The Road Less Traveled
It's true that most photographers looking to buy an SLR go with a Canon or a Nikon camera. But, despite their market share, the big two aren't the only game in town. The Pentax brand has been around for a long time, and if you learned photography in the 70s or 80s, you probably picked up the classic manual focus K1000 SLR at some point in time.
In the digital world Pentax SLRs set themselves apart from the competition by concentrating on build quality rather than bells and whistles. Even the budget-friendly K-70 has a glass pentaprism viewfinder and extensive weather sealing—features that are only available in bodies priced over $1,000 if you are shopping for a Canon or Nikon SLR. But the company is a little behind the times in some other areas, including video capture, and has been slow to add Wi-Fi to its camera line.
But if you're more interested in pure photography and not enticed by bells and whistles, a Pentax SLR might make a lot sense. Add in the fact that the company is strong in terms of backward compatibility (those manual focus lenses from the 70s work on modern digital bodies just fine) and builds shake reduction into the body so that every lens is stabilized, and you have an appealing platform.
Most Pentax SLRs use the APS-C sensor size, the same as you'll find in entry-level models from Nikon and Canon. There is one full-frame model available, the 36MP K-1. You can use APS-C lenses with it—we've tested some and found that a few cover the whole sensor and are decent performers—but for best results look for lenses marked as FA or D FA if you shoot with the K-1.
Pentax doesn't have the sheer number of lenses available as you'll get with one of the more popular systems, but the selection is still pretty extensive, and includes an excellent series of compact prime lenses. It's missing some of the more esoteric options, like tilt-shift lenses, autofocusing f/1.2 primes, and really long telephoto glass. Third-party lenses fill some of those gaps, although lens makers like Sigma and Tamron haven't been making newer lenses for Pentax.
There are pluses and minuses with every system. But if you're looking for a solid APS-C SLR on a budget, the K-70 is a solid value option, even thought its video capabilities lag behind other systems. But if stills are your priority, you can pair it with any of the lenses in this roundup for image quality that's just as good—and in some cases better—than what you'll get from more popular systems.
Bottom Line: The Pentax HD DA 35mm F2.8 Macro Limited lens is as well-built as it is sharp, housing crisp optics in a compact, premium all-metal barrel.
Bottom Line: The Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM delivers on its promise; it boasts the speed and sharpness of a prime lens, along with the convenience of a zoom.
Bottom Line: The Pentax SMC FA 43mm f/1.9 Limited is the oldest lens that Pentax still makes, but its performance has withstood the test of time, and it captures the perfect standard-angle field of view …
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Bottom Line: The Pentax HD D FA 15-30mm F2.8 ED SDM WR is a huge lens, but one that covers an ultra-wide field of view with excellent sharpness, even at f/2.8.
Bottom Line: The Pentax HD DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited is an impressively sharp wide-angle lens with minimal distortion.
Bottom Line: The Pentax HD DA 70mm F2.4 Limited is a sharp, compact lens that's great for portraiture.
Bottom Line: The Pentax SMC FA 31mm f/1.8 Limited has earned legendary status as a stellar wide-angle lens. Despite its age, it's still a strong performer.
Bottom Line: The Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM lens is a solid replacement for the 18-55mm that shipped with your camera, but another Sigma zoom is our Editors' Choice.
Bottom Line: The Pentax HD D FA 28-105mm F3.5-5.6ED DC WR is a solid full-frame starter zoom, but it makes the compromises you expect from a kit lens.
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