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The Most Likeable *ist



If you were to convene the top 10 or 50 or 200 photography gurus and ask them to rank the top 10 or 50 or 200 features of a camera in order of importance, you probably wouldn't find "likeability" high on their lists. Likeability? The ability to be liked. Having some quality, maybe indefinable, that draws others near, that makes you fun to be with. Which makes the experience of your company, and the anticipation of it, all very welcome. The gurus wouldn't think of listing that, because it's such a difficult trait to quantify, and non-quantification is so ungurulike.

In days of yore, gurus (then called "experts") spellbound their listeners with talk of f/stops and shutter speeds, gamma curves and circles of confusion. The younger generation invokes all the same math with a different set of numbers-pixel-resolution and buffer size and how many JPEGs per megabyte? But, always with a bottom line. And likeability falls either way above or way below the bottom line.

Which is why you'll find few full-page ads for cameras headlined, "try me, you'll like me."

If you were to convene the top 10 or 200 photographers themselves, on the other hand, you'd probably find "likeability" high up in the ratings. Cameras get in the face of these people, and we do mean literally. If they don't go for likeable, there must be something wrong with them.

What makes something likeable? What are the ingredients of likeability, how do you deconstruct it down to its constituent pieces and embrace its very essence? Well, let's see if we can find something to use as an example. Oh, the Pentax *ist D. Once you get past the name, it's a case-study in likeability.

This is evident the moment you pick the camera up. The *ist D is a terse, tight little instrument, the most compact of its type, with a quick and sure response to subject conditions. It's a pleasure to hold, has quite a bright viewfinder, and a terrific layout of menu and physical controls-buttons, knobs, and switches. But mostly, when it takes a picture, it makes the coolest sound-sort of a zzzzzzt! It's adorable.

Making Its Place

The *ist D is not the first foray by Pentax into the DSLR market, but it is the first successful one. About four years ago, at photokina and such, Pentax was talking about a DSLR with a full-frame imager (that is to say, film-size). Scuttlebutt at the time involved an imager made by Philips, also used by the Contax DSLR. The latter made a brief appearance on the American market and then a hasty retreat, and the Pentax, so far as we know, never reached the shelves at all. Possibly in reaction to that early undertaking, Pentax was the last of the majors to get a DSLR to the market. What they finally brought out shows that they spent their time thinking about it.

From bright to dark, PIONEER's crew and her own self. All well-detailed through a many-stop exposure range.

By the time it started shipping late last autumn, the *ist D entered what has become, startlingly, a generic class of DSLR cameras. These are models generally selling for between one and two-thousand dollars, mostly in the 5- to 6-megapixel range, with advanced photographic and digital features, and construction of a level you'd expect in 35mm SLRs at the midrange consumer level. In digital this would include the Canon Digital Rebel and 10D, Fujifilm FinePix Pro S2, Nikon's D70 and D100, and probably the Sigma SD10. The Olympus E-1 fits the same price and feature range, but has the more environment-proof construction of the "pro" DSLRs as Canon and Nikon define them, whose "pro" models are priced in a range upwards from about $3,500.

What constitutes a "professional" camera anymore these days is a question that comes up frequently. By one definition, almost any high-end digital consumercam could be called "professional," as its features exceed the range and usefulness of corresponding features on the highest-end, most expensive, made-for-the-pro camera in 1990. And with built-in zoom specs above 8x becoming ubiquitous (when you read this, Minolta will have announced their first 12x, echoing the 12x Panasonic brought out last December), the high-end consumer models present optical prowess that anyone using interchangeable lenses, even on today's DSLRs, would dream about and envy. If fixed-lens consumercams optically outperform the interchangeable-lens DSLRs, the term "professional camera" asks for reconsideration.

Pentax has upgraded the 15mm lens that made this image with its sparkling detail, despite being "last year's model."

Yet for reasons so far uncertain, the fact seems to be that interchangeable-lens DSLRs produce better pictures than their fixed-lens counterparts. Most of the high-end consumer models make great pictures, but the DSLRs are still better. Few of the permanent-lens models have deigned call themselves "pro." If there's a class for them to lump into, it's usually that nebulous compound of features and specs called "prosumer."

Despite that, the term "professional" is used only once in the group the Pentax *ist D now joins, by the Fujifilm FinePix Pro S2. Talk to reps from most of the other companies, they use the term "prosumer" for their market descriptions. They'll acknowledge the broad professional command of their $1,500-or-so DSLRs, and rightly so, (just as we can for the fixed-lens models), but say that a "professional camera" is one that's buttoned-up against thunder and lightning. Anyhow, Canon and Nikon and Olympus reps have been heard to say so.

Kodak, on the other hand, makes no claim for the splashproofness of their new DSLRs, the Pro SLR/n and the Pro SLR/c. Notice that word "pro?" It's the Kodak Professional Division that produces the camera, so you can't say the term is unbefitting. But it does throw into further uncertainty just what the term "professional camera" means.

Into all this milling and hubbub, the *ist D arrives with a ghastly name (it is too hard to type) but an otherwise scrappy demeanor. Sort of the "boy named Sue" of Johnny Cash fame. And cast in that way, it seems all too willing to go for a roll in the mud and the blood and the beer.

The Roshomon Of Pro

The *ist D certainly qualifies as a professional camera by one definition or another, though that's in the eye of the beholder. So, for that matter, do the aforementioned Canons and Fujis and Nikons and, probably, the Sigma and maybe the Olympus too, with which the *ist D competes economically. And to the extent that the DSLR market is now really groping toward popular pricing-what did the Digital Rebel trailblaze, and the D70 pave?-elements of some cameras emphasize styling as much as performance. The D-Rebel takes a swell picture, but equally by design it's silvery, compared to the muskier looks of its pricier EOS brethren. If you want to be known as a cute little camera, you've also got to be little as well as silvery, which the D-Rebel is.

The *ist D is just a bit smaller and, in fact, at this moment, appears to be the most compact DSLR body to be had. This enhances its own cuteness and likeability. It does not, particularly, add to the expediency of using the thing. It takes nothing away either, but the overall size of a DSLR system is influenced as much by the lens as the body, maybe more for those enamored of high-powered telezooms. Its compact dimensions give it charm and a certain pleasure in handling. But they are not what make a camera a great shooter.

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