There's a lot to be said for doing things differently, but it can also be a risk - and nowhere is that clearer than with the Pentax K-3 II.
While Canon and Nikon's DSLRs offer much the same feature set and cater to the same needs, the K-3 II has a few options you won't find elsewhere.
Star-chasers, for instance, will be delighted to see that it has a built-in astro-tracer. Outdoorsy types will get excited by its weatherproofing and built-in GPS tagging. Detail-addicts will marvel at its high-res pixel-shift mode, anti-alias-less sensor and comprehensive RAW options. Everyone will glory in its built-in image stabilisation.
Still, does this Pentax do enough to stand out from the photographic pack?
Like its predecessor the Pentax K-3, this is a superbly put together camera. Its body is made from magnesium alloy over a metal chassis and it's reassuringly solid without being heavy. It's also fully weatherproof, with 92 seals ensuring that you're probably more at risk from rain, dust and cold than it is.
Just as importantly, the K-3 II is a lovely camera to hold and use. The deep grip probably won't be to everybody's taste but it sure makes it easy to pick up. It also has more buttons, dials and switches than the Millennium Falcon's cockpit.
If you're holding it in standard one-hand-on-the-grip-one-on-the-lens-mode, you'll find that almost all of the controls are reachable without the need for any finger gymnastics.
Pentax gives you a sensible selection of them and some useful extras, too. How so? Well you'll also find a button just for selecting RAW shooting mode - incredibly useful if you tend to shoot JPEGs but want to toggle RAW mode for just a couple of tricky photos before reverting afterwards. There's also a GPS button and both buttons and switches for selecting focus modes.
It feels as if lots of thought has gone into the control system in order to make it as usable as possible - for instance the control dial is both lockable and unlockable. We've lost count of the number of times we've been left frustrated by lockable dials that you have to unlock every time you want to change a setting (we're looking at you, Fujifilm X-T1) or that don't lock at all.
The K-3 II can do either. There's even a button for selecting which of the two SD card slots you want to view in Playback mode.
Cold to the touch
Is it a looker? Not really. But it does have a sort of rugged charm, thanks to the plethora of chunky bits sticking out of it to either house bits of tech or make it easier to handle. Think Daniel Craig rather than Ryan Gosling.
On the hardware front it's a bit of a mixed bag (that's the camera, not Daniel Craig).
The pentaprism viewfinder is excellent, with 100% coverage and 0.95x magnification, but the LCD screen is more disappointing, being neither touch-sensitive nor flippable. While we can more or less live without touch tech, there are so many occasions when shooting in Live View with a flip-out screen is a must: macro, astrophotography, video and so on. The display itself is fine - 3.2in with 1037k dots - but it feels like it's three years behind the times.
There's no flash either, which is unusual in for a mid-range DSLR. Most on-camera flashes are a bit rubbish, but they can at least be used to trigger off-camera flashes. Wi-Fi and NFC are also absent here, with the former leading to a few drawbacks elsewhere.
On the plus side, you get two SD card slots, which is great. You can set the camera up to shoot JPEGs to one and RAW to the other, or just to fill one then the other - so no more running out of space halfway up a mountain and having to swap cards over with frozen fingers. And as is common with DSLRs (and unlike most compact system cams) battery life is superb: one charge lasted us for several days.
A sensor occasion
There are two things you need to know about the K-3 II's sensor: 1) it's a very good one and 2) it moves.
Let's take the first point first. The K-3 II has a 24MP CMOS sensor without anti-alias filter. This theoretically makes it super-sharp, at the expense of theoretically being more subject to distracting moiré interference in certain patterns.
If you are shooting a subject where this might be an issue, the second point comes into play. Pentax has kitted this sensor out with the ability to move about (by a pixel at a time). As a result, it's been able to give it an 'anti-alias filter simulator' mode, which sees it vibrate the sensor to mimic the effect a real AA filter would have.
That Pixel-Shift tech, as Pentax calls it, is behind a couple of the K-3 II's other special talents. Pixel-Shift Resolution is one of these: you stick the camera on a tripod and focus on a static object, then take your photo. The K-3 II takes four pictures in succession, moving the sensor by one pixel each time, then combines the four images into one super-image.
Great! But why? It allows the camera to capture more colour information, which in turn should increase resolution and colour accuracy and decrease noise.
All of which sounds wonderful, but we couldn't see any obvious difference between images taken with Pixel-Shift on and those taken without it (in case you can't either, the one with Pixel-Shift is on the right above).
Space: the final frontier
Pixel-Shift is also at the heart of the Astrotracer function, which lets you take long-exposure shots of the night sky without getting any star trails. In theory, it shifts the sensor about in time with the Earth's rotation, using the in-built GPS to get it right.
This feature definitely does work, because we spent several cold hours trying it out and have the photos to prove it. They're not very good, on account of the sky over Epsom hardly rivalling the Australian outback for darkness, and the K-3 II's kit lens not being the best in the world, but they're undoubtedly star trail free.
However... a couple of the K-3 II's missing features made the whole experience a lot harder than it should have been. For one, the lack of a flip-out screen made focusing a nightmare. With DSLR astrophotography, using Live View in zoomed-in mode is the easiest way to focus on a star or constallation.
Doing this without a flip-out screen meant having to lie down on the cold ground, or contort my body into awkward shapes in order to set the shot up.
What's more, the lack of Wi-Fi meant there was no easy way to trigger shots remotely. On any other modern DSLR you'd just wirelessly hook it up to an app and use that to trigger the shot. Obviously you can use a remote-release cable to do the same job, but I didn't have one of those for the testing period and an app is now a more flexible way of doing these things.
As well as making the Astrotracer mode possible, the built-in GPS can be used to tag your images with location data. There's also a really nice compass option, which shows which way you're facing as well as altitude, latitude, longitude and more.
Fast-forward, slow motion
Those niggles aside, the K-3 II is capable of taking outstanding images. It uses a 27-point autofocus system that locks on swiftly and accurately, although we did experience a fair bit of hunting in gloomy conditions.
Subject tracking has been improved over the K-3 and worked well in our time with it and it's capable of some pretty speedy burst shooting: 8.3fps in High mode for up to 60 JPEGs and 23 RAW files.
But once more, as Pentax giveth, Pentax taketh away. While 8.3fps is an impressively fast speed, using it slows the camera down afterwards to such an extent that you'll think it's broken. Alright, so processing 23 RAW files must take a fair bit of power, but we had to wait for more than 30 seconds after we'd finished again before we could do anything else.
Still, in most normal situations the K-3 II performs admirably and takes excellent pictures. They're packed with detail, as we've already mentioned, but colours are also excellent: slightly subdued by default in JPEG mode but easily changed via one of a dozen presets.
The RAW images offer plenty of scope for digging out more detail and tinkering with the colours, and as another bonus you can shoot in either Pentax's own PEF format or Adobe's DNG; that's massively helpful if you're using an old version of Lightroom or Photoshop which doesn't support the newest RAW file formats.
Noise is well controlled in general, with little of it until about ISO 1600. Obviously it gets worse as you step up, but even ISO 6400 is perfectly usable for most day-to-day purposes (i.e. posting on Facebook and Instagram).
Steady as she goes
In-body image stabilisation is the K-3 II's other main advantage over its DSLR rivals because, well, you won't find it in any of them.
You will see it in plenty of mirrorless cameras these days, notably the Olympus OM-D EM-5 II and Sony A7 II, but not in any traditional DSLRs. These instead rely on stabilised lenses, which is great if you have one, but not so helpful if you don't. In contrast, any lens stuck on the front of the K-3 II will effectively be stabilised.
Pentax claims you'll get 4.5 stops of stabilisation from its system and that figure sounds about right to us. We were certainly able to capture sharp shots at shutter speeds that would otherwise have required the use of a tripod, such as the left of the two shots above.
It's especially helpful for video too, which is just as well given the K-3 II is otherwise mediocre on the movie front. There's no 4K nor even full HD @ 60fps, with footage maxing out at a distinctly 2012-vintage 1080p@30fps. You can autofocus while recording, but only at a snail's pace and neither automatically nor continuously as you can on most other system cameras these days.
Still, the stabilisation and quality sensor do mean that when you're in focus the footage will be nice and crisp.
Pentax K-3 II verdict
The Pentax K-3 II is in many ways a brave DSLR. It takes risks, does things differently and offers loads of quirky options. But in other ways it's also a hugely frustrating beast.
As a niche camera, it has many great features. If you're into astrophotography or want to give it a go, the built-in Astrotracer offers something you won't see anywhere else. If you spend lots of time shooting wildlife or landscapes, the weatherproofing, GPS and compass will be massively helpful.
Either of these sound like your kind of thing? Then you'll love the K-3 II. That said, the lack of an articulating screen, Wi-Fi and decent video options hold it back as a great all-round DSLR. At this price point there are better options, like the Canon 70D and Olympus OM-D EM-5 II.
So well done, Pentax, for daring to be different. But next time remember not to forget the basics too.