May 20 2009

Going to the Birds:
Does the Pentax 50-200mm F4-5.6 ED lens Measure Up?

Birds are challenging subjects for the shutterbug. They are almost always on the move, they’re well camouflaged, and they’re elusive. But I love watching them and trying to photograph them, and always shoot more photos of them however many pictures I have in the archives. Without a good lens, though, shooting pictures of birds can be frustrating. That’s why I wanted a telephoto lens for my Pentax K200D DSLR. I decided on the Pentax 50-200mm F4-5.6 ED telephoto because it was a good compromise focal length—long enough for wildlife, short enough for general use. So how does it perform as a lens for the bird-watching photographer? Great! The short and skinny is that it’s lightweight, compact, bright and it quickly focuses and zooms when in manual mode. On full telephoto, the resulting images are crisp, the dark areas of the photo are clear, and the colors are vivid. And as a deal-clincher, the price was right.

The first time I hefted a Pentax 50-200mm F4-5.6 ED I was surprised by its light weight and vaguely rattly build—my old Zuiko 200mm telephoto for the Olympus OM-1n 35mm camera was solid and heavy. How could a lens with a greater focal length be so light? Did this mean the Pentax lens is poorly made? In a word, no. I was encouraged by reviews that evaluated the lens as a very good one. And at less than USD200, I could buy two or three of these lenses for the price of similarly well-reviewed telephotos that were more weather-tight and more solidly built. Since early in this year, when I bought the lens, I’ve used it in sub-zero cold, in snow, in ice fog, in mist, and on dusty warm days, and carried the camera and lens slung round my neck as I pushed through tangles, climbed over steep bedrock exposures, and crawled under fallen tree trunks. Neither the lens nor the camera have suffered one bit for all of that (the same cannot be said for me knees!). But enough talk. The photos will speak for themselves:


Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

This male rose-breasted grosbeak is perched in a blooming crab apple tree, and he’s curious about what I’m up to. The photo was shot at full telephoto extension on a bright sunny day. He’s gregarious, and fairly large, so he’s not that difficult to capture. But the returning warblers are another matter. With the leaves still emerging and not fully grown, it’s not very hard to find the strong-voiced, melodic warblers singing and flitting as they hunt for insects. The difficulty comes in catching them in the lens. Because warblers are small, it’s necessary to be fairly close to get a good image, but it can be done:


Male Yellow-Rumped Warbler

I used the full telephoto for the yellow-rumped warbler photo above. This shot is an enlargement of the original—this is about 150% of the original shot—but I’m satisfied with the quality. Here’s a 100% reproduction of a yellow warbler taken with the full telephoto as he hunts in a riverside willow:


Yellow Warbler

He’s wary of me approaching him, and soon flies:


Yellow Warbler Flying

Here’s another small bird taken with the telephoto on full extension:


White-Throated Sparrow

This is a male white-throated sparrow having just had a drink at the edge of an extensive wetland. I was alerted to his presence by the rustling he and his companions made as they scratted for food. They’d just returned from their northern migration and were enjoying the warm sunshine as they recovered from the long journey. The ducks have come back north, too:


Hooded Mergansers

These are hooded mergansers—three males escort one female and put on a show by flashing their white hoods. The picture was shot when the sun was low but bright, and like the others, on full telephoto. The following photo of a male hairy woodpecker was taken with the lens set to about 100mm:


Hairy Woodpecker

He’d been playing a game of hide-and-seek on a misty day, but was about to tire of it and fly away. Look at that talon! I used the same focal length for the photo below of a common grackle male performing a mating dance for a not terrible interested female:


Grackle Mating Dance

She’d rather concentrate on eating a sunflower seed than watch his dance as he struts and fluffs his feathers while squawking. Another dark bird I see frequently is the turkey vulture:


Turkey Vulture

This fellow soared down to get a better look at me, but despite his size, I still needed the full telephoto to get a good shot of him. The sun highlights the trailing edge of his wing feathers, and even illuminates his naked red head. A more colorful bird came close to me as I stood quietly near a thicket of jack pines:


Female Black-Headed Grosbeak

This is a grosbeak, but she—or he—is a mystery to me. At first I thought it was a female rose-breasted grosbeak, then a female black-headed grosbeak, but now I’m not so sure. Because the rose-breast and black-head will cross-breed, perhaps she’s a female rose-breasted grosbeak who’s the child of the black-headed and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Whatever the ornithologists would decide, she knows who she is, and she’s beautiful. Another bird who posed briefly for my lens as I stood near the pines was this white-breasted nuthatch:


WB Nuthatch

I didn’t need a long telephoto for him, but instead used a 95mm focal length. Here’s a closer view from the same photo, this time a nearly one-to-one reproduction:


WB Nuthatch close

I’m satisfied with the clarity and brightness of the lens. Look at how each feather is discernible. Here’s another picture which shows the downy feathers of a small bird, this time a chickadee:



This chickadee is singing the fee bee song. I like the colors in the background and the highlighted feathers of the bird’s head and rump. Now here’s a bird of a different feather, one familiar to most of us but beautiful nonetheless:


Mallard Hen

This mallard hen is rejoicing in the return of spring after enduring a harsh winter on a small open spot of fast water down on The River. The lens handles the dark darks and bright light hues of this shot very well.

The bottom line? I’m very pleased with my Pentax gear, and think the Pentax 50-200mm F4-5.6 ED lens was a very good choice for my budget. Someday I might buy a longer lens so I can get tight shots of small, distant birds, but I pronounce myself pleased with the photos I’ve been getting with this rig. It’s compact size and light weight mean that I’m not reluctant to pack it in my rucksack or carry it on my bike. I give it a whole-hearted thumb’s up, without reservation.

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