Pentax *ist D SLR Review

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Pentax *ist D

Steve's Conclusion

With the digital SLR camera market now having three distinct categories (Amateur, Enthusiast and Professional), the Pentax *ist D is clearly positioned both in terms of price and performance as an Enthusiast dSLR. The *ist D is the first commercially-available Pentax digital SLR; there was a full-frame dSLR previously announced but Pentax decided not to bring it to market. Inheriting the majority of it camera features as well as the same size and lightweight design from the *ist 35mm SLR, the *ist D will satisfy the needs of its users from novice to professional. And because of its heritage, the *ist D accepts a wide range of PENTAX FA- and F-series Auto Focus lenses.

The first thing that strikes you about the *ist D is its diminutive (for an SLR) size. Weighing in at just 2 pounds including batteries and FA J 18-35mm lens, it doesn't require you to be a body builder to carry it around all day. Despite the small exterior dimensions, its controls are well-placed and logically-organized. The combination of weight and size imparts an aura of quality; the *ist D "feels" solid when you hold and shoot it.

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. The viewfinder accuracy is stated as 95% and my own use has proven this to be true. Outside the image area you'll find information vital to the exposure, including flash status, AF sensor pattern in-use, shutter speed, aperture, in-focus confirmation, remaining shot capacity of the CF memory card, and exposure compensation bar graph. Within the image area you'll find the AF frame with the selected AF sensor point superimposed in red briefly as you half-depress the shutter. 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 useable 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.

The top-mounted monochrome data LCD panel also provides a wealth of information. It indicates the exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, battery condition, flash mode white balance setting, drive mode, image quality, and number of remaining shots on the CF memory card. The LCD can be illuminated for a 10-second period by activating the *ist D's depth-of-field preview switch, allowing it to be used even in darkness. During our testing, I used the monochrome LCD for the initial setup of shooting parameters, and the viewfinder for fine-tuning the exposure settings while taking shots; they complement each other well.

The rear-mounted 1.8-inch color LCD monitor is used for camera setup, displaying image capture parameters, and reviewing captured images. The LCD is backlit with a brightness control, and we found it usable in conditions ranging from darkness to bright sunlight. Review mode is quite useful for field-checking your images, offering both a histogram and the ability to zoom in to 12x magnification and pan across the entire shot. Because this is a true SLR type camera, the color LCD can NOT be used as a live viewfinder.

Beginners will be happy to find the Green Program AE mode, an unintimidating automatic exposure mode that turns an otherwise feature-rich camera into a point-n-shoot; just select the Green bar on the Mode dial, select single or continuous autofocus, compose the shot using the lens zoom ring, and the *ist D will take perfectly-exposed images with no fuss. Although you won't be able to use AE lock, auto bracketing, or EV compensation in this mode, you'll still have your choice of metering (multi(16)-segment, center-weighted or spot) and autofocus point (auto, center, or select any of the 11 points).

But the *ist D will not be purchased for its ease-of-use in automatic exposure mode; its advanced features are what will attract buyers, and those features are many and robust. P, or Hyper Program, Mode needs little explanation on most cameras, but on the *ist D you'll find that there's more flexibility than you'd expect. The "Hyper" in Hyper Program mode allows you to easily modify the shutter-speed/aperture combination chosen by the camera while still maintaining perfect exposure; by turning the Tv dial on the front of the camera you can increase or decrease the shutter speed while the camera compensates with aperture adjustments, or by turning the Av dial on the rear of the camera you can increase or decrease the selected aperture while the camera compensates with shutter speed adjustments. In addition, you can use the *ist D's custom functions to bias the defaults chosen by Hyper Program mode toward higher shutter speed, greater depth-of-field, or best image quality based on the MTF of the attached lens. The *ist D also offers the standard aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes of image capture.

Many intermediate photographers avoid the use of Manual exposure mode because they find it too challenging, but the *ist D offers help in the form of the green button adjacent to the shutter release. By default, depressing the green button in Manual mode causes the camera to set an initial shutter speed and aperture to achieve proper exposure, allowing you to use the Av and Tv dials to modify shutter-speed and aperture while observing the bar graph in the viewfinder for indications of under/over exposure. Optionally, you can use custom function settings to cause the green button to adjust only the shutter-speed or the aperture to achieve proper exposure. The green button will encourage your creativity and help improve your photographic skills by making Manual Exposure mode less intimidating.

The *ist D offers a flexible auto exposure bracketing feature, allowing you to capture 3 consecutive images at different exposures; the first frame is exposed normally, the second frame is underexposed, and the third frame is over exposed. The exposure compensation steps can be set at 1/2EV (bracketing at +/-.5, 1 or 1.5EV), or 1/3EV (bracketing at +/-.3, .7 or 1EV). While I often use exposure bracketing to ensure that at least 1 perfectly exposed image is captured, I found that the *ist D's normal exposure was almost always ideal and that compensation was unnecessary. You'll find exposure bracketing most useful in unusual high-contrast lighting conditions.

The *ist D's shooting performance is quite robust, and is what we expect from a "prosumer" dSLR. 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. Continuous Shooting mode captured five shots in only 1.7 seconds, but required ~14 seconds to write all the images to CF card before being ready to capture the next burst. You can take another picture after approx. one second as the camera is processing the contents of the buffer, and the camera can continue to capture additional frames at approx. one second intervals in this manner. This puts the *ist D behind the Canon 10D and Nikon D100 both in its burst capture rate and the size of its buffer. I compare these three cameras because at this time they sell for about the same price and appeal to the same potential buyers. (The above times were observed using a fast Transcend 45x speed 1GB CF memory card, 18-35mm FA lens, flash off, daylight lighting, 3008x2008 JPEG/Fine)

Shooting in RAW mode slows things down considerably. The Continuous burst mode is still the same rate, approx. 2.7 frames per second, but the maximum depth is only four frames. You'll need to wait about 8-9 seconds before capturing the next frame and it takes about 40 seconds to process the entire buffer. This is with a fast 45x CF card, slower cards will take longer; a two year old SanDisk 512MB CF (the red and blue label) took an agonizing 84 seconds -- it's highly advisable to use the newer technology (24x or faster) memory cards. Remember that you only have to buy these cards once -- so don't be cheap, get a fast one with lots of capacity.

The *ist D's autofocus system is also quite robust, not only in terms of performance but flexibility as well. It provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Single AF and Continuous AF. The autofocus system can be set to allow the camera to select the optimum focus point from the 11 available, or the photographer can pre-define the point to be used. The camera switches to predictive AF mode automatically when a moving subject is detected in continuous autofocus mode, and the new focus point will be superimposed briefly over the image each time it changes as the subject moves. Low-light performance is exceptional even without the use of focus assist lamps, but the *ist D will fire its internal flash or use the focus assist lamp of the external AF-360FGZ flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness.

The *ist D provides a comprehensive set of user-adjustable custom functions, allowing you to preprogram important camera functions to suit your individual preferences and shooting conditions; these functions are set using the color LCD's menu system. You can store and later recall 3 sets of custom functions whose settings include high-speed/depth-of-field/MTF Program Line exposure bias, EV step magnitude (1/2 or 1/3 EV), Noise reduction (off or on for long exposures), Sensitivity Range (ISO200-1600, or 200-3200), linkage of AF and AE points, exposure meter operating time, self-timer delay, and color space (sRGB or Adobe RGB), among others. I found Custom Functions to be a convenient and effective way to setup and recall camera settings for different shooting requirements.

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. The longest battery life is provided by CR-V3 lithium batteries, Pentax claims approx. 1000 frames. The next best alternative is high-capacity NiMH rechargeable AA batteries, a set of 2200mAh cells will provide enough power for approx. 500 frames. 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. CR-V3 batteries offer a longer storage life than other batteries and are also lighter in weight than alkaline or NiMH type.

Image storage is not a problem thanks to the CompactFlash Type II card slot that accepts solid state flash memory cards as well as Microdrives. As I have already stated - buy a large and fast CF card, you'll be glad that you did. My biggest gripe is that the engineers oriented the flash card so that the label faces out rather than in. Most all CF cards have an "edge" on the backside that you can snag with a fingernail to make extracting them fairly easy. The *ist D's CF compartment is small, there isn't enough room to grasp the card and the ejector doesn't push it out very far. So you end up literally shaking the card out of the camera which isn't my prefered way of doing it. Looking at the other reviews out there I see that I am not the only one complaining about this so I hope Pentax is listening and turns it around in future cameras.

The most important thing in any camera review is image quality. 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 image 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 in a pinch where either a tripod couldn't be used or the subject wasn't stationary. At this high ISO there is considerable noise throughout the frame. The best possible images will be obtained by shooting in the camera's RAW mode and then post-capture processing them with the included Photo LAB software. With RAW images you have much greater control over exposure, color saturation, sharpness and contrast. The *ist D's RAW images are not compressed so they consume about 13MB of space per image. The TIFF images are even bigger space hogs and require a little over 17MB per image!

We've been waiting a long time for Pentax's first dSLR, and it has been worth waiting for. The *ist D combines rich features and excellent image quality into a compact and affordable package. While its initial appeal will be to photographers already owning Pentax lenses, it will be a strong competitor in the market for users upgrading from consumer-class digicams. Having another high-quality camera in the Enthusiast dSLR market might make your choice more difficult, but it also increases the level of competition from which we all benefit.

Pentax Releases *ist D Firmware 1.12 Update

Pentax *istD digital cameras with firmware version number 1.00, 1.10 and 1.11 can be updated. To check the version number, turn ON the camera while holding down the Menu button, the version number will appear in the center of the LCD screen. The firmware v1.12 update adds support for media that exceeds 4GB and includes the firmware v1.11 update to support the newly released PENTAX REMOTE Assistant software for Windows and Macintosh to control the *istD digital SLR camera from your PC. And it also includes all the fixes from firmware v1.10 as well.

Download the firmware 1.12 update.

Firmware Update 1.10

Pentax USA has posted a firmware update for the *ist D that:

  • You can use the HyM (hyper manual) function when your lens aperture ring is set to a position other than the "A" position.

  • You can use EV compensation in the M (manual) mode.

  • If you are using the auto bracketing mode and the camera automatically powers down after a period of inactivity, the auto bracketing mode will not be cancelled.
    Note that turning off your camera normally will cancel the auto bracketing mode. This enhancement only applies when the *istD engages its auto-power-off function.

  • The file format and file system of the *istD are compatible with the EXIF 2.21 and the DCF 2.0 standards.
    When you set [Color Space] in the *istD custom function menu to [Adobe RGB], your TIFF and JPEG image file names will change from "IMGPxxxx" to "_IGPxxxx" where "xxxx" is a 4 digit numeral.

For more information on these enhancements and how to use them, click here (PDF document, 12kb).

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Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DP Review's *istD preview's *istD review

ePhotozine's *istD review

DC Resource's *istD review

Imaging Resource's *istD review

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