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Leave it to the world of photography to confuse size and speed. In lens speak, the term “fast glass” refers to lenses with large apertures. The aperture is the opening of a lens. Its size is expressed as a number that shows the ratio of the opening to the size of the lens. This number is referred to as an f/number, f/stop, focal ratio, f/ratio, or relative aperture.
How fast is “fast?” Or, how big of an aperture opening gives me truly fast glass?
In “professional” zoom lenses, the aperture of f/2.8 is generally regarded as fast. When it comes to prime lenses, depending on your level of lens snobbery, what is actually fast starts between f/2.0 and f/1.4 with many “professional” lenses featuring f/1.4 maximum apertures. Faster-than-f/1.4 lenses are the exotics of the optical world.
We call these large-aperture lenses “fast” because they allow cameras to take photos at relatively fast shutter speeds for a given amount of ambient light. A fast lens might make it possible to take photos handheld in low light. Faster shutter speeds mean freezing action and less chance of camera shake, causing blur in your images regardless of how bright the scene is. And, a large aperture means that you can photograph with a very shallow depth of field.
Why do you want a fast lens? If you ever do handheld low-light photography, maybe at a concert or night club, you will want a lens that can open wide to maximize light-gathering. Wedding photographers often find themselves in less-than-ideal lighting scenarios at the church or reception and need the larger apertures. Street photographers working at dusk or dawn might need more light to strike the sensor or film. And, finally, sports photographers working to freeze action and isolate subjects will appreciate large apertures.
Glass is the most expensive part of a lens, and when a lens is built with larger glass elements, the weight increases and, more importantly, so does the cost. Therefore, fast glass usually arrives with a premium price tag. For now, let’s put budgetary restrictions aside and talk about some sweet fast lenses.
In the modern DSLR world, the leader of the 50mm fast glass pack is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. Its cousin, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, gives extremely shallow depth of field performance to photographers, with this classic portrait focal length. As a product of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), these Canon lenses combine tried-and-true EOS system electronics, coatings, and autofocus technology to truly fast apertures.
If you want to go super-fast for Nikon, you have to step back into the world of manual focus NIKKOR lenses. The Nikon autofocus lenses stop at a very respectable f/1.4, but the still-in-production NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 continues to have a devoted fan base and following since its introduction in 1978, and remains the fastest NIKKOR lens available.
Speaking of “still in production,” Nikon continues to make this fast lens and some other manual focus NIKKORs for the Nikon F mount like the NIKKOR 20mm f/2.8, NIKKOR 24mm f/2.8, NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8, NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4, NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4, Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8, and Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 lenses.
Bringing “fast” to the Fujifilm X-Mount camera lineup is the Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R lens and its stablemate, the Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD lens that features an apodization filter to manipulate bokeh. For use on the Fujifilm X system, when opened up to f/1.2 at the minimum focus distance (2.3'), the depth of field is a very shallow 0.3"
For the Micro Four Thirds System, the well-regarded Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS lens is the fastest OEM lens available for the system and it works well on both Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera bodies.
There seems to be a lot of demand for fast glass, and not everyone wants to pay premium prices to get premium f-stops. To meet the needs of these photographers, there is a bevy of aftermarket fast lenses on today’s market.
If you want super-fast glass for the Micro Four Thirds System, German lens manufacturer Voigtlander has created a quad of Nokton lenses that clock in at f/0.95. The Nokton 10.5mm f/0.95 (21mm equivalent), the Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 (35mm equivalent), Nokton 25mm f/0.95 Type II (50mm equivalent), and the Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 (85mm equivalent) give Micro Four Thirds shooters a range of fast primes to choose from at an exotic aperture size. Several other Voigtlander lenses get the “Nokton” designation, but none have apertures as large as the f/0.95 lenses designed for the Micro Four Thirds system.
The Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95 lens is a manual focus lens built for the Sony E-mount full-frame cameras. The same optics company builds the Mitakon Zhongyi 35mm f/0.95 lens for the Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony-E (APS-C) mount and the Mitakon Zhongyi FreeWalker 42.5mm f/1.2 lens for Micro Four Thirds.
If you have clicked on some of the hyperlinked lenses above, you might have experienced some sticker shock—even with lenses made by lesser-known brands. As I mentioned above, big glass equals big money. All is not lost, however. The f-stop you need to know is: f/1.8.
While not exotically fast, the difference between f/1.8 and f/1.4 is less than one stop or exposure value of light and, if you compare prices between, for example, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 lens, you will see the value placed on that extra light-gathering power with little or no gain in sharpness, color rendition, or distortion control. In fact, there are a few f/1.8 lenses that outperform their f/1.4 counterparts in some specific areas.
Also, if you are used to a kit lens with a variable f/3.5-f/5.6 aperture, you will find that the nearly two-stop gain of an f/1.8 lens might drastically expand your photographic adventures by allowing you to shoot in much dimmer light or significantly shorten your depth of field for portraits and still life photos.
Did you think I really forgot this one?
When the term “fast glass” escapes one’s lips, the lens that comes to the forefront of the minds of most photographers is the legendary Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH lens; according to Leica, it is, “the world’s fastest aspherical lens.” Many consider this gorgeous optic to be the world’s premier 50mm lens and no respectable discussion of “fast glass” will happen without the Noctilux taking center stage.
The Noctilux f/0.95 is the third 50mm in the Noctilux family following the original Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 and the Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.0—both mythical lenses themselves.
In the realm of fast glass, there have been some legendary lenses that are long since out of production. If you have some spare time between reading B&H blog articles and shopping at B&H, have fun researching the following lenses:
Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7—Designed to capture images on the dark side of the moon during the Apollo missions. Film director Stanley Kubrick bought two.
Canon made the Canon 65mm f/0.75 for its manual focus FD mount; the EOS line briefly saw the Canon 50mm f/1.0; and the Canon 50mm f/0.95 was for rangefinder cameras.
The Nikon 58mm Noct-NIKKOR f/1.2 commands premium prices on the Web. Its aspherical element was designed specifically to reduce sagittal coma flare when shot wide open, and reproduce points of light as points of light, instead of blobs.
Minolta shooters enjoyed the Minolta 58mm f/1.2 MC Rokkor and Minolta 50mm f/1.2 MD Rokkor-X.
And, don’t forget the legendary Carl Zeiss Super-Q-Gigantar 40mm f/0.33!
Keep an eye out for some of these fast lenses, with the exception of the Super-Q-Gigantar, at the B&H Used Store.
Apparently, my fast glass research was not as comprehensive as it should have been. We have gotten some great comments on this article and readers pointed out two faster-than-f/1.4 lenses that we mistakenly left off of the list. So, here they are!
The Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.1 is available for M-mount cameras, and it looks stunning. Clocking in at a huge opening of f/0.85 is the Handevision IBELUX 40mm f/0.85 lens, designed in Germany and made by Shanghai Transvision, in China. It is available for Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E-mount cameras. Another exotic at a classic portrait focal length is the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2 available in Sony E, Canon EF, and Nikon F mounts.
What else did we miss with faster-than-f/1.4 glass? Let us know in the Comments section below!