28 December 2009

DA 12-24mm f/4 - the Pentax wonder wide-angle

When a group of friends met to see a friend off to study overseas to a US university, who would have thought it would lead to an ultra wide in my collection. As the group were keen photographers the talk quickly centered on lenses, their likes and dislikes, the respective merits of different brands and like all good discussions, the question "What would be a good ultra wide angle?" came up. For our seasoned Pentax expert who was at the gathering, the answer seemed simple enough: the Pentax DA 12-24mm f/4.

Two weeks later, and I'm in total agreement. You see that friend going overseas had to transit in Korea en route to the US and a quick phone call later, he's snapped up every copy of the 12-24mm in the airport duty free shop because it was going for a nice price. It was the DA 12-24mm but rebadged as the Samsung Schneider D-Xenon 12-24mm f/4. The name, colored ring and exterior grip pattern's a little different but essentially the same lens where it counts... the same optics and the same multi-coating.

So what exactly warrants the fine reputation of this rectilinear ultra-wide? It can't really be an obvious winner in the value stakes because it isn't exactly cheap. It doesn't go as wide as the more affordable Sigma 10-20mm in terms of angle of view. But it's a winner in my book because of it's stellar sharpness even from f/4 and distortions are well controlled. The zoom range is a little more versatile than the Sigma, especially at the long end and the overall build quality is good. To me the true test is flare performance because with that wide angle of view, one will quickly encounter having bright light sources like the sun in the viewfinder. In this area this lens really shines.

To me this lens definitely has a place in the bag for the photographer shooting scenic landscapes, architecture, documentary, street or travel. With the wide angle of view, ensuring the composition or horizon is level is crucial. This is where the K-7's built-in electronic level display comes in real handy. The lens isn't small and the large 77mm filter ring means buying filters can be pricy (I use the excellent Hoya HDs). It does provide a new way of seeing and users who haven't used it enough can be initially baffled on how to tame the wide angle of view and perspective. But spend time with it and it will deliver stunning pictures.

23 December 2009

DA 50-200mm WR: the compact wonder

I have always found the DA 50-200mm f/4-5.6 to be an interesting lens. This versatile zoom telephoto lens complements the DA 18-55mm kit lens very well, being almost similar in size and weight. I've owned the original DA 50-200mm twice, a lens that offers great value and the compact dimensions makes it handy for travel or for those times to go with a small setup.

The first copy I bought was a used one and it was an average performer. I sold it when I acquired the DA* 50-135mm, I guess it's the same story with a lot of other Pentax users who upgrade their consumer zoom to a higher grade, fixed aperture pro-grade zoom. But the DA* 50-135mm while fantastic in image quality, is also a much bigger and less discreet lens and so I picked up my second copy of the DA 50-200mm from a liquidation sale. Better image quality the second time round and again I sold it to a friend on a whim. Big mistake, buyer's remorse.

So with that for a preamble it's the third time to hunt down the DA 50-200mm and this time round there is the new Weather Resist offering from Pentax. The same compact dimensions but with a change in the grip pattern of the focus and zoom rings, a red O-ring on the lens mount and surprise, surprise, a change to a 49mm filter size.

I must say I'm very pleased with the new Weather Resist version that I am currently using. The WR version proved itself when I was on holiday on the Gold Coast. On one particular day, there was light rain and continuous strong winds that were blowing very fine sand as I was shooting. I didn't bother to use any filter and the lens' SP (Super Protect) coating proved effective.

The question that invariably comes up is how does it stack up to the DA 55-300mm and the DA 18-250mm consumer zooms. The DA-55-300mm is obviously better suited for longer telephoto applications and the optical quality at the long end is surprisingly good enough that the occasional long tele shooter should seriously consider this lens instead of the excellent but more expensive F/FA or DA* 300mm telephoto primes. But there is no escaping the fact that the DA 55-300mm is also bigger, heavier and more expensive than the DA 50-200mm. The former's longer focus throw makes it easy to hunt focus in low light. The DA 50-200mm focuses and locks focus quicker than the DA 55-300mm and on a personal note, even with Shake Reduction, hand holding at 300mm is a lot trickier than at 200mm.

I've never used the DA 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 superzoom and hopefully I never will. To me the promise of being able to use such a wide range of focal lengths comes with plenty of trade-offs. Barrel distortion at the wide end moving to pincushion distortion at the long focal lengths, light falloff at the corners, obvious chromatic aberrations are the norm for a superzoom though the DA 18-250mm is one of the better ones around. I will concede those who are adverse to changing lenses or find it impractical to change lenses in the field might find a place for it but for me the "Jack of all trades, master of none" label always comes to mind.

09 November 2009

An oldie but goodie: Rikenon 135mm f/2.8

I've been tied up with work and as a result I have all but neglected posting for a while. Well I'm going to kick start with a recent lens that I happened to get for next to nothing. The lens in question is the Rikenon 135mm f/2.8, an old K-mount manual focus lens made by Ricoh. Outwardly it was in fine condition but there was a spot of fungus on one of the internal elements.

Seeing that it would be a waste to junk it and wanting to restore it, I sent it for cleaning at a photo repair shop. Just three days later, to my pleasant surprise the lens was ready for collection. They did such a fine job that not a trace of the fungus remained.

Eagerly wanting to find out how images from the Rikenon would turn out, I did a couple of quick shots with it at a park. The lens is similar to the Pentax K or M series in that it lacks the A setting on the aperture ring, so shooting in Manual mode with the Green button to determine exposure is needed. Being a manual focus lens, use of a third party focus screen like the Nikon K-3 with the split image rangefinder and microprism collar is recommended for quick and sharp focusing. Overall the lens gives a fairly cool rendition in terms of color. Sharpness is good and there are no particularly nasty lens aberrations. A good result and a bargain considering the price I got it for.

09 October 2009

Hello K-7, Goodbye K20D

Well after some months of consideration, I finally did it... I upgraded to the new K-7. The K20D had given me sterling service and it was hard to part with it considering that I had the special moulded rubber grip added on by the Pentax agent and that I had also replaced the stock focusing screen with a split image rangefinder focusing screen to aid manual focusing.

But move on we must and the catalyst for change was a meeting a few months ago with Pentax professional photographer Mark Dimalanta as he was en route for an assignment. As fate would have it he had a pre-production K-7 plus a bunch of lenses on hand including the DA* 60-250mm f/4 which had not yet been release for general sale then. Over lunch we had the opportunity to hear first hand about his exciting work plus the opportunity to try out what he had. Simply put I was sold.

To me the standout feature of this new camera was the 100% view viewfinder and the extremely silent camera shutter. Nevermind the fact that in spite of the smaller size compared to the K20D, the camera feels much more solid due to the all magnesium shell on steel chassis that's weather sealed. Much quicker AF with a a higher camera frame rate and with the inclusion of HD video, it's like having both a still and a video camera in a single package.

There are some nifty features the new camera sports like the electronic level that provides a visual indication of whether the camera is level or not as you prepare to take the picture. Then there is also the orientation sensor that automatically rotates the camera information and image. A wider exposure compensation range, AF assist light for low light focusing, Lens Correction function that adjusts for distortion and chromatic aberrations with DA series lenses, improved Live View and 77-segment metering system and a few other feature ensures the K-7 is a much improved camera over the K20D.

One significant improvement is the better white balance, particularly under incandescent lighting. Image quality is roughly on par with the K20D. Noise at high ISOs can be noticeable but this is where Pentax takes a conservative approach, opting for detail retention instead of heavy handed correction. Nothing that a dedicated noise reduction software like Nik Software's Dfine 2.0 can't handle. The larger 3 inch LCD and improved information display is the icing that makes the K-7 a lot better camera in so many little ways.

09 September 2009

The smallest Pentax

Came across a good condition Pentax 110 recently and although I'm not into collecting vintage camera gear, I was prepared to keep this one for the timeless looks and its unique place in photographic history. It is such a cute camera that I wish Pentax would re-issue a modern digital version.

Briefly the Pentax 110 was Pentax's smallest SLR camera, and the smallest interchangeable lens SLR with TTL metering ever made. The camera has a proper TTL viewfinder, split image rangefinder focusing, programmed auto exposure using a center weighted metering silicon photo diode with shutter speeds from 1 sec to 1/750th, an exposure range of EV 3 to 17 at ASA 100, with an aperture range from f/2.8 to f/13.5. There were 6 lenses available, and the 24mm f/2.8 standard lens shown here (equivalent to 50mm on 35mm film) has a very smooth focusing ring with distance scales, has 6 elements in 5 groups, focuses down to 0.35m and weighs... a mere 13 grams!

The small format means that the camera has a lot of depth of field and is almost like a modern 4/3 format digital camera with a 2x crop factor. In fact the lenses have been modified to fit some current micro 4/3 cameras. The issue of usability with this camera is hampered by the limited availability of 110 film. Nonetheless this camera continues to marvel many even today.

15 August 2009

Never a dull moment with the Nokton

I like the ubiquitous 50mm lens, once produced in prolific numbers and the starter lens that was usually bundled with the camera body until the onset of the zoom lens. Perhaps because it is supposed to be close to what we see in terms of field of view for 35mm film cameras or perhaps because it is so common, the versatility of the standard lens is undisputed.

I've had the pleasure to own several 50mm lenses including the FA 50mm f/1.4 and the A series lenses in f/1.4, f/1.7 and f/2, not counting several 50mm macro lenses, but as I already had the FA 43mm Limited, I was looking for something with a fast maximum aperture to straddle between it and the FA 77mm Limited.

The answer was the Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SLII. I already knew about it for quite some time, being a Cosina re-make on the renowned Topcor 58mm but I didn't really thought too much of it until recently. I had just installed a split image rangefinder focusing screen (the Nikon K3 screen) that makes manual focusing a breeze and seeing some recent stunning images taken with the lens got me to belatedly sit up and take notice.

Even though one could get an autofocus Pentax FA 50mm f/1.4 or the manual focus A 50mm f/1.4 cheaper, there is something to be said for the build quality and optical performance that makes the Voigtlander Nokton a special lens. What one gets is a big hunk of metal and glass, with a generously solid metal lens hood thrown in. Value doesn’t necessarily mean a low price: it means you’re getting a lot for what you’re paying. The Nokton may not appeal to those who want AF from their lenses but for the photographer who wants full manual focusing and takes a more deliberate approach, this lens fits the bill well.

As to how it delivers image wise, I'm thoroughly impressed with it more and more all the time. There is little chromatic aberration wide open and I'm pleased with the smooth bokeh from the 9 aperture blades. The slightly longer focal length over the standard 50mm does give a little better background separation and slightly flatter perspective when shooting portraits. The colour rendering and contrast is very good as is the overall sharpness. In all it has met my requirements perfectly and a lens I heartily recommend.

23 July 2009

The Missing Memory Card

Going through an old camera pouch, I stumbled upon an SD card with images that I had shot that I had somehow misplaced. Wondering how I could have somehow missed it, I decided to check out the images that were taken back in 2007 with the K100D. Well this was like finding an old exposed roll of film and as I paused to reflect on how I looked at subjects in the past and whether I had changed in manner and style compared to today, I just can't help feeling that I'm looking at a slice of time. The slivers of memory brings back associations of the past and my past excitement with my camera then.

I can only say that this old memory card has spurred me on to want to shoot even more, the wish for more slices of time today that I can savour in the future. It's a timely reminder that the photograph may be static for the viewer but for the photographer, it represents an encapsulation of space and time, of location and of emotion and recollections.

K100D Tokina 28-200mm

This was a shot of a worker at the back of a pickup truck. I noticed the bright gold earring that stood out against his dark complexion and by chance there was a out of focus figure in the background. Converted and toned in Photoshop CS4 and Silver Efex Pro.

K100D Tokina 70-210mm

This shot of my son with his Nikon (eek!) digital point and shoot just brings me back to the day we were out at the park. Perhaps not the best in terms of aesthetics but I like the nice colors and the natural framing of the gazebo.

20 July 2009

New and Old

Came across this mature tree during a walk through the park and was immediately struck by the contrast between the rough edges of it's bark and the small plant growing upwards towards the light using the tree as a foothold. An interplay of different stages of growth, of soft, pliable and flexible versus the old, firm and secure. Converted this image in Photoshop with Silver Efex Pro.

14 July 2009

A is for Angry Ant, B is for Bee Bokeh

Just last week I was feeling kinda low mentally so to spend time reflecting, I decided to go out and shoot with no specific agenda. Armed with my trusty macro lenses, I took a quiet stroll and shot anything that I thought looked interesting. I guess not expecting any specific subject allowed me to see things a little differently and I came away with two macro shots that I happened to like.

This angry ant was shot using the FA 100mm f/2.8 Macro with my cute little Pentax AF-200FG flash unit in fading light.

The bee bokeh was quite a difficult shot because I had to manually focus the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro on the brisk moving bee perched on very tiny flowers with a hint of a breeze blowing. To top it all, I had some tourists who wanted a quick chat while I was shooting. Shot hand held using available light with the K20D.

11 July 2009

Pink Gerbera

My wife had this pink gerbera lying around and with a little time on my hands, I decided to use my K20D mated with the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro to record some images of it before it started to show signs of wilting.

10 July 2009

Pentax Digital Camera Utility 4 tryout (2)

Some more interesting conversions with a PEF RAW file. Shot during the Garden Festival last year with the K20D and FA 77mm Limited.

Silkypix give pretty pleasant colours of this indoor shot of orchids, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) renders less colour saturated images. For practical purposes, output from DNG or PEF looks the same if processed through ACR or Silkypix respectively as each software will render according to their respective algorithms. Just for versatility I would opt to shoot with the DNG format. Interestingly, the jpeg straight from the K20D is pretty good too.

Pentax PEF RAW file converted to jpeg by Silkypix

Pentax PEF RAW file to jpeg by ACR 5.4

Pentax PEF RAW file converted to DNG to jpeg by ACR 5.4

Jpeg from RAW+Jpeg straight from K20D

09 July 2009

Pentax Digital Camera Utility 4 tryout (1)

Tried the new Pentax Digital Camera Utility 4 on my Mac today.
The software interface is somewhat similar to Lightroom's panels and is so much better than the preceding Pentax Photo Browser and Photo Laboratory 3.

In a nutshell, it is a simple software to manage and process your images. Documentation is sparse but it is easy enough to work out the controls. But what is interesting for me is how the Silkypix processing engine manages the RAW files, especially when converted to jpegs. Control on the jpeg output is pretty basic and the conversion to jpegs is simple enough. In spite of the basic nature of the program, I kinda like the output from Silkypix. It has a nice punchy yet pleasant colour rendition akin to increasing the Vibrance slider in ACR/Lightroom/Photoshop.

Used a K20D DNG file of my chihuahua as an initial test. As I don't have a pretty model so poor Pepe the chihuahua will have to do. Taken with the DA 50-200mm.

DNG to jpeg conversion Pentax DCU4 (Silkypix)

DNG to jpeg conversion Adobe ACR/CS4

The software can convert PEF to DNG easily enough but I have encountered an issue in that if a jpeg is to be extracted from the converted DNG within the software (PDCU4), that new jpeg file has a problem and can't be opened up by any program, including PDCU4 itself. No problems if it is a straight conversion from an original DNG or PEF file to jpeg. My experience may be a one-off but hopefully this is not common to all and a quick software fix can be worked out.

25 June 2009

Father's Day Weekend Macro

Went out with some fellow Pentax users to shoot some macro shots on the eve of Father's Day. Decided I didn't want to use a flash. All shots with the K20D and the FA 100mm f/2.8 Macro

19 June 2009

DA 55-300mm - a nice tele zoom

Quite a long time ago I asked a good friend of mine to source out a DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8 ED, a consumer grade tele zoom that was been getting very favorable reviews from Pentax users. I had just about forgotten all about it when my I got a call to say he had one waiting for me.

I already had a DA 50-200mm, a very nice and compact tele zoom that had been around for quite some time. It's a great lens but if you need to shoot subjects at slightly longer distances like birds or stealth candids, it often felt that 200mm was just not long enough. So it was the attraction of good optical performance and that longer 300mm reach which got me to consider this lens. A price drop also made it all all the more attractive.

Physically, it is comparable to the DA 50-200mm, except when it is zoomed out to 300mm when the longer barrel extesion becomes apparent. The lens is a variable aperture zoom where the maximum aperture changes as the focal length increases. Starting a f/4 at 55 mm, it changes to f/4.5 at 107 mm, f/5.6 at 190 mm and finally to f/5.8 from 260 mm onwards. Minimum focusing distance is 1.4m.

Optically it is pretty good, images are mostly sharp and contrasty. There is some light fall off at maximum aperture but not very significant and nothing that can't be corrected in post processing. About the only criticism of this lens is some green color fringing when shooting backlit subjects and specular highlights. Again this can largely be corrected during post processing. The other issue is auto focusing. This lens has a long focus throw and if used in low light or low subject contrast situations, the camera's AF will occasionally hunt to lock focus. This is largely a camera body related issue but having Quick Shift does help in such situations. Aside from these niggling issues, this lens comes highly recommended.

These images were taken at a recent wakeboarding event using the K20D.

31 May 2009

Grape Life

Shot this still life with the K20D and Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro using available light. Obviously this was a quick shoot because the sweet grapes disappeared pretty fast!

09 May 2009

Vivitar 200mm f/3.5 first impressions

Today I tried out a old lens that had intrigued me for quite awhile, the Vivitar 200mm f/3.5. This K-mount lens is fairly uncommon and it also comes in a Pentax M42 screw mount version. Got it from a friend in the US who likes collecting legacy lenses so it was interesting to find out the kind of images it could produce.

I went out to shoot some tall grass to see how the lens fares wide open and to check out the out of focus rendering and I have to say it is actually quite nice. Like many old lenses, there isn't the snappy high contrast typical of made for digital lenses today, which is probably a result of the lens coatings used then but it does exhibit good sharpness. Shooting at f/3.5 does have some corner softness but quickly improves when stopped down to a smaller aperture. Light fall off at the corners is not excessive and I kinda like the colour rendition.

This lens is probably overlooked in Pentax mount because Pentax also has the popular M 200mm f/4 telephoto that is more widely available on eBay. However some tests done on the internet pitting the two lenses head to head appear to give the Vivitar the edge optically. The lens looks pretty ordinary in appearance (I think the M 200mm looks a lot nicer) but build quality is solid but not heavy.

About the only criticism of this lens is the dinky built-in lens hood which when slid out is simply too short to be really effective. Like all legacy lenses without the benefit of an auto aperture setting, the only practical exposure mode to use is Manual, which can be a hit or miss affair as exposure readings will vary when shooting at different apertures. So plenty of use of the Green button to determine the camera's preferred exposure is needed.

If you like to try using old manual focus lenses for fun, this is a good telephoto to look out for. And it definitely won't cost too much to give it a try..