19 October 2010

It's All Good With the Pentax K-5

If ever there was a time to make a snap decision this was it. Do I hold on to the workhorse Pentax K-7 or do I make the switch to the newly announced K-5? A question that raged in my mind for a few days when news broke of the new camera. The K-7 handled well, actually very well and it didn't seem clear how much of an improvement the new K-5 would offer. After a few thousand shots with the K-7 I had a better picture of it and it, a fine camera but it didn't seem like the complete package even after several firmware upgrades. Image quality was good but noise begins to intrude as the ISO goes up. While that can be countered by noise reduction during post processing, it still couldn't compete with even the entry level Pentax K-x. To compound the issue, I paid a tidy sum for it and the camera still had plenty of life left in it.

That debate on whether to go with the K-5 thankfully got resolved when I looked at a few sample images from the Pentax Japan website. The apparent dynamic range from the few samples were impressive, pointing to the 14-bit RAW files offering quite a lot more information than the 12-bit RAW files from previous Pentax DSLRs. Reports from Photokina where the cameras were first unveiled also pointed to improvements in AF and in Live View, which was promising. The sweetener to all this was my local Pentax agent offering the K-5 at a launch price that was even lower than the launch price of the K-7. It just made the decision to switch a lot easier.

01 October 2010

A 200mm f/4: Sleeper Telephoto

Some time ago I had the good fortune to stumble across a used Pentax A 200mm f/4 telephoto that someone was selling on my local photography forum. This was a lens that had always intrigued me partly because it was the last manual focus 200mm from Pentax before AF lenses became the norm.  A quick ring and a short drive later to meet the seller and this manual focus classic was in my hands. Even though it was the late in the evening, the first few test shots were enough to convince me that image quality was promising. It was in excellent condition and the robust build quality didn't show it's age one bit.

Pentax made several 200mm manual focus lenses, culminating in the two versions in the A-series, the faster A* 200mm f/2.5 ED version and the regular A 200mm f/4 version that I have. Unfortunately not much gets written about this lens as it had a pretty short production run and it was certainly overshadowed by the more exotic A* 200mm f/2.5 ED, the stunning A* 200mm f/4 Macro and the A 70-210mm f/4 zoom, a popular lens with a more versatile focal range.

In use the lens performs well enough at maximum aperture though there is a hint of color fringing in tricky high contrast situations. Stopping down a little and sharpness picks up nicely. Color rendition was neutral to a little cool and there is minimal light falloff at the corners even at f/4. The lens isn't too long in size with balance and weight easily allowing shooting without a tripod. About the only thing negative is that the minimum focusing distance could have been closer and the built-in sliding lens hood is just adequate.

I took this feral dog and monkeys while spending some quiet time at Pierce Reservoir. The dog was most friendly and looked in great physical shape and was my willing test subject. Amazingly the monkeys got along fine with the dog even in close proximity. The fine detail in the fur is a good gauge of the detail this lens is capable of delivering.

This is a fine lens but in today's context it does face stiff competition against the current crop of AF lenses. Its closest rival is the DA 50-200mm (now in Weather Resistant guise) a cheap and plentiful lens that's no slouch in terms of sharpness and contrast. AF is just plain faster to use on a telephoto, and the ability to zoom with only a slight loss in maximum aperture makes the DA the more versatile option. Step up the budget and the splendid DA* 200mm f/2.8, the DA* 60-250mm f/4 and popular DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8 are other options available. But photography isn't just about what's new and this classic telephoto can definitely hold it's own and deliver fine images.

14 September 2010

Cafe Colbar Walkabout with the DA 17-70mm f/4 SDM

For a time I have been using the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom as a walkabout lens for traveling. This lens has served me well as a replacement to the trusty DA 16-45mm f/4 that I had owned quite awhile back. The DA 16-45mm offers an affordable ultrawide capability with even sharpness and a good step up from the DA 18-55mm kit lens. The constant f/4 maximum aperture and the extra wide angle coverage is nice, but there were some reasons which made me decide to replace it with the Sigma.

For one, I had serious doubts on the long term durability principally because the build quality feels cheap. The zoom and focus rings are overly light and the lens design has the quirky feature of having the lens barrel extend at the widest 16mm setting, creating hopelessly obvious vignetting if one needed to use the built-in pop-up camera flash. My copy exhibited an obvious tendency towards underexposure too. But perhaps the biggest issue of the DA 16-45mm as a walkabout lens is the limited zoom range at the long end. In this regard, the 17-70mm focal range does offer somewhat better versatility, which was why I opted for the Sigma.

The Sigma is a fine lens with good center sharpness, compact size and a good close focus ability. About the only thing I didn't like about it was the rather obvious barrel distortion at the the wide end, the variable aperture when zooming and subjectively speaking the slight difference in color rendering. I'd consider these minor issues and would still recommend it. I got mine cheap and it gave me good service, being the main lens used at a recent holiday.

I like the 17-70mm zoom range and I like the color rendition of Pentax lenses. So when the opportunity arose for a trade with my DA 70mm Limited, I decided it was time to try out the DA 17-70mm f/4 SDM. It may not be a DA* lens but the obvious build quality is noticeable, certainly quite a bit better than the now discontinued DA 16-45mm. The best feature has to be the silent focusing of the SDM motor and matched with the extremely quiet shutter of the K-7, there's plenty of opportunities to shoot discreetly. Image quality is on par with other consumer zooms and it delivers colors that are punchy and contrasty. Light falloff at the corners isn't so obvious, even wide open.

The lens already focuses pretty quick due to the short focus throw from infinity to 0.28m minimum focusing distance. I got the lens just before the latest version 1.10 firmware update for the K-7. Even then focus was quick enough but the new update seemed to improve on the focus lock. The interesting thing with this lens is that it is SDM only, which means older Pentax DSLRs (K100D/K110D and earlier) that lack the SDM contacts on the lens mount can only focus manually. Tried it on my old IR-converted *istDL2 and it took awhile to mentally switch gears to get used to this. It works fine in all other respects and it is IR friendly too, showing no obvious hot spotting on my IR images.

Much as there's plenty to like with this lens, sadly I just don't see many local Pentax users locally using it, which is a pity. In the context of many other third party alternatives in this zoom range and even Pentax's own DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 which is weather sealed, there is stiff competition. One issue could be price but I rather suspect the general uncertainty that's been generated on the internet surrounding the sudden failure of a few lenses with SDM motors has got to do with it. To me the SDM motor issue has been amplified by a small minority of vocal disgruntled users than actual numbers seem to suggest. So perhaps buying an extended warranty for SDM lenses as insurance might be a good idea to dispel the cloud of uncertainty. This issue aside, there's plenty of reasons to like this lens. Not too expensive, a good zoom range, great for portraits, a constant f/4 maximum aperture and it delivers sharp pictures... all very silently of course.

The photos here were shot during our monthly Pentax user outing at the Cafe Colbar in Wessex Estate off Portsdown Road. It was simply refreshing to experience the rustic feel of a place which is so different from the urban side of Singapore. Certainly having other Pentax friends for company definitely made it a memorable outing.

31 August 2010

A Limited Liking

Recently I managed to get my hands on a DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited from a friend. I spent about two months getting acquainted with it, shooting a variety of subjects. As I already had the terrific FA 77mm Limited previously, this lens was low on my priority list of lenses to own. While this lens certainly has it's admirers, I've always wondered if it really is as good as the buzz on the internet would have me believe.

First off, it is really compact in size and is very lightweight. The original screw-on lens hood with a sliding extension is cute and adds a little length to the overall size but I seriously wonder if it is all that useful to block against flare because the hood just isn't as deep as I would have liked it to be. The lens hood is indispensable because you need it in place in order for the dedicated slip-on, felt lined metal lens cap to go on. As things go, I quickly stopped using the original lens cap for fear of losing it and thereafter used a 43mm plastic clip-on lens cap instead.

The lens does focus pretty fast and sharpness is actually very even from center to the edges of the frame, even at the maximum f/2.4 aperture. I do like the Quick Shift, a standard feature of all DA series lenses. Like other DA Limiteds, the all metal build quality is good but bettered by the FA Limiteds. Images are nice and contrasty and colors rendition is nice. So on paper it appears to check off a lot of positives. However over time there were just a few things about it that started to become niggling irritations.

Well when I first started using it, I used it for head shots as the focal length lends itself to shots of people having a natural perspective. The angle of view and perspective were just nice, with the shooting distance to the subject especially good when shooting indoors. Images were sharp even when shooting wide open but very soon it became evident that f/2.4 wasn't gonna give as smooth a background as compared to the faster and slightly longer FA 77mm Limited. With the FA 77mm's f/1.8 maximum aperture and slightly longer focal length, there's more options on hand to vary the depth of field and the smooth rendition of the bokeh. The DA 70mm always seemed to deliver backgrounds behind the subject that I often wished could have been a little less distinct.

How does it fare in non-portrait situations? To me it all boils down to whether one is used to the perspective and angle of view. It does make for a nice walkaround lens if you're just picking up specific details but the recurring wish that the maximum aperture could have been a little faster and the minimum focusing distance of 0.7m could have been a little closer for better subject isolation always seemed to come up.

Inevitably when comparing the DA 70mm to the FA 77mm Limiteds, the point in question is which lens provides more options at hand. For me the more expensive FA 77mm Limited simply offers a greater range in shooting aperture. As a caveat, the DA 70mm Limited is quite a bit cheaper and prices haven't really skyrocketed like the FA Limiteds. If your budget is limited, the DA 70mm Limited does offer good value but if money isn't the issue, the FA 77mm Limited does offer that something extra. Right now I still shoot at 70mm but only because I decided to trade the DA 70mm Limited for the DA 17-70mm f/4 SDM zoom.

28 August 2010

Pentax Macro Outing: AMK Town Garden West

Our Pentax August 2010 outing was a macro shootout at the Ang Mo Kio Town Garden West. Never had the opportunity to visit this park which is situated on a hillock. Like all our group outings, there were plenty of friendly chatter and catching-up with one another. Here's a group shot of the eager macro shooters and I'm happy to say the Pentax community here in Singapore is growing and probably one of the most close knit group of photo enthusiasts around. Maybe everyone's cheery because we all just came out of MacDonald's, our designated meeting place just a few meters away!

As it was a full macro outing, everybody had their own version of gear, from macro lenses to extension tubes to flash units and flash diffusers to light up their subjects. This was a shoot where everyone was carefully spending more time looking for the well camouflaged tiny insects and spiders than merely wandering all over the place. A lot of careful plodding and stalking to look out for our subjects while trying hard not to step on angry ants was the order of the day.

For me this park is a small oasis that offers plenty of macro opportunities in an urban context. I had plenty of misses and I definitely need to look into improving my macro lighting setup. Controlling the quantity of light and diffusing it well to improve the quality of it is a challenge in any macro shooting but get it right and the subject will look beyond the ordinary.

BTW all shots were taken with the K-7 and the DFA 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR. For me it was a nice reminder that macro shooting is an exercise both in perseverance and technical perfection. Time to go shoot some more...

07 August 2010

Pentax Optio I-10: Stylish Retro Cool

About two weeks ago, our local photography forum organised ClubSNAP Live, an event that featured talks and workshops and a small flea market by different companies involved in the photographic trade. Our local Pentax agent had on hand the "oh so cute" Pentax Optio I-10, the compact digital point and shoot camera that comes in an all black and in an all white finish. This little camera's stylish design harks back to the old Pentax 110 film camera, the world smallest SLR film camera.

I'm not exactly all that excited about compact PnS cameras nowadays, after all there's a plethora of them all around, heck you can even find them in petrol stations and in convenience stores. But this little Pentax definitely has chic appeal, so who cares about the predictable PnS image quality? As things stand, PnS cameras nowadays pretty much deliver the same results, so any distinguishing feature lies in the design, easy of use and uniqueness. In this regard, this little camera does stand out quite nicely.

OK it checks off all the right specifications: 12.1 effective megapixels, an optical 5X zoom lens with approximately 28mm to 140mm coverage (equivalent in the 35mm format), a CCD-shift-type shake reduction system, movie clips at 16:9 high-definition TV proportions (30 fps), a set of digital filters (Monochrome and Sepia) including a creative Toy Camera filter (woo hoo!) and check this, a Starburst filter (yeah we all need that!) plus an advanced multi-face detection system. AF is fast, the pictures look good and there is even an ultra close macro mode..

Now to me that last face detection feature is really the key to why this little camera is a blast to use. The Smile Capture feature is just perfect for use in Facebook, use at parties and personal blogging. All you need to do is smile and the camera automatically takes the picture, you don't even have to hold down the shutter button. So taking quick snaps at parties and self portraits, not to mention kids is literally a smile away. Way cool!  As you can see my friend Bernard is grinning with the results as his lovely wife looks on.

Footnote: Pentax has also released the Optio I-10 in Classic Silver. Whoa! How retro can you be in this digital age?

23 July 2010

Bird Outing with the DA 55-300mm

It's been a long time that I've been shooting birds, and I figured my DA 55-300mm needed the workout. Birding is a particularly challenging endeavour as one has to first of all find a good spot, know the best time to shoot and more importantly be able to execute when the time comes and the bird is in sight.

Well these images of the Olive-backed Sunbird were the result of the three ingredients coming together. This little bird is about 10 cm from tip to tail and fly very quickly with their short wings. With my camera on Auto ISO matched with a fast shutter speed and Quick Shift on the lens, I managed to get some nice shots when the birds made their hurried nectar hopping visit to a clump of heliconia flowers. Oblivious to my presence, I easily squeezed off frame after frame. And just as quickly they flew off. All shots uncropped on the K-7.

11 July 2010

Orchids at Mandai Orchid Garden

Our regular Pentax monthly user outing took us to Mandai Orchid Garden. This unique place and tourist attraction has been around since 1951 when the late John Laycock, a founder of the Orchid Society of Southeast Asia decided to acquire some land to keep his growing collection of orchids and later for commercial orchid cultivation. When news of a possible redevelopment with the ending of the lease for the land, it became an obvious location for a group outing to capture some of the many orchids on hand.

Shooting flowers means shooting up close and the choice I had was either to go with the DA 35mmf/2.8 Macro Limited or the DFA 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR. My instincts told me to go with the smaller lens and on-site, the DA 35mm Macro proved to be the perfect lens for the subject.

The wider field of view allowed me to move around quicker to obtain the best composition and as there was no distance limitations, it was easy enough to move up close to the flowers. AF is perfect in this situation, allowing me to shoot quickly in the warm day and take a lot of shots of the many varieties of orchids on hand.

Many traditionalists still cling on to belief that to shoot macro, it has got to be manual focus all the way and preferably with a tripod. Well there's definitely a place for this approach given the wide variation in macro gear and technique, and a lot of it has to do with the subject in hand and the magnification needed. But to steadfastly maintain that this is the only way is something I have serious reservations with. I have found the current crop of Pentax AF lenses with Quick Shift to be invaluable, even in the context of macro shooting. Obviously when shooting handheld having shake reduction built-in on the camera body makes a big difference in the number of keepers.

09 July 2010

All-in-one Wonder

Recently I decided to get two lenses that I had never used before. The two were the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited and the DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited. For the longest time I had never seriously considered these two DA Limited lenses as I had other prime lenses which were either very close in focal length or I had zoom lenses that covered the same focal length. Well I'll start off with the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited in this post.

First off like other DA Limited lenses, the build quality is reassuringly solid, perhaps not on the same quality as the FA Limiteds but nonetheless good enough. The lens is a 1:1 macro and focuses down to 0.139 m, has 9 aperture blades and covers an angle of view of 44 degrees. This ability to focus up close and coupled with the decent coverage make this a most versatile lens to use. From scenics to close-ups, this lens is a very capable all-rounder. I actually feel this lens allows anyone to come up with stunning images in a very short space of time.

There a lot to like with this lens: the bokeh from this lens is actually pretty smooth, the auto focus is by no means slow plus there's the very useful Quick Shift manual focus override. About the only thing negative I can think off about it is the slip-on metal lens cap and the short lens hood.

30 June 2010

Some B&W Conversions

Here's some shots that were converted to black an white from the June 2010 Pentax user outing.
A spiral staircase becomes a graphic element of radiating lines with the DA 10-17mm fisheye.

A close-up of overlapping palm leaves provides a nice graphic image. Sometimes just excluding other elements can lend itself to a nice photo. Added a yellowish-green tone to add a little nostalgia.

Managed to shoot this young man who was busy trying to catch butterflies with his butterfly net. He's got a nice friendly expression and was a very nice fun nature. Obviously this shot breaks the rule that you got to try to shoot at the same eye level with your subject but I think this shot has managed to grab a bit of his personality. Shot with the DA 35mm Macro Limited.

Along the way we bumped into a group of Westie owners out with their dogs and with such cute subjects, the DA 10-17mm fisheye makes for some interesting images. These dogs just can't stay still so shooting at faster shutter speeds is the way to go.

29 June 2010

Pentax June Outing: Southern Ridges Walk

Well we had a great outing for our Pentax Singapore users. Starting at Hort Park, we had a nice easy walk along the hills of Telok Blangah Hill Park and Mount Faber Park. The weather was perfect and as our visit fell on with the last Saturday of the month, the Butterfly Garden was open for us to shoot butterfly macros.

In all it was a good time of fellowship, light physical workout and the opportunity to shoot a varied range of subjects, from plant and insect macros, flowers and people. Got to try out my new DFA 100m f/2.8 Macro WR. Just lovely bokeh in the flower and butterfly shots. Shots of the millipedes and mushroom were with the DA 35mm Macro Limited.

A portrait lens used for in a non-portrait context. A lotus flower shot with the DA 70mm Limited.

And who says the DA 35mm Macro Limited can't be used for insects? A quick snapshot of pretty fierce ants crowding around a drop of sweet plant sap.