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.
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.