Pentax smc DA* 55mm 1:1.4 SDM review
5 Conclusion & samples
Conclusion - Pros
- Good balance of optical properties for its intended (portrait) role
- Near-silent autofocus thanks to SDM system
- Very good build quality, including weathersealing
Conclusion - Cons
- Relatively slow autofocus
- Inaccurate focusing unless using camera's AF adjust, varying in behavior across camera models
- Very expensive for its class
Let's talk about the positives first; the Pentax smc DA* 55mm F1.4 SDM is undoubtedly a lens capable of producing wonderful images, with a blend of optical characteristics near-perfectly suited to its intended purpose as a portrait lens. Shoot at F1.4 and you'll get flatteringly soft, but still finely detailed images, with characterful, almost painterly backgrounds. Stop down to F2 or thereabouts (arguably the optimum aperture for portraits) and you'll see a touch more sharpness, with slightly smoother, less distracting bokeh. If you want biting definition and more depth of field, shoot at F4 or smaller. All the while that 55mm focal length is offering the angle of view of a classic 85mm lens from the days of film, giving you a slightly longer working distance and more flattering perspective compared to a 50mm prime on APS-C. All in all, the lens is a clear improvement over the smc FA 50mm F1.4, with much superior wide open performance than the older, film-era design (although the gap narrows considerably at smaller apertures).
The build quality is very good too - in fact more than equal to anything else in its class, due to the added bonus of weathersealing. Now you may not make a habit of shooting portraits in the rain, but it's always nice to know the lens should survive a splash or two (just as long as you have it matched to a similarly-sealed body). The SDM focus motor is near-silent, and won't disturb your subjects in the slightest; however it is slower than the screw-drive system of the older 50mm, and while this isn't a big deal if you tend to pre-focus then shoot, you might need to bear it in mind if you use autofocus to track continually and erratically moving subjects - children, for example.
Unfortunately, though, we have serious concerns over two issues with this lens which have to temper our enthusiasm; namely optical alignment and autofocus (which are quite likely related). Over the course of what has become a rather protracted regime of testing, we've looked at three samples of this lens, and each has shown a clear tilt to the focus plane; this was most pronounced in the first sample, but relatively minor in the last (indeed in this sample it was only really detectable in our studio tests). This does more than simply mess up our studio tests - it clearly results in real-world image quality and focusing problems too. In fact we've never before seen a lens so capricious when it comes to focusing - we're used to F1.4 primes being challenging for cameras' AF systems, but the 55mm was most difficult of all. We couldn't get any of the tested samples to focus sufficiently accurately for reliable shooting wide open without resorting to focus adjustment, and the amount required on our K20D body (which focused the FA 50mm F1.4 just fine) was huge, a full +10. The lens worked better on the K-7 we received during the course of this review, but still needed adjustment for best results, although curiously in the opposite direction (-3); but on the K2000 we were left high and dry, unable to achieve accurate focus at all. Based on this experience, it becomes difficult for us to recommend the lens to owners of cameras other than the K20D and K-7, on which AF adjustment isn't available, unless you can test it to your satisfaction first.
The other big problem we simply can't overlook is the distinctly high price. At the time of writing we're looking at $650, which does seem rather steep when compared to the alternatives; $500 for the excellent Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM, or a mere $250 for the outgoing Pentax smc FA 50mm F1.4 (by way of comparison, Nikon's new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F1.4G retails for about $470, and Canon's EF 85mm F1.8 USM full frame portrait lens, $380). Now it's fair to say the 55mm F1.4 is much improved over the old FA 50mm F1.4, but the Sigma is a different proposition entirely. It sports both excellent optics and ultrasonic-type focusing, placing it very much in the same league as the 55mm. However it's not weatherproofed, and noticeably short for a 50mm lens (we'd place it closer to 47mm, giving a 70mm equivalent on APS-C), making the 55mm a rather nicer length for portraits.
So providing a final recommendation to this review becomes very difficult. When this lens works properly, it's one of the very best portrait lenses that Pentax users can currently buy. But getting it to work properly has been the source of much frustration, and we consider that, especially given the price, it really should work better out of the box. If you can afford the asking price and get the lens functioning properly, you will certainly be delighted; but for most users we can't help but feel that the Sigma, or even the older FA 50mm F1.4, will be a better (and safer) option.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.5|
Recommended (with reservations)
There are 30 images in the samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.
Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. A reduced size image (within 1024 x 1024 bounds) is provided to be more easily viewed in your browser. As always the original untouched image is available by clicking on this reduced image.
Pentax DA* 55 mm F1.4 SDM Review samples
|Fangorn Forest by cand1d|
|Yosemite Falls with Moonbow by Jonathan Shapiro|
from Best Landscape of the Week 4
The new stuff should have better red hues, improved sensitivity and finer grain - but don't worry - will still shift blues to green, greens to purple and yellows to pink.
Ricoh has introduced a new rugged compact camera with a 16MP CMOS sensor, 28-140mm lens, 2.7" LCD and built-in LED macro lights. Read more
This compact drone can shoot HD video using a 2-axis stabilized 12MP camera. Read more
The new Prynt Pocket can print a photo directly from their iPhone simply by inserting the phone into the printer, then snapping a photo. Each print will cost about 50 cents. Read more
Updates for Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom CC bring support for the Sony A9 and Panasonic ZS70/TZ90, along with bug fixes.
The Triggertrap remote camera control system is no longer sold due to the company folding, but now users will be able to build their own. Read more
The Magic Format Converter comes with internal optics that expand the image circle of full-frame DSLR lenses for use on the Fuji medium format camera. Read more
The usually Apple-exclusive MacPhun software developer has announced that it will introduce PC versions of two of its most popular applications. Both Aurora HDR and Luminar should be available for the Windows operating system by the autumn of this year. Read more
Sony's newest G Master telephoto zoom, announced alongside the a9, is the first of the company's FE lenses to reach 400mm natively. We had one in California and photographed horses, portraits, and landscapes - check out how it did. Read more
Garmin has entered the 360-camera market with the VIRB, which captures 5.7K video at 30p as well as 15MP stills. Read more
German media reports that the founders of the company behind the Panono 360-degree ball camera have filed for bankruptcy at a court in Berlin. Read more
With a claimed 800 new custom parts, Microsoft's updated Surface Pro comes with the latest Kaby Lake processors, better battery life, a new hinge, plus the Surface Pen is updated as well. Read more
DW Photo is attempting to resurrect the Hy6 medium format camera, though the legal tangles of its development may stop it being branded Rolleiflex.
The Kodak EKTRA, the company's 'camera first' smartphone, is now available to purchase in the United States. Read more
Apple and Nokia have settled their years-old patent dispute. Apple will make an undisclosed payment to Nokia and sign a licensing agreement related to digital health products with the Finnish company.
David Gibson, one of Britain's best known street shooters, shares all.
Photographers from the SKYGLOW project travelled 150k miles and took 3 million photos in increasingly rare locations: those without light pollution.
The world's fastest 200mm was produced for 16 years. In that time, only 8000 were made.
Photokina, the biennial photo industry trade show in Cologne, Germany, has announced that it will become an annual event beginning in 2018, and expand its focus to additional areas of imaging technology. Read more
No mic socket? No problem. In this video, Daniel Peters at Photo Gear News shows you how to make a lapel microphone using just a smartphone and a pair of earbuds.
How does the iPhone 7 Plus stack up against the Arri Alexa cinema camera? Watch this short video to find out.
Canon Australia's video series "The Lab" is designed to make photographers experiment and think outside the box. In the latest video a group of photographers create images based on their sense of taste.
The GH5 is expected to get a firmware update this summer to support 400Mbps internal recording. NewsShooter explores what memory cards you'll need to make it work.
Microsoft's new Surface Pro offers Intel's latest processor generation and improved battery life.
Riding a mountain bike downhill is dangerous enough in daylight, but potentially lethal at night. Which is where drones come in.
Rumors abound that Canon (and maybe Nikon) may produce a mirrorless camera based using their existing DSLR mount. Does this guarantee immediate great lens choice or a perpetually second-rate experience? Read more
According to rumors, the next camera from Nest will be able to capture 4K video, though that resolution will be only used for 'virtual' pan and tilt functions.
Boundary's Prima 'fully modular' backpack is expandable to 30L and has a removable camera case and tablet sleeve. Early Kickstarter backers can get one for $189.
Stanley Greene captured 'brutally honest' photographs in the war zones of the Middle East, Chechnya and Georgia. He was also one of the few African-American photographers working internationally.
Owners of Leica M cameras that suffer from peeling CCDs will be able to claim a free repair in the future so long as the camera was purchased within five years of the fault becoming apparent, the company has announced. Read more