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Pentax *ist DL review: Pentax *ist DL

Pentax *ist DL

Lisa Gidley
7 min read
Review summary
One of the smallest and most affordable dSLRs in town, the Pentax *ist DL is another of the company's series of SLRs that is as easy to use as it's perplexing to pronounce. The DL is a sibling of the *ist DS2 with slightly fewer features and a larger body. The series' primary attractions--such as the 6.1-megapixel CCD and a user-friendly design--remain the same.
Most casual users won't notice the corners that Pentax cut to reduce the DL's cost: a less sophisticated autofocusing system and a mirror in the viewfinder instead of a prism. Despite its slight stature and modest price point, the *ist DL handily produces crisp, vibrant photos that should please any photographer taking the step up from a digital point-and-shoot. Curious amateurs should definitely explore beyond the DL's simplest options; a few automatic features, such as white balance, are handily outperformed by the camera's manual settings. The Pentax *ist DL is the featherweight champion among dSLRs, measuring just 4.9 by 3.6 by 2.6 inches and weighing a mere 20.1 ounces with batteries. The compact design is identical to that of the DS2, and the combination of a stainless-steel chassis and plastic elements feels sturdy. The right-hand grip is coated with rubber for a nonslip hold, and there's a thoughtful right-thumb contour on the camera back, allowing for easy one-handed operation.
For the most part, the *ist DL's design is sleek and user-friendly. You use a thumbwheel and a standard SLR mode dial to control exposure method. Most of the camera's other settings are displayed through the monitor and accessed through one of two buttons on the back--Function or Menu--which you then navigate with a four-way thumbpad. An Info button reveals your current settings, as well as histograms and data for photos you're reviewing. The overall system is fairly intuitive once you grasp that the Function button leads to the controls you'll change most frequently (ISO, white balance, flash settings, and drive mode), while the Menu button takes you to settings you'll adjust less often (image size, raw vs. JPEG, saturation levels, and the like).

The on/off switch also includes a depth-of-field preview; it's usefully located, as you can easily activate it with your right index finger while looking through the viewfinder, poised to shoot.

One small caveat concerns the on/off switch, which rotates around the shutter release. If you carry the camera around with your right hand or are prone to doing the type of self-portrait where you hold a camera at arm's length to snap your own mug, you might occasionally turn off the *ist DL by accident. Luckily there's also a timer, so self-portraitists can put the camera on a tripod or a table and rest their arms anyway. The Pentax *ist DL sports a standard range of features that should intrigue dSLR newcomers while satisfying most old hands and film-world converts. As with all digital SLRs, the *ist DL lets you customize the features you care most about, while leaving the other choices up to the camera's fairly intelligent brain.

You can choose aperture-priority, shutter-priority, bulb, manual, or automatic exposure, or you can select a scene setting: portrait, landscape, close-up, action, night portrait, or standard. If you can't decide, the Auto Pict function will evaluate your composition and choose one for you.

You can set the ISO sensitivity at 200, 400, 800, 1,600, 3,200, or automatic. File options consist of three image sizes--1.5MB, 4MB, or 6MB--and a choice of raw and three JPEG compression levels. You get selectable levels of in-camera color saturation, sharpening, and contrast. The DL also offers two image-tone options: bright and natural. The former is punchier, with more contrast; the latter is smoother and recommended for portraits. Other image settings include a choice between the Adobe RGB or sRGB color spaces.
The function button summons white-balance options, flash settings, and shooting modes, such as continuous shooting (the buffer supports five JPEG or three raw images). There's also a timer for self-portraits, with a delay of about 12 seconds. One nice feature is a 2-second timer with mirror lockup. This is useful when you have a long exposure on a tripod, where mirror shake--or even the wobble from your finger pushing the shutter release--will visibly affect your photo. A remote-controlled shutter release is an optional accessory.
The pop-up flash has red-eye reduction and fill-flash features, and a hotshoe connection allows for a larger flash, at a sync speed of 1/180 second.
Once you've captured some shots, you can view them, rotate them, and zoom in at up to 12X magnification to scrutinize the details. Thumbnail views help you quickly find the image you want, or you can check out your creations slowly as a slide show. If you can't wait to alter an image on a computer, you can also apply in-camera sepia, black-and-white, soft-focus, and slimming filters to images after they're taken, although the slim setting will make your friends look more like funhouse-mirror reflections than Kate Moss. The camera saves the filtered files in addition to your originals.
As with the *ist DS2, the *ist DL takes a whole host of Pentax lenses: KAF2-, KAF-, and KA-mount lenses. Older K-mount lenses can be used with limited capabilities, while Pentax S-mount and medium-format 67/645 lenses are usable with adapters and restrictions.
The *ist DL uses SD media and a high-speed USB 2.0 data transfer. It supports many battery options: CR-V3 lithium cells, nickel-metal-hydride rechargeables, AA lithium batteries, and easily obtainable (and quickly drained) AA alkaline batteries. An optional AC adapter is available. For a camera of its size and price, the Pentax *ist DL performs quite respectfully. Start-up to first shot takes 1.4 seconds, and its 0.7-second shot-to-shot time holds for both raw and JPEG files. Shutter delay, using autofocus with the standard 18mm-to-55mm lens, is 0.6 second with a bright scene and increases to 0.7 second with a darker, lower-contrast scene.
With the camera in continuous-drive mode when shooting standard JPEGs, we measured a swift capture rate of 3.3fps; the rate increased to 4.2fps in raw mode, as we shot 3 frames in 0.7 second. The buffer depth is where the *ist DL is somewhat skimpy; you can shoot only 5 JPEGs or 3 raw frames in each burst, before waiting a few seconds for the camera to rejuvenate itself. Thus, the *ist DL isn't ideal for shooting sports or animals.
While the earlier *ist DS had an 11-point autofocus system, the *ist DL uses just 3; your choices are limited to wide and spot focus, with the default in the center of the frame. It's relatively easy to autofocus on an off-center subject using the time-honored trick of prefocusing with your subject in the center of the frame, then reframing and shooting, but in practice, it takes a few tries to finesse. The autofocus is also occasionally flustered by moving subjects or high-contrast scenes, occasionally shifting indecisively before simply freezing. On the other hand, the *ist DL performs well in low-light conditions, particularly with flash.
The *ist DL's optical viewfinder uses a pentamirror, as opposed to the *ist DS2's heavier pentaprism, but photographers who prefer to focus manually will still have an easy time using the DL's bright matte-focusing screen. The pentamirror provides a 0.85X magnification showing 95 percent of the frame. The luxuriously large 2.5-inch, 210,000-pixel LCD monitor is handily viewable even at odd angles and in somewhat sunny conditions.
One automatic setting that doesn't always perform well is the auto white balance (AWB); although it's the default, it's not particularly savvy in judging ambient lighting conditions that don't involve direct sunlight or a flash. Test shots on a shady back porch resulted in very blue images using the AWB setting; shots indoors at night under tungsten lights had a strong yellow cast. You'd be better off choosing one of the presets or setting it manually. The results are much more balanced, although there are still slight color casts under artificial light.
The tiny built-in flash gave surprisingly even lighting to a completely darkened room, and it performed well, adding fill flash to portraits taken outdoors in semishaded conditions.
Shooting speed in seconds  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Time to first shot  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (silver)
Nikon D70s
Pentax *ist DL

Typical continuous-shooting speed in frames per second  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
For such a compact dSLR, the Pentax *ist DL produces quality images. Color is punchy and only sometimes oversaturated in the pink-and-red spectrum, and skin tones are smooth, particularly on images shot on the natural color setting. Well-exposed shots retain nice details in the shadows; only the most contrasty highlights burn out.
Our test images are clean and mostly noise-free with ISO 200 and ISO 400. A handful of colorful speckles show up at ISO 800, but even at ISO 1,600, the grain isn't totally distracting. ISO 3,200 is another story, but it's a setting most users are unlikely to use except in extreme situations.
Slight and unnaturally colored halos showed up around some subjects, particularly those in strong natural light. The ones we encountered were unlikely to be prominent at print sizes smaller than 11x14.

Pentax *ist DL

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 7