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Testing / Performance
The Pentax **ist DL packs an interline interlace 23.5 x 15.7 mm CCD with a primary color filter. This prosumer digital SLR can shoot 8 bit color in JPEG format and 12 bit in RAW. We tested how accurate those colors are by taking several exposures of the industry standard GretagMacbeth color chart. After uploading the images into Imatest Imaging Software, we analyzed the data and output charts to see how close the **ist DL’s colors come to reality. Below is a modified chart with the inner rectangle representing the chart’s true color, the inner square showing the color-corrected hue, and the outer square showing the Pentax’s depicted colors.
If all those colors look the same to you, check out this next chart – and get your eyes checked. The same results are shown with the squares representing the ideal colors from the original chart and the circles representing what the *ist DL produced. The farther those two shapes are from each other, the more inaccurate that particular color is.
The Pentax **ist DL offered an average performance with a lackluster 7.19 overall color score. While this would be decent for a compact digital camera, this is a little disappointing for an SLR. Even more disappointing is the tendency for the **ist DL to over-saturate colors by about 24.3 percent. This really makes the reds and pinks stand out, which may look good in portraits but will look strange in most other situations. This digital camera had a mean color error of 8.31, which isn’t terrible but isn’t typical of a pricey SLR either.
Still Life Scene
Below is the classic DigitalCameraInfo.com still life scene shot by the Pentax *ist DL.
Click on the image above to view a full-resolution picture, but beware of the large linked file.](https://www.reviewed.com/cameras/viewer.php?picture=istDL-StillLifeLG.jpg)
Resolution / Sharpness* (4.1)*
Pentax advertises 6.31 total megapixels on its CCD, with 6.1 of them effective in taking images. To test this out, we take several pictures of an industry standard resolution chart. We upload those images into Imatest to analyze their sharpness and to see how many pixels each picture is actually composed of. Many times the advertised count is a lot higher than what we actually find in the image files. In fact, if a camera comes within 70 percent of its advertised effective pixel count, we give it a "good" designation. A "very good" designation goes to cameras that use above 80 percent and "excellent" is for those that use above 90 percent.
Click on the chart above to view full res image](https://www.reviewed.com/cameras/viewer.php?picture=istDL-ResCH-LG.jpg)
Most digital SLRs perform well at this test because they usually pack high quality image sensors. However, the Pentax **ist DL didn’t live up to the DSLR standard. It recorded 4.1 megapixels, which is only 68 percent of its advertised count. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the pictures will look pixillated; it only means that users should be mindful when cropping and enlarging photographs from this model. The high quality JPEG shot with the **ist DL is over-sharpened by 18.39 percent, which is not too bad. In general, less in-camera sharpening is better, as users should be able to take this step later in photo editing software.
The reported resolution test results were based off a JPEG image captured with the *ist DL at f/9.5 at 55mm, using the kit lens.
Noise – Auto ISO* (9.37)*
The Pentax *ist DL has an interesting feature that lets the user set the top automatic ISO range, so instead of a broad 200-3200 range, users can choose a narrower range of 200-400 and then let the camera automatically choose between the two. This system proved efficient, with a 9.37 overall automatic ISO noise score. This is an impressive score for any digital camera.
Noise – Manual ISO* (12.09)*
This DSLR performed even better when we manually adjusted the ISO sensitivity. The noise levels remained fairly low, even for a digital SLR. Below is a chart with the Pentax *ist DL’s ISO ratings on the horizontal axis and the noise levels on the vertical axis.
This Pentax fared better than the Canon Rebel XT, which did quite well itself in terms of noise suppression. The **ist DL scored an overall manual ISO noise score of 12.09, higher than the XT’s 11.53. It should be taken into account that the Rebel does have more pixels than the **ist DL, in a slightly smaller body. The Pentax *ist DL also provides an extra ISO rating of 3200.
Low Light Performance* (5.5)*
In theory, any digital camera with a 3200 ISO rating and low noise scores should also perform well in low light. We tested the *ist DL by shooting exposures of the color chart at decreasing light levels of 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. 60 lux is about what your living room looks like at night with only two table lamps on. 30 lux is the equivalent of a single 40-watt bulb. 15 lux is about what you’d find in a broom closet with lighting coming from a hallway far, far away. 5 lux is almost total darkness.
The *ist DL was difficult to manipulate in low light. First, there were issues with the manual white balance. It had a really hard time measuring it and would read "no good" much of the time. When it did manually calibrate the white balance, it wasn’t consistent or accurate, so we tested the camera’s low light capabilities using the tungsten white balance mode. The second problem was the focus. As you can see, this Pentax has problems focusing in low light. The third problem is the color. The darker the surrounding light got, the more everything took on an overall bluish tint. All of the low light shots are splotchy and look like a cross between modern pop art and a Georges Seurat painting.
Speed / Timing
Start-up to First Shot (9.26)
The Pentax *ist DL powered up and took its first shot in 0.74 seconds, which is better than a compact digital camera but slower than most SLRs. Most compact cameras take about three seconds and most SLRs take about a tenth of a second. If this model aims to be the bridge between the two, then it succeeded with its start-up time right in between the two types.
Shot to Shot Time (9.2)
Other than Olympus’ E-300, the *ist DL must be one of the slower SLRs with an unimpressive burst mode. It takes 0.8 seconds between shots in the regular burst mode. In the First Four mode, it takes a picture at an average of every 0.58 seconds. In the Last Four mode, it takes one at an average of every 1.1 seconds.
Shutter to Shot Time (8.78)
The shutter lag in this model was a bit disappointing at 0.11 seconds. Most SLRs hardly have any, so even this fraction of a second is something to be frowned upon.
The Pentax *ist DL shares fundamental design features with most current digital SLRs – a large grip bulges forward on the left side of the camera, and a viewfinder hump juts up above the lens. The handgrip is covered in a leather-patterned rubber so it's not slippery, but it features a sharp ridge on its face. The ridge would only be comfortable if your last finger joints wrap around it – mine don't, so I would prefer a smooth curve. On the front of the grip, just about where the user's middle finger wraps around, there's a small, dark window for the self-timer and the cordless remote control. Capping the grip, the large chrome shutter release sits surrounded by the main switch, a ring that turns to start the camera and activate the depth-of-field preview.
At the bottom of the narrow area between the grip and the lens mount is the lens release button. The K-AF lens mount dominates the front of the camera, sitting like Cyclops's eye under the heavy jutting brow of the pentamirror hump, which also houses a flip-up flash and bears the Pentax logo. Low and on the right side of the lens mount, there's a good-sized switch to activate the autofocus connection between the camera and compatible lenses. The "AF" setting is printed in a rich green. High on the right side, almost on the camera's shoulder, Pentax printed "**istD" with a red asterisk. Below that, there's a squishy silicone badge that bears a white "L" on a red background, completing the camera's problematic name. ("**ist DL" is pronounced "isst Dee Ell." The asterisk is silent.) The right edge of the front is adorned with a ridge that seems aesthetically motivated – it doesn't facilitate an easier hold on the camera, but it does recall the ridge on the grip and a ridge on the back.
Several major controls are lined up along the left side of the camera. From the top, they are: the control for the flip-up flash, the Menu button, the Trash button, the Info button, and the Playback button. Labels for the flash, Menu, and Info are printed in silver paint, while Trash and Playback are in a very pretty royal blue. The blue looks good, but it doesn't pop the way the silver does, so the color choice seems like a triumph of style over functionality. There was a functional intent to the color-coding, however: the blue printed labels all refer to Playback functions.
The 2.5-inch, 210,000 pixel LCD fills a big patch of real estate under the viewfinder, and it sits on a raised panel that gives the impression that all the controls on the back are a bit recessed. Just below it, there's a Pentax logo. Above and to the right of the LCD is a control dial which adjusts magnification in playback mode and exposure in shooting modes. Below that, there's a four-way controller with an OK button in the middle, and below that is the Function button, which calls up shooting controls on the LCD. Further below and to the right is a status light indicating when images are being written to Secure Digital cards. An "SD" logo, in blue, accents the light. At the far right on the back, near the bottom, is a latch that opens a door covering the SD card slot. Toward the top right, there's an exposure lock button that doubles as the image protect button in Playback mode.
A narrow ridge pokes up along the far right edge of the back, as if to form an indentation for the user's thumb. I found the ridge uncomfortable.
Left Side* (7.0)*
The *ist DL has a nearly pristine left side. Near the shoulder, it features a heavy lug for a neck strap. Below that, an inconspicuous door covers jacks for a cabled remote control, USB and A/V connections, and an AC adapter. The door is a thin slip of plastic on a spring-loaded hinge. It has no latch, and could be snagged on clothing or other things, and accidentally pop open or even be broken off.
Right Side* (7.0)*
Like the left side, the right side of the *ist DL is a model of design restraint, featuring another fine neck strap lug and a door. This door covers the SD card slot, and unlike the door on the right, it's protected by a latch. The door swings well out of the way of the card, making it easy to pinch the tiny SD media as you insert or remove them.
From the left, there is a large, well-labeled mode dial, with icons indicating scene modes and letters for manual and partially automated modes. The viewfinder hump accommodates a flip-up flash and a hot shoe that's compatible with generic flashes and Pentax's dedicated units. More towards the right, there is a monochrome LCD display which features exposure data, battery status, and shooting options. Between the LCD and the shutter release is the exposure compensation button, which also activates the aperture control in manual mode. The camera’s power button is accompanied by a Depth of Field preview function – a nice touch, helping provide easy access and engagement when shooting.
The battery compartment door makes up a big chunk of the bottom of the *ist DL, under the grip. There is a metal tripod bushing centered on the optical axis, and possibly with the imaging plane. That's just where it belongs, and just what it should be made of.
I noticed a bit of darkening in the corners of the *ist DL's viewfinder, even without my glasses. This seems to be a problem with the eyepiece, rather than the focusing screen or lens, because I could see each corner fully illuminated as I shifted my eye – I just couldn't see them bright all at once.
The viewfinder includes a healthy dose of information, so you can keep the *ist DL in shooting position more of the time, and perhaps catch shots you might otherwise miss. The data shown are: the autofocus area, the spot metering area, the flash mode, the white balance mode, the focusing mode, the scene mode (Pentax calls it the Picture Mode), a focus confirmation indicator, shutter speed, aperture, EV compensation, the number of frames left on the SD card, an exposure lock indicator, and an ISO warning indicator, which signals if the automatic ISO feature sets the camera above a preset sensitivity.
LCD Screen* (8.0)*
*Color LCD Panel--*The *ist DL's 2.5-inch, 210,000 pixel LCD is relatively large and high-resolution for an inexpensive DSLR. Konica Minolta's Maxxum 5D hits 2.5 inches, but with only 115,000 pixels, and the rest of the sub-$1000 pack – Canon's Rebels, Nikon's D70s and D50, and Olympus's E-300 and E-1 – have either 2-inch or 1.8-inch LCDs with resolutions between 110,000 and 135,000.
A 2.5-inch display has twice the area of a 2-inch display, so there's an obvious difference between reviewing images on the *ist DL and on its competitors. The LCD isn't just big, it also has very good color reproduction and dynamic range. Off-axis performance is the only weak point of the LCD – it posterizes the onscreen image as you look at it from even a slight angle.
Top LCD Panel-- The monochrome LCD panel on top of the *ist DL shows current camera shooting settings. They are: shutter speed, aperture, flash mode, drive mode (including single shot, continuous, self-timer and remote), focusing area, battery status, metering area, exposure compensation, shots left, and, when the USB jack is plugged in, whether the camera is set to communicate with a printer or a computer. The type and logos are readable and laid out well, so it's an easy display to read.
The *ist DL's built-in flash has a guide number of 15.6 (metric) at ISO 200. That means that a subject at 2 meters is well exposed at about f/8. That's enough power for casual use and fill flash. The flash flips up above the lens, just the right spot to limit unsightly shadows. Since it's in line with the lens, it casts shadows directly behind the subjects, which hide them.
The flash output can be adjusted from one stop overexposure to two stops underexposure in either half- or third-stop increments. The flash exposure apparently remains automated – you can't set the flash to uniformly pop off at full power or half power. Instead, the camera bases output on a meter reading of a pre-flash, and you can bias the output based on that reading.
The flash itself is very small, which means that it casts harsh, unpleasant light that will accentuate skin blemishes and oily skin. Users who plan to rely on a flash should consider getting an accessory flash that can bounce light or shoot through a diffuser. The Pentax AF360FGZ allows a much broader range of control than the built-in flash unit.
It stands to reason that the AF360FGZ would offer more controls than the built-in unit, such as bounce and high-speed sync. Oddly though, the external flash offers rear-curtain sync, but the built-in flash does not. Rear-curtain sync times the flash to fire at the end of the shutter's exposure – it's a function of the camera, not the flash, so it's odd that you need to buy an extra flash to make it work.
The kit lens for the *ist DL is a Pentax 18-55mm zoom with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm and f/5.6 at 55mm. The lens's angle of view is comparable to a 28-90mm lens on a 35mm camera, which is a useful range for landscapes, group pictures, and portraits.
The lens is very similar to the ones included with comparable DSLRs, although not quite as sharp. Like most other DSLR kit lenses, the lens tends to distort at the wide angle end. F/5.6 is awfully slow for a short zoom, and really not suitable for indoor available-light photography.
The lens mount is metal, which is more sturdy than the plastic mounts on the Nikon and Canon entries. Pentax offers a line of lenses for wider angles, greater magnification, or brighter maximum apertures.
Design / Layout
Model Design / Appearance* (7.0)*
The Pentax *ist DL is an attractive camera. Its lines are smooth and curving, but punctuated by some well placed edges. The camera is small and manageable. The styling is consistent throughout – lines flow nicely from front to back and top to bottom. The color accents – red, green, and silver on the front, silver and blue on the back – are deft and subtle.
Size / Portability* (7.5)*
At 4.9 x 3.7 x 2.6 inches and less than 20 ounces, the *ist DL is remarkably small among DSLRs. The Canon Rebel XT is comparably small at 5 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches, and the other sub-$1000 cameras aren't much bigger. Photographers jumping from 35mm SLRs to digital SLRs (are there any of those photographers left?) will probably be surprised by how small and light the *ist DL is. The camera will be comfortable to carry on a shoulder strap for a day of sightseeing or other events.
Unlike compact models, more advanced cameras do not slip unobtrusively into pockets or backpacks. The **ist DL's shape is the typical one for a DSLR, with a bulge on the top and a lens poking forward. Though the battery and media card doors latch securely, the cable door does not, making it vulnerable to snags on fabric or loose items in a bag. The practical way to transport the **ist DL is in its own bag, perhaps one that can hold an extra lens and a couple sets of batteries.
Handling Ability* (6.5)*
I find the *ist DL uncomfortable to hold. One ridge on the handgrip and another along the back right edge of the camera hit my hand in uncomfortable spots. The ridge along the back edge forces my thumb vertical, rather than angled in a bit. The camera ends up higher in my palm than I would like, and my grip isn't as secure as I want it to be. The lens however makes a nice gripping plane for the user's left hand.
A number of DSLRs have two jog dials to control exposure, offering flexibility that the **ist DL lacks. In manual mode, for instance, the **ist DL's control wheel controls the shutter speed, but a combination of controls is required to change the aperture – you have to hold down the EV compensation button while turning the wheel. It's a bit awkward, and it takes the user's finger off of the shutter release.
Though the viewfinder display shows a wide range of shooting settings, exposure compensation and manual exposure settings are the only ones that are practical to change with your eye at the viewfinder. Switching exposure modes shuts off the viewfinder display and activates the color LCD.
Changing focusing mode, white balance, ISO, flash mode, and continuous shooting mode all require looking at the back LCD. They're straightforward, easy controls to operate, but it's much slower to take the camera away from your eye and look at the back of it than it would be to make the changes while looking through the viewfinder.
To access controls in Playback mode, it's likely that most users will hold the camera with their left hand, by the lens, and operate the controls with their right hand. The controls for Playback are easy to see and use that way.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size* (6.5)*
If you've used one of the smaller compact digital cameras lately, you'll appreciate the size and layout of the *ist DL's controls. They're big enough to be easy to use, and they're far enough apart to prevent accidental presses of two buttons at once. The delete button, identified with a trash can, has a small nub on its face, providing a tactile warning that you're pressing it. The AE lock button however is too close to the right edge of the *ist DL's back, again forcing my thumb afoul of the ridge on the right side of the camera.
The control dial turns easily, with positive clicks that provide good feedback while setting exposure, or less critically, while enlarging images in playback mode. It's a small dial. Though it's superior to the rocker switches that compact cameras would use for the same jobs, many SLRs have bigger, easier-to-use dials. The mode dial is much stiffer, perhaps to prevent accidental switches. It's entirely usable, but it's so tight you might think it's broken.
The power switch is a bright spot on the *ist DL: a ring around the shutter release, it's a positive control that's unlikely to be activated accidentally. Its particularly cool distinction is that it doubles as a depth-of-field preview control. That's a good placement for a significant feature.
*The menus on the *ist DL provide access to a wide range of controls, and they are subdivided in tabbed headings. Icons indicate what the tabs include, which makes it relatively easy to find the various controls.
The most frequently used shooting settings appear in the Function menu, which pops up when you press the handy Fn button, instead of after a lengthy rummaging through the menu after pressing the menu button.
The Record menu includes settings that many users might well change while shooting, plus a few others that ought to be in the Set-up or Custom menus. Though resolution and quality settings belong in Record, "Instant Review" and "Auto Bracket" are more obscure, and should be buried in another tab.
The Playback, Set-up, and Custom menus include some nonstandard, odd abbreviations, generally concocted by dropping vowels. A bit of experience with the camera will make them all familiar, but they won't make sense off the bat.
Ease of Use*** (7.0)*
The **ist DL is not a hard camera to use or control – there's a logic to its layout, and there are good options for customizing its automated features. However, it should be easier to adjust the aperture in manual modes; pressing a button while turning the control wheel with the same hand is unnecessarily awkward. The ridges on the grip and back right side of the camera limit the comfortable positions for holding the **ist DL, and that seems unnecessary too.
The menus are organized well, with a few exceptions, and the odd abbreviations amount to a minor flaw. The autofocus mechanism is decidedly low-end, with only three sensors and mediocre low light performance. Those are drawbacks users will have to wrestle with.
As limited as it is, the camera software is very clearly laid out, though I had a bit of trouble figuring out how to save TIFFs from Laboratory, the RAW converter. Odd fact: the option is not in the Save dialog.
Auto Mode* (7.5)*
The **ist DL has three automated modes. The exposure compensation control works in all its automated modes, including the scene modes. The **ist DL offers a Program mode, which sets both the aperture and shutter speed, plus shutter and aperture priority modes.
White balance and ISO can be automated or manually set. The automated modes are set via the mode dial, on the top of the camera, to the left of the viewfinder.
The *ist DL does not offer a movie mode.
Drive / Burst Mode*(6.0)*
The *ist DL is rated to shoot as fast as 2.5 frames per second in continuous shooting mode. That's not very fast, when you're shooting sports or anything quick-moving. I couldn't get 2.5 fps from the camera – it was more like 2 fps for the first three frames, and then a hiccup before the next couple of frames.
With its 2.5-inch, 210,000-pixel LCD, the *ist DL offers above average image review. The magnification control goes up to 12x, which gives a very good idea of how sharp the image is. The camera will display the image by itself, with a histogram superimposed, or with the file name, exposure, and shooting data. It's also possible to display nine thumbnail images at a time on the display, and in thumbnail mode, to select multiple images for deletion. Images can also be deleted one at a time. The LCD makes the Playback Mode on this camera. Its size, resolution, and color are excellent, which makes it feasible to check image quality onscreen.
The camera has a slide show mode, which shows all the images on the SD card in succession. The images will show for 3, 5, 10 or 30 seconds each. The *ist DL does not offer cropping or a choice of transitions for the slide show.
Custom Image Presets* (7.5)*
When the custom presets are engaged, many options in the Record mode are locked out. The presets take over tone, saturation, sharpness, contrast, white balance, and autofocus mode.
People who use presets would probably find a "Snow/Sand" setting useful. Of the dozens of scene modes that appear on feature-bloated compact cameras, that's the only useful one that's missing from this list. On the other hand, "Normal" seems a little odd – why not just set the camera to "Program" instead?
Manual Control Options
The *ist DL offers full manual control of exposure, plus aperture priority and shutter priority modes. White balance and ISO can also be set manually. This level of control is standard among SLRs. Also, exposure can be adjusted in either 1/2- or 1/3-stop increments.
Auto Focus (5.5)
The *ist DL offers both single and continuous autofocus. Unfortunately, the autofocus mechanism is limited and slow. Three autofocus sensor sites are packed close together in the middle of the frame. The system can be set to use only the middle sensor, or choose from among the three. The viewfinder indicator for the sites suggests that the sites are pretty large, so it can be hard to be sure that the camera is focusing in exactly the right spot – on the subject's eye, rather than on their nose, for instance.
In comparison, Canon's Rebel has seven very small sensor sites spread more broadly across the frame, and it's possible to select any of them. The Nikon D50 is comparable, with five sites spread pretty widely and similar controls.
In single-focus mode, the *ist DL offers a nice feature – after it locks in, the focus ring is freed, and the user can touch up the focus. That's great if the camera missed by a little, or if the subject moves slightly.
Manual Focus (6.25)
The *ist DL offers manual focus on its relatively bright viewfinder screen. Focus snaps in nicely.
The *ist DL has a full manual mode, as well as aperture priority and shutter priority modes. The exposure compensation control functions in aperture and shutter priority modes, as well as in program mode, and in the scene modes. Exposure compensation is also available in 1/3 or 1/2 – stops.
The **ist DL offers spot, averaging, or evaluative metering. Spot measures exposure in a small circle centered in the frame, while averaging takes a measurement of the whole frame, with an emphasis on the center. The evaluative system takes readings of areas across the frame, and uses a logic system to figure out which readings to use and which to throw out. Evaluative metering should be able to figure out that bright spots in the upper corners of a view are patches of sky, and ought to be neglected in favor of darker subjects closer to the center of the frame. The **ist DL's evaluative system works well, and is the best option for automated modes. Spot and averaging metering are more valuable for manual modes.
White Balance* (7.5)*
The *ist DL offers eight white balance presets. They are: sun, shade, overcast, three shades of fluorescent, plus tungsten and electronic flash. That's a good selection. The camera also offers a custom setting, and a convenient option for making custom measurements: you can make a setting based on the average tone of the entire frame, or based on a spot reading from the center of the frame. That could be useful for photographing inaccessible subjects under distinctive lighting – a stage performance is a good example.
The **ist DL offers ISO sensitivities in full steps from 200 to 3200, and not just for bragging rights. Though its 3200 is noisy, it's useful in the right setting. The **ist DL also offers an Auto ISO setting, which can be set with either an upper limit or a warning. The limit setting can keep the ISO below 400, 800, 1600, or 3200, or the warning will signal if the ISO goes above those levels.
Shutter Speed* (7.75)*
The *ist DL’s shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/4000 of a second, plus "B" for manual timed exposures. In manual modes, the shutter speed can be set in either 1/2- or 1/3-stops. In automated modes, shutter speed is stepless.
As I went over the camera, I got the camera to make exposures as long as 20 seconds in the scene modes with the flash turned off. The display blinks, alerting the user to the slow shutter speed and the need for a flash, but the camera goes ahead and shoots. Of course, if the camera isn't on a tripod, the shot will be very, very blurry.
That's a good feature for experienced photographers who hate having to override "safety features" designed to protect inexperienced users from spoiling their shots. On the other hand, inexperienced users are going to get frustrated by all those spoiled shots.
The kit lens supplied with the *ist DL has a maximum aperture that runs from f/3.5 to f/5.6 as it zooms from 18 to 55 mm. The minimum aperture also varies, running from f/22 to 40. For a camera body with such good low light potential – a usable ISO 3200 is nothing to sneeze at in any price range – a kit lens with an f/5.6 aperture at one end of the zoom range is just a waste. Low light enthusiasts might want to skip the kit lens and get a brighter piece of glass.
Since there is only one exposure jog dial applied to the *ist DL, users will have to hold down the exposure button while moving the jog dial to alter the F-stop unless shooting in Aperture Priority mode. This is a bit tedious. The Nikon D70s includes two separate jog dials – one designated for aperture and the other for shutter speed controls.
Picture Quality / Size Options* (8.0)*
The *ist DL shoots at 6, 4, or 1.5 megapixels, and it offers three levels of JPEG compression. The camera also shoots in RAW mode, which is only available at full resolution. Many cameras offer an even lower setting – maybe a 640 x 480 "email" setting – but it seems a misuse of the camera to take pictures as low-res as that. The levels of JPEG compression are significantly varied. "Good" files are about a third of the size of "Best" files, but they show much more noise. "Best" quality is apparent in printing.
Picture Effects Mode* (8.5)*
The *ist DL offers four image processing filters, for adding special effects to images after they have been shot. The four effects are: Black and White; Sepia; Soft, which gives a diffuse, soft-focus effect; and Slim, which squeezes or stretches the image. All the filters preserve the original file and save the modified version as a new image.
The *ist DL also enables adjustments of saturation, sharpness, and contrast. Each of the controls has five steps, running from two steps below the default to two steps above. The LCD screen clearly shows the differences that the settings make on images, so it's possible to use them by trial and error while shooting.
Connectivity / Extras
The *ist DL ships with Pentax Photo Browser and Pentax Photo Laboratory software. Browser is for sorting and viewing images, and watching them as slide shows. Oddly, it doesn't download photos from the camera. You have to drag and drop them via your operating system. The Laboratory software converts RAW images to JPEGs or TIFFs. RAW offers adjustments for white balance, sensitivity, saturation, contrast, and sharpness, and the option to adjust curves.
Both the Browser and the Laboratory packages are limited. Though their controls are easy to use, the Browser offers a very thin feature set, and the Laboratory doesn't offer much advantage over the in-camera settings. Many RAW converters allow finer controls than the cameras does, so this package is relatively lacking.
Jacks, Ports, Plugs (8.0)
The *ist DL has a USB 2.0 port and video out in either PAL or NTSC format. The camera accepts an AC power adapter as well, and can be operated by either a corded remote control or an infrared remote.
Direct Print Options (6.5)
The **ist DL is PictBridge and DPOF compatible, so you don't need a computer to print your pictures. The **istDL allows the user to choose individual images to print, or to print all the images on the SD card. Printing options include the number of copies, paper size, whether to print with borders, whether to print the date on the image, and settings for paper and printing quality. The *ist DL does not offer the option of printing index pages or multiple copies of an image on a single sheet of paper. The same options are available for DPOF printing, which saves the printing options on the SD card. Photo shops and labs with compatible printers can download a print order directly from the card.
The **ist DL takes four AA batteries. The camera is packaged with a set of alkaline cells, but the manual warns that they aren't adequate for shooting – they're just included to let you make sure the camera works. We tested the camera with rechargeable NiMH batteries, which are the recommended option. Most DSLRs ship with custom li-ion rechargeables, which typically last longer than NiMH cells, so battery life is not a strong point for the **ist DL.
The **ist DL accepts SD cards, but Pentax does not include media with the camera. There is no built-in memory either, so be sure to factor in the cost of an SD card when considering the **ist DL. It's also important to note that the camera's RAW files are about 10MB, while its full-size, best-quality JPEGs are over 2.5MB. In short, it's worth thinking about 512MB or 1GB cards, not the little ones.
Other Features* (6.0)*
*Sensor Cleaning Mode – *Bowing to the inevitability of dust, Pentax engineers included a sensor cleaning mode on the *ist DL. When the sensor gets a bit of crud on it, clean it very carefully.
Remote Controls – *Pentax makes a wireless infrared remote control that is compatible with the **ist DL. "Remote Control F" is spec'ed to function up to 5 meters away from the camera. The *ist DL's IR pickup is on the handgrip, facing forward, so it is situated best for self-portraits via remote control.
*Self-Timer – *The *istDL offers two self-timer settings: one with a three-second delay and one with a 10-second delay.
*It's great to see an inexpensive DSLR with a usable ISO 3200 setting. Buying this camera with an f/2.0 or f/1.4 lens would be an inexpensive option for users interested in low light shooting, and for such night owls, such a setup would be a good value. For users who don't plan to specialize in low light photography, competitive cameras with better autofocus mechanisms could be a better choice, though it's awfully hard to overlook that great LCD. With more than a couple LCDs beyond 200K pixels on compact cameras, it's pretty hard to justify the nasty little displays we see on DSLRs. It's also great to see another inexpensive DSLR with a metal chassis and other features that indicate durability. No one knows what the latest cameras will be like 10 years from now, but I'm willing to bet that the average *ist DL will take a decade of active use and still perform well.
Nikon D50 – The D50 is Nikon's entry level DSLR, and it has much in common with the **ist DL: they are both 6.1 megapixel cameras, both use SD cards, and both record RAW as well as JPEGs. The specs say that the **ist DL is about 10 percent faster in continuous shooting mode -- 2.8 fps versus 2.5 fps. The Nikon has a big advantage in autofocus, with its five sensors, versus the **ist DL's three. Nikon's autofocus performs very well in low light, as well – another significant advantage over the **ist DL. On the other hand, the **ist DL's 2.5-inch, 210,000 pixel LCD puts to shame the D50's 2-inch 130,000 display. The D50's ISO ratings top out at 1600, a stop lower than the **ist DL. The **ist DL is two ounces lighter and smaller in every dimension than the D50. The D50 uses a lithium-ion cell, which is included, for power. The battery should last longer than the **ist DL's AA NiMH batteries, which Pentax recommends, but does not include.
Canon Digital Rebel –*The Rebel also has many basic specs in common with the **ist DL. With a 6.3 megapixel chip, the Rebel's resolution is functionally the same as the **ist DL's, and its continuous shooting mode is 2.5 fps, which is comparable to but still slower than the **ist DL. As Nikon does, Canon delivers superior autofocus performance with its seven-sensor arrangement, but lacks an ISO 3200 setting. Canon includes a lithium-ion battery, which should outperform the AAs that *ist DL takes. The *ist DL beats the Rebel in the LCD display race – the Rebel sports a meager 1.8-inch, 118,000 pixel display. At about $50 less than the *ist DL, the Rebel is a strong competitor.
Canon Rebel XT –*In terms of specs, the Rebel XT looks very much like an 8 megapixel upgrade of the Rebel, but it is smaller and lighter than the Rebel, and just about the same size as the **ist DL. The Rebel XT has improved and faster electronics, so it matches the *ist DL's continuous shooting rate of 2.8 fps, but it does it with 8 megapixel files. Canon saddles the Rebel XT with a puny, 1.8-inch, 115,000 pixel LCD. The **ist DL offers more than twice the screen area and nearly twice the resolution. The **ist DL's solid build and sturdy feel is superior to the Rebel XT's flimsy, delicate impression.
- Olympus EVOLT E-300 –*The E-300 resembles the **ist DL in a number of ways – both are DSLRs with very robust builds, and they sell for very comparable prices – though the E-300 kit is advertised these days with both the kit lens and a telephoto zoom. The E-300 is an 8 megapixel camera, which is a significant advantage, but in our testing, the E-300's images show more noise and worse color accuracy than images from the **ist DL. Unlike the other comparison cameras listed above, the E-300 has only three autofocus sites, and by that measure does not beat the **ist DL. The E-300 is nearly an inch wider than the **ist DL, but since it lacks a viewfinder hump, it's 0.4 inches shorter as well. The E-300's 1.8-inch, 134,000 pixel LCD is slightly better than the Canon displays, but it’s much smaller and has a lower resolution than the *ist DL's.
Pentax *ist DS –*The DS preceded the DL to market by just nine months. It lists for about $100 more and seems identical, with two key exceptions – it has an 11-sensor autofocus system and it does not write RAW files. The autofocus system is more flexible by virtue of the number of sensors, and if it follows the industry trend, it's probably more capable – most manufacturers build in better speed to their more sophisticated autofocus systems. DS owners may very well wish they could write RAW files. Especially in low light shooting, many photographers rely on RAW files to handle broad dynamic range. (Note: Pentax recently updated the DS to incorporate the same 2.5-inch LCD that the DL boasts. Not all spec sheets may reflect this, and consumers buying the DS should be sure they buy new cameras with the larger LCD, or get a significant discount on the old, 2-inch LCD model.)
Who It’s For**
*Point-and-Shooters – *As friendly as the *ist DL is, it's too big for casual users. These folks should look at compact cameras that are designated with an "SLR-like" styling, where they might get image stabilization and a longer zoom for less money.
*Budget Consumers - *For the budget consumer who must have a DSLR, the *ist DL could be an option. It's capable, it’s inexpensive, and Pentax backs it up with a relatively inexpensive line of lenses. Its apparent durability might well be a factor for budget consumers as well – repairing cameras is always costly.
Gadget Freaks - *Though the **ist DL is a pretty camera, its feature set is fairly middle-of-the-road. There is no unique technology to set the *istDL apart from the pack.
*Manual Control Freaks - *DSLRs always offer manual controls. Since the *ist DL's interface for adjusting the aperture requires two fingers, rather than one, it doesn't seem like an outstanding choice for this market, though the ISO 3200 setting is admittedly nice.
*Pros / Serious Hobbyists - *The *ist DL doesn't strike me as a Pro camera. Its autofocus holds it back, as does its reliance on power-hungry AA batteries.
**The **ist DL is a reasonable entry in the entry level DSLR market. The camera's most unique features in that market, the 2.5-inch LCD and the ISO 3200 setting, are real strengths. For some shoppers, they should be enough to decide the issue. The **ist DL's other good qualities – very solid construction, relatively small size and clean design – are not unique in the market, but they are still very attractive.
The *ist DL is notably inferior to other sub-$1000 DSLRs in only two areas: its autofocus mechanism is less advanced than the Nikon and Canon offerings, and its handgrip is less comfortable than others. The autofocus issue is likely to be a substantial one to many users, but some people’s hands will be better suited to the handgrip than mine.
It's worth noting that sub-$1000 DSLRs are all slow, compared to professional cameras. Users who hope to analyze a golf swing or catch that slide into home plate are going to be disappointed with the *ist DL and its ilk. These cameras are cheaper than the top of the line models for a reason, and most of the corners that manufacturers cut affect speed.
All that said, the *ist DL is a useful tool that could serve as a good first DSLR. Its automatic modes are easy to use, and its manual controls are complete.
Specs / Ratings
Specs Table **
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