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Six years ago, the dream was to build a digital SLR (DSLR) camera that could rival the results of a film camera. Today there's a wide assortment of cameras that do just that, starting at about $600.
But the major manufacturers of DSLRs - Canon, Nikon and Pentax - haven't stopped at equivalency. Their latest products go well beyond, offering resolutions of 12 and 15 megapixels, larger sensors and new capabilities built into the cameras that take advantage of the digital nature of the image. They have the ability to make poster-size prints and alter the color balance, exposure, sensitivity and resolution with the turn of a dial. In fact the features are so extensive that these cameras come with instruction books close to 300 pages long.
With so many good choices it's really difficult to know what to buy; the cameras are more alike than different. Often the decision comes down to which brand of lenses you already own or how the camera feels when you pick it up.
I've been trying out the new K-7 from Pentax, one of the more innovative camera companies. They were the first to make compact film cameras with retractable zoom lenses, the first with an underwater pocket camera and the first with pancake lenses for SLR cameras.
Unlike the other cameras in its class, it's more rugged, has virtually every feature you'd want - and even some you didn't know you wanted - and, most importantly, is 15 percent smaller in size.
The K-7, which replaces the K20D as their top DSLR, is built with a magnesium-alloy frame and has more than six dozen seals to protect it from harsh conditions. This allows you take it to the beach or into a rain forest and not worry about a flurry of sand, rain or the splash of water damaging the camera.
At $1,300, the K-7 lies between the entry-level DSLRs and models such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Nikon D3X with full-frame sensors costing from $3,000 to $7,000. (Prices are body only).
I've been trying a production unit for the past three weeks, shooting scores of images of all sorts of subjects under a wide variety of lighting conditions both indoors and out. I took them in San Diego, San Francisco and Napa, both indoors and out, daytime and at night. I also took pictures with a Nikon D90, an excellent pro-consumer camera that served as a control.
Both cameras took fine pictures, but in blind testing, the Pentax usually came out ahead. By blind I mean that I mixed up the images on my computer screen and picked which pairs of similar images were better, comparing them under high magnification.
In a vast majority, images from the K-7 were more vibrant, crisper, and the exposures were more accurate compared to the Nikon. Sharpness was excellent with both cameras and is mostly the function of the lens. I used the Pentax 17-70-mm. F4 lens and the Nikon 18-105-mm. f/3.5-5.6 lens on the respective cameras.
I found there to be a big difference in handling and holding, not only with the Nikon, but also with the older Pentax K20D. The K-7 fits amazingly well into the hand - at least my hand - and seemed as if it were grafted on as I used it. While the camera's size is reduced, the handgrip is not, resulting in less stress on the wrist and making it easier to do one-hand shooting.
Most of the controls in this new model have been moved to the right side of the display and onto the top deck, all within easy reach of your right-hand thumb and forefinger. The program dial remains on the top-left deck, but now locks in position.
The K-7 features a new 14.6-megapixel sensor that transfers data more quickly, allowing faster shooting as well as HD movies. There's a new three-inch LCD display with 920,000 pixels, the best on any camera in its class and sharp enough to zoom in on details and do editing on the screen. While you'll use the viewfinder most often for composing, the display can also be used.
The K-7 shoots faster and focuses more quickly than its predecessor. It has many buttons that allow quick adjustment, instead of needing to dig into the on-screen menus. For example, its ISO button on the top right let me quickly switch from ISO 100 to ISO 800 when I was shooting in low light levels without flash.
Its electronic level is unique and quite useful if you've ever taken an image with a tilted horizon. There's also an adjustable dynamic-range feature and a setting to bring out details in the shadows.
Pentax offers a broad range of zoom lenses, as well as some excellent prime lenses. I used their 55-mm. f/1.4 lens to shoot inside some of the Napa tasting rooms at 1/8 second. My favorites, however, are their pancake lenses that are as thin as a half-inch, adding virtually no bulk to the camera body and making them terrific for traveling. The K-7 also accepts every Pentax lens ever made.
One of the most interesting features is its ability to record movies at 1280 x 720 (HD) resolution. It records at 30 frames per second at your HD TV's 16:9 ratio. You can play back the movies by connecting the camera to your TV using the camera's HDMI port. The results are very good, but I found it best to use a tripod.
The bottom line is the K-7 is capable of creating some excellent images in one of the most rugged and compact packages of any DSLR. While not the least expensive, it's a great value for what it provides.
Phil Baker is the author of From Concept to Consumer published by Financial Times Press. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com and his Web site is philipgbaker.com. This column first appeared in the San Diego Transcript and is reprinted with its permission.