DCRP Review: Pentax *ist D
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 4, 2003
Last Updated: December 15, 2003

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Over the past six years of covering digital cameras, I've seen some strangely-named products. But none has a stranger name than the Pentax *ist D ($1699). But don't let the dumb name (pronounced "ist-dee") scare you away -- Pentax's first digital SLR is a serious camera. It has a 6 Megapixel CCD sensor -- the same one that Nikon uses on the D100 -- plus all the performance and expandability that you'd expect from a D-SLR. Some things that set it apart from other cameras in its class include a lightweight body and its support for AA batteries (as opposed to expensive proprietary batteries).

Is this a fabulous camera with a funny name? Find out now in our review of the *ist D!

What's in the Box?

The *ist D has a fairly typical bundle for a D-SLR, including:

  • The 6.1 effective Megapixel Pentax *ist D camera
  • Two CR-V3 lithium batteries (not rechargeable)
  • Hot shoe cover
  • Body mount cover
  • Viewfinder cap
  • Eyecup Fl
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Pentax Photo Browser and Photo Laboratory
  • 165 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

As is the case with most digital SLRs, the *ist D does not include a memory card with the camera. So you may need to factor that into the purchase price. The camera supports both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, including the Microdrive. It also supports the FAT32 format, allowing you to use memory cards larger than 2GB. If you've got one of those Lexar cards with Write Acceleration (WA) technology, you'll like the fact that the *ist D supports that as well.

As I mentioned, the *ist D is the only D-SLR that uses AA batteries. You can also use CR-V3 lithium batteries, which is what is included with the camera. The best way to save both your money and your sanity is to buy some NiMH rechargeable batteries -- 2000 mAh or better -- and a fast charger. Pentax estimates that you can take about 450 pictures, or spend 300 minutes in playback mode, using NiMH batteries. I do like cameras that uses AAs, since you can put good old alkalines in if your rechargeables die. Try that on a D100 or 10D!

Another power option is the D-BG1 battery grip ($170). It holds an additional 4 AA batteries (you don't need to take the ones in the camera out), essentially doubling your battery life. The grip also has additional shutter release, control dial, and AE lock buttons.

As with all SLRs, there are tons of accessories available for the *ist D. First and foremost are lenses -- don't forget that the camera does not include one. The camera has a Pentax KAF lens mount, and it supports Pentax lenses with the KAF2, KAF, and KA mounts. My camera included the compact and very lightweight F4 - F5.6, 18 - 35mm lens ($165). There are plenty of lenses available as well, ranging from fisheye to super telephoto.

While the *ist D has a built-in flash, enthusiasts will want to use an external flash. You can use flashes from Pentax or third parties. Pentax has three flashes recommended in the manual: the AF360FGZ ($200), AF500FTZ ($290), and the AF140C macro ring light ($380). There are also adapters available for using a flash away from the camera.

Other accessories include an AC adapter ($80), remote shutter release cable ($50), various viewfinder adapters, and a soft case ($80 -- ouch!). The *ist D also supports a wireless remote control ($15-20), but Pentax doesn't specify which model works! I'm told that any of the newer remotes (D-F) will work okay.

Pentax includes two software programs along with the camera.

Photo Browser

Photo Browser does just what it sounds like: it lets you view photos that you've taken. And that's about it.

Photo Laboratory

Photo Laboratory, on the other hand, does a lot more. This is what you'll use to convert RAW files into JPEG format. You can automatically convert them, or you can tweak the image a bit, as you can see above. With RAW mode, it's almost like getting a second chance to take the picture -- very nice.

I've shown the Mac OS X versions here -- don't worry Windows people, there's a Windows version too.

The manual included with the *ist D is quite good, with big type, long explanations, and minimal fine print. With a complex camera like this, reading the manual is a necessity.

Look and Feel

Pentax claims that the *ist D is the smallest and lightest D-SLR out there, and they're not lying. It's a bit lighter than the Digital Rebel, but the build quality is much better on the Pentax. It's got a metal frame, and you can tell as soon as you pick it up -- it feels very sturdy. Like most SLRs, the *ist D is easy to hold, though a larger right hand grip would be nice. All the important controls are easy to reach, as well.

The official dimensions of the camera (body only), are 129.0 x 94.5 x 60.0 mm / 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.4 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs just 550 grams. For the sake of comparison, the numbers for the Digital Rebel are 5.6 x 3.9 x 2.9 inches and 560 grams, respectively.

Okay, let's get our tour of the *ist D underway, starting with the front.

Here's a look at the front of the *ist D, with the lens off. As I mentioned, this is a Pentax KAF lens mount. The release for the lens is located below-left from the mount.

As is the case with non-full frame D-SLRs, there's a focal length conversion that must be applied when discussing lenses. In the case of the *ist D, it's 1.5X. So, the 18 - 35mm lens that I have is really equivalent to 27 - 52.5mm.

Directly above the lens mount is the pop-up flash. The working range of the flash depends on what lens is attached. As with the Canon Digital Rebel and EOS-10D, the flash is also used as an AF-assist lamp. That's great for focusing, but do note that you're then required to take a flash picture -- which isn't always desirable.

To the right of the lens mount, you'll find the self-timer lamp, manual white balance button, and focus switch. The manual white balance lets you shoot a white or gray card, which lets you get accurate color even in the most unusual lighting. The focus switch moves between single, continuous, and manual focus. Continuous autofocus continues to track a moving subject while the shutter release button is halfway pressed -- great for action shots.

At the top-left of the above photo, you'll find one of two control dials on the *ist D.

On the back of the camera, you'll find a 1.8" LCD display. The LCD is high resolution, with 118,000 pixels, and that's obvious as soon as you turn on the camera. You can adjust the screen brightness via the setup menu.

One important thing that not everyone knows about D-SLRs (based on e-mail feedback) is that you cannot do a live preview of a photo on the LCD before it is taken. You can only review shots after they are taken.

Directly above the LCD is the *ist D's large optical viewfinder. It shows about 95% of the frame, and the selected focus point is highlighted by a red light. In green text below the view screen are several items: the current focus point, a focus lock light, and the current aperture and shutter speed. You can adjust the focus in the viewfinder by moving the slider on top of the rubber eyecup.

A few viewfinder accessories are available, including a magnifier, ref-converter (also called an "angle finder"), and various diopter correction adapters.

To the left of the viewfinder is the button for bracketing / multiple exposures {record mode} and DPOF print marking {playback mode}. Auto bracketing takes three shots in a row, each at a different exposure (underexposed, normal, overexposed). You can choose the increments used (either 0.5EV or 0.3EV) in the custom settings menu. The multiple exposure feature lets you take up to 9 shots, and superimpose them into one photo. The example the manual gives is shooting the moon first, then shooting a city skyline, giving you an impressive (though unnatural) result. This is a fairly uncommon feature on digital cameras.

On the opposite side of the viewfinder are two buttons and a dial. The buttons are for AE lock {record} / image protection {playback} and exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, in 1/2EV or 1/3EV increments), while the dial (which Pentax calls the Av dial) adjusts manual settings and is also used in playback mode for the zoom/thumbnail functions.

Record mode info screen

To the left of the LCD are four buttons, including:

  • Menu
  • Delete photo
  • Info - shows current camera settings (see above)
  • Playback mode

The final group of buttons can be found to the right of the LCD. The AF button locks the focus -- similar to halfway-pressing the shutter release button.

Below that is the four-way controller, with the focus dial around it. I didn't find the four-way controller (which is mainly used for menu navigation) very comfortable to use. It would be better if it stuck out a little more from the camera body.

The focus dial lets you choose between three autofocus modes:

  • Auto - camera automatically chooses one of eleven focus points
  • Select - you choose the focus point manually
  • Center - camera also focuses on the center of the frame

Moving now (finally) to the top of the camera.

At the far left is the mode dial, which has the metering switch beneath it. The three metering modes are multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot. The items on the mode dial are broken down into two parts: settings and shooting. I would've preferred to see the shooting items elsewhere on the camera, either as separate buttons or in the menu. Having to use the mode dial each time you want to change the white balance is a pain.

Here are the items on the mode dial:

  • Settings
    • ISO (200 - 1600) - ISO 3200 can be turned on in the custom function menu
    • Quality (see chart later in review)
    • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten, flash, manual)
  • Shooting
    • Auto ("green program mode") - fully automatic
    • Program mode ("hyper program mode") - see below
    • Shutter priority (Tv) mode - you choose shutter speed, camera selects aperture; shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec
    • Aperture priority (Av) mode - you choose aperture, camera selects shutter speed; aperture range depends on your lens; the 18 - 35mm lens included with my review unit did F4 - F32
    • Manual mode - you choose both the shutter speed and aperture; same ranges as above
    • Bulb mode - shutter is open for as long as shutter release button is held down; the only limit appears to be how long you can hold that button for; remote shutter release cable strongly recommended

The manual white balance feature lets you shoot a white or gray card to use as the new "white" baseline. This allows you to get accurate color in any lighting. In addition, you can save up to three different sets of manual white balance settings for later retrieval.

The hyper program mode offers a program shift feature, with a twist. Rather than just cycling between sets of shutter speed and aperture combinations, the camera puts you in either shutter or aperture priority mode, depending on which dial you're using. To get back to normal "auto" program mode, just hit the green button which is on the far right of the above picture.

Speaking of that picture, let's continue our tour now. At the center of the photo is the *ist D's hot shoe. The shoe can take a Pentax flash, or one of your own (though Pentax discourages that). You can use flashes wirelessly, or via an optical flash sync cable and hot shoe adapter. The manual goes into more detail, so you'll want to check that out if you're interested in using an external flash.

The next item in the photo is the LCD info display. As you can (hopefully) see, it's backlit -- pressing any button will light up the screen. The info display shows all kinds of things, including (among other things) image quality, aperture and shutter speed, shots remaining, and battery life.

The three buttons to the right of the info display are:

  • Green button (yes, that's what it's called) - while using hyper program mode, returns camera to normal program mode
  • Drive (Single-frame, consecutive shooting, self-timer, remote control)
  • Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, wireless, wireless high speed sync, flash on, flash on w/redeye reduction)

In consecutive shooting mode, I was able to take 5 shots (at the highest JPEG quality) in about two seconds -- and then about a shot every second after that. You can shoot more shots at a faster frame rate on the other D-SLRs out there (D100, EOS-10D, E-1), though.

In case you're wondering what the high speed flash sync mode is, it lets you shoot flash shots with a shutter speed of 1/150 sec or faster. It works with the AF360FGZ external flash connected via the hot shoe or wirelessly.

Above the LCD info display is the power button, with the shutter release button inside it. In addition to turning the *ist D on and off, the power switch also allows you to preview the depth-of-field. Doing this also turns the on the info display backlight for ten seconds.

Yes, there are even more buttons! Thankfully I already described some of them.

The topmost button is the release for the pop-up flash. Below that, under a rubber cover, is the flash sync port. The next two items below that are the manual white balance button and focus mode switch that I covered earlier in the tour.

To the right of the focus switch is the port for the optional remote shutter release cable. Continuing to the right, we find the rest of the camera's I/O ports, including USB/Video out (one port for both) and DC-in (for optional AC adapter). The *ist D uses the older and slower USB 1.1 standard -- USB 2.0 would've been nice.

Over on the other side of the camera, you'll find the CompactFlash slot, which is behind a plastic door. This is a Type II slot, so the Hitachi (formerly IBM) Microdrive is fully supported. Removing a memory card is more difficult that it should be: it can take some prying.

On the bottom of the camera, you'll find a metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. As I said in the first section of the review, you can use AA or CR-V3 batteries. There's an additional compartment for a CR1016 lithium battery that stores your camera's settings and the date/time.

It's hard to see, but just above the FCC label is a door which covers the contacts for the optional battery grip.

The tripod mount is inline with the lens, as you'd expect.

Using the Pentax *ist D

Record Mode

The *ist D started up very quickly, with a little over one second elapsing before you can start taking pictures.

Autofocus times were competitive with other D-SLRs, but not noticeably better. In good lighting, the camera locked focus in well under a second. More challenging subjects took slightly longer. If the camera had to use the flash as an AF-assist lamp, it could take several seconds to lock focus. The camera was able to lock focus in total darkness thanks to the flash-based AF-assist system, though remember that you must then take a flash picture.

If you're paying big bucks for a D-SLR, you do it with the expectation that there will be no shutter lag. And good news -- there isn't any on the *ist D, even at slower shutter speeds.

The shot-to-shot speed is also impressive. This is one of those cameras where you can really shoot as fast as you can compose (or at least until the buffer fills up).

After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to trash the shot you just took.

Now, let's take a look at the many image size and quality choices on the *ist D:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 256MB card (not included)
3008 x 2008
RAW 15 MB 16
TIFF 19 MB 14
Best 4.3 MB 57
Better 2.2 MB 111
Good 1.1 MB 222
2400 x 1600
TIFF 12 MB 21
Best 2.8 MB 87
Better 1.4 MB 172
Good 750 KB 335
1536 x 1024
TIFF 4.9 MB 52
Best 1.1 MB 222
Better 630 KB 401
Good 360 KB 701

As you can see, the *ist D has both a RAW and TIFF mode. There's no RAW+JPEG mode like on Canon's cameras, though. As you'd expect from a D-SLR (this is a common theme in this review), there's no performance hit when shooting in either of the lossless modes. Do note that with RAW, you'll have to process them on your computer before you can export them to other formats.

As explained in the first section of the review, RAW images can be tweaked on your computer, letting you change things like white balance as if the photo was taken again.

Photos are named IMGP####.JPG/TIF/PEF, where #### is 0001-9999. The file numbering is maintained as you switch and erase memory cards.

Enough of that, let's move onto menus now.

The *ist D has a simple to use menu system, with most of the options buried in the custom functions section. Here's a look at what you'll find in the menu:

  • Format
  • Custom function
    • Program line (Normal, hi-speed, depth, MTF) - see below
    • Exposure setting steps (1/2EV, 1/3EV)
    • Noise reduction (on/off)
    • Sensitivity range (Normal, wide) - wide adds the ISO 3200 option
    • Sensitivity correction (on/off) - when on, camera will reduce sensitivity if exposure is out of range
    • Recorded pixels at small size (1536 x 1024, 1152 x 768, 960 x 640) - you can make the small image size even smaller
    • Hyper program (on/off) - discussed earlier
    • Green button in manual mode (P, Tv, Av)
    • Link AF point and AE (on/off) - whether to meter at the focus point
    • AF with press halfway (on/off) - whether the autofocus operates with the shutter release button pressed halfway
    • Auto bracketing order (0/-/+, -/0/+, +/0/-)
    • Shutter release w/o CF card (on/off)
    • F step other than A (on/off) - for use with lenses with a "A" option
    • Release when charging (on/off) - whether you can take a picture while the flash is charging
    • Flash in wireless mode (on/off) - whether built-in flash is master or controller in wireless mode
    • Meter operating time (3, 5, 10, 15, 30 sec)
    • Self-timer delay time (2, 12 sec)
    • Remote control delay time (0, 3 sec)
    • Superimpose AF area (on/off) - whether focus point is shown in the viewfinder
    • Use LCD w/video output (on/off)
    • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
    • Reset custom functions
  • Saturation (Low, normal, high) - would've nice to see a wider range for these three
  • Sharpness (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Contrast (Low, normal, high)
  • Instant review (Off, 1, 3, 5 sec) - post-shot review
  • Auto power off (Off, 30 sec, 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, 30 min)
  • Beep (on/off)
  • Date adjust (set)
  • World time - choose a home and world time
  • Language (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese)
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Brightness level (variable)
  • File numbering (on/off) - whether to maintain file numbering
  • Slideshow (Off, 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 sec intervals)
  • Sensor cleaning - locks the mirror in the up position for CCD cleaning
  • Reset

Most everything up there should be self-explanatory, but there are a few things that I want to touch on briefly.

First, I should mention that you can have three different sets of custom settings. You can see the numbers 1 - 3 in the screenshot above -- that's how you select which one to use.

The next item is that Program Line option in the custom settings menu. This decides what combinations of aperture and shutter speed the camera will use, depending on what you're trying to do (take action shots, maximize depth-of-field, etc). There are lovely charts in the back of manual with more detail.

That's about all the explaining I need to do about the menus, so let's do photo tests now, all of which were taken with the 18-35mm lens.

The *ist D took a good, but very soft, photo of our usual macro subject. Colors were accurate, and the subject was very smooth. The macro range will depend on what lens you're using. In the case of my 18 - 35mm lens, the minimum distance to the subject was 28 cm.

1/4 sec, F4.0

Wow, a totally new night shot subject! Don't expect to see this one very often, as it's in Sacramento. Cool building!

The *ist D did a nice job with this photo, with good exposure and color. Like all photos from the camera, it's very soft at default sharpness. Purple fringing was not to be found in this photo.

With full control over shutter speed (as slow as 30 seconds) plus a bulb mode, the *ist D is great for low light photography. Just remember to bring a tripod.

One way to bring in more light is to crank up the ISO sensitivity. I took the shot above at all the available ISO ratings (except 3200). Have a look:

ISO 200
View Full Size Image

ISO 400
View Full Size Image

ISO 800
View Full Size Image

ISO 1600
View Full Size Image

As you can see, noise levels are extraordinarily low, even at ISO 1600.

As you'd expect on such a wide-angle lens, the 18 - 35mm lens shows a fair amount of barrel distortion. This test will, of course, depend on what lens you're using!!

[I owe you a redeye test]

Keeping with the theme in this review, the *ist D's photo quality is just as you'd expect from a D-SLR: excellent. The one issue that I've mentioned in this section a few times is image softness. In my opinion, images straight out of the camera at the default sharpness setting are way too soft, requiring post-processing. Cranking up the in-camera sharpening helped a bit, but not as much as I'd like.

The real trick to getting a sharp image is to take it in RAW mode and then convert it to a JPEG on your computer (as first pointed out here). Images are much more satisfying if you do this. Evidence:

JPEG, normal sharpness
View Full Size Image

JPEG, high sharpness
View Full Size Image

RAW (converted to JPEG), normal sharpness
View Full Size Image

I think those prove my point nicely! One thing I was surprised to see in those photos was purple fringing. Based on the other photos I took, this doesn't seem to be a major problem.

Aside from the main issue I brought up (softness), everything else about the photo quality is positive: color, exposure, and noise (it's non-existent).

As always, please view the photo gallery and decide if this camera's photo quality meets your needs!

Movie Mode

No digital SLRs have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The *ist D doesn't do much in playback mode, but what it does, it does well. It has only the most basic features: slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll.

The zoom and scroll feature lets you blow up your image by as much as 12X, and the smoothly scroll around in the photo.

Deleting a photo is a piece of cake -- just press the button on the back of the camera to remove one or all of your photos. There's no way to delete a group of photos, unfortunately.

By default, you won't get any information about your photo in playback mode. Pressing the info button once gets the histogram, and pressing it again shows the screen above-right.

The camera moves through photos instantly in playback mode. In fact, everything in playback mode is fast.

How Does it Compare?

Despite it's dumb name, the Pentax *ist D is a high quality digital SLR camera. It offers excellent (but very soft) photo quality, top-notch performance (though its burst mode isn't as good as other D-SLRs), full manual controls, and nearly infinite expandability. Noise levels are extremely low, even at ISO 1600. The camera starts up quickly, and stays that way as you take pictures. The flash-based AF-assist lamp lets you focus in total darkness, though you must take a flash picture if you use it. There are plenty of manual settings to keep you busy, including many custom functions. The camera is easy to operate, with all of the important controls in the right spots. The fact that it uses AA batteries is a big plus, as well.

The main problem I had with the *ist D were the soft images. Even if you bump the in-camera sharpness a notch, it's still pretty soft. The solution: shoot in RAW mode. It would be nice for Pentax to at least offer a true high sharpness option on the camera, though. My other complaints are minor. I don't like having ISO/quality/white balance on the mode dial. The four-way switch is too hard to use. And getting memory cards in and out of the slot is more difficult than it should be.

Whether the *ist D is right for you depends on a couple of factors. If you've got an investment in Pentax lenses, then buying this camera is a no-brainer. If you've got a lot of Canon or Nikon lenses, you probably won't want to throw them away, as both of those manufacturers have D-SLRs that are as good or better than the *ist D. So what if you have no lenses? With the Canon Digital Rebel priced at $899 for the body only, the $1699 price of the *ist D is hard to swallow. Both are lightweight cameras, with the *ist D having the superior build quality. Both are good performers: the Canon has sharper images, though the Pentax has more controls. So it really comes down to budget and personal preferences.

What I liked:

  • Excellent image quality, though very soft
  • Low noise all the way to ISO 1600
  • Robust performance
  • All the benefits of a D-SLR: lenses, flashes, and full manual controls
  • Uses AA (or CR-V3) batteries
  • RAW and TIFF modes with no performance penalty
  • Great low light focusing thanks to flash-based AF-assist lamp (though you are required to take a flash shot)
  • Light without feeling cheap
  • Numerous custom settings

What I didn't care for:

  • Images are too soft, even at "high" sharpness
  • Four-way controller feels awkward
  • Burst mode slower than competitive cameras
  • Clumsy memory card slot
  • Would've preferred to see ISO/quality/white balance somewhere other than mode dial
  • Not a fan of the flash as AF-assist lamp system

Other D-SLRs to consider include the Canon Digital Rebel and EOS-10D, Nikon D100, and the Olympus E-1.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the *ist D and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

I've got tons of photos in our gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out other opinions about this camera at Steve's Digicams and DP Review.


Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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