Monday, June 29, 2009

Your Next Photo Holiday: Which Lenses To Take?

photographyIn my previous article I provided a discussion of what to take on your holiday. I covered nine different categories, from the camera body to memory storage to backup solutions. That leaves the tenth category: the lenses. In this article I'll discuss approaches to choosing holiday lenses in the general case, while highlighting particular Pentax solutions.

Choosing lenses for travelling is a simple matter. And also an wickedly difficult problem with no perfectly optimised solution.

It's simple because there are only really two options. The first is to pack a single lens and live with the restrictions, the second is to take different lenses for different purposes.

It's a wickedly difficult problem because each approach offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks that results in inevitable compromise. This is largely due to the need to keep your kit as minimal as possible for ease of travel, so you can enjoy your holidays outside of photography. If you could afford to take everything, life would be easy, huh?

And, yes, OK, I fibbed in the last paragraph but one. There are more than two approaches to this conundrum. In fact, there are ten by my count, so I'd better start telling you about them.

One Lens Solutions

Some might say the whole point of an SLR is that you can change lenses, and hence question why I'd take a single lens on a trip. But even with a single lens an SLR will out-perform a point'n'shoot. You can dedicate yourself to making the most of the lens you have, without the cognitive overhead of switching from one to another. This makes good sense.

What one lens should you take? I will provide three options. All save you time and bother. Plus you needn't pack a sensor cleaner.

1. Super Zoom

A 14x zoom like the Pentax DA 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 (reviews) is available for all camera makes with similar characteristics and compromises. The main advantage is that the focal range allows you to zoom in on distant objects or zoom out for interiors or cramped European city streets. The main disadvantage is that the lens is terribly slow. It is fine for outside but rather less good for interiors, unless they are brightly lit. And it might not be so hot after all for those European streets, lying in shade or under cloud as they so often do. But if you're travelling to Iran, Utah, Australia or some other bright location, you're sorted. (OK, you might need some help in Iran.)

The second disadvantage is image quality. Outside the centre of the image, quality degrades, as it does in the wide end of the zoom. This may not matter much if you place the subject near the centre of the frame. Some people shoot like that all the time. The noticeable distortion in the wide end can be corrected in software, if you don't mind taking the time.

Personally, this approach does not appeal. I would never use a super-zoom except on holidays, so I wouldn't get much value from it. But I have seen great work from travel photogs who are happy following this simple plan.

escape from the suburbs2. Fast 50

The opposite approach is to pick one focal length and just deal with it. You won't be capturing birds in flight, but that's not what holidays are generally about. You also won't be getting any wide interiors with a "fast 50", since the 50mm on an APS-C sensor acts like 75mm, which is well into mid-telephoto territory.

What you will get is exemplary image quality from a very fast lens you can still use when the light dims. This is the solution for the creative photographer, but isn't the best for someone trying to be a bit more pragmatic. After all, it's your vacation; you probably don't want to miss great shots due to focal length limits. When your friends gather together for a group hug and the pub is only so big, how can you step back to get them all in the shot?

The Pentax FA 50mm f/1.4 (reviews) is an excellent lens that is also inexpensive. It's pretty well a no-brainer to own this lens. (Though, through a strange quirk of fate, I don't!)

3. Thrifty 35
If not a "Nifty 50" then how about a "Thrifty 35", my term for the Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited (reviews). If you want just one small prime on your camera this is a great choice. It's wider than the fast 50 option, so you'll get more in the frame. It's also a proper 1:1 macro, so you can get as close as you want to your target. And the image quality from up close all the way out to distant landscapes is perfect.

The Pink DominionNo other firm makes a lens like this, so it is a Pentax-only option.

It's two stops slower than the Fast 50 option, but since it's a shorter focal length you can hand-hold it at slower shutter speeds.

It's more expensive than the FA50 but more versatile. I traded mine away to get another lens I needed, but I will buy it back when I can. This is the perfect flower lens. The colours and textures render so nicely, thanks to buckets of micro-contrast. If you love taking shots of gardens, wilderness, or landscapes, this is your baby.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the FA 31mm f/1.8 Limited (reviews), since many judge it the best lens Pentax makes. It's fast and excellent, but larger than the two other prime solutions and not able to focus as close as the macro.

But the main drawback is the sky-high price relative to the Thrifty 35. Though, to be fair, it is cheaper than many of the multi-lens solutions that follow.

Multiple Zoom Solutions

In order to get around the inevitable compromise of the first three solutions, you need to take more than one lens with you and switch when needed. This is also an inevitable requirement if you wish to take more than one body (whether for yourself or a second photographer).

Cody and ErnestZooms are certainly convenient when traveling. They allow a range of focal lengths from one perspective, which makes sense when you are restricted in movement. This happens more often than you may think. You have little control of perspective when on a train, safari Jeep, taxi or tour bus. And also when on a precipice, the end of a pier or when chasing wild game. It's one thing to say "zoom with your feet" but another thing entirely when getting closer means swimming the last few lengths to that whale. Or school of sharks.

In this day and age a zoom lens does not have to mean a large image quality compromise. Nor does it necessarily mean sacrificing much light, though a zoom is generally slower than a prime in the same focal range. It'll also be bulkier and heavier.

In a similar fashion to other manufacturers, Pentax has three "lines" of zooms, depending on how much one wants to spend. But unlike other brands, Pentax does not distinguish these by the presence or absence of image stabilisation, since that feature is provided by the body. It's also not entirely clear from the lens nomenclature where on the totem a given product lies. So what follows is a guide that might help you whether you are contemplating a vacation or not.

4. Kit Zooms

The first lens line is comprised of the DA 18-55 f/3.5-6.3 and DA 50-200 f/4-5.6. These are cheap and serviceable "kit" lenses, but slow and not of the best IQ. One can and should do better. (Please note that I am only criticising them relative to other options; for the price they are great.)

Just released are weather-sealed versions of these lenses, offering a high-end benefit in the cheapest line-up. That should shake up the market!

5. Professional Zooms

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the special weather-sealed professional "star" lenses. The DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 (review) plus DA* 50-135mm f/2.8 (review) might be all the glass you ever need. If you encounter hostile environments and need speed, they are certainly your best bet. But they are relatively big and heavy.

It has never made sense for me to pay for such speed when I've got primes that are even faster. The price is also a disincentive: twelve times the cost of the kit combo! But I'll not say a bad word against the impeccable quality of these zooms.

Mid-Range Zooms

The middle tier of DA lenses tend to have fixed f/4 aperture. The image quality is vanishingly close to that of the DA* lenses. But they are one stop slower and not weather-sealed. However, this also means they are lighter and much better value.

From the widest to narrowest we can choose from the DA 12-24mm f/4 (review), DA 16-45mm f/4 (review), DA 17-70mm f/4 (review) and DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8 (review). The DA 17-70, with its special focus motor and wider range, was rumoured to replace the DA 16-45, but the latter lens is still available and is much cheaper.

Of these the DA 55-300mm is the cheapest and an absolute bargain. Though it gets slow in the tele end, it is no worse than f/4.5 for most of its range.

I will divide this category into two, depending on how much gear you want to carry.

silvermines forest in black & white6. Two Mid-Range Zooms

Want only two lenses? My recommended setup is the DA 12-24mm and DA 55-300mm. This gives you the widest and the narrowest focal lengths on offer. Yes, there's a gap in between the two lenses, but you may never notice. Of course you may find yourself switching a lot, so this might be best for those who carry two bodies.

Want the cheapest two lens combo? Try the DA 16-45mm with the DA 55-300mm. These lenses both perform way beyond their price.

7. Three Mid-Range Zooms

In order to cover the full focal range, you need to add the DA 17-70mm to the DA 12-24mm and DA 55-300mm. This bumps up the cost but gives you the benefit of being able to keep one lens on the camera most of the time, swapping to either extreme only when needed.

Multiple Prime Solutions

Pentax makes some lovely metal and glass primes in their Limited series. These uphold the fine tradition of workmanship known to those who worshipped Zeiss or Leica lenses in a previous life. No major brand offers great primes like Pentax.

Manual focusing the full-frame FA series lenses is a treat. These also have aperture rings so you can operate them completely manually with perfect control. Once you're used to the solid metal build of the Limiteds it's difficult to go back to plastic zooms. In addition, the "pancakes" in the DA series are perfect for minimising your baggage. Even the non-pancakes are quite small and light.

the yellow todaySince Pentax has so many great primes, we're spoilt for choice. I would start with the two focal length extremes, the DA 15mm f/4 Limited (review) and FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited (review). The latter is one of the best portrait lenses ever made, but is versatile well beyond that one application. (I've got a little FA 77 "trick" I'll mention in my next article.) The DA 15mm is quite new but I've seen some nice sharp images it has produced.

The gap between these lenses can be filled in one of two ways.

8. Four Primes

If you can afford two more lenses, take the DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited (review) and FA 43mm f/1.9 Limited (review) to best cover the focal range. I have not tried the former since I do not think it is as incredible as its brethren. But the 43mm has perhaps the nicest rendering of any lens I've used.

9. Three Primes

If you want to limit your kit to three primes, instead add the DA35 Limited Macro to the DA15 and FA77, for a versatile solution. You can keep this one macro lens on your camera most of the time, switching to the extremes as needed.


This article has become rather long, so I'll leave the tenth solution until the next instalment. In the meantime you can follow the Pentax Forum review links to read the opinions of actual users.

I hope this article has provided some perspective on the rather large selection of lenses Pentax offers. There are telephoto, macro and fish-eye lenses I haven't even mentioned, since I don't think they have a primary place in a holiday bag. Those who have a special interest will no doubt disagree.

All images © 2009 Robin Parmar. Mouse over images for special messages. Click through to get larger versions in Flickr. Please donate so I might afford a holiday!



robin said...

After a comment on the UK Pentax User forum, I've changed one sentence to make my meaning clearer. "The whole point of an SLR is that you can change lenses, so some might question why I'd take a single lens on a trip." is now "Some might say the whole point of an SLR is that you can change lenses, and hence question why I'd take a single lens on a trip."

David Russell said...

"No other firm makes a lens like this, so it is a Pentax-only option."

Tokina offer a 35mm f2.8 Macro lens in Canikon mounts. Though both Tokina and Pentax furiously deny suggestions that it is a rebranded DA35, it does at last provide the "normalish lens that can go as close as you like".

robin said...

David, thanks for pointing out a third-party option, which I had not investigated. Tokina, Tamron and Sigma usually step up to the plate to fill in gaps (or provide alternatives) in many camera mounts. However, not only are their quality control systems inferior to Pentax, so are their coatings. If you get a "good copy" this will not bother you, but it is not uncommon to hear of shooters trying three copies and buying the one that is in spec.

Tokina and Pentax did work together on a few lens designs, so this could be one of them -- the specs are remarkably similar. Luckily for Pentax users their version is 50% lighter and looks 100% nicer!

robin said...

Two years on I have made some typographic corrections but have no changes to my recommendations.

robin said...

If this article has helped you, please donate the price of a coffee using the PayPal logo in the right column. Caramel macchiato... yum!

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