Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I've got a good-old Pentax K100D body with a kit 18-55 and a couple of 50mm manual focus primes.

I'm trying to get back into photography, but slow (and some times lack of) focusing does not give me much motivation.

I've decided to upgrade the body, and here's my dilemma:

Option 1: Get a Pentax K5 kit (arguably the best body for the price at the moment) - $1,600

Option 2: Get a used Canon 40D ($500) and 50mm F/1.8 ($100) + some other lens (if you think 40D is no longer relevant, I'd like to hear why)

K5 is pushing my budget, but I'm willing to splurge given how good the camera is. I don't have that much of an investment in Pentax lenses, so I don't mind switching brands either.

My problem with K5 is that I'll end up with a kit lens, and the cheapest prime (50mm F/1.4) is $360.

I do mostly landscape and portraits, and I'd say fast focusing and IQ are the top priorities for me.

If you can recommend other bodies, please do.

p.s.: can anybody comment on Canon 40D auto-focus problems?

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If you're considering brand switching anyways, the Nikon D7000 is in the same price range as the K-5. Just another option - not that I'm say a new camera body is the way to go. –  rfusca Dec 11 '10 at 17:59
    
The general question "Should I invest in a high-end body or better lenses?" is probably interesting to a lot of people, but the meat of this question (and correspondingly, the answers) are very specific to your situation. I think, at this point, it should be closed. –  mattdm Sep 3 '11 at 3:54
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7 Answers 7

Invest in glass. As you have found, old Pentax glass is cheap, built strongly, but usually lacks AF. Any prime lens is dear, some of the Pentax ones can make your eyes water - but so can the Canon-Nikon ones too. Once you pick the lenses you want, the body will follow. Conventional wisdom usually says 70-105 for portraits and as wide as you can for landscapes. So check the lens offerings in all the major players, decide, choose, buy. Or Stick with the Pentax body and invest in some nice Pentax glass now, and save up for whatever comes after the K-5 - that way you get to use the nice glass now, and can anticipate the "next big thing" from Pentax.

Don't know if that helped, but I hope so :-)

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thanks for your input, my problem is that my 100D's focusing hunts a lot, and that pisses me off and discourages picture taking at times ... any thoughts? –  roman m Dec 11 '10 at 9:29
    
do you thinkg 40D is still relevant? if not - what body would you recommend? –  roman m Dec 11 '10 at 10:14
    
@Shane Kelly, "as wide as you can for landscapes"? Isn't greater depth of field essential for most of the landscape photography? Landscape are often shot at f/8 and smaller. And the landscape is rarely running away, so longer exposure is not an issue. –  sastanin Dec 11 '10 at 22:28
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@jetxee I think Shane was suggesting a wide angle (e.g. short focal length), not a wide aperture. –  Evan Krall Dec 11 '10 at 23:05
    
The 50D is great and probably rather cheap now. I have one and it's fantastic. –  Nick Bedford Dec 12 '10 at 11:43
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Investing in a good camera body will restore your joy in photography. Good lenses will come later and the kit lens should not be despised.

This was my experience. I bought a Pentax K7. Photography suddenly became a joyous experience and I spent far more time taking photos, improving my photography greatly. Then my needs grew and I bought better lenses.

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But don't be fooled into buying more body than you need. I got over the kit lenses very quickly and quickly discovered the limitations. Slower AF, limiting aperture size, chromatic aberrations and distortion. –  Nick Bedford Dec 12 '10 at 11:45
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I'm a K-5 shooter, so I may be a little biased... :)

In any case, you already have a kit lens, so I would look to get the K-5 body only. The 18-55mm is a pretty decent lens and will do a decent job for you. That'll get you into the higher end of the Pentax line and I'll think you'll find that camera is a great deal of fun to use. I came to it from the K20D and, as much as I really liked the K20D, the K-5 is well beyond it for photography pleasure (not to mention image quality).

Since the K-5 sports a significantly better autofocus, you can then save a little bit and hunt Craigslist or eBay for old AF primes. Some of the earlier AF 50mm and the like from Pentax are extremely good lenses and you can save a bundle this route. The AF improvement in the K-5 is most noticeable on the body driven AF lenses, less so on the SDM ones, though it is seen there too. Anyways, I find that the focus hunting complaints with the K20D have disappeared for me, the K-5 is good at it.

Anyways, if the option is open to you to go into the store to handle it, do so. Then try focusing on different things, in different light, and see if that helps you decide. The Canon 40D is a very good camera, no doubt, but it is a little long in the tooth now and missing out on a lot of substantial advancements in sensors and functionality.

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What a coincidence but I happen to have a K-5 and a 40D! Also a K-7 as well, which is simply a backup to the K-5. I use them in different circumstances. The one thing that is awesome on the 40D is the AF-C (Continuous AF, no problems on mine) which is why that's the camera I take out for sports photography. For landscape, architecture and general travel, I take the K-5. –  Itai Dec 11 '10 at 16:06
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I am a little curious why fast auto focusing is important for the two types of photography you listed: landscape and portrait photography. I am a landscape photographer myself, and I find that I usually (90% of the time at least) manually focus my shots with all of my lenses. I would also figure that manually focusing portraits would be ideal, as autofocus algorithms are generally somewhat "fuzzy", and don't always lock on to the most ideal thing. In portraits, you really want the eyes to be in perfect focus, but you are not guaranteed to get that with autofocus, even with the best AF lenses. I guess if you are looking more for a "shoot from the hip" or fast studio shooting, AF would be a necessity.

There are plenty of great cameras out there on the market these days for under $1000, and you can usually get at least one, if not two, kit lenses with a decent DSLR camera body for that price. I am a Canon user myself, however Nikon, Sony, and others also make great cameras in the $1000-$1500 price range. Best bet, you could probably go with any entry or mid-range camera body (body only), and grab a fast 50mm lens (i.e. an f/1.4) for around $1600. You might even want to look into getting a great manual focus lens. Zeiss makes some superb fast 50mm portrait lenses with nice soft focus. Canon makes some manual focus tilt/shift lenses at 17mm (ultra wide, can't use filters), 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm that can do wonders for landscape photography, and bring a dynamic focal plane to your portrait photography (the effect can be wonderful.)

If you insist on top of the line autofocus, you can get that too, although the best AF will cost. For landscapes, again, being a landscape photographer myself, I highly recommend going with manual focus. I have quite a few Canon L-series lenses with excellent AF, however when it comes to landscapes, your depth of field is often huge, and AF can only do so much. Manually tuning focus with the live view feature is the only way to get focus exactly how you want it with landscape photography. For portraits, there are usually great 85mm and 135mm AF lenses that will do the job, however you might need to spend a bit more on the lenses to get exactly what you want.

Regarding camera bodies, they are "a dime a dozen". A decent body today will be bottom rung in a year or so, and you may find yourself regularly upgrading camera bodies every couple years. Lenses, on the other hand, can last a lifetime. If you want to spend your money wisely, I would say there is more long-term value in lenses than in camera bodies...provided you stick with a single brand consistently. Quality glass can and will do wonders for your work. A new camera body every so often will provide you with a little more control and certainly more resolution.

If you really want to nail those shots that need good AF, then putting some money into a decent camera body might be worth it. An example of a great high-performing AF body would be the Canon 7D. This camera has an amazing, cutting-edge AF system with adaptive capabilities and superb low-light, high ISO performance. This camera also has a more advanced, color metering system that should help you nail perfect color rendition without much effort. Combined with good glass, a Canon 7D will really help you nail those spur-of-the-moment candid portrait shots that you are looking for. The price point is certainly higher here...the camera body alone weighs in at around $1600 or so, and you would still need to get some decent glass, like the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens and maybe the 85mm L-series lens (one of the best portrait lenses available from Canon, if not the best.) You might be looking at about $2000 for a decent Canon 7D setup, but the AF performance of a pro-grade body like this is nothing less than astonishing.

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Thank you for the detailed answer. I guess I misspoke when I said "fast" focus. I'm having a hard time focusing for portraits with my K100D and 50mm F1.4 manual lens, might be a problem with my body though. Another thing I like it "natural" portraits (i.e. sneak up on people and make a picture before they can pull a pose), if the focus hunts for 3 seconds - the moment is lost. I hope I made myself clear. –  roman m Dec 11 '10 at 18:59
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You're very welcome. If you like those "candid", natural shots, then you will want better AF for your portraits. For good AF, you really want an ultrasonic motor of some kind. They provide quiet, smooth and fast AF that will last for a long time. Purely gear based AF can be noisy, prone to problems, and usually is not as fast. Kit lenses, like the standard 18-55, usually do not have ultrasonic AF. For landscape, this really isn't an issue...slow AF will do as manual focus will usually be better. For portraits, you should look into wide lenses (f/1.8 at least), and higher ISO. --> –  jrista Dec 11 '10 at 23:27
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If you really want to nail those candid shots, then my best recommendation is this: Find a good mid-range body (like the Canon 60D, or if you can afford it, the 7D), and get a fast lens, like a 50mm f/1.4. A mid-range body WILL offer you some benefits that I sort of ignored before. One of them is good ISO performance at higher settings. The 7D can get great shots at ISO 1600 or 3200 without much noise. Another thing I ignored about camera bodies was the AF control systems...again, the Canon 7D has a FANTASTIC AF system that will GREATLY help you get those spur of the moment shots. –  jrista Dec 11 '10 at 23:30
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before you do anything, you should decide which platform you want to use; canon or pentax. otherwise, if you start buying stuff and end up switching platforms, it'll get expensive. Now is a good time to figur eout if you want to stay pentax or no. A good way to do this at minimal cost is renting. Rent some of the gear you're thinking about switching to and use it; see if you get the results you want. that way, you aren't guessing.

If you do decide to go canon, think about buying a new rebel body over a used 40d. the cost won't be that different, and it'll likely delay any thought of needing to upgrade the body for a while. As you wade deeper into photography, buying less expensive bodies and better glass will serve you well; the lenses you'll own for years, the bodies you'll tend to upgrade more frequently, adn until you advance in photography you won't really need the more advanced features.

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Nikon is basically an equivalent Canon alternative by the way. –  Nick Bedford Dec 12 '10 at 11:42
    
agreed, but he specifically mentioned he was considering pentax or canon, and so I didn't want to complicate the discussion... –  chuqui Dec 12 '10 at 22:00
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I have the Pentax K-7. The K-5 looks like a beautiful camera, but if you don't have any of the beautiful Limited prime lenses, you're really missing out on the strength of the system. (And something you just can't get with another brand.)

The DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited can be had new for $340, and it focuses quickly and has stellar IQ. (In fact, I'm pretty sure it's the fastest-focusing lens in the Pentax universe. And it's quite sharp wide-open, and better at f/2.8 than the 50mm f/1.4 is.) It's effectively a slightly-long normal, and can work well for both landscapes and portraits.

The DA 70mm f/2.4 is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful for portraits, and shares many virtues with the DA 40mm. That's a little pricier, but it's one of those things you fall in love with.

And the DA 15mm f/4 is next on my own purchase list, and that'd go nicely with your landscape shooting.

One could also go the f/2.8 zoom route with the DA★ 16-50mm and 50-135mm f/2.8 (weather-sealed!) lenses, but to me that really seems like a niche within a niche. It'll get you a cheaper all-weather zoom setup than you could get from Nikon or Canon, so that's something, but overall I think Pentax is at its most interesting when paired with the nice prime lenses.

So, my advice is: spend your money on some nice lenses now. Wait a year, and see what the K-5 is selling for then. If the past is any indication, it'll be cheaper by at least the price of a nice lens.

Or, if the K100D is really starting to feel like it's getting in your way, don't hesitate to look at the K-7 (or maybe a used K-7 as people start to upgrade). I went from a K100D to K10D and that was a big leap up, and going to the K-7 has been another. Not only is the model more advanced, but Pentax continues to work on little refinements that make daily use of the camera more and more enjoyable. The high ISO performance is disappointing, but not as bad as the the-sky-is-falling crowd might have you believe. (I routinely make successful pictures at ISO 4000; sure, there's a little noise, but it's not ugly.)

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Update: As predicted, a year later, the K-5 is down to a little over $1000. And, I wrote a long post on Pentax primes here: photo.stackexchange.com/a/13594/1943 –  mattdm Feb 10 '12 at 1:44
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I agree with jrista for many of his comments and the importance of a good fast USM based camera based on your description. I agree that the ultrasonic motor is much better than the gear focus. I have had the chance to borrow some higher end lenses from friends and was amazed at how much more precise its action was. I also learned that to help speed up the focus, I changed the focus selection setting on my camera. I went from the multipoint let the camera "guess" what you want in focus to center focus point only. I would then have the camera focus there, continue to hold the button to keep focus locked and then pan to frame the picture the way I wanted to. For me it is faster than always adjusting where I wanted the focus point using the menus.

I also recommend considering renting or borrowing a lens before spending big bucks. You might be able to make your current body meet your needs just by a glass update. I was amazed at just how much impact the borrowed lens made on my images. Since they were the only thing that changed, same camera body, same operator, same location on a few occasions, it was very clear how much the lens can change the characteristics of your photography. Not just image quality but also experience of operating the equipment

Good luck! Hope this helps.

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