Pentax *ist DS SLR Review

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Pentax *ist DS

Steve's Conclusion

The Pentax *ist DS is the little brother of the *ist D we reviewed in 2003. But "little" in this case deals more with price and size; most of the features of the *ist D have been retained in the amateur dSLR-class *ist DS. Adding to its appeal to the less experienced photographer, Pentax included a handful of Scene modes that automate exposure settings for common shooting conditions and subjects.

The first thing that strikes you about the *ist DS is its diminutive (for an SLR) size. Weighing in at just 2 pounds including batteries and DA 18-55mm lens, it is the smallest and lightest dSLR currently available. Pentax reduced its size by switching to an SD memory card versus the CF card of the *ist D, and rearranging the camera's controls. Its small size does not diminish its ergonomic qualities, however; the *ist DS is comfortable to hold and its revamped controls are both logically organized and easy to operate.

Despite its reduced size, Pentax managed to fit the *ist DS with a larger 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 can not be used as a live viewfinder. The LCD was usable even on the sunniest of days, and the menu text was easy to read, thanks to 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 is a bit smaller and less informative than its *ist D counterpart. You'll find the exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, battery condition, flash mode, drive mode, and number of remaining shots on the SD memory card, but you won't find the white balance and image size and quality settings; for the complete status of all exposure settings, you'll need to examine the detailed information available on the LCD monitor by depressing the INFO button. Unlike the *ist D, the LCD data panel can not be illuminated.

The eyelevel 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, shutter speed, aperture, in-focus confirmation, remaining shot capacity of the SD memory card, and a numeric indication of exposure compensation. The display differs from the *ist D, eliminating the exposure compensation bar graph, but adding icons representing the Picture mode in use, and an ISO sensitivity warning that can be activated via a Custom Function. 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 D'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 D'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 D'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 DS 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 reasonable job selecting Normal, Portrait, Landscape and Macro scenes, but I was unable to get it to select Moving Object mode. While the Scene modes of many cameras are completely automatic and offer the photographer no control, the *ist DS 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, appear settable on the camera's menus, but they are ignored in any of the Scene modes.

Advanced users will find exposure modes of Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority, Manual, Bulb and Program. Missing, however, is the "Hyper" program mode of the *ist D, which provides a program-shift function, allowing you to choose 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 DS 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 DS is quite robust for an amateur dSLR; it equaled and in some cases exceeded the responsiveness of the *ist D. From power-on till the first image was captured measured only one second. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused, and 3/10 second including autofocus time for a high-contrast subject. 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 nine shots in three seconds, with subsequent shots at a rate of one every 6/10 second as the camera is processing the contents of the buffer. It required ~7 seconds to write a buffer full of JPEG images to SD card before being ready to capture the next burst. This puts the *ist DS ahead of the *ist D and Canon Digital Rebel both in its burst capture rate and the size/speed of its buffer, trailing the Nikon D70 by only a slight margin. The above times were observed using a fast Delkin 1GB SD memory card, 18-35mm FA lens, flash off, daylight lighting, 3008x2008 JPEG/Fine.

Shooting in RAW mode slows things down a bit. The Continuous burst mode captured 5 images in 1.5 seconds, with subsequent shots at 3 second intervals as buffer contents were processed; it took about 15 seconds to empty a buffer full of RAW images. Again, the capture rate was a bit faster than *istD, but the speed that buffer contents are written to the SD memory card makes it seem much more responsive.

The autofocus system is also quite robust, but it is lacking one important feature found on the *ist D - the ability to explicitly select Continuous Autofocus; the only way to activate Continuous Autofocus is to select Moving Object scene mode and accept the other shooting parameters that it imposes. The autofocus system is 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. Low-light performance is exceptional even without the use of focus-assist lamps, but the *ist DS will fire its internal flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness. Aside from a focusing defect we found on our first test camera, the *ist DS AF system produced consistently sharp images.

The *ist DS provides 18 user-adjustable custom functions to personalize important camera functions and suit individual preferences. Unlike the *ist D, which saved three unique sets of custom functions, the *ist DS has only one set which may be enabled or disabled. 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 DS 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 pleased to find that the *ist DS could capture 335 images before they were exhausted. Expect even longer life from CR-V3 lithium batteries. Up until just recently the only CR-V3 batteries were expensive and one-use type. Luckily now we have a rechargeable CR-V3 alternative that drastically lowers the cost of using these fine batteries. See page four for more info. 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 100 frames from them.

Images are stored on an SD memory card versus the CF card used in the *ist D, contributing to the camera's small size. One of the few gripes I have with the *ist DS is the strength of the card eject mechanism; if you depress and release the SD card too quickly, it will be ejected several feet through the air. Use care when removing the *ist DS media; SD cards have come down in price, but they're not indestructable, nor are your photographs.

The Pentax 18-55mm kit lens produced good results and is well-worth the extra $100 over the body-only price. It provides a useful focal length range of 27.5-84mm in 35mm equivalence, and is well-matched to the *ist DS image sensor, showing no signs of vignetting at any focal length. 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.

Using the *ist D's default settings yield what I would call neutral color and saturation and lower than average contrast. I expect that most users will opt to boost the saturation to obtain images with the more colorful look of consumer digicams. The in-camera sharpening is very low on the "normal" setting and only just a little bit sharper when the "hard" setting is used. For my tastes I ended up using a good amount of Photoshop's USM (unsharp mask) to my final images to get the look I was used to from my Nikon D100. I imagine that Pentax has kept the in-camera sharpening low to help reduce the apparent image noise, especially in the lower contrast shadow areas. The image noise was practically non-existant at ISO 200, at ISO 400 it's still very clean, at ISO 800 shadow noise becomes noticeable, I would only use ISO 1600 or 3200 in a pinch where either a tripod couldn't be used or the subject wasn't stationary. While noise is present at the higher ISO settings, the *ist DS compares favorably in this respect with the high-end prosumer digicams that overlap its price range. The best possible images will be obtained by shooting in RAW mode and then post-capture processed with the included Photo LAB software. With RAW images you have much greater control over exposure, color saturation, sharpness and contrast. The *ist DS's RAW images are not compressed so they consume about 11MB of space per image.

We liked the *ist D when we reviewed it in late-2003, although it was a bit pricey at its then MSRP of $1699. The *ist DS at its $999 MSRP including kit lens is a terrific value, retaining the excellent image quality and nearly all the features of the *ist D while improving on its shooting performance; users of Pentax film SLR's now have a more compelling reason to make the switch to digital. The *ist DS is a worthy competitor in the amateur dSLR class, and also competes favorably with high-end prosumer digicams, having the shooting performance and high-ISO image quality of a dSLR, while providing automatic scene modes that allow the photographer some control of the exposures. Pentax has produced an excellent consumer dSLR, and should sell a lot of them.

Pentax Japan Releases *ist DS Firmware v2.00

12/1/2005: Pentax Japan has made the *ist DS firmware v2.00 update available for download. The following functions have been added:

  • AF mode has been added to the [Rec. Mode] in the Menu and the AF mode.
  • Auto Sensitivity has been added in the sensitivity mode
  • AE-L button on M has been added in the Custom menu.
  • The effect of Digital soft filters can be set for: weak, middle or strong
  • Dutch and Swedish languages have been added
  • The sample picture will be displayed in the LCD monitor when select picture modes
  • Items that are not able to be set by the menu will be grayed out.

4/15/2005: Pentax has released *ist DS firmware v1.02 which now adds support for SD cards over 1GB.

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