Lens Spotlight: A*85 - Jason Doss

Lens Spotlight

smc Pentax-A* 85mm f/1.4


Welcome to next round of this exploratory journey into the realm of digital photography with manual focus lenses. The goal is to highlight a technique, lens, camera, film, or subject in three frames. I have a lot of lenses, probably too many, so I'm going to focus in the short term on cycling thru my collection and maybe discuss a little about my photography habits along the way.


The Pentax A* 85mm f/1.4 is a short telephoto portrait lens from the 80s. The "A" in A-series means automatic.  These lenses were the first to feature automatic aperture control when the aperture ring is set to "A."  Prior to this, automatic aperture was aperture priority only...  the camera meters at the selected aperture, and exposure controlled only the shutter speed at any given ISO.


Most A-series lenses are identical to their M-series or K-series counterparts, however the A*85 has no contemporaries.  This is the fastest 85mm Pentax has (so far) produced.  This lens is 555g and 66mm long (translated, 1.2# and 2.6in) which is significantly larger and heavier than the M-series 85mm lens, but is a full stop faster.  This focal length is a classic short telephoto for head/shoulders portraits, but of course this lens can be used for any purpose.



This series of photos was all taken in one evening at our kids' house for game night.  Above, you see the smarmy grandchild on the left, thinking she can bluff us into abject stupidity in a game of Whitechapel.  Dad is on the right, plotting and planning the capture and incarceration of the criminal mastermind.


Both photos were shot one click down from wide open (f/2) in natural light coming from behind (left) or from the right (right).  When proper focus is achieved, the detail is sharp in the right places, with smooth gradations to out of focus backgrounds.  The fast aperture is required for this effect, but also allows for excellent natural lighting.



Two more shots from game night above show some flexibility of the lens in attempts to isolate subject.  On the right, I was trying to isolate the earring by shooting the lens wide open.  Mom is on the right, considering her next move as cop #2 in search of our resident murderer.  Both shots show smooth transitions to full background bokeh, while capturing good color in those areas also.  Again, both shots were done with ambient light.


The final shot comes at the end of the birthday celebration, and documents the simultaneous arrival of the cake, the ice cream, and Wesley next to my wife.  Wesley sometimes gets too eager to help us eat, and here he looks ready to jump up on her lap and help.  This highlights a possible limitation of "slow shooting" in general... and that is the difficulty in adapting to changing opportunities.  Here, I'd have liked to widen the depth of field by at least 3 or 4 clicks to get Wesley full in focus, but because my wife likes to chase him away quickly when he does this, I chose to take the shot instead.


A word about the GREEN STAR. Pentax has a few lenses within each line that they believe provide superior optical performance, and these lenses are given a green star. The pronounciation of this lens, therefore is the "A star 85mm" lens.  Here's how Pentax described their Star line. "To be designated as a Star-series product, a lens must demonstrate extremely high resolving power and contrast — from the center of the image field to the edges, even at open aperture — and exceptional optical performance with minimal distortion and color bleeding. In addition, it must be a very bright lens with one of the largest open apertures in its class. It must provide extreme strength, superior dustproof and weather-resistant performance, and outstanding operability. Only when all these requirements are satisfied, it is named a Star-series lens because it incorporates the very best of our state-of-the-art technologies that optimize the photographer's creative freedom."


That's all I have for now... See you next time.


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