Thinking about top-notch f/4 lenses nudged me into compiling a list –admittedly biased by my experience, and thoroughly incomplete – of exemplary, and mostly pricy, f/4 full frame lenses. Some no longer produced, some current, and some I’d like to see made in Sony FE mount form.
Leica 280/4 Apo-Telyt-R. This was a special lens in its day, achieving levels of lateral chromatic aberration (LaCA) that are pretty amazing. Now, with digital post-processing, LaCA is pretty easy to fix, and there’s not that much reason to spend the dough that this lens fetches on eBay, especially when lenses like the Nikon 300/4 phase Fresnel are available. The Leica piece is beautifully constructed, though quite heavy for its size.
Many of the longer Leica Elmars.
Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar. I’ve not used one of these. I’ve never even seen one. Good luck finding one.
Original 55mm f/3.5 F-mount Micro Nikkor. Not great by today’s standards, but outstanding by those of its era. Only went to 1:2 unless you used the included M-ring extension tube. Aperture opened up as you focused closer so that indicated f-stops were the effective f-stops.
Coastal Optical 60/4 UV-VIS-IR. This is a macro lens in the Nikon F mount that is corrected in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. That means it’s a great lens for IR use, especially on IR sensors that admit some visible light. It also means that it has a level of correction in the visible band that is unparalleled. It is breathtakingly expensive, and Jena makes buying one difficult for the average consumer. The focusing ring is also somewhat too stiff for my taste, but, once set, is not going to slip out of position.
Leica 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar, aka the WATE. Wide open, the corners are a bit soft, if you measure by prime standards. But it’s not a prime. It is one of the best, maybe the best, wide-angle full frame zooms. Small? Check. Light? Also check. Reasonably priced? Two out of three isn’t bad, is it?
17/4 Canon T/S. I’ve not used this lens, but it gets rave reviews.
Nikon 600/4E and 500/4E. I’ve not used the 600, but the 500 is a delightful lens. Not handholdable, though, at least by me.
Nikon 300/4 phase Fresnel. Not a cost-no-object lens, but delightfully small and darned sharp. Easily handholdable.
Zeiss 85/4 Tele-Tessar ZM. Also not a cost-no-object lens, but a good one, and a great fit with the a7x cameras.
If you’ll permit me a little slop with the widest aperture, let me add the following:
Leica 18 mm f/3.8 Super Elmar M ASPH. A lovely little lens. Sharp, and draws beautifully.
Leica 21mm f/3.4 Elmar M ASPH. I’ve not used this lens, but it has an excellent reputation.
Leica 24mm f/3.8 Elmar M ASPH. Leica makes faster 24s, but this is the one for me.
Leica 135 mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt M. While not up to the standards of the less expensive Zeiss 135/2 Apo, this is a small lens that matches well with the a7x cameras.
Leica 180 mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt R. Another ace performer from Leica. Unfortunately, it’s a heavier lens than you’d expect by looking at it.
I think Sony could do well by introducing top drawer AF native FE versions of all the Leica primes above: 18/4, 21/4, 24/4, 85/4, 135/4, 180 or 200/4, and 280 or 300/4. My guess is that they could bring lenses that perform as well as the Leica glass to market for about half the price.
I’d also like a 500/4. Sony already has a pretty nice 16-35/4. They could do a better-performing version of the 24-70/4, but I’m not holding my breath; it would cost a lot more, and they’d have a hard time explaining why they have two lenses with the same focal length and f-stop in their lens lineup (they’d have to keep the present one for the photogs who don’t want the top performer).