Pentax *ist DL SLR Review

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Pentax *ist DL

Steve's Conclusion

The *ist DL is the entry-level Pentax dSLR for 2006, the little brother of the *ist DS2 we tested in 2005, and the even littler brother of future dSLR products announced by Pentax in February 2006. The *ist DL retains the 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor and firmware features of the *ist DS2, but offers a reduced cost by substituting a pentamirror for the *ist DS2's pentaprism, reducing the number of AF points to 3 from the *ist DS2's 11, and reducing the continuous shooting depth to 5 best quality JPEG or 3 RAW images.

As with its *ist D-series predecessors, the first thing that strikes you about the *ist DL is its diminutive (for an SLR) size. It weighs-in at just under 2 pounds including batteries, SD memory card, strap and DA 18-55mm lens, among the lightest dSLR's currently available. The value of its light weight became clear to me during the recent PMA show; I walked the aisles all day with *ist DL without any soreness in my neck, arm or hand. Its small size does not diminish its ergonomic qualities, however; the *ist DL is comfortable to hold and its controls are both logically organized and easy to operate.

The *ist DL's large 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor was a pleasure to use. 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 very easy 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/time and the focal length of the attached lens.

The eye level viewfinder is bright and informative, although the viewfinder indicators were somewhat difficult to read in bright midday sun. The use of a lower-cost pentamirror versus the *ist DS2's pentaprism did not noticeably diminish the viewfinder's brightness or clarity. 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 DL's 3-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 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. The *ist DL's viewfinder could be improved with brighter viewfinder indicators, but on balance I found the it to be a pleasure to use.

Novice users will find a choice of seven Scene modes that optimize the exposure for Normal, Normal with flash deactivated, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object and Night Portrait shots. If that's not simple enough, the *ist DSL 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. While the Scene modes of many cameras are completely automatic and offer the photographer no control, the *ist DL 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 DL 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.

Pentax reduced the shooting performance of the *ist DL versus the *ist DS2, in keeping with its positioning as an entry-level dSLR. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 1.4 seconds, while waking it from sleep mode took only 1 second. 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 and 3.5 seconds, depending on subject distance. Continuous Shooting mode captured 5 shots at 2.5fps, with subsequent shots at 8/10 second intervals as the camera emptied its full buffer. It required ~5 seconds to write a buffer full of JPEG images to SD card before being ready to capture the next burst at full speed. The above times were observed using a SanDisk Ultra II 2GB SD memory card, 18-55mm kit lens, flash off, continuous AF, daylight lighting, 3008x2008 JPEG/Fine.

Shooting in RAW mode slows things down a bit. The Continuous burst mode captured 3 images at 2.5fps, with subsequent shots at 3.5 second intervals as buffer contents were processed; it took about 10 seconds to empty a buffer full of RAW images.

The autofocus system is accurate, but less flexible than the *ist DS2's 11 AF points. It has available settings that allow the camera to select the optimum focus point from the 3 available (Wide), or use the center AF point. The *ist DL does not provide a viewfinder indication of the focus point chosen. In Continuous shooting mode, the setting of Single or Continuous Autofocus determines whether the *ist DL is in shooting priority or focus priority; Single AF causes the camera to refocus each time the shutter is released, while Continuous AF will allow the shutter to release even if the subject is not in focus. Low-light AF performance is exceptional even without the use of focus-assist lamps, but the *ist DL will fire its internal flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness.

The *ist DL provides 19 user-adjustable custom functions to personalize important camera functions and suit individual preferences. The *ist DL 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 DL's Custom Functions are quite useful and I was glad to find that Pentax chose to retain this feature on its entry-level 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. Using a set of 2500mAh rechargeable NiMH AA batteries, the *ist DL captured more than 300 images before a low battery warning. Much longer life can be expected from one-use CR-V3 type lithium batteries. CR-V3s are rather expensive but are excellent for the occasional 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. Pentax advises against the use of rechargeable CR-V3's. We tried them, and the *ist DL behaved erratically after about 30 shots, returning to normal operation only with the reinstallation of NiMH AA's; take seriously the caution issued by Pentax!

The Pentax 18-55mm kit lens produced good results and is well-worth its ~$100 street price. It provides a useful focal length range of 27-82mm in 35mm equivalence, and is fairly well-matched to the image sensor, showing only slight vignetting at full wide angle with wide apertures. 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 DL kit.

Pentax provided its new DA 10-17mm fisheye to superwide zoom for our test, and we were impressed. It provides a corner-to-corner 180-degree field of view at 10mm (15mm in 35-mm equivalence), enough for some astonishing shots in cramped interiors. Although fisheye distortion is quite noticeable, you can minimize its effects by composing your shots with vertical and horizontal straight lines in the center if the image. I was impressed that the DA 10-17 exhibited no vignetting, even at full wide open aperture. At 17mm, the lens has a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 25.5mm, providing a healthy wide angle field of view with moderate barrel distortion. I did notice some strong purple fringing in high contrast areas, but that's about the only flaw I can point out. At a street price of just under $600, it's not inexpensive - in fact, it's about the same price as the *ist DL with 18-55mm kit lens. While it's not likely that the purchaser of an entry-level dSLR like the *ist DL would acquire such a lens initially, the presence of this high-quality lens in Pentax product line is one of the benefits of investing in the Pextax dSLR system. Please see our Sample Photos for examples of what this marvelous little lens can produce.

The *ist DL'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-existent 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 DL compares favorably in this respect with the high-end prosumer digicams that overlap its price range.

We liked the *ist DS2 when we reviewed it in 2005, but thought it was a bit pricey at an MSRP of $799 without a lens. While the *ist DL offers nearly the same feature set with reduced performance, its $599 MSRP with the 18-55mm kit lens makes it a very good value. With a price point that overlaps well into consumer digicam territory, the *ist DL offers a compelling choice to upgraders, providing dSLR versatility and high ISO image quality in a lightweight and compact package. Point-n-shoot upgraders can make the jump to a dSLR without a steep learning curve thanks to the *ist DL's array of automatic and scene modes, while learning how to use the camera's more advanced shooting modes and features at their own pace. Providing only 6-megapixels of resolution, the *ist DL may suffer in a direct comparison of specifications, but its low price, very good image quality, small size and light weight make it very worthy of consideration.

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