Don’t get me wrong, Pentax has made some incredible cameras in the past, many of which are still brilliant to this day. One of my favorite SLRs to this day is the KM released in 1975. But technology is advancing, and this “new” camera feels a little out of place, even though it produces great files.
Something Old, Something New, Nothing Blue
The actual body of the Pentax K-3 Mark III Monochrome was released two years prior, back in 2021, as just a regular Pentax K-3 Mark III. It featured a rugged exterior, as we’re used to from Pentax, a fixed LCD screen, dual SD card capability, and a 25-megapixel APS-C sensor. The camera was okay. The image quality was decent, but one thing stood out to me the most: Pentax ergonomics with either the K-3 or the K-1 cameras are just brilliant. They just feel superior to any other DSLR out there. But that is a strong personal preference many will surely disagree with.
Some of the features making a return are the autofocusing system and the viewfinder. The latter is brilliant for an APS-C DSLR. It is large, bright, and clear as long as you’re using bright lenses. Many photographers out there still swear by the optical viewfinders and just cannot imagine using an electronic one, so it does make sense to still give people the option. However, the autofocus making a comeback is a bit of a disappointment.
Pentax cameras have their deserved fanbase. The K-1 Mark II is a great and unique piece of kit, just like the K-3 Mark III. But they are both held back by lackluster autofocus. Nowadays, it is surpassed by even the basic mirrorless cameras, like Canon’s R50, for a fraction of the price, or Fujifilm’s X-T30 II. It is clear Pentax DSLRs aren’t made for fast-paced environments. I often missed simple shots of people walking toward me at a leisurely pace. The fact that most Pentax lenses still focus using a screw drive does not help the case at all. And don’t get me started on the sound these lenses make when focusing.
The one and only new thing in this two-year-old body is the sensor. As the name suggests it is a monochromatic one meaning it can only capture luminance information from the photographed scene. We’ve seen monochrome cameras in the past, and many are familiar with the concept, but not all, so let me sum up the main inner workings and benefits of ditching the color matrix.
Monochrome, Not Monochrom
Leica is by far the most well known when it comes to releasing monochromatic cameras from the original Leica M Monochrom, to the latest M11 Monochrom. It is only a matter of time before we see the newly released Q3 with the same treatment. This camera is Pentax’s first attempt at this niche, and I was a bit surprised it even happened. Had it been a GR III Monochrome, I could have definitely seen the appeal. But I digress. What is a monochrome sensor?
Digital sensors are only capable of detecting luminance information. That’s it. The fact they shoot color is thanks to a matrix of red, green, and blue filters on top of the sensor that block out certain wavelengths. The processor’s job is then to “demosaic” said data and translate it into something our eyes can comprehend. This process does cost the sensor a bit of dynamic range as well as blocks out a bit of light hitting the sensor.
So, what are the benefits of a monochrome sensor? You get multiple. First and foremost, you get better low-light performance. Your camera is able to see more light due to the Bayer matrix not blocking it out, which lets you shoot at higher ISO values with less grain/noise. The next benefit is an increase in captured detail. The pixels are not divided into different-colored sub-pixels so the amount of detail is higher at the same resolution. And third should be the increased dynamic range. It’s not by a huge margin, but the difference is there.
Shooting on a monochrome sensor is different from just converting to black and white in post thanks to all of this. However, you need to take into account the fact that you simply cannot play with the color values afterward in post. If you want the skin tones to pop and the foliage to go darker, you simply need to add a red or yellow filter to your lens prior to taking the shot. And unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time getting questionable results, you can’t ever introduce color into the photo after it’s been taken.
So, Why Would You Want This?
For those of us who shoot most of our work in black and white, I can see a clear appeal. The files will look cleaner and have more detail. The benefits are there. However, there are cameras out there that offer more for less. I like having the option of adjusting individual color levels in post even though the image is black and white. I very much prefer the ability to have color data in the raw image just in case and last but not least the autofocus of the K-3 Mark III was just disappointing. It felt similar to a Canon 250D or a Nikon D3200 which is by no means a compliment.
The lenses I’ve been loaned to try with the camera were the limited edition 35mm f/2.8 macro and the 70mm f/2.4. Both of which focus using the screw drive. The sounds emitted whilst focusing are stuck in the nineties as well as the speed and accuracy. Combine that with the fact that I could not get a sharp image out of these whenever I used any aperture value above or below f/8.
What I Liked
I enjoyed using the camera due to its ergonomics and bright viewfinder. The files imported on my computer were pretty damn good, clean, and full of detail if shot with a decent lens stopped down. The fact it’s still a DSLR made the battery life really nice but that is pretty much where the positives end on my end.
What I Disliked
Not just disliked but felt downright annoyed by when I was out with the camera. The autofocus has missed on many occasions. The speed of the camera as well as just using the whole thing felt like I was transported back at least a decade but without all the nostalgia of seeing the first Avengers movie for the first time in cinema or the fact that life just felt simpler back then. If you haven’t guessed, I’ve had a fair share of issues with the camera. I was looking forward to returning it and picking up a Q3 for review or going back to my Fujis. But once I loaded the files into my Lightroom library I finally saw the potential had I had grown accustomed to the camera. It’d be pretty sweet to be able to use a manual focus screen with some legacy glass behind this sensor.
If You Can’t Afford a Leica
That is the strongest reason I can think of for getting this camera. You get all the benefits of a monochrome sensor without the added cost of a “red dot”. I’m just patiently hoping this was just a test run of the sensor and Ricoh will eventually stick it inside their next GR release. Now that would make much more sense and would even make me consider getting one.
You can purchase the Pentax K-3 Mark III Monochrome here.