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Are Super-Wide-Aperture Lenses Worth It?

Lenses with wide maximum apertures are extremely popular both for working in conditions with low light and for creating images with very narrow depth of field. In recent years, we have seen an explosion of lenses that push well past traditional thresholds like f/1.4 and into extreme apertures like f/1.0 or even f/0.95 and f/0.85. Are these insanely wide lenses worth it? This insightful video discusses the issue. 

Coming to you from Leigh & Raymond Photography, this awesome video essay discusses whether lenses with extremely wide apertures are worth buying and using. No doubt, for certainly genres, like astrophotography, where every last photon is at a premium, such lenses will always be useful tools. But when it comes to something like portrait photography, the issue becomes a little less black and white. Portraits with narrow depth of field have become exceedingly popular in recent years. While such portraits can certainly be compelling, it is important that using a narrow depth of field is an intentional creative decision. Often, it can be used as a crutch for easily drawing attention to the subject, but sometimes, showing environmental context can make for a much powerful image. Check out the video above for the full rundown. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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For me personally, It's not even a little bit worth it. Depth of field is way too shallow for my liking. For the work I do it's a huge waste of money to spend thousands of dollars for out of focus images. Most people don't need more than f1.8 at the widest.

Well, I can only speak about the Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f1.0 ASPH for Leica M, which I have used on my Canon EOS R6 and on my Leica M10. It delivers shots with character, is sharp in the center and - my guess - not bad except corners when wide open. Compared with my older Summilux 50mm f1.4 ASPH, also used on both bodies, it's not that much better in low light, but a bit sharper wide open. The character is different. Do I need it? Well, no.I'm just in love with manual lenses, and it was the only not tremendously expensive f1.0 lens out there. Could have opted for the old EF 50/1.2, which should be equally good on my R6 (maybe a bit less sharp, but with the benefit of AF and eyefocus and ...), but G.A.S. had me and I'm not gonna sell it.

I wonder. Would a super wide aperture lens, such a 50mm f1.2 be sharper when stopped down to f1.8, than a 50mm f1.8?

Maybe that's the appeal. Not for the maximum aperture, but sharper at equivalent apertures of cheaper lenses that are not as wide.

I'm thinking of it as headroom on an amplifier.

Yes, Greg, exactly!

Years ago I chose to buy a 400mm f2.8 because it was sharper and had more pleasing bokeh at f4.0 and f5.6 than the f4.0 and f5.6 primes. I mean a Canon 400mm f2.8 shot at f5.6 is just flat out better image quality than a Canon 400mm f5.6 shot at f5.6, especially in the pleasing nature of the out-of-focus areas.

Also, autofocus acquisition and tracking accuracy is MUCH better at physically large apertures than smaller ones. But of course this doesn't matter for the short lenses discussed in the article.

For what I shoot and the way I shoot it, such lenses are beyond useless.

At these shorter focal lengths, I am almost always trying to get as much depth of field as possible, not less. I mean I prefer to stop down to f11 or f16 for most of my non-telephoto shooting. Even f22 is chosen on a regular basis. Why get an f0.95 lens if I am ALWAYS going to stop down to at LEAST f5.6? That just doesn't make any sense.

Even when I had a 400mm f2.8 I never actually shot it at f2.8. F4 and f5.0 were the apertures that I used most of the time with that lens.

As an amateur astrophotographer, I'd argue that they're unlikely to be that useful for capturing the night sky unless it's for videos of the aurora, meteors, etc. For imaging, a bright lens is great but only if it doesn't compromise IQ too much. It's usually possible to use techniques to increase total exposure/integration time to get enough photons, at which point the focus is more towards coma, chromatic aberration, sharpness etc. A lot of deep sky imaging optics are relatively small apertures in the region of f4.9-f8+.

Interesting comments.
I use a Canon 58mm f1.2, over 60 years old, and yet to have anyone complain about real world sharpness and bokeh is amazing. For those wanting a vintage look this lens for the price cannot be touched.
Finally for a far superior f1.2 lens to the Nikon F mount try the stunning Canon FD 50mm f1.2 Aspherical with the yellow Aspherical written on it if you can afford one. Or for an even harder one the Canon FD 24mm f1.4 Aspherical for $18,000. Rare and amazing.

Same for the FD 85mm f1.2 L, which is rather lightweight, damn sharp wide open. Just suffers from flares due to old coatings, but lets call it character and use it for the best. Maybe the RF 85/1.2 is sharp as hell and fast as lightning, but it's heavy and big, and the oldie still delivers and probably will be adapted to whatever body you like.

For landscapes not even close. You’re at f/8 to f/11 so shooting wide open is less important especially compared to focal length.

Honestly I only use my super fast lenses for sports, concerts or low light stuff to avoid ISO values above 6400 while being able to have somewhat fast shutter speeds.

I consider anything beyond f/2.8 a "wide" aperture. It's like anything else in life. Only 10% of the people who buy a gizmo actually need it or use it to its potential. Do you "need" a Nikon Z9 to shoot a 9 year old's soccer game? No. Yet I've seen plenty of people doing it. Do you "need" a 4x4 pickup to go to the grocery store? No. Yet full sized trucks consistently out sell smaller sized vehicles. People want it because they *might* need it.

After shooting innumerable paid portraits using f/2.8 zooms, no client ever complained that their bokeh wasn't fuzzy enough. If you want an f/1.0 lens, then have at it. Just don't claim that you *need* it.

I shop the vintage lens department when it comes to wide aperture lenses. An interesting learning experience for well under $100