Pros: Compact; Lightweight; Bright/Large Viewfinder; Nice Color-Reproduction and RAW Image-Quality; Cheap Price; Clear Indications; User-friendly Operations.
Cons: Poor QC; Inaccurate/Slow AF; Inaccurate Metering; Battery Problem; Inferior-Quality JPEGs; Vigorous-Mirror; No Upgrade-Path; Poor-Services; Irresponsible-Pentax.
As a long time Pentax DSLR user for more than two years, I am going to write an in-depth but yet concise review on my experience with my second Pentax DSLR body model, i.e., the *ist DS, since I have owned this camera body in July 05. I am going to write in point form to list out all the Pros and Cons which I know and experienced, with short explanations below each Item.
In the last part of this review, I shall write some tips and hints on how to get most out of the *ist DS (or its clones) when using it. I hope these tips will be useful to anyone who owns a *ist DS, DL or DS2, all which are basically and essentially the same camera body.
Note that my review is largely based on the latest Firmware Version 2.0 for the *ist DS, it can be downloaded from Pentax's website:- http://www.pentaximaging.com/customer_care/show_firmware?firmId=3
1. Compact and Lightweight:
With the *ist DS, it is really a go-everywhere DSLR. It's really small and light for a DSLR.
2. Good Ergonomics:
Despite its small size and cheap price, the body feel fairly solid in my hands and it fits in my right hand quite well. Dials and Knobs are well placed and the layout is very logical.
3. Bright/Large Viewfinder:
The viewfinder is large, clear and bright, especially for an APS-C cropped sensor size DSLR of a 1.5X factor. I have compared my DS's viewfinder side by side against a Nikon D200, with the same 100/2.8 prime lenses mounted. The finder of my *ist DS is just a bit better in brightness and sharpness, whilst magnification is more or less the same! Unbelieveable? (the D200 is nearly triple the price of a *ist DS now)
4. Nice Color-Reproduction and Good Image Quality with RAW:
The color reproduction by the *ist DS is very accurate and it produces nice and faithfull colors for what we can see. It doesn't produce exciting and ex-aggerated colors which one can usually see with a Canon DSLRs or most P&S DCs, though. The *ist DS isn't anything strong in WB to change everything into White even when human are not seeing White, but I like its color response almost in every situation. Of course, the Pentax lenses in use contribute to the favourable color rendition too, I must say.
Nevertheless, the good digital image quality is limited only to RAW converted files, which are often needed to be carefully Post Processed (PP) during the conversion process so as to get the best images and quality. In addition to the good colors, the resolution is fairly good for a 6MP camera with those RAW converted images. I use the Pentax Photo Laboratory Version 2.1, this piece of software tools is simple and fairly easy to use and the produced image quality looks nice to me. It has a good balance on noise reduction and image details in the conversion of higher ISO speed pictures, too. Some other famous RAW convertors, such as the SilkyPix, may produce sharper image with more details sometimes but then there are more visible noises which can be seen.
(In contrast, for what's wrong with the in-camera JPEG files, see the "CONS" section below.)
5. Cheap Price:
The price of this DSLR body is quite cheap, when compared against the competition. It is cheapest when it was marketed, although it is not much cheaper by the way.
6. Clear and Clever Indications:
By default, the camera has clear "Guidance Indication" displayed each time when the user switches on the camera or changing mode. Non-typical setting of ISO speed, AF mode and/or point, metering mode and WB setting will be shown up as a warning on the LCD each time the above mentioned "Guidance Indication" is displayed if these "non-typical" settings are selected - a clever design which is quite useful and serves very well as a quick reminder. Anyway, this function can be even turned off via one of the custom functions, if one do not want to see that, in order to save some battery power. A thoughtful design afterall.
In addition, the general information (info) and the playback info are displayed with colourful symbols and logical layout so that the user can see the required data very clearly and quickly. All the default "safe" settings are shown in Green, too.
7. Operations are User-friendly (In General):
The Fn (function) button is very easy to use and highly accessible which is just placed under the thumb. With the Fn button, one can select and change drive mode (with 2-second presudo mirror lock-up self-timer), ISO speed, WB and flash mode (which seldom needed the change, IMO).
A minor gripe of mine is that the Pentax firmware team should make the AE-L button functioned as a reset button when the Fn menu is engaged. Sometimes, it is just a bit inconvenient to go back to the "green" setting after changed from the default.
The change of AF area, AF mode (Continuous or Single) and Metering Modes (16-Segment Evaluative, Centre-Weighted Average and Spot) are buried in the main recording setting menu, though. That would cause the user more times to make the right settings and to restore the original settings after the change.
8. Fine and Acceptably Large LCD monitor with Accurate Colour Reproduction:
The camera's LCD monitor, although without anti-reflection coating (which is not a trend now), is very fine and still acceptably large by today's standard (210,000 pixels in 2"). It has the finest (smallest in physical size) pixels as it is a 2" monitor but not a 2.5" ones which are now usually having 230,000 pixels. What I find what this LCD quite good is that it has fairly faithful colour reproduction so that the LCD can be used as a valuable tool for judging exposure and colour balance. The LCD monitor tends to slightly cool (to the blue side) and of higher contrast but I still judge it to be very good.
1. Poor QC:
Please refer to this for the true full story of mine:-
Also, I found that the factory for manufacturing the *ist DS is rather *dirty* indeed. There are a lot of dust found inside the LCD cover for a new camera, which is visible under bright light.
2. Inaccurate and Slow AF:
The AF is slow by itself, with a weak AF motor in body, despite that fact that the AF motor of the *ist DS is the most silent one by Pentax's AF system's reference. However, the AF system of the *ist DS is not something that is really accurate and reliable. It will have Front Focusing with the decrease in color temperature of the lighting environment and Back Focus with the increase of color temperature, e.g., on an overcast day. Here is a quick experiment of mine for this strange phenomenon:-
3. Inaccurate Metering:
Again, as the *ist D does, the metering of the *ist DS is not very accurate nor reliable. When switch to CW Average and Spot metering modes, more underexposure will result. For details, see my homepage:-
Moreover, I strongly recommend to shoot RAW most of the time not only mostly because of the crappy low in-camera JPEG quality (to be briefed two items below), but also RAW can be used to compensate for the metering and exposure errors introduced by the camera. Nevertheless, it should be noted that one should try to obtain the most accurate metering value *at* the time of exposure, otherwise it would be too late or it is simply that the best quality image cannot be obtained. Indeed, I carried out a detailed and systematic experiment long time ago, on how RAW can or cannot compensate for the exposure errors, see:-
4. Battery Problem:
Pentax self-claimed "universal" battery solution has its major killing problem, IMHO. I found that the *ist DS is more power hungry than my *ist D. A freshly charged set of NiMH batteries will show halfly-depleted after extremely short usage and it will also be found depleted rather shortly, say, just around 100 number of shots. I use Panasonic, Sony and Sanyo 2000+ mAh NiMH batteries and original charger, thus I think it is not a battery nor charger problem afterall.
In order to solve the above problem, one should use either non-rechargeable Lithium batteries or Rechargeable CR-V3 ones. One should also note that the latter is "banned" by Pentax official at their digital support website owing to the excessive voltage of some makes (See: http://www.digital.pentax.co.jp/en/35mm/ist-ds/faq.html#04_01).
So, afterall, there is actually no a single good *rechargeable* battery solution for the *ist D series camera body by considering all the above.
BTW, I am lucky enough to find a set of RCR-V3 battery combo which has a voltage regulation function built-in, from 3.0V to 3.4V, which perform well with my *ist DS and *ist D. But then not all the *ist D users are as lucky as me, it was heard a few times that some bad luck guys just got their DSLR burnt (the RTF was damaged) because of they used the wrong RCR-V3 batteries with excessive high voltages.
5. Inferior In-camera JPEGs:
The in-camera JPEG files are somewhat crappy, even if the Large Fine file size is selected. The images are all roughly compressed with loss in grey details, sharpness and resolution. This can be seen on a full-screen picture viewed at an ordinary 15" monitor and can easily be seen when viewed at 100% on screen. The differences become even more obvious when fine glass are used. On the other hand, from a file size point of view, there is an advantage, i.e., the in-camera Large Fine Jpeg files are significantly smaller than those RAW converted ones, e.g. a 2.5M Large Fine Jpeg picture can be of 5M size if it is shot with RAW and converted. It is nearly doubled/halved!
6. Vigorous Mirror:
The vigorous mirror and shutter action of the *ist DS is something I couldn't believe (and understand, too). You can feel the big vibration in hands and this causes much camera shake in many shooting circumstances. Whilst other camera manufacturers are trying every effort to eliminate camera shake with their IS, VR or AS solutions/technologies, I wonder why Pentax would go it in the exactly opposite direction!(?)
7. Lack of Orientation Sensor for Vertical Shots:
Without this little automatic facility, the user is forced to rotate the images manually and store the orientation data *at* the camera. The PC software utilities, the Pentax Photo Browser and the Pentax Photo Laboratory, do not provide such orientation marking function nor their image rotation functions are lossless. Besides, sometimes the orientation of a photo cannot be distinguished at a later stage, for some specially composited photos.
The first Pentax DSLR, which is a Year 2k model, had this facility and function, why the *ist D series DSLR can't have? Look at this for that Millenium Pentax DSLR if interested:-
8. No Upgrade Path:
The most painful thing when one got the *ist DS, which by itself acts both as the entry-level DSLR as well as the Top-of-the-Line product of Pentax for a prolonged period, one will never be able to find a better DSLR camera body even if some days later on he/she finds that the *ist DS body cannot satify his/her need anymore and/or the user just simply wishes to have something better. The only way is to invest onto an additional system of another brand or to *switch*!(but why this is needed?)
9. Poor Services; Irresponsible Principal of Pentax Japan:
Again, this is told in my letter to the Pentax CEO below:-
Well, the end of the story is as simple as the CEO and his company just ignored my kind report again, even if they destroyed my camera and lens after their "repair" and that the units did originally have different QC problems. It is well expected by me indeed according to their past track records but it is a very sad story for their customers afterall. Indeed, I feel sorry for Pentax themselves too.
GETTING MOST OUT OF YOUR *ist DS/DL/DS2:-
1. Auto ISO:
Use the Auto ISO custom function to select the Auto ISO adjustable range from in range of 200 to 400 or something up to 3200. I choose 1600 (instead of the default 800) as the upper limit, as 3200 is too noisy to be acceptable to me and that 800 is a bit slow when I need the fastest possible speed in some situations. The ISO 1600 of the *ist DS is yet a bit noisy, though.
Do note that the Auto ISO function will be defeated once the exposure compensation is engaged, nor it will work in the Manual exposure mode. So, please be careful on this! BTW, I really wonder why exposure compensation should defeat the Auto ISO? ..as I don't think there is any true conflict between the two.
2. (High) ISO Warning Setting:
I set this for ISO 800 which the high ISO warning symbol will be displayed in the viewfinder. Again, it is an useful and handy reminder and I must say it is a thoughful design.
3. Instant Review Setting and Highlight Clipping Warning:
I enable both so as to monitor closely for (often) underexposure or highlight clipping after exposure compensation which is used to compensate for the underexposure behaviour/tendency of the Pentax *ist D/DS metering system.
4. Use "Spot" WB:
This is very useful for making custom WB so that one does not need to fill the grey/white target area with the whole frame, but with just the smaller spot metering mark instead. I think this is somehow an unique feature for many DSLRs, too, especially for entry level ones (of all the brands).
5. Hyper Manual Setting:
I choose the "Shift Av Automatically" option in the Custom Function setting of "AE-L button on M exposure" for how the Hyper Manual will operate. As the Tv is by default underlined which can be changed by turning the input wheel, by doing so, with the push of the AE-L button, the Av will be automatically selected according to the metered value. I think it is the most natural way of using the camera for its Hyper Manual function. Furthermore, I think the Tv is more important than the Av when one forces the camera into the Manual mode, and one must chose between the two in this custom function. In other cases which Av is important, I would just choose the Av mode. BTW, the "program" option of the Hyper Manual custom function is something useless to me.
If I was the Pentax firmware engineer(s), I would delete this custom function. Why? Just if the user have pressed the Av button, then just let the camera to choose automatically the Tv when the AE-L is pushed. Simple.
6. (Faster) Switching between AF areas, AF modes and Metering Modes:
Just push the Menu button, press hard on the Up button of the four way switch group, scroll to the item you want to set and immediately release the thumb. By now, that's the fastest way to do those common setting! Note that these commonly used settings are not put into the Fn menu!
7. Custom Functions of "Link AF (Points) to (Evaluative) AE" and "Lock AE with AF locked"
Both *should NOT* be enabled, unless you have very strong reason(s) to do so and you know what you're doing. To me, these two choices simply won't work in most situations. Why? I would try to explain as below:-
(i) "Link AF to AE": If one only uses the single Central-Point of the AF, this would be meaningless after the recomposition. Also, no body knows except Pentax's design engineers that if the other surrounding 10 AF points will be activated for measuring the different distances and passing the data to the Evalutive Metering for the necessary calculations or not. On the other hand, if one uses the 11-point AF mode which selects the AF point(s) automatically by the camera, this would be somehow more meaningful, but then the fact is that 11 AF points are not aligned and matched quite well with the 16 metering segments in physical positions of the frame, see the two illustration diagrams here for what I mean, exactly:- http://www.steves-digicams.com/2004_reviews/istds_pg3.html.
(ii) "Lock AE when AF is locked/achieved": Again, I bet it won't work well if the user uses the Central-Point AF only and recompose (which I and many other experienced shooters prefer for many cases), as the composition of the final picture is not the same and this would affect the accuracy of the Evaluative Metering. Instead, this would make a little more sense if Spot Metering is used but then *always* enabling this function is not the way to go owing to the inflexibility of this metering approach. I would rather opt to push the AE-L button by myself, if needed, for more accurate metering measurements.
Nevertheless, the default settings of these two Custom Functions by Pentax are appropriate (and that's why they should be the Defaults). I just wonder why Pentax need to incorporate these two Custom Functions since they are of minimal usefulness most of the time according to the reasons I've explained above.
8. Metering with K-mount Lenses without Auto Apertures
What the user first needs to do is to enable the Custom Function of "Using Aperture Ring - Prohibited or Permitted" which actually means not to allow or allow lens release at non-"A" position. Or, for pre-A series Pentax K-mount lenses, there are simply no "A"-position on the lens afterall. What the user needs to do for metering is simply to press the AE-L button once to carry out the Stopped-down Metering before taking the photo. For more details about what is Stopped-down Metering and more, see my article at the following link:-
However, it should be noted that the Stopped-down Metering is not up to the Accuracy of the *normal* Wide-Opened Metering of the *ist D series camera bodies. Here is also a test comparing between the two:-
Afterall, I do really hope that Pentax will re-incorporate the original K-mount aperture coupler for transmissing the lens' stopped-down information mechanically to the body for the coming mid-market DSLR, just like what Nikon have done with her latest D200. This little facility is not something really costy to manufacture, I bet.
9. Focus Indication with Screw Mount M42 Lenses
By default, it is turned off. But I don't know what is the rationale for Pentax to disable this function by default. Nevertheless, if you have the Screw-mount lenses (called S lenses in the Custom Function menu), enable it will let you have Focus Indication assistance by the AF system (only the central AF point will function, IIRC).
10. Storing the Orientation of Vertically Shot Photos
I recommend to store the vertical position of the photos by pressing the Down button followed by the Ok button during Playback Review as soon as possible before the exact orientation of those photos were forgotten.
In general, it is still a good camera as long as you can get an unit without any problem, otherwise, please don't hope and imagine that anyone can help you much after you already had your bucks to buy the stuff. Owing to the extremely poor attitude and ability of Pentax Japan in customer care and servicing support (virtually none on both), I won't recommend any of the Pentax products to anyone whom I know.