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Pentax 21/40/70 Limited Lens Review

by Josh Root and Justin Serpico, March 2008


The Pentax "Limited" lens line is known for its image quality, solid construction, and small size and weight. The first three lenses in this line were the FA 31/1.8, FA 43/1.9, and FA 77/1.8. Released in 1999/2000, they are still listed in the Pentax catalog and are widely hailed as excellent lenses. With current street prices of $500-700, they are expensive purchased new and command a premium on the used market. In 2005 Pentax released the first lens in the DA Limited lens series: the 40/2.8. In 2006, they released the 70/2.4 and in 2007 the 21/3.2 lenses in the DA Limited line. Unlike the first three lenses, these lenses were designed specifically for Pentax's digital SLRs and their image circle only covers the APS-C sized sensor in those cameras. In other words, while these lenses have all the hallmarks of the previous Limited lenses, they will not work on Pentax film cameras. Also unlike the first three lenses, the lenses in the current Limited line are all "pancake" designs.

Pancake lenses were originally based on the Zeiss Tessar design developed a century or so ago. It was legendary for its sharpness, small size, and high speed compared to other lenses of the time. While pancake lenses are no longer considered "fast" (their design places limits on maximum aperture), they still have the advantage of being compact in size. The Pentax Limited 40/2.8 protrudes almost no further than a thick body cap.

Choosing a three-lens kit is a particularly intense subject of conversation among those who eschew zooms. Thousands of posts have been made on the subject in the photo.net Leica Forum. The Pentax Limited line does a good job of covering the most popular choices with its approximate 32/60/105 focal length choices. Some photographers feel that the line is skewed to the long end and they have a legitimate point. However, Pentax has recently countered that accusation by introducing a 15mm (aprox 23mm equiv.) Limited lens.

If you have a Pentax K20D, (compare prices) (review), Pentax K200D, (compare prices), or other Pentax mount DSLR, and have been looking for a series of high quality prime lenses, you can buy the Pentax Limited lenses from amazon.com and help to support photo.net.

Optics & Performance

As with all of the DA series lenses, the Pentax Limited lenses image circles are sized to cover the APS-C sized CCD in Pentax DSLR cameras. Speaking in traditional 35mm focal length equivalents: 32mm is a classic wide-normal focal length that allows for a wide field of view without the distortion of wider lenses. 60mm is a long-normal length that has the ability to perform like the "classic" 50mm length, with some of the same short telephoto uses of the 75mm length. Finally, 105mm is a nice mid-telephoto portrait length, allowing you to avoid the unflattering effects of wide angle lenses when doing portrait photography.

While not as fast as the first generation of Limited lenses, the current 21/40/70 is still within the boundary of what most would consider acceptable for lower light work. Even the f/3.2 of the 21mm lens is only 1/3 of a stop slower than the f/2.8 that is generally considered the starting point for a "fast" lens. In addition, all three lenses are significantly smaller than most lenses of similar focal length and maximum aperture. The 21/3.2 exhibits a small amount of barrel distortion and its corner sharpness lags slightly behind its center sharpness when wide open, but the 40/2.8 and the 70/2.4 show very little distortion and are quite sharp across the frame. Overall, these three lenses perform quite well in terms of sharpness and distortion and most users should be pleased with them with regards to image performance.

As with most Pentax lenses (as of early 2008 when this article was written), the Limited series does not have internal focusing motors (Pentax's term for this technology is Sonic Drive Motor or SDM). The lenses' AF is operated via the old "screwdriver blade" body motor. Unlike most non-SDM type lenses, this doesn't hinder the Limited lenses as much as you might think. Yes, the AF noise is a bit louder than it could be, but the lens elements do not have far to move. As a result, the AF speed is fast and accurate. In addition, if these lenses did include SDM it would defeat the purpose of the lenses' pancake design and make for a larger form-factor. Manual focus is well supported with a small but easily gripped focus ring. The ring is well dampened and is as nice to use as any lens I have encountered recently.

Construction

If the size of the Pentax Limited lenses doesn't sell you on their value, the construction just might seal the deal for you. These three lenses have some of the most solid construction in DSLR lenses on the market today. Holding one in your hand you might be forgiven for thinking you were holding a rangefinder lens or a manual focus lens from the 70s. The Limited lenses are all metal construction, have a well-damped manual focus ring, and a metal lens hood/cap. All that is missing is an aperture ring for the illusion to be complete. Without sounding like a fanboy, let me just say that I love the construction of the Limited lenses and wish that more lenses were built to the same standards today.

That said, the Limited lenses have a few design flaws. The hoods on the 21/3.2 and 40/2.8 are fixed and the hood on the 70/2.4 is a pull out "telescopic" style. Somewhat defeating the pancake design, the 70/2.4's hood almost doubles the size of the lens. Perhaps worse is that the included metal slip-on style caps are designed to fit over the 21 and 70's hoods. If you remove the hoods to save size and weight, you will have to find another lens cap option. Most annoying of all is the 40/2.8's lens cap. It is a tiny threaded metal disc that screws onto the front of the lens hood. About the same size as an American nickel, it is annoying to put on and take off. The only saving grace is that the 40/2.8's lens hood does a very good job of protecting the lens. In fact it would be possible although perhaps not advisable, to leave the cap off virtually all the time. It is worth noting that despite these flaws, the metal lens hoods and caps are of very high quality construction.

Conclusion

While significantly cheaper than the original FA Limited lenses, the main drawback to the DA lenses is their price when compared to prime lenses from other manufacturers. For example, the Pentax 40/2.8 has a street price of $270. A Canon 35/2 is a stop faster and $50 cheaper at $220 and a Canon 50/1.8 is 1.5 stops faster and $185 cheaper. A full set of three Limited lenses will set you back around $1160 at today's street prices. However, there is a lot to like about these lenses and it is somewhat unfair to compare them to plastic construction Canon primes. The Pentax Limited lenses are well built, perform impressively, and are very compact. While they aren't as fast as some Canon or Nikon prime lenses, they are significantly smaller. Their f/2.4-3.1 speeds are also not slow by any means and will serve a photographer using available light very well indeed. Pairing a Pentax DSLR with these three lenses would make an attractive travel or street photography kit. This will become even more true when Pentax releases the 15mm lens to complete the series. One could even make the claim that with four pancake lenses and in-body image stabilization, Pentax would have the ultimate street photography kit (in the classic Leica sense) available today.

A Second Opinion by Justin Serpico

When you look at the Pentax DA Limited primes it's a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty view for many people.

Pentax went out of their way to produce lenses that made the most of the DA (APS-C or 1.5x) sensor. For some time, photographers have been promised smaller more cost-efficient lenses to go with non-full frame digital sensors. To date, only Pentax and Olympus have delivered on the promise. Most other manufacturers have continued to reproduce the larger full frame variants in an optimized-for-digital version.

The Pentax Limited DA lenses aren't for everyone. If you are a person that considers an f/2.0 lens as borderline slow, you will see the glass as half empty. However, if you are a travel or adventure photographer who appreciates diminutive size and robust build you may be in love. Despite the criticisms they receive, the DA Limiteds are not particularly slow, but admittedly they aren't particularly fast either. In truth, it depends on what you are comparing them to. When compared to ultra fast primes they seem slow. However, a better comparison would be to a 28-105 f/2.8 zoom, which is essentially the range they cover in the 35mm format. The 21mm is only 1/3 stop slower, and the 40mm is f/2.8, while the 70mm gets you to f/2.4. When looked at in that way, are the Limited lenses really that slow? In addition, the Limited lenses are much easier to handle, lighter, and less obtrusive in informal situations. I believe Pentax made the DA Limiteds as fast as possible without adding size or compromising the optics. When you compare the Pentax Limited 21mm f/3.2 to a Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX, it's obvious what a feat producing a near f/2.8 lens as small as the 21mm was.

The cup can be half full or half empty when talking about the advantages of primes over a bigger f/2.8 zoom. The zoom allows you to be flexible in composition, but it locks you into lugging around a big obtrusive zoom all the time. Changing lenses can be inconvenient but the resulting lighter weight of the camera may be worth the trade off. Having used many different f/2.8 pro zooms I can say they are an albatross for routine photography, travel, and adventure photography. Carrying big heavy glass can sap the enjoyment for many people and leave one feeling like the only option is to abandon the SLR in favor of a compact point-and-shoot camera.

I was recently talking with someone about what almost got him out of photography. It was carrying 24-70 and 70-200 f/2.8 into the mountains. He commented on the fact that he preferred medium format fixed lens range finders now. The conversation switched to the DA/FA Limited lenses and how compact they were for the range that they covered. Using the 21mm and 43mm lenses along with the 50-135mm DA zoom gives me a much smaller setup than two f/2.8 zooms. At the end of the conversation he commented that he might have chosen the wrong system for his needs. I've heard similar stories of professional photographers photographing with larger lenses for their work photography but carrying the Limited lenses into the mountains on hikes.

It is also worth mentioning that the DA Limiteds are not without some issues. The 40mm, while offering quick shift, is so small that the manual focus (MF) ring doesn't have enough surface area to use easily. The 43mm FA Limited is actually a better choice if MF is of prime importance. It is still compact but is one stop faster and more ergonomic. The downside of the FA 43mm is that it costs about $150 more. It also lacks quick shift, which means that you must disengage the autofocus level on the camera body, as with most previous FA lenses. Also worth noting is that while the DA 40mm and 70mm are quite compact compared to their FA counterparts, they will still work on any Pentax film body with body controlled aperture. This would include the older PZ series, future digital models (including a potential full frame camera), or anything in between.

The DA Limiteds are definitely a niche lens, but are only a gimmick if you truly need faster lenses.

Where to Buy

You can get these lenses overnight from amazon.com:

Specifications

Focal Length21 mm40 mm70 mm
Maximum/Minimum Aperturef/3.2 f/22f/2.8 f/22f/2.4 f/22
35mm equivalent focal length (Pentax DSLR)aprox 32 mm60 mm105 mm
Lens Construction8 elements in 8 groups5 elements in 4 groups6 elements in 5 groups
Minimum Focusing Distance7.92 in (0.2 m)15.7 in (0.4 m)2.3 ft (0.7 m)
Aperture Blades7 blades9 blades9 blades
Filter Size49 mm67 mm49 mm
Dimensions (Diameter x Length)2.5" x 1.0" (6.3 x 2.5 cm)2.5" x 0.6" (6.3 x 1.5 cm)2.5" x 1.0" (6.3 x 2.3 cm)
Weight (w/o hood)4.9 oz (140 g) w/hood3.2 oz (90 g)4.6 oz (130 g)

More

Example Photographs

Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited, 1/125, f/3.2, ISO 800. I would have preferred to use something like ISO 400 for this photograph to avoid any chance of grain on the bride's face. It is hard to complain about the results.

Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited, 1/90, f/2.8, ISO 200. I was surprised at how many good images I got out of using the 40/2.8. Typically, the 60mm field of view is not one that I think of as useful.

Pentax DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited, 1/750, f/4, ISO 400. Unsurprisingly, the 70mm lens lent itself well to single subject portraits. What was pleasing to my eye was the quality of the background blur or bokeh when using wide open apertures.

Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Another surprising use of the 40mm lens. In a small church, this lens gave a perfect field of view for the ceremony, while still allowing elements of the audience and church to provide context. If I had guessed beforehand, I would have picked a wider lens, which would have required me to move a lot closer and be less inconspicuous.

Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited, 1/90, f/4.5, ISO 400. Here is a perfect example of a situation where the 21/2.3 lens simply was not wide enough. Trying to show the expanse of the stadium, I had no option but to move further away to get more of the scene in the lens. I simply needed a wider lens. This is where the recently announced Pentax Limited 15mm lens will come in handy.

Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited, 1/180, f/6.7, ISO 400. On the other hand, this was a perfect situation for the 21/3.2 lens. If I had a wider lens at my disposal, I probably would have tried to use it. This would have taken the focus off of the subject's faces by introducing more background or other elements. That said, I wish I had repositioned myself slightly to the right. I was trying to balance the crisscrossing fishing rods with the fishermen's faces. It ended up working okay, but could have been stronger.

Pentax DA 70mm f/2.4 Limited, 1/30, f/2.4, ISO 1600. This was a wonderful use for the 70/2.4 with its wider maximum aperture, tight field of view, and its two-foot minimum focus distance. I was able to take an image of this newborn in the subdued light of a birthing suite at the local hospital.


Text and pictures ©2008 Josh Root and Justin Serpico. All images were captured using the Pentax K10D, (compare prices) (review), camera body.

Article created March 2008

Readers' Comments


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john robison , March 18, 2008; 08:25 P.M.

Just a minor correction, you have the filter size of the 40 listed as 67mm, it is 49mm. All in all though thanks for an informative review.

JC ONeill , March 19, 2008; 12:34 P.M.

Thanks for the review(s), and especially for the shots with thoughts about their respective usefulness in various situations. This is helpful to people who don't own the lenses. I own the DA40 and I can echo Josh's comments about its surprisingly flexible, useful field of view.

Michael DiMarzio , March 19, 2008; 06:04 P.M.

Thank you for the review. I have been pondering the purchase of a DSLR for 5 years, obviously there is no rush.

But it's nice to see this option. I would have found the lens review more helpful if you had added some impressions of the camera also. After looking at the Pentax site, it was really nice to see the review including manual focus works fine on the tiny ring, and more information on the build materials.

Thanks, nice review-md

Vladimir Ferdman , March 20, 2008; 05:21 P.M.

Justin, you mention that the DA limited lenses will work on film bodies of past and full size sensor bodies of the future. I am not sure this is entirely correct. The lenses may mount and operate properly on the said bodies, but are they not specifically designed for the APS size sensor? Meaning that what is outside the APS sensor's 18mm X 12mm circle is undefined by the lens' specification.

Also, it is worth mentioning that an older manual focus "A" lens will work just perfectly on the Pentax SLR bodies. The only caveat is the aperture has to be controlled from the body and the lens' aperture ring must be locked in "A" position. I own a 28mm/2.8 and 50mm/1.7 "A" lenses and they are spectacular performers. I love manual focus (only) feel of them and they deliver outstanding performance and speed. They also cost a lot less (used) than the DA Limited lenses. They are not as compact as the DA 40 pancake, though. I bought a Pentax SLR mostly because of its ability to use the wonderful old Pentax SMC glass.

Attached photo was taken with my *ist DS and an SMC A 50mm/1.7 lens. The lens was wide open and used at minimum distance to the subject. A worst case scenario, but I like using the 50mm that way as sort of a macro, what with the 1.5x crop factor of the APS size sensor.

Image Attachment: _IGP2115.JPG

Rene Hageman , March 22, 2008; 03:05 A.M.

I am also interested in a PentaxK20D and the prime lenses. But how is the quality of these lenses compared with Carl Zeiss lenses? And what about the new prime 35 mm macro lense? Can it also be used as a normal standard lense? I think the 40mm lense is a full frame lense and can be used upon film camera's.

Douglas Barrow , November 28, 2011; 09:18 P.M.

There may be lenses that are faster and offer better flexibility, but few offer the quality of construction, look and feel of the Pentax Limiteds. Since this was written, Pentax has indeed added the DA15mm f/4 Limited and a DA35mm f/2.8 Limited Macro. I used the 35mm Macro for a few weeks and it truly is a gem of a lens. Limited lenses are for the joy of photography.


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