Should You Invest in Large Aperture Lenses That Have f/2.8 or Larger?

Should You Invest in Large Aperture Lenses That Have f/2.8 or Larger?

Buying a beautiful f/2.8 lens zoom is tempting. Large apertures are always better. If you’re using primes, a f/1.8 or f/1.4 is even better. But is that expensive large aperture lens really necessary for your photography?

The first lens I bought next to the one I got with my camera was the beautiful white Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. Its name is a mouth full, basically meaning it has that amazing f/2.8 aperture over the complete focal range. It is white, it is large, it is heavy, it looked good on the camera, and people were impressed by this huge white expensive looking lens.

I was so proud having this lens, enjoying not only shooting with it, but also the reactions from fellow photographers who were perhaps more wise by spending not all their money on these really expensive lenses.
I was so proud having this lens, enjoying not only shooting with it, but also the reactions from fellow photographers who were perhaps more wise by spending not all their money on these really expensive lenses.

I could have chosen a f/4 lens also, which is significant lighter, and half as expensive. It would have saved me a lot of money, money I could have used to invest in another nice lens. But I didn’t. I wanted to have that f/2.8, no matter what.

Since that time every zoom lens I bought had a f/2.8 aperture, except the Canon EF 17-40mm, which has only f/4. Every fixed focus lens I bought had an aperture of f/1.4 and I even choose to buy a f/1.2 lens also. These are amazing pieces of engineering, which all have their ups and downs. Yes, I admit, these lenses are not always the best performing lenses available, but I did not want any other lens. So, should you also invest in large aperture lenses that have f/2.8 or larger?

Before I try to answer this, I would like to sum up some reasons when you can benefit from a large aperture.

  1. Shooting a minimum depth of field with a nice bokeh
  2. Shooting in dark environments and still capturing enough light
  3. Being able to shoot faster shutter speeds in darker environments
  4. Making an optimal use of the auto focus capabilities of your camera

You probably would have guessed these reasons, and perhaps you can come up with a few more. But I think these are the most important ones. There are some other things to keep in mind regarding large apertures.

I think a small depth of field can do wonders, if used in the proper way. But there are also situations where you really want to stop down the aperture. Too much blur can ruin your photo, no matter how nice the bokeh. (EOS 1Dx + EF 85mm f/1,4 @ f/1,4 | IS
I think a small depth of field can do wonders, if used in the proper way. But there are also situations where you really want to stop down the aperture. Too much blur can ruin your photo, no matter how nice the bokeh. (EOS 1Dx + EF 85mm f/1,4 @ f/1,4 | ISO100 | 1/500s)

About Using Larger Apertures

Every lens has its optimum aperture, when image quality is at its best. The maximum aperture will always lead to a certain degradation, like light fall off in the corners, lens distortions, and reduced sharpness. Stopping down the aperture will increase the image quality very quickly. I know of situations where a f/2.8 lens at f/4 have the same image quality as the f/4 version of that lens.

If you never use a minimum depth of field, why would you choose a large aperture lens? A lot of landscape photographers never shoot at small depth of field and many studio photographers always shoot at f/8 or comparable. For these photographers there is no need for a lens with a large aperture at all.

Razor thin depth of field may seem nice, but before you realize one eye is sharp, and the other is not. You may not see it in this small size picture, but only one eye is sharp. I should have used a smaller aperture like f/4. (EOS 5Dmark IV + Ef 85mm f/1,
Razor thin depth of field may seem nice, but before you realize one eye is sharp, and the other is not. You may not see it in this small size picture, but only one eye is sharp. I should have used a smaller aperture like f/4. (EOS 5Dmark IV + Ef 85mm f/1,4 @ f/1,4 | ISO100 | 1/320s)

In case you often shoot in dark environments, you probably would like to capture as much light as possible. Weddings, concerts and indoor sports can really benefit from a large aperture. But in those cases, you must take the small depth of field into account. It may prevent you from using high ISO levels, but it can lead to not enough sharpness and difficulties with focusing on the right spot.

Should You Buy a Large Aperture Lens or Not

Although it is a personal choice, don’t think you need to have the heavy and expensive large aperture lenses. Look at your preferences in photography before deciding to spend your hard-earned money on these lenses.

Do you like photographing with a razor thin depth of field, you might invest in these lenses. But if you prefer using the lens at something like f/8, you are better off with a lens that has a normal maximum aperture like f/4 or even f/5.6

My son right before his prom. I intentionally did not use the widest aperture available, to avoid the depth of field to be too small (EOS 1Dx + EF 85mm f/1,2 @ f/2,5 | ISO100 | 1/320s | hi speed sync fill-in flash in a softbox)
My son right before his prom. I intentionally did not use the widest aperture available, to avoid the depth of field to be too small (EOS 1Dx + EF 85mm f/1,2 @ f/2,5 | ISO100 | 1/320s | hi speed sync fill-in flash in a softbox)

If you are shooting at dark venues with relatively fast shutter speeds, you can benefit from a large aperture. But keep the thin depth of field in mind. If you prefer stopping down the lens, you don’t need that large aperture at all. I think you could benefit from a camera with a good high ISO performance instead.

Do you love to shoot a Milky Way at night, or landscapes underneath a starry sky? A large aperture will capture more light. But keep in mind these lenses will have a significant light falloff at the corners. If you want to prevent this, you might also choose a lens with a smaller aperture like f/4. Often a lens with f/4 has the same light fall off as the f/2.8 stopped down to f/4. You might want to check this out.

Lenses with a large aperture are often very heavy because these lenses require a lot of glass. Although this might be not much of an argument, it will make a lot of difference for photographers who like to travel. When you take the Canon f/2.8 trinity lenses with you (EF 16-35mm, EF 24-70mm and EF 70-200mm) you end up with nearly 4 kilograms. Change those lenses into the f/4 versions, and you will save almost 2 kilograms of weight. It might not sound a lot, but when you have to carry it with you for days it will make a big difference.

Large aperture lenses. They look good, don't they? But they're large, heavy, and expensive (except the 15mm fish-eye perhaps). My advise, only buy these kind of lenses if you really need the large aperture. It may save you a lot of money in the end.
Large aperture lenses. They look good, don't they? But they're large, heavy, and expensive (except the 15mm fish-eye perhaps). My advise, only buy these kind of lenses if you really need the large aperture. It may save you a lot of money in the end.

It Is Your Choice, and Yours Alone

As I already mentioned, the choice is personal, and you will have to decide for yourself if you need the large aperture lenses. If you really think about it, and if you are honest with yourself, you might find out you don’t need those expensive lenses, saving a lot of money. Or you might find out you really do need those, spending a more money than you anticipated.

Do you use the large aperture lenses, or did you decide to go for the f/4 and f/5.6 lenses? What are your thoughts on this subject? I love to read your opinion in the comments below.

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74 Comments

Jason Frels's picture

Should you buy a large aperture lens?

TL,DR, if you need one, buy one; if you don't need one, don't buy one.

Nando Harmsen's picture

At the same time a lot of people think they need one. I see those people all the time

Rhonald Rose's picture

Most of the new photographers go behind such lens for the "bokeh". The experienced photographers have different reasons (some of which, you have already mentioned). I use to go for all the sub-f/2 lenses in the past and then realized, that I hardly shoot at anything less than f/2.8. These days I prefer f/4 over anything. Knowing your style is important to chose a lens or a camera. Otherwise, you might end up over-investing or under-investing.

william hicks's picture

I believe bokeh is the new lomo is the new selective color and ten years from now folks will be looking at pictures and wondering why nothing is in focus

Keagan De Villiers's picture

correction. the subject should be in focus. the bokeh is to isolate the subject from the background and draw the attention to the subject so you can't say nothing is in focus. obviously when it comes to landscapes we want everything to be in focus but if you want that with a portrait then just use your phone mate

william hicks's picture

No, not everyone taking portraits depends on a shallow depth of field it's a social media obsession. I mean per you the only reason to have a non-phone is shallow depth of field and it saddens me you think the only thing that matters in your work is that you bought an expensive lens

Nando Harmsen's picture

You mistake bokey with a narrow depth of field. Bokeh is just how the OOF looks like.
And you can use narrow depth of field in landscapes also. Why not? Saying everything must be in focus with landscapes is like running with the herd

Matthew Lacy's picture

I recently started using the tamron f/2.8 70-200mm for basketball photos, as the low light situations common in gyms make it difficult to work with smaller apertures. I soon found out that at the widest aperture, it was rare to keep an entire player in focus. F/3.2 solved the issue for the most part, but it's hard to get it right either way.

Nando Harmsen's picture

In these situations a camera can also make a difference, just as the lens you are using. Some lenses and cameras perform better than others concerning speed and focus accurancy.

Matthew Lacy's picture

That is definitely true.

Cristian G.'s picture

Always.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Why?

Cristian G.'s picture

You may never know when you need it. You can always shoot a fast lens stopped down, but if you buy a slow lens and realize you need a fast one...that's a mistake that will cost you the price of the fast lens + the amount of money you lose when selling the slow one. If the OP wanted a more interesting discussion, it should have been about lenses faster than f/1.4 :).

Nando Harmsen's picture

In that case you have thought the reason for buying a fast lens through (hm,, did I wrote this the correct way?

Andrey Lutsenko's picture

If you can afford it, I'd rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

David Pavlich's picture

Ayup! Best answer. If it's in the budget, why not?

Nando Harmsen's picture

Having these lenses can be a heavy burden, and I mean carrying these lenses around. As I mentioned in my post.
So, you must say; if you can afford it and can carry the weight ;)

Andrey Lutsenko's picture

I guess that's valid. I definitely wouldn't go hiking with my Sigma 85mm 1.4 or the 70-200 2.8 lol

Though I don't mind carrying them around most of the time because I know they'll give me better photos than any other lenses I own.

Nando Harmsen's picture

To be honest, I only have large aperture lenses, except a few but those are special lenses, also heavy.
I don't mind the weight either. ;)

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Go hike in the mountains, and you'll be happy with a light gear, and I'm still young and sportive.
Again, no general rule, everyone takes what suits.

Andrey Lutsenko's picture

Same here actually. Except for the 24-105 (which was the first lens I got). Other than that, the only f4 lens I have is the 12-24 which is really not a big deal since I always use a tripod when using it. The rest are f2.8 and under, with one exception being the f3.5 Canon TS-E lens, but that falls under the specialty lens bit. Every time it comes out of the bag you know shit just got real ;)

Ryan Ringstad's picture

Can anyone post evidence of f/4 zoom lens being shot wide open producing sharper results than equivalent brand/focal range F/2.8 version stopped down to F/4?

Nando Harmsen's picture

Yes.
Just read https://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Canon-EF-16-35mm-f-4-L-IS-US... and compare it to the f/2,8L III version

Ryan Ringstad's picture

https://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ISO-12233-Sample-Crops.aspx?...

The 2.8 is definitely sharper at F4 than the F4 shot wide open.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It that case I was mistaken. Thanks for correcting this

Tony Clark's picture

What people fail to recognize is that the faster lenses give a brighter viewfinder, the diaphragm is open until you hit the shutter. All of my lenses are the fastest versions except for the 16-35/4LIS which is usually on a tripod for specific types of shoots. Remember when people installed Beattie ground glass in their cameras? I understand that it brightened the viewfinder.

Kirk Darling's picture

Until you go mirrorless...which is the inevitable future.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I doubt you will notice any difference beyond f/2,8.
I don't
perhaps if you compare it next to each other you may see the difference

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

I went and bourght some slow zoom for two reasons.
1. Got tired of dragging those big heavy 2.8s around, when I just wanted to do some casual shooting.
2. When doing casual shooting, you really don't need to shoot at ISO 400 or lower with today's cameras.

Keagan De Villiers's picture

lol they're not that "big and heavy"

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

Maybe not on their own but when you have your camera and lenses in your bag, together they add up.Not only in weight but also in size.
I confess - I went milc and bought a small aps-c camera with a couple of kit lenses and I'm having fun again.
No need to take you bag with you when you go out. You just put the dam thing in your jacket pocket and off you go.
If you are going on a gig, you take you bag with the "pro" stuff, but in between gigs, I've found myself shooting more and more, all down to the weight saving.

WINGBERT C's picture

For full frame. All zooms should be 2.8 or better. All primes should be 1.4 or better. No excuses. If you want a light weight kit go shoot with your iphone

Larry Mowrey's picture

I actually prefer the canon 85 / 1.8 to the 1.4. I use the lens for basketball and concerts, and I found that the AF on the 1.8 was noticeably faster.

Nando Harmsen's picture

A very strange opinion, I think. Can you explain why?

Simon Hall's picture

I'm primarily a candid & music photographer. I find the weight and handling of the 24-105 f4 lens great coupled with the Canon 7d mark 2. This gives me some wonderful results.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Is this a poll? Hell....if you need one then you know what to do.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Do you need one? Perhaps my article make people think twice about getting that large, heavy, expensive lens. It is about being realistic and aware of what you need.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Realistic? Realistically I do need one (and do have some). The question proposed in the Article's title presupposes the notion that everyone should NOT purchase one, as your statement so clearly points out....."Perhaps my article make(s) people think twice about getting that large, heavy, expensive lens." Does it bother you that people do indeed purchase such lenses? When I go out and do work with my lenses, YOU will never know what lens I am using. So who cares? You? Maybe it would have been better to advise people of other options to these so-called heavy, etc lenses, point out the differences and let it be at that. You are probably underestimating the intelligence and (most importantly) the wants and needs of us....the people. I have no qualms about carrying around my equipment, and yes...I DO have lighter lenses which I do use. I just prefer the "heavy, expensive" lenses for the situations where I truly need them. For more than 55 years now.

Nando Harmsen's picture

You made your point

Keagan De Villiers's picture

when it comes to zooms 2.8 or nothing. primes 1.4 or nothing. don't care about weight or price. actually have no idea why people are always banging on about weight. toughen up little soldier!

Nando Harmsen's picture

We all wish to be as strong as you are ;)
Perhaps we can hire a caddy, or a sherpa for our equipment :)

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Keagan seems to be ready to carry your gear for you ;)

Nando Harmsen's picture

I have my girlfiend for that
lol

Jan Holler's picture

Well, you are correct - in most cases there is no need for f/2.8 zooms. And if you own some wide open primes even the less. But IMHO your second example (blonde woman) seems to suffer a back focus and therefore it is not the thin dof which is responsible for the one eye not precisely in focus. f/1.4 is o.k. here.
And to mention: There is a market for second hand pro lenses. They are generally much cheaper. For those who do not mind the weight.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Second hand market is a good one, where all those photographers who want to get rid of their lenses with large apertures they never used and became too heavy.
just joking.
The photo of the blonde girl does not suffer from back focus at all. The lenses I use don't suffer from this. I know because I checked.

Jan Holler's picture

I think I see the focus range going to the back starting from her right eye (on the left side). I imagine you focused one of the eyes, the one further to the front is generally used. But the focus in your image extends from the other eye to the back. That is why I guessed a back focus. Maybe you or she moved a bit after focusing? In any case, if you or the camera hit the focus better, both eyes would have been sharp. Even with f/1.4

Nando Harmsen's picture

Something to think about. Thanks :)

Tim Cool's picture

Only beginner will fancy these extreme bokeh effect, after some years you will find it boring just like you shot everything with a fisheye lens and start to stop down so that the background can tell more story

Nando Harmsen's picture

That is something I read somewhere also. It is fun to use... for a while.
Well, at least for some photographers.

Andres Entuna's picture

This of course depends on how people shoot and how content they are with the images they produce.. from the way I shoot, I truly appreciate changing my kitlens 18mm-55mm F3.5-5.6 to a 17mm-50mm F2.8.. amateurs like me will really see a big difference using F2.8 or higher on these focal lengths.. for focal lengths 70mm-300mm or higher, I'm content with the F4.5-F5.6, as I do see that my subjects get isolated a bit because of lens compression due to higher focal lengths.. and on low light situations (like an evening street walk or indoor evening events), if ever I shoot with my 70mm-300mm, i am already happy with the images I get (even if a little bit grainy) at ISO3200 going as slow as 1/60 because of the advantage of vibration reduction on the lens, and I will make sure to shoot on a subject that is well lit according to what my eyes see.

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