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Pentax HD DA 55-300mm WR review.

Over the years i’ve owned several telephoto zoom lenses in that range from different brands: Canon 70-200mm/4L (2 times), Canon 70-300mm/3.5-5.6 IS (non L version), Fuji XF 55-200mm/3.5-4.8 OIS, Pentax DA* 50-135mm/2.8, Sony 70-300mm/3.5-5.6 G series and also many older manual focus lenses! Since i wanted to save weight and have a 2 lens kit when i want to travel light or as a general lens for landscape, tame wildlife and with good close-up ability for some bigger frogs like Green Frogs and Bullfrogs, so i decided to give a chance to that Pentax HD DA 55-300mm/4-5.8 WR. If the IQ is not good enough for me i can always sell it and buy a different lens. My expectations are that it will probably be more in the same league as the Canon 70-300mm IS (non L version) mentioned above.

When i first opened the box i was surprised by how small and lightweight it is, i’m used to bigger lenses in that range. It’s well balanced on my K50 and they will make a great lightweight kit, some will say that it feels big to them, go in a store and try a Canon 7D fitted with a “small”  Canon 70-200mm/4L and a TC 1 4x  !!!

WR is a big plus for my style of photography

I live in Canada and i encounter all type of bad weather, so it’s one of the reason i came back with Pentax, it’s a lot easier to continue shooting in the rain when you don’t have to protect your gear from it. From my past experience with Pentax DA* and WR lenses i know that i can shoot in very bad weather and be “ZEN”. My favorite subject is Frogs, i’m often shooting along the shore of ponds, so my gear gets muddy and wet most of the time. Up to now it copes with the climate very well.

My first shot with that lens in bad weather, it was falling big wet snowflakes. Taken at 190mm at f/11, ISO 500, tripod.

This time it was a real good test for the WR of my Pentax kit, we went to the ZOO and it snowed for over an hour of these big wet snowflakes, there was no problem at all for the Pentax weather sealing ! Taken at 150mm, ISO 640, 1/320 sec. at f/6.3, handheld.

 

IQ

Well, it’s always a big part of the decision when you consider buying a new lens. I was hoping that this lens would deliver good IQ at 300mm for occasional tame wildlife, showing wildlife in their habitat and at the ZOO (i like to go at different ZOO we have around here). The lens deliver good results in the field especially in the center, i prefer to use it between f/6.3 and f/8 at the longer settings (200mm to 300mm) but I wouldn’t call the IQ tack sharp at these focal lengths. For my general shooting i have no problem to stop it down to f/11-13 at closer range for more intimate landscape photos, especially at focal lengths below 200mm. Sure it’s not in the same league as the lenses i’ve used in the past in that range like the Canon 70-200mm/4 L, Fuji XF 55-200mm or Pentax DA*50-135mm/2.8, but it certainly can compete with the Canon 70-300mm IS (non-L). The corners at the longer focal length are not up to the center but it’s less important since most of the time I will shoot it at wider apertures for wildlife where the corners are not as important.

There is still some CA visible at 300mm at f/8 in high contrast situations but it’s easy to correct it in LR.

Here we go with some real life photos:

Taken at 135mm, 1/2 sec. at f/11, ISO 100, tripod.

 

This was a good situation to do a flare test with these Canada Geese, the sun was hitting the water surface with very bright light and no PP was done to the photo. The sun was just out of the frame, we can say that the new HD coating from Pentax do a very good job !

From the same morning as the shot above, the top was cropped to obtain the composition i wanted. Very good contrast in photos, not much PP is needed to obtain good color saturation.

Young Red Tail Hawk at a local ZOO during a spring Snowfall. Taken handheld, at 300mm, ISO 800, 1/640 sec. at f/6.3. I printed that photo to an 8×10 inches with my printer to see how it would look and it looks good.

Crop from the above photo with no PP and sharpening.

Same crop size but with PP and sharpening, details are quite good, sure it’s not tack sharp like a Pro 300mm prime lens but very usable.

I took this photo of a Cottontail Rabbit in my backyard, I crawled on my stomach to get close and to obtain an eye level POV. The WR was useful since a light rain was falling. Taken at 230mm, 1/320 sec. at f/7.1, ISO 800 (no SR, shutter speed was fast enough).

 

BTW, i tested my lens to see if the centering was good and it looks like i have a very good copy in that department.

How does it perform in close-up range with an extension tube

I always try my lenses with extension tubes to see how they perform and if they can be useful for “close-up” shots, especially for Frog photos. The Pentax DA 55-300mm WR alone already focus at 1.40 meter which gives me a 0.28x repro ratio. After some test around my house it performs like my Fuji XF 55-200mm with extension tubes …. it’s not worth it. The corners suffers a lot, my guess is that the image circle that these lenses produce was really made for APS-C sensor and by putting an extension tube the corners IQ drops too much. Most of the lenses i’ve owned over the years were FF lenses or Medium Format lenses, so the corners were always very good when using extension tubes because of their bigger image circle.

Here is the full shot with an extension tube of 25mm. BTW the photo was taken at around 125mm and stopped down to f/11 on a solid tripod.

 

Lower right corner crop, the softness is very evident here.

 

Handling in the field

What i found is that you need to support the lens on a solid support or have a fast enough shutter speed when using it from around 200mm to 300mm settings to obtain sharp results and it’s probably why i read on the internet that it was soft at the long end. Because when zoomed in that range it is more prone to vibrations than the other telephoto zoom lenses that i’ve owned (the ones in the first paragraph). Even when using it on a solid tripod if there is some wind or you press the shutter button with your finger when it’s zoomed all the way to 300mm it will be enough to cause vibrations and resulting in a soft photo (even if using the MLU with the 2 second delay). So you have to be more careful in the field when using it at the longer end of the range and that’s the reason i just ordered a remote release. Compared to Pro lenses that doesn’t extend like the DA* 50-135 or the Canon 70-20mm lenses which are stiffer because of that and also they are made more out of metal, the weight helps in windy conditions. When using it handheld if you use a good telephoto shooting technique the lens will deliver good details.

Other than that i really like how it handles and it feels good with my K50. I really like the feeling of the focusing ring, it’s easy to obtain focus when using it in MF with the help of the LV. The only complaint i have is that the focusing ring turns when in AF, so watch your fingers ! I found that my copy needed a +1 adjustment for the AF, good to have that kind of adjustment available in the camera ! AF certainly needs good light to be fast and accurate at the same time, especially at the long end, this might be due to my K50, a K3 would certainly deliver better results.

After some use i can say that the lens will not suffer from Zoom creep, the zooming ring is stiff enough to prevent that, probably a bonus from the WR seals !

Gray Wolf at a ZOO, i converted it in B&W for more impact and to point the viewer to it’s sad expression. Taken at 150mm, f/6.3.

Here is the kind of photo that i will use it a lot, it’s a lot easier using a zoom lens than a prime lens while trying to photograph subjects in a river, especially when the rocks are covered with ice. Taken at 150mm, ISO 320, 1/10 sec. at f/13.

Canada Geese at sunrise, i like to photograph wildlife in their habitat because i can show more atmosphere in that kind of composition. The DA 55-300mm WR is a great lens for that since i can fine tune the composition by zooming and the WR ensure that i can shoot in any weather. Taken at around 75mm, ISO 500, 1/13 sec. at f/13, tripod.

Another photo of one of the Cottontail rabbit that live in my backyard. This one was taken in the late afternoon light, I was laying on my stomach and handholding my camera. Taken at 300mm, f/7.1.

Conclusion

It’s a good lens for what it is but if you’re looking for Pro grade IQ …. it’s not the lens to buy. It’s quite good up to about 200mm but after that there is a drop in IQ, you will have to stop it down to around f/6.3-8 to get good sharpness again in the center. If you’re looking for a lightweight telephoto zoom lens, WR and with good IQ in most of it’s range and are willing to stop it down a little …. then it’s a good choice. It will never deliver the same beautiful images that my DA*50-135mm was giving me but it does exactly what i was hoping for when i bought it. As a final point, I will buy another lens in the same range but with better IQ like a DA*60-250mm or the new DFA 70-200mm or even a Canon 70-300mm IS L (we never know) and this lens will be my lightweight telephoto lens.

For this photo of a Male Green Frog my tripod was nearly completely in the water which gave me that POV. The lens was set at 300mm and f/6.3, ISO 1250.

 

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4 responses

  1. Fred McCaslin

    Interesting review. I inadvertently purchased the cheap version of this lens with plastic lens mount several years ago. Bought it as hiking lens for its nice range, light weight, and reputation for sharpness. I planned to return it when I realized I had purchased the cheap version of the lens. But I gave it a quick test first and was so pleased with the results, I decided to keep it. Even so, I agree with your comments. It requires effort and control to get “very good” results. The lens is a nice compromise when compactness and a bit of reach are necessary. Interestingly, when the WR version was released, I decided I needed an upgrade, for both WR and full time manual focus (not to forget that shiny metal lens mount). Ordered one from B&H and was greatly disappointed at test results. My plastic fantastic beat the pants off the WR throughout the range, and especially at 300mm. I returned the lens for another, with quite the same results. Perhaps a bad early run? Regardless, I still haven’t since been motivated to try another. One of these days, perhaps. IQ trumps all, even when connected by plastic. Thanks for the realistic review of a very good lens. It is simply ideal for my wildlife/fitness hikes where weight and reach are equally important.

    May 23, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    • Thank you Fred,
      I went with the WR version because I often shoot in bad weather and wet environments, but if I wouldn’t need the WR I would have bought the DA or DA-L version for sure. Sometimes you have to compromise a little IQ for portability and lightweight.

      Steeve

      May 23, 2015 at 8:39 pm

      • Fred McCaslin

        Understand. I wanted WR too, but not at the expense of IQ. When I ordered the WR lens, my plan was to give my DA-L version to my granddaughter to go with the K10d and 18-55 I had already given her. Deciding to keep my DA-L after it walloped both of the WR lenses I bought, I ordered a used DA-L off Ebay for granddaughter instead. Paid $125 for it, and it was as crisp as mine. Some things just aren’t made to happen. I have a Sigma 70-200 EX APO DG, by the way. It’s a very special lens, but it has too much weight and too little reach for my hikes likes. Have long enjoyed your frog posts on the forum.

        May 24, 2015 at 3:28 am

  2. Fred,
    the 70-200mm/2.8 lenses sure are big and that’s the reason I will keep the 55-300mm when I don’t want to carry a heavy lens ! Glad you like my Frog shots !

    May 24, 2015 at 11:52 pm

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