I’ve owned a DSLR (Pentax K200D) for a few years now and have steadily accrued quite a few lenses for it. I will freely admit that in the early days I was all about the zoom and the flexibility, but increasingly in my (questionably) old age I find myself thinking instead about sharpness and depth of field as priorities over the old twist’n’shoot.
I bought, in those golden early days I mentioned, a 50mm f1.7 Pentax SMC-A prime. It is an old manual-focus lens, reassuringly heavy, with a solidity of build and technical-looking printing on the barrel. I got it for around £30 including P&P, put it in my bag, and moved on. ‘Pfft, manual focus’ I thought, laziness seeping from my every movement; ‘why not just use a nice snappy autofocus zoom instead?’
It is only now that I begin to appreciate the true value of this lens. It is pin-sharp and fast in the (relative) darkness, compact and unintimidating (ever had a massive lens pointed at you and felt unnerved? Intimidation is important!). Sure, it is fixed in focal length and slow to focus (and I lose a percentage of my shots with it because, despite everything, I’m crap at manual focusing). Sure, it’s older than me and a bit battered around the edges. Surely, however, the magical happenings that occur when you point this lens at a person are worth every frustration – just point, focus, refocus, take a moment to focus some more, and fire. A beautifully sharp photo with fantastic depth of field is yours. Repeat as desired. Don’t forget to frame your shot.
Turned sideways in a cafe in Israel and snapped this. Casually, as if I hadn’t needed to faff with the focus.
Sharpness @ 100% crop.
Thing is, although zooms are convenient, they breed complacency and minimize user effort. It’s piss easy to point a zoom at something, twirl the barrel, and press the shutter before you’ve even thought about what’s happening. If you put your eye to the viewfinder and discover that you’re a bit too far away, a prime lens will make you zoom with your feet (which is, of course, MUCH easier than with a zoom because primes are so much lighter! Honest!). While you’re ‘zooming in’, you’ll be thinking about your shot and this extra time might nudge you to reframe it, use a different angle, or realise that there isn’t actually a good photo where you were planning one (but there might be one to the left there and it’s lucky you took a moment to think). Beyond this practical aspect, there is something rather grand about the primes with their pinpoint levels of detail and singular field of view. Zooms still have their place (and my kit Pentax 18-55mm that came on my K200D is very good for its class) and I’ve not reached the stage where I’d just leave them all at home – replacing the range of my 70-300 Tamron budget bundle-o-lens with primes would be bank-breaking for one thing, and I wake up at night terrified by the concept of carrying a 70/85mm, a 135mm and a 300mm lens around with me everywhere. There is a merry medium to be had, as with all things, but the balance is shifting.
So, the point of this post. I have taken the plunge. The 50mm prime I have is wonderful but for its lack of autofocus. I would not want to buy another 50mm prime with autofocus to replace it, just because it’s so damn awesome. As such, I have opted for the 35mm, f2.8 Pentax Limited lens. Reviews praise its sharpness, its versatility with regard to field of view, and its physical characteristics – build quality, portability and weight. It has autofocus. Like wow. And on top of all that, it has macro focusing capability right down to the front element. It should be perfect for when I just want to leave a lens on my camera and take it somewhere wild – to the crag when climbing, or when I’m on a long hike or cycle ride. Equally, it should hold its own in landscapes and to an extent, portraits. I have high hopes for this glass and I hope it does not disappoint.