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11-21-2011, 04:20 PM   #1
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Wide, Low-Light Lenses (for cave use)

Please help an SLR newbie with some lens advice. I just ordered a K-5 (my first interchangeable-lens camera of any sort)... up to now I've been sticking to high-end P&S cameras, as my interest is in the rather niche area of cave photography (where you really don't want to schlep around more gear than you have to, so size & weight matters a lot).

Based on my P&S experience, the bulk of cave photography wants a fast lens (duh), but also pretty wide -- my current go-to cave camera (Canon S90) has a fixed lens at f/2.0, 28mm (equivalent) at wide open. It's pretty rare that I need anything longer than 50-60mm equivalent.

Now, the K-5 is obviously gonna have waaaaaay better high ISO performance (which is kinda the reason I got it), so I can make do with a less-fast lens, but it seems that those excellent Pentax pancake primes tend to be significantly slower than I would have thought.... the DA21 is f3.2, and the DA15 is f4, and since the only light around is the light I bring in, I need all the photons I can get...

And just to throw one more wrench into the mix: as mentioned here, size and weight are nontrivial considerations here (i.e., a pancake prime is waaaaaaay preferable to a heavy zoom); similarly, WR is preferable to non-WR (as dusty/muddy/wet conditions are the norm, not the exception). While neither of these are deal-breakers, they are definitely tiebreakers...

I'm going to initially be experimenting with the 35mm f2.4 prime, even though it's not as wide as I'd like, mainly because it's fast and cheap (and augmenting it with the 18-55WR lens, mainly to have at least one WR lens available for sloppy conditions), but I'd love to find a wider lens that is "fast enough" for darker-than-usual conditions. While I'm not expecting to find many cavers chiming in here (though that'd be great), I'd love to hear advice from anyone who has had to do shooting in other sorts of dark, enclosed spaces.

11-21-2011, 04:26 PM   #2
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Fast and WR isn't quite available yet- the best you can do there is go for a 16-50mm zoom (it's available for $100 off this week only).

Another fast, wide lens would be the 14mm, but it's not WR:
Pentax Super Wide Angle SMCP-DA 14mm f/2.8 Autofocus Lens 21510

TBH, though, if you do a lot of hiking I would go for the 18-135mm just to get the most out of a single lens. It's not the fastest or the sharpest, but it gets the job done, is weather-sealed, and can take a beating. It's what I put on my camera when I'm not using primes

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11-21-2011, 04:31 PM   #3
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QuoteOriginally posted by Adam Quote
I would go for the 18-135mm just to get the most out of a single lens. It's not the fastest or the sharpest, but it gets the job done, is weather-sealed, and can take a beating. It's what I put on my camera when I'm not using primes
Yeah, that one looks awfully tempting, but the comments on it are so polarized that I think I need to rent that one and see if I can live with it or not.... the people who like it, reallllly like it, but the ones who don't seem to loathe it.
11-21-2011, 05:29 PM   #4
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Da 14 2.8 is the one you want, no question.

11-21-2011, 05:48 PM   #5
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The 16-50 will get the job done but I'm not sure I'd want to carry it into a cave. That is one heavy lens.

Is auto-focus important? Maybe you could get a 28mm manual prime? There are also 20mm & 24mm primes out there but maybe you would pay almost as much for them as a modern lens.

I see the Canon S90 has a 6 - 22.5mm f/2 -4.9 lens. The 35mm equivalent is shown as 28 - 105mm. But does the f-stop need corrected too or is it the same no matter the sensor size?
11-21-2011, 06:12 PM   #6
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Are you using available light only? If you are using flash, the lens speed becomes less significant as you can pop the flash multiple times (if the camera is solidly supported).
11-21-2011, 06:53 PM   #7
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"Available light" in a cave -- BAHAHAHAHA, yer killin' me :-)

Typically, multiple strong lights (usually LEDs these days) can be used for closer work, but flashes are a necessity for larger stuff. But once you start carrying multiple slave flashes and a tripod, you need sherpas...
11-21-2011, 08:00 PM   #8
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QuoteOriginally posted by BoredomFestival Quote
"Available light" in a cave -- BAHAHAHAHA, yer killin' me :-)

Typically, multiple strong lights (usually LEDs these days) can be used for closer work, but flashes are a necessity for larger stuff. But once you start carrying multiple slave flashes and a tripod, you need sherpas...
Baawaaa! If you are bringing lights then lens speed is not a real factor.

11-21-2011, 09:10 PM   #9
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There is a Sigma 20mm f/1.8 - it isn't small, isn't WR, and may not have perfect IQ, but it is about as fast and wide as you can get.
11-21-2011, 11:25 PM   #10
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I assume that in the cave's your shots are going to be of landscape kind (non-moving subjects)

Use the WR kit lens for now, and get a good smallish lightweight tripod
11-21-2011, 11:33 PM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by SpecialK Quote
Baawaaa! If you are bringing lights then lens speed is not a real factor.
That's kinda like saying "If the room has at least one light, of any sort, then lens speed is not a real factor" -- we all know that ain't true :-)
11-22-2011, 02:32 AM   #12
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The only lit caves I've seen, lit enough for available-light photography, have been those with lighting systems: commercial caverns, parks, etc. Without such, flash and/or tripod are needed, and lens speed is irrelevant. So go for the bargain: DA18-55-WR.
11-22-2011, 02:58 PM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by BoredomFestival Quote
Please help an SLR newbie with some lens advice. I just ordered a K-5 (my first interchangeable-lens camera of any sort)... up to now I've been sticking to high-end P&S cameras, as my interest is in the rather niche area of cave photography (where you really don't want to schlep around more gear than you have to, so size & weight matters a lot).

Based on my P&S experience, the bulk of cave photography wants a fast lens (duh), but also pretty wide -- my current go-to cave camera (Canon S90) has a fixed lens at f/2.0, 28mm (equivalent) at wide open. It's pretty rare that I need anything longer than 50-60mm equivalent.

Now, the K-5 is obviously gonna have waaaaaay better high ISO performance (which is kinda the reason I got it), so I can make do with a less-fast lens, but it seems that those excellent Pentax pancake primes tend to be significantly slower than I would have thought.... the DA21 is f3.2, and the DA15 is f4, and since the only light around is the light I bring in, I need all the photons I can get...

And just to throw one more wrench into the mix: as mentioned here, size and weight are nontrivial considerations here (i.e., a pancake prime is waaaaaaay preferable to a heavy zoom); similarly, WR is preferable to non-WR (as dusty/muddy/wet conditions are the norm, not the exception). While neither of these are deal-breakers, they are definitely tiebreakers...

I'm going to initially be experimenting with the 35mm f2.4 prime, even though it's not as wide as I'd like, mainly because it's fast and cheap (and augmenting it with the 18-55WR lens, mainly to have at least one WR lens available for sloppy conditions), but I'd love to find a wider lens that is "fast enough" for darker-than-usual conditions. While I'm not expecting to find many cavers chiming in here (though that'd be great), I'd love to hear advice from anyone who has had to do shooting in other sorts of dark, enclosed spaces.
A number of years ago I did a project documenting a gold mine, including the underground workings, shortly before it shut down. The underground part happened on very short notice, so I had to move quickly and shoot a lot of pictures with a minimum of equipment.

I went with a solid but failry light tripod, a Nkon F90 and SB25 flash, and a Sigma 20/1.8. Existing light ranged from widely spaced, dim light bulbs to total darkness. My strategy was to use flash for bare bones documentation. To capture the underground ambience, I decided to use existing light or combined flash and existing light as appropriate. I also experimented with illuminating some shots by painting with the miners's lamp on my helmet, in some cases combined with other existing light. I worked at a variety of apertures, depending on the circumstances of the particular shot.

I relied on manual focus as it was more reliable than AF under those conditions.

The 20/1.8 was very useful. In particular, the fast speed made focusing and composition much easier. I was able to do weird things like use illumination from the AF assist beam on the flash to focus on things that were too far away to see properly with my rather dim miner's lamp.

The miner's lamp shots worked out remarkably well, by the way.

I know there have been lots of reports of inconsistent build quality with the 20/1.8. I had a very good sample that was quite sharp through its aperture range. I was even able to use it for very high-quality copy work with a full-frame DSLR ina a pinch, with excellent corner-to-corner sharpness at f/8.

John
11-22-2011, 05:47 PM   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by BoredomFestival Quote
Please help an SLR newbie with some lens advice. I just ordered a K-5 (my first interchangeable-lens camera of any sort)... up to now I've been sticking to high-end P&S cameras, as my interest is in the rather niche area of cave photography (where you really don't want to schlep around more gear than you have to, so size & weight matters a lot).

Based on my P&S experience, the bulk of cave photography wants a fast lens (duh), but also pretty wide -- my current go-to cave camera (Canon S90) has a fixed lens at f/2.0, 28mm (equivalent) at wide open. It's pretty rare that I need anything longer than 50-60mm equivalent.

Now, the K-5 is obviously gonna have waaaaaay better high ISO performance (which is kinda the reason I got it), so I can make do with a less-fast lens, but it seems that those excellent Pentax pancake primes tend to be significantly slower than I would have thought.... the DA21 is f3.2, and the DA15 is f4, and since the only light around is the light I bring in, I need all the photons I can get...

And just to throw one more wrench into the mix: as mentioned here, size and weight are nontrivial considerations here (i.e., a pancake prime is waaaaaaay preferable to a heavy zoom); similarly, WR is preferable to non-WR (as dusty/muddy/wet conditions are the norm, not the exception). While neither of these are deal-breakers, they are definitely tiebreakers...

I'm going to initially be experimenting with the 35mm f2.4 prime, even though it's not as wide as I'd like, mainly because it's fast and cheap (and augmenting it with the 18-55WR lens, mainly to have at least one WR lens available for sloppy conditions), but I'd love to find a wider lens that is "fast enough" for darker-than-usual conditions. While I'm not expecting to find many cavers chiming in here (though that'd be great), I'd love to hear advice from anyone who has had to do shooting in other sorts of dark, enclosed spaces.
I routinely take my K5 caving. My normal photo kit is the K-5 with DA17-70 on it. I will also have DFA100 Macro along for closeups. For lighting I will have three old Vivitar 283 flashes. One will have a sync cable. The other two flashes will have We in XLHS optical slaves. All packed in a Pelican 1300 waterproof box.

I am currently experimenting with a high power (1,200 lumens) LED video light. This means a tripod since shutter speed can reach 5 seconds. It is really amazing how much light an electronic flash outputs.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/24685925@N08/6315932176/

Last edited by DaveBlack; 11-22-2011 at 06:04 PM.
11-22-2011, 06:35 PM   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by DaveBlack Quote
I routinely take my K5 caving. My normal photo kit is the K-5 with DA17-70 on it. I will also have DFA100 Macro along for closeups. For lighting I will have three old Vivitar 283 flashes. One will have a sync cable. The other two flashes will have We in XLHS optical slaves. All packed in a Pelican 1300 waterproof box.

I am currently experimenting with a high power (1,200 lumens) LED video light. This means a tripod since shutter speed can reach 5 seconds. It is really amazing how much light an electronic flash outputs
Yeah -- I have a slave flash (Sunpak 383) that I've used with my P&S (controlled by a Firefly 3), which is invaluable in larger rooms; I'm just hoping to maximize the quality of what I can do without having to resort to the slave. (Can you really get all that stuff in a Pelican 1300?)

Anyway... thanks to everyone for the advice; at this point I think I'm going to just start with the kit lens, since it's (1) cheap (2) WR (3) reasonably flexible, and see what focal lengths I end up using; it sounds like there are are other zooms with similar ranges but better optics (eg the DA17-70, DA*16-50) that I'll probably want to consider once I get more comfy.
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