Best lens for Pentax camera to take pictures of family?
January 28, 2014 12:56 PM   Subscribe

What lens would be best for a new photographer for taking pictures of family (babies, kids, humans) with a Pentax K-x 12.4MP Digital SLR with 2.7 inch LCD and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL? (Can you tell I just copied that from the receipt?)

Hello! I am a novice at digital photography, though in 2010 I bought a fancy camera -- the Pentax K-x 12.4MP Digital SLR with 2.7 inch LCD and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL Lens (Red) as listed on Amazon.

The photos we've gotten from it have been good, but not great, a lot owing to our lack of skill. We really want to take excellent photographs and portraits of family, esp. kids. A family member who is a skilled photographer thought we needed a different lens from what came with the kit to do this well.

Do you agree? And if so, what kind? Or am I just trying to buy my way out of the problem rather than figure out what's going wrong?

posted by EtTuHealy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you talk a little more about what the problems are you are having? Before you spend a lot of money you should look at technique... Pentax's kit lenses are decent, just slow. I wouldn't recommend shelling out for a new lens unless you feel like you've mastered the camera body itself. Are you shooting in RAW? Are you using a flash or available light?

I have a SMCP-FA 50MM F1.4 which is an excellent close portrait lens at the APS-C crop factor... it's very sharp stopped down a few places. But basically that's going to get you less blur due to low light and some extra resolution. Pentax has also recently introduced some entry level DA primes which are optically quite a good value.
posted by selfnoise at 1:04 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

I'd get the 50mm 1.8, as it eliminates the possibility of shooting crappy pictures at f/1.4 and it's > $100 cheaper. It's hard to shoot good portraits at f/1.4 due to the tendency to not even get the whole face in focus at once, but f/1.8, f/2.0 or thereabouts generally looks great. That said, even their 1.8 seems strangely pricey for what it is at over $200 : Canon & Nikon each do a nice 50mm f/1.8 for half that, but obviously that's no use to you.
posted by w0mbat at 1:17 PM on January 28

Yes, the 50mm sounds great, but I was also surprised at how pricey they seemed! And selfnoise, I guess the problem is mostly crispness and clarity. I try without the flash and it looks dull -- the flash just ruins any nuance. The pictures just don't pop -- they don't look that much better than the ones I take with my iphone, or just a small step up!
posted by EtTuHealy at 1:21 PM on January 28

It would really help to show some sample photos with what you think the problems are. Getting a different lens won't solve composition or lighting problems, and those are probably 80% of amateur photo issues. To be honest, the problems that a new lens will solve are pretty limited, given that you already have an 18-55mm f/3.5 which is a not-bad all around lens for the sort of people/pets photos you're looking to take.

Getting a f/1.8 or f/2 prime might help insofar as you might not have to use the flash as often and you could get a short depth of field and blur out background in portraits, but it will also eliminate the zoom and might result in worse composition. Whether or not that tradeoff is worthwhile depends entirely on the problems you're having.

There are lots of "X Tips for Absolute Photographic Beginners" around on the web; here's a reasonably good starting point. I wouldn't go out and buy a new lens until you're at least following those guidelines. (Also: turn off your camera's built-in flash and forget it exists for a while.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:26 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]

The biggest low-hanging fruit for making portraits that "pop" are:

-Control of your depth of field (primarily through the aperture setting)
-Understanding of the quality of lighting and how it effects exposure.

I would probably start here but as noted above there's no shortage of tutorials.
posted by selfnoise at 1:34 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

> The pictures just don't pop

A new lens will almost certainly not fix that, unless there is something about the way you're composing the photos in the Pentax that's different than with your cellphone.

First, definitely don't use the on-camera flash. Basically ever (the exception is for fill flash in bright light, pretty much). You seem to have realized that already. I think it's almost always better to run up the ISO setting on the camera and deal with noise than to turn on the camera flash and have everyone look like extras from a zombie flick.

It's hard to define what you mean by "pop", but a lot of cheap cameras will do things to the photos when capturing them to try and make them look better, typically by taking the contrast and color saturation up to ridiculous levels; better cameras tend not to do that by default. You may be able to enable something like that in your camera's settings ... I'm not that familiar with Pentax, but generally there is a 'Natural' and 'Vivid' mode you can set somewhere, at least when shooting JPEGs, that will slam the contrast if that's what you want.

But it's generally better to do that sort of thing in postproduction once the files are on your computer rather than doing it in-camera. (That way you can easily undo it if you don't want it.) Both Picasa and iPhoto have "enhance" buttons that will take your photos and try to automatically adjust the contrast, levels/curves, color saturation, and other aspects to make them "better" (for some programmer's idea of 'better'). You could try running that against your Pentax's photos and see if they're suddenly more iPhone-like.

Another common issue I've run into is that people tend to take photos using a cellphone by holding the camera way out from themselves, getting it closer to the subject, but when they're using a SLR they hold it to their face and thus it's back a good 24" or so from where the phone / point-and-shoot would have been. If the subject is only a few feet away from you, that additional distance can change the whole shot. Make sure you're getting up close to your subjects with the new camera the same way you would with a phone, if that's the kind of photos you want.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:38 PM on January 28

Do you "do" anything to the photos in your computer after you have taken them? It can make a huge difference. Picasa is free and will give you a nice, user friendly taste of how post processing can help your picture.
posted by smoke at 2:00 PM on January 28

Join a camera club. You can discuss your issues with people face to face.

Take some lessons. Your local camera club and camera pros will offer these.

Use your google skills and find on-line tutorials. Also, don't forget there are real books out there too ... check out a good bookshop's photo shelves.

Take LOTS of photos - it is a skill that develops with practice, and experimentation.

Learn to use RAW and the Pentax Digital Camera Utility that came with the camera - this will give you soooo much more control over the final product.

Basically, you have bought a camera that requires more investment than the purchase price - investment of your time/money in learning how to use to best effect. It is a sophisticated tool, and needs good management - not hard, but as a newcomer to these it will need a bit of effort on your part.

Good luck, the effort will be worth it, I promise you.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:01 PM on January 28

Oh, I nearly forgot - the problem is almost certainly not the lens. It may not be the best lens in the world, but they do get good results. Sit on your money, or better still, invest in some of things I mentioned above.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:05 PM on January 28

If you want to spend $450, get the pancake 70mm.

I disagree with some of the other posters. The kit lens you have is not great for portraits and doesn't have much better optics than your iPhone. For headshots you want a 70mm prime.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 2:26 PM on January 28

I'd probably show some samples at the pentax forum. I haven't been in a few years, but it used to be the most active place for Pentax discussion around.

I never much liked the kit lens. With pentax you have a heritage of excellent fast 50mm lenses, so I'd grab (I.e I own about half a dozen) one of those. Since the current 50 1.8 is out and cheap (ish) that'll do for someone who isn't camera crazy. Cropped it come out to around 70mm which is serviceable for portraits. You might find a fa 50 / 1.7 for a bit less on eBay, it's well reputed, but the 50/1.4 has stolen its limelight.
posted by wotsac at 2:49 PM on January 28

a 70-200mm zoom, or thereabouts, is fine. It's referred to as the portrait range, thereby allowing you to make images of people, far enough away, as to not intimidate them. try and afford the fastest (2.8, or so) and sharpest you can find.
posted by captainsohler at 3:15 PM on January 28

oh, and word to the wise: it is easy to get good portraits at any aperture. there is an answer above that is misleading. I would much rather own a 1.4 over a 1.8. And I do.
posted by captainsohler at 3:18 PM on January 28

I started a few years ago in a similar situation with a similar rig and I don't think the kit lens is that great for pictures of people, especially if you use the zoom at all. And if you don't zoom you get the weird perspective effect caused by the slight wide angle at 18mm.

My best pictures all have the same things in common:

1. No flash. Use diffuse natural light.
2. Lots and lots of exposures (turn on the low-speed burst mode in the menu). If you're not taking at least 100 pictures a day on the weekends, you're not trying.
3. Aperture set pretty wide. For a beginner, turn the dial on top to "Av", then the thumb wheel to "f/2.0". That's open enough to get a creamy background that will make the subject pop, and that cell phone cameras can't touch. It's not so open that focusing is excessively difficult.

To do #3 you'll need a faster lens. I personally have the 50mm f/1.4 and it is a very nice lens, even though it costs almost as much as the camera body. If you really want a budget fast lens you've got to have a Canon or Nikon, unfortunately. However, the advantage of the Pentax is that if you get a telephoto lens (like for wildlife) it's stabilized since the sensor is stabilized, not the lens as with Canon and Nikon. And the lens will still be very nice when the body is old and grey (not literally. Though with Pentax they do some funny things with colors).
posted by wnissen at 3:32 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

I have an old Pentax and love the 50mm (though it's really some weird other size, since Pentax has some odd equivalent formula).

That said, people are totally right about your problems probably not being mechanical (though it's worth paying attention to autofocus issues, since that's a problem I've had before).

The couple fast tips that will make your photos a thousand times better:

1) Fill the frame. Too often, pictures look boring because most of the shot is boring. You can do this with a zoom or with better planning.

2) You are shooting light, not objects. Good light will make for a good picture of pretty much anything. Good light for people tends to be warm and soft, but not flat. And remember that your eye is much more sensitive than the camera, so sometimes turning on a lamp for inside shots can be helpful, even if it looks like there's enough light. Flashes are sometimes necessary, but if you use them straight on, they have a tendency to blow out detail and flatten faces so they look fatter.

3) Compose your shot: Use the rule of thirds to balance things, and remember that diagonals feel like movement.

4) Aperture priority. Set the depth of field you want for the shot, then let the software get the shutter speed and exposure. As you get better, you'll be able to set those more on your own, but understanding DoF will get you more return faster for the type of shots you want to take.
posted by klangklangston at 3:43 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

A 70mm will be WAY too cropped in for a non full frame camera. A 50mm will be too if you want to get more than one person in the frame or aren't in a pretty fair sized room. You'll just end up with too-close in shots that you don't quite like, imo. this is what you want.

I was going to recommend a 40mm as well, but the pentax 40mm is insanely overpriced. Something in the 35-50mm range is what you want though, with 50mm because as cropped as i would go.

I also wouldn't bother with a flash. You can have so much more fun, and get so much better results for way less money and fooling around just using stuff like lamps and cheap home depot work lights, etc. I've gotten great results with bare lightbulbs hanging from wires creatively placed in the room and turned on/off.

Another comment i can have is that the default 18-55 lenses that canon, nikon, pentax, etc ship are all about the same. nikons is a tiny bit better than the others, but they all have one thing in common which is a lot of sucking. The lens itself is sucking the "pop" out of your photos more than anything else. I could dig up some example photos from my old canons(which were stolen, RIP) of the stock lens Vs a couple primes, Vs a nice 17-50 2.8 lens(which costs $$$$, like $500-900, don't go there yet). The cheap sub-$200 primes looked better than anything else, including the very expensive zoom. And the 18-55 was indistinguishable in most situations from the camera on my then-current iphone 4.

Another thing to think about is that very rarely is a truly good photo made in the modern age without some post processing. If you have a mac, get aperture. If you have a mac or a pc and get lightroom. Both are under $100, and aperture is REALLY cheap now(like $30 i believe?). Play around with a lot. Hit the auto button and see what changes it makes. Tweak from there. Take an unprocessed image and play with every slider then hit undo, and figure out what everything really does. Pretty quickly you'll be getting better results than any preset on the camera or in either of those pieces of software could create.

Oh, and make sure you're shooting in RAW mode on the camera, those editing suites can really only work their magic properly on raw photos. They really are worth playing around with though, and in RAW mode i've taken what appeared to be somewhat underexposed "dud" shots that were in proper focus and turned them into "woah" shots multiple times, and many more times at least "yea, that's pretty good".

Oh, as a closing note, this is a really awesome lens if you can find one in the secondary market somewhere. Don't pay more than like, $200-250 for it, but it's great. More for universal general use than just portraits, but still.

I've been doing this on the cheap for more than a couple years now. My first SLR was the very first rebel. And yea, i'd say the order of importance here is Lighting>the lens>post processing>the camera.

You can get professional looking shots with an iphone if it's held nice and still and you have good lighting. Even moreso if you do some post(which is harder with jpeg, but definitely still possible if you got 80% of the way towards "right" in the first place). Buy a cheap prime and play around with lighting a lot. Shoot a TON just playing with lighting/framing/positioning, then playing around with stuff in aperture/lightroom. You'll get the hang of it pretty quick. It took me less than 3 months to go from "how do i shot camera?" to posting stuff online i was pretty damn proud of, and still like quite a bit looking back on it.

oh man, this thread is making me want to get another slr reallly badly. My poor wallet :(
posted by emptythought at 5:52 PM on January 28

This flickr group gives some great examples of photos taken with the 70mm pancake.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 6:16 PM on January 28

The Pentax 35mm 2.4 is the best cheap, single lens to have. It's a normal lens on the APS-C sensor. It's great.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:19 PM on January 28

Whoa, these are amazing answers, no best one! I think I'm definitely going to take a class -- I've realized how little I know what the camera can do. I'm still convinced that the lens isn't that good though, but I have to check the budget (or birthday present coming up soon?) Thanks so much for all the advice!
posted by EtTuHealy at 6:36 PM on January 28

Comparing a kit lens to an iPhone is.... not based on any kind of reality. you do not need an expensive lens to take good photos. For recreational photographers the biggest gains and losses in quality of pictures occurs behind the camera. The difference between lenses, for a beginner, is marginal, honestly, and its a common thing for beginners to spend a bucket of money on lenses. Yes a $700 dollar lens is better than the kit lens, but you do not need it to take great pictures, and an Investment of time instead of money will yield good results.

Spend the money when you are capable of getting the best out of it.
posted by smoke at 8:08 PM on January 28

More practice with the camera will give you greater benefits than any new lens ever will. I know that it sucks to ask for lens advice, only to be told to do more homework, but I've learned the hard way, and so will you. Check out the Reddit Photo Class and Cambridge in Colour.


Kit lenses nowadays are optically fine. The Pentax 18-55 is no exception. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. I could cite lw/ph at you, but I'll spare everybody the pain in the ass. :)

However, the 18-55 kit lens is slow, and slow lenses are hard to use indoors. "Slow" here means that it doesn't let in very much light. This is why you keep having to use a flash.

So, in that respect, a faster lens wouldn't necessarily be a terrible idea. That's why I had recommended the Pentax 35mm 2.4, which can be had for under $200. It is optically excellent, sharp across the frame with bright Pentax colors. The f2.4 aperture is more than fast enough for indoor use, especially considering that the Pentax K-x has excellent low-light performance and in-body image stabilization.

There are of course many alternatives in the world, but I'd rather give you one big fat solid recommendation. The Pentax 35mm 2.4 is so good, and so cheap, that you might as well just get it no matter what.

For a longer, portrait lens, I would consider taking advantage of how Pentax DSLRs can mount and meter just about any K-mount lens ever made, including manual focus lenses. For portraits, you don't necessarily need autofocus. To that end, you should definitely consider one of the many excellent manual focus lenses that are on the used market. Check out Pentaxforums' Lens Database for more lens reviews than you'll ever know what to do with.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:15 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]

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