In my recent Pentax MX review I touched on the fact that I’d only really been shooting it with the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens. This is a lens that seems to divide opinion a little bit, so I thought I’d share some of my currently-slightly-grumpy-about-photography feelings toward it.
I’ve been reviewing gear for quite a few years now. If you include my previous blog and the forum I used to run, it’s something like 12 years, though the last 6 1/2 years it’s been a lot more intensive. In that time I’ve interacted with a hell of a lot of people, and whilst there is obviously a scale with an infinite amount of variables, I’ve found that photographers can be pretty much divided into two groups when it comes to lenses. Those who do care about lenses, and those who just shoot with the focal length they need and don’t much care beyond that as long as it fits on their camera and does broadly what it’s expected to.
There is of course nothing wrong with either of those perspectives, though personally, for a long time now, I have found myself on the caring-about-lenses side of the fence. In short, for me, lenses are a vital part of fulfilling my vision. A while ago now I wrote a post about defining the perfect lens. In that post, I suggest that the perfect lens is the one that allows the photographer to fulfil their individual goals. It’s not about line pairs, MTF charts, flatness of field etc, but about how the image is rendered by the lens and how important it can be to understand that rendering when creating an image. I go into a lot more detail with examples in that post here.
When it comes to what I usually look for from a lens, for the most part at least, I have two preferences. I like the ultra-contrasty modern rendering I get from my collection of modern Zeiss ZM lenses, and I also like the rounded glowy look I get from old Sonnar lenses. I’ve talked about both of these preferences quite a bit on this website. A little while ago though I started noticing another preference rearing its head. This was a preference for just not really giving a crap.
As I think I’ve made it abundantly clear recently, my feelings toward gear and indeed taking photos has been at a low ebb. As I talk about in the first post of this series, I picked up the Pentax MX initially as I found it relieved me somewhat of my usual habits around sometimes thinking about gear too much.
Significantly, the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 came part of that package. It came as a lens that – at least in terms of the photographic outcome – I didn’t really give a crap about. I just wanted something that fit on the camera, was as small as possible to match the camera, was a focal length I was happy with, and was fast enough for the type of snapping I wanted to do.
A different set of ideals
Actually, in some ways, this set of ideals isn’t entirely alien to me. It’s the set of ideals that I largely apply to shooting when I’m using a point & shoot camera. Though I can’t deny that I haven’t been suckered in by point & shoot cameras with name-brand lenses attached to the front of them in the past, for a large part the mentality I have when I approach photography with a point & shoot camera is very much one of not giving a crap about the lens. The reality is, the massive majority of point & shoot lenses are “good enough” – as Mike quite eloquently points out here. The same can be said of most camera lenses in fact. Which is why a lot of people are able to take the stance of not giving a crap about their lenses, regardless of the type of camera they shoot.
What is alien to me is combining the not-giving-a-crap mentality with a fully manual mechanical camera. Usually if I’m stepping out of point & shoot territory I’m stepping into a world where I care more about how my photos will be rendered. On this occasion though, the pieces of the puzzle have added up to something different.
On this occasion – again as I talked about in the first post in this series – I was looking for a camera that I could easily carry and that was fully manual. I went into all the details why in that first post, but the short version is that I just wanted a camera and lens that I could take anywhere with little thought but that also allowed me to connect with the process of actually taking a photo. I wanted point & shoot size, with full manual control.
The Pentax MX offered the size and the control, the Pentax-M 40mm is the smallest lens for that camera so that’s the one I went for. The choice of lens had sod all to do with the way the images were going to look – I assumed the results would be good enough, and that was all I cared to achieve.
This might not seem like a big deal to those of you out there who regularly don’t give a crap about the minutia of your lens’s optical properties but to someone who reliably does give a crap about this sort of thing, this sort of approach felt slightly alien. Alien as it felt though, it fit perfectly with my current mentality.
The Pentax-m 40mm f/2.8
That might seem like longer-than-usual preamble, but it feels necessary given the circumstances. This is mainly because it feels like I’ve freed myself from my usual approach to lens reviews where to greater degree I focus on lens character over and above any other factor. This is a lens that’s seems to me to not have been designed to be reviewed how I would normally review a lens. Reviewing Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 – for the most part at least – feels more like an exercise in understanding compromise. Not only does its small size compromise potential image quality, its small size also compromises handling.
Really, therefore, the questions this lens poses are simply whether or not its small size does feel like an advantage in use, and beyond that does the advantage that brings outweigh the compromises it otherwise presents. In other words does it take a good enough photo and handle well enough to be taken seriously as an option over and above a lens such as the Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 which isn’t much larger?
This is where I think my preamble is most relevant to this review. Quite genuinely, reflecting on the image quality of the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8, “good enough” are the first and pretty much only words that come to mind.
Very little about the way it has rendered the images I have so far taken with it has disappointed me. But equally very little has made me even contemplate the image quality at all. There’s been a couple of photos which I assume were taken wide open that I’ve noted as being a little soft, but other than that, for the sort of snaps I’ve been taking it’s performed plenty well enough for my needs.
The important thing though is to put those needs into context. The context here – if I’ve not made it clear enough already – is one of not really giving a crap. I wanted to take photos of my kids and snaps when I’m out and about, so ultimate image “quality” isn’t really a high priority. I’m shooting with a higher-grain film too, so even a basic need for “sharpness” is less relevant.
Reading other reviews people talk about Pentax-M 40mm needing to be stopped down for adequate sharpness especially into the corners. There’s talk of bad bokeh (not uncommon in pancake lenses) and heavy vignetting. I’ve read that on digital cameras it’s even worse in all these regards.
So which is it? Poor, or “good enough”? Of course, the answer is quite simple. It depends on subject matter, choice of media and overall needs. For me, for what I’ve used it for, as I’ve said, “good enough” have been the words that most readily come to mind.
It is certainly fair to say that any lens this tiny is going to be harder to use than an even fractionally bigger lens. This thing is minuscule in terms of how much it projects from the body of the camera, and with that small size obviously comes small focus and aperture controls.
With the camera to the eye, it actually feels a lot easier to grab the aperture control than it does to grab the focus control. This indeed seems to be a primary complaint that most people have with the Pentax-M 40mm, and I must admit, I’m still not completely immune to trying to focus with the aperture control – and that’s despite using it a fair amount now.
Again, if I were shooting something “important” – something where it was vital that I was able to take spur of the moment shots – I probably would find this a minor hinderance sometimes. But somehow, photos of a drinks can stuck in a fence don’t feel like they encapsulate what the great HCB was talking about when he coined the phrase “the decisive moment”.
And even shots that maybe get slightly closer to those moments have just required a bit more thought and preparation.
And really, would I have cared if I missed the moment this chap walked under this tree? Not really, no. I’m not exactly redefining the genre of street photography here am I? I’m snapping for the sake of snapping, and again, the slightly compromised handling hasn’t really gotten in the way of that.
The size advantage
I’m sure it’s pretty obvious by now that I’ve been working toward talking about how much I’ve enjoyed the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 for its tiny size. The 50mm f/1.7 really is only a tiny bit bigger (it’s actually about twice as long, but that’s splitting hairs a little…) but there’s just something about shooting a camera and lens that were both designed with a primary focus on smallness of size.
The only single issue I’ve had – and it’s a bit of a stretch to call it an issue really – is that the weight of the lens is so small that when carrying it on a strap the camera has a tendency to tilt up at the sky which can make it a little less comfortable to carry. Fortunately, we’re now in the time of year that allows me to wear a coat. Coats mean more pockets, and the Pentax MX and 40mm f/2.8 combo fits with more than a little ease into said pockets. This has meant the strap – and therefore that particular handling issue – can be left at home.
All of the above said, I feel like I should just emphasise the point that if you asked me if I’d choose the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 for something more “important” than snaps, I’d probably look elsewhere. It’s good enough for snaps, and it’s satisfied my recent need to not think about a lens, but were I shooting something for work – or anything where I felt like I could justify carrying something bigger – I’d probably choose the bigger “better” lens. In fact, quite simply, I’d likely choose one of my Zeiss ZM lenses.
But that’s not really the point here. I’m sure regular readers will be able to detect the grumpy tone I’m writing in at the moment. I’ve even had a couple of comments from readers suggesting I cheer up and stop bringing everyone down with the lack of joy I currently have for photography. I’m not in the mood to be thinking too deeply about things like optical quality all the time. So when it comes to the Pentax-M 40mm, I’m happy with the slightly compromised image quality because it doesn’t matter for the type of photos I’m taking. What ultimately matters is that I’m taking them, and I’m taking them because for the time being I’m happier carrying a smaller camera and lens.
Whilst everything I have written here has all been very specific to my current needs, desires and indeed mood, what I hoped to achieve by sharing all this is the point that this lens – despite what you might read about it – is perfectly adequate if your personal set of needs meet with the set of compromises within which this lens was designed.
The Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 is a small lens that was seemingly designed almost entirely for the sake of smallness. As part of that design process, it is fair to say that both optical quality and overall handling have been sacrificed simply for the sake of creating a lens that’s almost impossibly small.
For many these compromises will be a step too far, and I’m sure for them the 50mm f/1.7 or 35mm 2.8 make for better options. For me though – and I imagine a lot of other people out there who just want something small and easy to carry – this lens offers something unique.
Combined with the Pentax MX, the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 lens offers fully mechanical, manual film photography in a package that’s barely bigger than some of the point & shoot cameras out there – the optical quality is up there with those sorts of cameras too. And this has been exactly what I’ve needed in my life recently. Does any of this make the Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8 the right lens for you…? I dunno, who am I to say… but if you don’t give too much of a crap about your optical quality and crave something pocketable, it might be worth giving it a go!
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