Lens Kit for Grand Tour of the Rockies 2: Zooms

Grand Tetons SP12-128

On my trip to the Colorado Rockies, I took with me four zoom lenses:

  • Pentax DA 10-17 f.35-4.5 162
  • Pentax DA 12-24 f4 557
  • Pentax A 35-105 f3.5 185
  • Pentax FA 100-300 f4.7-5.8 25

These four lenses accounted for 914 of the 1680 photos I took on the trip, or 54% of total shots taken. The DA 12-24 accounted for the most photos, at 557; the FA 100-300 for the least, with only 25. Now on my latest trip to the northern Rockies, of the 2,568 shots taken, about 1,727 were taken with zoom lenses, or 68% of total shots. What accounts for the difference? Mainly one factor: different zoom lenses. The reason why I shot more with prime lenses on the Colorado trip stemmed from dissatisfaction with what I was getting out of the zooms. In particularly, the two longer zooms just weren’t holding their own against my primes. The A 35-105, a nice enough lenses, just did not produce images with comparable resolution, microcontrast, or color rendition to my primes. And the FA 100-300, despite all the praise it received from reviewers over at pentaxforums.com, had serious resolution issues. So when I returned from my Colorado trip, I made an effort to revamp my zoom lineup. I replaced the FA 100-300 with the F 70-210, which has proved to be an immense upgrade, even though the 70-210 zoom only cost $25 more than the 100-300! I’ve been going through many of the images I shot of Avalanche Gorge with the F 70-210 and I’m stunned by the quality of the results. Not bad at all for a lens that cost me only $115!

Replacing the A 35-105 turned out to be more of a challenge. After trying a couple of cheaper lenses, I ended up paying $380 for a used copy of the FA 24-90, the best variable aperture zoom lens that Pentax has ever made. This is a splendid lens capable of delivering images comparable to what you’d get out of a prime lens. It was well worth the money I spent for it, even though I paid more than the going rate for the lens.

The DA 12-24 is a very fine lens; but I was frustrated with the focal range, which seemed restrictive. So I swapped it out for the DA 16-45, which is a very fine lens in its own right, considered in some quarters the equal of the Canon 17-40 L.

Having revamped my zoom kit meant I did not have to rely as much on primes as I had previously. I could get prime-like quality from my zooms, and take advantage of the greater focal versatility of zoom lenses. This proved to be quite important on my last trip, because I wound up at a number of places where I needed quickly change focal lengths. At Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, for example, I was able to take this shot at 29mm:

And then seconds later take this shot at 58mm:

I was very pressed for time when I was at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Changing lenses was out of the question. So the ability to stay with one lens meant I could quickly go between different overlooks and still have enough focal range to get the shot. When I was at artist point, I needed a longer focal range. No problem, I just zoomed to 68mm:

Or, when I wanted to catch this fleeting glimpse of a shot of the Upper Yellowstone Falls, I was able to zoom to 80mm:

Now if I had been able to spend more time at Yellowstone, I would had shot more with primes. Gustav W. Verderber spent a year photographing Yellowstone. For landscapes, he used a Canon 50/1.8 lens on a FF camera for most of his shots. The equivalent focal range on an APS-C camera is around 35mm. I took my 35mm prime precisely to use at Yellowstone. But I found that in the press of time, I needed to rely on zooms.

One thing else is worth noting about my new zoom kit: notice the overlapping focal ranges. The DA 10-17 doesn’t really count, because it’s a fisheye lens, and the focal lengths means something different with fisheyes. But the other three lens overlap, particularly the DA 16-45 and the FA 24-90. There’s a sentiment out there that one shouldn’t take on a trip zooms with over-lapping focal ranges. It’s redundant. However, I think this misses the entire point of using zoom lenses. What is a zoom lens for? Focal range diversity: it allows one to access many focal ranges without swapping lenses. And this is precisely what overlapping zooms provide: greater versatility. You can dial in just the range that fits the type of landscape you are shooting. Consider, for example, Oxbow Bend, the famous scene in Grand Tetons National Park. There are a number of focal ranges that might be useful here. For example, 40mm:

Or 48mm:

Or 63mm:

Or 73mm:

Grand Tetons SP12-252

Now what is most significant about these focal lengths? Namely: they don’t fall conveniently within the confines of a high quality standard zoom lens for APS-C cameras. Here’s a list of some of the best standard lenses for APS-C cameras:

  • Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX
  • Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM
  • Pentax SMC DA* Series 16-50mm f/2.8 ED AL IF SDM
  • Sigma 18-50mm F2.8 EX DC
  • Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC

None of these lenses could have taken all four pictures. In fact, a high quality standard APS-C zoom lens would able to take two of the four pictures. If you wanted to get the last two images, you would either have to crop an image from a zoom (hardly ideal), or swap lenses. Shooting with a full frame standard lens on an APS-C camera solves this issue. Notice as well that none of the shots were wider than 40mm. That’s the type of landscape one confronts at Oxbow Bend. It is a 35mm to 80mm (on APS-C) landscape, not 17-55 landscape. If you want to shoot it with one lens, a standard APS-C zoom won’t do.

Nor would it be any different shooting with full frame lenses on a full frame camera. The high quality standard zoom on full frame covers 24-70. Such a lens take the first two images, but not the second two. No, for the second two, you would have to use a 70-200 lens. Big, heavy, and expensive. Unfortunately, there are no high quality 50mm to 120mm zooms available for full frame cameras.

Now you could get around this problem by just getting a zoom with a longer range, something like the Nikkor 16-85 on APS-C or the Canon 24-105 f4 L on full frame. Only problem is that lenses with a wider range take a bit of hit, in terms of image quality. They may be pretty good lenses, but they’re not quite as good as the 17-55s or the 24-70s. They are not, in short, prime good. They tend to have poor corner to corner performance at the wide end, and reduced resolution across the frame at the long end. They just won’t take as good pictures as primes or shorter range zooms.

So the ideal solution is to have shorter zooms that overlap. Then you merely select the zoom which best fits the type of landscape you are shooting. At Oxbow Bend or Mormon Row, where there’s some distance between me and the Teton Range, I made use of the FA 24-90. At String Lake or Taggert Lake, where I’m very near the Tetons, I made use of the DA 16-45. Using over-lapping zooms is a lens strategy that paid big dividends for me on my last trip. It minimized my need to swap lenses and/or use primes. When you’re in unfamiliar locations where you have to shoot quickly (because of rapidly changing light), minimizing lens changes can be important.

One thing else. Note how all my lenses are on the slow side. I’ve intentionally kept away from the high quality f2.8 zooms for three reasons: (1) such lenses are expensive; (2) in landscape photography, f2.8 is not needed; and (3) slow glass is smaller, lighter than fast glass, and hence easier to lug around. So what I have done is I have collected some of the very best slow zoom glass I could get my hands on. At f8, these lenses are just good as there f2.8 rivals; and they’re easier to carry around.