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05-04-2013, 05:28 AM - 2 Likes   #1
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Expensive primes vs. budget zooms…personal experiences and advice

Dear Pentax lens buyers,

Many prime lenses are becoming seriously expensive. But will their $500 plus premium guarantee better photos? That’s an important question for people buying Pentax dslrs (which really are excellent), and coming to this forum for advice on what lenses to buy. The reason I’m posting this thread is not to moan about the escalating prices of Pentax primes – prices that some camera buyers would not have expected when they chose Pentax and mapped out their wish-list of new lenses - but to praise today’s budget zooms and budget primes. And to pass on the lessons I’ve learned since switching from Canon to Pentax a few years ago.

Don’t buy the story that excellent expensive primes guarantee excellent photos

I purchased a K20D, a 18-55mm kit lens and a budget Tamron 70-300mm, a good coverage from 18mm to 300mm. Then I started to read this forum, and was persuaded I really, really needed to buy my first new “prime lens”. To be honest I wasn’t impressed by the quality of photos I was taking (on auto settings) with the budget zooms. A better, faster, smaller lens should make my photos look more professional; give me better images in low light; and the chance to take the kind of photos I’d seen on this forum with artistic bokeh and narrow depth of fields.

My thoughts were directly influenced by members of this forum. Many times the response to questions like “what is the best Pentax prime for a step-up in your photos” seemed to be: “buy a Limited…because if you don’t buy a Limited you’ll end up wanting one anyway so buy it now”. I got the impression that if I didn’t buy a Limited I’d never get the best out of my new Pentax camera. But OMG the Limiteds have become expensive. For that money you’d almost want a written guarantee that your photos will look more professional. I was always a bit sceptical about that. I couldn’t even match the stunning Pentax kit results I’d see from forum members.

Primes don’t always deliver

So instead of a Limited I found a new FA50mm 1.4 for under $300 (nowadays it would probably be best to go for the cheaper DA35mm 2.4). What I learned from the lens was (1) it doesn’t guarantee better photos; (2) it doesn’t always deliver in low light; but (3) I can take great photos of my kids at or around f1.4 with very artist backgrounds/bokeh, as long as my kids stay still enough. I was getting fast aperture photos I’d never get from the zooms, and remain happy about that. However, I was surprised to find that the FA50mm was often not as good as the zooms outdoors – both budget zooms came with a hood, something the FA50 really needs outdoors but wasn’t included in the price.

Is there much IQ difference between expensive primes and budget zooms at f5.6 or f8?

More generally I started to wonder whether there was a real, significant image quality (IQ) difference between expensive Limited primes and budget zooms at my most commonly used aperture stops - f5.6 or f8? My experience is that if you want to blow up pictures to a bedroom wall size you may notice a difference. But otherwise the difference is hardly noticeable, as long as you take control of the zoom’s aperture setting, e.g. manually set it to f5.6 or f8 and work from there. That’s very easy with modern digital cameras; they’ll do the work for you.

Using semi-manual settings will give you better looking photos

If I was going to do this all again, I’d still buy my budget zooms first and then invest in a cheap ($50), used, film era fast prime lens to learn semi-manual skills at different apertures. Skills that help to get the best out of both budget zooms and primes. Something like the M50mm f1.7 would be a great place to start. All the positive reviews here are not wrong! Don’t listen –as I did initially - to people with Limited lenses who say rather patronisingly, “that’s not such a good lens, the reviews are by people who don’t know any better”. Bottom line is that it may be a $50 manual lens from the film-era, not a $1,000 digital lens, but it is small and solid, fast, sharp and capable of “magic”. (However you define that).

Focus on a couple of focal lengths when you starting buying primes

By using zooms I found the focal lengths I really liked/used the most. Curiously, my two favorite focal lengths turned out to be: 28mm for walking-around and 85mm for special family/kids portraits. “Curiously”…because neither focal length is covered directly by new Pentax primes! But there are excellent alternatives, old and new. You’ll find there are differences to research between expensive and budget primes; between expensive and budget zooms; between new and used lenses; and between M42 and k-mount lens manufacturers. If I’d know that part about focal lengths from the start my lens collection would be far smaller, cheaper and more focused.

And when you do your lens research….

Don’t believe the hype, sometimes perpetuated by members of this forum, that only very expensive prime/Limited lenses take excellent photos, and these primes are faultless in the right photographer’s hands, regardless of “negative” test results and some legitimate owner concerns. At the same time, don’t believe put-downs from owners of high-cost primes that budget primes and budget zooms will never deliver excellence.

The majority of my “best photos” (as judged by friends and relations) have been taken with the two budget zooms, even though they now make up less than 10% of my lens spend. As an example, below is a photo taken by the budget Tamron 70-300mm at 300mm. Some people heavily criticise this “cheap lens” for producing unusable results at 300mm, and “its only a Tamron”. Guess it’s not a DA* 300mm $1,300 lens. But this photo, even slightly cropped, looks sharp and good enough to me; miles better than a point and shoot.

So please if you’re new to Pentax or thinking about a Pentax dslr, or thinking about investing in new lenses, don’t be discouraged by the $1,000 prices of some supposedly “must have” primes, or comments about the “less than prime” performance of budget zooms or budget primes. You have plenty of great, cost-effective options to choose from.

All the best

-------------------------
I’m sure I’ve missed some key points, and could have got my points across in far fewer words, but I thought I post this thread so others can add their 2c if they want.



05-04-2013, 05:43 AM   #2
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Dear OP, whilst the points you make on this thread are somewhat poignant regarding 'expensive' primes, you have neglected important points that make primes innately better in producing higher quality images.

1. Primes can be made with larger apertures than zooms. Even the most expensive zooms are f/2.8 whilst some 'cheaper' primes are f/2 or even f/1.4, giving the photographer more versatility in situations where they matter the most: in low light. Ambient light photography is where such aspects make a huge difference. Budget zooms are not the appropriate lenses for a number of photographic assignments.

2. Image quality is generally better in a prime than a zoom at the same aperture. This matters most at the wider apertures, where many photographers have to shoot at. If every shot could be achieved at f/8, then there would be no need for primes. But shooting a budget zoom wide open, and saying that the image quality will be just as good as that from a fast prime at the same aperture is not a valid argument. I have many practical examples when shooting in the same focal lengths and lighting conditions between say the FA 43 Ltd and the DA 18-55 at 43mm. The colour, micro contrast (and therefore texture detail) and overall rendition was clearly inferior coming from the DA 18-55, which is considered the best kit lens made by anyone.

So I don't buy your argument set above, but do respect that at f/8, there is little between a consumer zoom and an expensive prime lens.
05-04-2013, 05:45 AM   #3
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Totally agreed in many areas. I personally did buy into the Prime hype early on and got the 35mm Ltd. At the time, my photography skill was just not good enough to show the difference between using a Prime vs budget zoom. And for a while I simply didn't see the huge advantage to own them. As the time went on, I started to see the differences and the joy of using one. However, some of my best photos so far were taken by kit lens or the DA 18-135mm. The composition and photography technique is definitely way more important than the gear itself. I always tell myself that there are so many iconic photos out there that were taken by gears far worse than what we have today. Partly just to encourage myself to think before taking photos; the other part is just to keep LBA in check I LOVE my primes now but I think it's important to focus on the joy of photography instead of the joy of owning better equipment (well, at least for the hobbists, I can't speak for pros.)
05-04-2013, 05:54 AM   #4
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My response to your post is simple...

...200 buck Sigma 70-300m Zoom -


Last edited by wildman; 05-06-2013 at 06:38 PM.
05-04-2013, 06:07 AM   #5
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An expensive lens alone won't make your pics any better, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig! Learning lighting, exposure and composition will, then perhaps you'd see a difference in the lenses. There's a reason those lenses cost more, like Papa John says, better ingredients, better pizza. FWIW, while your duck photo may be good enough for you to hang on your wall, if you were to ask me to pay for such work I'd laugh at you, it may be in focus (barely, eye is a tad soft), but sharp it's not, barely any feather detail is visible. Just my $.02!

Last edited by Al_Kahollick; 05-04-2013 at 06:22 AM.
05-04-2013, 06:24 AM   #6
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I agree, and disagree.

Yes, some people will make you think you *must* have a limited lens to get excellent photos. Of course this isn't true. I carry 2 zooms in my Pentax kit. One is a Tamron 28-105 that you can find for about $50 to $75. This lens is sharper than most expensive zooms I've seen and has a very nice range for a walkaround lens. The other zoom I carry is a Tamron 70-300 (don't know if it's the same one you mention, mine is the older LD Macro model) and this is also a sharp lens and gives me a great telephoto option. I actually got both of these lenses as part of a kit with a ZX-7 film body I bought at a garage sale for $50 for the whole kit. Money well spent.

The FA 50 1.4 you mention...this is still my all-time favorite Pentax lens. This lens can do things for me that NO ZOOM, be it a budget zoom, or an expensive DA* zoom, can do for me. Yeah it has it's drawbacks...and the coatings aren't great so it does require a hood to get optimal results. I think this lens would get higher ratings if people would use a hood more because I think the flare on it is that bad that wide open even flare from indoor lighting causes detail to wash out. I don't know why they don't include one but no big deal, I bought a $5 hood on ebay and problem solved. I don't recall that I've ever gotten a hood with any 'kit' zoom I've ever bought where the lens was a part of a kit.

I've tried the FA 77 and 43 limiteds, and also the DA 70, 40, and 21 limiteds. Of these, I really liked the 70 although for indoor use it was a bit long. The 40, while a cute pancake lens, is too slow at f/2.8. The 21 is a nice lens but for me 28 is generally wide enough and I can get that on my zooms. The 77 and 43 are nice lenses....but they're too close to other lenses in focal length and if given the choice I'd take the FA 50 and the DA 70.

The bottom line is, both primes and zooms have their place in the kit.
05-04-2013, 06:27 AM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by Al_Kahollick Quote
Just my $.02
I'm confused. Is that price for the photo?
05-04-2013, 06:31 AM   #8
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You won't be able to build a house just because you buy an expensive hammer but at the same time a professionalism won't use the cheapest hammer as his tool. No way that I could shoot sports as limitless with a regular cheap consumer zoom as I can do with my fast and sharp zooms and primes, just like a carpenter would have a hard time using toy hammers.

When people ask for a really good additional lens people will give the advise on some really good lenses. If one asks about cheap manual primes, loads of people here use old cheap primes and will give great advises for that. The problem is more often than not that beginners aren't clear on what they want and says things like "I want a sharp, bright ad fully automatic lens" an that limits things.

05-04-2013, 07:01 AM - 1 Like   #9
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QuoteOriginally posted by Driline Quote
I'm confused. Is that price for the photo?
Wow...this is the kind of juvenile comment I'd expect to see on DPR....not PentaxForums.
05-04-2013, 07:17 AM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by jgmankos Quote
Wow...this is the kind of juvenile comment I'd expect to see on DPR....not PentaxForums.
Read the rest of Al_Kahollicks comment and maybe you would understand the humor. Apparently you don't get it or have no humor, not sure which.

(Quote from Al_)
"if you were to ask me to pay for such work I'd laugh at you, it may be in focus (barely, eye is a tad soft), but sharp it's not, barely any feather detail is visible. Just my $.02!"
05-04-2013, 07:56 AM   #11
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I say choose the product if its performance is to your requirements. You could also consider older cheaper primes as primes generally have better image quality than zooms.
05-04-2013, 08:02 AM   #12
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To the OP. Many of your points are valid. It looks like you spend some time and effort to write this. I think you should be credited for that. However, there is an element of poking a sleeping bear in it. So dont be surprised if you get some snarky comments. I think its valid to say that newcomers to the forum often wind up thinking that a Limited prime lens is an Easy Button. But:

1. There is a fun aspect to a Limited lens that works for some people but not for others. For instance, the DA 15mm Limited lens is probably the one prime lens that I use the most. The DA 12-24 can beat its IQ but the Limited lens is more a joy to use. For some of us, its the small size, the build quality along with the IQ that makes it a fun lens. If you have fun with something you will use it. And the more you use it the more you will take good pics.

2. There is another kind of person who enjoys the thought of being able to do something equally or better with something bargain priced than the expensive stuff. A lot of Pentax shooters actually fall into the latter category. In this case too, whatever increases your enjoyment of photography will increase the quality of your photos.

3. The advantage of a fast prime lens is only an advantage if you know its limitations. Most people buy a fast prime lens to take artistic pictures at wide open apertures. A fast prime lens can take in a lot of light but its also harder to get a good picture because you have a limited area to get the focus, the rest will be blurry and so you need to take care in getting the composition right. I would not use a prime lens at a fast aperture to take pics of moving kids-because I don't have the skills. However I do it all the time, with a 50-135 lens which is relatively fast-I can shoot at f2.8 but stand at a distance-that makes it easier and more forgiving.

Having said all of this: in terms of frequency of use, there are two zooms that I use more often at this stage of my photography. The Tamron 17-50 and the Pentax 50-135. Zooms offer a convenience that works for shooting style. Of the 3 Limited lenses I have 15/35/70 I really use only the 15. The other two I only use when I want to travel light. On the other hand, if I am travelling and not sure what kind of things I will be shooting, I will use a regular zoom like the 18-135, and try to shoot at f8 or use a tripod.

So to get to the gist of your question, if I was guaranteed enough light to shoot at f8 would I just use a consumer zoom? I probably would but not all the time. Portraits would not work so well most of the time without a fast lens.
05-04-2013, 08:15 AM   #13
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[OLDPHART]
I'm going to stick my scrawny old neck out here. Those who talk about only the Limited lenses being good enough for serious use remind me far too much of Canikon people who sneer at Pentax.

My kit is what I could afford. I even swapped a DA* 50-135 for a DA-L 55-300 after the SDM failed for the third time. I don't like the slow aperture much, and the AF speed is slower than my manual focus ability, but my biggest problem the lack of quick shift when I do have it in AF.

One of my favourite photos on the wall is a black and white 8x10 of the HMS Bounty replica that recently sank in a hurricane. It was taken with a first model Pentax (25-50-200 shutter sequence) bought out of a pawn shop and a Takumar 135/3.5 preset lens (coatings? what coatings? even worse I had a No 2 orange filter on it!) taken when the ship was on its world tour, entering Vancouver harbour. 2nd prize in MGM's Bounty photo contest B&W division. It wasn't the equipment that counted, it was being in the right place at the right time and pushing the shutter release at exactly the right moment. This still counts, and is still the criterion that gets the good shots.
[/OLDPHART]
05-04-2013, 08:53 AM   #14
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Becoming reliant on expensive lenses for good photos is never a good thing, and people do underestimate the potential of these cheap zooms. I have a bunch of super expensive lenses, but a bunch of cheap ones too. They're just lenses. Use what feels good and produces the best results for you. If you're happy with the 70-300 zoom then that's awesome, get out and use it!

I personally find I much prefer small primes because they feel more enjoyable to use. One odd lens is the M 200mm f/4, which I don't think is as sharp as the 135/3.5, nor as small but I still prefer using it for some strange reason.
05-04-2013, 09:10 AM   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by Canada_Rockies Quote
[OLDPHART]
I'm going to stick my scrawny old neck out here. Those who talk about only the Limited lenses being good enough for serious use remind me far too much of Canikon people who sneer at Pentax.

My kit is what I could afford. I even swapped a DA* 50-135 for a DA-L 55-300 after the SDM failed for the third time. I don't like the slow aperture much, and the AF speed is slower than my manual focus ability, but my biggest problem the lack of quick shift when I do have it in AF.

One of my favourite photos on the wall is a black and white 8x10 of the HMS Bounty replica that recently sank in a hurricane. It was taken with a first model Pentax (25-50-200 shutter sequence) bought out of a pawn shop and a Takumar 135/3.5 preset lens (coatings? what coatings? even worse I had a No 2 orange filter on it!) taken when the ship was on its world tour, entering Vancouver harbour. 2nd prize in MGM's Bounty photo contest B&W division. It wasn't the equipment that counted, it was being in the right place at the right time and pushing the shutter release at exactly the right moment. This still counts, and is still the criterion that gets the good shots.
[/OLDPHART]


My most used lens, and the lens I've taken my best pictures with, is the FA645 33-55/4.5. It is by far my worst lens optically.

Anyway, primes are usually much better than zooms when it comes to flare. Try to compare the DA 15/4 Limited with the DA* 16-50/2.8 in this regard...
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