A 3.2-megapixel, 3X optical zoom camera that won't bust your budget, the Pentax Optio 33L provides an interesting mix of features in a compact package. It's on the advanced end of the point-and-shoot spectrum, although its lack of manual shutter speed and aperture controls keeps it from being a full-featured camera.
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You can switch to playback mode with the dedicated button or use the four-way controller for quick access to exposure compensation, continuous shooting and self-timer modes, manual focus controls, menu navigation, and a virtual mode dial.
Weighing 8.1 ounces with battery and CompactFlash card, the mostly plastic Pentax 33L is surprisingly solid and well built for a budget model. Although not the tiniest camera in town, it's sufficiently compact to carry in a coat pocket. You won't find an optical viewfinder on the 33L, but you can flip up its 1.5-inch LCD and rotate it 180 degrees horizontally, which provides some shooting flexibility.
Discovering some of the 33L's uncommon features necessitates a look at the manual, but once you know what's there, using the camera is easy. It takes a minimal effort to change most settings via the logical back-of-camera control layout, which has several dedicated buttons and a four-way controller for accessing features such as exposure compensation, a virtual mode dial, and a standard text-menu system. We found the text menu easy to understand and the virtual mode dial icons clear. The only bad news is that you have to select display options in the setup menu, so if you want to turn on the helpful grid overlay or dynamic histogram, you have to dig for them.
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Pentax keeps the camera top simple, placing only the power button and the shutter release there.
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You'll find dedicated buttons for focus and flash modes near the zoom toggle.
We like the placement of the tripod socket, which is far enough from the battery and media compartments that you can open them with the 33L mounted on a small tripod. Just make sure to turn the camera so that the tripod levers don't get in the way.
At this camera's price, you won't feel like you've squandered your money, even if you just keep the 33L in point-and-shoot mode. But you'll be missing out on a lot since it offers a broad set of interesting features. Although you won't find aperture or shutter-speed controls, you get exposure compensation and several bracketing options for managing exposure and image quality.
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The 33L comes with only 16MB of CompactFlash memory, so save some room in your budget for a larger-capacity card.
You can select exposure and white-balance bracket steps, while the camera sets saturation, sharpness, and contrast steps automatically. We did find setting up exposure and white-balance bracketing a little inconvenient since you have to choose the mode with the virtual mode dial, then set the steps through the menu system.
Beyond autobracketing, you can manually adjust a range of image parameters, including white balance, sharpness, contrast, and saturation. We appreciated having a live thumbnail view when selecting the preset or custom white balance so that we could see what effect each setting had on color balance.
Metering, focus, and light sensitivity (ISO) options also count toward this camera's appeal. You can adjust the focus manually via the four-way controller, and when you use the manual focus, a close-up view of the center of your scene appears on the LCD to help you get a sharp shot. Unfortunately, the same arrows on the four-way controller are used to adjust exposure compensation and manual focus, so you can't use both for the same photo.
You can capture JPEGs at three compression settings and four file-size settings, and there's a movie mode for shooting 320x240 clips. Although you can't record sound with the video, you can zoom while capturing video. In addition to an array of scene modes and a panorama mode, you can apply several special effects, including Pentax's signature 3D mode (3D glasses are included). The 3D mode is amusing, but we found the digital filters more to our creative liking. Blue, green, and red filters can be used to tint an image or to take a black-and-white photo with only the chosen filter hue rendered in color.