FA Limiteds — Rest in peace

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Zvonimir Tosic
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FA Limiteds — Rest in peace
3 months ago

FA Limiteds: 1997 – 2012/3

THE BIRTH

The story of Pentax FA Limiteds — FA31, FA43 and FA77 — is the story now passed into legend. Three FA Limiteds were originally developed by Jun Hirakawa, a very talented optics engineer who worked for Pentax long time ago. He was made redundant under the Hoya’s ownership of Pentax. Mr Hirakawa currently works for Tamron.

In his original idea about limited edition lenses, Mr Hirakawa preferred smaller lenses, as they look more elegant and balanced on a camera. He originally designed a 1.9/43mm and 1.8/77mm lenses, and took on to design a 2.4/31 mm lens, based on the optical formula of the old 2.8/K30 (which was a remarkable and unique lens in itself).

However, the decision makers at Pentax/Asahi Optical Company did not like that idea, for some reason (vaguely discussed below), but wanted to have a faster lens. Mr Hirakawa was replaced on the project by two optical designers, namely, Mr Takayuki Ito and Mr Masayuki Murata. They finally made the 1.8/31mm Limited lens.

The FA43 was first marketed in 1997. It was the first that used the Pentax new ghostless coating patent and technology. This coating formula was an improvement over the SMC, and like its name suggested, new technology was extremely successful at eliminating ghost images. If one believes additional legends tied to FA Limiteds, the new coating was developed for an automated traffic-identification system requested by the Japanese police. Its aim was identifying car license-plates at night, which was difficult because of flare caused by the headlights.

Since 1997 Pentax has applied ghostless coating only on several selected lenses, which perhaps suggests that its application process was more expensive than the standard SMC.

THE ODD FOCAL LENGTHS

FA43’s 43mm focal length is actually the diagonal length of the 135 film. As such it is the most ideal and perfect "standard" lens for a 135 format camera. It is worthwhile to mention Pentax was the only optics company to venture, design and manufacture a 43mm lens for the 135 standard. One would ask, what others were thinking all those decades before and after?

The FA77 was marketed in 1999, following the FA43. Pentax wanted to make the second FA Limited lens into a portrait lens, but with a different focal length than usual, and with an aim to be smaller than a standard portrait lens. Thus it had not to be a 85mm lens. Legend goes that Jun Hirakawa liked the traditional Japanese cake made by the cake maker "喜月堂" whom has an emblem writing similar to three seven "七" Chinese words. That, apparently, inspired thoughts about designing a 77mm lens.

Pentax FA77 Limited is an attempt of rare humanism inside the world of photography. Its designer called it “returning to the age of innocence”. With its 270 grams and 49mm filter thread, it is a striking dissimilarity to the plethora of almost aimlessly made 85mm lenses, all much heavier sporting almost an inch wider filter threads. Yet the FA77 has an appeal over them all.

The focal length of the FA31 lens is a bigger mystery. It is hard to ascribe it to any particular measure, a ratio, a diagonal of an imaging format or name of a particular tea biscuit. I believe 31mm is a result of company’s previous continuous attempts to find a perfect normal wide angle focal length and aperture. It is a talent Pentax has somewhat lost recently.

In Japan, traditionally loved wide normal focal length is 28mm in 135 format. In the West, the preferred normal wide focal length is 35mm. 31mm sits right in between them, or, a half way in between Japanese normal wide and the Western normal wide. In most circumstances, that would be the universally compelling lens we would take on everywhere. Considering the era of film in which is was conceived, a desire for the widest as possible aperture is well founded, as the photographer would indeed love its most used lens to have the most in terms of light gathering ability. Therefore f1.8 was preferred over the f2.4.

THE REST IN PEACE

According to some sources, including our Pentax Forums favourite Asahi man, almost two years ago the production of FA Limiteds ceased. What is sold now in the shops are inventories being cleared out, to make room for something new. Same, or a different new? Perhaps the latter.

The story of the FA Limiteds is tied to specific times and circumstances of the Pentax brand in its continuous, and at times tumultuous journey. The development of the new improved coating back in late 1990s justified the FA Limiteds, similarly as today the new development in coating technology justifies their last bow from the stage.

And there is more, of course. The aperture ring, the manual switch for the AF and MF, new trends for smaller and smaller, their non-native focal lengths on APS-C cameras undeniably make FA Limiteds oddities in the world of digital photography, even within the home grounds of current Pentax cameras and their new imaging philosophies.

The sales of FA Limiteds never really soared, but were steady. They definitely did not excite in times when their production ceased — time which overlaps with misty and uncertain times when the future of the Pentax brand under the new management of Ricoh was questioned. It is feasible to surmise many did not venture to invest in (more expensive) lenses of a brand that may, or may not continue to exist. Because for 2+ years, Pentax under Ricoh showed no new commitment, only rehashes of the old. In that time, second hand market was flooded with FA Limiteds.

The lacklustre DA560, despite being a very good modern lens, had the similar lack of good fortune for those same reasons of the uncertainty, and only now, with the advent of the K-3, we may say enthusiasts are renewing their faith that Pentax may still be around, and that more valuable lenses are worth buying.

The interest for FA Limiteds has resurged, but only for a short while I'm afraid — until the inventories are not emptied. For after that, who knows what will come to replace the legendary FA Limiteds?

It won't be same, and will have the taste of different times.

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Madamina, il catalogo è questo; Delle belle che amò il padron mio; un catalogo egli è che ho fatt'io; Osservate, leggete con me.

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