While many traditional camera manufacturers have been making digital stills cameras for some while now, there have been others have been notable by their absence. Of the big five the photographic world, only one name has been missing from the digital arena: Pentax. Now this great name has joined its old rivals Nikon, Olympus, Canon and Minolta to produce its first-ever digital stills camera.
Pentax are the company that pioneered the the zoom compact, and it is therefore little surprise that their first digital child should sport a very handy 34-108mm lens. In fact the Pentax EI-200 has been purposely designed to look and feel like one a 35mm compact. It is a touch larger, of course, but taking its 3.2x zoom into this is a very small and tidy digital model.
At the back of the camera, the similarities with 35mm cameras change. The large TFT viewing and playback screen is surrounded with buttons. But these are arranged in a way that make the camera pretty simple to use. A display button gives you the chance to always decide when you want the large 2-inch LCD to come to life. A further button switches in the various menu options in each mode - and then there are three buttons along the button that function as soft keys, their function being described on the screen above.
The menu system itself is navigated through using a four-way rocker switch to the left-hand side of the screen. Icons along the top of the screen give you the various subheadings, and as you move the cursor to one of these the full range of options are displayed. You then move to highlight the option you want. You then press the softkey to edit this - and then press exit to get back to the shooting screen. It might seem long-winded - but in fact in reality this is an extremely straightforward system. In fact, the options are so well labelled that the camera's operation if practically intuitive.
The camera uses CompactFlash cartridges, and offers you a choice of TIFF or JPEG recording. If you take the uncompressed route, and use all 1600x1200 pixels, you are only able to get one image on the supplied 8Mb card. Using the highest quality JPEG compression, you can get a more sensible seven images on this card - but if you are willing to sacrifice quality or wishing to avoid large image files then there are five other JPEG options.
This is a camera that really lets you have real control over the exposure of your pictures - much in the same way as you would on a modern SLR. As well as a fully-auto program mode, there are special program settings that optimise shutter speed and aperture for use with portraits, landscapes or action. But this is not the end of it - you also get aperture and shutter priority options as well. These latter two modes will be particularly welcomed by serious photographers - as they allow you to control image movement and depth of field more extensively. In both of these modes both f/stop value and shutter speed are displayed on the screen, and aperture or speed (according to which mode you have chosen) is tweaked to where you want it - without the overall exposure being altered. The camera will allow exposures of up to four seconds - allowing you take full advantage of these modes even in dingy lighting conditions. Three aperture settings are available - which is good for a camera of this type.
Your creative control doesn't stop there. There are three metering modes to choose from, exposure compensation, and three white balance presets. Best of all is the provision of manual focus - which gives you ten different distances to choose from ranging from 10cm to infinity. There is also an interesting time lapse feature, that allows you to take pictures at intervals from 15 seconds apart to 24 hours.
Our biggest gripe with this camera is that it is only going to be of interest to a small proportion of the computer-owning public - basically just those who have bought state-of-the-art models in the last year or so. For a start it only supports USB connectivity - but that is not the end to its fussiness. PC owners must have Windows 98 or later. Mac must be using OS 8.6 or later. Even our iMac needed to be upgraded to fit the requirements - and then we failed to get the camera to connect up successfully by the time the deadline came around. Pentax UK similarly have had problems familiarising themselves with the software - as they, as millions of others, are still using Windows 95. The solution for ourselves and for Pentax UK has been to use a CompactFlash reader with the camera; this brings its charms to a much larger audience, including those without USB, but does increase your initial costs by a further 50.
This is a superb camera - which despite its cable problems offers superb value for money and an excellent range of features. Best of all this is a camera that you immediately feel at home with. We can't wait for more digital cameras to come out of the Pentax stable...
- Excellent layout
- 3x zoom
- Manageable size
- Generous range of manual controls
- Fussy computer requirements
Test by Chris George