Pentax *ist Ds review

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Pentax *ist Ds
Pentax *ist Ds product details & specifications

Pentax *ist Ds review

Priced to compete with Canon's Digital Rebel or EOS 300D, the Pentax *ist Ds was introduced in the run up to Photokina 2004. It is Pentax second digital SLR and it continues their position of having the smallest and lightest DSLR on the market today. The extremely compact *ist Ds features a 6.1 effective megapixel CCD sensor - the same as used in Nikon's D70 - and a large 2.0" LCD monitor which occupies a large part of the rear of the camera. Good news for Pentax users of the pre-digital era is that the istDs is backwards compatible with most older Pentax K, KA, KAF and KAF2 mount lenses, albeit with some limitations in metering or functionality. Even older screw mount lenses like the 645 and 67 series can be used through an adapter.

Some distinguishing features are the 11-area auto focusing with selectable focus points, the possibility to record RAW images, ISO settings from 200 to 3200 as well as 18 user-programmable custom functions.

front Pentax *ist Ds back Pentax *ist Ds


Using the camera

The camera is built around a stainless steel subframe with a plastic outer casing. When holding the camera you will notice how small and light the *ist Ds feels, with a well sculpted rubberised hand grip on the front and a thumb grip on the rear. Thanks to many downsizing technologies, multi-layered electronic circuit boards and high-density packaging technology Pentax have succeeded in producing an extremely compact, lightweight camera. Build quality appears to be very good with all controls and camera parts well put together and with a durable finish. There is a metal tripod socket and memory card slot and PC and video connectors - to the right and left of the camera - are well protected behind properly hinged doors that close with a positive click.

Operating the camera is very comfortable with all controls falling readily to hand. Switching on the camera is instant with the on/off button located around the shutter release button together with the depth of field switch. This is probably the best location for it as you don't have to take your finger away from the shutter to use it. The exposure compensation button is directly behind it to the front of the status panel and can be operated by your index finger as well. Under your thumb you will find the selection wheel and the AE-lock button and these are all you need when taking pictures. We have seen that in most cameras metering as well as focus is locked when half pressing the shutter. Not so on the Pentax where metering is only locked as you fully press the shutter button. If you prefer otherwise this can be set up in the custom menu, where it is also possible to lock the metered exposure to the focusing point, or you should use the AE lock button.

sample image Pentax *ist Ds sample image Pentax *ist Ds sample image Pentax *ist Ds

All other controls are located on the back, with the four buttons for calling up the menu, deleting images, image info and playback to the left of the 2.0" TFT screen. The 4-way control is located to the right of the monitor together with a function button marked "Fn". In recording mode the latter provides instant access to frequently used functions such as white balance and ISO settings, drive and flash mode, whereas in playback it allows the user to set print copies, select sepia or B&W options or start an in-camera slide show. Note that for switching metering modes you have to resort to the record mode in the menu.

We found all menus to be very clear and intuitive to use with the exception of certain abbreviations we came across in the record menu for instance. Would you have a clue what "Swtch dst msr pt" means - well it turns out that this is where you set the focusing point of the 11-area AF. There are some more of these cryptic descritions in the menu but to be fair, in use it quickly becomes obvious what they are for and what they are meant to do. The camera menu can be set up in any of nine languages including Japanese, Chinese and Russian although for us Europeans, French, German, Spanish or English will be the more obvious choices.

Apart from the "green" automatic mode there are pre-programmed settings such as (night) portrait, landscape, macro and action, while for more advanced users there is a choice of Program, Aperture or Shutter Priority and metered Manual plus Bulb. Contrary to Canon's Digital Rebel where some functions or settings are locked in certain program modes, on the Pentax *ist Ds all functions and metering options are freely accessible in any program mode. There are eight white balance settings which - apart from Auto WB - include three fluorescent options plus manual setting which can be set by the user by metering from a grey or white card. Contrast, saturation and sharpness can be set over 5 steps with minute differences between them so that they are all perfectly useable in real image situations - contrary to some other cameras where certain colour settings are so over the top that they won't be of any practical use in day to day picture taking. Correct exposure is determined by using the centre-weighted, spot or 16-segment matrix metering,

The sophisticated AF system makes for quick and precise focusing with 11 AF sensors - nine of them constituting a cross type wide area sensor grid in the middle. The user can select one of the sensors to accommodate a specific image situation while the selected AF sensor point is highlighted in red in the viewfinder for easy visual confirmation.

The glass optical viewfinder, which works through a pentaprism and covers about 95% of the frame, is large and clear even for spectacle wearers. Comprehensive image and exposure information is given along the bottom of the finder. Dioptric adjustment is possible between -2.5 and +1.5. The 210.000 pixels TFT screen on the back shows 100% of the frame and can be set to show a histogram after capturing an image plus all other image parameters. In playback images can be enlarged up to 12 times to show all image detail.

The built in pop-up flash has a guide number of 15.6 at ISO 200 with an angle of coverage of 28 mm in 35mm terms. Flash sync is 1/180 sec. With the dedicated AF360FGZ there is the option of high speed flash at shutter speeds faster than 1/180 sec. as well as wireless flash and second curtain flash. The built-in flash also acts as a focus assist light when there is not enough light for normal focusing - just remember to pop it up when it is not set to automatic. The hot shoe enables use of Pentax or third party flashes.

As already mentioned a big advantage of the *ist Ds is the fact that many older K-series lenses can be used on the camera albeit with some restrictions. Here is a rundown of what you should beware of when doing so. KAF or KAF2 lenses can be used without any restrictions with all exposure options available including matrix metering and 11-area AF. TTL flash is possible using the built-in flash or the dedicated AF360FGZ Pentax flash. The camera should be used in full manual, aperture or shutter priority. Auto focus is available if maximum aperture of the older K-series lens is f2.8 or faster. On slower lenses you should resort to manual focus with the help of the (interchangeable) focusing screen. If the lens does not have an Automatic ("A") aperture setting (K or KA-type lenses), the use of the aperture ring has to be set up through the custom menu to enable through the lens exposure metering. Using the DOF button then activates the exposure metering but there is no indication in the viewfinder about the correct exposure.

One of Pentax strong selling points has always been that nearly every Pentax K-mount camera could use nearly every "K" (and variants) Pentax lens ever made, going back into the 1950s and forward into the digital age - although you should take into consideration that there are some exceptions and restrictions in use as explained above. Even the old screw mount lenses and those designed for their medium or large format cameras (6x4.5 and 6x7) can be used on the *ist Ds. The camera will meter with these although you would need an adapter to fit them. Another point to note is that Pentax lenses have always been widely available through many outlets for very reasonable prices and there is a wide choice of great quality second-hand lenses about that can be had for a song and deliver excellent results even on the brand new Pentax cameras. Have a look at our overview of all Pentax and compatible lenses for the Pentax *istDs.

In the box

The Pentax *ist Ds camera is delivered with USB and AV cables and a comfortably wide neck strap. Pentax supply a clear printed manual of 200 pages to explain all the possibilities of the camera. One set of CR-V3 lithium batteries is included. We liked the fact that the *ist Ds can be powered by conventional AA rechargeables and we would advise you to buy a good quality, high capacity set straight away and keep the CR-V3s in your gadget bag as back-up. A distinct advantage is that they can be stored for years without any significant loss in charge and are therefore ideal for emergency use.

A memory card is not included. Not a bad thing since the ones supplied are invariably too small to be of any use and now you can choose your own brand of SD card in the capacity you prefer. Note that most other consumer DSLRs still use CompactFlash cards while Pentax has opted for the newer Secure Digital card, which is surely going to be the new standard.

NO FLASH full flash flash compensation -1

Software included is Pentax Photo Browser 2.0 and Pentax Photo Laboratory 2.0. There is also a CD with operating manuals which is in fact the same as the printed manual supplied, except that you now have a choice of 16 languages including Czech, Bulgarian, Swedish or Finnish to name but a few. Also on the CD are details about available lenses and accessories plus all you need to know to connect the camera to your PC.

Pentax Photo Browser is used for making slideshows, preparing images for print or sorting and arranging them in folders while providing you with image details like date, time and camera settings. Small jobs like adjusting brightness and contrast or rotating images can be performed, but for more advanced adjustments a dedicated programme is more convenient. Images can be saved through Photo Browser as Jpeg, Tiff (8 or 16 bit), Png or Bitmap files. Pentax Photo Laboratory converts RAW images to formats that can be read by programmes like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. You can opt for full auto processing or custom processing where you can adjust white balance, tone and other settings. A function called Remote Assistant lets you control your camera from your PC whereby images are downloaded straight to your computer.

sat -1 sat 0 sat +1 saturation +1 sharpness +1 contrast +1

Image quality

Our camera came equipped with the Pentax DA 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 AL lens, which is optimised for digital use. We found this to be a perfect lens for the discerning enthusiast, although we would have preferred a bit more tele at the long end of the zoom. The maximum reach of 55mm is about the same as 84mm in 35mm terms, so think about your own personal needs before you decide which lens to choose.

Thanks to its high-performance CCD image sensor, the *ist Ds offers 6.1 effective megapixels. Coupled with Pentax's original image processing technology this produces high-definition images with excellent image detail, which show a nice well- balanced range of colours without being overly saturated. Some users have remarked that colours appear to be more "film-like" than with other digital cameras. There are two colour settings on the *ist Ds. You can opt for bright contrasty colours - ready for print - or try the more natural colour tones which are a better choice if you want to work on your images or retouch them later.

Pentax *ist Ds Nikon D70 Pentax *ist Ds Nikon D70
Pentax *ist Ds Nikon D70 Pentax *ist Ds Nikon D70
normal colours bright colours normal colours bright colours

We took some images with a Nikon D70 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm standard zoom alongside the Pentax *ist Ds and noticed that colours on the D70 appeared to be slightly warmer in tone than on the Pentax. Contrast on the *ist Ds appeared to be a little higher as well, whereas purple colours tended to shift towards blue. Remember though that purple is one of the trickiest colours to render in a natural way, even conventional film has trouble recording this as our eyes see it. Also every brand of digital camera renders different colours in slightly different ways, whereas different lenses can show a slight difference in colour tone with some lenses being warmer than others.

Distortion on the 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 lens is kept well at bay with some barrel distortion at the wide end which slowly shifts to slight pincushioning at the tele setting. Some noise is present in images taken at higher ISO settings but not more than in other cameras. Exposure and automatic white balance were spot on every time. We did not see any vignetting in the corners and chromatic aberrations are kept well at bay. We hadn't expected otherwise from Pentax as they were already designing and producing good quality cameras and lenses when most of our readers were still playing with their Dinky Toys or Barbies.

Pentax DA f2.8/40mm Limited lens (updated 26 Febr. 2005)

We had the opportunity to try out the new Pentax DA f2.8/40mm Limited lens, which - with an equivalent of 61mm - offers a perspective similar to the naked eye. Designed specifically for digital photography, it is not backwards compatible and therefore cannot be used on conventional 35mm Pentax cameras. With an ultra-thin design and a closest focusing distance of 40 cm, this lens makes the *istDS look more like a "supersized" compact than a full grown SLR. A nine-blade diaphragm assures true to life reproduction of out of focus areas and you can use regular 49mm filters on the lens or 30,5mm filters on the combined lens cap/hood. The lens cap on the 40mm Limited lens combines both in a very clever design. Simply unscrewing the centre from the lenscap transforms it into a lenshood to protect the lens from stray light causing flare. Build quality is excellent with no play in the focusing ring and a nice smooth feel when using it. Just like the zoom lens supplied with the *istDS, this new 40mm lens has the Quick Shift Focusing system which makes it easy to override the auto focus by simply turning the focusing ring by hand.

40mm lens 40mm lens 40mm lens
40mm lens 40mm lens 40mm lens

Of course the main advantage of a f2.8 prime lens is that you can take handheld shots in available light at faster shutter speeds than with a "slow" zoom lens of say f3.5 or f4.5. Another characteristic is that when using maximum aperture, the main subject will stand out from the background - as it is the only part of the image in focus - while everything else will be rendered unsharp and fade away into the distance. A nice side effect is that a prime lens keeps you fitter than a zoom lens as you have to use your feet to compose an image instead of zooming in or out.

But joking aside, all test shots we took with this Pentax f2.8/40mm lens were extremely detailed and showed a nice, natural rendition of colours. Contrast was superb and what little softness there was in the extreme corners of the image disappeared when stopping down a bit. There is some very slight barrel distortion, but it is so minimal that you will barely notice it in day to day photography. Vignetting and chromatic aberration are kept well under control and we have to conclude that this Pentax f2.8/40mm Limited is a welcome addition to the digital range of Pentax lenses already on the market.


So this is it then, the second digital SLR by Pentax. With strong competition from big names such as Canon and Nikon we can safely say that the *ist Ds can easily hold its own among the other consumer DSLRs. With an array of advanced and user-friendly functions such as a high speed USB 2.0 connection, a large and bright pentaprism viewfinder, PictBridge and Print Image Matching options, 2.0 inch TFT monitor and 18 custom functions, it offers quick and effortless operation and easy portability thanks to its compact size.

Coupled to backwards lens compatibility for older Pentax lenses, excellent image quality and well thought out camera controls and design, this is definitely a camera we would recommend to all levels of photographers; from first-timers to more advanced users. If you are looking for an affordable DSLR, the Pentax *ist Ds is an excellent choice at a very competitive price. Canon and Nikon, now it's your turn again to come up with something even more interesting.

Pentax *ist Ds price comparison and shopping options

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