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Pentax first announced development of a digital SLR back in September 2000, and even demonstrated a prototype of the camera at the PMA show in February 2001. It was to have been a six megapixel machine with a CCD sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film. If it had gone into production it would have been the most powerful DSLR on the market, but in a surprising move it was announced in October 2001 that the company was cancelling the project in order to concentrate on the Optio range of digital compacts. It wasn’t until February 2003 that Pentax finally entered the digital SLR market with the launch of the *ist D, which at the time was the smallest, lightest digital SLR in the world. In September last year it added a second model, the *ist DS, which has usurped that title.
In both design and price point the *ist DS is aimed at first-time DSLR buyers, and has many features that will be familiar to users of high-end zoom compacts and semi-pro cameras. It has a mode dial loaded with special program modes, it uses SD cards for storage, and it has an auto-everything mode for when you just can’t be bothered with all that creative stuff. At the time of writing, it retails at under £522 body only, or around £630 with a standard zoom lens - a price that compares favourably with some of the more advanced zoom cameras. Despite this, it is a fully-featured digital SLR compatible with the entire range of Pentax lenses and accessories, and is more than capable of achieving professional quality results.
I’ve been using a Pentax *ist D professionally for over a year now, and I’ve been very impressed by the results I’ve obtained from it. I was initially a little dismissive of the *ist DS, since I thought it was just a cut down version of the *ist D. However, I’ve been using the newer camera for a couple of weeks now and I am seriously considering getting one. Although it does have many similarities to the D, and even looks superficially similar, it is a completely different camera with a new body design, larger LCD monitor, new image processing engine and a faster AF system.
With the price being so relatively low, I was worried that corners may have been cut in regards to build quality, but this is not the case. The camera body is plastic over an alloy chassis, but it is strongly made, and both the card slot and connectors are covered by hinged and sprung hatches, which is a big improvement over the flimsy plastic plugs covering the connectors on the *ist D.
The body is nicely sculpted and extremely comfortable to hold. The handgrip has a large rubber pad and there is a moulded ridge on the back providing plenty of grip. Since the camera is so light (605g with card and batteries) it is easy to hold and use for long periods. The control layout is more reminiscent of a large zoom camera, with a minimum of buttons and only one adjustment wheel (the *ist D has 2). The menu navigation pad is much easier to use than the one on the D, and the menu system itself has been revised.
The top screen of the main menu now gives instant access to tone, resolution and quality level settings, as well as saturation, sharpness and contrast controls. Where the *ist D had all its settings on one menu, the *ist DS now has separate menus for playback and set-up, as well as a new ‘function’ menu accessed by pressing the ‘Fn’ button. This gives quick access to drive mode, white balance, ISO and flash modes, somewhat similar to the system used on most Olympus cameras.