Professional editorial and fashion photographer Jake Hicks explores the merits of using a 50mm lens for classic portrait photography. Learn from his extensive experience about how you can harness the...
The Pentax "Limited" lens line is known for its image quality, solid
construction, and small size and weight. The first three lenses in
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
2005 Pentax released the first lens in the DA Limited lens series: the
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
half empty. However, if you are a travel or adventure photographer who
appreciates diminutive size and robust build you may be in
the criticisms they receive, the DA Limiteds are not particularly
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
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
lenses really that slow? In addition, the
Limited lenses are much easier to handle, lighter, and less obtrusive
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
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
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
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
that he might have chosen the wrong system for his needs. I've heard
similar stories of professional photographers photographing with
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
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
PZ series, future digital
models (including a potential full frame camera), or anything in
The DA Limiteds are definitely a niche lens, but are only a
you truly need faster lenses.
Where to Buy
You can get these lenses overnight from
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
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
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.