Saturday, November 21, 2009

The K-7

It's over a month since I wrote my last post here, and while I would not go so far as to say I have disappointed my readers since I do not have enough of them, I am sure the few that I have would not have felt exactly appointed either, being forced to look at that dog story again and again. But why didn't I write? Was I busy with my coursework or my research? Although I'm tempted to answer that question in the negative, it would be politically incorrect for a Ph.D. student to say so. Therefore let me put it this way: I wasn't any busier in the last month than I have been in the past year and a half. The reason for not posting here is something different. It is my newly purchased toy that is keeping me occupied for most of my spare time; a toy which goes by the name of Pentax K-7. It is my first digital SLR camera and I have been spending all my leisure hours learning to use it and reading up its 330-page user manual.

When friends see my camera, they react in one of three ways.

"Oh wow! That looks cool! How much zoom does it have?" is the typical reaction of people who are not familiar with SLR cameras. On being informed that it has only 3x zoom, they barely conceal their disappointment and walk away.

The second reaction is from a very small group of people who are aware of SLR camera fundamentals but do not keep track of the current market. They ask me about the camera and listen with interest when I describe its features, and seemingly accept my verdict that this is the best camera for this price. But it is possible that these people have been behaving this way out of politeness, and they actually belong to group three which is by far the largest group among all my friends.

The group three people ask, "Why Pentax? Why not Canon or Nikon?" Sometimes the question is implied even if not spoken aloud. I hope the rest of my post would serve as a satisfactory answer to this question. This is not exactly a review of the K-7 as I have not tested it thoroughly yet, and it is definitely not a comparison of the performance of the K-7 with competing models from Canon and Nikon since I have not used those cameras. However, I think this post could still be useful to a person who wants to know what to look for before purchasing a digital SLR camera.

But before we come to the K-7, we must go back in time. Almost twenty-nine years ago my father wanted to buy an SLR camera. Unlike me, he had the experience of using several borrowed SLR cameras. Yet, when he decided to buy one for himself, he settled on the Pentax MX. Although the camera looks like a giant compared to the tiny point-and-shoots of recent years, it was then the smallest SLR in its class, and one of the smallest manual SLRs ever made. Numerous moments of my childhood (and later my sister's) were captured on film using that camera. For the first eight years, my father had only one lens after which he bought one more. He always maintains that Pentax lenses are as good as Canon and Nikon lenses if not better. I can say they are at least better than Canon as that is the only other brand that I have used. When I came to the US in 2008, my father gave me the camera. I bought another lens after I came here and I have been shooting on film occasionally ever since.

When I decided to buy a DSLR, my first concern was, "Will I be able to use my old lenses with my new camera?" As I browsed the online reviews of various models from different manufacturers, only Pentax advertised of one fact.

"Our cameras are compatible with all Pentax lenses ever made."

This in itself was not sufficient reason to be overjoyed. Modern lenses are auto-focus lenses which allow quick clicking, and they also have image stabilization which means the lens elements can shift a little to offset the effect of small vibrations of the photographer's hand. I have used an older Canon lens with a new Canon DSLR body, but the result was less than satisfactory as the older lens did not have image stabilization. The newer lens gave far better images. So if Pentax says their cameras are compatible with older lenses that was all very good, but would the picture quality suffer if I use those lenses? On closer inspection, two more facts were revealed.
  1. Pentax DSLRs have shake reduction in the body and not in the lens like Canon and Nikon. That meant any lens that I used, old or new, would give exactly the same quality of pictures. This fact has been confirmed now that I have bought the camera and used it with older lenses.
  2. Pentax DSLRs have auto-focus assist for use with manual lenses which means the camera lets me know when the focus is perfect even when I am using a manual focus lens. Not only that, the K-7 can also automatically click the picture as soon as the focus is perfect when I am using a manual focus lens and focusing by rotating the focusing ring.
I emphasize on the above facts so much because the usability and performance of my older lenses was a crucial issue in my choice of camera. And if someone has an arsenal of older Nikon or Canon gear, I would suggest they go for their respective brands, although no other brand makes using older lenses as easy as Pentax does. This moon photo is a handheld shot taken using my Vivitar 100-300mm manual zoom lens fitted with a 2x teleconverter.

My father always tells me, "A camera is only as good as the bit of glass in front of it." While this was completely true for older film cameras, things are a bit more complicated in the digital world. Here cameras have "features", and a sensor which records the images. Although I was already almost certain on buying Pentax because of the lens compatibility, I still checked out the features of this camera and tried to determine whether I was making a compromise on any front. And only then I realized how bad Pentax's marketing strategy was. This camera was offering features that similarly priced Canons and Nikons didn't (weather-sealed body and lens that can operate at -10 degrees Celsius, 5.2 fps shooting, 30 fps HD video, 3" LCD, 100% viewfinder, live view to name a few), and yet not many people knew about them. Not only that, this camera was offering features that were invented by Pentax, features that no other manufacturer provided. That is why when I tell my Canon and Nikon using friends that I have an electronic level-indicator, automatic horizon correction, sensor-shift composition adjustment, in camera HDR capture, a sensitivity priority mode, rear panel remote-control sensor, external microphone jack, a lock on the mode dial and one touch RAW, they usually go "Huh... what was that again?" And despite all this, the K-7 has one of the smallest bodies in its class.

I am not writing this to advertise for Pentax. I am justifying my choice. Does the camera have any shortcomings? It sure has. I am not saying this myself because as I said, I did not compare it directly with Canon and Nikon DSLRs of its own class. I did use a much cheaper Canon Rebel XSi during summer, and although it overexposed my shots, I loved how it sensed my cheek and switched off the LCD when I put the camera to my eye. I would have loved that feature in my Pentax. As far as image quality is concerned, I am very happy with the images so far. However, this website compares images from different brands and they suggest that the Pentax K-7 sensor falls short of the competitors under certain conditions. I do not dispute their claim. I just say I can live with that shortcoming as it is a very specific condition where it fails.

Also, two allegations have been made about Pentax DSLRs all over the Internet. One, their autofocus is slower than Canon and Nikon, especially in low light. Two, the high-ISO images captured in low light are noisier in Pentax. I myself cannot say if they are true, but if the experts say so, they must be. Again, I knew of these problems before I bought the K-7 but they are things that I can live with. The picture on the left was taken at ISO 1600. Click on it to enlarge it. Does it look too bad?

The bottomline is, I am an amateur photographer and intend to remain so (well, except the occasional summer job maybe). I am not among those people who go on expeditions to photograph wildlife or shoot rock concerts and weddings professionally. Low light is usually an indication for me to pack up and go home. So a faster focusing lens or a less noisy sensor does not appeal to me as a weather sealed body or an in-camera shake reduction system does. That is why the Pentax K-7 remains my choice.

And that is why blogging will take a backseat until I get bored of my new toy, something which I don't foresee happening in the near future.

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