I went to Leo’s Camera here in Vancouver because it’s Alex Waterhouse-Hayward’s fave and because I wanted a look at the Leica M8. The Leica was sold out but I saw this lens I just had to buy. It’s adorable, now we’ll see how it works. [Update: Tossed in a couple of pictures.]

Prime Lenses · These days, most people take most of their pictures, either with pocket cams or SLRs, using a zoom lens. The term “prime lens” refers to any lens that’s not a zoom, and is usually applied to ordinary fixed-focal-length lenses that are neither telephotos nor wide-angles.

There’s a cost for that zoom technology; prime lenses are typically a little “faster” (which is to say, let in a little more light) and the glass is optimized for exactly one field of view, so you can expect a little more sharpness and vividness. Of course, you have to compose your shot by moving the camera around, and if it’s too far away you’re just not gonna get it.

But lots of photographers find something about shooting with a prime lens addictive, and I’m one of them. Pretty well all those recent Flower of the day shots were with a prime lens; to be precise, the very ordinary 50mm that came with the old Pentax film camera all those years ago.

Which got me some OK pictures, but it doesn’t do auto-focus and the glass is optimized for 35mm film not the 23.5x15.7mm CCD. It turns out that there’s progress in analog technology as well as digital; Pentax has a line of “DA” lenses that are optimized for their DSLRs and among other things are smaller.

The 40mm P-DA is tiny. It comes with this ultra-clever lens-cap/shield combo. The cap has a little secondary cap you can screw out, leaving the shield. See the pictures below, shot on top of a piano so half of the lens you think you see is reflection.

Pentax smc P-DA 40mm
· · ·
Pentax smc P-DA 40mm

It seems minuscule on the camera; so cute you want to tickle it under its adorable little chin.

Pentax *ist-D DSLR with smc P-DA 40mm lens

You can see why they call it a “pancake”. The whole rig is smaller and lighter. I’m off on a business trip next week and I think I’ll take the SLR along. Which is kind of the idea.

There’s also an amazingly small 70mm “pancake”; I tried it out in the store and was unconvinced; of course I’m used to the monster Tamron 70-210. Also it was twice as expensive as this little cutiepie.

Initial Verdict · The auto-focus buys time, which is terrific for shooting pictures of people especially kids. Flowers on the other hand hold still, so it doesn’t help much there. I don’t run the kids’ pictures, but here are a couple of flowers; first, the trillium you’ve already seen, now well into its fade-to-violet stage. Next, a flurry of forget-me-nots; nothing in the garden has quite so pleasing a colour to my eye.

Trillium fading to violet
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Forget-me-nots, partially sunlit


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Janne (Apr 28 2007, at 04:33)

I think that perhaps the most interesting pancake is the 21mm one. You just don't find any other lens at that focal length that's even comparable in size. It really makes a small DSLR like the K100 into a near-perfect street camera.

Of course I ended up picking up the 10-17 fisheye zoom instead...


From: foresmac (Apr 28 2007, at 08:23)

I had the original SMC Pentax 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens that I used all the time on my ME Super and MX. I took tons of pictures with it. It actually made the ME Super *almost* pocketable. One of my favorite all-time pictures I've ever taken was a shot of some off the trains in Chicago circa 1998.

If I hadn't switched to an all Canon set-up back in 2001, I'm sure I'd have the DA pancakes as well.


From: Shelley (Apr 28 2007, at 14:59)

"It seems minuscule on the camera; so cute you want to tickle it under its adorable little chin."

I will never look at my 50mm the same, ever again.


From: Derek K. Miller (Apr 29 2007, at 12:37)

I bought a Nikon D50 body last summer because my point and shoot was dying and I had three nice lenses for my old Nikon AF film camera, whose winding mechanism had given up the ghost a few years ago.

I find myself using the excellent Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8 lens most of the time (roughly 75 mm equivalent on the DSLR), and often switching to a third-party 24 mm f/3 I picked up on eBay (roughly like a 35 mm), rather than using my two zooms. The extra speed from the prime lenses lets me get better pics in available light in many more situations, and also gives me nice shallow depth of field when I want it.

It's a pity that DSLRs don't come with 50 mm fixed lenses like SLRs used to until the late 1980s or so. I think you learn to be a better photographer when you work with a prime lens as your main one. I like my zooms, but they're now my special-purpose lenses. Plus with the 50 mm on I can fit my whole DSLR into my standard carry bag, which comes with me everywhere.

Also, beware the buggy M8. The way digital technology advances, I don't think it's worth spending Leica-range money on a body that won't last decades like film cameras do. One advantage of film is that, as the technology improves, you can always put the latest inside even ancient camera bodies. Not so with an image sensor.


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