Today, many people get their first DSLR with a light weight consumer grade mid-range zoom (mostly a 18-55mm) called a “kit lens”. However, the term “kit lens” was rarely heard 30+ years ago. Actually, I believe that the term was not even invented at that time because SLRs were sold with a fast and relatively much sharper 50mm lens which people called a “standard” or “normal” lens. For example, the Nikon EM was sold with a Series E 50mm f1.8 as a “kit” when it was introduced in 1979. Then, sometime in the early 1980’s, camera stores started selling SLRs with a cheap and often low quality third-party made mid-range zoom (like a 35-70mm) instead of the traditional 50mm prime lens. More often, a third-party flash and a camera bag (not a LowePro of course!) were added on top. These “kits” attracts a lot of buyers. Since most of them shoot color negatives and print either 3R (3.5″x5″, mostly in Asia) or 4R (4″x6″, mostly in North America) proofs only, the quality differences between an OEM 50mm and a cheap third-party 35-70mm are thus minimized. In repsonse to these “homebrewed” kits, camera giants like Canon and Nikon started selling their SLR bodies with economical mid-range zooms and here came the term “kit lens”.
The Pentax FA 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 above is a typical late film-era kit lens. Compared to earlier 28-80mm lenses (the f3.5-4.5, A or F versions) made by Pentax, this particular model is inferior in both optical and built qualities. However, to be fair, the FA 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 is also much cheaper and its design and built are both relatively good when compared to kits lenses from other manufacturers at the same time. First of all, its mount is made of metal instead of plastic which is much much better than its counterparts from Nikon and Canon. In fact, I believe Canon is the first in going plastic on lens mount and even body mount. Another nice feature of this kit lens is its relatively wide focusing ring with distance scale on it. This makes using the lens on an older manual focus body much easier. Of course, a true manual focus lens is still miles ahead in term of ease of focusing.
To get the best optical performance from a kit lens, you need to find a “sweet spot” for the lens, a particular (range of) focal length and a particular range of aperture values. Most of the time, the lens would perform best at mid focal length with aperture set at f/8 or f/11. Thus, unless where you live is sunny most of the time during a year, you will need to load the camera with ASA400 film on an overcast day to maintain a handheld shutter speed. On the other side, most basic 50mm prime should give satisfactory results starting from f/4 which gives you a 2-stops advantage under imprefect weather and lighting conditions.
After some use, I found that the FA 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 performs best at around f/11 at its wide end. For the telephoto side, the lens surprisingly gives better than expected results even at f5.6 (see photo below, shot with Ilford Delta 100 and a yellow-green filter). Some reviews on the Internet points out a “soft focus” effect on its long end at large apertures but so far I cannot produce such effect.
Another property of this lens is it seems to be sharper at the wide end. The shot below was taken at 28mm with Fujifilm XTRA 400 color negative.
Beside optical quality, the built of this lens is surprising strong based on my personal experience on this particular copy. I once dropped the lens with a ME Super body on concrete. When the camera and the lens landed on the ground, the lens cap flew off and some of the black paint of the Heliopan yellow-green filter chipped off. I thought for a plastic lens that would be its end. However, so far I still haven’t noticed any problem arised due to the drop. One last thing, the focusing ring of this lens does not have a infinity hard-stop (in other words, it can move past infinity) which I found somewhat troublesome.
Status: In Collection