An entry-level DSLR featuring facets of its more advanced sibling – too good to be true?...
Pentax appears to have dropped its previous idea of releasing a pair of models, one with image stabilisation and one without (the K100D and K110D) and instead is incorporating the feature as standard. This follows the trends of other manufacturers, not only in the DSLR market but also for their compacts.
Features page 1
Sometimes cameras feature major, headlining technological breakthroughs that consequently become standard on all other models. An example is dust reduction, first seen on the Olympus E-1 and now a common feature on most DSLRs. Sometimes, however, cameras merely follow the lead and update to the latest technology already in use elsewhere. The K200D is pretty much in the latter camp, though with a couple of surprises up its sleeve.
With the company previously being one of the last to feature the long-lived 6MP CCD used in early consumer DSLRs, the first major upgrade is the incorporation of a 10.2MP CCD. This brings it up to speed with competing DSLRs from Sony, Nikon and so forth, and helps to separate entry-level cameras from high-end models, as more and more manufacturers switch to CMOS-type sensors. Pentax’s collaboration with Samsung should also seal the deal in future cameras, with Samsung supplying the CMOS sensor as in the K20D, breaking Sony’s near-monopoly on sensor supply as with the previous generation of 6MP sensors in past DSLRs.
The sensor is backed up with the PRIME processor, last seen on the semi-pro K20D, promising improved processing and low noise. Of course, the larger file sizes mean a greater drain on processing power, and the K200D offers a rather disappointing burst speed of 2.8fps over just four JPEGs or Raw files. In low continuous-shooting mode, the camera maintains 1.1fps until the SD card is full. This is an area in which Pentax has always been a little behind, going back to the original *ist where other manufacturers offered faster and longer continuous shooting bursts. Come on Pentax, pull your finger out!
The next major modification to the camera is the larger 2.7in LCD – again, keeping it in line with its competitors – while the new Dynamic Range Enlargement feature is also something we’ve seen in Nikon and Sony models, for example. Similarly the new Dust Alert system, which joins the established CCD-vibrating dust removal, is something that is increasingly being incorporated into other cameras, albeit under different names.
Where Pentax is pushing the boundaries and offering something genuinely new to the entry-level market is in the camera’s build. The K200D offers dust and water protection with 60 seals to prevent damage in hostile environments. We expect this in higher-level models so it is great to see it in an entry-level model – not least because most people take their cameras on holiday, and beaches or ski slopes aren’t always the friendliest environments for delicate electronic instruments such as digital cameras.
The camera has other surprises, too. Many of the tools of the K20D are featured, such as the separate Raw button to quickly change file format from JPEG when you want to take higher-quality pictures. Some in-camera post-capture digital tools also make an appearance, such as a High Dynamic Range tool (HDR), digital filters and Raw to JPEG conversion. You also have the option of saving files in Pentax’s native PEF Raw format or the universal-wannabe DNG format. Consumer-friendly tools such as a slimming filter are also included, useful for flattering pictures of bigger-boned relatives.
Features page 2
The camera accepts AA batteries, one of the few cameras to do so, and Pentax claims battery consumption has been reduced by a factor of eight. Not only does this offer extended shooting, but AA batteries are readily available worldwide and, environmentally, lower battery consumption has to be a good thing – especially if using rechargeables.
Pentax cameras have always been about ease of use, so, along with a much improved menu and a more sensible sub-menu naming convention, the camera is equipped with a host of subject-based modes. The usual suspects of Portrait, Landscape, Sport and so on are included, but so are eight others such as Moving kids, Food and Pet modes to name just three.
There’s an ‘Auto Pict’ mode that selects the scene mode for you, just in case you don’t know what you’re taking pictures of, as well as the usual PASM options for more experienced users. Pentax has also added a Sensitivity priority AE mode (Sv) which, rather than take pictures with an added sense of empathy, adjusts the ISO speed to the prevailing lighting conditions.
Interestingly, Pentax has recalibrated the ISO settings; while the K100D offered ISO 200 to 3200, the K200D has downgraded this to a range from ISO 100 to 1600. This is probably in order to lessen noise levels and is likely to be in response to demands for lower sensitivity, but it’s an interesting move when other manufacturers are trying to push the speed into higher sensitivities, though not always successfully.
In other areas the camera conforms to the expected standards of an entry-level DSLR. Shutter speeds range from 30 to 1/4000sec and Bulb for longer exposures, and metering options include evaluative, centreweighted and spot. The 11-point AF system is the same as seen on previous models, and the AF points can be set automatically by the camera or individually selected by the user. The metering can also be tied to the selected AF point for greater accuracy when needed.
The built-in flash offers a guide number of 13m at ISO 100, which is fairly standard, while a hotshoe accepts Pentax-dedicated flash units. Wireless flash operation is available using the pop-up flash as either master or controller and standard flash modes covering red-eye reduction, auto flash and so on are also available.
Exposure compensation and auto bracketing are possible over ± 2EV, which is also complemented by flash exposure compensation over the same range.
There’s a choice of colour modes, with sRGB and Adobe RGB, as well as a number of preset colour/custom image functions, such as Portrait, Landscape and so on. These are essentially advanced scene modes. Each of these can be customised via hue, saturation, contrast and sharpness sliders. A colour wheel displays as this is done, which seems slightly advanced for the majority of users, but you don’t have to fully understand it to use it and it looks good as a graphic device.
Pentax has kept the camera small, despite its tough credentials, making it ideal for both genders, and also as a travel camera. The dust and weatherproofing, combined with its light weight and AA batteries are sure to appeal to the backpacker or adventurer.
The plastic finish is less than impressive, though, and the camera is prone to scratching – especially around the right rim of the lens mount where the lack of purchase from the grip makes fingernails scrape along the body easily. As a finger-picking guitar player my nails are slightly longer than most men’s, so I imagine this may be a problem for women in particular.
Another niggle is the SD card slot, which is tight when reaching in to remove the card, a problem I remember on the original *ist. Unlike that camera, I didn’t have to resort to a pair of long-nosed pliers, but a snappy flick when pushing the card down to release the catch sorted the problem out.
The exposure compensation button also accesses the aperture control in manual mode, in conjunction with a rear dial. I prefer dual command dials for shutter and aperture, but few of the K200D’s core audience would probably use manual mode, so this is fine.
Pentax has continued its menu improvements with a similar, though stripped-down, interface to that of the K20D and, as I mentioned in its review, the naming of some menu items is much improved. Overall, the camera is well thought out and with well-placed buttons, making it simple to change settings, and most frequently needed controls situated either on the main mode dial, or via the function button.
The most disappointing aspect of the camera is its slowness in burst mode, and how quickly the buffer fills up. This is an area where the camera fails to compete with other current models, and makes the camera less than ideal for fast action, or even slow action – the AF can keep up but the recording can’t.
The AF matches that of other recent Pentax models – that is, it’s adequate rather than blindlingly quick. It is rather let down by the standard kit lens, which is slow and pretty noisy. Investment in better lenses will improve the speed and the sound levels of the AF.
There is an argument that the AF is of less importance to a proportion of existing Pentax users however, as the lens mount accepts older manual K lenses, so there will be a small audience for Pentax purists using manual lenses (along with manual mode).
Image stabilisation varies in performance, depending on what’s being photographed. Sometimes I only managed to shoot successfully at the 55mm end of the lens using a shutter speed of 1/45sec, which is hardly earth-shattering. I was less than happy with slower speeds, with camera shake occurring more frequently, though I did achieve the occasional sharp shot.
Raw and JPEG. It’s debatable which is better, JPEG or PEF, in terms of image quality, especially when processed in Photoshop. Raw files always have the edge over JPEGs, but at the best quality setting JPEGs display few artefacts and little reduction in quality to the naked eye.
I’ve frequently found Pentax cameras to err on the side of underexposure, which could be argued to be a good thing, as this maintains highlight detail. Consumers prefer bright and punchy images, so criticism could be levelled at any entry-level camera that doesn’t achieve this. However, I would say the K200D achieves brighter images than the K20D, with more consistently correct JPEGs and rare failures. When it does get it wrong it tends to be with pictures with lots of sky, or particularly tricky subjects, such as dominant highlights or shadows. This is where experience comes in and correction using spot metering or exposure compensation solves any problems.
Shooting right up to ISO 1600 there’s minimal loss of quality and the K200D actually exceeded my expectations of its high-sensitivity settings, especially considering the high pixel count of the CCD.
Tone and Contrast
I like the punchy results from the K200D, which, in conjunction with good exposure, are accurate and pleasing. The only puzzlement comes from studying the meta-data in the images, which shows the camera randomly choosing hard or soft contrast, despite the fact that I shot at default settings in Aperture Priority mode.
Colour and White Balance
Generally the colour is accurate and the camera does a good job of maintaining excellent white balance in varying conditions. Daylight and shade are well maintained by the auto white balance, with few tweaks needed to correct, and JPEGs always look pleasant. In particular, I found that the Bright setting in the Image menu produced the best results.
Sharpness and Detail
At 10MP we expect decent sharpness and plenty of detail capture. However, high pixel counts can lead to a lack of sharpness due to camera shake. The in-camera image stabilisation overcomes this to a degree. Images rarely look too ‘digital’, and plenty of smooth detail is maintained
Value For Money
Value For Money
The RRP of £530 is probably a little high considering the entry-level market, but street prices of around £400 to £450 make this model more tempting. The major appeal of the Pentax K200D lies in its build quality, and it’s the tough outer casing that sets this camera apart from its competitors, as opposed to any particular digital or photographic feature.
I really enjoyed using the K200D. It is logical to handle and its build quality means I’d be happy to use it in harsher conditions. The images I got from the camera also were very pleasing, especially considering previous exposure problems with other Pentax cameras, and the ‘Bright’ mode is certainly my favourite for JPEGs.
Despite its positioning as a beginners’ DSLR, though, there are enough higher-end features to satisfy the more advanced photographer, making this a great camera for the film to digital convert, or anyone wishing to go beyond the Auto-club. The only let down really is the drive speed and the AF with the kit lens. Look for deals that feature a better lens, or buy the body on its own and invest in a superior optic and you’ll find yourself with a lovely little kit.