Many photographers would like to get their hands on a f1.2 lens. I’m of course one of those photographers. Why do we want them? Is it just an obsession over something better or do they provide something that we’d actually need? Is it something to just show off with? And are there any other, cheaper ways, to get those couple extra stops of exposure or do you really need to spend all that money on a fast lens?
Fast lens doesn’t substitute for good light
A fast lens is one of those things that really doesn’t substitute for good light, even though it might seem like an obvious solution. For me personally f2.8 is more than fast enough. If there’s a need to shoot with anything faster than that, it usually means that there is too little light in the first place. Not necessarily of course, but more often than not. Photography means drawing with light and it holds true even today, no matter how far our technology has come about. There is no substitute for beautiful light.
Shooting with large aperture just for the sake of it
Another personal reason for staying away from larger apertures than f2.8 is the look it gives. I generally don’t like a super narrow depth of field. Sometimes it can be a trap, you know? Can you really resist shooting with anything else than f1.2 if you have the opportunity? Bokeh, as a well executed background effect, is a bit harder thing to achieve than just setting the lens wide open. This is completely subjective view, but to have 95% of the image blown out of focus needs an artistic concept in order to be justified or to even work aesthetically.
Narrow depth of field can be a pain in the butt
A really fast aperture gives such a narrow depth of field, that it certainly isn’t the best choice for everyday use. It is starting be more like a precision tool for something specific, like a scene or portrait of just the certain kind of artistic ambition. Shooting wide open is an artistic skill in itself, that requires vision and the understanding of optics, aesthetics and composition.
Shooting just everything wide open, without a good reason, results in horrible images where elements are questionably out of focus. For example a group of people. If they are not exactly on the same plain, some of them will be disturbingly slightly out of focus, which usually just looks like bad photography instead of a justified, bokehlicious effect. Shooting even a single person could be challenging as well. Assuming that you’re focusing on the subject’s eyes — does it really look that good if the tip of the nose is already out of focus?
Nailing the focus
Because large aperture has a narrow depth of field, it requires precision in focusing. For my style of shooting, that’s not very practical, because I mostly shoot candid photos. Maybe my focusing skills aren’t quite top notch just yet, but focusing quickly and accurately even at f1.8 on the street is too difficult. In more controlled situations, this isn’t of course such a problem.
Fast lenses are expensive (except 50mm f1.8)
Sometimes the price difference between a f2.8 and f2 version of the same focal length can be pretty brutal. For example Olympus OM Zuiko 28mm f2 wide angle lens cost about 250€. I have the f3.5 version. I paid 35€ for it.
Another example is my Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8. It costs about 750€. In Leica terms that’s next to nothing. The fast ones will cost you a fortune. For example a used Leica 35mm F1.4 Summilux-M FLE ASPH costs 3700€. Would I pay 3000€ more for two stops of light? Well heck no… unless I’d have more money than sense.
Size and weight
If size and weight is a concern, then fast lenses may not be the best choice. Usually the extremely fast lenses are bigger and heavier compared to so called normal lenses. I suppose they require more optical elements built into them and all sorts of other technical stuff I know nothing about. But for example, My Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8 is as tiny as it gets, but Leica’s Summilux (the extremely fast and expensive ones) lineup of lenses are way bigger and heavier.
Free ways to get few stops more light
Let’s say that we are purely after just couple of stops of more exposure (e.g. shooting in low light). There are few much cheaper ways to get that than spending the money on a Leica Summilux. If you’re after a fast lens purely for the optical look of it, then of course an optical solution (or heavy photoshopping) is the only way.
Shutter speeds are totally free
If you’re in low light, get into your zen-mode and shoot hand held at 1/15sec in stead of 1/30. There’s one stop of more light right there. Or how about a tripod?
Pushing the ISO
Pushing film is free too (Or setting your sensor to a higher ISO if you’re a digital shooter) You can easily push for example Tri-X from ISO 400 to 1600. It doesn’t give you any more light as such, but it gives you two stops worth of faster shutter speeds.
My Fujifilm x100s digital camera has a maximum aperture of f2, which is pretty awesome. The ISO can be pushed to… god knows how much. X100s isn’t even the most capable camera out there, but in digital photography, I really can’t imagine why I’d want to pay extra for a fast lens, when the technology is so advanced, that you can shoot practically in the dark with a simple compact camera like the x100s.
Get a faster film
Getting faster films are also much much cheaper than bying a lens. CineStill and Portra 800 for example are amazing fast colour films, that you can also push. Ilford Delta 3200 on the other hand is an extremely fast black and white film. That is already three stops faster than shooting at 400. But ok, not a fair comparison, since Delta 3200 gives such a specific look that many people may not want. But just saying that paying attention to the film selection can give you many stops of more sensitivity.
All hail the 50mm f1.8
50mm f1.8 lenses are typically the cheapest lenses there are, no matter which brand. They are also very fast. Bearing in mind some tips I just mentioned, you could get equivalent exposures that you’d get with an f1.2, which is after all only two stops faster than f1.8 and can be achieved with much less money. One stop slower shutter speed and pushing the film one stop already gives you advantage of two stops in low light.
The real reason for fast lenses
To be completely honest, my biggest reason for wanting a fast lens would be just to show off. I don’t feel like I have a real reason to pay a huge amount of money for a really fast lens. I actually prefer to shoot at f8 (35mm/50mm). That is my favourite aperture. It is really practical in terms of focusing and it gives just the right, sophisticated amount of background blur, when composed correctly. When I have to go to larger apertures than that, I’m immediately getting very nervous about my “signature” style being ruined. If I’m forced to go down to f2.8, I feel like I’m starting to be very restricted. Rationally speaking, anything faster than f2.8 doesn’t seem to be for me. I’d still love the idea of just owning an extremely fast lens — but not for practical reasons for sure.