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.
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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.
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.
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We shot more than 500 photos (with the LCD on and the flash firing about 12 percent of the time) on one charge of a pair of optional 1,950mAh nickel-metal-hydride AA batteries. You can also use a long-life disposable CRV3 cell, one of which comes with the camera.
The Pentax 33L is a midlevel performer in its class. At its slowest, shooting highest-quality photos with the flash firing, the camera takes 4 to 5 seconds to trigger the shutter after focusing, save the file, and recycle the flash. You can shave off a second or so by shooting at a lower resolution or turning off the flash. For faster shooting, the continuous mode will get you there, albeit without flash.
The 33L's 3X (38mm to 114mm, 35mm-camera equivalent) zoom lens operates smoothly and responsively, if a bit noisily. And we were pleasantly surprised at the camera's ability to lock its autofocus under almost dark conditions without the visible red glow of an AF illuminator lamp. Under normal lighting conditions, autofocus worked reasonably well on the Wide setting, but the spot-focus option delivered better, more sharply focused results.
In all but extreme lighting conditions, the rotating LCD provides a sufficiently clear view for composing your shots. Pentax includes a somewhat flimsy snap-on LCD hood, which we found moderately helpful in bright sunlight.
With a flash range of about 16 feet, the 33L offers more powerful illumination than most other cameras in its class. You'll be able to light up a room (or at least a good part of it) and generally end up with even and well-balanced coverage. Just be careful that your left forefinger doesn't stray and block the flash. And be sure to switch on red-eye reduction if you're taking pictures of people.
Image quality from the 33L is good but doesn't rise to the level of some other cameras in the same class. Our test exposures were generally accurate, although not always spot-on; we were glad to have the option of autobracketing.
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|Although using the automatic white balance under indoor (tungsten) lighting gave our pictures a very warm tone (left), the 33L rendered colors vividly yet naturally.|
Automatic white balance performed reasonably well under a variety of lighting conditions, and colors came out well saturated and natural-looking. The camera recorded a variety of bright colors (even hot pink and purple) without going off the edge of the real-world color spectrum--a plus in a budget-priced camera.
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|The 33L's image quality is generally good, but it would have been nice to see more detail and less noise, especially in shots such as this one (detail shown at 100 percent).|
On the other hand, images fell short of our expectations in terms of sharpness and detail. For example, in floral close-ups, we were able to capture rain beads on a flower but not the finer details of the petals. We also noticed a moderate amount of artifacts and image noise; we suggest you keep the light-sensitivity setting at ISO 100 for the best quality.