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My first foray into the world of digital cameras is now a distant memory. At the time the cameras were really expensive and we decided to opt for a Kodak 6410, a semi-automatic camera with a super-zoom which, although it pulled great shots (relative to others at the time) it wasn't exactly what you'd call pocket sized. In fact, I think you can get smaller digital SLRs these days! Planning a trip to Croatia we decided that the Kodak was really not suitable for travel and so started to look for a point and shoot compact digital camera. By now it was evident we'd be able to get more megapixels for our buck than when we bought the Kodak but I couldn't help but think that there was little to differentiate the models at the basic level. If I was going to double up on equipment at a basic level I wanted something that was a bit different.
We had previously looked into whether there was a camera available that was designed for travel, something that offered a bit of bump protection and, maybe even a splashproof facility. Unless we wanted to spend an additional £100 (at the time) on a waterproof case for a standard camera (which would make the whole as bulky as our existing Kodak) it seemed that there was a hole in the market. That was until we discovered the Pentax Optio WP. It was new on the market at the time and there was little written about it. As it was no more expensive than most of the other compacts from the major photography houses we decided to make the leap. We've no regrets.
The camera itself comes in at a tiny 102 x 51 x 22mm (WxHxD) weighs 120g and is made from rather sturdy plastic. It feels great in the hands and certainly more robust than many of the other cheap compacts in the class. Because it's designed to be waterproof you're not going to find that much in the way of gadgetry on the camera. The picture capture button is a pleasing rubber affair, there's no optical viewfinder and the mode select is done by a rubber toggle and button combination. This doesn't mean to say that it's a camera without functionality though.
The lack of a viewfinder is not an issue as far as I'm concerned - I think we've all got used to not looking through a camera by now. The 2 in visual screen is large enough to meet most needs although it's clarity is not as good as many in class. I've found that it accurately reflects in terms of composition, the shot that you are taking, but often the lighting or focus is not accurately displayed. For me it's not an issue as the joy of digital photography is that you can point and click as many times as your subject will allow (assuming a large enough memory card) and, chances are, you'll get a decent shot in there. On sunny days the visual screen does fare well as it's back lit and anti-glare. It's certainly better than my Kodak screen in terms of being able to see what you are taking.
And what do you take?
In today's terms this is a baby camera - it's a five-megapixel camera with a 3x optical zoom. Compared to my 2mp Kodak this seemed like a lot at the time but in today's terms it's probably the same as most entry-level cameras and you can certainly pick up cameras quite cheaply with a lot higher resolutions. That having been said, the Pentax still churns out good quality, focused pictures that are certainly good enough for most people's needs.
I've found that the pictures are generally well focused thanks to a good auto-focus function. There's not that much noise (speckly bits!) at low ISOs but as you get higher the noise starts to creep in (particularly at 400 ISO). The colour balance is good and the colours appear to be fairly true. Bright colours are handled well (and in my opinion better than the Kodak manages) but detailing in dark areas is not so good. If you're unsure whether the camera has it right you can pull up a colour histogram via the menu which will show you how the colours balance - if you know what you're doing then it can be quite useful but for most people it's an unnecessary extra that won't really get used unless you want to learn more about manual photography (in which case you won't be wanting to learn with this camera is it's too automated). There's a little bit of degradation as you move away from the center of the shot but it's not enough to be noticeable in most point and shoot situations.
The camera doesn't handle low-light situations very well and indoor "party shots" are likely to require the inbuilt flash. This will go off automatically if set to do so but as with most automatic cameras you'll loose colour, detail and focus when the flash fires. In
fairness the shots are still not bad but you'll not win any prizes with the shots.
What I've described so far is the performance on the basic mode that is selected when you turn the camera on. There are a variety of other modes that can be selected from an intuitive menu display on the view screen. Some modes are useful, some just nice to have and others rather pointless. They all share one thing in common though - they give you access to some non-automatic functions in an automatic way so are ideal for those who want to take photos under certain less than ideal conditions or who want to go a bit "arty" without knowing what you're doing.
The most common mode that I will use and which produces surprisingly good results is the macro mode. I'm spoiled with the Kodak, it produces excellent macro photos (and is one of the reasons we selected it) but the Pentax doesn't come in far behind. Shots are clear and crisp with a good depth of field down to 1cm and there is even some flash compensation so that you don't over-expose your shots.
Other "useful" modes include "sand and snow" useful in very bright conditions, "food" which saturates the colour, "museum" which automatically cancels any flash and "night" which produces a longer exposure. All the modes are easy to access but it'll take quite a bit of reading of the instructions to work out what they all do. My tip - play around with them taking shots of the same object in the same light conditions in each of the modes. It's the clearest way to see the effect but don't forget that if you change the lighting, focal length or any other relevant condition the effects might be different. That's the joy of digital though - it's cheap to play and get it wrong!
If you like taking panoramic shots then there's a great panoramic aid on the camera where the previous picture is shown in shadow on the screen so that you can line up the next shot. Given that the camera is designed for the outdoorsy types this is an excellent feature in my opinion and makes panoramas easy to compose.
Although this is an automatic you are still left a good deal of room to play outside of the "mode" shots. There's no shutter and aperture priority (in common with most compacts) but you do have control over the exposure length, white balance, ISO and similar functions. Really, unless you're into photography you're unlikely to touch most of these functions though.
There is also a basic video capture mode. This is nothing special and I've found that the zoom is very hard to access when in video mode. You can edit the film and capture a frame as a still photo. You can also stitch videos together. The video captures mono sound as well and the microphone is surprisingly adept at picking up the sound. Talking of sound there's also a rather natty function that allows you to overlay sound on a still photo. At first I couldn't see the point but we have used it as a memo facility to remind us what or where we were photographing.
For those who are less than camera shy there is a timer on the camera that can come in handy!
So, no mention so far of it's waterproofing.
If I'm honest, at first I was a little skeptical about the ability to use the camera underwater, despite it being certified to JIS (Japanese Industry Standard) class 8 that allows you to have the unit submerged to a depth of 1.5m for 30 minutes with no effect. The camera just didn't 'look' waterproof! We treated the camera, at first, as one would a splashproof watch (and, in fact, there is a clock display which you could use if you so desired!). However, the time came when we thought we'd bring it into the water. Thankfully there were no adverse effects!
Pictures taken underwater were crisp and certainly far better than those taken using a disposable underwater film camera.
We did notice that we had to dry the camera well after it had been exposed to salt water but then one would expect this. Thankfully there's been no noticeable scratching of the lens as a result.
A point of note, though, is that the camera doesn't float! So, if you're taking it into a pool or the sea do stick the handy wrist-strap around your wrist!
One of my pet niggles with digi cameras is the start up times and the shutter delay (the gap between you pressing the button and the picture actually being taken). The start up time for the Pentax is rather good. The advertised start up time of 0.6 seconds is not really achievable unless you have all of the functions switched off. In practice I'd say around 1-2 seconds will have you in a ready to shoot mode. In terms of shutter delay don't expect miracles. I'd guestimate that each shot was around 0.5-1 second between pressing the shutter button and the shutter activating. It's not as annoyingly slow as the Kodak can be but it's still far from ideal for capturing those quick shots.
Viewing your pictures on the camera is simple and there are several modes that allow you to view them as taken, in sepia, black and white or with another overlay filter. There is a slight delay "writing" the pictures to memory and so you can't view immediately your shot has been taken. This is a niggle, especially when compared to other cameras but I overcome it by taking several shots if I'm not sure.
If you want to download your pictures you can either remove the SD memory card or connect the camera to your computer via a USB cable (supplied). If you connect the camera directly then you'll need to turn the camera off and on again when you've finished to come out of playback/review mode. This again, is annoying, although a similar thing happens with my Kodak when it's in the dock.
The pictures can be stored on the embedded memory (about enough for 8 pictures) or on removable SD cards (not supplied).
Battery life is quite good and I'll get around 150 images out of a fully charged battery (mix of flash and non-flash). The battery is rechargeable and looks rather like a mobile phone battery. It recharges in a cradle having been taken out of the camera. This is a bit of a faff (again my Kodak has a dock and so I don't need to take the battery out) particularly as it's very easy to put the battery back in the wrong way around and, if you do this, the camera will not work.
The camera did come bundled with some photo editing software although I can't comment much on this as I have my preferred packages which I always use. I recall having had a quick look at it and it seemed fairly standard and, if the camera is anything to go by, it will be easy to use.
The Pentax Option WP cost me around £175 4 years ago. It was around the same price as other 5mp cameras in the "ultra-compact" category but none were waterproof. I'd say that this made it excellent value for money as, although the images were not quite as good as some they were more than adequate and this really is a camera that you can take anywhere.
I'd recommend this if you are an outdoorsy-type or if you like splashing around in the pool with your kids. It'd be great for hiking and great for lazy days on the beach. Take it out in the rain or in the sun and it'll cope well. The shots won't compare to a digital SLR but they're easily as good as a point and shoot film camera and, in certain modes, will rival better offerings.