Magazine Article


Pentax *IST
Is Anything Better Than DS?

city skyline
This image was shot using the Pentax *ist DS at ISO 1600—quite appropriate for shooting on a dark night.
© Don Sutherland

tug boat
© Don Sutherland

people walking
Note the picture, cropped at 100% size of the original—shows how well the full-resolution image resolves. Pentax *ist DS at ISO 1600.
© Don Sutherland

tug boat
© Don Sutherland

gent in the hat and striped shirt
Note the picture of the gent in the hat and striped shirt. It is cropped at 100% size, showing how well the full-resolution image resolves. Pentax *ist DS at ISO 1600.
© Don Sutherland

Something like that could give Pentax some rhetoric, if they have the cameras to attach all those lenses to.

Hold the Toppings
Pentax digital cameras for the entry-level user arrived with the first wave, the one in 1996 when the consumer digicam market was more-or-less born. They've maintained their visibility in the midrange market, with attractive if conservative products under their own name and HP's. But they were the last of the traditional camera makers to enter the DSLR market as such. And when they did, it was with a difference.

Pentax was the only contender in the DSLR market to forgo the formality of having an above-$1k DSLR first. Their original *ist D came out at a sub-$1k price, close on the heels of the first Digital Rebel, and for a few dollars less. With a 6-megapixel imager, it had some specs to shake at its rival. But unlike Konica Minolta with their Anti Shake, or Olympus with their Supersonic Wave Filter, the Pentax *ist D had no dazzling new technology to shout about. Outwardly, at least, it was almost a generic, a Canon clone or a Nikon clone, with some attributes of both.

The *ist D's smallishness became part of its rhetoric, as it was the most compact DSLR of its day. While that's good to know, DSLRs in the first place are larger than the smallest compact cameras, those with permanent lenses. One of the virtues of D-lenses is that they can be smaller than their film-camera counterparts, and whomever attaches the smallest body has something to talk about.

But since compactness is not the strong suit of interchangeable-lens DSLRs, and it's not the main draw for most folks who buy them, high-quality output is what attracts this market to its camera of choice. They're folks who'd think compactness is swell, but less important than having the ISO button out in the open and easy to access (which the *ist D did not). The first Pentax DSLR was a very good camera, a very nice camera, but in ways a throwback to film-camera design. Its output was good, but at the lower end of good—a bit softened, we surmised, by firmware settings and such.

One thing that was impressive about the camera, however, was its noise control. At speed settings like 800 and 1600, it gave some of the cleanest readings in town.

When the second Pentax DSLR was presented, as the *ist DS, at the last photokina, it did something else no other manufacturer did. It came as an upgrade with no blazing improvements. Its imager is the same size as before, and most of the specs read alike. It's even smaller than the original *ist D, undoubtedly through an SD card slot replacing the CF slot of the earlier model. But other than that, how, exactly, does the *ist DS improve the science of photography?

Digital Science
For my part, the answer came upon close inspection of some pictures I took in contrasty light. Zoomed-in to 100% size on my monitor screen, they showed a trace of luminance noise in the shadows. And I thought, well, I did boost the mid-tones in Photoshop, to bring-out some of the shadow detail, and that, plus a light sharpening performed on the original raw file, all tends to boost noise. In other words, at normal print sizes, the picture looked about as good as you'd hope from one made at ISO 200—the camera's minimum speed.

Then I accidentally glanced at the metadata for the picture, and guess what? It turns out I'd been shooting the night before at 1600, and forgot to readjust the setting in the morning (even though the ISO button is in plain view this time). Shooting at ISO 1600 all day long could be ruinous, or at one time would have been, to color depth and clarity, with the ravages of grain breaking-up the details. What came out of the *ist DS were pictures that looked, upon close inspection, a little noisy for ISO 200, but acceptable anyway, when they were actually taken at 1600.

The picture in general is substantially sharper in the *ist DS than it was in the *ist D. It earns a place in the forefront of 6MP cameras using a low-pass filter—that is, it's as sharp as anything in its price range. It appears that Pentax has done some serious rethinking about in-camera procedures, enabling the camera to be truly an upgrade —one that can take pictures in the trickiest light, almost without penalty.

A third *ist D model should be breaking by the time this is printed, with a mirror prism, but retaining most of the major specs of the first two. As with the *ist DS, there seem to be no great pyrotechnics to latch onto—except that bottom-most line again, of next-generation internal technology, an excellent picture by anyone's standards, and one of the best on the 6MP market at any price. There must be some rhetoric for that. ptn