Monday, April 28, 2008

Pentax Lenses: None Better

photographyFifth in a series that gently explains digital photography and makes helpful recommendations.

Buying a camera not only commits you to a body, but to an entire system of lenses and accessories. Pentax is often criticized as not having the same scope in their lens catalogue as Canon and Nikon. But in this article I'm going to show that the Pentax range is in fact distinctly superior to the competition. I should clarify here the type of photographer I'm addressing: not the sports fanatic with £10,000 to spend, not the fashion photographer whose camera never leaves a tripod, but rather the rest of us: street photographers, low light lovers, those who like intimate portraits, family photos, macro work and landscape photography, even birders and wildlife fans. For semi-pro shooters Pentax offers some singular pieces of glass in a system that provides significant advantages over the competition.

Read on for the details. To see some amazing photos, browse the Pentax Photo Gallery.

How can I claim that Pentax has a better range of lenses when a glance at a retailer like Warehouse Express1 shows the numbers quite differently?

The answer is simple. Unless your camera is never leaving a tripod, shake-reduction (SR) is the single best innovation in photography in recent years. Without SR the rule of thumb is that you need a shutter speed the reciprocal of the focal length. For example, 1/50s or faster for a 50mm lens. SR increases low light handling by three to four stops so you can get away with 1/6s or slower shutter speed in this case. This allows you to take blur-free photos that otherwise would have been impossible.2

Neither Canon nor Nikon offer this technology in the camera body. Instead, you must buy special lenses at increased cost. The debate rages as to which technology is best, but one thing is clear: in-body SR is a cheaper solution that provides full backwards compatibility.

It's time to have a look at the competing lens lineups. I'm most interested in lenses at least f/2.8 in speed, and prefer primes for their improved quality and handling, though I'll also mention zoom lenses.

Nikon have seven VR (vibration reduction) prime lenses available. All but one of these are in the 200-600mm range and priced from £2400 to £6500. For the non-professional they may as well be made of unobtainium. The other prime is a 105mm f/2.8 for £500. They have one fast VR zoom, the 70-200mm f/2.8, but it goes for £1150.

Coincidentally, Canon also have seven telephoto IS (image stabilization) primes, ranging from a 300mm f/4 at £880 to an 800mm f/5.6 at £9000. They have two fast IS zooms, the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 for £660 and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 for £1250.

These facts are little short of astounding. Within the usual range of day-to-day shooting (say, 16mm to 70mm) exactly zero stabilized prime lenses are on offer. Here Pentax stomps all over the competition.

And neither is there much in the way of fast zooms to make up for this lack. Nikon leaves the whole range under 70mm blank while Canon have a pair that cover 17-200mm for £1250. This is interesting to compare with the top-of-the-line Pentax 16-50mm and 50-135mm combo for £1130. Less range but fully weather-sealed and slightly cheaper.

So, the apparent torrent of competition lenses is actually a trickle, unless you want to sacrifice image stabilisation. This argument does not even need to consider the pros and cons of different IS systems. Even if the Canon and Nikon methods were much better they have very few IS lenses, affordable or not, so it hardly matters.

This point alone convinced me to buy a Pentax system. Looking at the specific lenses available sealed the deal.

Pentax has incredibly compact light-weight primes made to the highest quality in super-fast glass. These are known as the "Limited" series, because they are made in small quantities to stricter standards than other lenses3. Some are fairly expensive, but all are reasonable for what you are getting. Consider that these are fully metal construction when all other major manufacturers have turned to plastic/metal hybrids.

The first set of three Limiteds, released in 1999 and 2000, were the FA 31mm f/1.8, FA 43mm f/1.9 and FA 77mm f/1.8. These are a full stop faster than the best stabilised lenses from the competition, thus letting in twice the light. This permits finer depth of field control, more accurate manual focusing and a better viewfinder image.

These are full-frame lenses that can be used with old film bodies. They have an aperture ring for manual settings. But they are also unsurpassed on digital bodies. Popular Photography called the FA 31mm one of "the 3 greatest prime lenses we've ever tested!" (March 2002). Amateur Photographer chose the 43mm as their benchmark for "normal" lenses (those around 50mm). And the 77mm lives up to those same standards. As a bonus, the FA lenses are light for their speed at 345g, 155g and 270g respectively. They are priced at £800, £400 and £700.

Besides the usual black, these three lenses were made in silver chrome, to perfectly match silver-bodied film cameras. How audacious! At least one, the 43mm, was also made in a Leica mount. That should tell you something about the company these lenses keep.

I own the 43mm and can only describe it as a little jewel. The built-in lens hood screws onto the filter ring and is lined with -- get this -- black velvet. The cute little push-on cap is also lined. The handling is smooth and the all-metal construction robust. Manual focusing is top notch for an AF lens and it takes about half a turn for the full focus range, meaning there is plenty of fine adjustment room. I am amazed that a multinational company still cares enough to manufacture something so obviously a labour of love.

And the image quality? Superb. These lenses are the equal of Zeiss, Voigtländer and other "German" makes4.

In 2005, Pentax introduced the DA series of limiteds. These have no aperture ring, but rather have been optimised for digital use5. They have the advantage of quick-shift focus, the ability to instantly switch out of auto-focus mode merely by using the focus ring. While slower than their FA counterparts, these lenses are still quite fast. They are also insanely small, described colloquially as "pancake" lenses.

In this range is a 21mm f/3.2 (140g, £400), 35mm f/2.8 macro (215g, £330), 40mm f/2.8 (90g, £220),and 70mm f/2.4 (130g, £450). These are soon to be joined by the DA 15mm f/3.5.

These are not all of the Pentax primes by a long shot. There's a 14mm, 50mm and telephotos too. But the limiteds have something special. "Holding one in your hand you might be forgiven for thinking you were holding a rangefinder lens or a manual focus lens from the 70s" is a typical reaction. Because they are so small, the camera becomes less conspicuous. It is quite easy to have one on the camera and two in a pocket, thus forgoing a camera bag altogether.

With a set of three Pentax Limited lenses you have a first-class compact photography setup that only a Leica could rival.


1 I will use this firm as a common price source since they have a comprehensive catalogue. This is not an endorsement.

2 Of course SR does not help you capture a fast moving subject. For that you still need a fast shutter speed (or a flash). But it does help with camera shake for each and every photo you take.

3 Pentax also have the * (star) series, a separate premium line, some models of which are purported to be hand made.

4 I put the word in quotes because the brands do not necessarily indicate a single manufacturer but rather whoever is licensing the name this month.

5 Though both the 40mm and 70mm can be used on film bodies (with no vignetting) so long as the body is auto-aperture.

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2 comments:

CheekyGeek said...

"For the non-professional they may as well be made of unobtainium."

This is the greatest quote I have seen in a camera/lens review. Also the truest.

Shishir said...

I have a k10d and pentax mz-s. lenses include the da40mm pancake, sigma 70-300 dg apo makro & tamron 90mm macro, pentax 28mm ka mount, vivitar 50mm f1.7 & kiron 28mm manual lenses. The pentax cameras are indeed very good. The only thing which i feel sometimes that other camera makers are better is the body quality. For eg: nikon bodies are of undoubtedly superior build than pentax. While i understand that that the pentax optics are really good and also very good value for money, the real problem which i felt was that the body (outer shell) is not made of metal. this is the only negative thing in the pentax line.

Of course I have to commend this reviewer for indeed giving a true objective review and reducing bias to the extent possible.

i hv also the nikon fm3a and hv handled d200 & d300. these camera bodies just inspire a lot of confidence. Well i agree, that the trade off is the price, however overlooking that aspect, the construction quality is something that probably pentax should give more emphasis upon.

to sum up, the optics of pentax are truly stunning, however, the joy of using those optics is hindered by the "relatively low build" of pentax systems when compared to nikon. i always feel a body also requires equal importance, as it is an extension of the photographer.

- shishir180

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