a few things to look out for.

Unintended Focus Mode shift: I accidentally nudged the Focus Mode Switch on the left side of the camera, changing the lens to manual focus. This happened in the heat of photographing the boat race, and it led to a series of out-of-focus shots until I realized that I had moved the switch. I would prefer that the Focus Mode Switch locked into place more securely.

Slow wake from sleep: If you’re in a situation where you might need to pick up the camera and shoot quickly, adjust the sleep setting to keep the K-30 awake. I missed a few shots while waiting for it to return to life.

Video quibbles: Video quality is good, but not great; and the K-30 doesn't include an external mic jack. If top notch movie capture is a priority for you, I recommend looking elsewhere.

The final word

The Pentax K-30 is an excellent DSLR choice for adventure photographers and creative types who will appreciate its in-camera effects. For most outdoor situations, the 18-135mm zoom provides plenty of width and reach, without adding much weight to the overall compact package.

The image quality speaks for itself.

Image quality for stills is very good, both for Raw and JPEG formats. And the assortment of in-camera effects, including HDR and multiple exposure, encourages experimentation.

The Pentax K-30 is a solid camera at a good price.

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At a Glance
  • The Pentax K-30 is a particularly good fit for outdoor explorers and those who prefer not to worry about their camera when shooting in adverse conditions. Read the full review

    Pros

    • Excellent image quality, even at high ISO settings
    • Most affordable all-weather DSLR available
    • Good complement of all-weather lenses at affordable prices
    • Bright, 100 percent view optical viewfinder

    Cons

    • Lacks easy-to-use movie recording features
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