We Need More Affordable, Light f/1.8 Lenses

We Need More Affordable, Light f/1.8 Lenses

I get it. f/1.4, f/1.2, and even f/0.95 are way more exciting and drool-worthy than f/1.8, but in an era of forever-bloating lens designs, perhaps f/1.8 is exactly what we need more of. Here are some of the reasons why I would love to see more f/1.8 lenses from various manufacturers.

Don't get me wrong. Lenses like an 85mm f/1.2 or a 50mm f/0.95 get me super excited, just the same as everyone else. But such lenses are not always practical for a wide variety of reasons, and something a bit more conservative like an f/1.8 lens might be more appropriate. 

Crazy Lenses

No doubt, lenses Canon's RF 85mm f/1.2L is a spectacular lens. It is also $2,699. Similar lenses typically run well over $2,000 normally as well. No doubt, such lenses are spectacular performers, but for the photographer who either can't afford them or doesn't need such extreme designs, they are a hard sell. 

In the days of film, such lenses were necessary to a degree. Shooting film above even ISO 400 meant you were getting into the realm of grainy images with loss of detail and other quality issues. Because of the serious limitations imposed by ISO, photographers needed every last bit of aperture they could get, and f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses were necessary professional tools. Such lenses were never particularly great wide open, but that was the compromise — better a soft image than no image at all.

Then, we got deeper into the digital era, where ISO could get pushed into realms only dreamed about by film photographers and such lenses made leaps and bounds forward in image quality. Suddenly, f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses became more than practical tools for professionals in extreme situations, adding serious creative capabilities with ultra-thin depth of field. 

Portability

If you have ever shot with an f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens, you know they are anything but lightweight and small. They can be cumbersome, and they take up a ton of space in your bag. If you are a portrait photographer and just shooting with one lens, that might not bother you. On the other hand, if you are a wedding photographer carrying a bag of five or six primes and constantly shouldering two bodies, that can be a lot to deal with. For example, Sony's 85mm f/1.8 weighs less than half that of the 85mm f/1.4. Multiply that by several lenses, and the weight differences add up substantially. And beyond weight, the volume they take up can be the difference between a single backpack with two bodies and an array of lenses or carrying multiple bags.

Bokeh and Depth of Field

One reason photographers love extreme aperture lenses is because of their extremely thin depth of field and ultra-smooth bokeh. But how vastly different are the bokeh and depth of field at f/1.8 versus f/1.4, and furthermore, how often is it practical to shoot at such wide apertures?

At five feet, an 85mm lens at f/1.4 has a depth of field of 1.06 inches — certainly nice and thin — the sort that renders the eyes in focus with the tip of the nose and ears out of focus. How about an 85mm lens at five feet and an aperture of f/1.8? 1.38 inches. Is 0.32 inches noticeable that close? Yes. Is it a massive aesthetic shift? I would argue no, and the aesthetic gap decreases all the more as you move away from extreme cases. You can certainly blow backgrounds into oblivion using an f/1.8 lens, and that means you can still get smooth, buttery bokeh as well.

Light-Gathering Capabilities

Another reason photographers love extreme-aperture lenses is for their light-gathering capabilities. Such capabilities are useful for anything from weddings and events work to astrophotography. And in the days of film, each bit of aperture made an appreciable difference. Nowadays, that difference isn't as big. f/1.4 is just a little over two thirds of a stop wider than f/1.8. In other words, it is the difference between a shot at ISO 400 and approximately ISO 661 (we'll call it ISO 640). Can you tell the difference between ISO 400 and 640 on your camera? How about ISO 100 versus 160 or ISO 2,000 versus 3,200? I am willing to bet that even if you can tell the difference, it is rather slight, even slighter when an image is exported at lower resolutions for social media and the like. A wider aperture can do things like make for a brighter viewfinder in dark situations (though electronic viewfinders can compensate) or give your autofocus system more light to work with, but with modern AF systems, you might not notice the performance differences except in very specific circumstances. 

Image Quality

Traditionally, an f/1.4 lens is sharper at f/1.8 than an f/1.8 lens at the same aperture. However, manufacturers have shown that they can create very sharp but still affordable f/1.8 lenses. For example, Sony's 85mm f/1.8 is highly regarded, as are the new Nikon Z mount f/1.8 lenses. And with a high-quality f/1.8 lens, when you stop down to f/5.6 or f/8, the differences often shrink even more. 

Cheaper

This is the big one. The cost of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM? $1,999. The cost of the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM? $349. Is the 85mm f/1.2 almost six times better than the 85mm f/1.8? That's up to you, but I bet you would be surprised how satisfied you could be with the f/1.8. If you had the choice between a single 85mm f/1.2 or a bag of f/1.8 primes with good image quality, which would you choose? 

Conclusion

None of this is to say that manufacturers have totally forsaken second-tier f/1.8 lenses or that f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses aren't usually objectively better than their f/1.8 counterparts. However, manufacturers' coverage of various focal lengths with f/1.8 lenses is often spottier than I would prefer. Frequently costing less about a quarter the price of top-tier f/1.2 and f/1.4 primes, they are a fantastic alternative for photographers who don't need to shoot at maximum aperture and don't want to drop top dollar. Nikon's Z mount has led with a variety of f/1.8 lenses, while other lens mounts are hit or miss for such lenses at different focal lengths. Certainly, having wider availability would be a boon for a wide variety of photographers. 

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43 Comments

Andy Day's picture

Yes to this. I just finished my review of the Samyang AF 75mm f/1.8. It's not insanely sharp like many of the new Tamrons but it's plenty sharp enough for most photographers' needs. Plus it's TINY. Almost the size of a nifty fifty. It's ridiculous.

Andy Day's picture

And for what it's worth: f/1.8 on a f/1.8 lens is as sharp if not sharper today than f/1.8 on an f/1.4 lens a decade or two ago. You no longer buy f/1.4 glass to shoot at f/1.8.

Austin Rotter's picture

Dare I say, I'd love an f2.4, or for that matter, f4 wide angle prime that was light, compact and still pro level water sealed for hiking/backpacking. Keep your VR and bulbous front element, but give me great flare/ghosting reduction. I know I'm not the only one

Matthias Kirk's picture

This article pushed me over the edge. Just ordered the Sony 85 f1.8 i was contemplating to buy for ages. Should be plenty sharp for my 24Mp sensor

Andy Day's picture

The reviews for this lens are universally excellent. I suspect that you will be very pleased with it. 😊

Gary Pardy's picture

Got mine two weeks ago! Between the sharpness and background obliteration, it's hard to take bad photos with the 85. Enjoy!

Matthias Kirk's picture

Oh boy, now you've got me even more excited :)

Tom HM's picture

It's a fantastic lens. I'm certain that you won't be disappointed. As Gary pointed out, it's hard to take a bad shot with it.

J. W.'s picture

I own this lens as well as the Sigma 105mm 1.4. The Sigma is sharper across the whole frame but it is certainly not a night and day difference. If anything I was a little disappointed at first that the 105mm was not much sharper, but then I realized the 85mm 1.8 was already so sharp that it's near impossible to improve on that. I love this lens, it's small, light, SHARP, and fast focusing. This is what I use every day and the Sigma only for special use cases.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm quite happy with the MFT f/1.8 Offerings.
I had the 45 f/1.8 and 12 f/2.0 and now still have the 17 f/1.8 and 75 f/1.8. Great small and lightweight lenses.
Would like if Olympus came with a version II that added weather sealing.
Also the Panasonic f/1.8 offerings seams pleasing.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

I think that in most cases, the ego boost factor is the biggest.
I seriously doubt that most clients will be able to see the difference or even care. With probably an exception for high-end glossy,, fashion jewellery or expensive watches clients.

I am not a pro but I know that most actually working pros have a very rational approach to equipment which is quite different from YouTubers.
Most pros ask themselves: Do I really need this lens to get a particular job done? Can I get paid more if I have this lens? If the answer is no, most pros will refrain from buying unless they have a serious case of GAS.

I have too often seen that most pros usually don't have the latest and greatest because they have a rather economical view on equipment. They will buy newer and better in most cases because they need newer and better in order to stay competitive. In all other cases, they are usually not on a spending spree.
Which is probably really wise since it's a hard market, especially in Europe.

That approach is quite different with YouTubers which of course make money to write about the latest and greatest.

John Peltier's picture

Exactly. Clients don’t care and will never notice the difference. Photographers seem to lose sight that they’re supposed to produce photographs for people who just want good photos, not for other photographers who analyze this stuff.

Lawrence S's picture

It's not that extreme, but you are right about Youtubers. That's a whole different species. But, it also depends on your style of shooting. Some photographers prefer to shoot smaller apertures and get as much as possible in focus, while others use fast glass and dof to pin point people and to draw attention to something in an image or to create a special ambient (wedding photography...). I've went through a couple of 50mm's before I found the one that suited me - one that is sharp wide open. Just because my first Nikon glass was not really performing well at f1.4 or f1.8 (AF-D glass...). But as already mentioned, todays 1.4's and 1.8's are amazing at wide open. I just hope that now that they have mastered sharpness, to put their attention to out of focus areas and give us even better bokeh - for when I upgrade. Not in the close future though.

And as you say, it's more difficult in most (West) European regions. We can't really as much as Canada or US on amazing nature and textures, sometimes you got to surprise people with some romantic thin dof to compensate for lack of amazing backgrounds ;)

Nick Rains's picture

The current Leica Summicron-SL lenses are all f2. The 50, 75 and 90 lenses all show a focus fall-off that many would pick as being from a faster aperture lens - it's all in the lens design apparently. OK, they are not cheap but neither are they massive lumps like some of the fast lenses from other manufacturers. So yes, I agree, exotic f1.4 glass is not always what you need.

SPEE DING's picture

Indeed those lenses are among my favorite rendering lenses ever despite being “only” f/2. The transitions to out of focus areas are sublime. I will say the LUMIX S 50/1.4 is outstanding too. I actually prefer it to the lux 50/1.4 due to fast/accurate AF and that snap-back manual focus clutch. But yeah, massive.

Frank Wu's picture

I love my 50mm SL Cron, but those lenses you mentioned are neither light nor affordable.

Nick Rains's picture

If you have a 50mm Cron then you will know that all the SL Summicrons are a similar size and weight. They are not cheap though for sure! Light - Good - Cheap : pick any two!!

Steve K's picture

Before Coronavirus, I shot primarily street photography in the evenings and along the subway due to my work schedule. In these situations I absolutely needed f/1.4, especially with IBIS and other stabilization. But now, with lockdown and quarantines and curfews, those lenses are all collecting dust and I've been using my f/2 instead. Depends on your situations. Also cheaper digital cameras have worse capabilities at higher ISO.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

YES!! More f/ lower than 4 or 2.8! But you can get and try some from 14mm f/2.8 ($$$), 20mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4 and even a 200mm f/2.8 and most all 35, 50, 55, 85 and 135mm are below f/2.8. Yes Canon FD lenses using an adapter on a Sony mark 2 or above (IBIS). Yes all manual and no lens info in metadata. The biggest thing is how SMALL they are for full frame lenses and some for less than $100 today. And they all use screw on filters. I use the 20 and 24 on a A7S for astro panos the light gathering is awesome. For indoor bar bands 50 to 85. Portraits are cool for the use of prism filters than cannot be duplicated digitally after the fact. Oh! and the push of a button and you get a 1.5x crop zoom. I had these lenses in the film days and I went Sony because I could use them before they made more lenses. I put the 24 f/1.4 on my A7iii and thought Bright Monitoring was on but not and coma of stars like not there. Save some $$ before your prayers and more money is spent. You can also find at estate sales or even goodwill for pennies, save a lens today!!!

Dave Palmer's picture

I've purchased a few old Nikon MF lenses and run them on my Sony a7x. Many are available for around $100 to $300 and yeild very nice images. They are light weight and small and lend themselves to travel.

Spy Black's picture

Older lenses are very good stopped down. You can use them for their "rendering", as they say, wide open, but modern lenses, even some cheap run-of-the-mill optics, are so much better, especially wide open. I still enjoy my old Nikkors, some of which I've had for about 40 years now, but they're no match for modern lenses. There's a place for both tho. :)

Dave Palmer's picture

My first serious camera was a Nikon F I bought overseas in 1972. It was stolen in a burglary some years later and I didn't touch a camera again until I bought an a7Sii in 2016. These lenses match and work really well with that lower resolution. Over the past 3 years I've been buying up many of the lenses I coveted but could not afford in my youth. Maybe in the future I'll pick up a F4 body and get back into film.

Spy Black's picture

Yeah the old lenses have their place, but so do new ones. ;-) I still use my 55mm and 105mm macro professionally when I do tabletop gigs, since once stopped down the optics are excellent. I put my old 135mm f/2 on an M4/3 mirrorless body and shot the image below, so there's all sorts of fun you can have with old lenses.

chrisrdi's picture

wooooooah no way you did this with a 135? Crazy. I always thought you needed a telescope to get a photo of a galaxy. That's a sick photo. very sharp. Did you raise the iso pretty high to get it sharp or did you use some kind of star tracker???

Spy Black's picture

Yeah tracker. SkyGuider Pro. This is about 40 images stacked together at 25 seconds a pop, not a lot in astro terms. It was ISO 800 with the lens closed in about 1/3 stop from wide open. The field of view of the 135mm on the M4/3 body is that of a 270mm lens on a full frame sensor, so if you find yourself an old 300mm (especially with ED glass), you'll be a little closer on a full frame body, and closer yet on an APS-C body.

chrisrdi's picture

Oh cool thanks for the tips! I'm planning a trip to Black Mesa next month so I'll practice these at home and put them to use when I get out there! My room mate has a sigma 50mm-500mm lens I could use. The longest I own is 200mm but I could adapt that on my Fuji to get a a bit closer. That sky guider pro isn't too bad. I'll have to look into getting one of those soon! thanks again!

Deleted Account's picture

Stop that. I don't need to start buying more gear again >_>

Dave Haynie's picture

For values of "we" in the set [Sony E, Canon RF] users.

Alik Griffin's picture

Not sure I fully understand the point of this article. Sony has plenty of great f1.8 lenses, good ones and cheap ones, like the new 35mm f1.8. The cheap 50mm f1.8 or the great Zeiss f1.8. Nikon has their top teir f1.8 lenses with their Z mount. 20mm, 24mm, 35mm the best 50mm ever made, and an 85mm. They are all absolutely incredible, the best f1.8 lenses ever made. F1.8 lenses are kinda great because they protect you from making noob mistakes like over using shallow dof which can get you into trouble.

I am glad to see people finally realizing f1.8 lenses are great though. In our DSLR days the f1.8 were always designed to be the cheapo lenses thus the stigma "f1.8 are not pro lenses". Now designers are making them good.

Rick Rizza's picture

I actually remember when I roll an EF 50mm f/1.8 on the floor for several meter to a friend of mine who ask for it. It was so cheap that I didn't respect it at all, yet it's in my bag for 15 years already.

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