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Help me shake the digital SLR camera body blues
June 20, 2010 10:03 PM   Subscribe

About ten years ago, I was given a couple Pentax 35mm film SLR bodies, and some lenses, which I was happy with. Especially the SMC-M 50mm f/1.4 lens, with which I discovered bokeh and existing-light photography. But after a while, I got tired of having to store and process film, since I just put all the pictures into my computer anyway. So I got a *ist DS, since that was compatible with all my lenses. But my favorite prime lens has been turned into a zoom by the reduced sensor size. The closest equivalent I've found is the FA 31mm Limited, but that costs ~$1000 USD, and its not even f1.4, its f1.8. Given this issue, along with the fussiness of getting all the auto-exposure/focus stuff to work the way I want it to, and I'm really missing my film camera bodies. Or is there an alternative?

Other irritations are that my M-series lenses are a pain to use with the digital body, particularly the exposure/metering. And on the whole, I don't like the autofocus, it seems finicky and unpredictable, though the DSLR manual focus is even worse given the non-split-image viewfinder.

Are there any alternatives to just reverting to film? Would switching everything to Nikon or Canon solve everything for me? On a smaller scale, I was thinking of replacing my M 50/1.4 with a SMC-A 50/1.4 that would at least address the metering issue, but I'm wary since that would be yet more time and money invested in Pentax gear without addressing either the lack-of-good-main-lens issue, or the focusing issue. I could also change the focusing screen to a split-image one as a small improvement, but I've heard thats detrimental to metering.

In general, I'd rather not spend too much (more) money to fix my mess, though I could sell gear to fund replacements.

Details of my setup:
Pentax MX and SuperProgram 35mm film bodies.
Pentax *ist DS body.
Tokina 28mm f/2.8 lens — not great, don't use it anymore
Pentax SMC M 50mm f/1.4 lens — was my favorite
Pentax SMC M 135mm f/3.5 lens — decent, but don't end up using it much
Pentax SMC A 70-210mm f/5.64 manual focus lens — nice though bulky
Pentax SMCP-DA 14mm f/2.8 ED autofocus Lens — love it, though its a shame it doesn't work with the film bodies.
Pentax AF280T flash — it gives me TTL metering and bounce flash, so I'm pretty content with it
posted by Hither to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As for focusing, what's finicky about the AF? I've never liked my camera's automatic AF point selection, so I simply set it to the center AF point so I can point at what I want to focus on, half-press the shutter button, recompose, then fully press. Also, nicer lenses will tend to focus hunt a lot less when using AF.

If you want to manually focus, you can replace the matte focusing screen with a split prism one.

I doubt moving to Nikon or Canon will cure your ills. You may have a bit wider lens selection, but everybody's f/1.4 lenses are expensive.
posted by zsazsa at 10:25 PM on June 20, 2010

Would switching everything to Nikon or Canon solve everything for me?

No. Your problems are using old lenses with new cameras. They can be great, but there are limitations. Canikon lenses tend to be a shade cheaper than Pentax - especially since Hoya bought it, the bastards, however you will likely encounter the very same issues.

Looking at your lenses, it seems that, really, your only issue is difficulty with the 1.4 lens - that being the case, I recommend you stump up the cash for a SMC F 50/1.4 or 1.8 OR a new FA 1.4. Either are relatively inexpensive so far as these things go. Don't go with the A, pay a tiny extra amount and get something with auto-focus. With the Ist's darker viewfinder it's totally worth it.

If you hang around here long enough, you should be able to get an F second hand for around $120 USD, and an FA for $220-$250.

Also a prime is still a prime, I don't really understand what you mean by saying it's transformed into a zoom. It still has one, fixed focal length. The small digital sensor gives you a _longer_ focal length - effectively transforming your 50mm old school view into something like 65-70mm, but it's still a fixed prime, with all the sharpness that implies.

You're right, however, that wide angle pentax lenses are very expensive. FYI, Canikon wide angles are almost as much. You could look at Tamron or Sigma for cheaper third party, but they still ain't cheap.
posted by smoke at 10:32 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kinda sounds like you want the Sigma 30/1.4 (and the focusing screen zsazsa mentioned).
posted by unmake at 10:42 PM on June 20, 2010

Your problems are using old lenses with new cameras.

No way. The problem is that they are using a cropped sensor. Move to full-frame sensor and use the full lens, otherwise you're just lugging around extra heavy glass.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:47 AM on June 21, 2010

otherwise you're just lugging around extra heavy glass

Lugging around a ful frame body is better ?

If I were you I'd start investing in the end point: a compact body and 3 or 4 compact primes. You can get away with buying slower pancake primes because by the time you've collected all three, cheap bodies with useable ISO 6400 will be available.

So start with the DA 35 f/2.8 macro which will give you the equivalent FL as a 50mm on FF; it's slower but useable at f/2.8. Next is the DA 70mm f/2.4 as you can use your 14mm for wide angle. And finish with the DA 21mm f/3.2. Sell all your other lenses.

I realize I didn't even start to actually answer your question so
- Katz eye makes MF a lot more useable but I'd save the $100+ for lenses instead. Dont worry about the slight chage in metering, that's what Exposure Compensation is for. You can find a lot cheaper focussing screens on ebay.
- manual focussing any f/1.4 lens is very difficult; even with focussing screen. Very few f/1.4 lenses are sharp wide open; the FA 50mm f/1.4 becomes useable by f/2.5 and has its sweet spot around f/4.
- Pentax has no cheap AF 50mm f/1.8 like Canon/Nikon. And no cheap fast 35mm. They do have a nice range of pancakes and fast limited primes; none are realy cheap.
posted by Akeem at 2:55 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

At least one of your problems cannot be solved cheaply, i.e., the fact that a digital SLR's sensor is smaller than 35mm film, which turns cheap normal lenses into telephotos and wide-angles into normals. Digital SLRs with full-frame sensors are expensive no matter who makes them.
posted by mcwetboy at 3:52 AM on June 21, 2010

I second the Sigma 30mm1.4. Amazing lens, relatively cheap.
posted by saltykmurks at 4:49 AM on June 21, 2010

Hmm, let me tell you where I'm coming from, as it might be useful.

I'd shot film for about a decade- I had a Pentax ME Super which I replaced with the Pentax LX. For lenses, I have:

Pentax SMC-A 24-50 (f/4)
Sigma 70-210 (f/4-5.6?)
Vivitar 100mm (f/2? 2.8?) Macro/portrait lens
Vivitar 500mm (f/8 fixed) mirror lens

which is, all in all, a strange kit; I usually carried the Pentax and the Sigma, but lacked fast glass. I also found the 24-50 and 70-210 to be an awkward pair of lenses for travel; I had to switch back and forth frequently. (in hindsight, I never should have sold the ME Super, but carrying two bodies is starting to be a significant weight investment)

After getting sick of dealing with film, I basically dithered around for a couple of years where I basically took almost no pictures before deciding to go digital. (This was a few months ago).

After considering the Pentax K-X and K-7, I decided to go Micro 4/3 with the Panasonic Lumix GH1. m43 has a 2x multiplier, so the 14-140 (f/4-5.6) kit lens is a 28-280 equivalent, which is great for travel. I have my eyes on the beautiful Pana 20/f1.4 pancake.

One of the nice things about m43 is that virtually every MF lens ever made can be used with it (albeit manual focus and manual exposure) with a cheap (~$30) adapter, so I've been enjoying playing with my 200mm (equivalent) macro lens and my 1000mm (equivalent) mirror lens. Funny enough, as you're getting frustrated with your SMC-M 50mm/1.4 being too telephoto (not zoom) to be used as a normal lens, I've been bidding on THAT EXACT SAME LENS on ebay for use as a (100mm equivalent) portrait lens. (do MeMail me should you decide to sell it!)

I don't know if this is helpful, but perhaps it'll help you think outside the box. If you're interested in m43 and want more info, it seems like a great way to go if you have legacy glass you like. It's also very compact compared to most dslr systems, and there are some beautiful (if pricey) lenses available.

I would NOT recommend going full-frame; the price is quite high, the bodies are quite large, and what you get probably isn't worth it for what you've described. (Plus, is there even a Pentax FF available??)
posted by JMOZ at 5:45 AM on June 21, 2010

Lugging around a ful frame body is better?

That's not what I said. What I said was, lugging around a lens designed for full-frame sensors on a cropped sensor-body camera is a waste of glass. My recommendation was for a full-frame sensor. You could also recommend a smaller lens. Both would solve the problem satisfactorily.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:58 AM on June 21, 2010

There are two good 50mm-equivalents for a Pentax-mount DSLR - the aforementioned Sigma 30/f1.4, which may be a little on the wide side at a 45mm equivalent, and the Schneider D-Xenogon 35mm/f2 from Samsung, which is 53mm equivalent, and probably the same thing as a Pentax 35mm FA lens. (Schnieder only does its own optics for medium format or larger.)

If you don't mind lugging around a larger lens, any 35mm-length wide angle lens will work as a prime on the *istD. They're cheap and easy to find on ebay, and if made by Pentax, they will take a very nice picture indeed.

There are no full-frame DSLR's in Pentax's stable yet.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:09 AM on June 21, 2010

Yeah, I misspoke. Read 'zoom' as 'telephoto' in my question.

What I don't like about the AF is that it hunts around, especially when its darker out.

I really wish there were a full-frame Pentax DSLR, I held off buying the digital body for a year or two hoping they'd finally make one before giving up, but I don't know if they ever will. There's always plenty of rumor and speculation about it though.
posted by Hither at 8:19 AM on June 21, 2010

lugging around a lens designed for full-frame sensors on a cropped sensor-body camera is a waste of glass

There is an advantage; you suffer less from vignetting with an APS-C sensor and a fast FF lens. Sharpness is also better in the center of the image circle.

I think the Pentax DSLR philosophy is to have a compact kit with a selection of small primes. Why else would they refuse to make a FF body, cripple their zooms with failing SDM and make Kx and K7 so small & cheap?

What I don't like about the AF is that it hunts around, especially when its darker out.

AF is definitely the next thing for Pentax to tackle; I think they said at the K7 introduction they had to choose between speed and AF for the K7 and would improve AF with the next model...
posted by Akeem at 9:56 AM on June 21, 2010

I have a digital and three film cameras: An Olympus OM-2N, a Bessa R4M, and a Leica M2, and lenses for each. I process my own b&w and take color to a local shop. I scan the negs.

I like the film cameras not because of any qualities inherent to film, but because they are smaller and lighter than any DSLR that delivers comparable performance. They're also considerably less expensive than any full-frame DSLR (I include full-frame as a key part of "comparable performance".) When the weather is cool enough to wear a jacket, I really can put the camera in one pocket and 2-3 lenses in another. I'd need to wear a clown suit to pull that off with a DSLR.

The wide aperture range of lenses for the rangefiners (the Bessa and the Leica) allows me to shoot in low light situations that would require jacking the ISO setting to extreme levels on a DSLR. For example, I've got a 35/1.2, a 50/1.5, a 28/1.9, etc.

Finally, because they aren't big cameras with humungous lenses hanging on the front, they tend not to freak people out as much as a full-frame DSLR with its big lenses.
posted by justcorbly at 11:31 AM on June 21, 2010

As someone who shoots available light only I have found the DA limiteds to be too slow. I had a DA 21 but sold it. The FA 31 is worth every penny and is a highly regarded lens, and it is full frame compatible for when that day comes. The FA limiteds are all sharp wide open, especially the 77. The difference between f1.8 and f1.4 is negligible—I only use my DA*55 over my FA 77 when I am concerned about rain or if I'll be indoors in too close quarters.

I would start by investing in the an FA 31 and FA 50 now and if the full frame body comes later they will revert back to 31 and 50 from 46mm and 75mm equivalent. The DA*55 is also full frame compatible, and has the advantage that it is weather sealed.

If you can't afford the FA 31 the DA 35 is great. It is considered the best of the DA limiteds and is also Macro, but you may find f2.8 too limiting.

I'll also second the recommendation for a Katz Eye. I have no problem with metering through it. I don't have the optibrite option on it.

If/when a Pentax full frame comes out it will likely be $2500+.
posted by ridogi at 11:38 AM on June 21, 2010

Oh, and many consider the FA 35 f2 to be the poor man's FA 31. It is from the same line as the FA 50, but it is discontinued so you'll need to pick it up second hand.
posted by ridogi at 3:36 PM on June 22, 2010

I'm a long-time Canon film guy, and the *ist-DS was the first DSLR I got. (One of the attractions was being able to use manual lenses.) I've been using the 50/1.4 as my 'usually on the camera' lens, because the combination is really light and small, and I prefer the slight telephoto view of the 50/1.4 on the small sensor.

And I too missed not having a prime wide lens, and hated the focussing.

So I got a Canon 5D. I love it. It's much bigger and heavier than the *ist-DS, but it feels just like the EOS A2 I used to shoot with. I love being able to use all my fast Canon primes with no crop-factor "zoom", the large sensor allows nicer bokeh, and it focuses much better than the *ist-DS. It can even take interchangeable viewing screens, I think a split-prism is available.

Just as in film, there's no substitute for a larger sensor. If/when medium-format sensors become affordable I'll be getting one.
posted by phliar at 12:00 PM on June 24, 2010

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