Not so long ago I picked up the Pentax 77mm Limited f/1.8 lens on a bit of a whim. I’d bought the 43mm f/1.9 Limited a few weeks before and was impressed, so when the 77 surfaced in my local London Camera Exchange I decided to take a punt. At the time, I didn’t think I would use it as much as the 43, but a month or so in, I’ve used it significantly more!
For my personal photography, as someone who defaults to shooting with a rangefinder, the idea of shooting a short telephoto lens isn’t one that regularly pops into my head. I have a ZM 85mm now that I’m happy with, but it gets used quite sparingly due to the various shortcomings of using rangefinders with telephoto lenses – small frame lines being the primary one for me.
Of course, it’s not that rangefinders are totally inappropriate tools for telephoto photography. Simon King makes a very strong case with his work that a 90mm lens can be a perfect companion to a Leica rangefinder. I’ve perhaps just not spent enough time persevering with them to feel as comfortable as I do with a 50mm on a rangefinder.
I do like a short tele lens though, and for work, they are definitely my preference over anything else. If you happen to find me photographing an event for example (not that I’ve shot any for a while now of course – thanks covid), you’ll more often than not find me aiming an 85mm at people. I find the focal length just right for capturing people at their most natural. I also like the field of view and perspective compression the comes with a short tele. I find shots easier and framing more readily satisfying.
This is perhaps why I initially really hit it off with the Pentax 77mm Limited. When I first the camera to my eye with the lens attached it felt like a very natural frame to me. To start with, I recognised it as being closer to the 85mm field of view that I’m used to at work. The more I used it though, the more it felt closer to a normal field of view.
I recognised this feeling from when I shot the 7Artisans 75mm f/1.25. Despite that being a rangefinder lens, I really took to the framing with that lens too. It just felt easy to frame. Not so tight that I had to be half a mile away from the girls when I was photographing them, but tight enough that I wasn’t right in their faces.
With the 7A 75mm lens I didn’t spend much time with it shooting outside of the house. It was too big, which was it’s demise in the end. I swapped it for a Skyllaney lens with Chris who is getting more enjoyment out of it than I ever was going to. I just can’t be doing with massive lenses.
The Pentax 77mm limited is different. It’s an f/1.8 lens, so it’s not as absurdly massive as the 7Artisans beast was. In fact, for what it is, I’d go as far to say that it’s actually quite a small lens – something that has also definitely helped it find favour with me.
The Pentax 77mm Limited
The Pentax 77mm Limited comes from the FA line lenses the Pentax made in the 90s. There were quite a few lenses in the FA series, but there were only 3 “Limited” lenses – the 31mm f/1.8, 43mm f/1.9 and 77mm f/1.8. There is actually already a bit of an overview review here on 35mmc that covers all of these alongside the Pentax MZ-S – a camera that I have also fairly recently acquired.
All 3 of these lenses are really highly regarded, and come with price tags to match. Every time I mention the fact that I have two of them on social media someone pops up suggesting that I should definitely buy the 31mm to complete the set. If it was a couple of £hundred I might bite too, but of the 3, it’s the most expensive and a focal length I’m least likely to use, so I’ve not bitten the bullet. Yet.
Though I haven’t handled any of the rest of the FA series, the thing that supposedly separates these lenses from the rest is their build quality. This line of “Limited” lenses are seemingly made entirely of metal – they feel really solid and handle very nicely with it.
The big selling point for me though is the fact that they are designed to feel very nice to use in both manual and autofocus. A lot of autofocus lenses of this era are perfectly usable manually, but the action of turning the focusing ring feels lose and unsatisfying. This is something that I always used to find particularly disappointing about Nikon’s early AF and AF-D series lenses. In autofocus they were snappy and great to use, but in manual, the focus ring just felt slack. As such, despite me finding a preference for them optically, I just didn’t enjoy using them on my older manual focus cameras.
This is not the case with the Pentax 77mm Limited, or the 43 and 31 for that matter. The autofocus is still very snappy and responsive, but the manual focus is also really nicely damped. In fact, they feel as smooth to focus with manually as any of my very nice manual focus only lenses.
The only disadvantage of the focusing is the noise they make. There is no internal focusing motor in the lenses, instead – like the early Nikons in fact – they are driven by an AF motor in the body and a slotted screw drive mechanism that links the camera to the lens.
Depending on the camera body they are mounted to, this results in a range of noises from fairly subtle, to quite loud. The SFX I’ve been enjoying this Pentax 77mm Limited on so much recently creates quite something of a racket when focusing. Though, it’s fair to say, it’s accuracy never let me down.
The Pentax 77mm Limited also has the advantage of having a aperture selection control on the body of the lens with an ‘A’ for auto. This again means it can be used totally manually with much earlier Pentax K mount cameras, but will also work with bang up-to-date digitals too. This was a big part of the attraction for me! The aperture clicks on my 77mm are feel really good in use too.
Of course, all this would be moot if the Pentax 77mm Limited also wasn’t abundantly capable optically speaking. Fortunately it is – though I’m not quite sure it’s filled with pixie dust as seems to be the rumour on the Pentax forums website. In fact, much to my satisfaction, it’s not too dissimilar in rendering to the Nikons of the era. That is to say, it doesn’t have the clinical boring flat rendering of a lot of modern glass does, but is late enough to have good contrast and colours.
The Pentax 77mm Limited quite sharp wide open – at close distances at least.
At further distances, I found it needed to be stopped down to retain the sharpness, but is still adequately sharp to produce nicely rendered images. Stopped down, it’s practically bulletproof though. I took a lot of images at f/5.6-8 whilst on holiday recently and was pleasantly surprised with the resolution and contrast in all of them. There’s a nice bite to the images, but they still remain quite organic looking.
The Pentax 77mm Limited is so small that I was able to use it with a hood full time. For reasons I can’t really explain, rather than using it with its retracting hood, I’ve been using it with the hood off the 43mm – in fact, I only noticed this when I came to photograph it for this review. Here it is with the hood off the 43mm:
And here it is with its retractable hood extended:
Either way, I’ve not tested it without a hood, but with one on it, I’ve not noticed any veiling flare at any aperture. I also don’t have a single image out of it yet that shows anything of any flare. Not that these traits often bother me – but sometimes it’s nice to have a lens that can be relied upon to not impose these sorts of “issues” onto your results.
This is the one of only 2 images that I have seen anything of a reduction in contrast – top left of frame.
I read a few other reviews of the Pentax 77mm Limited in the run up to buying it, and many of them spoke of chromatic aberrations be its key downfall. Fortunately, this seems to be largely limited to using it on digital cameras, as shooting it on film, I’ve not really run into it. The only time I’ve spotted anything of the purple fringing in high contrast areas was in a couple of shots of the sea – though the slight halation that Portra 400 comes with seemed to mask it, I think. I feel like I can just see a hint of purple in the sparkly highlight in the sea here – but maybe that’s just me looking for the issue after reading about it.
The Pentax 77mm Limited is also pretty damn good when it comes to rendering what’s not in focus. For the most part, there’s nothing particularly attention grabbing about the bokeh at all – in fact, it’s very neutral and unimposing.
The only time I spotted anything that might catch people’s eye was when shooting a full length portrait wide open. As you can see, with the subject distance a little greater and with a complex background, there’s just a slight hint of a swirl to the bokeh. This is the only time I have noticed this sort of look crop up – but actually I quite like it anyway.
Usually for me these days, every single photo here is a film shot, and none of them were taken for the benefit of testing the lens. I have recently bought an adapter to mount it on one of my digital cameras, so if I find anything worth noting, I might pop back and update this review. Otherwise, here are some of my favourites I’ve taken with the Pentax 77mm Limited lens so far.
You can find more images on my Flickr here.
The short and long of it is that whilst perhaps not as clinically perfect as some modern lenses, the Pentax 77mm Limited is a highly capable lens that doesn’t impose too much of a strong character on most the images. It was designed in the film era, so it doesn’t surprise me too much that some reviews talk of limitations when using it on modern cameras.
But that’s of little concern for me. I bought this lens to shoot on film cameras, and to date that’s all I’ve done with it, and I don’t think I could be any happier with the results.
That said, I’m not sure my satisfaction with the results is entirely down to the lens itself. I really feel like I’ve clicked with this focal length. The field of view a 75/77mm lens brings to a 35mm format camera just feel like it works for me. It’s not so long that I feel restricted by it or find myself having to take steps back all the time. In fact, to me, it’s just felt like a slightly tighter normal lens – a fact that I’ve really enjoyed in use. Ultimately, I’ve found framing with it really easy, and I’m more pleased with a higher volume of my results – which has to be a good thing!
And of course, that’s without mentioning the feel of the lens in use. For a short tele, it’s quite small – especially for its speed. It also handles wonderfully in both manual and autofocus modes and isn’t too heavy to carry everywhere.
What’s not to like? Well, I suppose the direct answer to that is what it cost. The Pentax 77mm Limited doesn’t come cheap. The closest lens I can think of in the Nikon world is the 85mm f/1.8 AF-D – a fantastic lens that, though a little bigger, can be picked up for lens than half the amount these lenses go for. The Nikon is a lot easier to find – short of inspecting the results at 200% – is probably not far off as good, if not as good optically too.
But I’m not shooting Nikon at the moment, I’m shooting Pentax. And I said at the beginning of this review, whilst I genuinely thought this lens would play second fiddle to the 43mm, in practice, the opposite is true. As such, I’m totally comfortable with what I paid for it, as I’ve really clicked with the Pentax 77mm Limited – a keeper for sure!