Pentax *ist D
Dumb Name / Adequate Camera
This, like many of my equipment reviews is a subjective evaluation based on hands-on experience. I do not detail all of the camera's knobs and menu screen settings. Rather, what I attempt is to provide you with an idea of what a particular piece of equipment is like to use in the field. What works, and what doesn't. In other words — how well it performs its function as a device for taking photographs.
You will find at the bottom of this page links to other reviews of the *ist D. These provide the type of detailed specs-and-knobs reviews that some readers prefer.
Let's do the conclusion first this time. The Pentax *ist D, Pentax's new 6MP digital SLR, is an adequate offering — producing image quality competitive with similarly priced and featured cameras from Nikon, Fuji and Canon.
Is it better in any way? No.
Is it more expensive than the others? Yes. It costs more than the Canon 10D or the Nikon D100, but "no" it's priced less than the Fuji S2 or Olympus E-1. In other words, it runs in the middle of the pack. (I can only assume that with the Nikon D100 now at $1495, the same price as the Canon 10D, the Pentax will have to fall into line shortly.
If that was all there was to the story it would be simple to tell. But regrettably the *ist D disappoints in a number of areas, and though I have been a fan of Pentax cameras for at least 40 years this model fails to live up to expectations.
Pentax *ist D with Pentax 18-35mm Lens @ ISO 400
The name issue needs to be aired first. Few photographic products have ever had a more awkward name. The real problem is that while it looks attractively "graphic" set in type, no one knows how to pronounce it. (Please don't write to tell me that Pentax's explanation is that the asterisk is intended to be a wildcard. I know. But most people still say "starist", or worse yet, "asteriscist". In my book it's still the Dumb-ist name I can remember).
This, by the way, is more than a trivial matter. Many photographers who shoot with multiple cameras (the way I do) name their image file directories with the camera's name. Try doing that with the *ist D. The operating system takes the * as a wildcard. Similarly if you try and do a search about it on the web. Quite annoying.
Pentax makes much of the *ist D's small size. It is indeed the smallest and lightest DSLR on the market as of October, 2003. But, the Canon 300D Rebel is very close. Unfortunately while small size is usually a virtue in a camera, in the case of the *ist D its diminutive size is something of a detriment. While I have small hands I still found the right-hand grip to not have enough depth. This means that ones fingers can't get a good grip, and consequently it feels awkward. Every experienced photographer that I've handed the camera to and asked for impressions has made the same comment, and for anyone with large hands the problem becomes even greater.
The Battery Grip D-BG1 (discussed in greater detail below) brings the camera's size more into line with typically sized 35mm SLRs, but does nothing to improve the grip depth. Ones fingers just have nowhere to go, and consequently the camera doesn't sit comfortably in hand.
The Controls & Build Quality
Build quality is quite good. The fit and finish is a bit below that of the Nikon D100 or Canon 10D but certainly better than the Canon Digital Rebel. There is a stainless steel chassis for rigidity, but the plastic body covering has a crinkle look that I find to be unappealing. I also found the camera's gripable surfaces to be too smooth, which when combined with the lack of finger space on the grip makes for less than secure handling.
Weather sealing appears to be good, with tethered rubber caps on all external ports. But body latches such as that for the battery compartment and CF card seem to be not as securely designed as with some other current cameras.
The controls are a mixed bag. Most are fairly intuitive in use, and an experienced photographer will hardly need to read the manual (unlike with some competitor's design). Newcomers won't find much to trip them up as the camera's layout is very much in the current idiom.
There were a few things that I liked, and a few that I found less than endearing. That there is a separate switch to allow setting focus points from multi, to variable, to single / center is a real plus. This setting can be a fiddly job on some cameras. But I didn't like the fact that ISO, Resolution / Image Quality and White Balance settings are accomplished by turning the top exposure mode dial to separate positions. This is a Nikon oriented design seen on N/80 derived bodies (including the Fuji S2 and Kodak 14N), and I dislike it. It is all too easy to turn the knob off ones preferred exposure setting to change ISO and then forget to turn it back. When you then go to take a shot the camera won't fire until the knob is returned to one's preferred position. This is simply bad ergonomics. A setting dial shouldn't be used to accomplish three or four different types of settings, some of which prevent others from functioning.
Parenthetically, I am a bit surprised that Pentax has committed a number of human factor design faux pas with this camera, because usually I find that they are among the best of the Japanese manufacturers when it comes to ergonomics. Like all digital cameras the *ist D has a modal design. By this I mean that instead of discrete knobs and switches one uses buttons and screen displays to accomplish many settings — with the same control sometimes performing different functions depending on which mode they are in. This is difficult to carry off well, and in this instance using the exposure mode knob to also set ISO and white balance is in my view counterintuitive.
Some I Like
There is a green button on the camera's top panel that serves different functions depending on the camera's shooting mode. One that I particularly like is that it selects the correct exposure settings even if the camera is set to Manual mode. Very nice.
I also like the fact that there is a handy to reach AF button on the rear panel of the camera. This allows you to separate the autofocus function from the shutter release, which is handy in many shooting situations.
Turn-on time is fast. About 1 second. As fast an any DSLR that I'm familiar with.
Exposure metering in matrix mode (which I mainly used during my testing) was exceptional. As good as I've ever seen. Even in difficult back-lit situations such as seen in 33rd Street below the metering was spot on.
Similarly, the multipoint auto-focus proved to be very quick and accurate.
For a reduced frame camera the viewfinder is large and bright, though not in the same league as a film or full-frame digital camera.
While there is no separate mirror lock-up capability, in either the 2 second or 10 second self-timer mode the mirror goes up first and therefore this is functionally equivalent.
There is an extensive set of custom functions, 23 in all, and I was impressed with the design approach that provides three separate combinations that can be chosen at any time. This is a simple way to achieve the settings that you want without having to search through a long list of choices.
Some I Don't
The camera's on-off switch is in the standard Pentax position, on a ring surrounding the shutter release. But there is a control wheel just below it for adjusting shutter speeds. Because of the diminutive size of the camera's grip I frequently found myself turning the camera Off when what I intended to do was change the shutter speed.
This same knob also has a third position in addition to ON and OFF. This spring-loaded position serves two functions. It closes down the lens to shooting aperture for depth of field preview and also illuminates the top panel's LCD display, both at the same time. I can't quite understand why these functions have been married. Also, when the lens' aperture is closed down the viewfinder displays disappear, so you can't tell what the shooting aperture is. Strange and unhelpful.
Navigation of the rear LCD's menus is accomplished with a flat joystick / button. As with most such designs this can be problematic because one isn't sure if one is pressing to one side or the other, or the center detent which is "OK". I also found the means of selecting menu items awkward, since up and down move to the item of choice but then right selects it, rather than the more intuitive OK press.
The camera has a USB 1.1 interface. I can't get too steamed about this because few people transfer files this way. Copying the CF card using a card reader is faster. But, there really isn't any excuse for releasing a product in late 2003 that doesn't have USB 2.0 or Firewire. There is also no way to connect the camera to a computer for remote shooting; something that will limit this camera as a viable choice for studio use. I understand that this will be addressed in a future firmware release.
The camera's battery situation is problematic. Rather that using a proprietary Lithium Ion rechargables battery, as do most of its competitors, the *ist D instead uses two of the new CR-V3 disposable Lithium batteries. The problem with this is that these are expensive, and also difficult to find — even in a big city. B&H list them at $10 each.
You may also use four AA Alkaline batteries. and for photographers who work in remote locations (such as one photographer I know who is currently spending a month in a rural village in India that has no AC power) the use of readily available AA batteries would be a benefit. But regrettably battery life with AAs isn't very good. In fact it's poor. I was able to get about 30 frames from a set of 4 AA batteries with 5 second image review and flash use for just 5 or 6 of the frames. At $2 to $3 for four AA Alkaline batteries (or more in some places) this is not an economic or practical alternative.
Pentax does advise in their manual that the use of rechargables AA Nickel Metal Hydride batteries is preferable, but then this becomes something extra that one has to buy and in the end offers no advantages over having a dedicated (and provided) rechargables battery, since it to means having to carry a charger along on location and on trips. Overall I'd note the *ist D's battery solution as an area of concern.
Pentax *ist D with Pentax 18-35mm Lens @ ISO 400
Battery Grip D-BG1
This grip is virtually a necessity because of the *ist D's small size. With the grip the camera is much more "handleable", though it doesn't do anything to solve the problem of not having enough finger room. In addition to additional battery power it also provides a vertical release, aperture and shutter speed dials and A/E lock button.
There are, as I experienced it, two major flaws with the Pentax *ist D. The first is with the Compact Flash compartment. Because of the camera's diminutive size it is virtually impossible to get the CF card out of its slot without a struggle — even for someone with small fingers. The swing-away hatch cover doesn't open far enough, and the battery compartment is located too close (so close that there isn't even room for a dividing wall between them). This means that every time a card is ejected one has to struggle to remove it, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the door itself broken off when someone with large fingers tries a bit too hard to reach an intransigent card. Knocking the edge of the camera against one's palm to dislodge the card works, but then the risk is that the card will fall on the floor, in the mud, or worse. Simply a bad design. Pentax should be embarrassed!
The second major design flaw is that there is no histogram display possible during post-exposure image review. There is one available on subsequent image playback, but not right after taking the shot. Since the availability of a histogram is one of the great advantages of working digitally I regard this oversight as a very significant one. It is difficult for me to imagine using a digital camera without having a histogram display available after the shot is taken. This removes one of digital's great advantages, and I would go so far as to say that it cripples a photographer's ability to ensure that highlights aren't blown out.
Speaking of which, the camera also does not have a flashing overexposure warning on any image review screen. This too is a must-have, and I am really surprised to see Pentax overlook this. Without these two "standard" digital exposure features *ist D owners will find themselves seriously handicapped.
One can only hope that an upcoming firmware upgrade will correct these oversights. I was disconcerted not to see any mention in the manual or on the camera's menus of how to perform a firmware upgrade though I have to assume that it will be possible.
Pentax Photo Browser and Photo Laboratory
The camera ships with two programs; Pentax Photo Browser and Pentax Photo Laboratory. Again, both are adequate, though neither does a sterling job. The browser is a simple program for looking at thumbnails. Photo Laboratory is a RAW file converter. Both are basic, and neither provides much in the way of extra functionality. Indeed both are clearly what they appear to be — first versions of what one can only hope will be a more comprehensive and robust offering down the road.
The two programs barely communicate with each other. If a RAW file is viewed in the browser and Photo Laboratory is open, the file selected will be loaded into the converter. That appears to be the extent of the communication between them. Photo Laboratory can only display RAW files in one small size. If you want to see an enlarged view you'll need to have the browser open beside it and move back and forth between them. But, when you enlarge a thumbnail by double clicking on it, to view the next frame you need to close that window, return to the browser and choose the next frame. Not very conducive to efficient workflow.
The image controls on Photo Laboratory are adequate but not as comprehensive as one could wish. I hope that Pentax cooperates with both Adobe and Phase One so that *ist D owners have access to both Photoshop's Camera RAW and Phase One's Capture One raw conversion capabilities as soon as possible.
One final gripe about Photo Laboratory is that the files exported are set at 72 DPI. Their size at this resolution is roughly 24" X 30". Who would need a file with these settings and for what purpose is beyond me. Though not a big deal because the resolution / size can be reset later within Photoshop, it does show that someone wasn't paying enough attention to the true needs of the user, since there is no way to change this within Photo Laboratory itself. In fact none of Photo Laboratory's settings are remembered between sessions.
Finally, there is a slider titled Sharpness with settings from -3 to +3, and it's default setting is +2. Again, there is no way to customize this, and if like me you prefer to do all of your sharpening in Photoshop you will find it a nuisance to have to remember to set this properly each time the program is run.
The *ist D uses the same 6MP chip from Sony as does the Nikon D100. It therefore isn't surprising the image quality is quite comparable between the two. This places the *ist D in the middle of the pack. The Fuji S2 Pro and Canon 10D (also the Canon 300D Rebel) both offer somewhat superior image quality in my opinion.
I was curious to see how the camera performed at high ISO settings. The highest speed normally available is ISO 1600, but through a custom function ISO 3200 is also available. The frame below was taken in a dimly lit bar (an escape from the rigors of Photo East Expo in New York), and shows both full frame and 100% magnification.
Pentax *ist D with Pentax 18-35mm Lens @ ISO 3200
1/20th second @ f/5.6. 18mm.
I find Pentax image quality at this speed to be acceptable, but not quite in the same league as Canon's 10D's CMOS imaging chip. At ISO 200 — 800 there is little to fault and much to like about the Pentax's image quality. It only starts to fall behind Canon at ISO 800 and above.
What concerned me is that as with several cameras that use Sony chips the lowest ISO available on the Pentax is ISO 200. Image quality issues aside, not having a lower setting than 200 can present problems in bright light where the ability to set wide apertures for creative purposes is consequently hampered.
ISO 3200 crop at 100%
The *ist D is sold as body only or as a kit with lens. For the purchaser who does not have an existing Pentax lens inventory likely the most popular choice will be as a kit with the Pentax SMC P-FA J 18-35mm F4.0-5.6 AL. I was very pleased with the image quality at all focal lengths and apertures. Though I didn't bother to run any rigorous comparisons some extensive use showed it to be a very competent consumer grade optic. I was especially pleased to note that it ships with a lens shade, and that Pentax's unique removable cover that allows reaching though the shade and rotating an attached polarizer was included in the design.
The Sharpening Issue
In late October as this is being written, and during the few weeks that the *ist D has been on the market, there has been discussion on some Net discussion forums about the camera's images being "soft". Nonsense. Pentax has wisely avoided oversharpening images in the camera. When properly sharpened they leave nothing to be desired. Once again beginners and the uninformed are confusing resolution with sharpening.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but as stated in this review's subtitle at the top of the page, I found the Pentax *ist D to be an "adequate" camera. Is this damning with faint praise? Yes, I suppose it is. But much as I wanted to like the *ist D I found it hard to find any aspect of its features or performance that made it stand out from the crowd in any positive way — and a few that did the opposite.
No product can be perfect. Things that are designed and made by human beings will inevitably have flaws. But ultimately a product is judged by the sum of these Vs. its goodness for its intended purpose. While in my experience Pentax has a history of producing well designed and built cameras and lenses (In recent years I have owned and used the Pentax 67II and 645Nii, and admired them), with the *ist D they have only hit a base run — at best. There are simply too many inherent design issues for me to give it an endorsement, and yet not enough flaws for me to warn too strongly against it. As I first wrote —it's just adequate.
Who is it For?
This of course raises the question — who, if anyone, should buy a Pentax *ist D? If you already own 35mm lenses in any other mount than I can't recommend the Pentax. Nikon and Canon mount lens owners coming from 35mm film will of course want to purchase a digital SLR that will utilize their existing lens inventory. If one has no current vested interest in a lens mount, and have the whole field of current DSLRs to choose from, then you have several choices available at a range of price points that offer better value for the money than the Pentax.
But, if you currently own Pentax mount lenses that are compatible with the *ist D (KAF2, KF and KA; or K, S or 645/67 mounts with adaptors and limited functionality), then this may well be the only game in town.
Hopefully Pentax's next effort in the DSLR arena will hit a double or even home run. This time though it's just a base hit.
If you want to read about and see photographs of all of the Pentax *ist D's knobs and levers, and learn about what they each do, I can recommend the reviews at Megapixel.net and at DPReview. Pentax USA's *ist D page is found here.
No one likes it when a purchase decision that they have made is drawn into question. We spend out hard-earned money on something that we believe (or hope) will serve our needs and the last thing we want is buyer's remorse brought on by the jibes of some know-it-all reviewer.
Such has unfortunately been the case for some people with the above review. Since its publication a number of *ist D owners have written and also posted their ire on various Net discussion boards, calling me "infantile", accusing me of being a shill for Canon, or calling into question my credentials. So be it. This kind of flack comes with the territory, and after some decades as a photographic educator and product reviewer I've developed a thick skin.
But, the point needs to be made that wishing something to be otherwise doesn't make it so. The *ist D has some problems, and they are real. The extent to which they will be issues for any one photographer is open to debate, but that there are enough of them to cause concern, isn't.
The camera marketplace, especially the DSLR arena, is unforgiving. There is strong competition in every aspect, from price, to features, to build quality, to lenses and accessories. Miss the mark on any one of these and sales will suffer, and sales is the name of the game.
Regrettably Pentax has missed the mark with the *ist D. They can lower the price to make it more completive. They can include rechargeable AA batteries and a charger, as I now understand they are (early Nov, '03), but they can't ignore the two serious flaws that I've pointed out — a highly problematic card compartment and the lack of a histogram and highlight alert in post-exposure review mode.
The latter can probably be fixed with a firmware upgrade. The CF card eject problem likely needs a body redesign. When these have been addressed Pentax will have a competent camera, that if priced competitively will be a solid offering. In the meantime no amount of name calling or wishing it weren't so will change the fact that these problems exist, and for some will make the difference when it comes to making a purchase decision.
field review of the Pentax *ist D will be featured in
Issue #9 of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal
due for publication in December, 2003