Pentax Optio A40 digital camera

The Optio A40 is an advanced compact digital model that aims to provide high quality images with ease of use but with a rich feature set. And glancing across the camera's rounded lines and the specification it's quickly apparent that this premium Pentax compact means business.

The styling is typically "Optio" with very good build combined with neat controls and buttons within easy reach. Clever touches such as contextual menus that activate when you push one of the four segments on the jog buttons allow you to make quick adjustments of drive, flash, focus and a large dedicated play button all help.

In terms of modes you get 15 subject or scene modes that also provide a help screen for each mode if you leave the selection highlighted for a couple of seconds. The 3x optical zoom lens has a 37-111mm zoom range a respectable F/2.8 to F/5.4 aperture range so you do get the opportunities and the ability to control depth of field as the A40 also boasts a manual control mode.

However, you actually only have two aperture settings, the two mentioned above, so it’s limited in that respect although you do get full control over shutter speeds that run from 4 seconds to 1/2000th sec.

Interestingly, the A40 also boasts a set of advanced features that include CCD-shift anti-shake system, which means you get around 2.5EV extra exposure latitude hand held, so you can effectively shoot at full zoom at 1/25th second and still get a sharp image.

Add in digital anti-shake, a system that bumps the sensitivity any where from the lowest ISO 50 to ISO 1600, and the boosted ISO 3200 setting. Face detection AF is included and then there’s Dynamic Range Adjustment (similar to Nikon’s D-Range optimiser) that helps prevent highlights and shadows loosing detail.

Happily, it works quite well on most subjects but oddly; it struggles when shooting towards the sun and perhaps, unsurprisingly, when the subject contrast drops. The shiftable sensor is a large (for this type of camera) 1/1.7-inch CCD but the 12-megapixell resolution means the pixels are still very crowded and this is where noise can become an issue.

Well, yes, noise is an issue when the ISO climbs over ISO 400 but ISO 50 and ISO 100 are clean enough, but the key factor here is detail and the camera is very good at capturing detail. This is partly because the lens is a very good one and partly because Pentax’s image/noise processing strategy appears to be one of preserve detail even if this means noise is (perhaps) worse than it might be but I’d prefer to have detail every time. You can always process images for noise later on PC using programs such as Neat Image for example.

This strategy allows you get the most from all those pixels and although at ISO 1600 and 3200, it’s fair to say detail starts to be overwhelmed by the noise, the A40 does a remarkable job considering the number of pixels crammed onto the sensor.

The camera’s performance is okay, start up around 3 seconds, shut down around 2 and a shot to shot time, even at the top resolution and quality settings is around 1.5-seconds at a frame rate of about one frame every 2 seconds. Now that ain’t bad for a camera with 12 million pixels.

Metering and focusing are both very reliable though focusing seems to struggle more at ISO 50 then at other settings, which is rather odd. White balance control is excellent, even auto white balance which performs well under most lighting situations.

Other funky include DivX certified 640 x 480 MPEG4 movie mode at up 30fps that also has its own Movie SR shake reduction system that uses software to control image shake (rather than the shifting CCD) and 21MB of internal memory backs up the SD/SDHC external storage. A programmable “Fn” or function button also adds a nice touch to control allowing you to define and control certain features of the camera at the press of a button.

Image quality is very good, colour saturation is natural but, as Pentax’s top compact, there are plenty of tweaks available to choose between if you want to tailor image parameters over and above what the camera provides automatically or as part of the pre-sets.

Make no mistake, Pentax’s blurb states the A40 is designed to give DSLR-like image quality and it almost reaches that level. Problems with high ISO noise and the inevitable restrictions of a smaller (than DSLRs') sensor mean it doesn't quite achieve that aim, but it is close.

However, the camera’s excellent feature set and handling make it well worth the money, even if it does look pricey compared to the other 12-megapixel competition out there.

Verdict

Smart styling, high-resolution high quality images from a compact that packs a good array of advanced features and which make it well worth the money.


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