If it weren't for the waterproof designation printed discreetly on the front of the camera, you wouldn't know that the Pentax Optio WP can be submerged. Its design is pretty typical for a snapshot camera, although the lens zooms internally and is protected by a circle of glass, which, unfortunately, is easily smudged by fingers (resulting in very out-of-focus shots) or scratched by keys when bouncing around in your pocket or purse, or even by dirt and sand if you take this camera out in the elements.
The low-profile shutter release, power button, microphone, and speaker are located on the top surface, keeping the camera's clean lines intact. Just be careful not to let your fingers stray over the microphone when recording. On the back, you'll find a 2-inch LCD (but no optical viewfinder), a zoom lever, a four-way controller, and several dedicated buttons.
The multitasking green button provides access to the Green mode (an automatic setting that uses standard settings but not the highest resolution), the built-in help guide, the delete function, and a user-assigned menu. It's a lot to remember but actually works quite well once you figure it out.
You can access and cycle through flash, self-timer/continuous shooting, focus, and scene modes via the four arrow keys that surround the center OK button on the four-way controller. The OK button controls display options. Dedicated playback and menu buttons are also accessed on the back of the camera.
We found the menus clear and easy to understand, but Pentax gives neophytes a hand with its excellent built-in help system. You can press the green button when you're in the mode menu to get information about each scene option. Unfortunately, the help system doesn't work for the Record menu. Once you understand all the options this camera offers, taking pictures is quite easy. And of course, there's a printed manual to complement the in-camera help system.
The tiny battery and SD card slot are located on the bottom left of the camera, with a tripod socket on the right, so it may be possible to access the card and battery while the camera is mounted on a tripod, depending on its design. What's most important about this area of the camera is the locking mechanism for the card/battery cover, since this is the one vulnerable entrance where, if not locked to provide an impregnable seal, water, sand, or other camera enemies can sneak in. Be careful when you insert the battery, though, since it fits into the compartment backward just as easily as it does the right way. As is typical of Pentax cameras, the Optio WP is chock-full of features, including a wealth of typical and unusual scene modes such as Portrait, Candlelight, Underwater, Pet, and Skin Tone. We missed a few modes, however, since they don't all fit on the screen and are not revealed even by scrolling. However, when we hit the zoom lever while in the Mode menu, it switched to a horizontal listing--only then were we able to find the missing modes. It's a little confusing, to say the least.
In addition to the scene modes, you have a choice of the basic Green mode we mentioned in the Design section, which activates such standard settings as auto white balance, autosensitivity, digital zoom on, and better (but not best) photo quality. On the other hand, in Program AE, you have access to all features, including manual white balance; three compression and multiple resolution settings; exposure compensation; and fine-tuning adjustments for attributes such as sharpness, contrast, and saturation.
An always-welcome feature is the ability to lock one or more camera settings into the memory so that they're not reset next time the camera is powered off. The live histogram with yellow and red graphical warnings also comes in handy to make sure you're getting a well-exposed image.
At best, the camera's low-resolution movie mode is suitable for fun clips viewed on a computer and nothing more, but you can record sound and create sepia or black-and-white movies for a more creative touch. Voice annotation is available for still images and the Synchro Sound Record feature records the sound 10 seconds before the shutter is pressed and 10 seconds after, which might come in handy if your subject has something interesting to say.
Probably the most compelling feature for many people is the WP in the name, which of course stands for waterproof. Depth-rated to 1.5 meters (about 4.9 feet), the camera can be submerged for as long as 30 minutes and remain water tight, as long as the battery/card compartment is in the locked position. That number is particularly important to snorkelers who tend to remain underwater longer than more casual poolside users. Keep in mind, however, that the camera is not particularly rugged; its lens cover can be scratched or damaged, rendering the camera unusable; and the camera will sink if you drop it.
Playback is as feature-rich as the record mode. In addition to creating a slide show, cropping, resizing, copying files between internal memory and an SD/MMC card, and editing movies, you can apply one of Pentax's signature digital filters to tone the shots in one of a myriad of colors. There's also a kind of cheesy frame function, so you can add a heart or a couple of other "frames" to your image. This feature works better if you access the frame-composite feature via the drive-mode button before you shoot so that you can position your subject within the frame.
More important playback options include a brightness setting, a feature similar to Nikon's D-Lighting that lightens an underexposed image. It works fairly well, but you may notice a little more noise in the adjusted image. Also worthy of mention is the camera's postprocessing red-eye fix. We had no red-eye in any of our test shots, which speaks well for the camera, but we were unable to see if the feature really works.
The Optio WP is equipped with only enough internal memory for three high-resolution images, so you'll need to budget in the cost of a high-capacity memory card. The Pentax Optio WP is neither impressive nor depressing in terms of performance, coming in slightly below average with a time of 3.6 seconds from power on to first shot, with a large chunk of that time devoted to focusing. Shot-to-shot time was about the same, or slightly longer with flash.
Shutter lag was apparent in bright-light testing at 0.9 second and 1.5 seconds in low light, which is where we found the camera's autofocus to lag behind. There's no AF illuminator to help out, so it was difficult to focus in low light unless there was a high-contrast edge for the camera to lock on.
Interestingly, the Optio WP comes with a focus limiter. Similar to those found on long SLR telephoto lenses, this feature limits the distance or focal length that will be used for autofocus, thereby providing faster AF. We noticed little difference in focusing speed, however, when this feature was activated--we turned it off for shutter-lag testing--but it might come in handy in difficult focusing situations.
Continuous shooting was steady at 0.8fps, regardless of resolution. The only difference was that high-quality settings limited continuous shooting to 9 frames, while low quality kept on shooting even after more than two dozen frames. Nothing impressive here.
Because there's no optical viewfinder, you will depend on the LCD to compose your images, and under most conditions--even underwater--the LCD was generally usable. However, in bright sunlight, our reflection was more visible than the image we were trying to shoot.
We tested the Optio WP in a swimming pool and found it relatively easy to use underwater, although reviewing images while you're submerged doesn't give you the best view. But all functions are operational, and it's easy to change settings below the waterline.
The depth limit of five feet is certainly workable in a pool, and since we took pictures both below and above water, we weren't particularly concerned about the 30-minute time limit. But snorkelers need to beware of both depth and time limits. When you're chasing after pretty fish, 30 minutes can go by quickly. Overall, the Pentax Optio WP did a decent job capturing sharp, well-exposed images with accurate color reproduction and a fair amount of detail. There were some exceptions due to poor autofocus and an auto white balance gone awry, but in general, we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of many of our test shots and the general lack of purple fringing and noise.
The camera's flash has a Soft setting, which lessens the output, but we found that, even with close-up shots, our images were underexposed using this setting. Macro mode worked much better at powering down the flash for relatively even exposures.
We tested the camera with and without the special underwater mode and found little difference in how blue the water was. This may be partly due to the fact that we were, by necessity, close to the surface where the light that produces color is not yet affected by the water. However, when using the flash, you always need to be closer to your subject than anticipated.
Focusing underwater was hit or miss. While some of our test shots were crystal clear, others were softly focused. In part, this is due to the fact that water is not static, even in a swimming pool. Although the Optio WP displays the shutter speed on the LCD, it's not always easy to read, so we ended up shooting at slower shutter speeds than advisable considering the conditions. However, we were pleasantly surprised at how sharp, detailed, and well exposed some of our shots were. We had no problems with fogging or other water-related effects, either.