Pentax 50mm FA f/1.4 HD and Classic Review: A Tale of Two Fifties

I consider myself an ardent supporter of Ricoh/Pentax products and have always endeavored to review its cameras and lenses when many others have chosen not to. I also think that the Pentax brand has really found its niche as more of a boutique manufacturer, focusing on the classic SLR design — a move that I think makes a ton of sense in today’s waning market. So, when I heard that there were two new — yet also very old — lenses waiting on my desk, I was excited, to say the least.

It’s also worth mentioning that both of these lenses are indeed SLR lenses, therefore I mounted them onto a trusty Pentax K1 II for this review.

Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic black and white
Some of my best photographic memories are from wandering around with just a fast 50mm in hand.

I refer to these lenses as vintage only because they are both a re-release of the classic Pentax 50mm f/1.4 optical formula. The Pentax HD FA 50mm f/1.4 is very much the autofocusing lens we are used to with modern HD high-contrast coatings. The SMC FA 50mm f/1.4 “Classic,” however, is optically tweaked to create an interesting rainbow flare pattern when shot towards bright light sources. The Classic will cost you only a slight premium ($380) over the HD ($350).

Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic beauty shot
The two new 50s are compact and lightweight. The classic even looks like an SLR lens from decades ago.

Pentax 50mm FA f/1.4 HD and Classic Review: Nifty 50s That Travel Light

For most of this review, I evaluated both lenses as if they were one due to the almost identical optical similarities of each.

What I noticed right away was how compact these two lenses are. In contrast, Pentax has a D-FA* 50mm f/1.4 that is much larger both in size and cost (we will return to that lens shortly) but these vintage 50mm lenses are incredibly lightweight at only 7.6 oz (216 grams) and have adorably sized 49mm filter threads. Although the HD version has a green ring embellishment and a more textured focusing ring, both lenses handle in a very similar fashion.

Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic in hand
It was a fun experience to pick up an SLR again after so long.
Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic side by side
You’d be hard pressed to see any visual difference between the two lenses in most situations.

Pentax 50mm FA f/1.4 HD and Classic Review: Retro Design, Retro Results

Because these lenses are based on an older optical formula, there are some issues when it comes to optical performance, especially when compared to modern designs. That being said, you could chalk up these issues under the catch-all umbrella term that is “character.”

I will first mention that I didn’t see any major differences between the two lenses as far as sharpness is concerned. At f/1.4, there is a definite lack of contrast and detail in the center of the images and the corners even more so. Stopping the lens down to f/2.8 is where you will see a marked improvement in sharpness and contrast across the frame. Also, at f/1.4, the vignetting in the corners of the image is very noticeable and this again improves as the aperture is stopped down. By all means, shoot wide-open at f/1.4 if you want shots full of character but not if you want maximum detail.

Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic rainbow flare
The rainbow flare is vibrant and definitely has a retro look to it.
Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic wide open
Notice the heavy vignetting, soft corners, and lack of sharpness when shooting at f/1.4 on either lens.

I honestly find the HD and Classic versions of the two lenses to deliver identical results in almost any situation. Despite the coatings being different, the Classic lens still has coatings to reduce flare and enhance contrast. Indeed, the only real difference is when shooting both lenses towards bright light sources like the sun. Where the HD version prevents ghosting and flare, the Classic instead embraces it. The Classic exhibits stark and vivid rainbow circles which can be used to frame close-up subjects or add visual interest to the scene. I also appreciate that the effect is quite strong. Subtlety is not the order of the day here.

Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic Flare shot
The ghosting can be used to frame subjects or just provide a touch of character.
Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic
It was Halloween night when the lenses showed up. Having a bright f/1.4 50mm is handy on those dark and spooky nights.
Pentax FA 50mm HD and Classic
I found myself leaning towards the Classic version in pretty much every shot.

Pentax FA 50mm f/1.4 HD and Classic: Which One to Choose?

I found myself having a lot of fun using the two new Pentax 50mm lenses but I will say, I enjoyed the Classic version far more. In my opinion, the HD version is simply an affordable and compact fast-fifty that has somewhat questionable optical performance.

But the Classic version is a fun and retro-inspired blast-from-the-past that delivers a visually unique shooting experience and also does everything the HD version does in almost any other lighting scenario. I can even see some potential in adapting the Pentax Classic lens to other brands of mirrorless cameras in order to reap the same visual rewards.

Regardless, Pentax once again shows that by sticking to its tried-and-true SLR designs it can also deliver a unique shooting experience and also make photography fun again. In the end, isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about after all?

Are There Alternatives?

As mentioned, Pentax also has the D-FA* 50mm f/1.4 which is significantly larger, heavier, and more expensive but is also an excellently performing lens. It’s the best alternative if you’re more interested in pure performance over “character.”

Should You But It?

Yes, though I recommend the Classic over the HD. Pentax users will really enjoy this lens for its fun, vintage aesthetic that’s packed in a compact, easy-to-carry form factor.