Pentax *ist DS2 SLR Review
The Pentax *ist DS2 is the 2005 replacement of the *ist DS we tested in 2004. The most visible upgrade is its 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor, an increase in area of more than 33%. The *ist DS2 retains the features of its predecessor, including those recently made available in Version 2.00 of *ist DS firmware. The *ist DS2 is now positioned at the top of the Pentax dSLR line, the recently-announced *ist DL occupying the entry-level space.
The first thing that strikes you about the *ist DS2 is its diminutive (for an SLR) size, identical to its *ist DS predecessor. It weighs-in at just 2 pounds including batteries, SD memory card, strap and DA 18-55mm lens, but it is not lightest dSLR currently available; both the recently-tested Olympus Evolt E-500 and the *ist DL are marginally lighter. Its small size does not diminish its ergonomic qualities, however; the *ist DS2 is comfortable to hold and its controls are both logically organized and easy to operate.
While retaining the same body size, Pentax managed to fit the *ist DS2 with a larger 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor. Like other dSLR's the LCD is used to review images, display image capture parameters and navigate the camera's menu system; it cannot be used as a live viewfinder. The LCD was usable even on the sunniest of days, and the menu text was even easier to read, thanks to the larger text, the LCD's brightness and contrast, and the colors chosen for the menu display. Review mode was very useful for field-checking images, offering a histogram, a display of shooting parameters, and the ability to zoom-in up to 12x magnification to critically examine the image.
The top-mounted monochrome data LCD panel presents a continuous display of exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, battery condition, flash mode, white balance, bracketing indication, exposure compensation, drive mode, focus point information and number of remaining shots on the SD memory card. The information presented on the monochrome LCD is nearly complete, but you'll find it difficult to use in dim lighting because no illumination is provided. More information is available on the color LCD by depressing the INFO button; in addition to reproducing the Monochrome LCD's information, you'll find image size and quality, contrast, sharpness and saturation settings, AF mode, selected AF point, color mode, ISO, date and time.
The eye level viewfinder is bright and informative. It can be easily used by those wearing glasses thanks to a nice rubber eyecup and diopter adjustment. Outside the image area you'll find information vital to the exposure, including flash status, Picture mode, shutter speed, aperture, focus indicator, EV compensation, remaining shot capacity of the SD memory card, Manual WB indicator, MF indicator, AE lock indicator and ISO sensitivity warning. Because it displays complete exposure information, you'll be able to make adjustments while keeping your eye at the viewfinder, ready to release the shutter at the right moment.
Despite the effectiveness of the *ist DS2's 11-point autofocus system, there will still be times that you'll want to use manual focus; the viewfinder's focusing screen provides a matte surface that you'll find very usable for this purpose. While using manual focus, the *ist DS2's autofocus system is not entirely disabled; it monitors your focusing adjustments and provides both visual and audible feedback when it is in agreement with your focus setting. I found the *ist DS2's viewfinder a pleasure to use, and I think you will too.
Novice users will find a choice of six Scene modes that optimize the exposure for Normal, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object and Night Portrait shots. If that's not simple enough, the *ist DS2 has AUTO PICT mode, which automatically selects one of the Scene modes based on image composition and focus distance; an icon representing the selected Scene mode is displayed in the viewfinder. AUTO PICT did a good job selecting Normal, Portrait, Landscape and Macro scenes, but Moving Object mode was difficult, requiring a subject with a rapidly-changing focus distance. While the Scene modes of many cameras are completely automatic and offer the photographer no control, the *ist DS2 allows some flexibility; you can set exposure compensation, ISO, and Metering method (multi-segment, center-weighted or spot), and use exposure bracketing in its Scene modes. Other parameters, such as White Balance, Sharpness, Image Tone, Saturation and Contrast, are grayed-out in the menu system, indicating that they are unavailable in that mode.
Advanced users will find exposure modes of Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority, Manual, Bulb and Program. Missing, however, is a program-shift function that would allow the choice of different combinations of aperture and shutter-speed for the same exposure. Creative control of exposure can still be exercised, but you'll need to use Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority or Manual mode to do it. The *ist DS2 provides some help in Manual mode in the form of the AE-L button; depress it and the camera will set an initial combination of aperture and shutter-speed for an appropriate exposure; you can then adjust shutter-speed and aperture for the desired effect while monitoring the viewfinder's EV difference for proper exposure. This feature makes Manual mode less intimidating, and helps intermediate users improve their skills.
The shooting performance of the *ist DS2 is essentially equal to that of its *ist DS predecessor. From power-on till the first image was captured measured only one second, as did waking it from sleep mode. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused, and between 2/10 and 8/10 second including autofocus time for a high-contrast subject, depending on the degree of focus change. Shot-to-shot delay averaged about 1/2 second without flash; the internal flash recycle time extended shot-shot delay to between 1.3 and 4.2 seconds, depending on subject distance. Continuous Shooting mode captured eight shots at the 2.8fps claimed by Pentax, with subsequent shots at 6/10 second intervals as the camera is processing the contents of the buffer. It required ~6 seconds to write a buffer full of JPEG images to SD card before being ready to capture the next burst. The above times were observed using a Lexar 32x 1GB SD memory card, 18-55mm and 50-200mm kit lenses, flash off, daylight lighting, 3008x2008 JPEG/Fine.
Shooting in RAW mode slows things down a bit. The Continuous burst mode captured 5 images at 2.8fps, with subsequent shots at 3 second intervals as buffer contents were processed; it took about 14 seconds to empty a buffer full of RAW images.
The autofocus system is accurate and flexible, with available settings that allow the camera to select the optimum focus point from the 11 available (Auto), use the center AF point, or allow the photographer select one of the 11 AF points using the 4-way controller. The *ist DS2 menu system allows the explicit selection Continuous Autofocus mode, a control that was absent on the *ist DS. Low-light AF performance is exceptional even without the use of focus-assist lamps, but the *ist DS2 will fire its internal flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness.
The *ist DS2 provides 19 user-adjustable custom functions to personalize important camera functions and suit individual preferences, one more than the *ist DS. The new function allows you to select how exposure settings are adjusted in Manual mode when the AE-L button is depressed: use the program line, adjust shutter speed, or adjust aperture. The *ist DS2 custom functions are enabled or disabled as a set. You can set EV step magnitude (1/2 or 1/3 EV), Noise reduction (Off or On for long exposures), Automatic Sensitivity Correction, ISO Sensitivity Warning, linkage of AF and AE points, exposure meter operating time, and color space (sRGB or Adobe RGB), among others. The *ist DS2's Custom Functions are quite useful and I was glad to find that Pentax chose to retain this feature on its amateur dSLR.
The camera can be powered by AA or CR-V3 type batteries so the user is free to choose from a wide variety of power sources. We used a set of 2500mAh rechargeable NiMH AA batteries in our testing, and were surprised that the *ist DS2 could capture only about 200 images before their depletion; the predecessor *ist DS managed to capture more than 300. Much longer life can be expected from one-use CR-V3 type lithium batteries. CR-V3s are rather expensive but are excellent for the occassional user as they have a terrific shelf life. And if you're caught out in the field with dead batteries you can even pop in a set of one-use alkalines, just don't expect more than 50 frames from them.
The Pentax 18-55mm kit lens produced good results and is well-worth its ~$110 street price. It provides a useful focal length range of 27-82mm in 35mm equivalence, and is fairly well-matched to the *ist DS2 image sensor, showing only slight vignetting at full wide angle. There's noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle, and a bit of pin cushioning at telephoto, but chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is essentially absent throughout its zoom and aperture range.
We also tested with the Pentax DA 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ED lens. This telephoto zoom provides a focal length range of 75-300mm in 35mm equivalence. The lens produces a moderate amount of barrel distortion at its 50mm extreme, and moderate amounts of pin cushioning from the middle of its range to its 200mm telephoto extreme. Chromatic aberrations are well-controlled, showing very little purple fringing in high contrast areas. At a street price of under $250, the 50-200 zoom would be a worthy addition to any Pentax *ist DS2 kit.
We were pleasantly surprised half-way through our test with the arrival of the Pentax DA 12-24mm F4.0 ED/AL zoom lens. The *ist DS2 crop factor (or focal length adjustment) is 1.5, meaning that a 100mm lens has an effective focal length of 150mm. While wildlife and sports shooters see this as a benefit, landscape and interior shooters regret the reduction in the field of view of their wide angle lenses. The Pentax 12-24 provides an effective focal length range of 18-36mm, and the wide field of view demanded by many professionals. This is one exceptional piece of glass, with barely noticeable barrel distortion at its 12mm extreme, and no distortion at all at 24mm. I noticed a bit of chromatic aberration wide open at full wide angle, but vignetting was absent. At an MSRP of $799, the Pentax DA 12-24mm F4.0 ED/AL is not inexpensive, but it's one of the best super wide angle zoom lenses on the market.
The *ist DS2's default Image Tone setting of Bright produced well-saturated images right out of the camera. Colors were natural, but a bit soft; most users will prefer a hard sharpness setting, or the application of an image editor's unsharp mask filter. The image noise was practically non-existant at ISO 200, at ISO 400 it's still very clean, and at ISO 800 shadow noise becomes noticeable. At ISO 1600 noise becomes noticeable in highlights, but the images are quite usable. I would use ISO 3200 only if it made the difference between capturing an image or not. While noise is present at the higher ISO settings, the *ist DS2 compares favorably in this respect with the high-end prosumer digicams that overlap its price range.
We liked the *ist DS when we reviewed it in 2004, and thought it was a terrific value at its then MSRP of $999 including kit lens. While we like the *ist DS2, a year has elapsed and Pentax has managed to produce only a larger LCD monitor as an upgraded feature, this while both Canon and Olympus are producing 8-megapixel entry-level dSLR's. At an MSRP of $799 without a lens, the *ist DS2 will appeal primarily to users of Pentax film SLR's seeking to move to digital while preserving their investment in lenses.
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