HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited Lens – Review

HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited
HD Pentax DA 15mm F4 ED AL Limited
image courtesy (©) Ricoh Imaging.
I recently purchased an HD Pentax DA15mm f4 Limited “pancake” prime during the most recent “Black Friday” specials at Adorama for just under $500!  It’s been my experience that Thanksgiving Morning is when lens prices seem to reach their nadir for online sales.  This is the fourth “pancake” limited I’ve purchased to add to my “Three Amigos” set (21mm, 40mm, and 70mm compact limited primes).  The other three have been simply amazing for my photography as I now use them nearly exclusively as I walk around baglessly on solo and group shoots!  This “limited” (describes the class of lens, not limited production or availability) lens, like all the others, is all metal and glass (no plastic) and though light and compact, feels sturdy, well-built, and professional.  I had not originally planned to purchase this lens, but since I often do a lot of building and abandonment photography, I was starting to find my 21mm just wasn’t quite wide enough to capture many scenes and often I was unable to back up far enough.  Also, I guess my “lens-buying addiction” (LBA) was starting to need a new fix!  This lens is my first in the “HD” series (my other three are “SMC”-coated) as the older (and cheaper) SMC versions are no longer made and have become harder to find (I purchased my last one, the 70mm on a fire-sale just after the HD versions first came out, and the others I bought used). I was also able to get this one on a rock-bottom Black Friday sale.  Other reviews seem to conclude that there’s not much difference in the two versions other than that the SMC ones seem to produce better “starbursts” as the HD coating controls flare slightly better.  My experience has been that this HD lens produces beautiful dark blue skies!  I often use a CPL polarizer filter with my 21mm when I want darker blue skies but wouldn’t attempt using one on this one, which would result in a “gradient” effect due to the very wide angle.  Much to my surprise though is that I don’t even NEED one to get beautiful dark blue skies and color with this HD lens!

Downtown Weatherford, Texas (-0.3Ev 1/400 f8 iso100), by (© 2015) me.
Another thing that I’ve discovered with this lens is that it’s “aperture sweet-spot” seems to be around f8-f10, whereas my others seems to be f5.6-f7.2.  The difference in sharpness is very slight, even if shot wide open at f4 (which I am not hesitant use if indoors or if light is scarse).  I initially thought I would be somewhat put off by the slow f4-maximum, but I haven’t found myself really needing tight depth-of-field with the wide-angle shots this lens is designed for!  Otherwise, just either up the ISO and/or slow the shutter a stop or two and take advantage of Pentax’s excellent in-body stablization and noise-control!  This lens is practically as tack-sharp in it’s zone as my other limiteds, with the one exception that (as other reviewers have noted) it’s ever so slightly soft in the corners when you blow up your image on your big 21″ computer monitor, but only when you scale it up to full 1×1 size and pixel-peep!  In other words, it’s practically unnoticeable, unless you want to either print a huge poster or max-crop one corner of your photo.  If this is the case, I’d simply use my 21mm and step back a bit more!  The only reason I notice this is because my other “Three Amigos” are so tack-sharp throughout.  I don’t hold this against the lens, since this is one of the trade-offs to get such a wide-angle lens into such a compact size.  This lens has a standard 49mm filter thread (as do the other three limiteds I own) making current filters work on all. 

Young Co. Courthouse, by (© 2015) me.
Young Co. Courthouse (1/100″ f10 iso100), by (© 2015) me.
Now for some minor gripes.  The hood is a built-in metal “collapsable” that does not get in the way of filters (except a CPL, but I don’t advise using a CPL with such as a wide-angle, as I mentioned earlier).  The hood works well though, extends and collapses perfectly and is even lined on the inside with a thin velvet-ish black cloth, a really nice touch!  The fitting tolerances are perfect too (not tight so that it’s easy to extend and collapse, and not loose, so that it stays collapsed or extended as you set it).  My only beef is that I have to REMEMBER to extend it!  Another issue is with the cap.  The included cap is a beautiful metal SCREW-on cap that covers the hood with a lip that secures the hood collapsed, along with any filter you have attached. It is lined on the inside with the same thin velvet-ish black cloth, which I would absolutely HATE to lose somewhere!  Therefore, I use and recommend using a cheap standard 49mm snap-on cap (with the two little push-levers on opposite sides). Such a cap will not cover the protruding edges of the collapsed hood, but, like I said, the hood will STAY collapsed on it’s own while carrying!  My final, very minor complaint is that I carry my pancakes around in my pockets (along with keys, coins, etc.).  This is easy with the other lenses as the tiny metal hoods they come with (I use a second copy of my 40mm’s hood on my 70mm rather than the removable, collapsable one that came with it) protect their front elements very well in-pocket so that I am in the habit of never carrying around caps!  This lens, however MUST be capped when carrying in a pocket as the front element is rather large and near the surface of the lens and is not protected by the collapsed hood!  I debated on carrying the aforementioned cheap snap-on cap versus leaving a UV filter permanently attached for protection.  I’ve ended up going with the cap option since it leaves the lens slightly smaller in my pocket and I feel that filters slightly degrade image quality in general.  This is slightly the largest of my pancake lenses and is just barely pocketable in bluejeans, but I’ve gotten to where I still carry it often in lieu of the 21mm whilest walking about.  This has resulted in this lens really trying to “live” on my camera, which really doesn’t bother me!  While I find it easy to carry my “Three Amigos” around on foot, carrying four has proven more difficult, especially when wearing jeans.  This means often leaving my 21mm in the bag in the car and simply using the 15 instead.  If I’m really going light, I’ll start out with this one on the camera and just my 70mm in my pocket, though the 40mm, being so tiny, usually finds it’s way into my pocket as well!

Wide open (F4) - Pentax DA 15mm F4 Limited
Indoors (F4.5) (1/13″ f4.5 iso1000), by (© 2015) me.
I can not help but recommend this lens, particularly if you have the 21mm and are always finding yourself needing “just a little bit more!”  I have already had the 21mm for a long time now, but if forced to choose one between the two, I think I would go with this one, unless you’re going to be making poster prints, as the 21mm does render slightly sharper images in the periphery, is 8mm smaller end to end, and the lens itself much better at being pocketed.  In short, if you love your limiteds, as I do, you’ll will love this one too!  I don’t do much starburst kind of shots, but I do do lots of outdoor work, so for that I’d definitely recommend the HD version, particularly for this wide of an angle, as you can get polarizer-quality blue skies without one and crop slightly for a 21mm-equivalent shot.

The images below are full crops showing the center and lower right corners of the same image (original) (-0.3ev 1/320″ f11 iso100)

Full crop corner(Lower Right), by (© 2015) me.
Full crop corner(Lower Right), by (© 2015) me.
Full crop center, by (© 2015) me.
Full crop center, by (© 2015) me.

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