Pentax has announced two new DSLRs, but in a disappointment for many Pentax rumour followers, neither has a full-frame sensor. Furthermore, the two cameras are remarkably similar and both use the same APS-C format, 16.2 million pixel CMOS sensor as the existing Pentax K-30.
The Pentax K-500 is the entry-level model, but it only differs from the Pentax K-50 in that it's not weather-proofed and the AF point isn't displayed in the viewfinder.
The Pentax K-50 will sit above the Pentax K-30, but below the Pentax K-5 II in the brand's DSLR lineup.
According to Pentax UK's Stephen Sanderson, the Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 have the same processing engine as the Pentax K-30, but it has been 'improved' and this enables it to produce better quality images. It also enables the sensitivity to be set at up to ISO 51,200, which is one-stop higher than the Pentax K-30.
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In addition to the usual aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes, the Pentax K-50 and Pentax K-500 offer Pentax's shutter and Aperture priority mode (TAv) in which you set the aperture and shutter speed and the camera sets the sensitivity value.
There's also a collection of scene modes and an auto picture mode, in which the camera detects the type of subject and sets the scene mode accordingly.
Unlike many entry-level and mid-level DSLRs, the Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 have glass pentaprism viewfinders that provide 100% field of view. This enables accurate composition so there's no need to crop out unexpected items around the edge of the frame post-capture.
Also like the Pentax K-30, the Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 have the SAFOX IXi+ AF module, which has 11 individually selectable AF points, and the cameras can shoot continuously at speeds of up to 6fps in JPEG format.
Both cameras are supplied with a rechargeable lithium ion battery, but they are also compatible with Pentax's AA-sized battery insert, which may be of use to travelling photographers who don't have the opportunity to recharge the battery on a regular basis.
As usual Pentax has given the K-50 and K-500 its sensor-shifting Shake Reduction (SR) system that automatically compensates for camera shake. This system is also used by the cameras' Dust Removal (DR) system to shake dust from the filter over the sensor.
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Both the Pentax K-50 and Pentax K-500 have 11 Custom Image options, namely Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, Vibrant, Radiant, Muted, Bleach Bypass, Reversal Film, Monochrome and Cross Process. There are also 19 digital filter effects that can be applied to images at the shooting stage.
In addition, it is possible to shoot high dynamic range (HDR) images in the HDR mode that sets the camera to take three shots at different exposures and then composites them into one image with more detail in the shadows and highlights.
Naturally, it's also possible to record Full HD movie clips at 1920 × 1080 pixel resolutions. The cameras use the H.264 recording format with a choice of 30, 25 or 24 frames per second.
Build and handling
Although they are based on the Pentax K-30, the Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 have a slightly more rounded form. We are told that they have an identical shape, but we were only able to handle a pre-production sample of the Pentax K-500. This has a deep, textured finger-grip and pronounced thumb-ridge on the back so that it feels feels very comfortable and safe in your grasp.
As we mentioned earlier, the Pentax K-500 doesn't have the weather sealing of the Pentax K-30 or the Pentax K-50, but it still has the same stainless steel shell and engineered plastic outer shell. It has a solid, durable feel even if it can't be used in such poor weather conditions as the cameras above it in Pentax's lineup.
Naturally then, the Pentax K-500 is sold with the non-weather sealed version of Pentax's 18-55mm kit lens. In contrast the Pentax K-50 is available with the new weather sealed 18-55mm lens, which has a plastic mount (and no lens hood) to make it more affordable.
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Despite the changes in design, the Pentax K-500's control arrangement and menu systems will be very familiar to any Pentax K-30 users. Although the menu system is logically arranged and easy to follow, it's a little disappointing that Pentax has used the same rather dated-looking design.
Happily, Pentax doesn't seem to have cut too many corners with the K-500's LCD screen, which is a 3-inch display with 921,000 dots. We were only able to use a pre-production sample of the Pentax K-500 indoors, so we can't comment extensively on its ability to control reflections, but it is capable of displaying plenty of sharp detail and provides a nice clear view when used out of direct sunlight. We will investigate its performance outdoors and in direct sunlight when we get a full production sample in for testing.
We assume that the decision to make the active AF point invisible in the viewfinder of the Pentax K-500 was made to reduce costs, but we think it's a bad choice.
If you leave the camera to choose the AF point automatically then it's not such a major issue, but as you learn and want to take more control over the camera you will find it frustrating that you have to look at the screen on the back of the camera to check which is the active AF point. You also need to guess where that point appears in the viewfinder when focusing on the subject.
It seems rather odd that Pentax is making the more advanced camera, the Pentax K-50, available in a selection of colours - black, white and red in the UK, with 20 other body colour variants available with six different grip colours (giving 120 different combinations in total) available by special order.
The Pentax K-500, however, is only available in black. We suspect that the colour variations are more likely to attract relatively novice photographers who are upgrading from a colourful compact camera or camera phone. However, this is probably explained by the predicted production numbers for each camera and colour combination.
Although we have only seen a pre-production sample of the Pentax K-500, we have seen its sensor in the Pentax K-30 before and we know that it performs well. However, we need to bear in mind that there is a tweaked version of the processing engine, and this may produce slightly different results.
The sample images that we saw suggest that the camera is capable of recording slightly more detail than the Pentax K-30, but we have only seen relatively poor quality prints and will need to verify this when we get a full production sample in for testing.
When we tested the Pentax K-30 we found that it was best to avoid the top two sensitivity settings, ISO 12,800 and 25,600 because of the high levels of chroma noise. Because the manufacturer has given the Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 a higher maximum sensitivity setting, ISO 51,200, we can assume that it has tackled the noise issue to some extent, but we hope that this isn't at the expense of detail.
We found that the Pentax K-30's automatic white balance system was impressive, coping well with artificial lighting indoors, as well as a range of natural lighting conditions. Obviously we will test this fully when we get a full production sample of the Pentax K-500 in for testing, but we expect to find it delivers good colours in a range of conditions.
We were also happy with the Pentax K-30's 77-segment multi-pattern metering system, and we are hoping that it will deliver a similar performance in the Pentax K-50 and Pentax K-500, not under-exposing images under bright skies as dramatically as some earlier Pentax digital SLRs were prone to doing.
The Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 have the same digital filters as the Pentax K-30, and we have found in the past that they produce great results. However it's frustrating that they can't be employed when shooting raw and JPEG files simultaneously to produce one image that has the effect applied, along with a clean raw file for normal processing.
Pentax has often drawn criticism for its autofocusing system, and AF performance varies enormously depending on whether the lens has an AF motor onboard or not. We were only able to use the pre-production sample Pentax K-500 with a non-SDM lens and in the low contrast light of our meeting room the focusing was slow and loud.
We will test the Pentax K-500 and Pentax K-50 with a range of lenses when we get full production samples in for testing. But because they have the same AF module as the Pentax K-30 we expect to find that their AF systems perform fairly poorly with the standard kit lens and very well with optics that have an AF motor built-in, such as the Pentax 18-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AL IF DC WR lens.
Until now Pentax's DSLR range has looked rather limited, with just the Pentax K-30 and Pentax K-5 II (and Pentax K-5 IIs) being available and aimed at enthusiast photographers. Naturally Pentax is keen to expand its range and offer something a little more appealing to novice photographers.
However, the Pentax K-500 doesn't appear to be sympathetically simplified, and the differences between it and the Pentax K-30 and Pentax K-50 just seem like cost savings.
At £449.99 (around US$705 / AU$740) for the kit with the SMC Pentax-DA L 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL, the Pentax K-500 may not be an especially enticing option when the Pentax K-30 is available body only for £440 / US$500 / AU$600 and for £500 / US$700 / AU$800 with the weather-proofed 18-55mm lens.
The Pentax K-30, which has the same sensor and processing engine as the Pentax K-500 (albeit untweaked) has the benefit of weatherproof sealing and the ability to see the active AF point in the viewfinder.
Meanwhile the Pentax K-50 is set to retail for £529.99 (around US$830 / AU$870) body only and £599.99 (around US$940 / AU$985) with the SMC Pentax-DA L 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 8 AL WR lens - the waterproofed kit lens.
The Pentax K-50 is also only a very minor upgrade on the Pentax K-30, so minor in fact that it would have been more appropriate to have called it the Pentax K-30 II. Minor changes in the body shape aside, you have to wonder whether the Pentax K-50 could have been created from a firmware upgrade to the Pentax K-30.
Given the similarities between the two new cameras and the Pentax K-30, we anticipate very similar, or slightly better, performance from the Pentax K-50 and Pentax K-500 provided that Pentax hasn't broken with its normal protocol of preserving detail and allowing a bit of noise to be seen. We'll have to wait until we get production samples in for testing to see.