Help me find a portrait lens between $200 – $500?

I received a message recently asking for some suggestions about a new lens to supplement his 18-55mm kit lens. Check out the conversation below because it might be helpful to you as well. I like helping people out, so feel free to send me messages if you have similar questions and think I would be able to help. I might feature it on the site as well.

His initial message:

Hello Scott
Great reviews. I purchased the Kr Pentax and the 18-55 DAL lens came with it. Can you please recommend a lens for Portraits. I think taking portraits will help me make the money I would need for a better lens. Right now I would like to spend no more then 200.00 US
Thanks again

My first response:

Are you only interested in new lenses? If so, you options are limited at $200. Pentax has a DA 35mm f2.4 AL around $200, but that is too wide angle to be considered a true portrait lens (zoom your current lens to 35mm to get a feel for the focal length). If that focal length agrees with you, the DA 35mm would be a decent improvement over your existing lens.

Pentax recently announced a DA 50mm f1.8 AL, but I don’t think they have mentioned a release date yet. Once that lens is available, I think it would work nicely as a portrait lens. It should be considerably cheaper than the 35mm lens. http://www.dpreview.com/news/2012/02/07/Pentax_In-development_lenses/

They do have a lens called the FA 50mm f1.4, but that is around $350 new.

In the days of 35mm film, a 85mm lens was the ideal focal length for portraits. Our cameras have a sensor that is smaller than 35mm film, so that would translate to a 55mm lens. However, I think anything between 40mm and 100mm would work. If you are unfamiliar with longer focal length lenses, go to a local store and just try out lenses that offer those longer lengths so you can see how easy or difficult it would be to use.

You have a lot more options with used lenses, but it is a bit more challenging finding the lenses. Besides Pentax, you might be able to find a Sigma, Tamron, or Tokina lens that could work. However, I don’t think any of them currently offer a portrait lens around $200 in K-mount.

Places to look for used equipment:
adorama.com (they have a used section)
bhphotovideo.com (they have a used section)
keh.com (a used equipment store I trust)
cameta.com (I’ve used them once or twice with success)
ebay.com (takes some effort to find decent quality and fair prices)
http://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/photographic-equipment-sale/

This website:
http://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/
Is an amazing resource for people who use Pentax lenses. It has a large lens review database you should check out.
http://www.pentaxforums.com/lensreviews/

Follow up message:

Wow, thank you for all that information, I really appreciate it. I’ll be honest with you. I’m 58, this is my first SLR type camera and not to bore you, but my speciality is wedding video x5 years. The reason I purchased an SLR was because most couples would ask if I’m also a photographer and I would say NO.

Looking at what photographer get paid and what they do is something I know I can do (And I say that confidently because I also take 2-300 pictures and people like them.) Anyway, I mentioned portraits, but really I think if I spend my money on a good lens that would allow me to take pictures in the church and at the reception without having to use the flash, that would be I think better than worrying about portraits. I don’t even have a light set up. Yet.

I said $200.00, But when my tax money comes in, I can wait 3 weeks, and spend $500.00.

I trust your opinion because I can see you are very knowledgeable in photography.

Thank You and I really don’t want you to spend too much time on my situation.

My final response:

It’s difficult to just tell you a lens, because I think it depends more on what you feel comfortable with than anything else. My main suggestion would be to find a place that has lenses you can try out. Get a feel for different styles of lenses to see what works best. Zoom lenses might fit your style better, or primes lenses might. You won’t know for sure until you spend some time familiarising yourself with them.

In a wedding situation I think these aspects are helpful:
– A large aperture to deal with darker lighting or to blur the background for artistic reasons.
– Lenses that are quiet when they focus so as to not disturb the wedding. I don’t personally know if this would be an issue or not because I have never photographed a wedding. I’m just speculating that the AF sound might be a little distracting. This is less of an issue with telephoto lenses because you would be far away from the bride and groom.

So I looked around a bit to see if those two properties in a lens exist at $500… Sigma and Pentax offer some lenses with motors inside to make them quiet, but most of them will be out of your price range.

http://www.adorama.com/SG5014DPXAF.html
The Sigma 50mm f1.4 DG HSM is $499.
I’ve personally never used the lens, but it looks pretty decent on paper.

Reviews for the Sigma:
http://www.pentaxforums.com/userreviews/sigma-50mm-f1-4-ex-dg-hsm.html
Canon mount reviews, but same lens:
http://www.photozone.de/canon-eos/521-sigma50f1450d
http://www.dpreview.com/lensreviews/sigma_50_1p4_c16/

On the Pentax side, there is the DA* 55mm f1.4 SDM. I do own this lens and like it (AF is a little slow, but accurate). It costs more than $500 though. It usually goes for around $640, but I managed to get it around $100 less in a stroke of luck when I was checking out an electronics store that was getting rid of their inventory.

On the other hand, you might feel better using a zoom lens. Find something with a continuous f2.8 aperture if you want to have a better chance at making blurred backgrounds. Maybe something 24mm – 70mm zoom range would allow you to do more portrait style photos. Chances are, at $500, you would only be able to afford a continuous f4 zoom lens and not a f2.8.

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