“Pentax fans have a winner. For everyone else, the Star Series 85mm is the best portrait lens you will never use. "
Minimal chromatic aberration
If you're a camera company that has made the decision to double up on DSLRs despite the rise in popularity of mirrorless cameras, you should at least have some lenses worth talking about. This is exactly what Ricoh, owned by Pentax, did with the slowly growing Star series, and the new HD Pentax-D FA Star series with 85mm f / 1.4 SDM AW is a shining example of optical excellence. This full-frame portrait lens can easily hold its own against the best 85mm lenses from other brands. In fact, it's a near-perfect lens – and at $ 1,900, it should be.
There is only one possible problem that is preventing most people from enjoying it: it requires a Pentax camera.
The first thing you notice about the Sta-Series 85mm f / 1.4 is the world-eating size of the front panel. If you look into it for too long, you can get lost. This lens is a giant at 2.77 pounds – heavier than the already uncomfortably large Sigma 85mm f / 1.4 Art. Perhaps that's why it's called a star lens – it has enough mass to create its own gravitational field.
Daven Mathies / Digital Trends
With the lens hood attached, it looks like a much longer telephoto lens than just 85mm. Passers-by who saw me testing no doubt assumed that I wanted to watch birds.
But when you can handle the weight, you'll love how top-notch it all feels. The lens is completely weatherproof, the materials are luxurious, the focus ring is buttery soft, and even the lens hood feels redesigned, with a rubber collar on the front and a grippy inner surface. The hood snaps into place with a very short reach bayonet mount that is faster to use than most other hoods and is incredibly satisfying to do so. If ASMR were a lens, it would be the Pentax Star Series 85mm.
With 12 elements in 10 groups, the optical formula isn't really that complex, at least in terms of pure numbers. Despite the added weight, that's two elements less than the aforementioned Sigma 85mm Art. Numbers aren't everything, however, and Pentax has clearly made efficient use of the glass it contains, including three particularly low-dispersion Super ED elements and a single aspherical element.
Daven Mathies / Digital Trends
Pentax is also paying particular attention to its new autofocus system. The SDM motor has a 1.3 times higher torque than the 50 mm lens of the Star series, and the focus group contains a "larger number of optical elements than normal lenses" according to Pentax. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but the focus performance is certainly very fast.
The lens also uses an electronically controlled aperture which, according to Pentax, interestingly allows smooth exposure adjustments while recording video. By the way, almost every modern lens uses an electronically controlled iris, which tends to be more accurate than the older lever-driver style. Aside from smooth exposure changes in the video, this is helpful for consistency in things like time-lapse photography.
Daven Mathies / Digital Trends
The remaining specs include nine rounded bezel blades, a minimum focus distance of 33.5 inches, and a 0.12x magnification ratio. Spec sheet snoopers will find that these are all identical to the Sigma 85mm Art. It's almost as if Ricoh had some work to do in developing this lens (Sigma, which makes lenses for many different camera brands, stopped manufacturing Pentax K-mount lenses last year). Surprisingly, because of its additional weight, the Pentax “only” uses an 82 mm filter compared to the Sigma's 86 mm filter.
But the Sigma is $ 800 cheaper. So there is this.
Comparing these two lenses is, of course, nothing more than an academic exercise. One is available exclusively for Pentax, the other for every DSLR except Pentax.
Aspherical elements and high torque focus motors are great, but I know that the only thing people really care about about an 85mm f / 1.4 is the bokeh. You want to see backgrounds that are forgotten, turning point lights into large, soft, gently overlapping circles. I assure you, dear reader, that the Star Series 85mm delivers all of this.
Daven Mathies / Digital Trends
At 1: 1.4 wide open, your subject is brought to rest on a pillow-like bokeh cloud. The depth of field is so shallow that you can still achieve a decent separation of subject and background when the subject is relatively long. This is ideal for full body portraits or shots where you want to draw attention to a relatively small subject in a large setting.
As expected, there is vignetting at f / 1.4, but it's pretty mild. With f / 2.8 it's completely gone. The sharpness of the center is fantastic at any aperture, although the edges slope off a bit with larger apertures. I was impressed with how well a f / 1.4 night sky was rendered, and while an 85mm lens wouldn't be my first choice for astrophotography, this lens is sharp enough to handle it. It gets even sharper if you stop at 1: 5.6. However, in the real world, you should feel confident choosing an aperture for exactly the depth of field you want without having to worry about sharpness.
Vignette test, f / 1.4
Vignette test, f / 2
Vignette test, f / 2.8
Vignette test, f / 4
The chromatic aberration is particularly well controlled. I noticed some color fringes in defocused areas, as is common with any lens, but only extremely small stripes in the focal plane and only with large apertures.
Oh, and there just isn't any distortion. At all.
I have to get really pedantic to find a bug with this lens, but let's go: while the blur circles aren't perfectly rounded 1: 2 in the center of the frame at f / 1.4, they extend in Rectangles. If you stop after f / 2.8, you can see the angular shape of the iris leaves in the blur circles. "Onion rings" also appeared in my test shots of LED string lights. It's all awful, I know.
Seriously, the Pentax 85mm f / 1.4 is a beautiful lens, and checking its little flaws is nothing but a waste of time. If you believe in the Pentax Belief and can win two grand, just step out and shoot, focus on your art, and trust this lens to keep making gold.
Products like these make being a reviewer great because I can try something new that I really enjoy, but that I would never actually buy for myself. I mean, did you think I would switch to Pentax?
And there is the problem. The Star Series 85mm feels like a dream, a utopian experience separated from reality. It could be the Pentax, not the Pentax.
I tested the lens on a Pentax K1 Mark II, which is a full-frame DSLR with an older but still excellent 36-megapixel sensor. I didn't want image quality – although I think this lens will go for even higher resolutions – but it's still not good enough for this lens. The 33-point viewfinder autofocus system lacks the flexibility and accuracy to actually use it. They are basically fixed to single point AF and the “focus and reformulate” shooting method. This is not the easiest way to get sharp results with an aperture of f / 1.4. During this test, as impressed as I was, I could only imagine how much better the lens would be with Sony's real-time eye AF or flawless subject tracking from Canon in the EOS R5.
The K1 Mark II has never been my favorite DSLR, but most of the flaws are simply that of format. DSLRs simply cannot offer the advanced focus features that mirrorless cameras take for granted. A couple of extraordinary lenses might have been enough to get people back to Pentax – if they didn't have to get people back to the DSLR first.
But the optimist would say that this lens is trend-setting. If Pentax can make such a great lens, maybe there will be an equally great DSLR soon. I think there is still room for innovation in DSLRs, but they have been moving away from the mainstream for years. Perhaps Pentax can be the one to rule this new niche realm?
After all, Ricoh is apparently good at working on the sidelines. The GR III is a neat little camera that was built for a select few street photographers. This Pentax lens is aimed at a similarly small group of customers. The brand may never be a large volume competitor, but that doesn't mean the Star Series 85mm is any less of a triumph for those who can (and can afford) use it. Whatever your reasons for sticking to your Pentax DSLR, you have another big one right now.
Like the quiet, introverted kid in the back of the class who passes the test but doesn't say a word, Pentax continues to put out some stunning lenses with little fanfare. Even the CameraVille, which may also be the only Pentax-focused YouTuber, doesn't have a handy video at the time of publication. Compared to influencer-obsessed Sony and Canon, that's … kind of nice.
Of course, a lack of fanfare can simply signal a lack of fans. But for all the confusing decisions Pentax has made with cameras (remember the Q?), I can still admire it when I make lenses like this. The Pentax-D FA Star Series 85mm f / 1.4 is as good as it gets – though most people will never get a chance to try.
Enjoy this moment, Pentax shooters. You finally have time to be happy.
Is there a better alternative?
No. The options for third-party Pentax photographers are slim these days. In many ways, this lens feels like a response to the lack of alternatives. However, in addition to being a great option, this is the only option. Vacuum or not, this is a brilliant portrait lens.
How long it will take?
Any professional lens will easily outlive the life of your camera, and this is no different. I just hope the Pentax brand doesn't survive.
Should you buy it?
If you are ready to reiterate your commitment to Pentax and DSLRs, then yes. It may be gigantic and expensive, but the Star Series 85mm is a thank you to the Pentax believers who have kept it up for so long. Enjoy it; you deserve it.