Thanks to Fowa, the folks who bring Pentax cameras to Italy, I got a chance to try out the Pentax K3 MkIII monochrome (buy here) for a few weeks. If I were to sum up how I feel about this camera, it would be this: I’m in love.
I’m a fan of black and white photography, both in film and digital. This is the first time I’ve used a digital camera where I felt like the camera is just helping me create my art instead of being a complicated gadget that I had to wrestle with.
The Pentax K3 monochrome
Let’s talk about the Pentax K3 monochrome itself. The Pentax K3 MkIII, the regular color version, has been around for a bit. It’s a superbly made 26 Megapixels Aps-C reflex camera that has received positive feedback from many photographers. The body is sturdy, weatherproof, super user-friendly, and has an amazing viewfinder.
Even though mirrorless cameras are all the rage these days, Pentax has stuck with reflex cameras. If you’re someone who really appreciates optical viewfinders, you’ll really appreciate the high-quality viewfinders on Pentax cameras. I tested the K1 MkII, a full-frame camera, and the K3 mkIII, and I can tell you that even though the K3 has a smaller sensor, it has an excellent viewfinder that doesn’t seem restricted by its size.
Pentax has a great reputation for top-notch construction, and I must say that I have always found Pentax cameras to be very comfortable to use, with a focus on good ergonomics. They seem to fit my hand perfectly, and the buttons always seem to be just where I need them.
The monochrome version of this camera has the same exact body and build quality as the original, but with a slick all-grey look. The folks at Pentax really put in the effort to make the Monochrome body look unique.
In both versions of this camera, you’ll find that you can easily reach the main functions using the customizable buttons and the very well-organized menu system.
The Pentax K3 monochrome Black and White sensor
Now, let’s talk about the sensor in the monochrome version. It’s the same 26 Megapixels sensor as the color version but without the color Bayer filter in front of it. This results in several advantages for black and white photography. The noise in the images is reduced, and you get more natural-looking images without any strange patterns or artifacts.
In a nutshell, without the Bayer filter, the camera can create a clearer, higher-quality image. If you want to learn more, here is a geeky explanation. Feel free to skip, if knowing that monochrome sensors generally produce better photos is enough information for you.
Monochrome sensors vs. Color Sensors
In order to capture color information, digital cameras use a process called demosaicing. This process is necessary because most digital cameras use an image sensor that is inherently monochrome. This means that every pixel in the sensor can only capture the amount of light hitting it, but not its color.
To get around this limitation, camera manufacturers cover the image sensor with an array of tiny color filters in a pattern known as the Bayer pattern, which is named after its inventor, Bryce Bayer of Eastman Kodak. This pattern consists of a 2×2 grid with two green filters, one red filter, and one blue filter. This arrangement is due to the human eye’s sensitivity to green light and provides more resolution for this color.
In a typical Bayer pattern, 50% of the filters are green, 25% are red, and 25% are blue. So when light hits the sensor, each pixel can only capture one of the three primary colors. The missing color information for each pixel is then interpolated from the surrounding pixels during a process called demosaicing. For example, a pixel with a red filter will use the nearby green and blue pixels to calculate its green and blue values.
However, this process isn’t perfect and can result in artifacts, such as moiré patterns or false colors in high-frequency details. The Bayer filter also blocks a significant portion of the incoming light, which reduces the signal-to-noise ratio, a key factor in image quality. This is especially significant in low light conditions where the camera has to amplify the signal, which also amplifies the noise
Pentax K3 monochrome image quality
In terms of image quality, this camera is a real powerhouse. I was blown away by the results whether I was shooting in the studio or out in the world.
The camera performs really well up to 6,400 ISO, and the images have a pleasant grain, similar to a low ISO film, up to 51,200 ISO. And even at the maximum sensitivity of 1.6 million ISO, the images are still quite usable.
I compared the K3 MkIII color with the Monochrome version, and the difference is really noticeable. The images from the Monochrome camera are more naturally sharp and pleasing to the eye.
When I’m testing a camera, I like to see how it handles both regular and tricky situations. It helps me understand what it can do on a day-to-day basis and how far it can be pushed. I was clicking photos at the Vicoforte Mondovi Sanctuary in Italy, and I thought I found the camera’s limit. There was this window with sunlight blazing through, making a strong contrast with the dark church interior. But guess what? The camera took it in stride and nailed the contrast!
Take a look at the JPEG version of the photo. Notice how the dark areas are almost invisible? Now, compare that with the processed RAW file. I managed to bring back the shadows and details without introducing a bunch of noise. Pretty impressive, right? I had the camera set at 400 ISO and used a setting on the meter to preserve the highlights, a nifty feature on the K3 MkIII, available in both color and monochrome.
This image also shows why you might want to pick RAW over JPEG as your go-to file format.
The Pentax K3 MkIII, in both its color and monochrome versions, has this really helpful exposure meter setting. It helps keep the bright areas of your photo (the highlights) from getting too bright. This is especially useful for the monochrome version because it’s harder to fix overexposed highlights without the three color channels. So, whether it’s you or your camera’s meter, make sure the pixels don’t wander too far to the right on the histogram.
Every subject I shot, be it night scenes or fields under a cloudy sky, was beautifully captured by the camera when set to automatic exposure mode. The K3 Monochrome is super user-friendly thanks to its excellent exposure meter.
Pentax K3 monochrome dynamic range
Another thing that wowed me about this camera was its dynamic range, or what we used to call ‘exposure latitude’ back in the film days.
I wanted to see how much dynamic range the camera could handle, especially after noticing how well it handled the dark areas. I photographed a color target on my bookshelf, and the results blew me away.
The camera could easily recover details from an image underexposed by 5 stops. A bit of noise crept in at -7 stops, and at -10 stops the noise was more noticeable but still manageable in a pinch. Basically, you can have parts of your image underexposed by as much as ten stops and still recover some details, achieving a Zone I in the final print. However, you’d want to avoid overexposing with this camera. The upper limit is around 3 stops, maybe a bit less.
Compared to the color version, the difference is stark. The color version has about a stop’s worth of advantage in overexposure, but the Monochrome shines when it comes to underexposure, leaving the color version trailing by at least three stops.
This isn’t surprising since the absence of Bayer filters results in a better signal-to-noise ratio, which is a big reason for creating a dedicated black-and-white camera.
Check out some of these shots I took with the K3 Monochrome.
Mid-tones on the Pentax K3 monochrome
One thing that stands out with the Pentax K3 Monochrome is its handling of mid-tones, or the shades of gray between light and dark. It blends these tones smoothly, and yet each tone is distinct. Even if you lighten up very dark areas during editing, the quality of the mid-tones stays top-notch.
Feel free to check out the gallery below for some photos. There are also some RAW files you can download and play around with!
Editing photos taken with this camera is a breeze, thanks to its high dynamic range. Mostly, you just need to tweak the brightness and darkness levels and sometimes bring out the shadows.
While it’s true you can’t use color filters in editing, you can easily get around this by using filters when you’re shooting, just like you would with film.
It’s common these days to see photos that are heavily edited, so having some limitations can actually be a good thing. This camera encourages photographers to be more thoughtful and creative before taking the shot, rather than fixing everything afterward on a computer screen.
Pentax K3 monochrome conclusion
Pentax really nailed it with this camera. If you’re a fan of black-and-white photography, this camera is a solid investment. The photos it takes are noticeably better than what you’d get from a color camera.
In a world where it feels like every new camera is just a slight variation on the last one, it’s refreshing to see a company try something different and pull it off so well. If you’re looking for a pure black-and-white digital camera, your other option is a Leica, but those aren’t SLRs and they cost about as much as a kidney. So, hats off to Pentax for doing an amazing job!
About the author
Luigi Barbanois an artist, author, and inkjet printing expert based in Italy. He published photographic and technical books. ith more than 20 years of experience in the field of industrial communication and constant professional upgrading, his studio is able to offer/provide clients with a complete range of services necessary in today’s world of image communications. You can see more of Luigi’s work here.