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Review: The Pentax K20D PDF Print E-mail
Written by Vincent Diamante   
Monday, 20 October 2008 00:00
Pentax K20DMy current camera system...Pentax K20D

I owned the Pentax K20D for five months in the middle of 2008 and there's no doubt in my mind: The Pentax K20D is a brilliant camera. 

Damn shame that I had to sell it... just had to be done...

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What I like about the Pentax K20D:

1) A damn good image sensor.  That 14 megapixel sensor from Samsung is fantastic... maybe the best APS-C sensor out there.  Besides being the highest resolution sensor among prosumer/semi-pro DSLRs, it delivers images with good dynamic range and excellent detail.  Sure, it's a noisy sensor compared to the competing models from Canon and Nikon, but that Samsung sensor (combined with Pentax's image processing) seems to maintain so much detail at those higher ISO settings, and really, the noise doesn't look bad at all...

2) An excellent body.  The fully weatherproofed body is an awesome feature, unique to both the K20D and its younger sibling K200D at their respective price points.  The easily navigable user interface isn't super speedy like the competition, but it's very easy to manipulate without even a glance at the user manual.  The grip is excellent: ever so slightly pliable and big enough for my nearly NBA player-sized hands.  Even better, all the buttons and dials fall neatly under my fingers.  I never had to bend my fingers in weird ways to hit any important buttons.  (Of course, there aren't all that many buttons to hit...)

3) A fine catalog of lenses.  The 10-17mm fisheye zoom isn't terribly unique anymore (it used to be unique to Pentax back in the film days, but Tokina makes the lens for the Canikon DSLR users) but that doesn't change the fact that it is a wonderful lens, along with other gems like the 77mm Limited or 50-135mm DA*.  And then there's the fact that there's millions of K-mount lenses sitting in Salvation Army stores and pawn shops around the world, just begging to be used...

4) Shake Reduction.  It's there, and it works.  I'll be the first to admit that it's not the best solution out there.  Having used other systems, I'd say that it is clearly less effective than other body-based image stabilization systems from Sony/Minolta and Olympus, full stop.  Still, it does offer some help, and any help is better than none.  Also, you have things like wide angle zooms, fast normal and portrait primes, and manual focus lenses all stabilized... something that Canon and Nikon do not offer.

5) In camera pixel mapping.  All cameras have or will have bad pixels develop over the camera's lifetime.  This is something that affected me back when I used the predecessor K10D body, which came with hot pixels straight out of the box.  Minolta knew how to deal with it, having the camera figure out its hot pixels every month and mapping them away, no user intervention needed.  Olympus made pixel mapping a feature that users could take advantage of whenever they felt it was needed.  Maybe I'm unlucky, but all the DSLRs that I've had that don't have this facility built into the camera have had problems with hot pixels.  I had to wait for a 3rd K10D camera body from Pentax thanks to the first one having hot pixels, while part of my annoyance with the Nikon D700 surely stemmed from the sight of two hot pixels at an extremely tame ISO 400.

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All cool stuff, right?  Well, I don't have the camera anymore, so let me point to the things that ultimately made me sell it:

1) The Pentax 16-50mm f2.8 DA* zoom lens.  This is a good lens... if you can get a good copy.  A quick glance through the internet reveals that this is easier said than done.  Me, I had to deal with 3 before I came across an acceptable copy.  The first had significant softness on the right side of the image.  For a while, I got around this simply by cropping the right side off... but that kind of sucks when you want your wide angle shots to be... you know: wide angle.  The second copy had an issue with the quick-shift focus system; sometimes turning the ring would rack the focus in and out... and sometimes the ring would not be coupled to the focus at all.  Really annoying.  The third copy turned out to be a decent copy with none of the sharpness issues of the first, but even with that taken care of, there were other issues with this particular lens.  It seemed there was a touch more chromatic aberrations on the edge of the frame than I saw in previous copies.  Also, the huge rubberized focus ring would have been a dream to use if the travel weren't so darn short.  I'm going to guess that this was a design decision made to help alleviate the...

2) Poor DA* lens's SDM focus speed.  The 16-50mm and 50-135mm DA* lenses are both fitted with Pentax's SDM motors.  They are very smooth and quiet focus motors... and they are not fast.  Not fast at all.  They are, if anything, slightly slower than what I was experiencing with standard screw drive focus lenses, and that includes both Pentax and third-party lenses.  It seemed ridiculous that I should have to choose my Pentax 16-45mm f4 lens with its old screw drive focus (and 1 stop slower aperture) rather than the 16-50mm f2.8 because I was worried about not getting the shot in time.

3) Inconsistent white balance, even with camera presets and manual settings.  This was something I didn't expect at all.  Poor auto white balance is something that comes with the territory, and I was plenty prepared for that... but being on a manual WB setting and seeing 3 shots taken within a second, each having a slightly different color cast?  That's something I'd rather not deal with.

4) Using the camera felt slower than it should be.  The K20D was a slight upgrade from the K10D speed-wise, but it's still poor compared to other advanced amateur offerings like the Nikon D80 or even the old Sony A100.  Moving through menus is a touch slow.  Dealing with Pentax's crude Live View implementation is slow, period.  Configuring the white balance is a bit slow.  Moving the active AF point is very slow.  Reviewing pics after a small burst of 3 to 5 frames is slow.  I'm sure if you're a landscape or studio photographer, this isn't much of an issue.  For me, doing everything from conference coverage to more active event photography (either interactive media exhibits and performances or anime cons and other fan conventions), this definitely got in the way of getting the shot I wanted more than a couple of times.

And the biggest reason of all for leaving Pentax...

5) Poor Pentax customer service.  You know that 3rd 16-50mm lens I got?  I actually acquired that used from an end-user off a Pentax forum.  After I had went through the 2 lenses that my local camera shop had, I had them deal with Pentax and getting a new lens.  I figured this process would be similar to when I had to get my K10D replaced: a call or three to their local Pentax rep and everything will be settled within a few days.  Maybe a week or so at worst.  Thanks to that longtime Pentax SoCal rep, I was able to get a good K10D in my hands just in time for my coverage of the 2007 Game Developers Conference...

If only the lens replacement went so smoothly.

I ended up waiting five (5!) weeks for any sign of life from Pentax.  The local Pentax rep?  He was let go as part of the restructuring of the company that came with Hoya's acquisition of Pentax, and in his place were people who had no clue where the lenses my dealer returned were.  (Oh, how I love my local camera shop.  Sure, I could go online with everything, but I wouldn't have been able to have someone go up to bat for me on issues like this...)  Eventually the lenses were found and eventually they shipped other stuff back... but five weeks to respond to a problem is absolutely unacceptable.

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I had a pretty significant amount of Pentax kit that I sold off: the K20D body, two DA and two DA* zoom lenses, one FA lens (50mm f1.4), a Sigma 24mm f1.8 (certainly one of the best lenses that Sigma's ever made), a Tokina 80-400mm, a bunch of flashes, and all sorts of other accessories like the grip, the extra viewfinder loupe, the focusing screen, the remote... and I ended up selling it all.

There's a lot to love about the Pentax system.  The image quality is as high as anything you can get in a body costing under $3000 USD, and the K20D is a joy to hold and shoot (interface speed issues aside).  Now if only they can get get a quality autofocus system in there and a customer support system to deal with these quality control issues, especially those endemic to a particular product billed as their highest grade of lens.

Maybe one of these days I'll return to Pentax.  From fully weatherproofed bodies and lenses to beautiful and surprisingly affordable primes for portraiture and landscape photography, their system has plenty to like.  Right now I'll continue having fun exploring other systems from the other players in the DSLR world, and maybe some of these kinks will work themselves out as the company regains its footing in the digital photography landscape.

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