review: Pentax *istDS

2006

This is a well-built and well-designed camera that produces fine results. It has the features you need for creative photography, without the bulk and complexity of many more modern cameras. I recommend this digital SLR camera to anyone with need for specialist functionality. Read on for a more in-depth review.

sample *istDS photo
sample photo

why Pentax

Pentax is a venerable camera manufacturer, dating back to 1919. It's not well known outside of Japan and western Europe, as other makers like Canon and Nikon have come to dominate. But Pentax, as a niche player, has made some interesting products. My decision to buy Pentax came down to features, price, and style.

This camera, like all Pentax DSLR cameras, supports every lens made for the Pentax K mount back to the 1950's. By supporting the millions of existing lenses, the Pentax line of cameras does two things. First, it allows newcomers to DSLR photography to buy into the system with minimal expenditure: the old lenses offer excellent image quality but are quite cheap (many selling for less than $100). Secondly, the use of manual focus lenses is to me quite attractive because it doesn't let finicky electronics get between me and the image I'm trying to create. This is a matter of personal taste, of course, and I should point out that all of the modern lenses offered by Pentax are auto-focus.

At the same time, because Pentax offers far fewer models than its competitors, it is in my opinion a little more selective about what it builds. The result is a small stable of very well-built cameras that are designed around user experience and compact ruggedness. In using cameras from other manufacturers, I have found their weight less well balanced, and the overall build significantly more plasticky and light feeling. There are smaller cameras on the market, but I find that Pentax offers the best combination of build and ergonomics.


sample photo

in depth

This is a no-frills DSLR that dates back to 2004. It's now seriously outclassed by modern models that have features like:

That said, for an inexpensive, compact, and relatively light DSLR, the *istDS provides:

These are not features you'll find in every modern entry-level DSLR. Some additional benefits:

Since buying mine in 2006, I've used it for both pleasure and professional purposes. All of the photography you see on my business website was done with this simple camera. This review is based on both uses.


sample photo

strengths

Despite its age, I recommend this camera as a practical go-anywhere unit. Its controls are easy to learn, and with a minimal feature set it lets you concentrate on photography in much the same way as an SLR from the film era. I've also found it tough enough to survive the inevitable jolts and bumps that come, and with a design that feels good in the hand it's a camera you'll just want to carry.

Similarly, I find the images I make with this camera quite good. The camera does tend to overexpose ever so slightly, but it's nothing that can't be corrected in software.

weaknesses

I find the auto focus ability of this camera next to useless. While I'm not an auto focus photographer, I caution anyone interested in such features to beware this camera's auto focus unit. It is as bad as to be prone to locking up while you're trying to take a photo.

The use of manual lenses requires a press of a button with your thumb every time you want to take a photo or simply meter the scene. I don't know why Pentax couldn't go 100% of the distance and support these older lenses without that step.

Being several generations out of date, this camera cannot make images that offer the range of tones and contrast that are available with a more modern camera. I get more white skies than I'd like, as a result. I have attempted to fix this with a graded filter, but the camera has serious trouble metering when I use that filter, so I've had to live with the limitation.

strobe photography

Rejoice, Pentax users. These cameras are capable of using just about any old strobe on the market. Unlike Minolta/Sony cameras and others that are susceptible to—potentially fatal—overload when used with old strobes, the *istDS and other Pentax cameras are quite adept. The following examples show why you would use a strobe with a digital SLR.

First up: product photography. Almost every kind of studio photography requires the use of strobes.

jewelry product photography
Product photo for my business

Then there's street photography. Compare the left image with the one on the right, in which no strobe was used.

using a strobe for fill lightstrobeless in Tokyo

Also, events. The following were shot using a strobe either on or off the camera, but certainly with the settings at something other than my on-board camera's full blast white-out.

the jazz bassistthis jazz bassist is a world-class competitive sports fisherman
keiko-san and sam
shot with the strobe at arm's length

Interesting lighting, too bad about the thumb.

rand()m quote

It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

—John Steinbeck, Cannery Row