Any serious photographer needs at least one 50/1.4 or even 50/1.2 lens in their arsenal. Otherwise, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to create your best pictures, right?
In this post I look into this assumption further, explore some of the pros and cons of fast lenses, and whether we really need them as much as we think, if at all.
Part of my educational background means I love numbers. They fascinate me. So cameras and lenses with their multiple scales of figures are a delight to behold.
Also, lenses as physical objects can be incredibly alluring, especially vintage lenses with all that metal and glass.
Partly because of this, and partly because of the online hype I sometimes succumb to, fast lenses, like the 58/1.4 and 50/1.4 Minolta Rokkors above, seemed essential to me, not only for optimum aesthetic deliciousness on my cameras, but to be able to make the best photographs.
You can’t deny the visual appeal of fast lenses. But the other point, about them being capable of better pictures, I’ve found to be largely, if not entirely, a myth.
Take the sample photographs above, taken with a 50mm lens with, gasp, a maximum aperture of just f/2.8.
Because the lens is so slow, its maximum aperture a whole two stops more sluggish than a 50/1.4, the result is obviously going to be terrible.
There’ll be no way to create a shallow depth of field, the subject will likely be blurred because of the low shutter speed needed with such a slow lens, and all in all it will be ghastly and futile.
But hang on, in fact, this is one of my favourite photographs I’ve made in recent times, and probably the best I’ve made from dozens of shots of this gate I’ve taken with dozens of different lenses.
I couldn’t have done it any better with an f/1.4 or indeed an f/1.2 lens.
What about this next image, with the so humble it can’t be worth bothering with Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2?
To get that shallow depth of field, you’d need to wide open or very close to it, which would mean, as everyone knows, the images will be softer than an ice cream in the hands of a toddler on Brighton beach on an August Bank Holiday.
But no, actually, the Rikenon, wide open at f/2 is actually pretty impressive, even if I say so myself, and again this image is one of my favourites.
Next up, another candidate slower than a snail with a hangover, the ubiquitous M42 Zeiss Tessar 50/2.8.
Again though, shockingly, the results are pretty good, and there’s little, if anything in the photograph to suggest it was made with such a slow and therefore inferior piece of glass.
With this initial evidence laid out then, here are some of the myths of fast lenses, and why, in my experience, they don’t stack up.
1. You need a fast lens to be able to shoot handheld in low light.
Yes, this is true. If you shoot all the time indoors and/or at night, you’re going to be able to take shots at f/1.4 or f/1.2 that you couldn’t keep the camera steady enough for at, say, f/2. But I rarely shoot indoors, and virtually never at night, because in my experience, colours look best in good daylight, to our own eyes, and to the lenses of our cameras.
So for my style of available daylight shooting, this is a non-issue.
2. You need a fast lens so it’s super sharp two/three/four stops down, where you’ll really take most of your shots.
This is based on the logic that all lenses perform at their best two/three/four stops down. But many lenses, like the humble, plentiful and super affordable Rikenon 50/2 that made the Robin photograph above, are more than usable wide open at f/2.
I very recently bought a Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro lens, which is stunning sharp, contrasty and colourful at f/4. I could shoot with it virtually all the time wide open and be delighted with the results.
The main reason I stop this lens down one or two stops is to get a larger depth of field at very close distances.
Some lenses are indeed at their very best at, say, f/5.6.
My recent experiment with four 50s showed that my Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 is really impressive at f/5.6, But at f/1.8, even f/2.8 it’s a bit of a mess.
Conversely, my Asahi Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is very usable wide open at f/1.8, and brilliant at f/4, when the Pancolar is only just beginning to get its act together. It wouldn’t matter if the Pancolar was f/1.2, if it wasn’t particularly usable until three stops down.
Surely it’s smarter to choose lenses like the Takumar 55/1.8 (or its near identical sibling the 55/2) that might be slightly slower than f/1.4, but perform well from wide open, or close to wide open onwards?
3. You need a fast lens to be able to create beautiful bokeh.
Take a look at any of the images in this post. I think you’ll agree the out of focus backgrounds are far from unpleasant!
If you want shallow depth of field, use a longer lens, and/or compose and focus a bit closer (either with the lens, like the Pentacon Auto 50/1.8s that focus down to 0.33m, or by using an extension tube, close up filter or macro reversing ring).
The image of the magnolia above was taken with a 135/4 Jupiter-11. You don’t need f/1.4, f/2 or even f/2.8 with such a characterful 135mm lens.
4. You need a fast lens to be able to see and focus properly through the viewfinder.
With film cameras, where the viewfinder might not be great anyway (for example pretty much every non-pro SLR after about 1984!), then focusing with a 50/2.8 or 135/4 is of course going to be more challenging than with a 50/1.4.
The options on the film front are to use AF lenses, and/or choose cameras with the best possible viewfinders. The best that come to mind from those I’ve had are the Minolta X-700 and X-300, Contax 139 Quartz and many of the Pentax M range, like the ME Super etc. All of these are very usable with f/2.8 and f/3.5 lenses, and super bright with f/2 and faster.
Again it depends on the kind of photography you favour.
With digital, at least with mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX, the excellent focus peaking feature means less light coming through the lens is all but irrelevant, so a lens like the Jupiter-11 135/4 is just as easy to focus as a 50/1.2 would be.
5. You need a fast lens to gain street cred / kudos with other photographers / attract potential future partners.
As I mentioned at the outset, fast lenses mean bigger glass, and few can deny the appeal visually of these beauties.
But let’s get to the point of why we photograph.
Speaking for myself, I rarely photograph where there are many other people around anyway, and when I do, I try to be discrete. My camera is a tool to make find and capture beautiful compositions with. How it looks to others is largely irrelevant.
If I cared about what others thought about my camera I would have probably sold all my photography, and my car, bought a fancy Leica years ago, and flashed it around at every opportunity.
Creating any photograph that makes you happy is wonderful, but when it’s with kit that is humble and affordable, for me just magnifies the pleasure.
As I think I’ve shown in this post, for my needs, and maybe yours too, a fast expensive lens is unnecessary to create photographs we love, and enjoy making
What are your experiences with fast lenses? What are your favourite slower lenses?
Please let us know in the comments below.
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