Building the Perfect Compact Lens Kit

Minimizing size and weight while maximizing quality

By carpents in Gear Guides on Feb 23, 2015

The announcement of the K-S2 has Pentax shooters excited about yet another camera, but many of us are more excited about the lens - a collapsible, small 18-50mm zoom.

Downsizing lenses— while maintaining or improving quality— is what Pentax has long been about. Long before Fuji and Olympus/Panasonic fleshed out their excellent and small lenses, Pentax has been sporting a line of outright diminutive crop-camera lenses which shine.  Many legacy lenses from the film era are also surprisingly small.


New K-S2 DSLR w/ collapsible kit lens (Click to Enlarge)

If you're looking for compact and lightweight lenses, Pentax has you covered from ultra-wides to telephoto. Many of the lenses in the Pentax arsenal are even smaller and lighter than their mirrorless kin, no small feat for those looking to drop pounds from their kit.

The recommendations below are small and light lenses with the ultimate image quality: The Perfect Compact Lens Kit. Added to the weather-sealed retractable 18-50mm, you'll have a take-anywhere kit!

Our Lens Recommendation Criteria

The Perfect Compact Pentax Lens Kit must meet the following criteria:

  • All lenses must provide long-term value, i.e. not just temporary or 'step-up' lenses.
  • The kit must cover an array of shooting styles.
  • Lenses must be relatively easy to find. This may preclude some legacy lenses despite them being excellent!
  • Each lens must offer something more than the 18-55mm or 18-135mm 'kit' lenses.

HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited, $596

What it offers:

Ultra-wide, sharp, astoundingly small, lightweight.

Ultra-wide angle lenses are all about compromises, which makes the excellent image quality from the HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 Limited even more amazing considering its diminutive size.

Compared to other ultra-wide primes, the DA 15/4 Limited is at least a stop slower, but for most landscape or architectural shots this is a non-issue. It has a low amount of barrel distortion, superlative for the ultra-wide class. At only 190g and near-pancake size, the nearest relative in size is the Voigtlander 15/4.5. Since that lens is for rangefinders only, the DA 15/4 Limited is a unique and compelling reason to use Pentax DSLRs.

→DA 15mm F4 Limited Review

Also consider:

The DA 15/4 Limited (both the HD and SMC versions) have really no competition in the compact ultra-wide class. The Pentax DA 14/2.8, small itself compared to other brands' ultra-wides, is more than twice as heavy and much larger. Sigma's 10mm f/2.8 fisheye and Samyang's 10mm f/2.8 rectilinear are bigger and heavier still. 

If the DA 15/4 Limited busts your budget, your best bet is to wait for the new, downsized 18-55.

SMC Pentax-A 24mm F2.8, $227 (used)

A24/2.8What it offers:

Compact, sharp, manual focus wide angle.

Pentax has been downsizing lenses for decades, and the SMC Pentax-A 24mm F2.8 is one example from the 1980s manual focus heyday. Lightweight for a fast 24mm, at 205 grams the A24/2.8 feels solid and mates nicely with modern Pentax DSLRs thanks to the auto-aperture coupling. The lens is sharp and nicely controlled for flare. It is manual-focus only, so those who rely on auto focus may want to consider other options.

Also consider:

The HD PENTAX-DA 21mm F3.2 AL Limited, $549, is a half stop slower than the A 24/2.8 and has equally excellent image quality. It is an auto focus lens, however its peculiar focal length sits in-between the wide and ultra-wide categories. If you're a mostly-wide angle shooter, the 21/3.2 and 15/4 Limiteds make a nice, compact duo. At only 119 grams, there isn't much reason not to throw the 21/3.2 Limited in your bag.
If the 15/4 Limited already broke your budget, the SMC Pentax-A 28mm F2.8 weighs a miserly 170 grams and is a near-pancake at just 36.5mm tall. Routinely found for about $88, the A 28/2.8 is a third the price of its 24mm sibling, and barely more than the cost of a replacement hood and cap for the 21 Limited.

HD Pentax-DA 35mm F2.8 Limited Macro, $597

35mm F2.8 MacroWhat it offers:

Ultra-sharp, 1:1 macro, lightweight for its class.

When considering a compact kit, one sticking point on most systems is macro lenses, which can be heavy and bulky. Not so the HD Pentax DA 35mm F2.8 Limited, which offers life size 1:1 magnification yet weighs only 213 grams. It is sharp, has little distortion, and can double as a near-normal and macro lens.

→DA 35mm F2.8 Limited Macro Review
→HD vs SMC Limited Comparison

Also consider:

The nearest analogue to the DA 35/2.8 Limited is the SMC Pentax-D FA 50mm F2.8 Macro, $342, which is only 50 grams heavier but about 50% taller than the Limited. The D-FA 50/2.8 Macro has excellent sharpness and smooth out-of-focus areas, and like the Limited offers 1:1 magnification. With a 27-degree angle of view, though, the 50mm Macro is closer to a short telephoto and will increase your close-up working distance.

HD Pentax DA 40mm F2.8 Limited, $446

HD 40/2.8What it offers:

Ultra-compact, ultra-lightweight, normal lens.

The HD Pentax DA 40mm F2.8 Limited is cited in the Pentax Forums review as the "king of pancakes" for a reason. Barely bigger than a lens cap, the 40/2.8 Limited weighs just 88 grams.

The lightweight lens doesn't compromise on image quality, either. It is sharp across the frame and has relatively little distortion. Its out-of-focus rendering can in certain circumstances be busy, but in most circumstances is decent.

→DA 40mm F2.8 Limited Review

Also consider:

Those looking for the smallest possible kit can look to the DA 40/2.8 Limited's cousin, the Pentax SMC DA 40mm F2.8 XS, $221. The main difference between the two is the XS having a 27mm filter thread, so those using the Limited's standard 49mm filters will need a new set.
As long as manual focus is an option, the SMC Pentax-A 50mm F1.7 offers a near-pancake design and compares favorably to modern lenses. One big advantage of the A 50/1.7 is its price, which at $64 (used) makes it a bargain as well.

HD Pentax DA 70mm F2.4 Limited, $498

HD 70/2.4What it offers:

Compact, lightweight, sharp with excellent out-of-focus blur.

As in the Pentax Forums review, the HD Pentax DA 70mm F2.4 Limited is every bit as good as the revered FA 77mm Limited but less expensive, smaller, and lighter. I would actually claim that the DA 70/2.4 is better than its 77mm cousin in quality of background blur, and also having less tendency towards chromatic aberration, which are important in many portrait situations - where this lens excels.

For a pancake-sized option, you can remove the dedicated lens hood and use a 49mm cap, making it extend just 25mm from the mount.

→DA 70mm vs FA 77mm Review

Also consider:

The FA 77/1.8 Limited mentioned above is of course a decent (and some say better) alternative, but those considering some extra reach may want to branch out and try the SMC Pentax-A 100mm F2.8. At about $200 (used), the A 100/2.8 weighs about 260 grams (10 grams less than the 77/1.8 Limited) but is taller at 56mm. It has a classic Pentax rendering and the smooth-focusing build of the A series gems.

It's worth mentioning the SMC Pentax-D FA 100mm F2.8 Macro WR, $699, as well. This isn't compact compared to all the other lenses above but is admirably small and light compared to other 100mm macro lenses, and is weather sealed. Even compared to the excellent APS-C Sigma 70mm macro the D-FA 100/2.8 Macro WR is 185 grams lighter and 15mm shorter.

The DA 35/2.8 Limited Macro is a better choice for the size stingiest among us, but at a much different focal length.

→D-FA 100/2.8 Macro Review

Conclusion

Unlike the Bargain Kit we posted a few weeks ago, DSLR shooters need look no farther than Pentax lenses to build an unbeatable compact kit. Going back to the very first K mount lenses, and continuing today to the HD Limiteds, Pentax has consistently produced small, excellent optics.

Three Lenses, Under 1lb.Pictured above, a three-lens combo at under 1 pound! L-R: DA 70mm, DA 15mm, DA 40mm.

Compact Kit #1 - The Unbeatable 1kg Kit

  • HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited, $596, 190 grams
  • SMC Pentax-A 24mm F2.8, $227 (used), 205 grams
  • HD Pentax-DA 35mm F2.8 Limited Macro, $597, 213 grams
  • HD Pentax DA 40mm F2.8 Limited, $446, 88 grams
  • HD Pentax DA 70mm F2.4 Limited, $498, 130 grams

Compact Kit #2 - 1kg for about $1,000

  • HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited, $596, 190 grams
  • SMC Pentax-A 28mm F2.8, $88 (used), 170 grams
  • SMC Pentax-D FA 50mm F2.8 Macro, $342, 264 grams
  • SMC Pentax-A 100mm F2.8, $200 (used), 260 grams

You can shop for these lenses at B&H Photo (US/Worldwide), Adorama (US/Worldwide), WEX Photographic (UK), SRS Microsystems (UK/EU), PF Marketplace (Worldwide), KEH (US), and CR Kennedy (Australia).

If you have your own kit ideas or would like to build on our recommendations, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Disclaimer: the prices in this article reflect US retail pricing for new products from US authorized dealers as of February, 2015.  Some lenses listed are currently on sale.  Prices are always subject to change and may increase or fluctuate in the future.

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