Why f/1.4 Doesn’t Mean Professional Anymore

Why f/1.4 Doesn’t Mean Professional Anymore

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.

ISO 6,400

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.

Between VR and clean high ISOs, shooting handheld under low light is much less of a challenge than in the past.

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.

50+ Megapixels

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.

Even with a f/1.4 lens, you might end up stopping down to f/1.8 or slower anyway, as the optical aberrations are especially evident in some situations.

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.

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80 Comments

Howard Shubs's picture

I just bought a used Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D, and you're making me feel bad. :-p. It seems like a nice lens, though I'll grant you that I've not done much with it yet.

I bought it because it was roughly the same price as the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G Adorama had on sale, but it is a D rather than a G, and 1.4 rather than 1.8.

Christopher Cooke's picture

that 1.4D lens is MAGICAL!! one of my favorite lenses ever...You will love it.

Alex Coleman's picture

The 1.4D is still a great lens! I found that for my uses, the 1.4G just didn't offer any advantages over the 1.8, particularly not at the price difference.

Jim Cutler's picture

Howard that is a wonderful lens. You didn't make a bad choice.

Giovanni Aprea's picture

I also just bought the same lens and could not use it yet as my camera is locked on repair, I own the 1.8G too and docent's matter how many MP or M-ISO, it's a lens of its very own league as well as probably is the 58/1.4 and a few more, it's not just about the aperture, it's the character of a lens which is independent of tech data, you don't buy mere aperture, a lot of f1.4 out there but not all of them have that distinct character that make you go "wow

Lawrence S's picture

I've had the 85 1.4D and with the current offer of excellent F1.8's I would not recommend it to anyone unless for a very low price. Or when priority is bokeh. Currently I'm happy with the Tamron 85 1.8 with Tamron's AF-S version of autofocus. Like the Nikon 50 F1.8D of the same era, the Nikon 85 F1.4D was never really great wide open - unless you like a gloomy softness. But the biggest difference is the loud, blunt and mechanicalness of the old AF-D. Modern AF-S type focus is a lot quieter and precise. Also the Tamron is smaller, faster to focus, lighter and sharper wide open - and it works on both my D750 & Z6, so it's future proof.

Rick Boden's picture

I'd like to point out a couple additional reasons why fast lenses were important in the past.
First, focussing...with manual focussing and probably early AF, the brighter the image and the less depth of focus meant easier focussing.
Second, there was always a rule of thumb that the optimum aperture for resolution was 2-3 stops down from wide open which (supposedly) gave a better image at an aperture people preferred to shoot at.
Whether that was true or not, I believe lens manufactures have optimized their lenses for better resolution at max aperture.

Alex Coleman's picture

Focus brightness was a good one! Forgot that one myself.

Indy Thomas's picture

Not one publication gave any other reason than this when considering 1.4 or 1.2 50mm lenses in the 70's.
Strutting with a 1.2 lens was seen as needless ostentation.

Ed C's picture

It never did mean professional. Professional means one is monetizing. It doesn't indicate they have exclusive use of special equipment, have special skills or anything else. There are a lot of low skilled professionals and there are a lot of highly skilled non-professionals.

Alex Coleman's picture

Agreed. Previously, manufacturers were artificially segmenting their lenses along a few lines, with aperture being a major one. For instance, the 1.8 would lack weather sealing, or have a non-standard filter ring size.

Jim Cutler's picture

I'd never heard the meme that 1.8 isn't professional until recently from a Youtuber. So I was glad to see your article. The new Nikon Z 85mm 1.8 S lens doesn't know it isn't 1.4. You tell it, I'm not. It's spectacular.

bluepanik's picture

I agree. Any new Nikon S lens is more than amazing. Even my kit lens 24-70 f4 it's incredibly sharp and awesome. I have 3 S primes, 20mm, 50mm, 85mm, and the 24-70 f4, I can not find a flaw in those lenses.

Alex Coleman's picture

My experiences with those lenses are actually what inspired the article.

Jim Cutler's picture

I have the 20mm on order. That 50mm S is special.

bluepanik's picture

I have the 20mm for three days now and it’s a monster. You will love it.

Alex Coleman's picture

It's a position I've seen espoused a couple of times, with it being particularly common regarding some new product announcements. I think the positive reviews of the Z's slightly slower versions serve as a great counterpoint.

James Redondo's picture

Yes, that YouTuber, who boasts a large hairdo and shoots RAW, left Nikon because f/1.8 wasn't professional enough to take portraits of his favorite politician. Don't take gear advice from people who 1) get their gear for free and 2) make more money shooting YouTube videos than shooting photos

Ryan Ringstad's picture

Uh oh we got a triggered MAGA here

Scott Murphy's picture

Keep your politics to yourself, this site is about photography. Though you would not know it to look at your profile. Why no photos?

Politics aside Fro Knows Photo (Jared Polin) is hardly an expert on anything, in fact some of the things he says are just outright WRONG.

Tony Wu's picture

I agree with a lot of what you've said. Shooting wide open all the time is silly. However, why are you getting a sharper image with the f1.8 version of the 85mm over the f1.4? I like the color rendering better on the 1.4. Shooting at the same f stop, they are both very similar. I feel the 1.4 is still better-certainly not worse than the 1.8 version.

Alex Coleman's picture

In my use, and as seen in other reviews, the 1.8 has a sharper center and less CA than the 1.4. Again, sample variation can play a huge part, but it's clear the 1.4 is not the clear winner in a matchup, and at 3X the price, it should be.

Deleted Account's picture

Sure, but i think his argument is there really isn't much added benefit for most people to justify the faster lenses. While 1.4 pulls ahead in some areas like slightly better bokeh and slightly faster in low light, but in terms of centre shapness, chromatic aberrations, size, weight, price, the 1.8 is the superior lens.

Norman Straw's picture

Let’s also add another thing to the topic. Faster lenses are not only better because they have bigger apperture. You also pay for quality of image in the corners, faster af, better abberation correction, less vignieting etc. That’s whay it’s always worth to spet even four times more if you work pofessionaly. For less commercial work and more „artistic” these cheaper are absolutely useful, but if you earn money on using equipment, spend as much as you can. There is nothing worst than missed focus on commercial shoot etc.

bluepanik's picture

Most of the time the fastest the lens, the slowest it focuses just because it has more glass to move, also the level of precision wide open is more demanding. Also the shallow depth of field wide open leads to more possible problems at focusing. Normally is harder to correct those lenses and actually they tend to have more vignetting, distortions and aberrations. That's why their prices skyrocket. I agree though in the fact that being able to gather more light and to lower the iso is welcome and that having that massive amount of bokeh can be useful for a creative reason, or during the night, but the f stop of the lens hardly means professionalism.

Alex Coleman's picture

The problem is, just because you're paying for those things in lenses doesn't mean you're getting them. Reviews have shown that at many focal lengths, the 1.8 version beats the 1.4 version on technical measures, or at least matches it. Most of the time, you're paying the premium for the f-stop advantage, nothing more.

Giovanni Aprea's picture

Matter of physics, a bigger lens is heavier and more glass to move to focus and as such not always faster, actually many a times slower especially with old non motorised ones, on the other hand bigger glass means also more gap for optical corrections resulting in a more balanced frame without extreme sharpness in the center and softness in the corners to say one but, above all, these f1.4 niche lenses give the engineers ability to make of them specialty lenses with their own unique character, a lens is not all about sharpness, I own the 85/1.8G and recently got the 85/1.4D and even tho my FF camera is on repair I can tell you that the G wins hands down sharpness wise but the D is a lens of its very own with something magic the other one will never give you.
I also own and sometimes use an old 85/1.8H manual focus and, oh my, unbeliavable at a mere 52mm diameter front lens if I recall correct, what a rendering!
Again, an old Contax Planar 85/1.4, what a unique rendering...
There is no pro lens, there are lenses which can do some magics in the right hands and to be just lenses in normal hands...

Jamieson Dean's picture

The future is f/1.8 for the masses and f/1.2 for the premium. Canon & Nikon are both going this way with their ML platforms. Even Sigma is getting in on the action. Notice though, that I said premium, not professional, as that has little to do with it.

Alex Coleman's picture

Agreed - the faster lenses are becoming purely premium, halo products. The Noct is a perfect example.

Bernard Languillier's picture

I believe that Canon and Nikon ML strategies are as different as could be though. Nikon now has a full line up of top notch f1.8 lenses that cover pretty much any need. Canon has almost none available today.

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