HD Pentax DA 35 f2.8 Macro Limited

The HD Pentax DA 35 f2.8 Macro Limited is a normal macro lens designed for APS-C DSLRs. While this lens is not quite as small as Pentax’s three pancake limiteds (DA 21, DA 40, DA 70), it’s still fairly compact, weighing only 215 grams and less than two inches in length. Like the other lenses in the “limited” series, it’s a “throw-back” lens, with an all metal and glass build, distance and DOF scales, and a built-in hood that slides out like this:

The DA 35 Limited features 1:1 macro capability, meaning it will focus to an area the size of the recording medium (i.e., the size of an APS-C sensor when used on an APS-C sensor). Minimum focus distance is about five and a half inches. This is not an internal focusing lens. The lens achieves focuses by pushing several groups of its elements forward.

The HD DA 35 Macro is a modest update to the original SMC DA 35 Macro, introduced about ten years ago. Pentax updated the coatings (see my review of the HD DA 21 f3.2 for info on HD coatings) and added circular aperture blades. This provides a very slight improvement in contrast and flare control and bokeh (when the lens is stopped down). For those who already own the SMC version, there is no reason to upgrade to the HD version.

The HD DA 35 Macro features nine elements in eight groups:

In a review of the original SMC version, Mike Johnston wrote:

[A]s I threw test after test at the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro, the same thing happened again and again: the lens would pass with more than flying colors, and I’d think, “Hmm. Impressive.” After a while, “hmm” gave way to “wow.”As you know, I use the word “test” loosely—they’re really just trials, although I know enough about how lenses behave to get a lot of information out of trials. Distortion, corner performance, wide open performance, closeup performance, purple fringing, shadow detail, on and on. There are dozens of specific aspects of imaging that you can isolate and look at in lens trials, including half a dozen types of flare. And of course the purpose is just to find out, where is this lens strong? Where is it weak? This way you can avoid unpleasant surprises out in the field....Now I just try to “stress” the lens in trials (“test shots”) so I can learn about it. (Here’s a longer article I wrote about how to stress a camera lens that people can refer to for specifics.) It’s not a matter of obsessing or of one-upsmanship—I have lovely photos taken with a great many lenses, some of them not very well thought of—but as I progressed with the DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro, its aristocratic character, if you will, began to emerge. It simply took every challenge I threw at it effortlessly into stride. My admiration for it has grown and grown. I’m not confident enough to say that this lens has no weaknesses, but if it has any they’re certainly not easy to find! It has a lot fewer weaknesses than most lenses do....The 35mm DA Macro Limited is the perfect size and weight, and handles beautifully. [F]or what it is—a 50mm equivalent lens for APS-C with macro capability, that can readily be used as a general-purpose normal—the SMC Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited is a paragon. It really is just beautiful, and will gratify—no, it will spoil anyone who likes the very best optical quality and appreciates what truly outstanding lenses can do. It ranks right up there with the best lenses I’ve ever used in any format.

Does the HD Pentax DA 35 f2.8 Macro Limited measure up to Johnston’s praise? Let’s examine some crops and see how the lens resolves and projects detail. We begin with an image shot at f9:

Center crop:

Edge crop:

This is performance at a distance on a 16 MP sensor. It’s reasonable sharp and well drawn in the center, perhaps a little less so toward the edges.

Another image at f8:

Center crop:

Edge resolution:

Comparable performance as before. One thing to note is that, however sharp the DA 35 Limited may be, it is not clinically sharp, nor should it be expected to do exceptionally well on resolution tests. The lens was not designed merely to resolve ever finer lines on a sheet of paper. It was designed to capture three dimensional objects in a way that not only resolved detail, but presented these objects in way pleasing to the eyes, with minimum of distracting aberrations.

Again at f8:

Center crop:

Edge crop:

The edge detail is actually done pretty well in this image. Any lens that captured all this fine detail with even greater acutance along the edges of detail would likely create an image that appeared flatter, less tactile and real. Not all sharpness is created equal. Some types of sharpness render the detail in a more natural way. The lens also handles colors better, not merely in terms of saturation, but how the color combines with the detail to create life-like minute structures.

One more at f8:

Center crop:

Edge crop:

In these crops, we see the DA 35 Limited at its very best, with excellent sharpness, rendering, color and contrast

Here’s one last example shot at the lens’ fastest aperture, f2.8:

Center crop:

Edge crop:

This is really quite good for wide open, despite the loss of resolution toward the far edges. Do you really need far edge sharpness wide open? Given the narrow depth of field, it’s rather unlikely the far edges will be in the same plane of focus as the subject, so what is the point? Edge sharpness wide open is a merit on paper; it’s rarely of any use in the field.

Let’s take a glance at the performance of the lens at macro distances, starting with an example shot at f8. We won’t bother with edge crops with this series of images, because of the narrow depth of field:

Center crop:

Really outstanding performance, with excellent resolution, color, and rendering of detail. Next let’s examine an example at f16:

Center crop:

A little less sharp, due to diffraction, but really quite good nonetheless. Now a final example, shot at f22, the len’s slowest aperture:

Center crop:

Diffraction is even more an issue at f22, but this is still, in terms of practical output, really good.

Bokeh with this lens is also really good, even when stopped down. The HD version of the lens is better in this respect because of the rounded aperture blades. Here’s an example at f4:

And an example at f5:

The trade-off with the rounded aperture blades is that the lens doesn’t do quite as good at producing starbursts. If, however, you stop the lens quite a ways down, you can get something in terms of starbursts, as this f16 shot testifies:

This last images suffers from some degree of flare. This is the sole example I have of this lens flaring to this extent. Normally, it shows itself fairly resistant to flare, as the following examples show:

Perhaps the flare resistance of the lens is a factor of the angle that the light hits the lens and possibly the color of the light. I sometimes suspect the lens is more sensitive to the flaring when confronted with strong, warm colored light:

The DA 35 Limited does exhibit, from time to time, very thin and hardly noticeable green color fringing — easily corrected in Lightroom. Even if not corrected, however, it’s unlikely anyone would notice it short of intense pixel peeping.

All in all, the HD Pentax DA 35 f2.8 Macro Limited is a splendid lens which lives up to Mike Johnston’s high praise. It’s a lens that combines very good resolving power with a natural rendering of detail. The HD version features excellent color and contrast, along with superb rendering of green tones. With its macro capability and — to borrow a phrase from Mike Johnston — its aristocratic character, the optic makes for a splendid nature lens covering landscapes and close-ups at a “normal” field of view. As is true of many lenses, even of the high-end variety, it’s a little sharper in the center than the far edges. These differences in resolution, however, are so minor that they can be safely ignored. The lens can be counted on to deliver beautifull images of outstanding clarity and beauty. While it’s not quite a perfect lens (does such a lens even exist?), such flaws as it may exhibit are so minor as to be of very little account. This is about as good a lens that you can find under $500.

I’ll conclude this review with a series of sample images taken at varying apertures. To begin with, some images at f2.8:

At f3.2:

At f3.5:

At f4:

At f4.5:

At f5.6:

At f8:

At f9:

At f11:

At f14:

At f16:

At f22: