Pentax 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited HD DA
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Lab Test Results
April 24, 2014
by William Brawley
As with the recently reviewed Pentax 70mm ƒ/2.4 Limited DA HD, the "HD" version of the Pentax 35mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Limited HD DA gets a modern update with Pentax's new High Definition coating, which aims to allow a higher light transmittance and more clarity, plus a slight facelift with a fancy red ring (as opposed to a green one).
Lens construction remains largely unchanged with a solid all-metal build with 9 elements in 8 groups and a slightly updated 9-bladed aperture diaphragm that's now also rounded. All this is designed into a very compact size with a cool, retro-esque look that's reminiscent of an old film SLR lens.
This updated compact macro lens is currently available in a black or silver finish and ships with a built-in metal pull-out lens hood, metal push-on lens cap, rear cap and soft case for a street price of around $746.95:
As you'd hope from a macro-specific lens, the Pentax 35mm HD Limited lens produces very sharp images, even wide open. At ƒ/2.8 the centers are extremely sharp, with only a minor degree of corner softness. Stopping down to ƒ/4 clears that up considerably and even more so at ƒ/5.6 with almost perfectly flat blur characteristics. Diffraction limiting softness is fairly minor with only a slight drop is sharpness at ƒ/16 and a little more at ƒ/22. Overall, the Pentax 35mm is a superb performer when it comes to sharpness.
Unfortunately, the lens shows a bit more chromatic aberration than we'd like to see, although it's not severe by any means. Interestingly, the lens shows the lowest level of CA -- both maximum and on average -- at ƒ/2.8, with CA under 300ths of a percent of frame height. The CA steadily increases as you stop down until it levels off at around 400-500ths of percent of frame height around ƒ/16.
In our test shots, at ƒ/2.8, CA shows up in both the corners, appearing as light purple and green fringing on high-contrast edges, as well as in the center with slight purple fringing. At ƒ/8, we can see that CA is drastically reduced, especially in the center, by there's still faint green and purple CA in the corners.
Vignetting is very well controlled on the Pentax 35mm lens. It's not completely devoid of corner shading, however, with the strongest effect seen at the wider apertures. At ƒ/2.8, vignetting is less than 0.5EV, and it quickly drops down to under 0.25EVs when you stop down to ƒ/4. Vignetting is reduced even further at ƒ/5.6 and beyond and is barely noticeable at these narrower apertures.
As you would expect from a macro lens, this lens shows extremely low distortion, which is great for a portrait-friendly ~50mm field of view in 35mm equivalence. Average and maximum values of geometric distortion are very low, showing just a hint of barrel distortion. Therefore, not only can you take nice, distortion-free macro shots, this handy walk-around lens's normal field of view is also well-suited for portraiture.
Like its 70mm HD Limited sibling, the Pentax 35mm uses a traditional screw-drive AF motor that produces a noisy, whining sound while focusing, which can be annoying if you're shooting in quiet locations. The lens also extends quite a bit when focusing, adding an extra 1-inch or so at minimum focus distance. The good news is that autofocus is decently quick, though not as fast as the 70mm. It takes around one second to focus from minimum to infinity focus distance.
Being a macro lens, it's designed to often be used with manual focus as the depth of field gets razor thin at macro distances. As such, there's a very long focus throw, and it takes the screw-drive AF system a bit of time to rack through the full distance. The lens is designed with Pentax's Quick-Shift Focus System for an instant MF override of autofocus. Of course, there's also full-time MF that's controlled via a switch on the camera body itself.
Like the other HD Limited series, the 35mm lens features both focus distance and depth of field markings. The focus throw, as mentioned, is very long with almost a full 90 degrees of rotation allowing for very fine and precise focus adjustments.
The Pentax 35mm Macro lens has a fairly short focal length compared to typical macro lenses, which are usually in the medium to telephoto range of around 70-180mm on a full-frame camera. However, with an approximate 50mm field of view on Pentax's APS-C DSLRs, the 35mm Macro is a true macro lens with a full 1:1 magnification ratio and a minimum focus distance of 5.47 in. (13.9cm). Given the small size and focal length, however, this lens forces you to get really close to your subject for a proper macro photograph, so you're best off with macro shots of flowers and other static objects rather than things like insects or other critters.
Build Quality and Handling
Despite being a Digital SLR lens, the Pentax 35mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Limited HD DA, as we mentioned earlier, has a nice, retro styling that's reminiscent of an older film SLR lens. It's also very compact and lightweight compared to a typical DSLR lens. In fact, with the lens hood fully retracted and focused to infinity, -- since the barrel extends when focusing -- the size of the Pentax 35mm practically resembles a small Micro Four Thirds prime lens.
The build quality itself is very good with an all-metal construction -- complete with laser-engraved lettering and markings -- and a nice, buttery-smooth mechanical focus ring. Unlike typical bayonet-mount or screw-on lens hoods, the Pentax 35mm HD Limited's metal lens hood is permanently fixed to the lens using a retractable push-pull action.
This HD Limited has Pentax's Super Protect (SP) coating on the front element to repel dust, moisture and grease, but, unlike many other Pentax lenses, this one is not fully weather-sealed nor does it have a gasket around the mount.
The primary upgrade to this lens over its predecessor is the replacement of the Super Multi Coating for Pentax's new High Definition (HD) coating, which provides better control over ghosting and flares as well as improved color balance. Mike Tomkins, our news editor and avid Pentax fan -- had a recent opportunity to take this lens and the other HD Limited lenses out for a comparison. And while he only had the 21mm and 40mm non-HD versions to compare side-by-side, the results show a noticeable reduction in lens flare as well as increased contrast and saturation from the new HD Limited lenses -- the new High Definition coating definitely does its job.
See the Pentax K-3 gallery for the full-resolution images.
As for the optical formula itself, the lens has 9 elements in 8 groups without any fancy extra-low dispersion or aspherical elements. Compared to the non-HD-coated version of this lens, the aperture diaphragm has been updated to a rounded design -- still with 9 blades -- for improved background blur.
Not surprisingly, the primary alternative is the non-HD coated Pentax 35mm ƒ/2.8 Limited SMC DA. And while we haven't tested this lens, the optical formula is identical to the new HD-coated version minus, of course, the new HD coatings and curved aperture blades. Therefore, we can guess that the optical performance in terms of sharpness, CA, distortion and vignetting would be very similar. Also, now that the HD-coated version is available, this older lens can be found -- though not as readily -- for a more affordable price (~$570-700).
For other Macro lens options, Pentax offers a few others in more standard focal lengths. First off, there's the Pentax 100mm ƒ/2.8 Macro SMC D FA WR, which keeps the same bright ƒ/2.8 aperture and offers a longer focal length, which might be more useful for macro work, plus it offers weather sealing. (Pentax also offers a non-Weather Resistant version, though it's around the same $850 price as the WR version). Although, since we haven't tested it, the older Pentax 100mm ƒ/2.8 Macro SMC P-FA displays very nice results, so it's likely this newer version will display similar, if not better results.
For those wanting a more compact option, but still needing a little longer reach than the 35mm lens, Pentax also has a 50mm ƒ/2.8 Macro SMC P-D FA that gives you a lens that's only about -inch longer than the 35mm HD Limited lens and keeps the ƒ/2.8 aperture, but has a longer 50mm focal length (with an approximate 75mm FOV). It's also more affordable at around $525-$600 compared to the almost $750 price of the HD limited 35mm lens.
While this lens is perhaps not a significant upgrade for existing Pentax 35mm ƒ/2.8 Limited SMC DA users, the new Pentax 35mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Limited HD DA is, all in all, an excellent lens with fantastic sharpness wide open -- and especially stopped down a bit -- with well-controlled distortion and vignetting, though there is a bit of CA, especially in the corners. Of course, the big upgrade is the new High Definition (HD) coating, which as advertised, does its job to minimize flare and boost contrast and saturation. Furthermore, high quality construction and cool retro-styling and ultra-compact size make is an excellent, go-anywhere normal focal length lens, as well as a handy compact macro lens.
However, the big downside is the noisy, screw-drive autofocus motor, which can be quite audible, especially in quiet locations. The lens still autofocuses very quickly, just don't expect to be quiet and stealthy with it. Also, the 35mm focal length can be a bit too short for traditional macro shooting of living subjects like insects and other animals, where you'd typically want more working distance between the camera and your subject. At 35mm, you have to get extremely close to your subject for a proper 1:1 macro shot.
Overall, the Pentax 35mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Limited HD DA is another impressive lens in Pentax's lineup, and Pentaxians looking for a compact, lightweight macro lens that can double as an everyday 50mm-ish prime should look no further.
Check out some sample photos shot by our senior lens technician Rob Murray. You can view more sample photos, plus download the full-resolution files, over at our Flickr page.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
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