Retro Digital Review: Pentax *istD Camera Body

Is it time for us to start calling some digital equipment retro? Digital SLRs go out of style pretty quickly, sometimes as soon as a few years. However, there can be benefits to using older equipment, which I’ll try to cover in this review. The most obvious benefit is using equipment that was initially for pro-level photographers, but getting it at a cut-rate price used. While the *istD is on the borderline of what I would call pro-level, it does have a control layout that makes it justifiably part of that group.

History:
The Pentax *ist D (* is pronounced “star”) was the first DSLR released by Pentax in 2003. It is was and still is one of the smallest enthusiast-pro level camera bodies. If I can put it a bit harshly, Pentax regurgitated the internals of this camera into many of their following models. The closest is the *ist DS and DS2, but quite a few of the earlier K series cameras used the same sensor and presumably other internal parts. The *istD didn’t have a true successor until 3 years later with the K10D.

Overview video (youtube):

Body design and control:
At 129mm (W) x 94.5mm (H) x 60mm (D) (5.1″ x 3.7″ x 2.4″) this is a very small camera for an enthusiast-pro level DSLR, especially considering when it was released. It has two control wheels, a green button, top LCD, metering mode dial, AF button, and a generally solid feel.

The camera in detail video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMio1Ckk_PI

How it manages at the time of this review (2011):
The camera is very functional for an older camera. With 2.6 frames per second, it’s more than enough for general photography. The RAW buffer is decent at 5 frames, so I don’t often run into that. The big issue with this camera is how slow it processes and writes RAW files compared to current-day cameras, but that can partly be avoided by having instant review on. The gotcha is that instant review does not have the histogram, so getting a true idea of the result from the preview isn’t possible. One last consolation is that you can tweak the LCD screen’s brightness, so there is a chance that could help with instant review usability.

The camera has external controls that many entry level modes don’t have. Considering you can pick up one of these for a fraction of the price, it isn’t a bad option for people who prefer high end camera control over current day features. This is only one of three Pentax DSLRs that has true TTL capability, so it is a good match with older Pentax flash units such as the AF280T. The overall control scheme is very intuitive. Many buttons are dedicated to a group of features that are cycled through with a control wheel. The second LCD shows which setting or what value is being used. It’s a really nice way of control that doesn’t require the main LCD to be used like most entry-level cameras work.

Issues (now and/or then):
– The camera is slow to write to the card. This could also partly be with how long it takes for the camera to process the data, but speed does improve when using the small JPEG setting over medium and large (around 3 seconds for small, 5 for medium and large). PEF RAW take around 10 seconds and TIFF take a lot longer. Given that JPEG output isn’t ideal, RAW should be used if possible.
– The camera uses compact flash cards instead of SD like every other Pentax SLR available. There are adapters available, but they might slow down image writing even more.
– The grip could stand to be thicker to accommodate people with long fingers. An add-on battery grip exists for the camera that should help.
– The camera needs a CR2016 lithium battery. I’m not sure how other DSLRs handle this, but this camera has a port on the bottom for easy access. That could actually be a plus instead of a minus if other cameras have a battery inside. The main reason for this battery is to avoid having the main AA batteries installed, but still keep the time and date accurate.
– I’m use to using DNG RAW files instead of PEF ones. One benefit of DNG is that a “sidecar” photoshop .xmp file isn’t necessary for each raw file as Adobe Camera Raw can save RAW tweaks inside the DNG RAW file itself, but it can’t with PEF. The other benefit to DNG is that it is widely supported and should be the most future proof.
– The 4-way button is like a joystick instead of separate buttons, so it can be a bit difficult to use in practice.
– Having ISO, image quality, and white balance settings on the main function dial is a bit unusual. It works alright, but as you can see in my informational video that I didn’t realize I was on ISO mode for a while when I tried taking a test picture.
– The main LCD is small and looks like it uses a composite connection from the way the screen colors look and the flickering nature. The viewing angles are not that great either.
– No weather resistance claims like the K10D and onward had.
– SDM lenses won’t auto-focus because the camera doesn’t support that feature.
– No in-camera shake reduction.

Positives (now and/or then):
– Small yet featured body. Build construction and quality are high. The camera feels very solid in hand.
– It has a dedicated button for switching between single-shot, timer, multi-shot, and remote settings. I wish current cameras had that.
– It has a dedicated flash setting button for quick access. It also has a flash sync-port (PC port).
– The AC power port is a standard round style plug jack with markings stating the voltage (6.5v) and positive (interior pin) negative (exterior) orientation.
– Uses simple AA batteries. NiMH rechargeable work nicely with the camera.
– Three custom function saves. Allows you to have three different configurations of the custom settings menu options.
– The auto-focus point selection wheel is very easy to use. Easier than the one on the K-7 and K-5.
– It has a decent second LCD for settings with a light for night-time shooting. The panel is integral to operation because settings like ISO, output format, white balance, timer/remote/multi-shot/single-shot, and flash settings are controlled by a wheel or button plus the screen to show what setting is being used.
– It had many of the features current cameras have that improve usability. Info button quickly shows current camera settings. The green button with hyper-program. P/Tv/Av/M/Bulb modes. Metering switch, AF button, and others…
– Results at low ISO are very good with a nice lens. 6 mega-pixels can be enough for many situations, especially if you primarily post content to the Internet.
– The penta-prism viewfinder is still better than most entry-level cameras.
– Bracketing control is easy to access and use (hold the bracketing/DPOF button down and use the front wheel to cycle through settings).
– Most likely a cheap price.

Post-processed samples:

Technical information about the Camera:
Type: TTL autofocus, auto-exposure SLR digital-still camera with built-in retractable P-TTL flash
Effective Pixels: 6.10 megapixels
Sensor: Total pixels 6.31 megapixels (3110 × 2030), interline / interlace scan CCD with a primary color filter
Recorded Pixels: L (3008 × 2008 pixels), M (2400 × 1600 pixels), S (1536 × 1024, 1152 × 768, 960 × 640 pixels)
Sensitivity: Equivalent to ISO200, ISO400, ISO800, ISO1600, and ISO3200
File Format: RAW, TIFF (non-compressed), JPEG (Exif2.2)
Quality Level: DCF compliant, DPOF compatible RAW, TIFF, Best, Better, and Good
Storage Medium: CompactFlash TM (CF) Type I / Type II and Microdrive TM
Exposure mode: Green program AE mode, e (Hyper program) mode, b (Shutter-priority) mode, c (Aperture-priority) mode, a (Hyper manual exposure) mode, and p (Bulb) mode
LCD Monitor: 1.8 inch TFT Color LCD monitor with 118,000 pixels (with backlight)
Shutter: Electronically controlled vertical-run focal-plane shutter, Electromagnetic release, Speed range (1) Auto 1/4000-30 sec. (step less), (2) Manual 1/4000-30 sec. (1/2 EV step or 1/3 EV step) (3) Bulb Shutter lock by setting Main switch in OFF position.
Lens Mount: Pentax KAF bayonet mount (K-mount with AF coupler, lens information contacts)
Compatible Lens: Pentax KAF2, KAF mount lenses, KA mount lenses
Autofocus System: TTL phase-matching autofocus system (SAFOX VIII), AF operational brightness range: EV 0 to 19 (at ISO 200 with f/1.4 lens), Focus lock available, Focus Mode: AF.S (single) / AF.C (predictive continuous) / MF (manual), focus points changeable.
Viewfinder: Penta-prism finder, Natural-Bright-Matte focusing screen, Field of view: 95%, Magnification 0.95 × (with 50mm f/1.4 lens at ∞), Diopter: -2.5 to +1.5 m-1.
Preview: Electronically controlled and usable in all exposure modes
Self-timer: Electronically controlled with delay time of 12 sec. with mirror lock up in used. Start by pressing shutter release button. Operation confirmation: Possible to set PCV beep. Cancel-able after operation
Mirror: Quick-return mirror, mirror lock up function (2 sec. self-timer possible)
Auto bracket exposure: Three frames consecutive shots with exposure bracketing in [Selectable between 1/2EV and 1/3EV for Exposure setting step]
Exposure Meter: TTL multi(16)-segment metering, Metering range from EV1 to EV21.5 at ISO200, with 50mm f/1.4 lens, Center-weighted and Spot metering mode can be set.
EV compensation: ±3 EV in 0.5 EV steps increments
AE lock: Button type (timer type 20 sec.) possible to continue with shutter button halfway pressed
Built-in flash: GN 15.6 (ISO200/m), Angles of coverage: 18mm lens angle of view (equivalent to 28mm in 35mm format), Flash synchronization speed range at 1/150 sec. and a slower speed, Daylight-sync flash, Slow-speed-sync flash, Contrast-control-sync flash (ISO range = P-TTL: 200-3200 / TTL: 200-800).
Flash sync: Hot shoe with X-contact, which couples with Pentax dedicated auto flashes, ISO range = P-TTL: 200-3200 / TTL: 200-800, Automatic flash, Red-eye reduction flash function, High-speed-sync, wireless-sync with PENTAX dedicated flash.
Custom Function: 22 functions can be set.
Time function: World Time settings for 62 cities (28 time zones)
Power Source: Two CR-V3, four AA lithium batteries, AA Ni-MH rechargeable, or AA alkaline batteries.
Battery Exhaustion: Battery exhaustion symbol ? is lit. The shutter is locked and no indication in the viewfinder when ? starts blinking.
I / O Port: USB / Video terminal (PC communication USB1.1), external power supply terminal
Video Output format: NTSC / PAL
Dimension and Weight: 129mm (W) x 94.5mm (H) x 60mm (D) (5.1″ x 3.7″ x 2.4″) 550g (19.4 oz) body only without batteries

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