Pentax Optio RS1500 Review
by Howard Creech -  5/11/2011

The new Pentax Optio RS1500 (which replaces the RS1000) is the latest addition to the Pentax compact point-and-shoot catalog. It's an easily pocketable ultra-compact digicam available in either pearl white or silver.

Pentax Optio RS1500

The RS1500 is actually rather plain and somewhat underwhelming in its naked state, but add one of the included skins, and the camera magically assumes an alternate identity - like Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth to emerge moments later as Superman.

Despite the limitations of a small lens and sensor, Pentax Optio digicams like the RS1500 often have the potential to hold their own against entry-level DSLRs and certainly take the prize for portability. Does the master-of-disguises RS1500 deliver solid picture-taking power with that shape-shifting façade? Read on and find out.

The RS1500 was clearly designed for casual shooters who want an inexpensive auto-exposure digital camera that allows them to make a personal fashion statement. The RS1500 appears to differ from its predecessor primarily in the method for attaching the decorative skins that set this digicam apart from every other P&S digital camera on the market.

Pentax Optio RS1500

The RS1000 featured a removable transparent faceplate held in place with screws - the RS1500's removable faceplate is held in place by a snap-off lens ring - orange and black rings are included to further expand customization options. The RS1500 comes with 10 decorative exterior skins that slide into place under the removable transparent faceplate of the camera.

Along with included skins are dozens of additional patterns available (in PDF format) via the Pentax Skins Gallery at Stylistas can also design (and print) their own PDF skins with the Personal Skin Designer which can be downloaded free from the Pentax website.

Pentax Optio RS1500

If all those skin options aren't enough, Pentax is offering a special edition Pentax Optio DC Super Heroes RS1500 model which will come with five super hero faceplates (Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Superman). For those fashionistas with a slightly darker side - two Super Villain (Catwoman and the Joker) faceplates, a 4GB SD card, and a plastic Green Lantern camera case.

The base RS1500 looks like a toy camera or an ultra-compact 21st century version of the old disposable cardboard 35mm cameras that folks used to buy at the drug store. The body-shell of the pearl white version (the one I tested) looks like it was manufactured from recycled Clorox bottles. The young skateboarders and BMXers I showed it to at the Extreme Park thought it was cool, but an older friend (almost 60) thought it looked pretty silly.

Ergonomics and Controls
The RS1500's very basic user interface and minimalist control layout make this digicam remarkably easy to use. All controls and buttons are easily accessed by right handed shooters, but the buttons are all rather small. There is no mode dial - shooters must select the shooting mode via a dedicated mode selection position on the compass switch.

The top of the camera is uncluttered with nothing but the power button and the shutter button on the right end and a finger dimple on the left side to make gripping the camera easier and more secure for the standard 'arms extended with both hands gripping the camera' P&S shooting stance.

Pentax Optio RS1500

On the back of the camera are the rocker switch for the zoom, the review button, the Face Detection AF button (provides direct access to Face Detection and Smile Capture modes), the compass switch (4-way controller), the menu button and the green button. In review mode, the green button functions as the delete button, but in all shooting modes the green button can be enabled to provide direct access to ISO/sensitivity settings, exposure compensation, or to change image file size.

Pentax Optio RS1500

The green button can be also configured to take users directly to the camera's video mode, but there is no "one-touch" video button - and since HD video is one of this camera's selling points, there should have been.

Menus and Modes
The Pentax Optio RS1500 features a fairly basic three tab menu. The menu system (accessed via a dedicated button beneath the compass switch) is logical, easy to navigate, and very simple since the camera permits only minimal user input. Even though the RS1500 appears to be aimed at a younger demographic, the menu's large font and big icons seem designed more for older shooters with reduced visual acuity. In review mode the RS1500 offers some pretty nifty options including crop, resize and the ability to apply a skin tone filter to smooth out blemishes in portraits.

The RS1500 provides a reasonable selection of automatic shooting modes including Program, Smart Auto, a selection of scene modes, and a video/movie mode. Here's a complete listing of the RS1500's shooting modes:

Like most current point-and-shoots, the RS1500 eschews an optical viewfinder. The RS1500 relies on the same 3.0-inch 230,000 pixel TFT LCD that graced its predecessor for framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores. The RS1500's LCD screen is fairly bright, hue accurate, relatively fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light and it displays almost 100 percent of the image frame.

Images viewed on the RS1500's LCD screen are a bit dim and a little coarse. The RS1500's LCD screen is sharp enough for most compositional and captured image review chores, however this screen lacks the critical sharpness needed to properly assess macro image quality. The RS1500's display provides all the info the camera's target audience is likely to need. All LCD screens are subject to fade in the glare of bright outdoor lighting, but the RS1500's screen seems to be especially susceptible to glare and fade. The default (full screen) aspect ratio is 4:3, but the 16:9 (wide screen) aspect ratio is available in video mode.

The DCR test lab measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. A good LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. That would be bright enough to use the LCD for framing and composition in outdoor lighting, and it would also provide a better sense of color saturation and contrast. The RS1500 weighs in on the very low end of that scale at 139:1 - for comparison purposes, Canon's A495 entry-level digicam scores in the mid 400's. Peak brightness for the RS1500 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 291 nits and on the dark side of the measurement is 2.1 nits. For reference purposes, anything above 500 nits will remain very bright even in sunny outdoor lighting.

The Pentax RS1500 is a competent general purpose point-and-shoot that is capable of producing excellent images. Overall performance was pretty good. Startup time is about 2 seconds and shot-to-shot times measured between 2 and 3 seconds. Using the flash slowed things down marginally.

Shooting Performance
There are two very important criteria when assessing digital camera performance, timing and image quality. The RS1500's DCR lab measured timings are at the bottom of its class in shutter lag at 0.10 seconds and AF acquisition at 0.56 seconds, but near the middle of its class in continuous (1.4 fps) shooting mode.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27 0.01
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.01
Canon PowerShot A3300 IS 0.01
Pentax Optio RS1500 0.10

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27 0.20
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.25
Canon PowerShot A3300 IS 0.39
Pentax Optio RS1500 0.56

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 10 9.8 fps
Pentax Optio RS1500 3 1.4 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27 1.3 fps
Canon PowerShot A3300 IS 0.7 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The Pentax Optio RS1500 generates 14 megapixel JPEG digital image files via its 1/2.33-inch interline transfer (with primary color filter) CCD image sensor. The RS1500 utilizes a fairly standard TTL contrast detection auto focus system featuring 3-point AF, Spot AF, Auto tracking AF, Macro AF and Super Macro AF modes. AF is relatively quick and focus is reliably accurate. The RS1500's built-in flash provides several useful artificial lighting options including: Auto, Flash Off, Flash On, Auto + Redeye reduction, and On + Redeye reduction. Pentax claims the maximum effective range is about 16 feet, which seems a bit optimistic based on my very limited flash use.

Mechanical Image Stabilization (optical IS or Sensor shift IS) has become almost ubiquitous these days, but Pentax eschews standard image stabilization methods in favor of what they call digital blur removal. Digital blur removal is another way of saying electronic Image Stabilization. With electronic IS, the RS1500 utilizes higher sensitivity settings and faster shutter speeds to counter camera shake.

Pentax Optio RS1500

In movie mode, the RS1500 features what Pentax calls Movie SR (Shake Reduction) to automatically compensate for camera shake (by boosting sensitivity and shutter speeds) during video capture. Digital cameras at the $150.00 price point don't always include mechanical image stabilization systems, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In good lighting the RS1500's 4x zoom is short enough to preclude much of the camera shake that one would find with a longer zoom.

The RS1500 is powered by a Rechargeable Pentax D-LI108 lithium-ion battery. Pentax claims the RS1500 (with a fully charged battery) is good for about 210 exposures, 260 minutes of video record time, or 70 minutes of audio record time. I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot, so I don't really keep track of exposures, but I only charged the battery twice while I had the camera - so those numbers seem reasonable.

The battery is charged via a plug-in wall unit (sometimes called a "wall wart" charger) and requires about two hours for a full charge from house current. The RS1500 saves images and video to SD or SDHC memory media, plus 21.6MB of internal memory. The Pentax website doesn't list SDXC as one of the RS1500's compatible image storage formats.

Lens Performance
When the RS1500 is powered up, the 4.9mm - 16.9mm/ f3.2-f5.9 (28mm to 110mm equivalent) 4x zoom extends from the camera body automatically, and when the camera is powered down the lens is retracted inside of the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is relatively quiet. The RS1500 needs about two seconds to move the lens from the wide angle end of the zoom range to the telephoto end of the zoom range.

Overall, the RS1500's zoom is pretty good, though the lens displays some visible corner softness. Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is above average, but Pincushion distortion is essentially invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom.

Video Quality
In many important ways this is a very basic digicam, but unlike most low price point entry-level digicams the RS1500 features HD video capability. Pentax knew that the RS1500's target audience (the YouTube generation) would expect HD video. The video clip that accompanies this review was shot at the Louisville Extreme Park on a bright day. The video is smooth and fluid and the colors are hue accurate. Aside from the fact that there isn't much wind protection for the microphone, the video is pretty good - especially from a digicam that retails for less than $150.

Image Quality
So how does a camera that was designed to appeal to fashionistas and trendsetters function as an image capture device? The rectangular little RS1500 may not look much like your run-of-the-mill digicam, but underneath it all, the RS1500 seems to be a fairly typical ultra-compact digicam.

Image files produced by the RS1500 have a more neutral look than those produced by some of its competitors (Canon, Sony, Nikon) and that is a good thing because the "hot" highly oversaturated colors produced by most digital compacts can actually detract from the overall imapact of an image. Starting with a neutral default color palette (the colors the camera records are very close to the colors seen by the naked eye) and then allowing users to boost saturation (color intensity) if they choose provides more options for shooters.

Although there is a slight tendency toward overexposure, outdoors in good light the RS1500 produces dependably well-exposed, low noise level images. Chromatic aberration is well controlled, but some minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds.

The RS1500 provides users with a decent selection of White Balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, and Fluorescent Manual modes. Overall the RS1500's system does a good job, especially in the Auto WB mode. Some point-and-shoots have a problem generating accurate greens and many consumer digicams have trouble getting purple just right, but the RS1500 doesn't seem to suffer from these fairly common color interpolation maladies.

Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The RS1500 provides an impressive range of sensitivity options, including Auto (ISO 100-800), Digital SR 100-6400 (ISO 3200-6400 5 megapixels), and Manual - ISO 100 - 6400 (ISO 3200-6400 5 megapixels). ISO 100 images show bright colors, slightly flat native contrast, and low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less pop. At the ISO 400 setting noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail.

Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 100
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 200
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 400
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 800
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

ISO 800 images are very noisy, but they should be OK for lo-res email images and 3x5 inch or 4x6 inch prints. ISO 1600, 3200, and 6400 images are way too noisy to be useful for anything beyond record shots.

Additional Sample Images
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image Pentax RS1500 Sample Image
Pentax RS1500 Sample Image Pentax RS1500 Sample Image

In the final analysis the Pentax Optio RS1500 is a pretty good walking around camera. There are cheaper cameras that will perform just as well (or in some cases better) as an image capture device, but all will lack the RS1500's plethora of available "fashion" skins and some will lack the RS1500's HD movie mode.

If you're looking for a decent small digital camera with a high customizability factor and HD movie capability, the RS1500 may be the digicam you've been searching for. If you are looking for a small and inexpensive point-and-shoot that will allow you to express your creativity through your images (rather than through your image capture device), you might be better off looking elsewhere.