In Praise of the Pentax K5/K5II

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I have been using my Pentax K5 for roughly 20 months now. During this time, I got one lens glued to the K5: a cheap Sigma 17-70mm/2.8-4.5 that you can buy brand new for more or less $300. I did buy a no-name fully manual 50mm/1.7 but it didn’t really get used at all. It was practically 20 months of one camera one lens.

To be honest, I did not expect much from the K5. After all, I already have a Nikon D700. I was in a store (which I wouldn’t name) wanting to test the K5. It was their only stock. I would have been buying a display model. I asked if they could give me a discount for the “used” item. The sales person didn’t give in but instead he mockingly said “trust me, it’s good as brand new. It’s a Pentax. Nobody wants to touch it.“, to that effect. No, I didn’t buy my K5 from that store. The only reason I bought the K5 was that I was about to go on a vacation to the Philippines and didn’t want to bring my heavy equipment. Philippines is not the safest country for photographers either so in case the K5 got stolen it won’t hurt much. It was a risky decision; a month of holiday with a camera that had a bad track record for reliability (remember the sensor stain and mirror flapping issues?) and one that I was not familiar with. Those issues have been fixed already and Pentax were very supportive of those unfortunate customers who recieved faulty units. Nevertheless, I went on with the purchase.

It was during that month long holiday that I became very close to the K5 and the Sigma lens. I quickly learned all the features and limitations of my equipment. Since it wasn’t CaNikon, other photographers didn’t bother with my gear either so I got to concentrate on just making photos. I didn’t have to pretend that I knew what I was doing just because I was carrying CaNikon gear. I was carrying a Pentax so I must be clueless 🙂 One photographer even (jokingly) commented that I should get a real camera. Such is the joy of being different — you get to do your own business without the need to defend your gear from fanbois.

To summarize the rest of this post, the K5 is the best camera for landscape photography…and then some.

You might want to read my post on essential settings for landscape photography because it supports the rest of this article. Here’s why I strongly think that the K5 is one of the best, if not the best, landscape camera at present.

Let’s tackle the easy one first: resolution. Believe it or not but 16Mp is plenty. I have a 12Mp JPEG shot at ISO 800 with an old camera that I cropped to 2×1 format and printed it at 1m x 0.5m and it looks fantastic. That’s roughly 8Mp printed at 1 meter long. When was the last time you printed that big? At 16Mp, it means I will have 12Mp 2×1 panos or 8Mp 3×1 panos. That’s a lot.

I won’t even bother discussing about high ISO noise because in landscape photography, if you are shooting above ISO 400 then you are doing something silly or you are just too lazy to carry a tripod. I won’t expect people of this kind to even wake up early or stay up very late to take photos. Needless to say that the performance of the K5 sensor is very good. The interwebs should be able to provide you with all the technical measurements and results.

Now for the important features ….

Intelligent timer and mirror lock-up mode. I can see that the engineers at Pentax really used their brains here. MUP is a very important setting for capturing landscapes. With the K5, the moment you engage the timer, it automatically activates MUP to avoid camera shake. Not only that. Since the K5 has in-body image stabilization, the timer also automatically disables SR. Genius!!! I have never seen that being done by other brands. Timer and MUP are usually two entirely separate modes. To disable image stabilization in other camera brands, you will have to remember to turn them off or dig through the menus.

Very flexible exposure bracketing. You can have up to 7 brackets with infinitely flexible intervals. That means you can do, say, 5 frames at 1 stop intervals to span -2 to +2 or use 2.5 stop intervals for a really wide -5 to +5. It’s the HDR photographer’s dream! Wait, there’s more. You can do fully automatic single click bracketing or single-shot type multiple click bracketing. With the former, just click once and the camera goes through all the bracketed exposures unattended. No need to hold the shutter or click multiple times. Wait, because there is even more. You can couple bracketing with the timer and MUP. What does that mean? It means you do not need a shutter release cable even. Just set your brackets, then use the timer mode and since the timer is coupled with MUP you get absolutely shake-free automated bracketing. Photographers of other camera brands do not know what they are missing.

Very easy full manual exposure. Ok so you want to be a pro. Pros shoot only in full manual mode. Automatic modes are for n00bs. So you set your camera to M mode (M for macho), your ISO to it’s lowest native sensitivity and your aperture to the sharpest for your lens. What about your shutter speed? With other cameras, you will wear out your thumb rolling that thumbwheel. Not so with the K5; it has this magic green button. Click it once and it automatically closes the aperture to your intended value and get a metered reading all in one go thus giving you a shutter speed that is very close if not perfect for the intended exposure. Another genius!!! Hey, this feature works with fully manual lenses as well; it simulates stop down metering but in a split second and with a touch of genius. I call that green button the instant pro button.

Five custom setting banks. These are real custom settings banks that persist unless explicitly overwritten. Sorry Nikon folks but unless your camera has U1/U2 then you do not have this at all. Even the most advanced D4 and D800 are crippled in this respect. Why would a landscape photographer need these custom banks? Well, I know several photographers who unintentionally shot an entire session in high ISO because they forgot to set their cameras. Landscape photography may involve people in the scene as well so you need to be able to switch quickly between long exposure and instant capture modes without wrestling your camera.

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Very efficient live view mode. When your camera is a foot above the ground, you wouldn’t want to use the viewfinder. Live view is not only advisable, it will also save you on trips to the chiropractor. The K5 is a very efficient machine. Even with hours of shooting in live view I could get more than 500 hundred shots in a single charge. That’s a lot of shots. As a comparison, my D700 drains batteries in live view mode like a camel drinks water from a bucket.

Full professional-grade weatherproofing. Landscape photographers take their cameras everywhere and whatever mother nature throws at them. Having a camera designed to withstand harsh conditions gives you that extra confidence that you will come home with keepers and get to shoot the day after.

DNG RAW files. Heard about photographers complaining about Photoshop not supporting their RAW files? It’s not the end of the world for them really but it does hurt the bottom line if they have the older version of Photoshop that Adobe abandons as soon as a newer version is released. Getting new RAW file support for the previous version of Photoshop is futile. Forget it. It won’t happen. I, on the other hand, am not worried because my K5 shoots in DNG RAW. Every worthy photo editing software supports DNG out of the box. You want proof? Lightroom 4 is happily editing the RAW files from my unsupported K5 II. How awesome is that?

Of course there are other features that do not mean much to landscape photographers but it would be nice to mention them as well:

Very fast autofocus. Landscape photographers use hyperfocusing. Nonetheless, the K5II can autofocus in complete darkness.

In-body image stabilization. Landscape photographers carry tripods but there are times when you need to shoot in tactical situations like when human figures add a point of interest in the scene.

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It is light. For a camera built like an M1 Abrams, the K5 is light. You can carry it around your neck during long treks.

Sensor dust reduction. For those times when you absolutely need to change lenses during a shoot because absolutely need to bring your holy trinity of lenses plus multiple primes on your family holiday trip.

Seven frames per second. So you can capture the minute movements of the tectonic plates and improve your spray and pray technique. Seriously, you don’t need this.

So that’s it, dear readers. The Pentax K5/K5II in real world scenarios. The best landscape camera you can buy NOW.

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4 thoughts on “In Praise of the Pentax K5/K5II”

  1. Perfectly true! Wouldn’t be the best option for portraits and interior pictures but when comes to landscape you can count on it! To understand this statement the only thing you can do is to buy one and compare it with any Nikon or Canon on its category (or even above); this is what I did when I felt in love with Pentax.
    And Pentax K5 is not only about picture quality; it is a very sturdy camera. I had it for a year when after a shooting I forgot it on my car and drove away on highway. I found it at 300 meters from the place where I was shooting, which means the speed of the car was about 60 miles/hr at the time of the impact. The DA-L lens got broken after hit the asphalt and the camera was scratched on all corners (maybe it was rolling on the highway) and had an small piece of its case broken on the edge by the battery compartment. I mount a second lens I had with me and guess what? …it was working! If this is all it happens at 60 miles/hr on the asphalt road, I imagine that falling from a table or from tripod is a piece of cake. So yes, it is a sturdy camera made entirely of magnesium and everything is tight and sealed (no one of the doors and covers had opened during that powerful impact).
    Try it once and you may not want anything else.

  2. Nice to see you describe the same combo I have come to love although I do use two or three other lenses regularly. Agree with your comments fully though, especially on the timer MUP and NR-disabler – it is so simple, only a sheer genius at Pentax could have come up with it and as I use HDR bracketing a lot it has become something I could really not do without.

    The older 17-70 from Sigma, the non-HSM, is indeed a very underrated piece of glass. Except for the considerable distortion at 17mm it performs great. Even bokeh at 2.8 on a close-up is really nice.

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