My Photography Lens System

by Miserere


Since I started this blog I occasionally receive an e-mail asking me what equipment I use. The questions come from beginning photographers who are trying to figure out what lenses to purchase now that they’ve used their kit lens for a while and found it lacking in some respects.

Peter Zack already wrote a comprehensive article about which lenses to buy, so I’m not going to rewrite that. I will simply list some of my equipment and explain why I chose it.

I’m going to list the lenses in groups, which is how I carry them, and how they make sense to me within a larger lens system. Obviously, some lenses are going to be Pentax, because that’s the camera I shoot, but every other brand will have a lens of similar focal length and aperture. You’ll also find I shoot a lot of third party lenses, which are available for most all camera mounts. Some are auto-focus, others manual, and the reason I picked one or the other was due to either availability or price. One last note, these focal lengths make sense to me on an APS-C sensor; for a full frame sensor I would make different choices.

I’ve included a photo of each group of lenses, all taken at the same scale so you can compare sizes.


General Purpose Prime Kit

A prime kit should be built around a standard focal length; what this focal length is depends on each photographer’s tastes. Some prefer wider, some longer, and there’s nothing wrong either. Once you’ve identified your favourite focal length, you would generally then choose two more lenses, one on either side of this focal length—one to be your wide angle, the other your telephoto. More lenses can be added, but 3 is a basic system.

When building my general purpose kit I centered on 28mm, which is my standard. It also happens to be the standard lens length for an APS-C sensor because 28mm is its approximate diagonal. Older 28mm f/2.8 lenses are ubiquitous on the used market, they also tend to be small, which is good because I wanted a small, light kit.

Pentax-FA 20mm f/2.8 A nice wide angle that’s also relatively fast. If I don’t sound super excited…that’s because I’m not a wide guy, but for many shooters 20mm could be their standard lens.
Pentax-A 28mm f/2.8 If I go out with just one prime, it’s likely to be this one. I like the focal length so much that I have four of them, one with a maximum aperture of f/2. If you can find one with close-focusing 1:4 capabilities, it makes the lens even more versatile. But the important point here is this: 28mm gives me a FoV that is just right for my, umm, view. This focal length is the center of my photographic system.
Pentax-FA 50mm f/1.4 A great half-body portrait lens, and the fact it was cheap didn’t hurt. Most brands sell cheap fast 50mm lenses and I find it strange whenever I meet someone who doesn’t own one.
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG EX macro For tight headshots I prefer a longer focal length such as 105mm, or even 135mm sometimes. This 105mm is also a macro lens, so it serves dual purpose; it’s also AF and gets used more than my manual focus 135mm f/2.8.

Miserere's General Purpose Prime Kit


Low Light Prime Kit

While the same kit-building principles apply to a low light as they do to a general purpose kit, these primes need to be faster (i.e., have larger maximum apertures), and because fast lenses are less common, and more expensive, than slow ones, compromises need to be made as far as focal length are concerned. On the other hand, low light lenses are probably going to be used for a different type of photography than daylight lenses, so you may not want the same focal lengths.

Sigma 24mm f/1.8 DG EX Very useful wide angle low light lens. I try to use it stopped down to f/2 as it’s not very sharp wide open, but if light is low, I’ll use it at f/1.8. My main quibble with it is that it’s a huge lens for a prime; that it uses 77mm filters should tell you something.
Pentax-FA 31mm f/1.8 This is my standard lens for low light. True, f/1.8 isn’t that fast (f/1.4 would be nicer) but this lens is sharp wide open and deals well with high ISO softness. If I didn’t have this lens, I’d probably go for a Sigma 35mm f/1.4.
Pentax-A 50mm f/1.2 or FA 50mm f/1.4 For some people the extra 1/2 stop is no big deal, but when light is low, every extra bit of light you can get to your sensor helps. That said, manually focusing an f/1.2 lens in low light is a challenge, so if I’m not in a manual focusing mood, I’ll take the auto focus f/1.4.
Pentax-FA 77mm f/1.8 Ltd My low light telephoto. Like the 31mm f/1.8, it’s sharp from wide open. Obviously, I also use it in normal light for beautiful portraits.

Miserere's Low Light Prime Kit


All Purpose Zoom Kit

While I love shooting primes for their higher IQ at wide apertures, better performance in low light and smaller size, there is no denying that zooms offer a set of advantages that must be taken into account. My all purpose zoom kit consists of just 3 lenses, yet they allow me to cover from 17mm all the way to 300mm; that’s a huge range! Like primes, there will be a standard zoom that will probably get used for most of the time, but it’s useful to have a couple more zooms—one the goes wider, and one longer. I chose faster zooms for my wide and standard, so I could shoot in lower light, but a slow zoom for my telephoto because I’m most likely to use it during the day when there’s enough light. Your needs may be different, and if shooting mostly in bright light, or if you use a tripod in low light, then you could even get away with having just two zooms to cover the same range as my three, as my standard and wide zooms could be replaced by one of the popular 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 or 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 (f/4 for some brands) lenses.

Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8-4 When I’m in a wide mood, this is my favourite lens. It’s an exceptional zoom that is not very well known; sharp wide open throughout the range, with great contrast. It’s a full-frame lens too, so it works as a super wide zoom on 35mm film/sensors. Most APS-C photographers use a 16/17-50mm f/2.8 lens (available from every lens manufacturer AFAIK) as a standard zoom, but for me those focal lengths are too wide for standard, so buying this Tamron saved me money.
Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Now this is my standard zoom. It goes from my favourite focal length of 28mm into telephoto territory, and if I’m looking to carry just one multi purpose lens, this one is it. This is the lens that spends the most time on my camera and I could wax lyrical about how much I love it and how great it is, but I’ll spare you the pain. Just take my word for it: It’s a fantastic lens. Plus, it’s much smaller than equivalent lenses from other manufacturers, even though it’s a full frame lens.
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 A cheap lens that performs quite well; I tend to use it stopped down to f/8, but I’m not afraid to shoot wide open if I need to. I would like to replace it with the Pentax version, but can’t really justify the expense given how well it performs.

Miserere's All Purpose Zoom Kit


Long Telephoto Kit

Sometimes I feel longish. Maybe I want tight portraits of guests at a party or in a crowd, or maybe I feel like photographing wildlife. Maybe both! And so I came to acquire a long telephoto kit that, despite its sparseness, is quite flexible and fun (albeit challenging) to use.

Vivitar Series 1 200mm f/3 An old lens from the 80s, built like a tank; manual focus, of course. With a max aperture just 1/6 stop slower than f/2.8, it’s a fast 200mm that I use mainly for isolating faces in crowds, although it also works well for curious squirrels and other large animals.
Tokina AT-X 400mm f/5.6 I use this lens mainly for birds. It’s rather compact and light given it’s focal length so I use it hand-held most of the time. It’s not at its strongest wide open, so I try to shoot it at f/8-9.
Tamron MC4 1.4x Teleconverter This is a very good general purpose TC that doesn’t visibly degrade image quality. Used on the above lenses it gives me a 280mm f/4.2 and a 560mm f/8, so I get an extra 2 lenses by carrying a small TC. Sweet.

Miserere's Long Telephoto Kit


10 Responses to “My Photography Lens System”

  1. So… you have 4 of the Pentax-A 28mm? 4? You know I favor wide(er) angle lengths, and I have a Vivitar 28mm which is unfortunately non A, which means I’m using green button… I love it, esp. the FL… so if you have 4 “A” lenses… surely you can’t be using them all the time…?

    am I making it more obvious?!

    Nice read by the way, esp. the photos. Too many times people describe their gear with no photos or scale reference, so thanks for that!

    now back to my hint….

    • What is it you’re trying to say, exactly, Somanna…? :-p

      I should have been clearer; I don’t have 4 Pentax-A 28mm lenses, just one, but I do have a few other 3rd party 28mm lenses that I acquired as collateral baggage on eBay. You should be able to get a Vivitar close focus 28mm f/2.8 P/KA for well under $100 now the buying spree initiated by Robin’s Vivitar 28mm Bestiary has died down πŸ™‚

      For a long time I used a P/K mount 28mm and have taken some great pictures with it. It was a Toyo Optics 28mm f/2.8 that I tried to sell for $10 and nobody wanted it! It’s the lens that made me fall in love with that focal length.

      • I have the vivitar 28mm f/2.8, which i’m pretty sure is close focus… got it for $20, and like you it’s really made me like that focal length.

        Now if i can get an “A” version so that I can use Av mode, that would be neat… oh, and autofocus would be nice too.

  2. Nice collection and nicely thought-out (or at least you make it sound so ;~)
    I think this is a good reference in how to think about lens choices.

  3. Interesting post and a nice lens collection. My thoughts tend to go more towards a general purpose zoom, “something wide”, and one or two fast primes for low light.

    My full frame kit consists of:
    15-30 for wide
    24-105 for “general purpose”
    50/1.4 and 85/1.8 for low light / shallow DOF

    The only thing I debate now and then is changing the 15-30 for a 14-17mm range prime lens. I used to own a lot more glass but found out that I rarely used most of it and this lens setup is really all I need. In fact, I rarely use the 50 so could probably cut it down to the two zooms and the 85. πŸ™‚

    For long tele work I use a 400 on a crop body.

    • I’m probably going to cull my lens collection to get rid of rarely used lenses. I’ll be keeping those in the article and maybe 2-3 others I’m sentimentally attached to (and which don’t have much monetary value). The less you have, the more, and better you use what you do have πŸ™‚

  4. Mis, do you mix your kits much? I sometimes feel like mixing zooms and primes can be a kind of slippery slope where I end up trying to bring twice as much as I should.

    • Yeah, it’s a slippery, heavy slope πŸ™‚ I’m on vacation at the moment, and I brought my zoom and low light kits with me. Both don’t fit in my bag!

      I often throw in the 50mm f/1.4 when I carry the zoom kit, just in case I need to catch more light.

  5. OK, I think I remember what it was I going to say here…

    First off, personally I like to think of my low light and GP prime kit as the same thing. While I understand the educational value of walking around with one or a couple of prime lenses, I don’t see the point in buying a prime lens slower than f/2.8 – I look for f/2 or faster, myself. (Sure, there are other considerations for some people. I’m just trying to present a couple of otherwise unmentioned angles here.) So my GP prime set-up as well as my low light kit are the same: 77mm f/1.8, 50mm f1.4, and I recently purchased the Sigma 24mm f/1.8 (it replaced my Pentax M 28mm f/2.8, though I may continue to carry it – it’s small and quite a nice lens).

    Second… Some people favor certain filter sizes. I first came across the idea watching a Bob Krist video, where he mentioned all of his lenses used the same filter thread, so he only had to carry one set of filters. Now, Kirst was shooting color film at the time and often came into situations where he had to use color-corrective filters. Having to carry multiple sets of the same filters could be a liability for a travel photographer. One might run into the same problem if they are shooting B&W film (or digital, though generally not advised) and want to use color B&W filters. Personally, all other things being equal, I’ll choose a lens with the 49mm or 77mm filter thread. Almost all of the lenses I use now have one or the other. I like to use circular polarizor filters often when I’m shooting landscapes, and CP filters are not cheap.

    I suppose using a Cokin type system could be a solution for the filter size issue. It has it’s strengths and weaknesses, as well. That could be a whole other discussion, though.

    Well, that’s my 2 cents worth of free internet…


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