Like most people I started my photography hobby with zoom lenses mounted on a crop sensor DSLR. When I dove into the DSLR world I had no idea what I was buying, but fortunately I made some good picks right out of the gate. My grandmother had been a Pentax shooter in the 70’s, so I decided to go with a Pentax K-7 because of it’s weather proof body and pro features. Along with the kit 18-55mm zoom I purchased aPentax 12-24mm ultra wide f/4 zoom and a fast f/2.8 50-135mm Pentax telephoto. Luckily I had enough money to purchase some premium glass, although I had no clue how I was going to use it. Over the next few years I found that I pretty much only used the ultra wide angle lens and the telephoto. I may have not used the standard zoom lens because it lacked the high quality fit/finish and feel of the other two higher quality zooms, but I would like to think that I used the ultra wide and telephoto focal lengths for artistic reasons. Eventually I upgraded to a Pentax K-5 DSLR because the much better Sony sensor gave significantly improved dynamic range – although that is a topic for another post. Even after the camera body upgrade I had little desire to expand my lens collection because the 12-24mm and 50-135mm were so good and seemed to meet all my needs.
During this time I found a passion in aviation photography and creating large prints. Aircraft photos and aerial landscape photos intended to be printed on large media are resolution hogs. I soon found myself fighting a battle with the RAW images ( shooting in RAW is another good topic of discussion for a future post ) getting them ready for print. 16 megapixels needs to be upsized significantly for a 30 or 40 inch wide print. To make matters worse, photos of airplanes are very detail rich and show any loss in sharpness due to the enlarging process. Another factor working against me is the fact that aviation enthusiasts tend to get very close to aircraft prints to inspect various parts of the planes out of curiosity. Long story short – I needed more resolution and sharpness for my large prints.
At this point I need to point out that 99% of photography enthusiasts shouldn’t need to make a jump from a crop sensor to a full frame sensor at any point in their progression. The fact is that APS-C sensors are extraordinarily good and anything over 20 megapixels is excessive for most needs – heck, anything over 12 megapixels is excessive for most needs. I ran into one of the few situations that could really benefit from more resolution. At the time Nikon had the highest resolution full frame DSLR on the market with the D800 that has a 36 megapixel Sony sensor in it. Perfect, I had already found the Sony sensor in my Pentax to be EXTREMELY useful because of the massive dynamic range and I could have that same image performance with the increased resolution that I needed.
Now to a topic that is lost on many people who are getting into photography, and many who should know better – your camera body is only as good as the lens attached to it. This has always been true, but has really been brought into focus (pun intended) with the release of Nikon’s D800/D810 and now Canon’s 50 megapixel D5S. Any research regarding image quality from high resolution cameras will place emphasize two things: photo taking technique and lens selection. My concern for the Pentax to Nikon transition relates to lens selection. Which of the mind boggling array of lenses that Nikon offers should I use?
There are three basic categories of lenses to consider: entry level zooms, high quality zooms and prime lenses. I had significant budget restrictions, but a need to maximize image quality. It would be pointless to buy a 36 megapixel camera body and then slap a junk zoom on it that rendered a 16 megapixel image. Obviously the entry level zooms are generally not going to maximize image quality, so we can cut all of those from the list. Many of Nikon’s best zooms are capable of harnessing the resolution capable with the D800, but they are crazy expensive. The only option remaining is prime lenses. Primes aren’t necessarily cheap, but they are more affordable than high end zooms and they have unequalled image quality. To fulfill my requirements I had to make the massive leap from using zooms to using a couple of primes. That is a scary proposition for someone who never even touched a prime lens before.
In the end I chose two primes from Nikon’s stellar line of f/1.8 lenses. To replicate the most used focal length of my Pentax ultra wide zoom I bought the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G lens and to match the most used focal length of the telephoto zoom I got the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens. I also bought the 50mm f/1.8 to round out the purchase just because it is so inexpensive and I wanted to use it as a walk around lens for street photography. For less than the cost of one quality zoom lens I was able to buy three prime lenses that produce a higher quality image than even the best pro zoom.
So you ask – how did that D800 with a few primes work out for you? GREAT! The images that I have taken with the new combo are way easier to prepare for printing due to the much improved resolution and sharpness. As for usability in the field I would report that using primes can be frustrating at times, but ultimately I believe the image quality is worth the hassle. Plus it forces you to learn what is possible with ONE focal length. It is easier to visualize your shot prior to taking it when using a prime. I may go into greater detail on this in a future post, but for now just know that using primes is rewarding with regard to image quality and the personal feeling of artistic creation. Two years later from switching from Pentax to Nikon and I still own the same three prime lenses and I still don’t own a zoom.