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by evan-pak

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I’m looking to buy my first lens beyond the kit 18-55mm for my Pentax K-x. As a student my budget limits me to around a sub $300 offering. I am new to photography, and so I have a hard time answering the typical ‘what kind of photography do you like to do?’ question.

I am open to exploring a range of photographic genres so all lens categories are on the table, but most of all I don’t want buy something that I will regret later for reasons of quality. I realize this is subjective, especially in my price range, so a valid answer may be to wait until I can afford better. I don’t know.

The options I have been looking at are:

Tamron AF 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 - This lens obviously duplicates the range covered by my kit lens, but also gives me an all-in-one telephoto option for quickly capturing a range of different images.

My Concerns:

  • That the quality is not great overall, as this lens is by definition a compromise, and a cheap one at that.

  • That I am duplicating a focal range I already cover, possibly with worse image quality; I don’t know.

  • That I am underutilizing my DSLR by treating it like a superzoom point-and-shoot with maybe very little quality difference from a lens in this price range.

Rokinon FE8M-P 8mm F3.5 Fisheye - With this choice I would be moving away from the focal range I have access to now, and picking up an interesting lens option at the same time. It also has the advantage of being something I am not likely to replace with a more expensive, higher quality, version when I go to buy my next lens.

My Concerns:

  • That this lens is too far out there in terms of its oddity and specialization for me to be getting into at this point, and that I would be better off learning on something more conventional.

  • I have no idea where this type of lens is best utilized.

The new Pentax DA 35mm 1:2.4 prime - As the fastest of the lenses I am looking at, this one seems like the one I would be least likely to outgrow. It does share a part of the kit lenses' focal range, but it is so much faster that I think it hardly compares.

My Concerns:

  • I have never used a prime lens, or even a point-and-shoot without a good deal of zoom capacity. I don’t know what I would think of that.

  • f2.4 isn’t that fast by objective standards. This goes back to the “should I just wait?” question.

Something in the 70-300mm range - This avoids the issue of redundant lenses, and would probably offer better image quality than an 18-200mm.

My Concerns:

  • This would limit my photographic options to taking pictures of things very far way, using a tripod. Something I have never done before, so I don’t know how much I would like it.

Other Options - It is entirely possible I overlooked some lens type or other. If it's not in the list, that's probably because I don't know about/forgot about it, not that I'm not interested.

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Great question BTW. Welcome to photo.SE! – Reid Sep 26 '10 at 23:42
Thanks. I think all of the responses have confirmed my suspicions. Namely, that even though I am attracted to the idea of a zoom, I can't afford one I'd be happy with (not happy for long, anyway). I'll just have to get over my hesitation about primes and learn something new in the process. – Sean Sep 27 '10 at 3:06
up vote 7 down vote accepted

My advice: get one or more primes. Why? For $300, there are a number of very high quality prime lenses available, particularly on Pentax with its extreme backwards compatibility, and so you're likely to find a pro-quality lens that you'll keep and use for years. On the other hand, at that price point it is very difficult to find a high-quality zoom.

You note that you have no prime experience, so perhaps it's also a good way to expand your repertoire. It's often fun to work under more constraints, and prime lenses go down to f/1.4 rather than f/2.8 which is the limit on all but the most exotic zooms; those two extra stops can mean a lot.

Regarding your four suggestions:

  • Don't bother with the zooms. They will be low quality.
  • An 8mm fisheye is for full-frame. On 1.5x crop, you'll have kind of the worst of both worlds: a cropped field of view and heavy fisheye distortion. Now, a fisheye is certainly an interesting and very fun lens, though quite specialized. IMO it's a worthwhile component of any kit, but not the best second lens. If you do choose a fisheye, I've used the DA 10-17 and it's very nice, though slightly above your price point new.
  • The DA 35mm would be a fine choice, but there's nothing particularly special about it that would merit waiting.

Where to go from here:

  • Browse around the lens database. This gives data and reviews on nearly every Pentax lens that ever existed.
  • Consider used. This is a good way to get a great lens cheaply (or maybe even two).
    • is highly reputable and I've had excellent luck with them; they back their used sales with a short warranty.
    • Here is one of many Pentax lens compatibility charts.
    • If you have some patience, consider a manual focus or even screwmount lens. You can get superb glass for very cheap; for example, this 50mm SMC Takumar costs only $70 and I can assure you those Takumars are truly remarkable pieces of kit. (Note that with screwmount, you need an adapter and it's important to get a high-quality one.)
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At this point I don't think I have the patience for a manual lens. I actually have an old 135mm prime...I believe f2.8, which at some point in its very long life seems to have been modified from an M42 to a kind of k mount. I say 'kind of' because while it will fit on my K-x, it doesn't latch in place. This means that unless I am very careful, any adjustment to focus or aperture will cause it to partially unscrew. – Sean Sep 27 '10 at 3:18
I second the prime suggestion. I recently got a 50mm f/1.8 Canon prime and I couldn't be happier with it (specially for the price). – Carles Sep 27 '10 at 19:44
@Sean, totally fair. Different strokes for different folks. I'm the same way - manual focus is too fiddly for me now. – Reid Sep 29 '10 at 0:57
FWIW, I wrote a detailed answer on current Pentax primes. – mattdm Jan 2 '12 at 14:47

Well, first things first as a Pentax shooter: look on the used market. I do this all the time (I shoot the Pentax K20) and there are some real gems to be had as bargains. Craigslist is a good place to start, lots of people selling off their parents 'old' Pentax film gear, with lenses attached, for a song and those old lenses can be amongst some of the better ever made. Just make sure you get one with a K mount, otherwise you have to go adapter hunting.

However, if you do want to go new, $300 won't get you top of the line options, it's consumer grade only. However, Pentax primes at any price range are good lenses and the only thing you really have to learn with them is how to zoom with your feet. :) Going zoom, the Sigma 70-300mm macro is a pretty decent lens and it can be sharp. I shot this with it, handheld:

alt text

So, you don't necessarily need to put a long lens on a tripod, you just have to have shake reduction on and use the 1/[focal length] rule for shutter speed as a minimum (faster is better) until you get practiced. The TAv mode on your camera is awesome for this kind of shooting, try it out. Anyways, the big upside to the Sigma is a long telephoto coupled with 1:2 macro for some close up shooting fun.

Now, adding the 70-300mm doesn't limit your options, you have an 18-55mm and the K-x is, after all, an interchangeable lens camera! Change the lens as needed. Now, you still have a gap in the focal range, but it's not that big and can probably be handled by positioning.

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Take the 2.4 prime.

You will learn the most about composition that way, because it will force you to consider each shot prior to taking it. It also will streamline your technique, because it will remove the ability to zoom, ie, it will take a variable out of the equation you try to solve as you take the shot.

If you're concerned about speed (and 2.4 isn't that fast), consider going to the used market for a faster lens. But also consider that at 1.4 from a few feet away, you can get someone's eyes in focus and their nose out of focus; ie, really wide apertures are nice for a few particular applications, but you'll tend to go down to 2.

My first prime was the nikon 60mm f/2.8 macro. I really liked it (over the 50mm f/1.4 I got later) because it also allowed me to ignore another part of the equation, focus distance. I could get within an inch of my subjects (not people, that's a bit intrusive) and still focus. The speed was fast enough for where I was, ie, I hadn't perfected focusing quickly and accurately yet. Now, I tend not to go any wider than f/2, whether or not my lens lets me, just because of the eyes/nose focal plane thing.

The fisheye is just too... weird and specialized (and frankly, looking at those kinds of shots for any amount of time just makes me nauseous). Zooms of any kind, in the budget where you are, will be of middling quality at best, but you won't realize it until you shoot with a good prime. Once you do that, you'll see why pro zooms are so much better than the consumer grade.

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