Canon and Nikon aren't the only DSLR makers. Pentax has been making DSLRs for years, and is still a strong choice for enthusiasts value robustness and comprehensive camera controls over the latest gadgets. Pentax also makes lenses, of course, and the best Pentax lenses can rival those from Canon and Nikon.
Pentax fans might like to know that Pentax will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020 and is planning a special edition Pentax DSLR to celebrate.
Originally, all Pentax DSLRs used APS-C format sensors, so most of Pentax’s lenses are designed for this smaller format. Later on, though, Pentax launched the full-frame K-1 and then the Pentax K-1 Mark II DSLR, so now it makes full frame lenses too.
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It’s not just Pentax that makes lenses for Pentax cameras, as independent lens maker Sigma does too. Sadly, Sigma announced in 2019 that it will stop supporting the Pentax K mount. The good news is that there are plenty of Pentax lenses to fill the gap, and almost all of our recommendations are for Pentax’s own lenses anyway.
The latest addition to the Pentax range is the HD Pentax-D FA 70-210mm F4 ED SDM WR, which is a much lighter and cheaper alternative to the pricey HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm f/2.8 ED DC AW. It looks a great option for enthusiasts who want a good quality constant-aperture telephoto zoom without paying pro prices, and we'll review this new lens just as soon as we get a sample.
Pentax lens features
Pentax latest DSLRs all have built-in, sensor-shift SR (Shake Reduction). This enables lens designers to concentrate fully on optical performance without the need to build stabilizing units into the lenses themselves. Many of Pentax’s current lenses feature aspherical and extra-low dispersion glass elements, along with advanced coatings.
Some older lenses in the Pentax catalog rely on on mechanical autofocus drive from the host camera body, but can feel quite noisy and crude as a result. The better, newer Pentax lenses have AF motors built into the lens for faster, quieter responses. The types include SDM (Supersonic Direct-drive Motor), DC (Direct Current motor) and PLM (Pulse Motor). A Quick-Shift focus system is also often featured, enabling full-time manual override of autofocus.
Some lenses have a WR (Weather-resistant) construction to guard against dust and moisture, as well as an SP (Super Protect) coating on the front element, to repel grease and water.
For the ultimate in performance and durability, Pentax offers Star-series lenses, their premium build commanding premium purchase prices. So let’s take a look at the best Pentax lenses in all the most popular categories, from telephoto and wide-angle zooms, through upgrades for standard ‘kit’ zoom lenses, to more specialist macro and portrait prime lenses.
Make sure you get the right size
We mentioned earlier that Pentax makes both APS-C format DSLRs and a full frame model, so if you have a full frame Pentax K-1 you need to make sure you’re getting lenses to fit that larger format – but don’t worry, we explain which lens is which below.
A telephoto is almost always the first ‘extra’ lens people get for their DSLRs and it's ideal for fans of wildlife and sports photography. Some of Pentax’s kit lenses for its APS-C format DSLRs actually offer pretty good telephoto reach already, like the 18-135mm zoom which gives an effective range of 27.5-207mm in full-frame terms. For action sports and wildlife photography, however, that’s likely to come up a bit short, so this is where the next three lenses come in.
1. HD Pentax DA 55-300mm f/4.5-6.3 ED PLM WR RE
This handy APS-C format zoom gives almost super-telephoto reach
Mount: K, APS-C | Effective focal length (APS-C): 84.5-460mm | Elements/groups: 14/11 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Pulse motor | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Maximum magnification: 0.3x | Filter thread: 58mm | Dimensions (WxL): 77x89mm | Weight: 442g
Despite its budget price tag, this telephoto zoom for APS-C format Pentax DSLRs has excellent build quality and comes complete with weather-seals. It’s big on zoom range but, thanks to a clever retractable design, stows away nice and small. A high-performance stepping motor drives the autofocus system in near-silence, complete with a Quick-Shift mechanism for manual override. The optical path includes two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements that help to keep chromatic aberrations impressively low, while HD (High Definition) coatings are applied to maximise light transmission while minimising ghosting and flare. Handling and image quality are excellent, the latter benefiting from great sharpness and contrast throughout the zoom range, along with minimal distortions.
2. HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm f/2.8 ED DC AW
A pro-grade lens for both APS-C and full frame Pentax DSLRs
Mount: K, FF | Effective focal length (APS-C): 107-307mm | Elements/groups: 19/16 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: DC motor | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Maximum magnification: 0.13x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 92x203mm | Weight: 1,755g
70-200mm f/2.8 lenses are firm favourites with enthusiast and professional photographers the world over. This full-frame compatible Star-series optic is aimed squarely at this sector of the market, with a tough and fully weather-sealed build, premium glass and high-tech coatings. As such, it features four SD (Super-low Dispersion), two ED (Extra-low Dispersion), and two fluorite-grade Super ED elements. The net result is fabulous contrast and sharpness with minimal colour fringing, even when shooting wide open. Autofocus is driven by a rapid and near-silent DC motor. There’s also a switchable, dual-mode Quick-Shift facility that gives priority to either autofocus or manual override. All this sophistication makes it expensive, though, so Pentax's recently announced HD Pentax-D FA 70-210mm F4 ED SDM WR could prove an excellent alternative.
3. HD Pentax-D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 ED DC AW
A super-telephoto for both APS-C format and full-frame cameras
Mount: K, FF | Effective focal length (APS-C): 230-690mm | Elements/groups: 18/14 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: DC motor | Minimum focus distance: 2.0m | Maximum magnification: 0.22x | Filter thread: 86mm | Dimensions (WxL): 95x242mm | Weight: 2,000g
This super-telephoto zoom is heavier and more expensive than a regular telephoto lens, but it lets you capture objects much further away. It’s a full frame lens that’s also fully compatible with APS-C format bodies, where it gives a mighty effective zoom range of 230-690mm. Three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and one Extraordinary-low Dispersion element are featured in the optical path, along with HD coating. The DC motor-driven Quick-Shift autofocus system benefits from four focus buttons around the mid-section of the lens barrel. These can be configured to activate autofocus, or to focus on a preset distance, or as focus-hold buttons. As with Pentax’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, switchable autofocus modes include auto- and manual-override priority options. Everything’s wrapped up in a durable, weather-sealed construction.
Ultra-wide zoom lenses are great for capturing sweeping vistas in landscape photography and for shooting indoors, where space is cramped and you have little room for manoeuvre. They’re also great for exaggerating perspective in creative shooting, making close foreground objects really stand out against a rapidly receding background. Here, though, you need to choose an APS-C or a full-frame format zoom to match your camera’s sensor size. If you put a full-frame wide-angle zoom on an APS-C Pentax, you’ll lose the wide-angle effect.
4. Pentax DA 12-24mm f/4 ED AL IF
The best-buy wide-angle zoom for your APS-C format Pentax
Mount: K, APS-C | Effective focal length (APS-C): 18-36mm | Elements/groups: 13/11 | Diaphragm blades: 8 | Autofocus: DC motor | Minimum focus distance: 0.3m | Maximum magnification: 0.12x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 84x88mm | Weight: 430g
This wide-angle zoom is very robust and well-made, with a very smooth and precise feel to its zoom and focus rings, the latter linking to its Quick-Shift system for manual override. It’s not a WR (Weather-Resistant) lens and lacks a built-in autofocus motor but, for a screw-drive system powered by the camera body, the focusing is remarkably rapid. Compared with many APS-C format wide-angle lenses on the market, this one benefits from a fairly fast f/4 aperture rating, which remains available throughout its entire zoom range. The aperture itself is one f/stop slower than in the newer HD Pentax-DA* 11-18mm f/2.8 ED DC AW, but the 12-24mm is better value unless you really want to specialise in wide-angle photography.
5. HD Pentax-D FA 15-30mm f/2.8 ED SDM WR
The wide-angle zoom of choice for a full-frame Pentax
Mount: K, FF | Effective focal length (APS-C): 23-46mm | Elements/groups: 18/13 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Supersonic Direct-drive | Minimum focus distance: 0.28m | Maximum magnification: 0.2x | Filter thread: N/A | Dimensions (WxL): 99x144mm | Weight: 1,040g
Excellent for experts and professionals, this full frame wide-angle zoom completes the ‘holy trinity’ of constant-aperture f/2.8 lenses for full-frame bodies, along with the 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses in Pentax’s line-up. Typically for this class of lens, there’s a bulbous, protruding front element which is protected by a fixed, petal-shaped hood. This precludes the easy attachment of filters, although Lee Filters markets a specialist adaptor for its SW150 Mark II series. Autofocus is fast and near-silent, driven by a Supersonic Direct-drive Motor, complete with Quick-Shift manual override. Image quality is highly impressive in all respects, with great sharpness and contrast, well-controlled distortion and good resistance to ghosting and flare.
Standard zoom upgrades
Pentax APS-C format DSLRs usually come as complete camera kits which include either an 18-50mm or 18-135mm standard zoom lens. Both are of good quality, with built-in DC autofocus motors and weather-resistant construction. However, they’re not so great in terms of aperture range, dropping from f/4-5.6 and f/3.5-5.6 across the zoom range respectively. So for quality and added versatility, we’ve picked two ‘fast’ standard zooms with a constant-aperture design, making f/2.8 available throughout the zoom range. And for a more travel-friendly option, we’ve also selected an APS-C format superzoom lens with a monster 18-300mm zoom range.
6. Pentax DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 ED AL [IF] SDM
A robust APS-C f/2.8 standard zoom with fast autofocus too
Mount: K, APS-C | Effective focal length (APS-C): 24-75mm | Elements/groups: 15/12 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Supersonic Direct-drive | Minimum focus distance: 0.3m | Maximum magnification: 0.21x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 84x99mm | Weight: 600g
It’s been around for a decade but this is a lens that’s designed and built to last. It’s robust with a weather-sealed construction but not overly big or heavy, making it an ideal everyday lens for use with APS-C format bodies. An SP (Super Protect) coating is applied to the front element to repel water and grease, adding to its rainy-day suitability. The SDM (Super Direct-drive Motor) autofocus system is quick and ultra-quiet, and features Quick-Shift for manual override. A bonus over most standard zoom lenses is that this one gives a noticeably wider maximum viewing angle, thanks to a minimum focal length of 16mm instead of the more usual 18mm. 2mm might not sound much but it makes a big difference. The only drawback is that image quality suffers a little at the shortest zoom setting, with noticeable barrel distortion and increased colour fringing. Even so, the relatively fast and constant f/2.8 is great to have, adding versatility for creative shooting.
7. HD Pentax-D FA 24-70mm f/2.8 ED SDM WR
A great constant-aperture standard zoom for full-frame cameras
Mount: K, FF | Effective focal length (APS-C): 37-107mm | Elements/groups: 17/12 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: : Supersonic Direct-drive | Minimum focus distance: 0.38m | Maximum magnification: 0.2x | Filter thread: 82mm | Dimensions (WxL): 89x110mm | Weight: 787g
Enthusiast and professional photographers usually prefer constant-aperture lenses, and this latest Pentax standard zoom for full-frame cameras includes three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, one anomalous-dispersion element and three aspherical elements, along with HD coating. As expected, the SDM (Super Direct-drive Motor) autofocus system gives fast and whisper-quiet performance, complete with Quick-Shift manual override. Image quality is gorgeous, with superb contrast and sharpness, rich colour rendition, and smooth bokeh. Distortions and colour fringing are well-controlled, and there’s good resistance to ghosting and flare. All in all, it’s a cracker of a standard zoom.
8. Sigma 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro HSM | C
A great APS-C format superzoom lens with a huge focal range
Mount: K, APS-C | Effective focal length (APS-C): 28-460mm | Elements/groups: 17/13 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: Hypersonic motor | Minimum focus distance: 0.39m | Maximum magnification: 0.33x | Filter thread: 72mm | Dimensions (WxL): 79x102mm | Weight: 585g
Lugging around extra lenses can be a chore, especially when you’re travelling. A ‘superzoom’ lens stretches all the way from useful wide-angle coverage to super-telephoto reach, without the need to change lenses. This superzoom from Sigma gives a mighty ‘effective’ range of 28-460mm on Pentax APS-C bodies, yet is slightly lighter than Pentax’s 16-50mm standard zoom. Quality glass includes four top-grade FLD (‘Fluorite’ Low Dispersion) elements along with one SLD (Special Low Dispersion) element. The ultrasonic autofocus system is based on a motor, drive shaft and gearwheels, rather than being a ring-type design. This reduces size and weight but, typical of the breed, the focus ring rotates during autofocus. Superzoom lenses are somewhat notorious for comprising image quality but this Sigma retains very good sharpness throughout almost all of its zoom range, only dropping off a little at the long end.
For revealing the finest levels of detail, you can’t beat a ‘true macro’ lens that delivers 1.0x or 1:1 magnification at its shortest focus distance. This replicates a small object at full life size on the image sensor. When shooting with an APS-C format body, the 1.5x crop factor further boosts the magnifying effect. Although 1.0x magnification might not sound much of a big deal, it enables an incredible degree of enlargement when viewing the resulting images on screen or in print. In the weird world of macro photography, tiny bugs can take on the appearance of alien invaders.
9. Pentax D-FA 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR
Ready for your close-up? This lens focuses down to just 30cm
Mount: K, FF | Effective focal length (APS-C): 153mm | Elements/groups: 9/8 | Diaphragm blades: 8 | Autofocus: Camera-driven | Minimum focus distance: 0.3m | Maximum magnification: 1.0x | Filter thread: 49mm | Dimensions (WxL): 65x81mm | Weight: 340g
Unlike most recent macro lens designs, this Pentax lacks an internal focus mechanism, so it does extend in physical length as you focus closer. On the plus side, like other high-end Pentax lenses, this one is beautifully engineered and finished. It features an aluminium outer barrel, a comprehensive set of weather seals and an SP (Super Protection) coating on its front element to repel muck and moisture. However, it lacks a built-in autofocus motor, instead relying a noisy mechanical drive from the host camera body. Image quality is very good overall and sharpness remains excellent right to the edges of the frame when using an APS-C body. However, corner sharpness is less impressive over the larger sensor area of a full-frame body.
Effective portraiture isn’t just about a studio setup where you have full control over the lighting and background. Often, you’ll be shooting under natural lighting in a ‘real world’ environment and, all too frequently, the backgrounds can be overly detailed or cluttered. With a focal length of around 75-85mm on a full-frame camera, and a wide aperture of f/1.4 to f/1.8, you can blur the background with a tight depth of field. The combination also enables a natural working distance between the photographer and portrait sitter. If you’re shooting with an APS-C format camera, a 50mm prime lens with a similarly wide aperture rating gives the same benefits, taking the crop factor into account.
10. SMC Pentax-FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited
A classic lens for full-frame portraiture
Mount: K, FF | Effective focal length (APS-C): 116mm | Elements/groups: 7/6 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Camera-driven | Minimum focus distance: : 0.7m | Maximum magnification: 0.14x | Filter thread: 49mm | Dimensions (WxL): 48x64mm | Weight: 270g
Pentax designed this lens specifically for portraiture and, while it lacks the 85mm focal length and f/1.4 aperture rating of most ‘portrait primes’, it still fits the bill admirably. The combination of focal length and widest available aperture enable a comfortable working distance and a depth of field that’s deep enough to keep most of the face pin-sharp, yet shallow enough to throw the background out of focus. In-focus areas within images really are super-sharp, along with great contrast and lovely colour rendition. Defocused areas look really soft and creamy, and the bokeh remains super-smooth when stopping down a little, helped by a well-rounded nine-blade aperture. Build quality is good, with a full metal jacket and built-in hood, but there’s no internal autofocus motor.
11. Pentax DA* 55mm f/1.4 SDM
Perfect for high-quality portraiture on an APS-C body
Mount: K, APS-C | Effective focal length (APS-C): 82.5mm | Elements/groups: 9/8 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Supersonic Direct-drive | Minimum focus distance: 0.45m | Maximum magnification: 0.17x | Filter thread: 58mm | Dimensions (WxL): 66x71mm | Weight: 375g
This 55mm lens is from Pentax’s premium Star-series line-up. Designed for APS-C format bodies, it has an effective focal length of 82.5mm, which is perfect for head-and-shoulders or half-length portraits. Features include a Supersonic Direct-drive Motor autofocus system, with the usual Quick-Shift manual override and focus distance scale beneath a viewing panel. Shooting wide-open at f/1.4, images don’t tend to be bitingly sharp, but that can be an advantage in reducing the appearance of fine lines and blemishes in skin. Stop down to f/1.8 and there’s a step up in sharpness, while bokeh remains beautifully soft and dreamy, with smooth transitions between focused and defocused areas. There’s no denying it’s a pricey lens, but it’s simply the best-quality option for portraiture with APS-C format Pentax cameras.
12. SMC Pentax DA 50mm f/1.8
Relatively cheap but decent lens for APS-C format portraiture
Mount: K, APS-C | Effective focal length (APS-C): : 76.5mm | Elements/groups: 6/5 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: Camera-driven | Minimum focus distance: 0.45m | Maximum magnification: 0.15x | Filter thread: 52mm | Dimensions (WxL): 63x39mm | Weight: 122g
A relatively lightweight 50mm prime lens, this one measures a mere 39mm in length and tips the scales at just 122g. The light weight isn’t just due to the diminutive size, but also because the mounting plate is made from plastic instead of metal. Even so, it should prove perfectly durable. Sharpness is good even when shooting wide-open at f/1.8, which also enables a tight depth of field ideal for portraiture. Defocused areas look nice and smooth but the aperture isn’t particularly well-rounded when stopping down a little, with the diaphragm having seven rather than nine blades. There’s no built-in autofocus motor, or even a focus distance scale. Even so, this lens can produce beautiful portraits and is the ideal choice if you’re on a tight budget.