Since the film era, both Canon and Nikon have offered a line of lenses aimed at professional photographers and amateurs with similar intent and deep pockets. One of the hallmarks of those lens lines was a constant (unchanging with focal length in zoom lenses) aperture of f/2.8 or faster. There’s the f/2.8 standard zoom trio: 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. There are 14mm and 105mm f/2.8s, and 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm f/1.4s. Canon even has some f/1.2s. The big iron 300mm 400mm lenses are f/2.8. For very long teles, where f/2.8 gets to be ridiculous, cooler heads prevail and we have 600mm f/4 and 800mm f/5.6 lenses, plus the 200-400/4 zoom. CaNikon make slower lenses, of course, but, with a couple of notable exceptions like Nikon’s line of f.1.8 lenses, they seem to be a couple of notches down in quality from the fast lenses. Tamron and Sigma seem to follow the same speed/quality philosophy as the two big camera makers for their full frame lenses.
Modern full frame sensors, such as those in the Nikon D810 and D4s, or the Sony a7RII, a7R, a7S, and a7SII cameras, have great dynamic range, and can operate superbly where there’s not much light. They are so much better in that regard than film or the old sensors that I question whether most lenses need to be as fast as they are.
I’ll stipulate up front that big apertures mean paper-thin depth of field, and sometimes that’s exactly what the photographer wants and needs to make the shot come out with a creamily out-of-focus background. But not all photographers ever need anything wider than f/4 to get the background separation they desire, and those who do don’t need it for every lens in their arsenal.
The drawbacks of working with lenses that are faster than necessary are manifold: they cost more, are larger and heavier, and are more prone to decentering when handled roughly. They’re more obtrusive in public. Slower lenses work especially well with mirrorless cameras, which, with the exception of the Leica SL, are smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts.
A while back I wrote a paean to the combination of the Sony 70-200/4 and the a7x cameras, comparing the combination to a Nikon kit that was more than twice as heavy, though one stop faster. Last spring I tested the Nikon 300mm f/4 phase Fresnel lens, and found it delightfully small and light, and not a bad performer. I didn’t compare it to the Nikon 300/2.8, but, had I done so, I think I would have found that the 300/4 was not as good a performer at f/4. I don’t think that Nikon was aiming as high with the stop slower lens.
I’ve recently started to use the Nikon 500mm f/4E. At 6.8 lbs, it’s 1.6 lbs lighter than the 400/2.8E, though it is 25% longer. While you’d not consider it a small lens, I think it unlikely that, as long as it’s at my disposal, that I’ll use my old non-VR 400/2.8, which weighs close to 10 pounds.
Since their pro bodies are so heavy, I don’t think it would make much sense for Canon and Nikon to rework their whole lens line with top-notch f/4 lenses in addition to the f/2.8 ones. However, neither do I think Sony would be smart to come out with a set of f/2.8 native FE lenses in addition to the current and future f/4 ones. They might cherry-pick one or two. If I were running product management at Sony, I wouldn’t have recommenced they do that ginormous 35/1.4.
When Canon and Nikon finally get around to doing pro-level full frame mirrorless cameras, they should think about a line of great f/4 lenses to go with them.
David Braddon-Mitchell says
In general I completely agree; but not about a 35mm 1.4
In fact this is the only focal length where I prefer a 1.4.
50 and 85 mm lenses have plenty thin enough DOF for any effect I want at typical use distances.
Wider than 35 mm lenses I tend not to use for the kind of photography than benefits from thin DOF.
But you can get lovely effects from a 35 1.4 whether it’s portraits or general urban shooting wide open, where the effect goes away to a degree at f2 (which strikes me as a sensible aperture for 50 and 85mm lenses to be used for people).
I guess the thought is that the DOF is pretty deep in a 35, and yet the angle of view sometimes benefits from a DOF as thin as you can get.
Canon already has line of high performance f4 lenses and small 1.8-2.8 primes:
4/11-24 L (not cheap ans small, yes, but unique)
4/16-35 L IS
4/24-70 L IS
4/70-200 L IS (smaller than Sony FE equivalent)
4-5.6/70-300 L IS
4-5.6/100-400 L IS II
4/300 L IS
And bunch of optically well performing non-L primes 2.8/24 IS, 2.8/28 IS, 2/35 IS, 2.8/40, 1.8/50 STM (1.8/85 and 2/100 are already dated and hopefully replacement in line with latest wide angle lenses is in pipeline).
Thanks for the information. In the case of the primes and fixed zooms, are the f/4 lenses wide open as good or better than their f/2.8 equivalents (where they exist) at f/4?
For example: the 300/4 vs the 300/2.8. In the Nikon world, the faster lens is better at f/4. How about in the Canon universe?
My impression is that the 70-300 and 100-400 are not the best that Canon can do. For example, how does the 100-400 compare to the 200-400/4?
Usually the newer one is better.
The 70-200’s are just about equal because they’re both really good. The 24-70’s, the f/2.8 is better.
The 300/4L IS is much older than and not as good as the 300/2.8L IS II, the 16-35/4L IS knocks the socks off of the f/2.8L II version.
The 100-400 II is not as good as the 200-400/4, possibly because of the wider zoom ratio.
The 400/5.6L is very old but pretty dang competitive though.
Unfortunately I don’t have personal experiences with all this lenses, but the f4 vs. f2.8 is mixed bag and the f4 lenses, are often in different price segment.
4/16-35 L IS – best wide-angle zoom from Canon yet, better than 2.8/16-35 II
4/24-70 L IS – worse than new 2.8/24-70 L II
4/70-200 L IS – comparable to wide-open performance of 2.8/70-200 L IS II, comparable at same aperture to old non-IS 2.8/70-200 (still in production) and better than 2.8 IS version 1.
4-5.6/70-300 L IS
4-5.6/100-400 L IS II
These two zooms can’t match the performance of 4/200-400 L, but of course, it’s 4x vs. 2x zoom and the price and size difference is huge!
4/300 L IS – unfortunately no match for latest 2.8/300 L IS II
5.6/400 L – it’s oldest and cheapest Canon super-telephoto prime, for it’s price great lens, but of course it can’t be compared to it’s 20 years (1991 vs. 2011 release dates) younger sibling.
But I’ve forgot the new fantastic 4/400 DO IS II, which offers comparable performance at f4 to the faster version.
Amen! My outfit has consisted of rangefinder (mostly Leica) lenses 21-135mm that all use the same 39mm filters. They range from f2 to f4 and are small, manual focus and have real aperture rings. I have no need for an extra stop of lens with the high speed sensors now available. The Sony collapsible 16-50 gets a lot of walk around use because its so wonderfully small. Yes I know its imperfect but somehow I’ve managed to take a number of satisfying images with it! Go small!
Max Berlin says
A long time ago as a sound technician I learned that if you wanted to make club level bass you needed lots of 15″ woofers and more than enough power. Few speakers are blown by overpowered amps – they’re more often blown by low powered amps that are clipping.
So the lesson is, big clear sound comes from big speakers and even bigger amps.
There seems to be a parallel in photography. Big clear photos need big sensors and even bigger lenses.
You don’t buy an Otus to run it at 1.4, you buy it to run at f2,0 or 2,8 because it will deliver perfection that no 2.8 lens will at 2.8.
The other point is, a stop is still a stop. All being equal, a lot of quality is lost when one has to double ISO or some other parameter to compensate for the lost stop.
More often than not I end up using ETTL (yes left) with some moving objects to preserve ISO and reduce subject motion blur. e.g. birds at dusk.
With a D810 the DR is there to address this in post.
I haven’t used my f4 300mm since I got the 2.8.
Other than testing, I haven’t used the A7r since I got the 810.
I get Sony users wrongly guessing that a single exposure image out of the 810 is an HDR.
There’s no mystery about the sound system example. If your amp clips, it will generate high frequency energy that will fry your tweeters. There’s no technical parallel with lens apertures.
That’s true (except for the part about not wanting to use the Otus at f/1.4). But I don’t believe that the Otus 85 is a greater performer at f/2.8 than it would be if it were a similarly no-holds-barred f/2.8 lens. It’s the best consumer FF lens at f/2.8 not because it’s the best the best consumer FF lens at f/1.4, but because there’s no f/2.8 lens extant with similar design objectives.
And that’s the point. The Nikon 300/4 — even the new PF one — is not designed to the performance standard of the 300/2.8.
I’m disappointed that Sony’s not doing anything compact in the 135-300mm range at f/4. The best quality lens they have that covers part of that range is the FE 70-200 f/4, which is bigger and heavier than the equivalent Canon, and doesn’t look much fun to lug around on the front of an a7 series body. I’d really like to see a 200mm f/4 prime, similar in size to Nikon’s old model (126mm long, 68mm wide and 530g – just over half the bulk of Sony’s zoom).
M Orbuch says
Leica’s newer wide-angle (18, 21, 24) Elmar and Super Elmars (ƒ/3.4 & 3.8) and 90 Makro Elmar (ƒ/4) tend to align with your viewpoint. Zeiss went a step further with the ZM 4,5/21 C and tiny but capable 2,8/35 C (though the former isn’t usable on digital M).
These smaller lenses return the Leica format to the original philosophy. If you assess the popularity of the Fuji mimic, it is where things are trending.
Leica is doing a good job in this regard. The Apo Telyts deserve a shoutout, as well. WRT the wide Elmars, they are doing a pretty good job with keeping the sensor rays near perpendicular, too.
Cosina has always seen the virtue of slow. and compact glass, especially with the SLI lenses (90, 180). Real sweet, near-APO and compact