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 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 | 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/1,4 @ 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)

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.

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Previous comments

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

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.

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.

Answer to the headline......NOPE

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

(oops, wrong place)

(oops again)

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.

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

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. :)

I was looking back at my old camera from the eighties for a video, and remembered all 50mm lenses we used back then were preferably f/1.7 and f/1.8. In rare occasions even f1/4.
But I am amazed how large modern lenses have become. Amazing

20-30 years ago, I think the feeling was that a fast aperture lens that could produce decent images at f2 or so would be designed well and manufactured to exacting tolerances, and thus would produce better images topped down than slower lenses would at the same aperture.

In other words, an f2 lens shot at f8 makes better pictures than an f 3.5 lens shot at f8.

This may (or may not) be true with vintage lenses, but with improvements in manufacturing process control, and advances in materials science, is this still true today? Is there a difference between, say, the EF70-200 f4 L, and the EF 70-200 f 2.8 L when shot at f5.6?

If anyone has tested this, I'd really like to know, because I don't typically shoot super wide, but am currently considering whether or not to get the xf 35mm f1.4, or xf 35mm f2.

I have linked to a review on about the Canon 16-35mm lens. The quality of the f/4 version was similar to the f/2.8 version stopped down to f/4, as I remember correctly.
I woudn't be surprised if this is also the case for a lot of other lenses, but I don't know.
I don't believe an f/2.8 lens is better throughout the whole aperture range compared to a f/4 version. Think about it, because it would mean an f/4 lens is always worse compared to an f/2.8 lens.

I posted a link earlier in the thread that proves this isn't true. It doesn't mean the 2.8 is ALWAYS worse than the F/4... it means almost any lens slightly stopped down will most certainly be sharper than one shot wide open.

IMO this is the biggest advantage to fast glass. You can stop it down 1/3 to 1 stop and get near peak sharpness while maintaining excellent light capturing & shallow DoF. With slow glass you're going to be pigeonholed into shooting it wide open at times which is often when any lens is performing at its worst.

Think of it this way in order to get peak sharpness you have to stop down any lens approx 1 full stop... if you start with a 2.8 lens you will typically get peak results ~F/4, whereas if you start with an F/4 zoom and stop it down 1 stop you're stuck at F/5.6 and pushing your iso performance.

I admit I was mistaken about that, Thanks for making this very clear :)

I will say that while it was pretty clear at 16mm at 35mm the difference seemed negligible and perhaps the F/4 was slightly sharper.

These laboratory tests can be very precise, but I doubt if we photographers will see the difference in real life. At least, between two lenses that are basically the same except the maximum aperture. Also, does the loss in sharpness at f/4 justify the price difference. But that is another discussion

Buying f/2.8 zooms and f/1.4 primes usually gives you better build quality, maybe rugged design, weather sealing or freeze resistance. There is more to them than just shallow depth of field but some of these lenses still compromise on corner sharpness and vignetting wide open.
Nonetheless better portability may make us compromise on image quality.

That is not always the case. You can also buy f/4 lenses that have that same build quality and rugged design, weather resistance and freeze resistance (which I never thought of... but I remember one time with my camera... It is clearly not freeze restant ;) )

Of course one must buy at least 1 fast lens or suffer the cravings associated with “slow lens syndrome!” The need for speed is an addiction! If not, then why did we learn to push films or build faster shutters or faster sensors etc? The rationale to have a super sharp, fast aperture lens in one’s kit is part of the human natural order! My wife may disagree, however. *sigh*


I'm glad my wife agrees.

Is the sky blue, do birds fly, should I eat that Totino's pizza roll that fell on the kitchen floor that I haven't mopped in two weeks?

With questions comes variables, with variables comes multiple answers based on those variables.

And yes I ate it, still here.

Should you buy a large aperture lens or not

It is you choice, and yours alone

Well...looks like you answered your own question.