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Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited User Review

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Ever since I started shooting DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors I have struggled to find the perfect go-to lens for the majority of my photos. I love the speed and image quality of my old A series 50mm f/1.7 but the lack of autofocus and relatively tight F0V (75mm equiv.) makes it less than ideal for a lot of my shooting. When my friend Stephen said he was sending me his DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited to take for a spin I was pretty sure that it was going to be the lens I have been looking for. I had read all the reviews so I knew that it was a sharp lens with top-notch build quality. All that remained was for me to live with it for a few days…

Pros:

  • Razor sharp starting at f/2.8.
  • Virtually no flare and very low CAs or fringing.
  • Wonderful bokeh (especially during macro use).
  • Impeccable Limited build quality.
  • Smaller and lighter than most 1:1 macro lenses.
  • Durable*
  • Ultra close focusing capability.
  • Built-in lens hood.
  • Excellent bang-for-the-buck.

*I didn’t test this lens’ durability but my friend Stephen did. Within minutes of opening the box he dropped it from a height of 1M onto concrete. The filter mount ring took the brunt of the impact (note silver filed away area in these shots) but the function of the lens was not otherwise affected. Wow!

Cons:

  • Slow focusing due to extremely long focal range.
  • Lack of focus limit switch (might correct previous point).
  • Focus ring spins during autofocus operation.
  • Included lens cap falls off too easily.
  • Extremely limited stand-off distance at 1:1 magnification (read: “none”).
  • Diffraction may be a problem above f/8 with non-macro shots.

Conclusion:

Turns out this is not the do-it-all lens I’ve been looking for. Now, before all you Pentaxians out there start accusing me of bashing Pentax again, let me explain…

The DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited is one of the best macro lenses I have ever used. It absolutely blows everything away within 2 feet of the front of the lens. I love the natural look the 35mm (52.5mm equiv) FoV provides. I can easily see this being one of the best lenses available for shooting products in a studio setting. If I were still walking the floor at Asian electronics trade shows it would be my go-to lens (lots of close-up shots of products held in my hand). However, the things that make this lens so good at what it was designed to do also make it less than perfect for my everyday use. If your primary interest is up-close hand-held macro photography, look no further. Buy this lens. If, like me, you are thinking that this lens might double as a good medium focal length lens for everyday use, please read the rest of my review and decide for yourself:

Build Quality and Size:

vs_kit_infinity

Here we see the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited focused at infinity along side the standard 18-55mm Pentax kit lens…

vs_kit_macro

and here we see the macro lens focused to its closest setting (0.139M)…

vs_50

and here along side my old A series 50mm f/1.7 lens. The point here? This is a very compact lens. Even when extended for close-up focus. Also, even with the rock-solid aluminum casing it weighs slightly less than the plastic kit lens (7.6oz vs. 7.8oz). There is absolutely no excuse for not being able to find a place in your bag for this lens.

I mentioned the focus ring in the cons. The double row of knurled rings just below where it says “PENTAX-DA 1:2.8 35mm…” in the photo above is the focus ring. It is very nicely damped in manual mode and features Pentax’s nifty Quick-shift Focus System to allow focus fine tuning in AF mode. The double-height ring provides a great grip for your fingers during manual focusing. However, since it takes up so much of the 35’s diminutive body, you have to be careful not to grab it accidentally when holding the camera with two hands (left hand supporting lens) if you don’t want to loose a little skin off your finger tips ;-)

Otherwise, the build quality of this lens is superb. You’ll never question the $480 price tag once you handle one for the first time.

Image Quality:

macro_wide

Uncropped f/2.8 @ ISO 100 shot of dew on leaf (NOT 1:1 magnification).

macro_detail

100% crop from the center of the first image.

The resolving power of this lens is amazing. I’m sure my old 10MP K10D isn’t even coming close to getting the most out of this baby. I’m not going to get into resolution specifics here. There are plenty of other websites that can confirm what I experienced first hand: this is one of (if not the) sharpest lenses you can hang on your K Mount. Here are a few shots I took with it on my Flickr page.

aperture

The nine bladed aperture provides wonderful round bokeh at all aperture settings.

starburst

It also provides nice 18 pointed starbursts when stopped down for long exposure night shots (if you are so inclined to use it for such things). They are not quite a clean as the ones that come off of the DA* 16-50 f/2.8 but they are certainly an improvement over the kit lens.

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The DA 35mm Macro has a built-in retractable lens hood. Without the hood this lens produces almost no flare. Compare the example above with this similar one shot with the DA* 16-50 f/2.8:

16-50_flare

Even though Pentax thoughtfully includes an excellent built-in lens hood with the DA 35mm Macro it doesn’t need one!

Handling:

close_focus

The DA 35mm Macro requires you to get very close to your subjects to achieve maximum magnification. Here is the shot I took above while focusing at 1:1 on my kit lens with the 35 Macro:

macro_lens_shot

Very close indeed. This is fine for shooting flowers, products and other static and aproachable subjects. If you want to shoot creatures that might not appreciate a lens pressed up in their face you might want to look elsewhere. The only real problem I had with this was the camera blocking light from my subjects. Being so close with the lens to the subject you’d pretty much need a studio and strobes to get enough light in there.

I’ve had experience with longer macro lenses that put you farther away from the subject and I have to say I prefer the up-close DA 35mm Macro. The wider FoV gives a more natural 3D look to the images and makes it easier to lock in focus while shooting hand-held.

This incredible focus range (infinity to 0.139M) is the DA 35 Macro’s Achilles heel. It is very deliberate and accurate when shooting macro but becomes slow and laborious when taking snap shots. If the camera misses the focus point it will usually run all the way to one extreme of the focal range and then back to the focus point where (hopefully) it will lock on. If not, it will continue on to the opposite end of the focus range before heading back to try again. On a normal lens this “focus hunting” can be a bit annoying as the lens “ziiiip-ziiiips” back and forth before locking focus. On the DA 35 Macro focus hunting goes more like “ziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip, ziiiiiiiiiiiiiiip, ziiiiiip, ziiip-zip.” I missed a ton of snap shots with the kids while this lens oscillated back and forth the focus scale on me.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the focus isn’t accurate. As all Pentaxians apparently already know, their DSLRs do not have the fastest autofocus system. The DA 35 Macro exacerbates this problem considerably. Its deliberate focusing is an important feature for shooting critical macro shots in controlled conditions but is also the main reason why it isn’t a replacement for standard lenses for every day use. IMO there’s nothing wrong with being good at what you do and sticking to it.

abby_portrait

That being said, it is not to say that the DA 35mm Macro can’t be used for every day shooting. When more deliberate shooting is possible all the things that make this such a great macro lens also make it an excellent portrait lens. Most people do not recommend a lens this wide for portrait use. I found it to be great for portrait shots where you want the feeling of being up close and personal while getting a bit more of the scene into the shot for context. Like this:

milling_portrait

Of course what’s working for me here most are the 35mm focal length and the sharpness. If you are willing to give up the macro performance there are other lenses that can likely better serve as wide angle portrait lenses.

cap-removal

The only head scratcher for me with the DA 35mm Macro is Pentax’s choice in lens cap. The included cap is machined from aluminum and velvet lined. While this gives it a distinctly premium look and feel, it kept falling off the lens while in my bag. Also, it is easily knocked off while the camera is hanging on your shoulder strap. When I buy one of these lenses I will add a spring clip style 49mm lens cap to my order.

k10d_no_grip

Pentax K10D with DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited lens.

So, the DA 35mm Macro does what it does and does it quite well. Just don’t expect it to do all things equally as well. If you need/want and excellent macro lens then you’d be hard pressed to do much better. If you are looking for a good normal lens for taking those every day shots do what I did and pick up an FA 35mm f/2 AL while you still can. It was a close call for me. I had $500 to spend so I could have gotten the macro lens, but I decided to go with the slightly faster FA lens instead. So far I am quite pleased with my decision- though I really miss the DA 35mm Macro’s build quality and ability to get in close. I can easily justify getting the DA 35mm Macro for use as a dedicated macro/studio lens later on to round out my lens collection.

Some sample shots I took with the DA 35mm Macro while testing it for this review.

About the shots for this post: I shot the studio shots for this post using Fuji’s new F200EXR point-and-shoot camera. I’m not a big fan of PnS cameras but this little wonder has definitely gotten my attention. These shots are straight out of the camera at ISO 800. The camera’s various manual controls allowed me to get the exposure and WB right while the high ISO capability meant I could still go hand-held to knock the shots out quickly. BTW, this shot of the F200EXR was taken with the DA 35mm Macro. See what I mean about it being ideal for product photography?

fuji_f200exr

9 Responses to “Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited User Review”

  1. 1
    Stefan Carey:

    Inspirational stuff, thanks

  2. 2
    Robin Parmar:

    Not a bad assessment. I have one that I think will be permanently mounted on my K100D Super in “P” mode, because it provides close to a normal view and a lot of versatility that the whole family can use (auto-focus and auto-aperture, unlike a lot of lenses I use on my K20D). The only downside is that it is impossible to manual focus, especially near infinity. I would also prefer it to be faster (f/2) and wider (28mm). But for the lens it is, it is excellent.

    Absolutely the perfect flower lens!

  3. 3
    Michal:

    So would you trade a SMC-FA 50mm 1.4 to SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8? ;-) I mean you tested them both, what would you do?

  4. 4
    Robert S. Donovan:

    Michal- While the FA 50 f/1.4 is a nice lens, I bought an FA 35mm f/2 AL. It’s a better all around lens for me.

  5. 5
    brecklundin:

    Nice review, especially from a real world use perspective. I love that you looked at it for product shooting. That is the primary reason I ordered this lens. I will certainly give it all the work it can handle.

    I do have on question, your setup indicates that one must be closer that the MFD in order to get 1:1 magnification. The published MFD is a 5.47″ (13.9cm). So, how can you have to be so close to focus at 1:1? Every other macro lens I ever used or owned the MFD was also the distance to obtain 1:1 magnification. It’s nothing to do with the 1.5x crop right?

    http://www.slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/1170/cat/45 {mfg specs for lens)

    No matter, mine hits the porch at anywhere from 4PM-5PM Monday…can’t wait!! Thanks again for a very impartial set of observations.

  6. 6
    Robert:

    brecklundin-
    The MFD is where 1:1 magnification is achieved with the DA 35mm Macro. Keep in mind that the focal distance is measured from the film/sensor plane. At MFD the lens extends to almost double its regular length. That ends up putting the MFD to just an inch or so in front of the lens as shown in my images above. Also, I believe that Pentax might have been a bit conservative in the MFD specification, though I did not test it specifically.

    Enjoy your new lens. I know you will!

  7. 7
    brecklundin:

    D’oh!! never even thought of this as my other macro lenses had always seemed to work as if the MFD was measured from the end element not the focal plane…then again, I never bothered to measure. Hmmm, I wonder of my Sigma 180mm was indeed the indicated 18″ or not, sure behaved as if it was especially as the lens itself is 7″ and I know I had to be more than 9″ (allowing 2″ for the lens to focal plane distance) from the subject to get in focus 1:1. Weird, then again nothing surprises me anymore. hahaha…

    So, thanks a BUNCH for the quick answer…I have always assumed in the case of a macro the measurement was an exception to the ‘from the focal plane’ rule for MFD. Obviously I was wrong in the assumption. Oops!!

    Still I opted for the 35mm macro specifically for product shots rather than general macro use so as you mentioned, the perspective is going to be a lot more realistic. And really getting a couple inches closer, I mean who cares when the MFD is already only 5″ or so…I once reversed a 24-60mm on the end of my 180mm and got the distance down to under 1/2″ for 7.5:1 (180/24 = 7.5)….now THAT was insane, but fun!! hahahaha…

  8. 8
    Andrew:

    Okay, so my Pentax dream rig has been finalized (in my head): K7 + 31mm f/1.8 + 77mm f/1.8 + 15mm f/4 and the 35mm f/2.8. Can I justify this setup? Surprisingly, I can. A complete photographic kit should have four types of lenses: normal, tele, wide, and macro. And that’s that.

  9. 9
    Jason Yu:

    Nice review, I love Macro lens and use them every day for my job.

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