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

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Scott Murphy's picture

As a working professional, lens performance is determining factor. You can spend a lot of money for an f/1.2 if you are into the snob appeal of it, but the proof is in the pudding. Clients don't care what lens you are using, they just want the best results.

vik .'s picture

f/1.4 is for amateurs, now the new pro is a 1.2 RF or a RF 2.0 zoom :)

Alex Coleman's picture

When many pros are facing tighter margins, 15K in new lenses just to switch to mirrorless may be a tough sell. Given the changes present in the bodies, do most pros need F2 instead of 2.8? Wouldn't the lens be significantly cheaper while still offering better technical performance than the existing f2.8 EF lenses?

Motti Bembaron's picture

Spend, spend, spend....

Great to see people here spending money on, well, "professional" things. Great. You guys move the economy. Keep on buying, we need you now more than ever..

I will keep my 1.8's. But I am rooting for you.

Alex Coleman's picture

Ha, the $1,200 stimulus check is only a discount on some of these latest, high-end lenses.

Jason Levine's picture

Reads title... I bet this is a Nikon article.

You got to stop with this twisted mental reasoning to apologize for your company’s lack of awareness.

The reality is Nikon just doesn’t have great fast lenses. The few they have are fuzzy wide open and bested by their slower counterparts.

Just hop on the Canon R5 hype train. Nikon will be Pentax in 5 years. Sony will be Nikon, Canon will be Canon and Fujifilm will be Nikon.

Jim Cutler's picture

The new Nikon S lenses are superb wide open. Noted for how sharp wide open. Quite the opposite of fuzzy.

Alex Coleman's picture

On the contrary, Nikon's lens positioning makes the most sense for this changing equipment market. Canon won't sell as many $3K primes as they think, while the disjointed mount strategy between EF, M, and RF is going to make it difficult for photographers to move up within the brand.

No company is plotting a perfect path through this changing environment, but trying to move into ultra-premium lenses at the expense of your existing users will be difficult.

Scott Murphy's picture

Whatever helps you to sleep at night cupcake, but you are way off.

Karim Hosein's picture

Oh, you are in trouble now! Trust me. I got insulted to the highest degree, with words that had my Uncle, the sailor, blushing. All I did was to suggest that professional portrait, model, sports, and wildlife photographers do not really benefit from the shallow DoF from an f/2.8 zoom lens, (although an indoor sports photographer might benefit from more light).

I then pointed out that as a model, portrait photographer, I rarely shoot at less than f/8.0, and practically never dip below f/5.6. I had two or three portrait shots at f/4.0. (Not by my computer now, so cannot give precise numbers at the moment). I mentioned that an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (D-type), or a 50-200mm f/4.0 (F-type) may be the best lens for someone who wants only one lens, and does not specialise in any given genre.

I again got insulted, cussed out, hanged, quartered, & drawn, then finally crucified, for mentioning a lens which was not at least an f/2.8. I had more “F”-bombs dropped on me that is the entirety of WWII.

You may be lucky; you only mentioned f/1.8. The facts that most pros rarely shoot at extremely shallow DOF, and that “fast” lenses were designed for lowlight shooters, such as performing arts documentation, and that they do not offer much value to most professional photographers, seem to hurt the sensibility of certain “pros”.

If one shoots in low light regularly, as I did for the Sir Philip Sherlock Center, then get an f/0.95, if one can, or must. But for the rest of us, f/4.0 is more than enough, (if all else is equal, which it rarely is).

P.s., yes, there are some f/4.0 lenses out there which perform significantly better than their f/2.8 counterparts, regarding both speed and IQ. Speed, because the groups weigh less, thus move faster. Additionally, more of the lens is dedicated to better focusing that bigger aperture. IQ, because more engineering can go into more round blades, that fewer, larger blades, and more precise elements than larger elements.

Just don't let “professionals” here you say that.

Alex Coleman's picture

People can have some strong opinions about gear, that's for sure. I think what it comes down to is realizing the right gear is fundamentally an individual choice. For some, that 2/3rds of a stop can be the difference between getting the shot and not, but there's a lot of cases where the money could be better spent in other areas.

Karim Hosein's picture

I never claimed, “no need for large apertures.” I was very clear that there is a need. I was very clear that I once had that need on a regular basis.

You totally missed my point.

John Nixon's picture

I speak from a slightly disadvantaged position - as a Nikon user. Nikon don’t have a particularly good 50mm, well not in the F-Mount anyway. Having read some similar articles, I sold my 50/1.4Dfor the cheaper and ‘just as good, in some respects better’ 50/1.8G. Big mistake! Apart from the fact that the old screw-drive lenses focussed a whole lot quicker it also had a bit more character. The 1.8 might well be optically better, I wouldn’t know, I can’t tell the difference on my D850. The 50/1.8 Z-mount lens is supposed to be good so maybe in more modern lenses the point of the article could legitimately be made.
I terms of ‘pro’ zooms I have relatively little experience but what I do have has some relevance. I photograph dogs mainly, very fast ones and at close ranges. Functionally, my camera/lens must track very quickly and focus very accurately. The D850 combined with the latest iteration of the 70-200/2.8 does that flawlessly. That lens, incidentally, is also the first Nikon 70-200/2.8 that’s also sharp at full aperture. That’s why I bought it and it fulfils it’s brief perfectly. What I didn’t expect was how good it is generally. The images from it are beautiful, only after I noticed this did I start noticing articles written by people saying it was their favourite portrait lens. I can see why. Who’d have thunk! It has become my favourite lens in forty years of photography - and this is from a person who has always preferred primes.
You have to judge each lens on its merits. For its suitability for the job you personally want it to do. If you need a wide aperture, get a wide aperture. If you don’t, then you’re lucky - you can save some cash and probably some pain (that 70-200/2.8 is a lump to carry about for hours!).

Alex Coleman's picture

I agree that each lens should be assessed on an individual basis - I think that's really the take-away advice behind "don't just look for 1.4".

The 50 Z mount is really the first good Nikon 50mm IMO - the others have never impressed me.

Same with the 70-200 - the latest version is miles ahead of the opposition. I had the first VR 70-200 and it definitely had weaknesses. Going back to the individual merits of lenses, my 70-300 exceeded the performance of my 80-400 at a lower price and weight, again making for an easy switch. I'll be very interested to see how the Z 70-200 performs.

Jeremy Strange's picture

You don’t sound disadvantaged to me :)

Lawrence S's picture

I've had the 50 F1.8D and the 50 F1.4D. And when the AF-S versions were out, all reviews and samples pointed out that the F1.8 AF-S was optically the best lens, and the F1.4 AF-S was only "better" because of the F-stop, but only got sharp at F2. I didn't see the point of that - I don't use fast glass at F5.6.., so I went for the F1.8 AF-S. Until Sigma's excellent 50 F1.4 Art came out - and that one shines on my Z6.

I read a lot of people saying that (older) F1.4's were indeed not sharp or had a lot of CA's but that they had character. My opinion is a bit different, I believe you need excellent sharpness when you shoot wideopen, to make you focus point pop out against the blurred front and/or background. And you just don't have had 3D pop - or how it's called, when your lens is fuzzy, low on contrast and sharpness wideopen. For me, the first ones to show that effect, are Sigma's ART (35 & 50mm).

And now I see incredible sharpness on the Nikon Z glass. (F1.8). We are spoiled.

Tim Cool's picture

I dare to say that all large aperture fast lens are soft, in the 80s no one shoot with the largest aperture be because we are told the largest aperture are the worse quality, we stay with the iso100 we would rather use tripod all the time that use faster film

Suddenly around 90s canon produced some 50mm f1 and 85mm f1.2 portait photographer would goes crazy about the shallow dof, this trend didnt last long, because when you shoot naked model with largest aperture you got the focus on eye, but the whole naked parts are out of focus, photographer were not happy so they stop down everything again, everything cristal clear again

Then after full frame mirror, these shallow dof trend pop out again, now nearly everyone is shooting 28mm f1.2 50mmf1 85mmf1.2 wide open and never bother to use any strobe or flash

Jan Holler's picture

The Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8 vs f/1.4 is a good example to backup this article. The same is with the AF-S 50mm. The f/1.8 is vastly superior. But I think the reason why Nikon chose f/1.8 for their Z-primes is not only the price tag but also size and weight. Today's Z f/1.8 primes are as big or even bigger and heavier than their D f/1.4 counterparts because today's lenses have more (aspherical) correcting elements and groups. That is probably why they are quite expensive compared to their F siblings. In general the Z lenses at f/1.8 are much better than the f/1.4 F lenses at f/1.8.
Anyway, most of us will never need the enhanced resolution of the new lenses. Fact is: It is all about the size of the circle of confusion of the final output (size of screen or paper and the viewing distance). Some of my best photos are done with old manual AI lenses. They are printed to 60x40cm (24x16") on Hahnemühle Photo RAG and look very sharp. But if I pixel-peek 1:1 the RAW files (D800E) I see a lot of flaws. Guess, what eventually matters more.

Alex Coleman's picture

Essentially the Z 1.8s hit a great balance between size, sharpness/IQ, and price. Yeah, they're more than the F 1.8s, but have class leading performance. I think between the high ISO performance and built in VR, the 1.4's slight speed increase doesn't matter.

Alex Kroke's picture

what a load of Blah Blah Blah!
You should pick a 0.95 1.4 or f2 for what it does, mostly look and character. If you can afford only a 1.8 that does not have anything to do with professional.

Everybody knows that a modern design lens of f2 is always going to be sharper the the 1.4 and 0.95

A professional picks the right tool for the job, in many cases the professional owns and uses all 3 lenses, that is why i have 6 50mm lenses.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

people profesional items not!

Jon Winkleman's picture

With the exception of portrait photographers most pros value sharpness over thing depth of field. For macro photography the best pro-lenses such as my Nikon 200mm Micro has a wide aperture of f4. However with such a long macro lens, the depth of field is so razor thin at f4, I almost always shoot it closed down a bit. Many full time pros use Zeiss manual prime lenses for macro work which are f2 lenses and will still stop it down as they want the entire product in sharp focus. Like any question about “which lens should I buy?” the answer varies depending on what you shoot.

Karim Hosein's picture

As a portrait photographer, I do not value thin DoF. At less than f/8.0, it is too thin for me for head shots. I rarely take portraits below that, and never less than f/4.0.

Just saying.

Joe A's picture

So, what's the alternative to my Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4? Sorry, there is none. I will gladly keep it and continue making great images with it. You can have that Canon 85mm f/1.8.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Wait... it did?

Timothy Gasper's picture

Just a bit of news. Technically...TECHNICALLY... f1.4 didn't mean professional 'anymore' as soon as digital first came out....where anyone could clearly change the ISO.

Nathan Wong's picture

For what it's worth, I purchased the 85mm f/1.4G because the f/1.8G wasn't available at the time, but most of all I purchased it because wide open pinpoints of lights, especially in the corners, the lens renders them as relative pinpoint with very minimal coma. . Many lenses will show coma, bat wings, (my 50mm f/1.4G is really bad in this aspect).Unfortunately this kind of correction causes the lens to display magenta and green outlines so there's the trade-off.

Bernard Languillier's picture

The Nikon 24mm f2.8 S and 85mm f1.8 S and wonderful example of this. Absolutely top notch lenses, superb detail, nearly zero color aberation, great look... just amazing stuff.

Nathan Wong's picture

Technology moves on. You would hope that the newer S-line would be sharper and corrected. However, that said, I think some of the aberrations we saw in the f/1.4G F-mount lenses were purposely left to give the lens "character." The Nikon 24mm, 58mm, 35mm, and 85mm, all have less sharpness and higher CA than the slower corresponding lenses, but they've all been praised for their image rendering and their out of focus characteristics. The newer lenses are clinically sharp and well corrected and people love them. However, you don't hear many praising them for their unique imaging characteristics because they do their job perfectly without any flaws (natural or artificial). So that said, which would you prefer? A perfect lens or one that has a bit of "character?"

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