dSLR for $500

Pentax *st DL

When I was in Costco the other day, I noticed that Pentax’s dSLR was undercutting the Nikon D50 kit by a couple bucks. Then, I read today that the Pentax *st DL with 18-55mm kit lens dropped another $200 to $599. If you figure the lens is about $100, we’re at $500.


One thing I’ve noticed is that bridge cameras still hover around the $1000 I paid for them back in 1998. The cheapest dSLR camera back then was around $5000 for the body only. Now dSLRs are cheaper than bridges.

Now you should know that despite its popularity, there is little value to a kit lens on a dSLR. Also a bridge camera usually contains better optics, live preview, more zoom, and vibration reduction, and a better menu system for shot selection. But that isn’t the point.

The point is that the entry cost for a high quality dSLR is half the price of a bridge. I think when faced with that, a lot of casual photographers will go buy an entry dSLR even though the bridge may serve their photographic needs better.

I guess this kicks off the beginning of the dSLR price war of 2006.

Pentax digital

If you are wondering what is there that makes the Pentax dSLRs special vs. their competitors, I’d have to point to three things: the larger viewfinder, the venerable K-mount, and better AF system.

Many dSLRs have tiny viewfinders because of the crop factor, but Pentax’s are larger and brighter which makes manual focusing better. In the case of the DL-series the viewfinder is .85x and in the DS-series it is .95x. (For reference, the Nikon D50 & D70s, Canon Rebel XT have a .75x viewfinder magnification.)

While the Nikon F-mount is an older bayonet mount (1959 vs 1975), the original Nikon F-mounts can’t be mounted on a Nikon body today without them crashing into your body’s mirror. Nor are all the features in the lenses supported: for instance, if you have an AI-S lens, the aperture data is read only on Nikons D200 or newer. Pentax has a history of dedicated backward compatibility that stretches all the way back. (The Canon EOS mount is a relative baby by comparison.)

The center AF point in a Nikon D70, D50, D70s and a Canon Rebel XT is a cross-hatch style. This means that it has both horizontal and vertical detectors. All other AF points are either one or the other. As a D70 user, I know to switch to the center AF point in low light to get better focusing. In the Pentax *st DL/DS series, almost every AF point is a cross-hatch style. For instance, the *st DS2 has 11 AF points, 9 of which are crosshatch (as a reference, the Nikon D70s is 5/1 and the Digital Rebel XT is 7/1).

The combination means, for instance, a lensbaby will work better on a Pentax *st better than any other camera.

Pentax digital is a “shooter’s camera” with a venerable history. When Pentax introduced the *st DL in a duo-toned body, I got a chill down my spine—a memory of growing up watching my father fiddle with the settings in his Spotmatic camera.

Samsung adopts the K-mount

Samsung is also introducing dSLR cameras that currently are rebadged Pentax ones. I think the main advantage is that it is much easier to pronounce—I suppose we should be expecting a Samsung GX-1L soon.

Pentax probably has the least amount of market share in the dSLR world (less than Canon, Nikon, Olympus, on the same order as Konica-Minolta or Sigma). Having Samsung behind them is certainly a good thing.

Latest and greatest

The Pentax L is not the latest and greatest entry Pentax. That title belongs to the just announced Pentax *st DL2. If you compare these cameras at DPReview you won’t see much a difference, which is confusing. This is because of price drops from release time.

The DL2 is basically the DL with two more AF points and more scene modes. It adds a new feature called “digital preview.” As near as I can figure it’s like taking a photograph but not saving it to the buffer. Not sure that this is actually what anyone wants, but it’s nice to see them innovating.

A lot of sites are billing this as a sequel to the DS, but they are wrong, the DS2 is the sequel to the DS and the DL2 is the sequel to the DL. What DS photog would go from 11 AF points to 5 and decrease the buffer by 3 exposures and lose the extra auto-bracketing options?


Parting thought

On passing the camera display in Costco, I noticed that the Pentax *st DL was the only kit with the lens hood attached. I think cameras with lens hoods look cool and the *st DL was the cutest. Weird.

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