The Pros and Cons of Using Wide-Open Aperture Lenses

Lenses with a wide-open aperture of f/1.4 or wider are something of an addiction for many photographers. They bring a unique look and feel to images, adding depth and separation from the background. Understanding the value and potential pitfalls of these lenses can help you make better choices in your photography.

Coming to you from Justin Mott, this insightful video explores why f/1.4 lenses are a go-to for many photographers. Mott's extensive experience with various camera systems, including Nikon, Canon, Sony, Hasselblad, and Leica, has always included a set of prime f/1.4 lenses. These lenses allow more light to reach the sensor and provide a shallow depth of field. 

Mott emphasizes the importance of natural light in his work. Shooting primarily with available light, he finds that the wide aperture of such lenses is invaluable. This approach is particularly beneficial for projects where flexibility and quick thinking are essential. Mott often faces challenging scenarios, such as photographing a subject in less-than-ideal lighting conditions or capturing spontaneous moments on the fly. The ability to open up the lens to f/1.4 can make the difference between a good shot and a great one.

The video also discusses the drawbacks of using f/1.4 lenses. One major downside is the temptation to overuse them, leading to a lack of variety in your shots. Mott shares a personal anecdote about how his editor at The New York Times once scolded him for relying too heavily on the f/1.4 aperture, resulting in many shots that were overly blurred and lacking context. This experience taught him to use the lens with more purpose and thoughtfulness.

Mott touches on the issue of sharpness, noting that while f/1.4 lenses can be incredibly sharp, especially when stopped down to f/2.8, this is not the primary reason to use them. The real advantage lies in their ability to create a pleasing depth of field and separate the subject from the background. He advises against getting too caught up in technical details like bokeh shape and sharpness charts, suggesting that what matters most is the overall quality and impact of the image.

Price and size are other considerations. High-quality f/1.4 lenses are expensive and can be quite bulky. However, the creative possibilities they offer can justify the investment for many photographers. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Mott.

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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Let's emphasize how the f1/4 lenses are particularly great for finding any light in low-light conditions (whether artificial or natural). I use a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L USM. Wish I had the Mark II, but can't justify swinging it, after already having version 1. I have two drawbacks for using this lens. 1), personally, that it is a 'Prime' stuck at 24mm. So sometimes that is either too much Zoom... or not enough. However, I have perfected the concept of taking multiple shots and combining them into a Panorama. I find myself doing this more and more. 2) This old 'L' lens is very 'Heavy'. I have lighter lenses that work very well.