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Ross Alford | profile | all galleries >> Brief review and sample photos from the Pentax Optio W20 tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Brief review and sample photos from the Pentax Optio W20

The Pentax Optio W20 is the latest (October 2006) in the line of water resistant and now waterproof miniature point-and-shoot digital cameras from Pentax that started with the Optio 33WR.

The Optio W20 seems to be marketed towards snapshooters who don’t want to worry about keeping their cameras clean and dry, and at kayakers and others who can’t keep them dry, but in my opinion it also has a place in the kit of any outdoor/nature photographer as a bad-weather and ultramacro camera.

It is small and compact (4.2 by 2.2 by 0.9 inches and 5.3 oz., or 107 by 55 by 23 mm, 150 g for us metric types).

Really useful features of the camera:

The lens does not extend from the body when zooming, and does not intrude into the flash even at extreme macro distances.

It macro focuses as close as 1 cm (less than 1/2 inch) at the short end of the zoom range, and about 3-5 cm (1-2 inches) in the middle of the zoom range. There is a special soft flash setting that tones down the flash when close focusing in program mode. This makes it entirely possible to take really spectacular macro shots with 7 MP resolution of objects about the size of a large mosquito. See my photos of the shorts and the spider (in the big samples gallery) for examples. You can easily take macro shots with this camera that would be difficult or impossible with a digital SLR. I often find that it's handy to be able to hold the camera at arms length or very high or very low while stalking small animals. See my Carlia rostralis shot below for an example. it is literally impossible to get the lens of my DSLR close enough to the ground to have taken that shot (not to mention that I would have had to lie flat to see through the finder if I even got nearly that low).

There is a movie mode that shoots in 640 X 480 30 fps and has electronic image stabilization. If you put the camera into pan focus mode, or use manual focus, the sound quality is great (if you leave it in autofocus, there is sometimes an annoying noise that seems to be the focusing drive hunting for correct focus). You can use the optical zoom while filming, although it does make a fairly awful noise on the soundtrack—still much better than being stuck with one focal length. The movies are QuickTime .mov files that contain a sequence of jpegs. This means they take up a lot of space (my camera tells me I have about 28 minutes left on a blank 2 Gb SD card), but it also means that you can use many easily available pieces of software to extract the individual jpegs, so this camera can be thought of as having a hidden ultra-high-speed mode that can take 30 still shots a second. It also means that compression artifacts are minimal.

It has a built-in interval shooting or intervalometer mode that lets you set it to take photos at intervals of 10 seconds to 99 minutes and 99 seconds, and control the number of images that get taken, from 1 to as many as your memory card will hold. The camera goes to sleep between photos, so the battery will last pretty well. I can get at least 400 shots, using the flash, on battery power. Perfect for birds at the nest, wary lizards, and scientific observations of animal behavior. Resolution stays at whatever the camera is set at--up to 7 MP fine. See the sunbird photo for an example of a shot that would be very hard to get without this mode.

It has a user-configurable green button that can put the camera into super-snapshot mode but can also give access to many frequently-used settings—mine is set to let me adjust ISO, sharpening, and exposure compensation easily and without having to mess with menus.

It turns on and starts up quickly, and the shutter is very responsive, with very little lag. Because you can configure it to remember many of its settings while turned off (focus mode, flash mode, zoom position, ISO, etc.) it is very easy to use when you are likely to be taking a series of images that need similar settings.

Things it lacks:

These are relatively minor. You can take great pictures with this camera, and it has so many features that I like that these do not seem like serious drawbacks. Still, nothing's perfect.

One thing I would really like that this camera lacks is a bit more control. I would like an aperture-priority auto mode and/or full manual mode. These are rarely really needed, since you can control exposure compensation, but I would sometimes like, for example, to be able to use a long exposure at a small aperture to take scenes in very low light at low ISO. The normal P mode only seems to use shutter speeds down to ¼ second, even if this means underexposing. There is a night scene mode that allows longer metered shutter speeds, but always opens the lens completely, and takes over a few other settings, for example it sets sharpening to normal. I would also like the option of seeing the shutter speed and aperture on the display _before_ the picture is taken. You can put it in a mode that shows a live histogram, and a bunch of stuff such as image size and quality, but you can’t see the shutter speed until after you take the photo. There is a slow-speed warning though.

I would also love to see a RAW mode or a lower-compression JPEG mode. My older 33 and 43 WR cameras used 5 bits per pixel in fine mode; the W20 uses 4, probably to keep file size down. In fine mode, there are very few compression artifacts, not enough to be a problem, but given how inexpensive memory cards are becoming, I would like the option to save images at even higher quality.

I could also ask for an LCD screen that was a bit easier to see in bright sunlight and at odd angles, and while I’m at it, one that can be positioned at various angles as in the old Optio 750, Canon G series, etc. would be nice (but it would make the camera larger and heavier, and might be hard to waterproof).

A couple of tiny details: I would like it if you could adjust the maximum auto ISO and tell the camera to remember that without also telling it to remember the current ISO. I like to set the maximum auto ISO to 200, beyond which noise becomes a problem, and the default is 400. On the other hand, when I turn on the ISO memory, I have a bad tendency to forget to reduce the ISO if I turn it up for a shot, and can end up with a series of shots taken at higher-than needed ISOs before I turn it back down. I would also like the manual focus to retain an enlarged central portion of the display until something is done to cancel it, such as pressing the shutter button halfway. As it is, the center enlarges for critical focusing each time you adjust the focusing point, and stays that way for 5 seconds, but then reverts to full frame. 5 seconds isn’t enough time with some macro subjects, where my usual procedure is to set the approximate distance then move the camera in and out to get best focus.

Image Quality:

In my opinion, images are of extremely high quality, suitable to print at 16 by 20 inches, when taken at ISO 64 or 100, and even at ISO 200 if you don’t underexpose. See for yourself with my full-sized sample images, which have only been very lightly manipulated—auto levels and smart sharpen with radius 0.9, amount 90% in Photoshop. The smart sharpen is to make up for the fact that I always leave the in-camera sharpening set to low, except when shooting real snapshots or movies. Even at ISO 400 you could certainly squeeze an 8 x 10 or maybe even an 11 by 14 out of it, with use of a program like Neat Image or Noise Ninja for noise reduction. ISO 800 is marginal. It might make an 8 X 10 if you don't underexpose and use a noise reduction postprocessor. There is actually an ISO 1600 as well. This gets turned on automatically in "shake reduction" mode and can be set manually. This one is definitely for small snapshots only, noise is fairly horrendous when enlarged, but having it does mean you can shoot snapshots without flash even in quite dim light.

Some hints and tips:

My Shooting menu settings:

-7 MP
-*** quality
-AWB
-Matrix (evaluative) metering
-sensitivity either Auto 200 or manual at 64
-EV compensation off
-AF setting focusing area narrow [] (important to me so I know what it is focusing on; you can always recompose with the shutter button held halfway down), focus limiter on (cuts down on hunting)
-Movie 640 *** 30 FPS full color anti-shake on, optical zoom on
-Interval Shoot--set this as needed when doing it
-Digital zoom off
-Instant review 0.5 sec
-Memory on for flash mode, focus mode, zoom position, MF position, sensitivity, digital zoom, and file #, off for everything else
-Sharpness - (I have the sharpness set to - for most shooting as the in -camera sharpening sometimes produces halos and I prefer to sharpen using smart sharpen in Photoshop, which doesn't if you use it carefully. For snapshots I try to remember to set sharpness to normal, so I don't have to fiddle with them, but for more serious work I like more control.)
-saturation medium
-contrast - (I have the contrast set to low for reasons similar to sharpening--its easy to increase in photoshop, but if it is too high as the image comes out of the camera, you can't recover the lost information easily later)

In the setting/setup menu, it is worth turning quick zoom on and programming the green button to do useful things, I also have guide display on which shows a reminder of what the various picture modes do when you choose them.

I shoot almost entirely in P mode.

For macro, I always use flash, set to soft mode, and try to remember to set the ISO to 64. Shoot in P mode and use the button to the right of the OK button to set the focusing range to macro. Don't use the "flower" picture mode you can choose from the program mode menu, because that mode actually deliberately opens the aperture up to minimize depth of field, exactly the opposite of what I and probably you usually want in macro shots. I usually zoom the lens towards the tele end at least some for macros--about 1/3 to 1/2 way for very small subjects that I need to get really close to, or all the way for larger subjects. As you zoom towards tele the minimum focusing distance increases, so if you cannot get something into focus, try zooming back towards wide.

For vertical macro shots, remember to hold the camera with the end with the shutter release at the bottom. If you hold it with the other end up, you get very unnatural looking light, with the flash below the lens.

When shooting videos, definitely put the camera into Pan Focus mode if shooting at medium distances (people doing things, etc), or use manual focus for macro or infinity. Otherwise, there is some very annoying noise as the AF motor works, and it works a lot of the time. Use optical zoom if you need to, but be warned that it does make a horrible noise on the soundtrack. Also definitely use the electronic image stabilization, which works extremely well.

I haven’t experimented with most of the “scene” modes, but if you have a solid camera support and want to shoot in low light with low ISOs, do use the night scene mode. It still allows you a fair bit of control, and will give shutter speeds as long as several seconds. The dragon boat picture in the gallery was done in this mode.

Conclusion:

All in all, this is a great camera for the outdoor/nature photographer who wants something waterproof or just wants a camera that will take truly amazing macro shots from unusual perspectives. It should be great for its intended audience of snapshooters and kayakers as well.

The images in the main gallery have been manipulated, cropped, sharpened, etc as I saw fit. the images in the big samples gallery have only had auto levels and smart sharpen applied, as explained above.

If you decide to buy this camera, please consider doing me a favor and ordering using this link (it doesn't cost any extra, and Amazon is a reliable seller):

Ross's Camera and Photo Equipment on Amazon

Thanks.
Click for gallery of full resolution sample images from the Pentax Optio W20
:: Click for gallery of full resolution sample images from the Pentax Optio W20 ::
Getting ready to go out in the rain
Getting ready to go out in the rain
Measuring mist-netted birds IMGP0381
Measuring mist-netted birds IMGP0381
Reptile keying IMGP0383
Reptile keying IMGP0383
Insectivorous plant sundew IMGP0464
Insectivorous plant sundew IMGP0464
Lunch is served IMGP0466
Lunch is served IMGP0466
Radio tracking IMGP0517
Radio tracking IMGP0517
Time off IMGP0519
Time off IMGP0519
Reptile searching IMGP0558
Reptile searching IMGP0558
Happy reptile catchers IMGP0585
Happy reptile catchers IMGP0585
Ants attacking piece of chicken IMGP0427
Ants attacking piece of chicken IMGP0427
Limnodynastes ornatus IMGP0351
Limnodynastes ornatus IMGP0351
Litoria gracilenta
Litoria gracilenta
Mimic toadlet or gungan, Uperoleia mimula IMGP0527
Mimic toadlet or gungan, Uperoleia mimula IMGP0527
Stony Creek frog, Litoria lesueuri IMGP0536
Stony Creek frog, Litoria lesueuri IMGP0536
Baby eastern water dragon found asleep on bush IMGP0420
Baby eastern water dragon found asleep on bush IMGP0420
Skink, Carlia rostralis, Mount Zero, (IMGP0495)
Skink, Carlia rostralis, Mount Zero, (IMGP0495)
Possum that couldn't wait for bait IMGP0538
Possum that couldn't wait for bait IMGP0538
Things you find under rocks--a centipede (IMGP0557)
Things you find under rocks--a centipede (IMGP0557)
Beach, ocean, mangroves IMGP0683
Beach, ocean, mangroves IMGP0683
Hard luck tree IMGP0915
Hard luck tree IMGP0915
Sunbird feeding 2 young IMGP2787
Sunbird feeding 2 young IMGP2787
Dragon boats IMGP0981
Dragon boats IMGP0981
Stonemason toadlet, Uperoleia lithomoda IMGP4125
Stonemason toadlet, Uperoleia lithomoda IMGP4125
The only Australian ranid, Rana daemeli, near El Arish IMGP5160
The only Australian ranid, Rana daemeli, near El Arish IMGP5160
Common Mistfrog,  Litoria rheocola, near Innisfail, Queensland, Australia IMGP5192
Common Mistfrog, Litoria rheocola, near Innisfail, Queensland, Australia IMGP5192