Pentax Optio A40 Digital Camera Review

Matt Grayson gets to grips with the Pentax Optio A40. A camera with a name like a stretch of road that goes from Oxford to Haverfordwest.

16/10/2008 - 14:18

The Pentax Optio A40 is a mid range compact with clipped versions of high range compact features.

Pentax Optio A40 Pentax Optio A40: Specification

  • Zoom: 3x optical
  • Resolution: 12Mp
  • Sensor size: 1/1.8in
  • Sensor type: CCD
  • File type: JPEG
  • Sensitivity: ISO64-3200
  • Storage: Internal 22Mb, SD, SDHC
  • Focus types: Auto, spot, tracking
  • Normal focusing: 35cm
  • Close focusing: 12cm macro, 6cm super macro
  • Metering types: Multi, centre-weighted, spot
  • Exposure compensation: /- 2 EV in 1/3 step increments
  • Shutter speed: 4sec-1/2000sec
  • Flash: Built-in
  • Monitor: 2.5in TFT LCD
  • Interface: USB 2.0
  • Power: Li-Ion battery
  • Size: 89x57x23.5mm
  • Weight: 150g

For £164 you get a well built, feature rich camera with a high 12Mp resolution along with loads of manual modes and features. The Casio Exilim EX-Z100 at £163 has 10Mp, larger 4x optical zoom and auto trigger features such as face, smile, blur and panning detection.

Alternatively, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS5 offers roughly the same feature set as the Casio with the resolution and zoom but doesn't have the auto trigger sensor. It does come fitted with an optically superior Leica endorsed DC Vario Elmar lens.

Pentax Optio A40
The top of the Pentax shows the lens full telescopic length and the IS preview button.
Pentax Optio A40
The rear of the camera has large buttons but the screen isn't too big.
Pentax Optio A40
Pentax Optio A40
The Pentax Optio A40 has an SMC lens fitted.

Pentax Optio A40: Modes and features
Flicking through the systems it seems that the Optio A40 is bordering on prosumer. It has features such as dynamic range, spot metering and exposure compensation.

The exterior is unassuming looking as it does like a compact. It's a slim, tidy affair with a matt black finish on the front and rear divided only by a thin chrome strip which is a type of exo-skeleton forming part of the chassis.

The lens pops out quite far considering it's only a 3x optical and that Pentax are the royalty of big zooms in compact cameras.

The top plate has the addition of a new feature in the shape of an image stabiliser preview button. The typical power button and shutter release are still present.

Being a small camera, it can't have a huge screen but it's nice to see that Pentax aren't stuffing an extra 0.1in just for the sake of it even though there's enough space to fit it in. What joins the screen on the back is a larger than normal zoom rocker, oversized playback button, navigation pad, menu button and typical Pentax green mode button.

The green mode essentially takes you into the A40's split personality where everything is done for you. There's no overrides and no changes to be made. In fact, all you have to do is zoom and click.

Despite the higher classification that Pentax have designated to the Optio A40, the scene mode area is surprisingly bereft of options. It can't be that high a classification or they would've surely removed the green mode. There are some handy features that all you point and shooters will use such as kids, natural skin tone and pet so don't let the higher functions put you off. Unfortunately, Pentax are still showing their chintzy side and including the frame composite although, thankfully there are now only three options available.

If you want more creative control in a smaller camera, then this could be the camera for you. Not only do you get program mode which is the auto mode but with extra menu features, but you also get shutter-priority and manual modes. These are chosen when you first move the camera to the program mode. Text will flash up on the screen showing you the mode and you can scroll through the two other options at this stage. Look out on other modes for a similar practice.

In the manual modes such as program, shutter-priority or manual, the menu opens up more features for you to indulge your creativity. Features such as the AF setting will allow you to adjust the focusing area for off centre subjects, you can adjust the metering between centre-weighted, partial or spot and brighten or darken your images using exposure compensation.

You can even take advantage of newer features such as D-Range compensation which will adjust the dynamic range to fill in shadowed areas and add/detract sharpness, contrast and saturation.

While these features are only basic and limited because they're on a compact, they can still expand your photographic horizons.

Pentax Optio A40: Build and handling
Build quality is very good with the camera feeling solid and the lens operation is smooth. Nothing feels like it would fall off but this can easily breed a false sense of security. Remember this is a compact under £200 and it shows in the plastic tripod bush and thin (although sturdy) battery door.

The buttons are firm and yield with a decent press. They're also large enough that people with larger hands have more of a chance to handle this camera.

As an added bonus to an already initially impressive camera, the lens is an SMC version which is Pentax' better collection of glass.

Pentax Optio A40: Performance
Pentax Optio A40 Primary blue is usually the colour that's boosted the most and given priority to by the processor but the result from the A40 looks a little deeper than normal. Other primary colours are boosted nicely and the mono tones look balanced.

The more I use this little compact, the more impressed I get by it's feature set and performance. The shutter lag is half that I see on other compacts in this class and higher at 0.04sec.

The ten second burst test produced 14 images in the allotted time limit which is around 1.4fps and not a bad result from a small camera.

You have a number of different features to keep your interest in photography stoked including dynamic range optimiser, super macro mode and the ability to adjust saturation, contrast and sharpness. The last three are only basic but more than you normally get at this price point.

Dynamic optimisation works by increasing exposure to the low key areas such as shadows. In the sample images you can see a slight boost in detail on the right wall of the tunnel.

Pentax Optio A40
Dynamic optimisation switched off.
Pentax Optio A40
Dynamic optimisation enabled boosts light to the right side wall in the tunnel.

Pentax DSLRs offer an option within the menus to boost saturation, contrast and sharpness. This can also be reversed to lessen those features making colours more muted and less contrasty or sharp.

A definite boost to the red leaf in the top left corner can be seen on the high saturation image while the yellow leaves can be seen to fade more on the low saturation image. Which setting you choose is your own decision and will pertain to the scene at the time. Nature photographers may prefer the brighter colours of the saturation boosted version whereas darker, more gothic inclined photographers may prefer the more muted tones.

The Pentax Optio A40 has two macro modes: normal and super. The difference is in the focus distances with the super macro getting in to 6cm whereas the normal macro can get only half as close as that.

Super macro comes at a price though, as you'll have to sacrifice the optical zoom for the pleasure of getting in much closer than the normal setting but still not very close. The macro image I shot is a little soft across the board and I have to hunt around the image to find the focus point which is the lower petals of the flower. This is more likely because of the f/2.8 aperture having such a small focal plane. Noise has played a part on this shot and looks horrible even at ISO400.

Pentax Optio A40
Low saturation setting
Pentax Optio A40
Medium saturation setting.
Pentax Optio A40
High saturation setting.
Pentax Optio A40
Macro mode has used an aperture of f/2.8 which throws the background out of focus but narrows the focal plane and softens most of the flower. It's likely because people expect a blurry background.

Pentax Optio A40 The landscape image has given a nicely balanced image on the forground but has over exposed on the sky and the tops of the white bars. Fringing is present on the contrast area appearing as a deep, thin purple strip.

The camera has again chosen an aperture of f/2.8 which throws the majority of the picture out of focus. This can be seen on the sign attached to the balance beam. Looking at the area of grass to the right of the image and the detail seems to appear more towards the bottom of the frame suggesting that the focus point is right at the bottom of the picture.

Pentax Optio A40: Focus and metering
Pressing the macro icon on the navigation pad will access the different focusing modes available in program mode. You can open the macro and super macro from here as well as choosing pan focus, infinity and manual.

Pentax Optio A40
Face detection locates a face in the frame and ignores everything else. It will also track if the subject is moving.

While you're still in program mode, the AF settings in the main menu will enable giving you more creative freedom. In the AF setting area, you can choose the size of the focus square for a precise or wider focus point. Alternatively, you can opt for the tracking focus point which will predict the movement of a subject and track it. The focus limiter will cap the focus range and the AF Aux light will assist the focusing if the subject is too dark and normal focus can't lock.

Face detection is also availble on the A40 and is defaulted to the on position. It can be switched off in the menu system if you desire. It works by finding a face in the image and locking onto it ignoring everything else in the image. If more than one face is in the frame, it'll find the optimal exposure setting to get them all in focus.

Below AF settings in the menu system are the three metering modes available to choose from. Centre-weighted metering takes a general reading from the whole area of the image while pattern divides the image up into pieces, reads them individually and uses an algorithm to decide on the best exposure. Spot metering uses a tiny percentage of the centre of the screen and meters from that area.

In the sample images, spot metering has read from the leaves to the left of the trunk so has had mostly dark material to read from but has had small parts of light shining through. This has given more exposure to the tree and low key areas while not over exposing the bright background.

Pentax Optio A40: Noise test
It seems that having such a high resolution on a smaller sensor than normal is resulting in the camera struggling with noise control and the ISO50 image is showing noise that normally wouldn't be showing until ISO200 or higher. ISO100 doesn't change much but the next level has black dots appearing along the grey square.

Detail starts to get lost in the ISO400 image which again is something I expect to see at a higher setting such as ISO800. The ISO1600 image is a lost cause with little or no detail across the whole frame and nasty purple blotches forming all over.

Pentax Optio A40
The ISO50 test.
Pentax Optio A40
The ISO100 test.
Pentax Optio A40
The ISO200 test.
Pentax Optio A40
The ISO400 test.
Pentax Optio A40
The ISO800 test.
Pentax Optio A40
The ISO1600 test.

Pentax Optio A40: Verdict
I'm blown away by the feature set of this little compact and the build quality is excellent too. It's unfortunate that something has to give and with the Pentax Optio A40 it's noise control. Frankly, it's rubbish at it. It can't stop even a slight smattering of it from invading the images which is a real shame.

If Pentax could release a compact with this amount of features on it but with a larger sensor to cope with the noise generated from such a high resolution then they'll have a winning formula.

If you want to benefit from an immense amount of features and aren't too put off by the noise test images above then get this camera.

Pentax Optio A40: Plus points
Great build quality
Loads of features
Good quality lens
Fast and quiet operation

Pentax Optio A40: Minus points
Noise, noise and more noise
Chooses wrong apertures in scene modes





The Pentax Optio A40 costs around £170 and is available from Warehouse Express.


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