I’m back from a brief vacation and I’ve brought with me a treasure trove of material for my photophile friends! First on the docket is a review of a pretty rare and rather wonderful legacy lens from Pentax. It’s the SMC Pentax-A 35mm F/2.8. During my journey up and around Maine’s rocky coast, I shot this hard-to-find lens in a variety of stereotypically autumnal New England situations. I peeped leaves and hiked trails, I strolled through colonial fishing villages and sipped nutmeg-infused beverages, I basked in fleeting sunshine and I froze my ass off. And of course, I snapped photos.
I really wanted to put this lens through its paces to see how it performed on both vintage and digital cameras, so I not only shot it on a pair of classic film machines (the Pentax ME and the Ricoh XR-1), but later adapted it to the Sony A7 as well.
How did the SMC-A 35mm/2.8 comport itself? I’ve got the inside scoop on this uncommon assemblage of glass.
I should address that in my introduction alone I’ve thrice attributed rarity to the SMC-A 35mm/2.8. Why? Because it’s rare! Obviously. But what makes it so rare? It all comes down to the ‘A’ emblazoned on the nameplate which, unlike the notorious scarlet letter of 17th-century Puritan Boston, is a good thing! It distinguishes this K-mount lens as being more capable than non-A lenses in that it allows for full functionality on cameras that automatically set the lens aperture in shooting modes such as Shutter-Priority and Program mode. Carried into today’s era of Pentax DSLR offerings, this also means that the lens aperture can be seamlessly controlled by the in-body aperture controls, as would the aperture of any modern Pentax lens.
Optically, the SMC-A 35mm/2.8 shares the same design and coatings used in its non-A counterpart, the SMC-M 35mm F/2.8. Fairly complex and well-made, the six elements in six groups do well to present a distortion-free image, and Pentax’s SMC (acronym alert : Super-Multi Coating) is identical in both lenses.
What’s the takeaway here? Well, it could be said that if one’s looking for a Pentax SMC 35mm F/2.8, it doesn’t really matter if one buys the common M or the uncommon A. But while they both will make identical photos in identical situations, if we look closer we see that there’s just a bit more finesse to the A-version’s game. It benefits from higher quality focus and aperture rings, and is generally a tighter package. And if the shooter intends to use a Pentax camera body with auto-aperture functionality, the A-version is surely the way to go.
Build quality in the SMC-A is superb. The lens stands up well against other reasonably-priced Japanese legacy lenses, being tight, compact, and dense. The barrel of the lens and the aperture ring are both happily made of metal, as are the filter threads (which accept filters of 49mm diameter). The lens mount is stainless steel, milled with precision. The only external bits that aren’t solidly metallic consist of the focus ring (plastic, coated with a rubber grip) and the front and rear bezels. This isn’t much of a detriment, as the plastic used is dense and resilient, but I mention it anyhow.
Light control is handled by a five-bladed, automatic diaphragm. While this is standard to many lenses in this class, I can’t help but be a little let down. Five blades is just not a lot of blades. This can result in some geometric highlight bokeh, which we’ll see in detail later in the review. The diaphragm is automatic on cameras that use wide-open TTL metering, and later machines as previously discussed. On modern mirror-less, micro 4/3rds, etc., this isn’t relevant, as all modern machines will use stopped-down metering in Aperture-Priority or Manual modes.
As for reliability, there’s nothing to indicate that the lens suffers from unusually high rates of helicoid oil seepage, balsam separation, or fungus. But even though the lens shows no proclivity to these issues, it’s good medicine to store your lenses in a cool, dry place anyway.
The SMC-A 35mm/2.8 lends itself well to full-frame shooting, as it was originally made for use on film cameras (the original FF). The maximum aperture of F/2.8 is reasonably quick for a 35mm lens, so you’ll do pretty well in low-light situations (think street photography). Yes, on FF machines things are very nice. Mount this lens to your old K-mount film camera, new mirror-less machine with suitable adapter, or Pentax’s upcoming full-frame DSLR, and worry not.
On crop-sensor cameras there’s just a bit more to consider. Depending on your camera’s crop-factor, you’re looking at a focal length of approximately 50mm. While this is just about the perfect focal length for general purpose shooting, the relatively slow maximum aperture of F/2.8 (further weakened by your camera’s crop-factor) makes this lens a bit of a slug in low-light shooting. It’ll still work just fine, especially with the recent improvements to high-ISO image quality seen across the entire industry. It just won’t be as plug-and-play as a full-frame machine (though photophiles living that crop-sensor life are probably accustomed to the struggle by now).
The lens is small, and relatively light for a 35mm lens. Weighing just 170g and measuring 63 x 36.5 mm, we’re looking at one of the smallest legacy 35s around. As stated in our review of Pentax’s ME SLR, I’m more than comfortable walking around with the SMC-A 35mm/2.8 modestly snuggling in my pant or jacket pocket. If you’re a shooter who’s often worried about how much you’re carrying, no worries here.
Usability is top-notch. As with many legacy lenses, things are tight and smooth, and the lens provides a professional-grade feel that’s hard to match when compared with today’s consumer-grade lenses. The focus ring spins with a delectable fluidity, simultaneously offering a weighted resistance that’s essentially perfect. Focus throw is about 180º, which takes most users a couple of spins to go from infinity to the lens’ impressive minimum focus distance of 30 centimeters (just under 1 ft). For grip, the lens uses an interestingly molded rubber ring secured firmly through exacting tolerances. Less flimsy and prone to detachment than rings found on some other lenses, this finely designed ring does exactly what it’s intended to do.
The aperture ring clicks mechanically into its detents from a maximum aperture of F/2.8 down to a minimum aperture of F/22. Also included is an ‘A’ marker for use in automatic mode (as previously touched upon) and a simple push-button lock to prohibit the lens from slipping from this setting. Between F/4 and F/11 the aperture is adjustable in half-stop increments, while all other increments are measured in full stops.
Yes, the lens looks great, feels great, travels well, and works on cameras of yesteryear and today. But what kind of images can it make? Let’s take a look.
The first thing we notice is the lens’ exceptional sharpness. Even shot wide open, we’re seeing incredibly crisp shots through most of the frame. Around the edges and in the corners things are naturally a bit soft, but compared to many lenses of its vintage (and even compared to common lenses of today) the SMC-A 35mm/2.8 is a real performer wide open. Stop it down to F/4 and things become instantly sharper on the extremity of the frame. At F/5.6 and F/8 you’re looking at a lens that makes images as sharp as any made by any lens I’ve ever seen. And while I acknowledge that clinical sharpness isn’t everything in photography, it’s definitely nice for those times when we want supreme detail and clarity.
The perceived sharpness is surely helped in large part by Pentax’s SMC optics. Described by the brand’s marketers as “a remarkable seven-layer lens coating process”, I wanted to see how it would accentuate the vivid colors of the Maine scenery. After shooting countless blazing leaves, crunchy earth tones, and shimmering sheets of ocean water, it seems Pentax’s SMC is pretty damned capable at bringing out exceptional color fidelity, punching up contrast, and at eliminating unwanted light-loss. And it seems these colors come through just the same no matter what material you’re exposing. When shooting the more vibrant films out there, and when shooting RAW digital shots, skies are incredibly blue, tonality is well-modulated, and detail abounds. Rich and vibrant, the lens produces images that, even before post-processing, are full to bursting with colorful splendor. Yep, this lens makes fireworks look downright monotone.
SMC isn’t just for making colors pop. It also puts the kibosh on the problem children of photography. Ghosting, flaring and all that nonsense are extremely well-controlled. The only time I suffered an unwanted optical aberration was when I aimed the lens straight to the heavens, let the sun shine directly on the front element, and overexposed to bring out chromatic aberration in a ridiculously contrasty cross-hatch of branches and sky.
The shot above was exposed on Fujifilm Superia 400 at the lens’ maximum aperture (where the light is least controlled). The result is some pretty wild chromatic aberration, though stopping the lens down just one stop resolved the chromatic aberration to non-existence. Suffice it to say that in normal shooting, you’ll suffer very few optical anomalies.
Bokeh is exceptionally well-blended for a lens of the 35mm focal length, though opinions may differ over this highly subjective quality. Dependent on distance to subject and distance from background, the lens produces bokeh that’s pretty damn good. It’s non-offensive and non-distracting, though there is a tendency for double lines in certain situations, especially when the background contains lots of continuous lines, as in architectural shooting. More complex backgrounds seem to come away as more pleasingly blended, naturally. As mentioned earlier, due to the low-count blade assembly, bokeh highlights can be just a bit too geometric for my liking. Some shooters might find these highlights charming, but I don’t. And while I understand that not every lens can have nine aperture blades, and not all blades can be titillatingly curvaceous, it’s still a shame.
Lastly, longitudinal chromatic aberration can be seen in high-contrast areas. For those not familiar, this is commonly called bokeh-fringing, and it presents as colored bokeh on opposite sides of the point of focus. This is another aberration that can be corrected in post-processing, but it’s annoying, and I wish I didn’t have to worry about it. So while I’m generally pleased with the bokeh capabilities of the SCM-A 35mm/2.8, I can’t totally recommend it for those shooters who value sensual blur above all else. Sorry, bokeh lovers.
Light fall-off is present wide-open, resulting in pretty obvious vignetting. This is pretty common among fast primes, and while it’s certainly not a desirable lens characteristic, it may be less of a sticking point than some might have you think.
I’m going to sound like a broken record, but stopping the lens down a single stop stands to resolve the problem nearly entirely. While stopping it down to F/5.6 and further to F/8 results in images with virtually no fall-off. It’s also good to remember that unwanted vignetting is extremely easy to correct in even the most basic post-processing programs. Simply slide a slider and it’s virtually eliminated. Thanks, technology.
This lens has that special combination of traits that’s so rare in photography, and it’s these traits that elevate it above much of its contemporary (and even modern) competition. Its quality construction makes you want to hold it. Its effortless operation makes you want to shoot it. Its pure performance makes you want to shoot it more. And its rarity makes you want to own it.
The 35mm focal length is among the most versatile and inspiring focal lengths in photography. It’s a focal length that no two people will use in the same way, but one that all photogeeks will enjoy shooting. It allows for creativity, provides room to grow, and functions as a springboard to experimentation. If you’re a street photographer, architectural shooter, landscape artist, or just a snapshot-shooting family man (or woman), 35mm is a focal length worth considering.
In my time away from the office, I fell in love with this uncommon Pentax glass. It’s the kind of lens you just want to keep on shooting. So whether you’re using a vintage or new Pentax, or one of today’s highest-specced mirror-less or DSLR cameras, the Pentax SMC-A 35mm F/2.8 is certainly worth a look.