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.