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Pentax *ist DL Digital SLR - Digital Camera Review
Review Date: 06/05/2006
Rating: Recommended
Author: Matthew Waller

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Introducti
on: Announced on the 1st of June 2005, the Pentax *ist DL is a 6.1 megapixel digital SLR camera with a 2.5" screen. The pentax DA lens I tested it with is equivalent to 15-55mm on a 35mm camera. The Pentax *ist DL is available from around £375 (£400 with lens kit), this makes it good value for money for a 6 megapixel digital SLR camera. The camera is enclosed in a sturdy body and is available in black. This SLR digital camera does not record video. It is about average size for a digital SLR - the body measures: 125 x 92.5 x 67mm (without protruding parts), and weighs approx. 605g including lens, batteries and media.

Pentax have this to say about the camera:

"The *ist DL is the smallest digital SLR with the largest LCD in its class offered at a very affordable price.  Anyone seeking simplicity of operation and a large LCD monitor will appreciate the *ist DL."

You can find more information on their website.

The Camera: a visual tour: (Photos of the camera taken with the Olympus SP-320)


Front - Camera off, lens off. MF / AF switch on right.


Front view - Pentax kit lens on, infra-red reciever, shutter release.


Back - Pop-up flash button, Menu, Delete, Info, Playback, Optical viewfinder, 2.5" screen, zoom, AE-L, 4-way controller, OK middle button, Function button, SD access light, and SD cover release.


Top: Power button, reset, shutter release. Av, exposure button, LCD display. Optical viewfinder has a diopter corrector.


Left: Remote link, PC/Video USB link, DC in. Strap loop.


Right: SD card slot open. Strap loop.


Bottom - battery compartment, metal tripod mount. (taken with the FZ3)


Side view - kit lens: SMC Pentax DA 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 AL

Size Comparison: Compared to a Pentax 35mm film camera - a medium/compact sized 35mm film camera.


Size comparison.


Size comparison, compared to the Olympus EVOLT E-500.


Size comparison, compared to the Olympus EVOLT E-500.

Specifications / Features:

  • 6.0 million pixel CCD (23.5mm x 15.7mm)
  • 2.5" TFT screen - 210,000 pixels
  • SD memory card compatibility
  • Auto picture mode, scene modes plus shutter and aperture priority modes
  • 1/4000 Shutter speed 
  • High speed 2.8 (fps) consecutive shooting
  • ISO: Auto: 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200
  • Compatible with pentax lenses
  • High-accuracy AF sensors (Single, continuous or manual focusing)
  • High-precision 16 segment multi-pattern metering

Box Contents:

  • Digital Camera
  • Strap
  • USB cable
  • Audio/video cable
  • 2x CR-V3 battery
  • Charger LI-40C
  • Image viewing and manipulation software CDROM
  • Printed Manual

Average box contents - There is no memory card provided with the camera. Some kind of case would be very useful. Tested with SMC Pentax DA 18 - 55mm F3.5 - 5.6 AL Kit lens, equivalent to ~28 - 90mm in 35mm terms.

Battery usage: Battery life seemed good, using (AA rechargable) batteries, I was able to take about 100 pictures before the camera displayed "battery depleted". With higher powered rechargable batteries, battery life should be even better.  The camera can also be used with a mains supply.

Camera Operation and Options

The on/off dial on the right also has the shutter release button and a preview aperture setting.

The top left dial selects the camera mode.  This allows the choice of the following picture taking modes: 
Auto PICT, Bulb, Manual, Aperture priority (Av), Shutter priority (Tv), Program, Scene modes:- Normal, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object, Night Scene Portrait, flash off+normal

Photo mode/menu: The menu button brings up the menu screen(s) as shown below:

Record Mode Menu Custom Settings

Rec. Mode menu (above, left)
Image Tone (bright or natural), Recorded Pixels (6M, 4M, 1.5M), Quality Level (***,**,*), Saturation (-2,-1,0,+1,+2), Sharpness (-2..+2), Contrast (-2..+2), instant review (off,1,3,5 seconds), Auto bracket, AE metering (all, center priority, spot), Focusing area (mult, spot), AF mode (single, continuous), Flash exposure compensation

Custom settings menu (above, right)
Setting, Noise Reduction, exposure setting steps, iso correction in auto, iso sensitivity warning display, link af point and ae, meter operating time, ae-l with af locked, recordable image no, ok button when shooting, ael-button on m exposure, af in remote control, FI with S lens used, using aperture ring, release when charging instant review display, magnification to start zoom playback, man wb measurement, colour space, reset custom function.

Detailed information - photo mode Setup Menu

Detailed information - photo mode (above, left) - shows you current photo settings

Set-up menu (above, right)
Format, Beep, Date adjust, World time, Language, Guide display, brightness level, video out, transfer mode, auto power off, file number, sensor cleaning, reset.

Photo Function menu One of the scene modes

The FUNCTION button brings up the option screen as shown above, left, and give you the following options:

Left: White balance (Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Fluorescent lights - D/N/W, Tungsten, flash, Manual)
Up: Drive (Single frame shooting, Continuous, Self timer: 12, 2 seconds, remote control, remote control 3second delay, Bracket)
Right: ISO (auto, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
Down: Flash mode (auto, manual, autoflash with redeye reduction, manual flash with redeye reduction)

Optical / Electronic Viewfinder:  In common with other digital SLR cameras, there is no electronic viewfinder.  The optical viewfinder is clear and has a range of useful indicators located along the bottom which tell you how fast the shutter speed is and whether it agrees with your manual focus.

Playback (Review) mode/menu:

Playback mode - some of the screens Playback mode - more information

Screen / LCD display in play mode: (shown above, left) The screen resolution with 210,000 pixels is good and pictures look clear on it. The screen is clear and the text and menus are easy to read. The camera can display a review of your picture showing the over-exposed regions.

Playback mode: Playback mode: Scrolling through the photos is quick. Zooming in is very quick and magnifies the image up to 12x. Zooming out shows 9  images at a time as thumbnails. Pressing the down arrow rotates the image 90 degrees. Further photo information (shown above, right) is available by pressing the info button (histogram and then image information). 

Playback mode - function menu Playback mode - more information

Playback function menu (above, left) - Pressing the function button lets you select between slide show, DPOF and filter options.  Filter options include black and white, sepia, soften and slim (which alters the ratio of width to height).  In playback mode, the trashcan button deletes images and the lock button prevents this.  In both cases you need to confirm the action before it happens.

Playback menu (above, right)
Playback display method (images, image + histogram, image + detailed info, last memory)
Bright portion (off, instant review, inst review + playback)
Digital filter (b+w, sepia, soft, slim)
Slideshow (delay: 3, 5, 10, 30 seconds)

Picture Size / Quality: The camera takes the following size pictures:

Mode
Image Size
Number Stored (128meg SD)
RAW
3,008 x 2,008 (6mp)
11
***
3,008 x 2,008 (6mp)
34
2,400 x 1,600 (4mp)
51
1,536 x 1,024 (1.5mp)
106
**
3,008 x 2,008 (6mp)
70
2,400 x 1,600 (4mp)
96
1,536 x 1,024 (1.5mp)
173
*
3,008 x 2,008 (6mp)
117
2,400 x 1,600 (4mp)
161
1,536 x 1,024 (1.5mp)
271

As shown in the table above, higher quality images take a large amount of memory, so a high capacity memory card is definitely recommended.  Having said that, the larges JPG images recorded by this camera were rarely above 3mb and so hundreds of images can be recorded onto a 512mb card.

A large memory card is relatively cheap, and highly recommended, I would recommend at a bare minimum a 256mb memory card, and preferably a 512mb memory card, especially considering the relatively low prices - the larger the memory card, the more photos you will be able to take.  If you are likely to be away from a computer for a long time (such as when going on holiday) then the largest memory card you can afford would definitely be worth investing in.  This camera takes only secure digital memory.  Listed below are links to memory cards that will work with the Pentax *ist DL:

Find the latest prices for SD memory cards at Amazon.co.uk: 256mb: £9.11, 512mb: £19.93, 1gb (1000mb): £29.99, 2gb (2000mb): £54.49
Need more help deciding what memory card to buy? Have a look at our guide to digital camera memory cards or our article what size memory card should I buy?

Speed: The camera is quick to switch on and take photos, being ready in less time than it takes to remember to take the lens cap off - and focusing is precise and rapid.  As expected from a camera of this class, you can take the photo the instant you push the button and then take another in about a second.  In rapid shot mode it takes two shots per second.  Flash recharge time is pretty impressive too, taking about a second. Playback mode is quick, and its easy to zoom in on your last shot and check for blur with the zoom control. Moving from picture to picture is quick but you can also get an overview of 9 shots at a time if you zoom out one more notch. Moving around the different menu options is rapid and clear.

Ease of use: Surprisingly for a camera of this complexity, the camera is easy to get to grips with.  The majority of the useful functions are located in logical places and so little use of the manual was required except for advanced functions.  The AUTO mode is obviously the most straight-forward and the other scene modes are well explained in the manual.  The menus are easy to read and understand and the only complicated section (a list of seldom used overrides) are easily re-set.  In addition to the viewfinder display, there is also a helpful LCD display which lets you know how many shots you have left, what the current shutter speed would be, whether the battery is about to die on you.  So in summary, the camera is well laid out, and logical, which makes using it really straightforward and enjoyable.

Ergonomics and Buttons: (Feel, placement, labels, etc.) Firstly I have to say I was impressed with how easy the camera is to hold, even with only one hand, even in less than ideal conditions - It has a rubber grip for right handed people which meant I could hold it completely securely with one hand.  The buttons were easy to reach although advanced users may find changing aperture, overriding compensation and doing a focus lock shot all at once a little tricky (but not impossible).  The buttons of use are all within easy reach and in logical positions.  Not having to go through menu screens to turn off auto-focus or use the flash makes using the camera so natural.  It is possible that you could find some of the buttons on the back a little small, and the shutter release is hard and shiny. I thought the camera felt very good ergonomically, with an excellent size hand-grip.  The mode dial is unobtrusive and the shutter release, zoom, focus lock are very well positioned. The camera feels like a solid, robust and well-built camera and I am especially impressed with the ease of use of the manual focus.

Image Quality: Here are some real world sample photos taken in various settings, such as Inside, Outside, Macro, to demonstrate the quality of pictures taken and also show different features of the camera. Larger versions of these photos, plus more photos are available in the Pentax *ist DL Sample Photo Gallery!

Inside:

Heather and Flower (ISO200) Group photo (ISO200)

Inside: The camera has very good colour - It took a good "Heather and Flower" photo - there is no red-eye in the photo, and there is none in other group photos. It has a decent flash, and copes well with group photos, and on AUTO ISO, the ISO setting was kept at the lowest setting in these photos. The camera did a good job at focusing most of the time even in low-light. Colour is richly saturated.

ISO Noise Test

In outdoor daylight photography where there is enough light entering the camera it is not necessary to take photos at slow shutter speeds.  As the amount of light entering the camera is reduced,  shutter speed can be decreased upto a point where it becomes difficult to hold the camera steady and take a photograph without blur.  Higher ISO settings permit an increase in shutter speed (hence why it is 'faster film') but this is with an expected trade-off in quality.  For digital cameras this can result in a more noisy picture and possibly other artefacts.

How the tests are performed

One situation where higher ISO setting is useful is in indoor photography.  The amount of light will be limited, however you may not have the option of using slow shutter speeds and a tripod (and a flash would spoil the natural ambience).  In principle then we want to see how the two test cameras cope with a fixed amount of light.  Therefore, we have a pre-set scene with standard lighting.  Where possible we will try to equalise the amount of light entering the camera by adjusting shutter speed and apeture.

Below you'll find the noise test image, plus actual pixel crops from the image taken at different ISO settings, compared with the 6 megapixel, Fujifilm FinePix F10.  Note that all these images are under exposed in order to more easily detect the limitations of the cameras.

ISO Noise Test Photos - Flash is off . Pentax *ist DL on the left, Fujifilm Finepix F10 on the right. The colour difference is due to automatic white balance.

Pentax *ist DL Fujifilm Finepix F10
ISO80 - setting not available ISO80 - Actual Pixels
ISO200 - Actual Pixels ISO200 - Actual Pixels
ISO400 - Actual Pixels ISO400 - Actual Pixels
ISO800 - Actual Pixels ISO800 - Actual Pixels
ISO1600 - Actual Pixels ISO1600 - Actual Pixels
ISO3200 - Actual Pixels ISO3200 - Setting not available

The lower ISO photos show that the Fuji camera is better at picking out detail, while the Pentax has a smoother image, even though the megapixel rating of the two cameras is approximately comparable.  At ISO400 the Fuji camera is beginnning to show some noise while the Pentax image is still clear. As we increase the ISO, the Fuji noise becomes even clearer.  At ISO1600 the words MINI COOPER are still visible on the Pentax while this is illegible on the Fuji.  And finally, the Pentax has an even higher ISO setting, where some of the limitations of high ISO photography begin to be aparent.  Although not obvious, there is loss of sensitivity and solid areas of colour start to appear blotchy.  The camera has excellent abilities, however choosing the higher ISO settings will sacrifice some final image quality. At the other end of the spectrum, it should be obvious that nothing has been sacrificed in terms of quality by not providing an ISO100 mode.  ISO200 shots are at least as good as the best the Fujifilm F10 can produce.

Outside:

London Bus (ISO200) Garden Tulips (ISO200)

Outside: The camera has rich colour, with good saturation and contrast. There was good detail. Noise was low in ISO200 photos.  The quality was set to maximum to minimise any jpeg artefacts.

actual pixels
Wide-angle Telephoto Actual pixels

Zoom: The Pentax DA lens provides an excellent zoom range.  Other lenses are available.

Exposure
The photos of the clock tower seem a little dark, because of the very grey sky, however this can be either compensated for (using EV compensation) or by selecting a different metering mode, the metering can be weighted toward the center of the image.

Lens noise and zoom: The lens is silent in operation except for motorized focus which is still relatively quiet. The lens gives excellent control over how you frame your subject.

Other Image Quality issues: Purple fringing was difficult to detect in any normal photos.  In some extreme test cases, by looking closely at the images some fringing might be noticed but this was not visible in test photos.

Macro:

Macro holly berry Actual Pixels (ISO200)

The manual focus ring allows you to get very good, close-up, detailed macro photos. Custom white balance is also an option with this camera, but auto white balance does a good job in artificial light situations.

Video mode: The camera does not feature a video mode.

Conclusion

Image Quality: Image quality is excellent, the images have very good colour, with good contrast and detail, with low noise except at higher ISO settings. Images were slightly smoothed but this is adjustable within the camera. Purple fringing was not noticed, and red-eye was not a problem. The camera was very competent at focusing (except on very plain or dark surfaces).  Vignetting in photos was very mild and I did not notice barrel or pincushion distortion. There is a good range of image sizes, and the compression options include a RAW mode.  Auto white balance and metering, and exposure seemed to be good to very good. The camera gives very good control over image quality - pressing the menu button lets you change saturation, sharpness, contrast and gamma curve.  The lack of image stabilisation could cause problems for some people, especially in low light or at the long end of the zoom, although attaching a tripod would be a simple and affordable recommended add-on. (9/10)

Everything else (the camera as a whole): The camera is stylish with a black body. The camera has good 2.5" screen, with good resolution.  
The camera feels sturdy and is very comfortable to hold. The camera is easy to use, the menu system is easy to use and there is a good layout of buttons and controls, although some of the more advanced options may take a little time to get to through the menu system - it is recommended that you spend more time with the manual to ensure you gain the most benefit from these features. The camera speed is good, with a good switch on time, rapid focusing time, excellent shutter response, rapid flash recharge time, quick playback mode, quick menus, and good continuous shooting. The camera has a large range of features, including RAW support, bulb-mode, night photography and some playback photo manipulation features. Battery life is average but dependant on your choice in batteries and how much you use the flash. (9/10)

Value for Money: The Pentax *ist DL at around £400 including lens kit, is very good value for money in a competitive market.  Other digital SLR cameras offering similar features and controls are available for slightly more money, for example the Nikon D50 with lens is around £400. Slightly more expensive but better featured is the 8 megapixel Canon EOS 350D / Digital Rebel XT which can be obtained for £483 while the Olympus EVOLT E-500, another 8mp digital SLR can be obtained for around £499. The Konica Minolta Dynax / Maxxum 5D with built in Anti-shake is also worth considering. (8/10) See more digital camera reviews sorted by megapixels here.

Summary: The Pentax *ist DL Digital SLR is a great digital camera.  It feels very comfortable in hand, and produces very natural pictures with little noise and rich pleasing colours. This camera is very easy to use (in auto mode), and would definitely suit a beginner. The camera offers adequate battery life, with very good controls and good build quality.  I would recommend this camera to anyone who wants great control without the hassle. Professional photographers might want to compare the camera with other professional DSLR cameras before purchase.  If you like SLR cameras but want to stop worrying about film, this is well worth considering.

Pentax *ist DL DSLR Rating: Recommended (8.5/10)
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What I like:

  • Very easy to use
  • High ISO settings
  • Sturdy, compact body
  • Good exposure options
  • Great image quality - difficult to detect any artefacts
  • Good colour
  • Good handling - comfortable hand grip
  • Very good value for money

What I don't like:

  • Uses AA batteries - does not come with integral re-charger.
  • Possibly a lower jpeg compression ratio would be useful?
  • Maybe 6mp is not high enough resolution for you?

Additional Test Images are viewable in the Pentax *ist DL Sample Photo Gallery.

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