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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73 Comments

Previous comments
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.

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?

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

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

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.

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 :)

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Often f/2.8 is enough for a great dof. Certainly with 200mm focal length.

Tom Reichner's picture

In my genre, wildlife and bird photography, small aperture lenses are the latest trend. This started several years ago when Sigma and Tamron made their 150-600mm f6.3 lenses and priced them at around $1,000.

Prior to that, the only way to get a quality 600mm lens was to pay over $10,000 for one of Canon or Nikon's f4 supertelephotos. While they are wonderful lenses and the f4 aperture helps greatly with subject isolation, they were prohibitively expensive for most people, and weighed upwards of 13 pounds!

Ever since Sigma and Tamron released their "little" 150-600mm zooms with small f6.3 apertures, sales have been extremely strong, and now when I go to places like national parks and wildlife refuges, many of the people I see photographing wildlife and birds are using these extremely affordable, easy-to-handhold small aperture lenses.

Due to the vast success of these small aperture telephoto zooms, Nikon finally released one of their own with a relatively small aperture, the 200-500 f5.6.

Sony also now has a small aperture telephoto zoom, their 200-600mm f5.6

And finally, for the first time, Canon has even developed a small-aperture long telephoto, the 100-500mm f7.1

So we see that for telephoto bird and wildlife photography, the trend is very much away from large apertures and toward small apertures, as sheer masses of people are gobbling up these lighter, more affordable alternatives to the traditional large-aperture $10,000+ supertelephoto primes.

I suspect that one big reason that has enable this is that today's sensors can produce very clean images at much higher ISOs than we used in the past. Hence, for wildlife photography, large apertures are no longer necessary to get higher shutter speeds, because we can just turn the ISO up and still get clean files (within reason, of course).

So now there is only one reason to use a large aperture for this type of photography - for isolating the subject from the background via more background blur. Obviously, this isn't very important to most people, or we wouldn't be seeing thousands upon thousands of wildlife photographers using f6.3 lenses instead of the traditional f4 lenses.

Personally, I really like the way a $10,000 large aperture telephoto renders the vegetation in the out-of-focus areas of the image. But many people don't seem to care about the finer points of aesthetics and rendering, and just want "a close up shot of the animal". Personally, I think the huge shift to smaller aperture lenses is sad, because there is no longer as much emphasis put on the elite level fine art aesthetics of wildlife images. People just want a sharp, clear portrait of their subject, instead of paying attention to all of the things around and behind the subject and trying to make a fine art masterpiece.

While small-aperture telephotos have made wildlife and bird photography possible for many people who couldn't do it otherwise, it has also cheapened wildlife photography by making it not quite as elite an activity as it once was. There are benefits to having "barriers to entry", as it helps to ensure that a certain degree of quality will be maintained.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I used a 800mm f/5,6 for some months and I did love the results regarding to background vegetation. But I understand why the less expensive zoom lenses are so popular. You can buy one without breaking the bank.
Although I loved the 800mm f/5,6, I do find the results of my 100-400mm f/5,6 also impressive.

John Sammonds's picture

Answer to the headline......NOPE

Nando Harmsen's picture

Very clear. Can you explain why not? Or did I already mention the reasons ;)

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

(oops, wrong place)

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

(oops again)

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

In my opinion, the wedding picture would have been better with the aperture closed. We can only imagine the expression of the groom, which would have been a strong element in the picture.

Nando Harmsen's picture

The expression of the groom is caught in another picture :)
You cannot capture both in one shot without losing attention
But that is my kind of photography

Alexander Ramos's picture

Personally, for me a f 1.8-2 for a prime lens is the sweet spot. Just enough bokeh, without the bigger lens designs needed for even wider apertures. If I had a 1.2 or 1.4, it would be a 50mm (25mm for m4/3).

My current favorite is the Olympus 17mm f1.8. I'm not much of a portrait shooter, though I also have a 'nifty fifty' and a short telephoto for when I do portraits or closeup object shots. :)

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