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“Is that a piece of jewelry around your neck or a real SLR?” someone asked one day when we were shooting field tests on the street with the Pentax *ist. It was said in jest, but the *ist may be as close as we ever get to an SLR that falls into both camps. And though it’s a cute handful, is it a good camera?

Having wrung out a production unit for a few months, here’s the answer: In terms of operating convenience, the *ist is pretty sensational.

Sensational convenience? With how many other SLRs can you operate nearly every control without removing your fingers from the camera? Except for the AF/manual-focus switch and exposure mode dial, almost all essential controls are on the camera back. There are no black-on-black buttons or switches to cause confusion. All are black-on-chrome, and clearly identified. The large LCD is on the back, so you don’t need to view the top plate to check settings. By removing the LCD from the usual top-of-camera position, Pentax engineers have been able to shorten the camera body. They’ve also reversed film travel, placing the film chamber on the right side and running the film right to left. This creates a roomy film compartment in which the film need only be dropped and held by top spring tension-one of the simplest loading SLRs ever. The short film travel means 25 instead of 24 exposures, or 37 instead of 36 per roll (usually).

What’s HOT and what’s NOT
HOT: • Light, small, excellent handling • Big rear LCD; 11 lighted AF sensors • Lighted subject-mode dial • Zippy AF • Custom functions • Two remote-controls • Built-in data back NOT: • Nonshiftable exposure program • No flash-OK confirmation • Fairly low finder magnification • Uses low-power CR2 batteries • No built-in flash compensation

Is the *ist too small to be held comfortably? Both large- and small-handed testers on our team found it enjoyably holdable for both horizontal and vertical shots.

Most of our technical interest in the *ist centered on its unique 11-sensor autofocus system. Pentax SLRs previously lagged behind others in this area, lacking any cross sensors at all. But the *ist has an amply filled field of nine with two additional linear sensors at far right and left.

Looking through the *ist’s viewfinder (which has a slightly smaller magnification than other mirror-prism SLRs), you can easily see the entire picture area and LCD information panel, even if you wear eyeglasses. On the screen are 11 black sensor indicators plus a circle representing the spotmetering area. Using the rear four-way controller, you can let the camera select the AF point, select the focus point yourself, or switch to the central sensor. When the point locks onto a subject, it flashes red-not the wimpy short flash you see on other camera AF screens, but a bright light that often illuminates the surrounding area as well. We also found the audible focus-OK signal very useful when we were not paying attention to the red flashes. An LCD diagram shows the AF sensors in use.

Camera: Pentax *ist 35mm AF SLR. Approx. street price: $300, body only; $360 with 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 SMC Pentax FA J lens. Focusing and viewing: Nine cross sensors sensitive to both horizontal- and vertical-line subjects with single-line sensors at right and left. Full AF area, spot AF, or single AF sensors selected automatically or manually; single-shot mode with focus priority; continuous AF with release priority; AF sensitivity EV -1 to EV 18 at ISO 100 with 50mm f/1.4 lens; AF aidlight in flash head; manual focusing option. Noninterchangeable mirror prism finder with fixed screen showing spotmetering circle; all AF sensor areas shown in black except operational one lit by red LED; depth-of-field preview; built-in -2 to +1 diopter correction. Shutter and exposure controls: Shutter and exposure controls: Electronically controlled, vertical-travel, multiblade focal-plane shutter with speeds from 30-1/4000 sec plus B, nonshiftable program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority auto modes with auto picture; program and five subject modes lit on mode dial; metered manual exposure mode; correct exposure shiftable to focusing point; AE lock; exposure compensation ±3 EV in 1¼2-EV steps; three exposure bracketing ±3 EV in 1¼2- or 1-EV increments; unlimited multiple exposures; 12- or two-sec self-timer, the latter with mirror lockup; audible ST and AF signal; built-in time and date printing; 17 custom functions. Metering: 16-segment evaluative metering, centerweighted or spot from EV 0 to EV 21 at ISO 100 with a 50mm f/1.4 lens; provision for remote infrared and electronic cable shutter release; lighted rear LCD screen. Loading and winding: Autoloading, winding, and rewinding with auto DX film-speed settings; manual ISO 6-6400; single-frame or continuous advance to 2.5 fps. Flash: Pop-up flash covers angle of 28mm lens, retracts automatically when power is turned off; X-sync at 1/125 sec; ISO range 25-500; fill flash; slow shutter-speed sync; redeye reduction; high-speed and wireless sync possible with proper Pentax accessory flash units. Other features: Two CR2 lithium batteries.

AF was adequately fast, as was performance in low light. As with many compact AF SLRs, the *ist’s pop-up flash does two extra duties, preflashing to minimize redeye and acting as an autofocus aidlight. We found the subjects being photographed were often annoyed when they mistook these preflashes for the actual flash.

Our AF recommendations? When shooting action, use continuous autofocus with the camera selecting the AF point; use single focus and the center sensor for still scenes (when you can autofocus on the main subject), then recompose while holding the shutter release halfway down. We found the advantages of nine cross sensors most evident in fast-moving action scenes; the crosses locked onto subjects with far greater tenacity than could a mixture of crosses and single-line sensors, or purely single-line sensors. Such an advanced AF system on a camera at this price level is remarkable.

The *ist’s exposure system is quite comprehensive, with the traditional program (a smiling face on the mode dial), aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure, and manual exposure. Unlike many other AF SLRs, evaluative metering, centerweighted, or spot can be had in all modes, but it’s too bad that the program mode isn’t shiftable. You cannot shift the exposure up or down to take advantage of a different shutter speed or aperture than what the program sets.

We’ve often written about the subject modes on cameras, which let you set exposure for what the camera considers best for portraits, scenics, close-ups, action, or night pictures; you do better determining your own exposure (except for night shots in which the long exposures with flash do come in handy). The green Auto Picture Mode goes one automatic step further. It picks and sets the subject mode depending upon subject distance and magnification. This process is fascinating to watch as the subject symbols light up differently, according to the picture-taking situation. This auto pic mode is great for tyros who know little about photography and are not interested in learning more. Our opinion, again: make your own exposures.

While some of the Pentax *ist’s custom functions have to do with changing the actions of particular switches and buttons, a number of them are of major import. CF 11 allows the film leader to remain out after rewinding-important if you intend to reuse an unfinished roll of film.

Camera shake at slow speeds, caused by rapid-return mirror movement, produces blurry pictures. So we were pleased that Custom Function 12 locks up the mirror when the self-timer is set to two sec instead of the usual 12. Two seconds is enough time to minimize mirror shake before exposure. Autofocus points and proper exposure with evaluative metering are not normally linked, but CF 3 automatically adjusts the exposure to the operating focus point, a useful function.

The built-in databack is both good and bad. While it’s a nice feature, the data mechanism is powered by the camera’s CR2 batteries. So guess what happens each time you change batteries? You lose date and time, and must set them again.

Databacks with their own slim lithium power cell are preferable, but they add cost, bulk, and weight.

Like almost all compact AF SLRs, the *ist is powered by two CR2 lithium batteries rather than larger, more powerful CR123As. For more power, attach the BG-20 battery grip, whose four AA cells boost the number of rolls shot per set of batteries by about 50 percent.

The Pentax *ist passed all its field tests with flying colors. The viewfinder LCD information panel is easily visible even in bright daylight when you keep your eye close to the comfortable, soft-rubber eyepiece. But we were surprised that the Pentax tripod socket isn’t centrally located, which may be a difficulty for those lining up the camera on a copystand or doing precision tripod work (such as mechanically stitching panoramics).

In our field tests, both print and slide film yielded well-exposed daylight, low-light, fill-flash, and flash-only shots. Unfortunately, there is no flash-OK indication in the viewfinder.

The Pentax *ist is a fun-to-use camera. It’s ultracompact, handsome, easy-to-handle, and full of features, including a sophisticated AF you’d expect in a much more expensive camera. The beauty of this camera is far more than skin deep.

Viewfinder: Focusing screen is very bright and contrasty for a mirror prism, with an average magnification of 0.72X, about the same as the Canon EOS Rebel Ti. The screen image shows 82 percent of the picture area, a good performance with no parallax error, superior to other SLRs in this class. In our AF sensitivity diagram, below, shaded areas outside of the nine AF sensor points represent the sensors’ total area sensitivity. It’s unusual and unique. The center cross shows sensitivity horizontally and vertically, while the sensitivity areas of the eight outer semicrosses actually overlap and reinforce each other (as shown) into an admirably tight rectangle, which should prove very effective. There are two outer vertical sensors to catch subjects outside the central area. Autofocus and time lag: AF speed was generally acceptable but slightly on the slow side in very low light. From EV 12 to EV 7, AF speed takes 0.4 to 0.6 sec. From EV 6 to EV 3, 0.8 to 1.2 sec. At EV 2 it requires about 1.3 sec. At EV 1, AF speed takes 1.4 sec. With a low-contrast target AF timing produced the same results as from EV 9 to EV 12, but needs 0.2 sec longer below EV 9. Time lag was 0.14 sec, acceptable for a camera of this class. Shutter speeds: Extremely accurate with virtually no error detected from 2 to 1/2000 sec; at 1/4000 sec there was less than 1¼10-stop underexposure. Speeds slower than two sec were not tested. Exposure accuracy: Very accurate in shutter- and aperture-priority, centerweighted, and spotmetering with 1¼5-stop over/underexposure from EV 1 to EV 9, extremely accurate with less than 1¼10-stop from EV 10 to EV 14, and average accuracy with overexposure by 1¼2-stop from EV 15 to EV 17. At manual, centerweighted and spotmetering, extremely accurate exposure with over/underexposure of less than 1¼10-stop from EV 10 to EV 14, average with overexposure by 1¼2-stop from EV 15 to EV 17. Sound level: Extremely quiet at single frame, continuous advance, and rewind. At center, we measured 63.7 decibels single-frame advance, 63.9 continuous advance, 62.3 rewinding.

The Pentax *ist vs. its competitors
Nikon N75 QD
($230 street, body only) Larger, heavier (with all-glass prism), almost as good-looking as Pentax, but not quite. Five AF sensors with one cross sensor. Controls not as convenient. LCD panel on top of camera. Lower top speed. Exposure and flash systems more comprehensive. Much greater lens choice, including Vibration Reduction lenses. No mirror lock-up.

Canon EOS Rebel Ti
($260 street, body only)
Forty bucks less, slightly larger and heavier (with mirror prism). Somewhat glitzy stainless-steel exterior. Puzzling multiple-lit AF sensor array. One cross sensor, six linear. Convenient controls with LCD panel on back. Lower top speed. Exposure and flash systems more comprehensive. More lenses, including Image Stabilization. No mirror lock-up. No flash-OK signal.

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