When talking about Pentax Digital SLRs most people can remember the full frame model that was announced a long time ago then canceled due to production difficulties. Not unreasonably, many Pentax fans have been worried that the same fate might befall the latest Digital SLR from Pentax, the *ist D. Thankfully the *ist D is alive and well and we have been putting one through its paces to bring you this review.
Pentax *ist D specification
- 6.1 Megapixel CCD
- 3008x2008 pixel image
- Pentax KAF mount
- ISO 200 to 1600 (3200 as custom function)
- ±3.0EV exposure compensation (in 0.5EV steps)
- 2.6fps for up to 6 frames
- Shutter speeds of 1/4000sec to 30sec
- Three JPG modes, TIFF and RAW
- CompactFlash cards Type I and Type II
- 1.8 inch TFT
- USB 1.1
- PAL / NTSC video output
- Takes four AA sized batteries or 2 CR-V3 batteries
- Weight: 550g
- Dimensions: 129x94.5x60mm
Pentax *ist D handling
The first thing you're likely to do after switching a new camera on is have a peer through the viewfinder and the *ist D instantly impresses. Not only is the viewfinder display larger than average, it is also very bright and clear. It is a Pentaprism viewfinder with a Natural-Bright-Matte focusing screen, the field of view is 95%. Diopter adjustment is changeable between -1.0m-1 and +2.0m-1. The markings on the screen (shown right) are easy to see and a red light becomes visible to show the various active focusing points. Comparing the *ist D and Fujifilm S2 Pro viewfinders, the *ist D is larger, brighter and clearer though neither are as large or bright as the Pentax MZ-S film SLR which the first Digital SLR from Pentax was going to be based upon.
The autofocusing with the bundled 18-35mm lens is quiet, fast and quite confidence inspiring. In lower light it is slower, but still doesn't do any mindless seeking, instead pausing for up to a second while it works itself out then locks on. In terms of focusing speed the *ist D compares favorably with the high-spec Pentax MZ-S, in fact it is possibly slightly faster, though we don't have the equipment to properly measure this. A convenient feature of the *ist D is the autofocus button on the back of the body, enabling you to focus without risking accidentally shooting and missing a subsequent important shot.
To the front of the body are two buttons, one for manually setting the white balance presets and the other for switching between focusing modes. The three focusing modes available are Manual, Single autofocus and continuous autofocus. Also on the front of the body is the X-sync terminal.
The *ist D mount is compatible with Pentax KAF-, KAF2- and KA-mount lenses. K and M series lenses can be used but the lens has to be set to maximum aperture, a custom function has to be set and the camera can only be used in metered manual mode. The lens can be set at other apertures if you use an extension tube. S-mount and 67/645 lenses are also usable with adapters but again with the same restrictions. This could well be the deciding factor for many photographers who have built up a collection of Pentax lenses.
Working clockwise from the viewfinder the controls are:
- AE Lock Button / Protect button
- Exposure Compensation button
- AV Dial, 9 Screen Display / Zoom Display dial
- AF button
- Focus point switch
- Four-way controller and OK button
- Playback button
- Info button
- Delete button
- Menu button
- Multiple Exposure / Auto Bracket button / DPOF button
The control layout is reasonably simple and is easy to get used to. There are logical colour codings for secondary (in blue) and primary (in white) functions, also the settings most suited for beginners are highlighted in green.
On top of the camera the layout is also very simple with the mode dial to the left allowing access to ISO, image quality and white balance settings. It can also be used to change between the various priority and manual modes. The depth of field preview on the *ist D is conveniently incorporated into the power switch.
On the right hand side of the body near the top, are two jog dials, one at the front under the shutter release and one opposite on the back. These two jog dials perform independantly with their function determined by what you are doing with the camera at any one time. For example, flick the mode dial to P and the front jog dial controls the shutter speed and the back dial controls the aperture. Turn the mode dial to the image quality setting and the front dial lets you select the type of image recorded (Three levels of JPG, RAW or TIFF) and the back dial lets you choose between the sizes small, medium and large.
An annoying problem we found was that some memory cards can be hard to remove from the card slot. This is caused by the subtly different dimensions of manufacturers CompactFlash cards. The problem is worsened by the fact that the *ist D card slot cover doesn't open wide enough to get your fingers into properly. The quickest way we found to get some out was to forget using fingers and just turn the camera so that gravity and a shake did the work. This wouldn't be a very good solution if you're using a Microdrive though!
Pentax *ist D menu system
In the same way as some Canon Digital SLRs, the *ist D main menu is scrollable rather than in tabs. Using the four way navigator works well and the menu options available are comprehensive and quick to change. A very minor niggle is that it is sometimes possible to accidentally press the OK button whilst navigating the menu causing the menu to exit.
||Switching between images in playback mode is fast as is zooming in and scrolling the images. A single press of the info button brings up a histogram for the selected image and another press shows various information about the settings used.
||The main menu is composed of three pages and is sensibly laid out with the most commonly used functions sorted to the top. The various options you can change are shown in the animated GIF to the left.
||The custom function menu is one of the best we have seen. It has a good range of settings and each one is explained at the bottom of the screen. Not only that but you can set up to three different custom function presets for different shooting styles. The various options are shown in the animated GIF.
Pentax *ist D modes and features
The RAW mode on the *ist D does not offer compressed RAW files, with them taking up around thirteen megabytes each on your memory card. Unfortunately Pentax haven't provided us with the software necessary to view and edit these RAW files so we will be updating this review when we receive it.
The continuous mode lets you take six photos at around 2.6fps, then when the buffer is full you can take around three more pictures with a gap of approximately a second between shots. The camera takes approximately twenty seconds to write all these images to the card.
Pentax *ist D battery-life
Pentax's own approximate battery life figures are an excellent 1000 frames using CR-V3 batteries, 450 frames using Ni-MH batteries and 110 frames using Alkaline batteries. These figures seem in line with the kind of performance we got from the *ist D during testing. Whilst CR-V3 batteries aren't cheap they provide an excellent backup power option and there are few digital SLRs that offer compatibility with them.
Pentax *ist D image quality
Overall the Pentax *ist D offers a level of image quality similar to other six megapixel digital SLRs available, which is good considering this is Pentax's first production Digital SLR to reach the market. We received the camera with the kit 18-35mm lens and used a 24-90mm we had in the office too. The 18-35mm provides a useful wide-angle and for around £100 extra over the body-only price is not bad value. In comparison to the 24-90mm it is slightly softer at 24mm but does provide that 6mm more wide-angle coverage. One advantage it has over most other wide-angle lenses is it is very lightweight making the combination of this lens and the *ist D a good travel companion.
By default, the images produced by the *ist D seem on the softer side, no doubt due largely to conservative sharpening performed in-camera. There is a menu setting to alter this though and you can increase the sharpness slightly, or even decrease it!
During our testing of the *ist D we found the auto white balance was not always reliable but custom white-balance settings can be easily set. Also on default settings images seem to have lower contrast and colour saturation than average. Thankfully there are settings in the menu to alter the contrast and saturation levels if the default ones are not to your taste. On the positive side, at the lowest ISO of 200 the noise levels are barely noticeable and are good up to ISO800. From ISO1600 quality detoriates, but some people may find it usable, ISO3200 which is only selectable through the custom functions has very poor noise levels.
Please Note: We will add more images to this section as soon as possible.
The *ist D is a very good first offering from Pentax and should silence a lot of their critics. It provides excellent handling, one of the smallest and lightest bodies, good image quality and features at a reasonably competitive price. Each of the digital SLRs in the market today have their own individual strengths and weaknesses and Pentax have done a great job with what is really their first ever digital SLR. Although there are cheaper digital SLRs available, the *ist D offers some unique benefits and if they appeal to you, there is no reason you cannot buy it with confidence.
Although the recommended retail price of £1400 may seem high, we expect street prices to be similar, if not more competitive than the other six megapixel digital SLRs such as the Canon 10D and Fujifilm S2 Pro.
In summary the main positive points of the Pentax *ist D are:
Lightweight and compact body
High image quality
Low image noise levels
Good handling and control layout
Excellent battery-life and power options
Comprehensive menus and settings
Large and bright viewfinder
Negative points are:
RAW files aren't compressed
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CompactFlash slot is fiddly
Write speed to CompactFlash average
Number of shots in Continuous mode average
Low contrast and low saturation images with default settings
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