If you’ve read the previous 85mm test, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Zeiss ZF 85mm f1.4 was returned to the dealer: weak close range performance and a painfully tight focusing ring were cited as reason enough for dissatisfaction.
Fast forward one month, and the Mark I Canon 85mm f1.2 L has been replaced by the Mark II: new coatings promising improvements in flare resistance and chromatic aberration. I was so pleased with the performance of the 85L that I sought more of a good thing and upgraded to the Mark II.
Up against our seasoned on-brand contender is the Pentax 85mm SMC-A* f1.4 which was officially replaced by a different optical design when ‘upgraded’ to autofocus in 1992. Anecdotal reports, and the rare tests available, seem to indicate that the change didn’t represent progress in all areas. In particular, wide aperture performance of the manual focus SMC A* was generally considered superior to its antecessor, whereas the FA lens appeared to better its predecessor in the f5.6-f11 range.
The manual focus lens retains a reputation as a lens of the very highest calibre. That, plus its rarity, puts it one notch below the Zeiss Anniversary category of desirability. The occasional eBay sale fetches far more than the more common FA 85mm f1.4. However, as far as I know, however, no tests have ever been published on a Canon body, and it is rarely considered by even the most zealous adapted-lens enthusiasts. What you are about to see may change that.
One word of warning about the following test: because the SMC A* 85mm f1.4 is such a rare and expensive beast, I was reluctant to make the small, but irreversible, modification that makes it suitable for use on a full frame Canon body such as the 5D or 1Ds II. Pentax users still pay good money for them. Having committed to thus chickening out, the least I could do to make amends was to test both lenses on the 400D (AKA Rebel XTi), which is more revealing across the central two thirds of a proper frame, but which sadly tells us nothing about the corners of a 35mm image. If it proves itself here, I will mod it for full frame testing later!