Our other sites: | Pen Computing | Digital Camera Roundup | Rugged PC Review | Handheld Computing | Scuba Diver Info | BBW | More Features



Pentax *ist DS

The Pentax 6.1-megapixel *istDS is a ćfeel goodä camera. It feels good when you pick it up, feels good when you hold it to your eye, and feels even better when you realize you paid less than $900 for it with a 18-55mm (27-83mm equivalent) lens included. The controls are where they should be and the viewfinder is one of the biggest and brightest of all. Itās a vast improvement over its predecessor, the *istD, which took great pictures but had some ergonomic quirks that could drive you mad.

Thatās all been corrected in the DS, beginning with a reduction of the super abundance of confusing knobs and dials that seemed to get in the way of each other on the D and sometimes refused to take orders. Secure Digital memory has replaced Compact Flash cards (which frequently needed to be tweezered out of the D), and the DS now has a larger, two-inch LCD monitor that displays sharper, brighter images. Size and weight have also been reduced though thereās been no compromise in ruggednessö it still has a strong, stainless steel chassis.

OK, so the DS didnāt join the escalating resolution battle but remember, higher resolutions create larger file sizes which translate into less storage capacity on your memory card and more time spent manipulating those big elephants in your imaging program. Pentax also chose to stick with AA batteries as a power source, a feature that also bucks the current trend. But with rechargeable LiIon CR-V3 batteries now available, youāll easily be able to take well over 500 shots without a problem and you can always power the DS from two disposable CR-V3s or four AA lithiums, NiMHs rechargeables, or in a pinch, even plain-vanilla alkalines. As most of these batteries are available anywhere in the world, youāll never want for power.

In stripping a lot of gee-gaws from the D model, the camera becomes a lean, mean, picture-taking machine (pardon the trite phrase but it really applies). Other than the lens-release button, the front of the camera has only one control switch that sets it to manual or autofocus. But hereās a nice touch: even when you are in autofocus mode, you can still manually fine-tune focus by just turning the focus ring at the front of the lens; you donāt have to waste time hunting for the switch. This feature can save the day if the cameraās auto focus begins to hunt under less-than-perfect conditions which, incidentally, the DS rarely does.

The top deck of the DS has the on-off switch surrounding the shutter release; just flip it from its Off position at 10:00 to On at 12:00 and youāre set to shoot in less than a second. And you can flip it to the spring-loaded 2:00 position any time you want to see your depth-of-field at the current lens aperture. All of this, including releasing the shutter, is a one-finger operation, as is sliding that finger just a bit back to the exposure compensation button. When thatās pressed, you can over or under expose (two full stops either way) by simply twirling the control dial on the back of the camera with your thumb and the values appear under the viewfinder. It can all be done without removing the camera from your eye ÷ clever. Of course you can also check out the settings on the LCD status monitor which, unfortunately, cannot be illuminated.

Moving across to the cameraās top left-hand side, thereās a single control dial with 13 possible selections, one of which has big white letters on a green background that says AUTO PICT. When thatās selected, the DS runs on autopilot and will get you to your visual destination without a hassle; you have essentially told the camera to act as a very sophisticated point-and-shoot. Though you probably wonāt be using this setting much (youāll want to start off in program mode to exercise some minimal control) itās great for handing the camera to a complete novice and telling him or her to take a picture of you and your honey. Or to use when loaning the camera to family or friends who know zilch about photography. On AUTO PICT youād really have to work hard to shoot bad images; in fact, it would be nigh impossible.

Other more-dedicated modes include Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Action, Portraits with night backgrounds, and Flash-off. Unlike other cameras in its class, Pentax has not loaded the DS with a plethora of modes, most of which tend to be confusing and repetitive. Iāve never understood why so many modes are offered when most cameras do quite well capturing most situations with just a few. Well, of course I know why ÷ itās a marketing gimmick. He who offers the most modes, wins. So donāt be surprised to see a nose-picking mode surface some day with the explanation: Keeps the tip of your nose, your finger, and the booger in focus.

More to the point, the DS also has the obligatory modes for serious shooting: Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority, Manual, and Bulb. Among these, youāll be able to exert the creative control necessary to come up with some great pictures. Moving to the back of the camera, thereās a button in the upper left-hand corner that pops the flash up (when you select manual control of flash), and a row of four buttons that run down the left side of the LCD monitor: Menu, Erase, Info, and Picture Review.

The Info button provides a wealth of data when your shot is displayed on the screen. The first button-press overlays a very readable white histogram on a translucent charcoal background so you can see at a glance if youāve properly exposed the image. The second press displays the image in micro-size along with the f-stop and shutter speed, exposure compensation (if any), focus mode, ISO, metering mode, resolution and compression, selected color space, white balance setting, lens focal length, and color saturation, sharpness and contrast settings. In addition, thereās the image file number and date and time. Whew!

Moving to the other side of the LCD monitor, thereās a command dial that lets you select settings after youāve chosen appropriate functions. For example, after choosing Aperture Priority, you use the dial to select the lens opening you want to use. During playback, the dial is used to enlarge images and to display multiple thumbnails. An auto-exposure lock button nestles beside it. Below, is the four-way rocker switch with an OK button that controls menu navigation and picture advance/reverse. Finally, a Function button allows you to access frequently used settings. Press it and the LCD Monitor will light up at the four points of the compass with ISO, White Balance, Flash, and Drive (shooting modes). Use the rocker to highlight one, and a list of choices appear. Itās a quick and easy way to make selections on the fly without having to clutter up the camera with extra buttons or force you to dive deeply through menus.

Are there any down sides to the DS? Very few. As I mentioned previously, Iād have liked to be able to illuminate the status display, when needed. Also, a way to turn off the LCD monitor so that it doesnāt light up like a beacon for almost three seconds every time you switch modes. In low lighting situations, going from Aperture Priority to Manual (or any other mode) causes the screen to glow so brightly, it blows out your night vision. The work-around is to half-press the shutter release button when changing modes which keeps the screen dark. A future firmware version might be able to solve this annoyance more elegantly.

Another minor disappointment is that the DS doesnāt have Program Shift, a rapid alternative to aperture or shutter priority. If youāre not familiar with this function, hereās how it works: When you spin a control dial, aperture and shutter speed combinations change in lockstep, maintaining the correct exposure. So, for example, if your basic exposure is 1/100 sec at f/8 and you want a faster shutter speed, you can quickly choose 1/800 sec and the aperture will follow along to f/2.8 ÷ without using the aperture or shutter priority mode. Finally, you canāt shoot RAW+JPEG but thatās not a deal killer; most photographers usually shoot one or the other unless they have a trust fund that pays for super high-capacity memory cards.

Now we come to the most important evaluation, the DSās image quality. In a word, itās excellent, as the pictures accompanying this review ÷ all recorded on a 1GB Sandisk Extreme III card ÷ will show. Pentax has always stayed away from over-processing images in the camera, though you can certainly set those parameters to suit your preferences. But if you leave sharpness, contrast, and saturation zeroed out, youāll then have plenty of leeway in your imaging program to adjust pictures to your liking. Itās far better to start with a virtually artifact-free neutral (or even soft) image and then fine-tune it precisely to the degree you like in Photoshop. Images shot with the DS respond beautifully to that treatment and some large, breathtakingly beautiful photos rolled out of my Epson 2200 printer with perfect color, contrast, and sharpness.

Pentax has done a great job with the DS, not surprising, since traditionally theyāve been the photo industryās acknowledged SLR innovator. And theyāve been true to their customers, too. At present there are over three dozen Pentax lenses that are fully compatible with the camera and many others also can be used; some with limited functionality, others requiring adapters, but all ÷ even their marvelous, tack-sharp, screw-mount lenses from half a century ago ÷ will couple with the DS to produce superb images.

With its best-in-class viewfinder, strong, compact body, and excellent pricing, this camera is at the top of the 6MP class. In fact it will even stand toe-to-toe with the bigger guys and take some of them to the mat. If youāre looking for a feel-good, take-along DSLR that will deliver exceptional image quality, pick up the *istDS and lift it to your eye. It will be almost impossible to put down.

Whatās Hot:
š Huge improvement over the previous model in every way
š Strong steel chassis
š Extremely simple to operate, yet has full manual controls if you want them

Whatās Not:
š Smallish 2-inch LCD
š Status display not backlit
š Supremely idiotic product name. Whoever came up with ć*istä should be fired.

Pentax *st DS
Very compact digital 6.1 megapixel SLR camera measures 4.9 x 3.6 x 2.6 inches, weighs 18 ounces without battery and uses a 23.5x15.7mm CCD imager. Maximum image size is 2000 x 3008 pixels and images can be saved in RAW or JPEG mode. The camera has a pop-up flash and a shoe. Images are stored on SD cards. Menus are displayed on a 2.0-inch LCD with 210k pixels, viewfinder is a eye-level pentaprism. Computer connectivity is via USB 2.0. The camera uses 4 AA batteries or two CR-V3 Lithiums, shutter speed ranges from 1/4000 to 30 seconds, maximum ISO sensitivity is 3200, and it comes with Pentax Photo browser software. Camera with a 27.5-84mm lens usually sells for US$999.

Entry-level SLR scale rating: 9.1

öArthur Bleich



© 2006 D.C. Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.