25 April 2009

Review Pentax Optio P70

It wasn't all that long ago that a 12 megapixel sensor was the exclusive domain of the DSLR, but now there are any number of compact digitals packing 12, and in some cases even more megapixels. One of the latest to enter the compact "digital dozen" club is the Pentax Optio P70.

Announced on January 5, 2009 as a "high performance model featuring fast, advanced functions to make high-quality digital photography simple and effortless", the P70 becomes the pixel count flagship of the Pentax line with the discontinuation of the Optio A40. Our test subject was the P70 in matte silver with chrome highlights version, but fashionistas will no doubt be pleased to know this slim shooter can also be had in white and red versions. Do good things really come in pretty, small packages? Let's find out.

Pentax touts the P70 as the lightest Optio in the line, weighing in at 4.4 ounces in shooting configuration (battery and memory card onboard). The camera measures out at 3.8 x 2.1 x .8 inches - the first two figures are nothing unusual in the compact ranks, but that .8 makes the P70 a bit slimmer than a lot of competitors, and that translates into better pocketability (or at least a reduced unsightly bulge).

The camera features a 4x Pentax zoom lens covering a 35mm film equivalent focal range of 27.5 to 110mm. Here's what that lens range looks like in the real world:

Besides the 12 megapixel sensor, there's a 2.7 inch LCD with 230,000 dot composition, a nominal 64 to 1600 ISO sensitivity range (with 3200 and 6400 ISO available at a reduced resolution of 5 megapixels), new Pixel Track Shake Reduction technology, Advanced Face Recognition that tracks up to 32 faces in 0.03 seconds, and both Smile Capture that automatically releases the shutter when subjects smile, and Blink Detection to alert you if your subject's eyes are closed. The camera accepts SD or SDHC memory media, and there is about 33.7MB of built-in memory.

Pentax includes USB and AV cables, a Li-Ion battery and charger with AC plug cord, wrist strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.

Pentax lists 24 shooting modes for the P70, but for our purposes we'll identify four primary modes:

* Auto Picture: The camera chooses from 8 of the shooting modes, including the standard auto screen, night scene, night scene portrait, landscape, flower, portrait, sport or candlelight. The user may have some inputs available (such as image quality, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity) depending on the mode selected by the camera.
* Program: The camera sets shutter speed and aperture, and the user has a multitude of inputs available to impact image quality.
* Shooting Modes: 21 scene-specific modes, including all but the standard auto screen previously mentioned under auto picture as well as half-length portrait, surf & snow, digital SR, kids, pet, food, fireworks, frame composite, party, natural skin tone, text, blog, digital wide and digital panorama.
* Movie: Captures HD images (1280x720p) at 15 fps or 640x480 and 320x240 options at both 15 and 30 fps. Recording size is limited to 2GB with no time constraints.

The P70 follows the current trend of most cameras in the class with overall dimensions resembling a somewhat slim deck of cards or pack of cigarettes.

Styling and Build Quality
Our review camera featured an aluminum body in a matte silver finish with chrome accents, with subtle rounding on all camera edges. The camera seemed solid and well put together, the equal of competitive cameras in the class.

Ergonomics and Interface
The camera layout is simple and straightforward - the power switch and the combo zoom ring/shutter button sit atop the body, with the camera back taken up by the LCD monitor, four buttons and the rotary controller. Controls are spaced to insure no accidental activations occur, and the flash location did not conflict with either a horizontal or vertical shooting grip.

Shooting mode, flash, self-timer, continuous shooting settings and focus mode can be accessed via the rotary controller, but most other camera settings require use of the internal menus. There is a "green button" that comes with a set of default camera settings that can be instantly called up no matter what shooting mode the user is in, or the button may also be programmed to bring up a specific function from the following list: recorded pixels, white balance, AE metering, sensitivity, EV compensation, focusing area, sharpness, saturation, contrast or voice recording.

The 2.7 inch LCD is of approximately 230,000 dot composition and adjustable for seven levels of brightness, none of which makes it easy to use for image composition, capture or review in bright outdoor conditions. Pentax does not list the coverage afforded by the monitor, but it appears fairly close to 100%. There is no viewfinder.

Remembering that Pentax calls the P70 a "high performance model" and then noting an MSRP of just under $200 (with an additional $20 rebate being offered as this is written), I was curious as to just how much performance could be had for less than two bills. The answer depends on what your idea of performance is.

Timing and Shutter Lag
The P70 powers up in about 1.5 seconds and I was able to acquire focus and shoot in about 3 seconds. Shutter lag with pre-focus is a very satisfying .05 seconds, but the camera doesn't acquire focus as quickly as some competitors in good light and press to capture times without pre focus ran about .87 seconds. There is no focus assist lamp for dim light and acquisition times in those conditions will lengthen.

Shutter lag with flash enabled comes in a bit slower, about .09 seconds, and all bets are off with red eye reduction as the P70 fires a pre-flash before shooting for real. The shutter has a nominal range of 1/4 to 1/4000th second, but can stay open as long as 4 seconds in night scene mode.

Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, acquire focus and shoot again) ran about 3 seconds in some instances, but a bit over 5 seconds in others. This one had me going for a while as flash shots all wrote at the quicker speed, while some non-flash wrote quickly but others lagged. The culprit here seems to be the P70's pixel track shake reduction technology - with that feature enabled the times varied; with it off they were all quicker. We'll talk more about pixel track shake reduction in the Image Stabilization section, but suffice it to say it appears that when shooting in single shot mode with pixel track enabled, if you don't get a good crisp image that the camera goes to work fixing it and won't let you shoot again until it finishes.

Continuous shooting rates are nothing to crow about, at least at full resolution. At the 12 megapixel high quality setting the P70 took over 16 seconds to make six captures. Times improved a bit by switching to the basic 12 megapixel setting, (12 megapixel high quality files are about 3.6MB, 12 megapixel standard are about 1.9MB) but it still took about 2 seconds per shot for a series of six. There is a high speed burst setting that shoots at 3.2 fps (5.8 fps with ISO set to 3200 or 6400) at 5 megapixel resolution for up to six shots.

Lens and Zoom
The P70's smc Pentax zoom lens comes with maximum apertures ranging from a nicely fast f/2.6 at the wide end to a fairly slow f/5.8 as you move towards telephoto. That 27.5 to 110mm focal length range is "ideal for landscape, indoor and group photos" according to Pentax, and they'll get no argument from me. The P70 works on big subjects somewhat far away and smaller subjects up close, but small subjects at a distance are not its strong suit. However, the 12 megapixel sensor gives you some leeway for cropping and, depending on the nature of the original image, may provide some fairly decent crops. Here's a macro shot of a watch and a cropped 8x12 from the original shot. The cropped version came out at about 197 dpi, which is not the 300 dpi you'd like for photo printing, but still enough to provide for an OK print.

Auto Focus
The P70 comes with a default setting of a "multiple" AF area, which selects a point of focus from nine points situated across a fairly large area at the center of the image. There is also a "spot" AF option for Program and the shooting modes (including movie) that uses the central focus point of the nine, and an automatic tracking AF mode for use with moving subjects that will make use of any of the nine points to try and hold focus on the initial subject. Spot was my method of choice for the most precise determination of point of focus in any particular image.

There are also standard (16.0 inches to infinity), macro (4.0 inches to 20.0 inches), pan (entire picture from front to back is focused), infinity and manual focus modes.

The flash on the P70 produced good and accurate color rendition. Pentax lists a maximum flash range for the camera as 15 feet (at auto ISO), but folks who shoot at 64 ISO in dimmer conditions would be advised to get closer than that. A lot closer. I couldn't get the flash to give me a good exposure of a medium brown cat about four feet away in dim conditions and had to go to 200 ISO to make the shot.

There are the standard flash options including red eye reduction, and a soft flash option that reduces flash intensity while still firing the flash. Here are macro shots at the flash and soft flash setting.

Flash recycle times are pretty good, ranging from 3 to 5 seconds. If those times sound familiar it's because they mimic the best single shot write time range with the pixel track shake reduction feature enabled. As a practical matter I found flash recycle times rarely came into play - the flash was usually ready to go again by the time the camera finished writing - but at worst you might encounter a 5 second recycle time with a 3 second write time and have to wait a couple seconds before shooting again with flash.

Image Stabilization
With image stabilization, the magic words we like to hear are optical or mechanical, which tell us the camera is stabilizing by moving lens elements or the sensor. Neither word is applicable to the P70.

Pixel track shake reduction, according to Pentax:
"When recording still images, the Optio P70's new Pixel Track SR (Shake Reduction) mode effectively compensates for camera shake by processing the amount of image blur with a dedicated ASIC (application specific integrated circuit). Pixel Track SR tracks motion blur at the pixel level and calculates blur volume in real time. After exposure, the recovery filter centers the motion effect around each pixel to compartmentalize the blur. Then, an adjustment filter sharpens the pixels to help remove the blur effect. Pixel Track SR results in sharp images without adding high ISO noise."

The P70 also ramps up ISO as high as 6400 (in digital shake reduction mode) to help keep shutter speeds up as a means to try and minimize camera shake and/or subject movement.

Finally, there's a movie shake reduction mode that Pentax is a bit more close-lipped about, but their U.K. press release does mention it is the result of using "exclusive software."

Stabilization? Not in the classic sense, and certainly not my favorites with regard to ramping up the ISO to maintain shutter speed or using software to try and fix a blurry shot.

Battery Life
Pentax rates battery life in the P70 for about 200 shots and my usage approached this figure with minimal flash and chimping activity. Carry a spare battery or two for all-day shooting sessions.

P70 images at default settings were generally color accurate, but a bit soft for my taste. There are settings available to increase or decrease sharpness, saturation and contrast from the default level, and my personal preference was to maximize all three. Here are the default, minimum, and maximum settings.

Pentax describes the P70 as a "high performance model," and if lens quality and/or shutter lag are the criteria then it fits the bill on those counts. For me personally, the most frustrating aspect of digitals are pokey shutters, and if a camera takes the shot promptly after I push the button then it's off to a good start in my book.

The P70 provides nice image quality with generally accurate color and shooting options that remind me of Henry Ford's Model T: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." With P70, the camera will shoot in any mode so long as it is automatic.

ISO performance is comparable to the competition but the camera lacks stabilization. Of course, it also lacks the higher price tag that is the entry fee for stabilization. Continuous shooting rates at full resolution are disappointing but exposure calculation is good. All in all, the P70 offers fairly middle of the road performance in most categories wrapped around a lens with very good optical qualities.


* Good shutter lag under normal shooting conditions
* Minimal lens faults
* Good exposure calculation
* Good image and color quality


* No stabilization
* No AF assist lamp for dim light

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