As we turn the corner into 2023, the emerging landscape for photography seems split between mirrorless maximalism, exemplified in the fourth-quarter releases of the FUJIFILM X-T5 and Hasselblad X2D 100C, and the triumphant resurgence of film that has culminated in Leica's re-release of its iconic M6 and an eleventh-hour announcement of an exploratory film camera project from RICOH Imaging's Pentax brand. It's more than a little strange that only two months earlier, Pentax announced its newest camera, the Pentax KF, a mid-range DSLR.
If this feels like a throwback to the 2010s heyday of DSLR supremacy, well, you wouldn't be wrong―aside from an improved rear LCD screen and an ever-so-slight reduction in weight, the Pentax KF is a retread of 2016's popular K-70 DSLR. The two cameras share the same 24.24MP APS-C CMOS sensor and PRIME MII image processor, the Shake Reduction and Pixel Shift Resolution, the SAFOX X Autofocus System, and the 1080p video capabilities with 4K interval recording. They also share the same battery, with the KF introducing a USB-C connection to the charger. In addition to the new charger, the other major changes are the increased, 1.037M-dot resolution of the vari-angle LCD monitor and several custom image modes for deliberate and evocative tonal and color renderings.
What the KF lacks in novelty, it makes up for in ease of use. It was immediately familiar to me―this was before I learned about the older sibling―and its pleasantly intuitive design made it all the more straightforward. The grip was snug and comfortable, my fingers wrapping in and around the camera's contours to land, conveniently, at its controls. The front and rear e-dials come programmed for shutter speed and aperture, respectively, and can be reprogrammed to your liking. The rest of the controls, accessed through the menu on the rear LCD screen, are also highly intuitive. I spent very little time setting the camera up, having almost no experience with PENTAX interfaces, and was up and shooting quickly.
The camera was marketed as "optimized for all types of outdoor photography," and I had the opportunity to test its mettle both in the rain and in below-freezing weather. PENTAX claims the camera can perform in temperatures as low as 14°F. I took it out in a balmy 22°F, and it successfully autofocused and fired off the camera's six images per second. Ditto for the rain, whose light but persistent droplets interfered only with my resolve to remain outdoors.
I shot the camera with the 18-135mm kit lens, which, combined with the signature DSLR shutter sound, announced me to my fellow pedestrians. Stealth shooter it is not, and with the KF slung around my neck I struck the figure of a classic Chinatown tourist. In fact, the camera is well suited for travel photography. It resolved well the variable lighting of a rainy Manhattan afternoon, from the neon lights to overcast skies to darkened storefront corners. I also was impressed with the sensor's dynamic range, even if I had to undercompensate by a half-stop to avoid clipping in the highlights.
I brought the camera with me to visit my family during the holidays, where it performed reasonably well in the low-wattage incandescence of my grandmother's living room. I say reasonably well because the image quality did decrease when I pushed the ISO above 3200, which is likely why they made it the ISO ceiling for the automatic modes. I wasn't aware of this boundary until it was too late and missed a lovely moment between a toddler and his mother. I found it valuable to have for making portraits, especially close-ups, without the lens barrel distortion typical of a cell phone camera. However, its low-light limitations―slower autofocusing, auto ISO capped at 3200―slow you down enough to make it unreliable for candid moments better captured with your phone.
One of the camera's out-and-out strengths―the optical viewfinder―also ends up emphasizing the strange and unique position of the PENTAX KF in the current camera marketplace. The camera features a glass pentaprism that, along with the mirror, gives a sharp, accurate, real-feel view of the subject for composition and focusing. That's not to take away from the electronic live view on the rear LCD monitor, whose fold-out, vari-angle capability opens all kinds of potential angles. And, unlike many cameras, the KF allows you to fold shut the monitor, which can prevent distractions and chimping. With the rangefinder, LCD monitors, and electronic viewfinders all giving you an interpreted or distorted view of the subject, the 100% field of view, 0.95x magnification of the KF's optical viewfinder does bring (funnily enough) an element of nostalgia to seeing through this camera.
Still, the mirror-pentaprism combination is a defining feature of the single-lens reflex style camera, one that is being left behind―at least for now. Other leading manufacturers have abandoned production of new DSLRs entirely. And while I doubt Pentax intended the KF to trigger the pains of an old wound, in handling the KF I was immediately transported 15 years into the past to my first-ever DSLR, the Nikon D80, the camera I used when I first learned to shoot.
That pre-digital nostalgia has proven profitable for manufacturers is inarguable. Even more recently, a nostalgia for the early days of lo-fi, lo-res, point-and-shoot digital photography has also emerged. Incidentally, it wasn't long after I first got my hands on my first DSLR that FUJIFILM went all-in on retro with the debut of the X100 digital rangefinder, which itself has seen four subsequent iterations and is more popular than ever, thanks to its embrace on Tik-Tok.
But is anyone nostalgic for the early days of the DSLR? The Pentax KF seems to have landed in an uncanny valley of sorts, where for all its function and versatility, its technology is sufficiently dated so as to feel unremarkable for a new release but not dated enough to be charming and evocative of a bygone era. Its nostalgic effects, if there at all, seem accidental. There are better mirrorless cameras with stronger lens systems for similar price points. There are better point-and-shoot cameras for easy, casual use while traveling or in social settings. A brand-new Pentax K-70―the same camera with a slightly larger frame and lower resolution LCD monitor―is considerably cheaper. A used K-70 in good condition will save you even more.
I had fun shooting the Pentax KF. It produced good images in the rain and in the cold and in low light. It felt good in the hand and was easy to use. It even sparked a twinge of nostalgia for my first days as a serious photographer. While it may not be a camera I'd pick up often, I'm sure there are others who would be perfectly happy with the KF. Legacy Pentax users, for example, or those with a large collection of K-mount glass who don't need newer, more advanced features should find the Pentax KF a good fit for their needs.
What are your thoughts on the Pentax KF? Let us know in the Comments section, below.