Source: photar.ru

In this arti­cle, based on a post by dpreview.com Edi­tor-in-Chief Bar­ney Brit­ton, we look at the rel­e­vance of f/1.4 lens­es (and faster) for today’s pho­tog­ra­phers and com­pare them to f/1.8 lens­es.

A few decades ago, all wealthy hob­by pho­tog­ra­phers just went crazy for fast fix­es. In part, this desire for more and more advanced (in this case, brighter) is inher­ent in human nature. In the days when most cam­eras came with nor­mal f/1.8 or f/2 50mm lens­es, it was no sur­prise that these pho­tog­ra­phers inevitably grav­i­tat­ed towards some­thing a lit­tle more exotic…a lit­tle faster, more expen­sive, and more “pro­fes­sion­al”. For pho­tog­ra­phy-obsessed peo­ple who grew up idol­iz­ing the famous LIFE pho­tog­ra­phers of the late 20th cen­tu­ry, it was only nat­ur­al to want to get hold of these lens­es by any means, no mat­ter the price.

Of course, part of the appeal of fast lens­es is their prac­ti­cal­i­ty, regard­less of your skills or income. They let in more light, and more light, even today, is a good thing. In the days of film pho­tog­ra­phy, every step of the expo­sure real­ly mat­tered. For a long time, all film above ISO 400 was con­sid­ered “light sen­si­tive”, and shoot­ing with such film involved com­pro­mis­es in col­or repro­duc­tion, grain, and con­trast. For pho­tog­ra­phers who need­ed to work in vary­ing light con­di­tions, an f/1.4 or even f/1.2 lens was a kind of insur­ance against missed oppor­tu­ni­ties due to lack of light. It does­n’t mat­ter that many f/1.4 and f/1.2 lens­es in the film era were quite “soft” at wide open, a slight­ly hazy pho­to is bet­ter than none.

Leica Sum­milux 35mm F1.4. Source: Fotopia Gallery & Cam­era Equipment/flickr.com

How­ev­er, has this need for super fast lens­es remained, two decades after the start of the “dig­i­tal age”?

Fast lens­es con­tin­ue to be sold, and tech­ni­cal­ly, of course, the f/1.4 and f/1.2 (and even faster mod­els) that are pro­duced today are far supe­ri­or to those pro­duced in the film era. The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 and EF 35mm f/1.4L II, the Sony GM 24mm f/1.4, the Sig­ma 35mm f/1.2 Art, and the Tam­ron 35mm f/1.4 are among the prime exam­ples of the devel­op­ment of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy. From a tech­ni­cal stand­point, these mod­els are among the most advanced lens­es you can buy today.

Obvi­ous­ly, part­ly for this rea­son, there is still a demand for f/1.4 and faster mod­els, but this does not mean that most pho­tog­ra­phers still need them. These days, with mod­ern BSI-CMOS sen­sors in most full-frame inter­change­able lens cam­eras, the aver­age pho­tog­ra­ph­er can han­dle f/1.8 just fine. And maybe even bet­ter.

To explain this point of view, Bar­ney ana­lyzes three tra­di­tion­al argu­ments in favor of fast lens­es:

1. Faster lenses let in more light, and more light is better.

And this is a fact. More light nev­er hurts, and the 2/3 stops of expo­sure that f/1.4 is from f/1.8 can be quite sig­nif­i­cant.

If we con­sid­er the prac­ti­cal dif­fer­ence between shoot­ing at f / 1.4 com­pared to f / 1.8, then, first­ly, you can shoot with faster shut­ter speeds. At con­stant ISO, a 2/3 stop increase means the dif­fer­ence between shoot­ing at a shut­ter speed of 1/25 sec­ond and 1/15 sec­ond.

This is poten­tial­ly very handy if, for exam­ple, you’re shoot­ing with a 28mm lens. With­out any sta­bi­liza­tion, you can prob­a­bly shoot hand­held at 1/25, but you might have trou­ble shoot­ing at 1/15 of a sec­ond. So shoot­ing at f/1.4 in low light will give you a lit­tle more peace of mind.

The sec­ond dif­fer­ence is that with more light at the same shut­ter speed, you can shoot at a low­er ISO. Two-thirds of a stop is the dif­fer­ence between ISO 640 and ISO 400.

Pho­to tak­en with Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm F1.8 S at f/1.8 and ISO 640. Source: Scott Everett/dpreview.com

But how impor­tant is the dif­fer­ence between ISO 640 and ISO 400 today? Or ISO 1600 and ISO 1000? Or even 160 and 100? The increase in per­for­mance of mod­ern sen­sors at high ISO set­tings means that the days when you real­ly need­ed to main­tain an ultra-low ISO set­ting to get accept­able results are over. So when it comes to more light, the ben­e­fits of f/1.4 are less impor­tant now than ever before. Of course, this is true as long as you are shoot­ing with one of the new gen­er­a­tion “dual gain” BSI-CMOS sen­sors.

2. Faster lenses have a more beautiful picture.

But, of course, cf / 1.4 lens­es are bought, first of all, not because of tech­ni­cal, but because of “aes­thet­ic” advan­tages. Par­tic­u­lar­ly because of the shal­low­er depth of field and more blur­ry back­ground at max­i­mum aper­ture.

This is fair enough — if you com­pare two lens­es with the same focal length, one f/1.4 and one f/1.8, a cf/1.4 lens will pro­duce a blur­ri­er back­ground.

How­ev­er, the dif­fer­ence between what bokeh looks like at f/1.4 and f/1.8 is usu­al­ly not that big. Of course, it all depends on the dis­tance between the cam­era and the sub­ject, but in gen­er­al, most peo­ple are unlike­ly to be able to guess at what aper­ture a pho­to­graph was tak­en if they look at them sep­a­rate­ly.

Source: Bar­ney Britton/dpreview.com

In the exam­ple giv­en by Bar­ney above, there are two pho­tos — the left one was tak­en at f/1.8 and the right one was tak­en at f/1.4. Of course, the two pho­tos look dif­fer­ent. But is this dif­fer­ence real­ly that impor­tant? Mean­while, the slight increase in depth of field at f/1.8 com­pared to f/1.4 can be use­ful in some sit­u­a­tions, espe­cial­ly por­traits like this, where even a slight dif­fer­ence in sharp­ness between the mod­el’s eyes can be dis­tract­ing.

3. A faster lens one stop lower will look sharper than a slower lens at full aperture.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, that’s how it is. No lens per­forms at its best at its widest aper­ture. Clos­ing it a lit­tle is a good way to achieve more over­all sharp­ness, reduce vignetting, min­i­mize some gen­er­al aber­ra­tions while los­ing very lit­tle from back­ground blur.

But then again, these days you might find that the dif­fer­ence in image between an f/1.4 lens stopped down to f/1.8 and a good f/1.8 mod­el wide open is min­i­mal. Check out some sam­ple shots of today’s best f/1.8 primes — their per­for­mance wide open is amaz­ing. When look­ing at images tak­en with the Nikon Z 85mm or 50mm f/1.8 S or the Sony Son­nar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, it’s obvi­ous that they are in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent league com­pared to the old whale fix­es. This is part­ly due to the increased flex­i­bil­i­ty in design that mir­ror­less tech­nol­o­gy brings in terms of auto­mat­ic soft­ware cor­rec­tion, but not all.

After all, the f/1.8 fixed, which is sharp and con­trast­ing across the frame, deliv­ers pleas­ing bokeh with­out obvi­ous fring­ing at wide open — a much bet­ter deal than the more expen­sive f/1.4 or f/1.2 that must be used at f/1.8 or f/2 for opti­mal results.

Disadvantages of Super Fast Lenses

There are three of them: size, weight and price. Lens­es with a max­i­mum aper­ture of f/1.4 and above tend to be larg­er, heav­ier, and more expen­sive than f/1.8 and faster equiv­a­lents. In the image below, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM sits next to the RF 50mm f/1.2L USM — although this is a some­what grotesque exam­ple, but in any case, if the com­pa­ny has 50mm f/1.2 (go f/1.4) and 50mm f in the line­up /1.8, a slow­er lens will be lighter, more com­pact and cheap­er.

Source: Bar­ney Britton/dpreview.com

As anoth­er exam­ple, Bar­ney cites Nikon’s line of Z‑mount primes, which cur­rent­ly only con­sists of f/1.8 mod­els. Accord­ing to Bar­ney, the cur­rent two mod­els, the Z 50mm f/1.8 S and Z 85mm f/1.8 S, are excel­lent in terms of optics, while the Z 35mm f/1.8 S lags behind them in terms of coma reduc­tion, but in gen­er­al, this lens also very good. All three lens­es are priced at $2,250, which is only $150 more than the rec­om­mend­ed retail price for Canon’s RF 50mm f/1.2L, which is opti­cal­ly stun­ning yet mas­sive. At the same time, the total mass of all three Nikon lens­es is only 300 grams more than just one Canon fifty dol­lars.

Of course, this is not a per­fect com­par­i­son, but it is only made to empha­size the fol­low­ing point: if you want a tru­ly fast flag­ship fixed focal length lens, you should be pre­pared for its cost, weight and size.

How­ev­er, there is one flaw in Bar­ney’s rea­son­ing, which he him­self points out: the fact that f / 1.8 is cheap­er and small­er than the f / 1.4 and f / 1.2 equiv­a­lents is not sur­pris­ing and in itself does not prove any­thing. The fact is that today’s best f/1.8 primes for mir­ror­less cam­eras cost more than their f/1.8 equiv­a­lents from the DSLR era. Some of them even cost more than f/1.4 equiv­a­lents.

Source: photobyrichard.com

Nikon’s Z 85mm f/1.8 S, for exam­ple, costs almost twice as much as the still cur­rent AF‑S 85mm f/1.8G. While the AF‑S 50mm f/1.4G is a great lens that is now a third cheap­er than the Z 50mm f/1.8 S. The new Sony FE 35mm f/1.8 costs $750, more than the Sig­ma 35mm f/1.4 Art — is still one of the favorite fix­es of many pho­tog­ra­phers, despite its ven­er­a­ble age of sev­en.

Why is it so? There are sev­er­al rea­sons. First, sales in the low­er end of the dig­i­tal cam­era mar­ket are plum­met­ing (large­ly due to the devel­op­ment of mobile pho­tog­ra­phy), which leads to high­er prices for high-end prod­ucts. Sec­ond­ly, man­u­fac­tur­ers need to recoup some of the costs of research and devel­op­ment of new mounts for mir­ror­less cam­eras. In addi­tion, fluc­tu­a­tions in the exchange rate of the Japan­ese yen and oth­er fac­tors affect the cost. But at the same time, one should not lose sight of a real­ly impor­tant fact, inde­pen­dent of all this: the new lens­es men­tioned above are supe­ri­or to past coun­ter­parts. And you get a real­ly more advanced device for your mon­ey.

So, dpreview.com Edi­tor-in-Chief Bar­ney Brit­ton strong­ly rec­om­mends aban­don­ing the old idea that a faster lens is bound to be bet­ter, espe­cial­ly if you shoot with Nikon Z or Sony FE mir­ror­less cam­eras. Instead, you can save mon­ey and reduce the size and weight of your gear by choos­ing f/1.8 equiv­a­lents.

* when prepar­ing the arti­cle, mate­ri­als from the resources dpreview.com (Bar­ney Brit­ton) and onfoto.ru were used.