The DSLR Dream – Third Time Lucky?

My past history with DSLRs has given me many highs, but ultimately it’s fallen short of giving a consistently enjoyable experience.

The first round began around 2014 with a Pentax K-x.

I arrived there having loved shooting Pentax M and A series SLRs, their native K mount lenses, as well as M42 lenses via a simple adapter.

Given Pentax’s excellent backwards compatibility, it was very easy to choose a Pentax DSLR that would use the lenses I already had and enjoyed.

The K-x was compact, very competent, and looking back, there’s little I can think of to complain about.

Except one thing. The viewfinder.

Now to be fair, the K-x has a pretty decent VF by DLSR standards, a 0.85x magnification, 96% coverage pentamirror.

It’s just I’d been used to using cameras like the Pentax ME Super, with big bright wonderful VFs that made photography such an immersive experience.

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I never got over the disappointment of the K-x’s VF – the relative small size and dimness compared to what I was used to, as well as this making manual focusing tricky – and sold it on in favour of a Sony NEX.

The Sony was easily adaptable to the same lenses, and had a very decent screen that could be angled, as well as offering focus peaking to aid manual focusing no end.

But the poor handling and disappointing colours led me to look for a DSLR again.

And so began chapter two of my DSLR story.

Initially I stuck with Sony and bought an a350, then shortly after, an a100.

Both are compact and capable and plenty of fun.

I could use my M42 lenses via an adapter, and began exploring the excellent Minolta AF lenses that the Sony Alpha series inherited their lens mount from.

But again the VFs were poor (probably worse than the K-x), and the cameras just didn’t really excite me much, so it sent me looking for something better again.

Back to Pentax, in 2017 I discovered the magnificent K10D, Pentax’s flagship camera on its release in 2006.

Using it 11 years on, it was still a delight.

The VF was bigger and brighter than any DSLR I’d had before (a 0.95x, 95%, pentaprism), and switching the default focusing screen for one with a split prism aided focusing with manual lenses even more.

This was the best DSLR experience I’d known so far.

But…

The K10D’s weight and bulk started to take its toll – over 700g without a lens, and much bigger than any camera I’d used before .

Add a vintage M42 or Pentax-M lens and you’re well over a kilogram.

With a zoom or tele lens it could double as a small rocket launcher.

Plus, even with its better specs, the VF still seemed to tire my eyes far more quickly than a film SLR.

I’ve later learned that even when the spec says 0.95x magnification, it’s relative to the sensor/frame size. So because an APS-C DSLR has a 1.5x crop factor compared with a frame of 35mm film, the magnification has to be divided by the same crop factor.

So even with my K10D, 0.95/1.5 = 0.63x effective size.

So a 35mm camera (or a full frame DSLR) with a 0.95x viewfinder (where there is no crop factor, or rather it is simply 1, so the effective size is also 0.95x) is going to be far larger.

Then, when I discovered cameras like the tiny Ricoh GRD III and Pentax Q could deliver such great images in a package so much smaller and lighter than the K10D, the writing was on the wall.

I sold the K10D, as well as its near identical sibling I’d bought as a back up, the Samsung GX10.

A few months later, my smaller Samsung GX-1s followed suit.

Its VF was exactly the same as the K10D, but still not as good as those old film SLRs for the reasons about effective size stated above, and focusing became an eye exhausting chore.

And whilst its 6MP CCD sensor was a gem, overall the Samsung just didn’t have the same classy feel of the K10D.

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Now, after approaching two years of focusing (literally!) almost entirely on digital compacts, I have the urge to try a DSLR again.

The main issues that have turned me away before have been a small and dim VF, the overall size and bulk, and the difficulty in manual focusing.

Even though virtually none of the digital compacts I use own have a VF, and are all AutoFocus, I have come to love using this set up, especially using the screen to compose and check focus.

None of my previous DSLRs had a live view screen. Well, that’s not quite true – the K-x and a350 both did, but I never really thought to use them, as my thinking and process was so engrained in using a VF from my history with 35mm film SLRs.

Another factor is the output from the camera and how much processing is needed.

Since I’ve all but abandoned colour photography again for now, I appreciate cameras like my Pentax Q and Lumix LX3 even more, with their dynamic mono modes and contrast settings that can be set up to deliver the moody b/w images I love, straight out of camera.

So combining all of this experience of the last five years or so, if I am to try a DSLR again, I need the following –

  • A great viewfinder with 100% view (or very close).
  • An excellent screen with live view and potentially an additional manual focus aid like magnification and/or focus peaking.
  • Satisfying handling and logical controls.
  • Compatibility with my remaining lenses (two Pentax K mount, five in M42 mount). I really don’t want to explore another lens mount when I love M42 and PK so much.
  • A small, light body.
  • Enough in camera control to deliver contrasty b/w images without the need for post-processing.

This checklist has, inevitably, led me back to Pentax again.

I did consider another K-x, as I don’t recall using the live view at all, and it did tick virtually all of the boxes above.

Even the older K-m was an option, ticking plenty of the above boxes, but it lacked live view, and the VF was lower spec than the K10D/GX-1S.

So instead I started to look at Pentax DSLRs further down the line, and read more and more about the Pentax K-30.

Bright 100% VF? Check. 0.92x, 100%, pentaprism.

Excellent screen with live view and focus peaking? Check.

Good handling and logical controls? Check. The layout and menus especially appear to be very similar to my lovely little Pentax Q, basically a DSLR shrunk to quarter of the size.

Lens compatibility? Check. It’s Pentax K mount and I can use my M42 > K adapter for the M42 lenses as I did with previous Pentax DSLRs.

Compact and light? Check. Not as tiny as the Q, obviously, but small and fairly light for a  APS-C sensor DLSR.

In camera image control? Check. It appears to have many of the same features of the Q, including b/w filters, contrast and saturation adjustment and so on.

Needless to say I’m excited to discover whether the K-30 will finally fulfil the DLSR dream.

Can it become the camera that gives me a sustainable and enjoyable way to use those lovely old M42 and PK lenses, with much of the convenience I’ve come to appreciate and love about compact cameras like the Ricoh GRD III and Pentax Q?

I’ll keep you posted.

What’s been your experience with DSLRs? Which has been your favourite, and why? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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15 thoughts on “The DSLR Dream – Third Time Lucky?”

  1. Sounds like a good quest Dan. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with. I have never even touched a Pentax digital camera although my friend insists that his Q is the best camera ever made. (To be fair he is a retired Pentax employee, so he may be biased) I only have one, a Canon 40D which I only use when I really, really need to get the picture. I got some pictures I was really happy with years ago, but alas it’s size and weight mean it’s mostly banished to the closet. I should probably sell it but it’s worth so little it’s hardly worth the bother. I do love the 24mm lens (40mm equivalent on 35) which has seldom come off since I got it. It also works well for M-42 lenses but they are almost impossible to focus, at least for me. Best of luck with your search.

    1. Thanks Jon. I think the 40D is a step up in terms of size, compared with the smaller Pentax DSLRs I’ve been considering, more like my old Pentax K10D I had. I didn’t want to return to that bulk and weight, so I know just what you mean.

      And yes, focusing with manual lenses is an issue too, I need something with a great viewfinder and Live View and preferably an additional focusing aid like magnification or focus peaking too, for my old M42 lenses.

      I almost agree with your ex-Pentax employee friend about the Pentax Q, they are fantastic. And actually it’s that camera that is the biggest rival to a DSLR for me, as it’s essentially a shrunken DSLR. It operates very similarly, the controls and menus are almost identical to a Pentax DSLR of the same era. I need to prove that a Pentax DLSR can do things that the Q can’t, to justify having one, and its extra bulk.

  2. An interesting quest Dan. I’ve had the Pentax Km for years and it is a capable camera. Although I often use compact cameras (mostly older Canons), the quality of images out of the old Pentax are still very good, especially with the variety of lovely lenses available to use with it. To be honest, I think I’ve given up on finding the perfect camera and have learnt to be happy with the cameras I have at hand. Most importantly, to enjoy the interaction with Nature that photography allows!

    1. Paul, that is certainly an intelligent approach to life – learning to love what you have, quirks and all! I don’t think I’ve had a perfect camera (and don’t believe it exists) but I’ve had perhaps three or four digital that are “CNP” – as Close as Necessary to Perfect, to use Seth Godin’s phrase. In other words their quirks are not enough to disrupt the pleasure of using them.

      And yes I’m totally with you on being in nature with camera, one of life’s greatest pleasures.

  3. I had a K-30, which by all accounts was an excellent camera until it suffered from the dreaded aperture control block failure. This problem also afflicts the K-50, K-S1 and K-S2. There’s some conjecture that the problem is exhibited (ironically) when the camera hasn’t been used for a while and my experience seems to confirm this.

    I replaced it with the most excellent K-5, but that camera is quite the beast with its magnesium top and bottom covers.

    1. Thanks Rob. I have read about that issue you mention. Hopefully I get lucky!

      A quick look at Pentax Forum’s DSLR comparison tool suggests the K30 and K5 are very similar in virtually every aspect, including size and weight.

      1. Dan, I just checked and sure enough, the K-5 is only 3 ounces (90g) heavier than the K-30. I do have the battery grip for my K-5, so maybe that’s feeding into my perception. Having rather large hands, I gladly trade the enhanced grip for the heavier weight.

        Good luck with the K-30! Being newer, it does have a newer processing engine than the K-5. Like I said, it was a great camera and I was very happy with it until it sadly went south on me. Fun fact, if you do encounter the aperture control issue, you can still use the aperture ring and green button metering in Av mode with your F/FA lenses. Since I had more Pentax DA glass, I was more negatively impacted by the problem.

        If you like, you can see some of my K-30 shots here:
        https://www.lomography.com/homes/therealmrblue/albums/2194098-uw-arboretum-march-2019

      2. Thanks Rob. Yes I know some people favour those larger battery grips. I’m quite small, so the K30 is pretty much the ideal size for a DSLR right out of the box. It still feels gigantic compared with faves like the Pentax Q and Ricoh GRD III, but I appreciate it’s a completely different type of camera.

        That’s good to know about the aperture control issue. I have one DA, the 35/2.4, then one F and one A series, and a handful of M42. So even if it happens, I should be good to continue with all lenses but the DA.

        Thanks for the photos link. The close up of the duck’s head especially is impressive! Really natural colours too, something I struggle with shooting digital.

  4. How richly bizarre…?
    Seems we’re walking down a similar path. I’ve recently been weighing up my options regarding a DSLR as well. Of course I’m looking at NIKON. Strange thing is that I’ve nearly settled on the Nikon version of the K-30. I am about to buy a rather nice D300s. The specs are virtually identical to your choice 😀
    …how ’bout that?!
    Enjoy your new toy, errr… tool/toy 😉

    1. At first I thought this was a strange choice on your part, because mostly I associate you with compact, on the fly street shooter cameras.

      But then I remember you use all kinds of cameras of varying formats so a DSLR would probably be down the lower end of size compared with many!

      No surprise you’re sticking with Nikon! It’s the same theory for me. I considered Canon, Nikon, Sony again, but the head and heart choice has to be Pentax. I’ve had more Pentax cameras that anything else, by a huge margin, and love them. And I don’t want to start another lens system as I already have Pentax K and M42 lenses I can use (the latter with adapter).

      Enjoy your tool/toy too!

      1. Yes, the investment in time and money getting to know a new lens system is just not worth it. I totally concur there mate.

        The main reason for re-look at a dslr body is that I’m looking at doing some street portraits. Yes, the little RICOH will always be my go-to. But the little CCD sensor is too small for what I would like to do. So with the CMOS sensor and the other features of a dslr, I think it’s a better tool for what I want to do.

        We’ll see what I can produce…

      2. I tried a Nikon DSLR in a shop a few weeks back, and straight away I was confused because the lens mounted the “wrong” way, and the aperture ring rotated the “wrong” way too!

        I’m sure you’ll come up with some gems on the streets, looking forward to hearing and seeing more.

  5. I enjoy using a Canon 5D mark I with manual lenses. It has a large viewfinder and I fitted a better focusing screen that helps. The adapters I use mostly have the focus confirmation chip that helps too however the focus confirmation struggles with a Nikon lens so perhaps it’s front or back focusing issue.

    I had a Pentax K10D. Someone on a blog kept banging on about. Sold it due to the smaller viewfinder compared to the 5D. Loved the K10D especially for the sensor stabilisation on manual lenses, and that they are relatively cheap, but had to get rid to downsize my cameras.

    1. Phil, thanks for your comments.

      I think the obvious difference with the 5D is it being full frame. So the VF is much larger than an APS-C DSLR. I only realised recently that the 1.5x crop factor affects the viewfinder too. An APS-C viewfinder that’s 0.9x for example is only 0.9/1.5 = 0.6x equivalent on a 35mm/full frame camera.

      I have considered a 5D a number of times, but the main sticking point, like the K10D, is the bulk and weight.

      I loved the K10D in so many ways it’s the best camera I have ever used. But again the weight and bulk made it unsustainable for me.

      Still, the 5D is such a classic, I really have to try one sometime!

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