Most digital cameras are about as likely comfortable around dust and moisture as the England football squad at a victory ticker-tape parade, but stranger things have happened. The 16th and penultimate addition to the Pentax’s Optio range, not only likes these environs, it positively courts them.
To set the record straight from the beginning, Pentax sells this camera as a waterproofed gem capable of being submerged for half an hour at a time. So, while we write this review the camera is at the bottom of a tupperware container filled with water. Just to make double sure there is no cheating, we've also placed a jar of raspberry jam on top of the camera. Now that’s the methodology out of the way, to the camera:
The Optio 43WR, announced in March 2004, only 6 months after the pilot model, the 33WR, is aimed at the woodsman-action-adventurer of the photographic world. In the past the phrase ‘Water resistant’, has conjured up images of children wearing their first Casio digital watch in the bath to see if the seals would hold but Pentax proudly claim that the 43WR can be submerged to depths of 3 feet for durations of up to 30 minutes before anything adverse will occur. Not much use for the Jacques Cousteau’s of the planet but as Pentax clearly point out this camera is water resistant and not to be used as a underwater camera, the emphasis being the submersion and spray is more accidental than intentional.
The camera’s robust square body make it easy to hold and alter shot orientation. The rubberised reinforced corners are designed to resist knocks and the whole unit cry’s out to be given a good knocking around. The environmental seals on the body mean that the two articulated doors (one for the USB cable ad DC power lead and the other for the batteries and Smart media cards) are water-tight and the lens is in a internally sealed-barrel. The only disadvantage to this design of lens is the lack of lens cap, meaning that you have to check the outer-lens for paw prints before starting to shoot. I also imagine the plastic outer-lens will get scratched over time, resulting in image deterioration.
Building on the 3.34Megapixel, 5.27x3.96mm, CCD sensor of the original 33WR, the 43WR model comes with a 4.0Megapixels sensor and a maximum image size of 2288x1712pixels. The lens configuration remains the same, offering a 2.8x encapsulated optical zoom with an additional 4x digital, if you don’t mind manually removing the noise that brings to the shot. This translates to a 35mm equivalent focal length of 37 - 104mm. To add a multi-media string to its bow, the 43WR also records film clips and, more surprising, sound clips that can be directly added to images as vocal postscripts. Images are stored on a SecureDigital (SD) card that sits in the recess next to the 2 standard AA batteries. The standard power source might not give you as much life as a rechargeable Lithium battery, but its cheap mass availability of these batteries makes then ideal to travel with, particularly if you invest in a charger and add a pack of four currently top-rated 2300mAH rechargeables.
Buttons on the body are kept simple with standard pictograms indicating what everything does. The zoom rocker and the shutter release are perfect spaced to allow thumb and forefinger of the right hand to multi-task for the perfect shot. Toggling between shooting and picture viewing modes is quick and simple and the 4way rose-compass navigation, with centre ‘OK select’, offers quick movement through the menu system. This centre button also controls information appearing on the 1.6” LCD preview screen, while shooting, that includes a real-time image histogram and full shooting configuration details.
The pre-set shooting modes are more specialised than I have seen on a compact digital before. Settings for Fireworks, Flowers and surf offer compensation for exposure and shutter speeds in these difficult situations, although 10 separate modes could be a slight overkill.
The internal menus use a tab and scroll system allowing you to move between record, playback and general tools. Features of note are the preview on the white balance setting that lets you see the object in the viewfinder as you move between presets. The variation of digital filters that can be applied is impressive as is speed and ease of the trimming and resizing editing options to free up space fast without having to lose you existing images. I particularly like the features for those away from home, such as world clock and the 3 separate alarms you can set, each display a picture when they sound.
Speed of use is also surprising good. Power-on to shot-ready is as fast as the camera can pull focus and you can get a frame off in a little over a second in optimum conditions. The shutter response is extremely snappy and the accompanying literatures claim of 0.05 of a second seems reasonable. That said, rapid multiple-frame exposure is not fantastic, nor is the image-buffer, but compact digital cameras are not really designed for this and the behaviour of the 43WR is well above average.
Overall the 43WR is perfect for taking away. It's small, light and easy to use. The power source is universal; the design is tough and holiday-proof to the extreme. It doubles up as a Dictaphone and a travel alarm clock and is speedy enough to capture all the action when the great moment comes. I'd feel a bit more comfortable if the doors on the body had twist locks on them, to avoid compromising the sealed unit accidentally, but they seem to click into place quite firmly.