HD vs. SMC Pentax FA Limited Lenses
Updating beloved lenses comes with a level of risk. Particularly when those lenses are the FA Limited, which have a cult following and are sometimes seen as reason enough to chose the K-mount system. We had previously reviewed the SMC 31mm, SMC 43mm and SMC 77mm and had good things to say about all three.
When updating these three lenses, Pentax played it safe. The upgrades are limited to
- New HD coatings
- Rounded aperture blades
- SP coating on the front element
- Minimal cosmetic changes (alignment button on the 43mm, more matte finish on the bodies)
The new coatings are welcome and no one will doubt their usefulness. The use of rounded aperture blades could have a positive impact on bokeh (although the SMC lenses already perform very well in this regard).
Two elements had frequently been requested by user and have not changed: the lenses still use screw-drive AF and have no weather protection. This might be seen as a missed opportunity to truly bring these lenses into the 21st century.
With that in mind, is the upgrade to the HD version a good or a bad thing?
Breaking down the analysis into sections, the first obvious finding is that the HD coatings have a significant impact on flare and ghosting. This is by far the most visible effect of the new version. The change is not subtle; in the right (or bad...) conditions, the difference is major.
Bokeh is an area where we could have expected the rounded aperture blades to play an important role. This is not the case. There are some differences between the two versions but they are minor and will be hard to spot in everyday shooting. This is perhaps not surprising; the FA Limited were designed from the ground up with bokeh rendering in mind. Knowing that, creating a true improvement without crippling the often-mentioned "pixie dust" of the original version would be difficult to achieve. The good news is probably that the HD version did nothing bad to bokeh, and in some circumstances improved the rendering slightly.
Chromatic aberration is an area where the change is neutral. Things could have been different is CA had been dependent on the coatings, however in this case what CA there is originates from the lenses design itself. This derives from the design choices in order to optimize color management in the out-of-focus area; it has a modest negative impact on CA and this did not go away with the upgrade.
Lastly, the FA 31mm and 43mm are well regarded for their ability to create starbursts, particularly the 43mm. Using rounded aperture blades on the HD lenses does decrease the beauty of the starbursts, but only below F8. In that regard, the HD lenses do better than expected, as they preserve this ability even if only at smaller apertures.
The HD FA Limited retain much of what makes the SMC lenses so popular: small, superbly crafted jewels with unique rendering capabilities.
Who is it For?
One question in many people's mind is: should I consider upgrading?
Anyone already happy with the SMC Limited lenses should probably just keep them. The newer lenses are not a revolution, but an incremental upgrade.
Anyone who has felt bothered by the SMC lenses' handling of flare will see a dramatic improvement, and this could be justification enough for a change.
Anyone new to the realm of the FA Limited should certainly consider the HD lenses instead of their SMC counterparts. Apart from the ability to render starbursts at wider apertures, the SMC Limited offer no added perks versus their newer equivalents.
The Bottom Line
With the HD FA Limited, Pentax proposes a small number of improvements on lenses that were already considered by some as the crown jewels of the K-mount lineup. The newer D FA 50mm and 85mm primes shed new perspective on this, but even in 2021 the FA Limited are still relevant.
One good thing is that Pentax did not increase the price of the FA Limited with this upgrade. The HD 31mm can be purchased for $1046.95, the HD 43mm sells for $596.95 and the HD 77mm retails for $796.95.
Some would argue that Pentax did not go far enough with the upgrade, refraining from adding weather resistance on what is otherwise a strongly WR-oriented lineup, and keeping the screw-drive AF system. Changing those things would have justified the upgrade for a larger number of users. As it is, the HD FA Limited are still lenses worthy of the name and reputation that they bear.
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