For the last couple of decades, a prime lens wasn’t professional grade if it didn’t have a maximum aperture of f/1.4. Times have changed, however, and now, you have to look past the aperture to really understand where a lens is positioned. Want to know what drove this change?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: in this article, just about every factor that I mention also applies to zoom lenses. I wanted to examine prime lenses because they have some of the best one-to-one correlations across product lines and within any manufacturer’s individual product stack. Also, these are general trends that are shaping the market, but not absolute rules, so there may be some exceptions.
Put broadly, a modern f/1.8 prime lens is perfectly suitable for professional use, compared to a f/1.4 or f/1.2 prime. The slightly shallower depth of field and slightly faster potential shutter speed are outweighed by the drastic increase in price and potential degradation in image quality. While manufacturers are still building these lenses, they’ve been increasingly relegated to “halo” products, as compared to the workhorses they were just a few years ago.
This first trend has been shaping the market for arguably the longest time, going back to the film era: the sensitivity of the capture medium to light. With common film stocks, you’d have a rough equivalent of ISO 100, with some available at speeds of up to around ISO 1,000 (and few at 3,200). This meant a fast lens was a necessity, as even a slight dip in available light could quickly see you reaching unusably slow shutter speeds. As faster films became available, suddenly, an f/2.8 lens wasn’t such an albatross around the neck of the user.
Fast-forward a few years, and these days, even consumer bodies are capable of a perfectly usable ISO 3,200 or 6,400, with VR or IS further expanding the usable shutter speed range. All of a sudden, having a very fast lens is even less of a priority for many uses. While a few niches, including astrophotography, sports, and some events still use all the speed available, for others, just bumping the ISO will suffice.
With sensors achieving ever-higher megapixel counts, the optical issues inherent to making a very fast lens are making those lenses more expensive and less desirable. This trend is more recent, with camera manufacturers only recently taking it into consideration in their lens lineups.
As a little background to this, consider that in just a few years, we’ve jumped from 12 megapixels to 24 megapixels, then 36 megapixels, and now, 50 megapixels. Manufacturers quickly realized that these jumps in resolving power showed the weaknesses in their existing lenses, which had been designed to a standard that was fading quickly. As an easy example, Nikon’s D800 came with a technical guide which included a list of recommended lenses that “offer excellent resolution” for the body. This was a small subsection of the entire F-mount lineup. While the list features a number of f/1.4 lenses, as someone who has used those exact combos, I can say they were being optimistic.
Lens manufacturing is a complicated process, and lens design requires making tradeoffs. What this ends up looking like is an acceptable amount of decentering and reductions in resolution to make the lens affordable. To the end-user, this means sample variation: some copies of an f/1.4 lens can look great, while others can have issues. Further compounding this are the problems inherent to the more complicated AF mechanisms of DSLRs, where any misalignment can equal missed focus at f/1.4.
For example, consider these two lenses: the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.8. Both are good lenses, but only one is a good value. The f/1.4 costs over three times as much as the f/1.8, while falling flat in many aspects when reviewed. Sure, it gets to f/1.4, but at what price? I saw this first hand, leading me to sell my f/1.4 version and “downgrade,” only to end up with sharper photos from the cheaper lens. For the price of one "fast" lens, you can buy an entire kit or an expensive trip to use the gear.
The Real World
The camera industry is facing challenges. Falling sales figures across the board mean that every company has to cut costs (even before the current pandemic-fueled predicament). Some of the first things up on the cutting board are the somewhat bloated product lines. For instance, Canon currently has 148 different DSLR kits available at B&H. Even considering some of these are minor variations of accessories, that still equals 17 different bodies. Is there really a meaningful difference to a consumer between the T6, T6i, and T6s?
A thinner, more rationalized product lineup will be necessary for any manufacturer that wants to be successful. Lenses offer a great example of this as well, since Canon and Nikon’s mirrorless roadmaps already reflect this thinking. Nikon is creating f/1.8 primes that beat both their F-mount equivalents and the upmarket f/1.4 F-mount versions, letting them sell one lens to their entire user base. The lenses come with all the pro-spec features, like a rear dust gasket and exceptional image quality, but lands at a price point within reach of most consumers.
Canon’s mirrorless strategy is quite different, but the portion relevant to this article could be summed up as “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing”. Freed from some of the constraints of DSLR autofocus systems, they’ve launched the newest versions of their f/1.2 primes. These are quite the accomplishment but come with a price tag to match, including a 50mm at over $2,000 and 85mm at around $3,000. Whether this makes sense in a mount without a pro-grade body, in an industry experiencing falling revenue, remains to be seen.
Whether your next lens is a sharper-than-ever f/1.8 or a wallet-withering f/0.95, the industry has shifted away from the anchor point of f/1.4. The top end of the market has pushed well beyond that point, while the majority has clustered around the “fast enough” f/1.8. I’d argue 99% of users are best served by some of the fantastic f/1.8 primes currently available and to remember that just because it doesn’t hit f/1.4 doesn’t mean it isn’t capable.