Pentax *ist D; A 6-Mp D-SLR That Lets You Use Your Pentax Film Camera Lenses

As one of the last of the major manufacturers to release a digital SLR camera, Pentax entered the market late in the game. By October 2003 (when the Pentax *ist D began shipping) numerous other models were available, including some "new and improved" third generation cameras. Considering all of the many options, why would you buy the Pentax *ist D instead of one of the others? Well, that's a personal decision, but let's consider the similarities and differences between the *ist D and its 6-megapixel competitors.

While it is a first generation D-SLR camera for Pentax, the *ist D doesn't take a back seat to anyone in terms of advanced technology. It incorporates a full series of high-tech features, including the entirely new (11-point) SAFOX VIII autofocus sensor. It's also absolutely loaded with high-tech capabilities, including 22 Custom Functions, both TIFF and raw capture modes, many advanced flash features (with FGZ-series flash units) and more, as listed in our Facts chart.

Pentax *ist D Quick Look
6.1 megapixel
$1399.95 (body only)
Pentax KAF mount
SAFOX VIII autofocus sensor

This is the most petite D-SLR on the market (5x3.7x2.3"), substantially smaller than the Nikon D70 and a bit smaller than the EOS Digital Rebel. In spite of its rugged stainless steel chassis, the *ist D weighs 1.6 oz less than the D70 and a 0.3 oz less than the Digital Rebel. Anyone who has avoided buying a D-SLR because such cameras are "too large and heavy" will love this Pentax model.

The *ist D uses the same Sony ICX413AQ CCD sensor as the Nikon D70 and the D100 but employs an entirely different processing engine; hence, image quality is not identical. As discussed later, the *ist D has both pros and cons in this regard.

Lens Compatibility
As with its 35mm autofocus SLR cameras, Pentax maintains an edge in compatibility with manual focus (KA and K mount) lenses. Buy the suitable adapter and you can also use Pentax 645 or 67 series lenses or the old 35mm format screwmount lenses. (Nikon D-SLR cameras also accept manual focus lenses, but they disengage light metering unless you're using one of the few AI-P lenses.) Naturally, some high-tech *ist D functions do not operate with a manual focus lens; Program mode, multi-segment metering, P-TTL
flash and autofocus, for example, are not available but the degree of compatibility is still remarkable.

Characteristics And Performance
Resembling the 35mm *ist camera, the *ist D is certainly diminutive, and the handgrip is particularly small; for long-term use, I would want the optional D-BG1 Grip for extra mass. Thanks to its many familiar (and intuitive) analog controls, this camera makes the transition from a 35mm SLR to digital shooting quite convenient. Naturally, the electronic menu includes a multitude of options, and these do call for a detailed review of the instruction manual. Fortunately, you won't spend a lot of time hunting and poking through the menu. After setting up the camera to meet personal preferences for any type of shooting situation, you'll generally need to use only the analog controls.

The high-tech *ist D camera is compatible with many manual focus lenses, such as the Pentax SMC 200mm f/4 that I used for this image. While autofocus, Program mode and multi-segment metering did not operate, I was able to make many nice images with this lens using manual focus, Aperture-Priority mode and Center-Weighted metering. (Autoexposure at f/5.6; ISO 200.)
Photos © 2004, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved.

While testing the *ist D during fall color season and for recording the action during a county fair and a motorcycle, automotive and Native American events, I found that the camera turned in solid performance. I was impressed with its convenient operation, incredible versatility, and great reliability. My only complaint? In low-light, autofocus was a bit slow when shooting without flash. When I activated the built-in flash, powerful pre-flashes provided AF-assist for great reliability. Common on many cameras, this feature works well, but it's not ideal: subjects find the bright bursts annoying and it causes them to blink. The near-infrared IR beam produced by the accessory AF360FGZ flash unit is a lot more subtle and just as effective.

The *ist D was also quite fast in most respects. When turned on, it was ready to shoot in one second. Autofocus was very fast outdoors and the camera responded almost instantly to a touch of the shutter button. Both features were certainly useful in action photography and in candid picture taking for capturing a fleeting gesture. In Continuous framing, I was able to shoot five high resolution JPEGs in 1.7 seconds; while the camera processed the contents of the buffer (a temporary storage bank) I could shoot one frame every subsequent second when using a very fast 1GB SanDisk Ultra II CompactFlash card. Processing time was longer for the larger image files generated in raw capture, and especially in TIFF capture mode, so the camera sometimes paused when the buffer was full. That was occasionally frustrating, but this problem is common with all digital cameras that offer a raw or TIFF capture mode.

The Pentax *ist D is very quick to respond with fast autofocus and virtually no delay between pressing the shutter button and the instant of exposure. This makes the camera suitable for taking candid people pictures or for action photography. (FA* 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom; Program mode; Continuous AF; ISO 200; JPEG capture; sharpness adjusted in Photoshop CS.)

Image Quality Evaluation
In its default settings, the Pentax *ist D produced images with gentle contrast that was great for holding detail in both highlight and shadow areas, accurate colors and low digital noise. In long exposures, the noise reduction system was effective, allowing the camera to generate quite clean images. In images made at more typical shutter speeds, noise is virtually non-existent at ISO 200, low at ISO 400, noticeable at ISO 800, and acceptable at ISO 1600. At the high ISO settings, this is better than average performance in the 5- and 6-Mp D-SLR category.

Because of comments on several Internet forums, the Pentax *ist D has developed a reputation for producing soft images. During extensive testing, I found that JPEG and TIFF images certainly benefited from the high in camera setting for Sharpness plus a healthy dose of Unsharp Mask in Photoshop (at a setting of 200/0.6/1). The PEF format raw images are sharper and they can be more extensively sharpened in the Photo Laboratory software before conversion to TIFF.

In other respects, there is little difference in overall quality between full resolution JPEG, TIFF and PEF images at 100 percent magnification on a monitor; this speaks highly of the exceptional Pentax processing system. Still, it's worth using raw capture mode for the finest image quality in 11x16.5" prints and for the image correction opportunities available in the converter software. Since any image can be modified in Photoshop, why use raw capture mode? The primary reason: more effective adjustments for correcting wrong choices in camera settings for exposure, color saturation, white balance, and sharpness. Any major change to these factors is more effective when applied before the image is processed and converted to TIFF with the Pentax software, a 15 second process.

There are other benefits to raw capture mode: the PEF files are smaller than TIFF files (13MB vs. 17MB), recording time is shorter and the PEF files can be converted to 16-bit TIFFs with substantially more color and tonal information than in the 8-bit TIFF or JPEG images. Granted, enhancing and converting numerous raw files can be very time consuming, so this may not be the ideal option for extensive shooting during a long trip.

The *ist D allows for shooting five full resolution JPEGs, or four TIFF or raw images, in under two seconds with high-speed autofocus assuring sharp images. In JPEG capture mode, the *ist D is ready to shoot another frame in one second, or another full burst in 14 seconds. This performance level should be suitable for most photo enthusiasts. (FA* 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom; Program mode; Continuous AF; ISO 200; JPEG capture.)

The *ist D produces images with pleasing white balance, moderate contrast, and lower than average color saturation that maintains color fidelity. While these parameters can be modified in camera, the default settings produce images that respond well to adjustment in Photoshop or another program. (FA* 80-200mm zoom; f/4; polarizer; ISO 200; TIFF capture.)

Final Assessment
Particularly at ISO 200, the *ist D is capable of producing superlative image quality, with exceptional clarity, a wide tonal range, attractive skin tones, and great color fidelity. Resolution is high, about average for a 6-Mp SLR camera. Under close examination, my 8.5x11" ink jet prints are outstanding in all respects while 11x16.5" prints from TIFF or raw images are also impressive when viewed from a typical (greater) distance.

In my estimation, the Pentax *ist D includes virtually every capability that most serious photo enthusiasts need. Sports and wildlife photographers might want the faster framing rate and greater burst depth that's available with some competing cameras, but others will be satisfied. At the time of this writing, the *ist D cost a bit less than some other 6-Mp cameras, but was more expensive than the Digital Rebel and the D70. In spite of the price difference, the Pentax camera would be a logical choice for anyone who owns Pentax mount lenses, whether autofocus or manual, or both. After all, switching brands would require the purchase of new lenses, an expensive proposition for those who need several.

Regardless of the lens mount issue, this Pentax camera offers good value for the money plus ease of use, a rich feature set and satisfying performance in most respects. This combination makes the *ist D highly desirable and will keep Pentax competitive in the ever expanding D-SLR market. If you're an imaging enthusiast who wants a very versatile, reliable and compact camera, this one should be high on your list of models to consider.

A freelance stock photographer, Peter K. Burian is the author of Mastering Digital Photography and Imaging (Sybex). This highly-rated 300 page book covers all aspects of technology, equipment and shooting techniques, and offers a great deal of practical advice for imaging enthusiasts.

· Rugged and ultra compact/lightweight body, although the grip is a bit too small; most controls are well-placed for convenience of operation
· Very high image quality and wide dynamic range; digital artifacts and noise are exceptionally well controlled
· Very reliable metering and white balance system; autofocus is fast and reliable except in dark conditions unless flash (with AF-assist) is used
· Remarkable versatility with many photographic and digital features plus compatibility (with some restrictions) with manual focus lenses

· TIFF and JPEG images are soft, but respond quite well to Unsharp Mask in Photoshop; limited choice of
in camera Sharpness levels
· Quick startup and response, but slower continuous shooting speed than some other cameras plus smaller buffer; requires high speed CompactFlash card for very fast read/write speed
· Although raw file conversion is fast (15 sec) the software is only moderately versatile and the interface screen is too small

· Sensor: 23.5x15.7mm CCD; 6.3Mp gross; 6.1Mp effective
· Lens Mount: Pentax KAF mount; compatible (with some limitations) with manual focus lenses; 1.5x focal length magnification factor
· Capture Formats: JPEG, with three compression levels; uncompressed 6Mp TIFF (8-bit); uncompressed 6Mp raw (12-bit, convertible to 16-bit)
· Resolution (pixels): 3008x2008; 2400x1600; 1536x1024; 1152x768; 960x640
· White Balance: Auto, daylight, overcast, shade, tungsten and three fluorescent options; three Manual settings
· ISO equivalent: 200-3200
· Light Metering: 16-segment evaluative, center-weighted and spot metering; AE Lock, Exposure Compensation and Bracketing
· Shutter Speed Range: 30 to 1/4000 sec; flash sync to 1/150 sec
· Flash: Built-in with auto flash, forced flash, redeye reduction and slow sync flash; hot shoe for dedicated flash plus PC cord socket; flash exposure compensation, high-speed sync, wireless off camera flash and advanced P-TTL flash metering available with optional FGZ flash unit
· Storage: CompactFlash Type I or II and Microdrive
· Connectivity: USB 1.1 and video output
· Power: Two CR-V3 batteries or 4 AAs; optional AC adapter available
· Dimensions/Weight: 5.1x3.7x2.4"; 19.4 oz, body only
· Accessories Included: USB cable; strap; lithium batteries; Pentax Photo Browser and Photo Laboratory (raw converter) software
· Street Price: $1399.95 (body only)

Further Information

Pentax U.S.A. Inc.
1-800-877-0155 or