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Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited Lens Review
by JerryJ -  5/19/2008

Every major camera company has at least one thing they do exceptionally well. Pentax has long been famous for making some of the best prime lenses money can buy, and doing so at a reasonable cost. One of this year's most impressive new lenses is the Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

If there is a single camera and lens manufacturer with a history of building exceptional prime lenses, it's Pentax. Their FA 50mm prime is widely considered one of the best 50mm primes on the planet and their "Limited" series of FA and DA primes are consistently found on lists of the best lenses for serious photographers. When Pentax announced the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited lens, I knew I had to find out if this lens would be a worthy addition for Pentax photographers.


ERGONOMICS

Lens Mount

The Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited prime is offered only in the Pentax KAF2 lens mount, a modernization of the long-lasting Pentax K mount. With a crop factor of 1.5x on DSLR cameras, the lens has a 35mm equivalent range of 53mm.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

What separates the KAF2 mount from earlier versions is the addition of a contact for new lenses with a built-in Supersonic Motor (SDM), which the DA 35mm does not employ.

Design and Build Quality

The Pentax 35mm is a fast aperture prime, designed to cover the moderate telephoto focal length range and deliver sharp, professional-level image quality in any type of lighting environment.

This isn't a $100 "kit lens" we're talking about. The DA 35mm Limited is a compact lens with rugged build quality that is second to none in its price range ($599). Fit and finish are first rate with the same metal alloy construction found on all Limited series lenses.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

The built-in, pullout type lens hood helps shade the front lens element and prevent flare, but since this lens is capable of extremely close focus (0.456 inches) the massive hood usually gets in the way during macro photography.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

Markings (distance scale in both feet and meters) are clear and easy to read and include a basic depth of field scale.

One feature that's worth mentioning is that the DA 35mm Limited lens uses fully automatic diaphragm control: you can't manually select the aperture by turning the diaphragm collar on the lens because there is no diaphragm collar.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

Optical construction is all-glass with 9 elements in 8 groups, with Pentax's new Super Protect (SP) lens coating which protects the exposed lens elements. The filter diameter for this lens is 49mm.

Handling

As noted, APS-C style sensors in Pentax cameras have a 1.5x crop factor, so this 35mm lens performs like a 53mm lens. The shorter focal length range makes this prime absolutely perfect as a "normal" lens for general use, and the macro abilities make for spectacular close up shots you can't get with a typical lens.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

The 35mm focal length and f/2.8 aperture has also become quite popular for photographers who are trying to replicate the look of old 50mm lenses from the old film days.


PERFORMANCE

Auto Focus

The Pentax 35mm Limited lens is driven by Pentax's traditional in-body focus rather than the in-lens focus system. This typically means focus is a little slower than lenses with their own built-in focus motors, but the DA 35mm Limited is so small and light weight that it still focuses reasonably fast. Still, considering that the full focus range is from 0.456 inches to infinity, it takes a while for this lens to find correct focus if it hunts in low light environments, especially.

Although it would have been difficult to incorporate a focus limiter switch on this compact lens, it would have been nice if Pentax engineers had done this in order to prevent the focus from having to travel its entire range (which, as noted, slows the lens down for general use).

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

Manual Focus

Focusing manually with the Pentax DA 35mm Limited lens is much easier than with older Pentax lenses. As with all lenses in the DA family, there is no need to flip the MF/AF switch on the lens barrel or camera body because this lens features "quick-shift focus" (full-time autofocus override).

All you have to is point the camera at your subject and turn the MF ring until the subject snaps into focus. You never have to turn off autofocus again in order to adjust manual focus. The manual focusing provides just the right amount of resistance when turning. Unfortunately, to turn the focus ring from its closest focusing distance to infinity is roughly a 300-degree turn around the barrel. This makes manual focusing with the 35mm more than a little time consuming if you aren't already close to the correct focus distance.

Image Quality

The default "bright" color tone setting on the latest generation of Pentax DSLRs produces quite a bit of image contrast, but the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited takes contrast and sharpness to new extremes. Knowledgeable photographers using SLR bodies realize that good lenses need to produce sharp images with good edge definition, smooth "bokeh" (out of focus areas), and accurate color.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

At the widest aperture of f/2.8, the DA 35mm is reasonably sharp from one edge of the frame to the other with just a little corner softness. When stopped down to f/4 or more, the corners are virtually as tack sharp as the center, as seen in the following crops from our test chart shot.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
Edge, f/2.8

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
Center, f/2.8

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
Edge, f/8

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
Center, f/8

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
Edge, f/16

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
Center, f/16

This is an extreme level of quality we're starting to see on a regular basis from Pentax DA primes. The Pentax DA 35mm renders colors that are hue accurate, bright, and nicely saturated. This glass should be more than capable of resolving any detail needed for high resolution digital image sensors such as the new CMOS image sensor in the Pentax K20D.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

As expected, the Pentax DA 35mm Limited shows no noticeable barrel or pincushion distortion. Flare and internal reflections are very well controlled. Chromatic aberration (color fringe around high contrast lines) is also well controlled; we didn't find any color fringing on high contrast edge demarcation areas in our images and had to go out and intentionally "try" to create color fringing in order to see any. Bottom line, this lens has excellent optical design.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

Vignetting (dark corners) was negligible at all apertures with and without the hood. The nine-bladed diaphragm renders exceptional bokeh, and the f/2.8 aperture gives you genuine out-of-focus backgrounds and foregrounds perfect for isolating your subject in the frame.

Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
(view large image)

Not only can this lens focus on the head of a pin (or "pen" in the case of the sample image above) but you can use shallow depth of field to make the subject stand out even more.


CONCLUSION

As most of my friends know, I have a special place in my heart for prime lenses, and for Pentax. Modern zoom lenses give casual shutterbugs the most flexibility when composing but you will never find a zoom lens with the macro capabilities of the Pentax DA 35mm Macro Limited. The extreme close focusing and ability to isolate your subject with shallow depth of field makes this lens a must have for serious photographers. The 35mm focal length also works well as a general purpose lens, though the huge focus range means it can take a little more time to find correct focus.

In short, the new 35mm Limited is an amazing lens with fabulous edge-to-edge sharpness, amazingly close focus, great bokeh, and exceptional build quality common to the Limited series lenses. Once again, Pentax has delivered a fantastic professional-quality prime lens at a reasonable price.

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