Thanks to the recent spate of fully featured, pocket-friendly 7-megapixel cameras from Pentax, Olympus, Sony, and Canon, serious photographers don't have to trade must-have capabilities for compact size. Pentax includes the fine-tuning control over exposure and focus that photo enthusiasts need, along with some stand-out features such as a flip-out swiveling LCD, a 3D stereoscopic shooting mode, and a time-lapse interval recording option. Unfortunately, mediocre performance and imaging artifacts in the photos seriously crimp the Pentax Optio 750Z's upscale appeal.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.Don't let the leather-textured rubber front panel fool you: this Pentax Optio 750Z is no paean to nostalgia. The design of its 9-ounce, 3.9-by-2.4-by-1.7-inch, aluminum-alloy body emphasizes fast access to leading-edge features. Even the most esoteric controls, such as the 750Z's digital light-meter mode, can be invoked with a minimum of fuss and without a side trip to menu land.
For example, when you curl your fingers around the camera, the shutter-release button and the zoom rocker fall naturally under your index finger and thumb, respectively. You can still shift these two digits quickly to twirl the top-mounted mode dial and switch from manual to aperture- or shutter-priority modes or programmed exposure, as well as to activate access to any of a dozen-plus scene modes, your choice of three user setups, panorama or 3D (stereoscopic) assist, digital filter effects, or motion picture and sound recording. The mode dial also includes a handy front lever for adjusting exposure compensation (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV steps). Add in a recessed power switch, a power-on LED, and a speaker, and the Pentax has more useful stuff on its top panel than you'll find in the entirety of some snapshot cameras.
More controls await you on the back panel. In addition to the zoom rocker, you have an array of three buttons to switch between flash modes; activate self-timer, remote control, burst, or time-lapse modes; and cycle among normal, macro, and manual focus. In playback mode, this same trio of keys protects the displayed image from accidental erasure, marks the image for printing, or deletes it. To the right of the LCD are the picture-review buttons, the Menu key, and a function button that provides as many as four different capabilities (such as image quality, white-balance adjustments, or flash-exposure compensation) to the up, down, left, and right cursor keys, which also navigate menus and make other settings. The central OK button doubles as a control to adjust the amount of information displayed on the LCD or to switch it off entirely.
All those controls may sound confusing, but they're a snap to learn, and they relegate most trips to the well-organized, three-level menu system to less frequently changed recording, playback, and setup features. For example, if you haven't previously defined ISO settings, AE metering mode, saturation, sharpness, or contrast settings to one of the function keys, you can adjust them in the menus.
Although flip-out LCDs such as the one found in the Pentax 750Z are common in digital cameras and camcorders, this one is even more convenient. Bright and usable even under strong illumination, you'll find yourself preferring the 1.8-inch LCD even over the diopter-corrected optical viewfinder, as it shows 100 percent of the image, compared to less than 90 percent for the glass-window view. It swivels 180 degrees horizontally and 270 degrees vertically for shots from any angle, including waist level, over the head, and reversed self-portrait orientations. Especially handy are the full-screen countdown numbers that appear on the LCD when the self-timer is activated and which are properly flipped vertically to warn you or your subjects when it's time to say "Cheese!" Some of the features built into the Pentax Optio 750Z are just plain fun. You may not spend a lot of time shooting time-lapse photos, panoramas, or 3D pictures, but you'll be glad the capabilities are there when you want them. Nor are you likely to rely on the 750Z as your main motion-picture camcorder, even though it can shoot 30fps at 640x480-pixel resolution, with sound, for as long as your SD memory card holds out. This camera also makes a great handheld spot meter for your film camera, too, adjustable for readings from ISO 6 to ISO 6,400.
The 5X optical zoom ranges from a not-terribly-wide 37.5mm to a decent telephoto of 187.5mm (both 35mm-camera equivalents). The widest aperture is f/2.8 at the wide-angle position and f/4.6 when zoomed to telephoto. The smallest aperture at any zoom setting is f/8.0. The top shutter speed of 1/2,000 second is available only in one of the automatic shooting modes.
Focus manually, or rely on an autofocus that combines standard TTL contrast detection with an external focus sensor located on the front of the camera next to the optical viewfinder. Choose wide or spot autofocus, or select your own preferred focus area from 11 different positions on the screen using the cursor keys. Standard macro mode focuses as close as 5.9 inches, and a supermacro option takes you down to 0.8 inch.
Once you've set up your camera's default controls the way you like them, you can store the settings in one of three User slots and retrieve them later with a twist of the Mode dial. User settings can include your favorite exposure mode; quality level from three JPEG compression options plus TIFF; and resolution, from 7 megapixels down to 0.6 megapixel in both 3:2 and 4:3 aspect ratios. White-balance presets include three varieties of fluorescent lamps, and the light sensitivity can be adjusted automatically or selected from between ISO 80 and ISO 400 (the ISO 6 to ISO 6,400 settings are for exposure-meter mode only, not for picture-taking).
The built-in flash unit reaches out 17 feet when ISO is set to Auto to provide even illumination in low light, which takes away some of the sting of not having a hotshoe or a PC connection for an external strobe. Both front-curtain and rear-curtain flash sync are available, but slow-sync, for filling in background details during flash exposures, is provided only with Night, Night Portrait, and Sunset scene modes. Photographers who want to cover their bases can choose to bracket exposure, white balance, sharpness, saturation, or contrast.
When you need a break, try out some of the 750Z's digital filters, which include black-and-white, sepia, red, pink, purple, blue, green, yellow, and soft-focus and can be applied both before or after exposure. Or check out the time-lapse feature, which can crank out as many as 99 shots at intervals of 10 to 99 seconds, after an initial delay of from 0 minutes to 24 hours. The movie mode is also entertaining if your SD card has enough capacity for the 640x480-resolution, 30fps/15fps clips that can be played back in-camera at normal frame rates, frame by frame, or fast-forward and reverse, with adjustable audio volume. We took note of the Pentax Optio 750Z's sluggish performance even before we started our formal performance testing. It seemed to take forever to store one of those 7-megapixel images to the memory card, and our tests bore out that impression: the Optio managed a below-average 3.9-second shot-to-shot time--4.8 seconds with flash--and took a prodigious 23.2 seconds to store a TIFF file. The TIFF time dropped to about 11 seconds, however, when we tested the camera with a fast SD card; the fast card made a slight, but not particularly notable, impact on non-TIFF performance. Nor was burst mode particularly impressive: we got four shots in about 3 seconds at full resolution, and speed improved to only about one shot per second when resolution was reduced to 640x480 pixels, although we were able to grab 42 pictures in 40 seconds. The 750Z was slow to wake up, too, requiring 5.6 seconds to rouse for the first shot. Nor did this camera distinguish itself in the shutter-lag tests, despite its hybrid focusing system and bright red focus-assist lamp. The shortest lag time we could manage under high-contrast lighting was 1.2 seconds, and the delay nearly doubled to 2.3 seconds under more-challenging low-contrast illumination. Battery life was good, however, amounting to 660 shots, half of them with flash, from Pentax's proprietary 1,800mAh lithium-ion rechargeable.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
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(Longer bars indicate better performance)
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The Optio seemed to handle red-eye well, and auto white balance worked fine except under some tungsten light sources, which tended to come out too warm or sometimes a smidge too blue if we used the incandescent preset.