So you’ve probably owned a digital camera for a couple of years and when you bought it, 2 or 3 megapixels were something to be proud of. But these days, mobile phones are fast encroaching on the camera market and you might be thinking of upgrading.
Like everything, you have to make some important decisions. Do you buy a better compact, or do you stump up the extra cash and buy a digital SLR. If only there was something in between - a sort of best of both worlds compromise.
Well, the Pentax *istDL might just be that compromise. This is a digital SLR with 6.3 megapixels and is widely available bundled with an 18-55mm lens at around £550, putting it firmly in place at the top end of the compact camera price range.
So, what do you get? The *istDL is a scaled down version of the earlier *istDS SLR and what Pentax have done is to trim some of the features to bring the price down. In fact the “L” could well stand for “Lite” as the newer camera has reduced specifications. But, will the average punter notice the difference, or even care?
The camera is small and light for an SLR and this will appeal to those upgrading from a compact. And although I felt the camera wasn’t the most comfortable to hold, all the most-used controls are well laid out. The four-way controller on the back of the body however, I found a little unresponsive. A shame as it’s the main input device for the camera.
The main selling feature of the *istDL is it’s Autopicture mode, which Pentax claims lets the camera decide for you, which of the camera’s numerous shooting modes to adopt.
Great in principle, but I was sceptical. I don’t believe in testing equipment in optimum conditions, as you so rarely find yourself in optimum situations, so I thought I’d try to catch the camera out during my field trips.
Sure enough, when taking a landscape, it would adopt the Landscape setting, but the results were not all that great. Again, when focusing on moving objects it adopted the Action setting, but again the moment wasn’t captured very well.
The built-in flash would indeed pop-up in low light situations but the resulting images were very harshly lit.
I soon tired of the camera’s opinions in favour of manually selecting the various modes depending on conditions. This is a method that both I and most modern camera users are familiar with. Again, the results were disappointing.
The images were consistently underexposed and with sometimes ridiculously vivid colour saturations.
So, despite being very easy to use, the results are well below what can be achieved.
But, the great thing about this camera, is that being a Pentax, you can customise it to suit your tastes and working practises, and sure enough, after quite a bit of time spent adjusting the metering zones, the AF settings, the white balance, the auto exposure compensation, the flash compensation, the colour saturation, the contrast and the partridge in the pear tree, I started to get some usable pictures. But surely that’s not the point. This camera is aimed at those making the bold step into digital SLR photography and should produce impressive results straight from the box. In my opinion it doesn’t.
I even tried a total reset, restoring the whole shebang to factory settings, with no visible improvement. So again I set about fiddling with the metering zones, the AF settings, the white balance, etc, etc.
And another thing: making all those adjustments is quite a chore as they all have to be changed via the main menu. Some cameras out there have dedicated buttons to change the most-used settings, and this is where the Pentax’s size counts against it. I would like to be able to switch between spot metering and centre-weighted very quickly depending on what I’m shooting. The same is true of the drive mode. The *istDL can shoot at up to 2.8 frames per second, but by the time you’ve figured out you might need continuous shooting, whatever you wanted to shoot has long gone. It’s just a bit too fiddly, not helped by the fact that every time you access the menu, it doesn’t remember where you were - it defaults to the top level.
But, and it’s a jolly big but, once you’ve got it set up how you like it, the *istDL does produce some lovely pictures. The images carry very little digital noise, even at the fastest ISO setting. The internal mirror is quite noisy in operation and you can actually feel it moving (probably due to the camera’s slight build) but you do have the capacity to lock it up should conditions allow. The auto focus is accurate and generally pretty fast in acquisition.
The metering was patchy. I abandoned full frame metering almost immediately as it struggled with anything other than optimum lighting, but centre-weighted and spot metering were fine once I’d knocked the exposure compensation up half a stop.
The preset shooting modes gave mixed results. The Portrait mode produced pretty good results, with nice skin tones, as did the night mode (despite the slightly harsh flash). The Action mode I found next to useless and the Landscape setting struggles with anything approaching high contrast scenes
I would like to have seen the camera in action with an external flash as I felt the built-in unit wasn’t up to scratch - red eye was also a problem with the flash being so close to the lens. Of course there is a reduction setting but I tend not to use this on any camera as you can lose the spontaneity of candid portraiture.
One very useful feature is the power options - the camera should ideally be run from two CR-V3 camera batteries, but you can just as well slot in four AAs and start shooting. The manual warns that some functions may not operate when using AA batteries, but in testing I couldn’t find anything that didn’t work. (The batteries that came with the review model only lasted for around 70-80 shots - though I have no way of knowing how old they were, it’s worth bearing in mind that running AAs may not be the most efficient method.)
The bundled software was adequate, but far from perfect (a recurring theme with Pentax, in my mind) but with a little perseverance most issues can be overcome. A bit the like camera itself I suppose.
So, if you’re looking to upgrade from a compact or a first-time digital camera this is a good option. You will produce good images once you’ve set the camera up and you will have the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and external flashguns. If you’re looking for a good mid-range digital SLR then maybe you should think about something from the big two - Nikon and Canon - as their models are dropping in price and have better pedigrees, and in my mind are easier to handle despite their comparatively bigger sizes.