Photography / Buying Guide

The Fastest Glass Money Can Buy

         

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.

Canon f/1.2L USM Lens Family

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.

Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2

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.

Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R Family

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"

Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS Lens

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.

Aftermarket Fast Glass

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 versatile Rokinon 50mm f/1.2 lens can be purchased for the Sony-E (APS-C), Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, and Micro Four Thirds mounts. All versions are available in black or silver.

SLR Magic’s 50mm f/0.95 Hyperprime lens is available in Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E-Mount (APS-C) cameras.

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.

Fast Glass need not Break the Bank

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.

Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Lens

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.

The Legendary Fast Glass

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.

Customer Recommendations

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!

Discussion 61

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I'm a bit surprised that the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8 L USM lens didn't get mentioned in the "legendary" catagory.

Hey A.M.,

That is certainly a fast lens, and definitely rare air with that focal length, but for this article I chose to focus on lenses that were wider than f/1.4.

Thanks for reading and thanks for the mention of that Canon glass!

Pentax 50mm smc-a 1:1.2

Thanks, Douglas! I see we do not sell this lens. I assume it is out of production. Would you care to tell us what you know about it? Thanks for sharing and thanks for reading!

Have a look at this webpage by Matt Mueller (?): http://www.muellerworld.com/exhibits/fast_lens/

He has the following (mount adapted) very fast lenses:

  • Mt. Prospect 90mm f/1.0
  • Kowa 62mm f/0.75
  • Rodenstock TV-Heliogon 68mm f/1.0
  • Rodenstock XR-Heliogon 42mm f/0.75 (Focus: ~2cm)

I have no clue on current availability or their quality, but it's nice to know they're there...

Thanks for sharing the link, Peter! 

Mitakon Zhongyi is planning a SpeedMaster 135mm f/1.4:

Admittedly, not faster than f/1.4, but for a 135mm it is very fast! (and may affect other lens qualities...)

Mitakon Zhongyi has a SpeedMaster 85mm f/1.2 for Sony E, Canon EF and Nikon F mount: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=mitakon+zhongyi+85+f%2F1.2&N=0&...

Hey Peter! Thanks, again. I'll have this added to the article text. Thanks for keeping us straight! 

All this stuff and not a single mention of the very late model and fantastic SIGMA line?  Really?  perhaps you should see some of the items I have gotten from the new 20mm f1:1.4!

Hi Richard,

Yes, no mention of Sigma except for all the Sigma fans chiming in in the comments!

In this article, the featured lenses all have apertures wider than f/1.4, so I did not include any Sigma lenses as their maximum aperture is f/1.4. This article highlights the more exotic lenses that range from f/1.2 to f/0.85. Including the dozens of f/1.4 lenses on the market would have made the article too cumbersome.

Thanks for reading and plugging Sigma's 20mm!

Any for Sony a600

Hey Dieter,

Yes, several of the above-mentioned lenses are made for the Sony E mount. Also, your Sony will accept a lot of other mounts with specific adapters, allowing you to use nearly all (or all) of these lenses.

Thanks for reading!

I started with a Leitz Summilux f/1.4 in 1964 and design laser optics today so I have a love of the asphere and other techniques available today but... at these apertures the Canon image stabilization methods that make my own low-light-level photography possible do not work. I don't think that I will trade my stabilized lenses for fast glass anytime soon. I only get 1 in 10 with stabilization given subject motion but I get the trade-off of greater depth of field. You end up with a different aesthetic in the images using the two approaches. I'd like to see a discussion of the best available combination of fast glass and image stabilization techniques (detector dithering?) for modern low-light level photography.

Hey Stephen,

Thanks for your insightful comments.

I suppose fast glass, incredible image stabilization, and no-noise extreme high ISO sensors are the goal of a lot of cameras and photographers.

For the two latter goals, IS and high ISO, technology is constantly evolving and improving. IS systems are getting better and better and sensors are getting less and less noisy. In-camera IS is a boon to those who have it as every lens becomes stabilized by the system. I believe that we are not far from a digital future where noise is almost nonexistent at 6-digit ISO settings.

Having said that, fast glass will always be fast glass and shooters of extreme wide aperture lenses will get the benefits of that light-gathering power as well as the technological boost from lens or body-mounted IS systems and low noise sensors.

By the way, I had to look up "detector dithering" on the Interweb. Very cool stuff! Sometimes astro-tech trickles down to the photo world, and other times the information flow goes the other way. 

I don't know if this is kicking off the discussion in the direction you want it to go, but feel free to respond or encourage others to chime in! Thanks for reading!

back in the '80s when I was working in a camera store, an old Canon FL  50mm f1.,2 lens was traded in and I scoffed it up very quickly. That was an amazing piece of glass.

Hey Kevin!

Great investment! Thanks for sharing and thanks for reading!

You missed the Voigtländer/Cosina Nokton 50mm ƒ 1.1...

Oops, for the Leica M-Mount rangefinders...

...yep. Found it!  Thanks, Paul!

Argh!

Thanks, Paul! So much for my research skills! Get that lens here!

I appreciate you all covering my back! Thanks for reading!

Rick Booth asked the right question - where is the Sigma fast glass, specifically the Art series 50mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, the 24-35mm f/2 and the 20mm f'/1.4 - these lenses are not only fast, but incredibly sharp and well built. And while we're on sharpness, What about Zeiss? The Otus 28mm f/1.4 and the other lenses in that line? Big miss indeed.

Hey Bill,

Yes, right question. Same answer from me.

In this article I wanted to focus on lenses with apertures larger than f/1.4. Including all f/1.4 lenses would make for a super-long article with some more-common lenses. The Sigma and Zeiss lenses are certainly "fast glass" and terrific optics, but I chose to talk about f/1.2 and wider lenses.

Thanks for reading!

The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is also a great example. A beautiful looking lens too.

Hey Peter,

Yes, the NIKKOR 200mm definitely qualifies as fast glass and is awesome. For this article I wanted to focus on lenses with apertures greater than f/1.4, so the 200mm doesn't show up above, but thanks for mentioning it here!

Feel free to send me your extra copy!

Thanks for reading!

uhm, no love for Pentax again, B&H? :)

Hey karro,

I love Pentax and got my cubicle neighbor to become a Pentax customer and get some of their great glass. Check out my hands-on review of the Pentax K-3 II.

Unfortunately, for Pentax, this article focuses on lenses with apertures wider than f/1.4 and Pentax hasn't entered that arena yet.

Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!

Ask any doctor:      speed       is      addictive.

300mm, f2.8 is my "walking around" lens. 400mm, f2.8 is my baby. My 16-35mm, f2.8L and 24-70mm, f2.8L is just plane fun.

My banker thinks I'm a fool. He's probably right but f5.6 seems like a snail's pace and f8 is positively stopped.

Hey Ralph,

As a long-time helicopter pilot and a sailboat owner, speed has always been elusive to me - or maybe it is just relative - but I will take your doctor's word for it!

Thanks for the laugh and thanks for reading! Tell your banker hello for me!

Don't forget the wonderful Pentax Limited lenses--beautifully designed, fast (FA series) lenses that produce world-class image quality in a very small package.

Hey JAG,

I haven't forgotten those lenses, and I have loved the ones I have had the pleasure of using, but none of them clock in at apertures wider than f/1.4, so they didn't get included in this article.

Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading!

Hello everyone
In my personal opinion I use the platform Canon 36 years and 33 years as a professional so I am inclined 50mm 85mm 1.2L ... but if quality and superiority we refer in general terms ... I take off a hat before her majesty, the irreprochable Leica 

Hello Monsieur Boudior,

Thank you for your comment and the always-appropriate nod/tip-o-the-hat/genuflect for the Leica!

Thanks for reading!

You do your readers a great disservice by not mentioning the Sigma Art lenses in your discussion; perphaps the best lenses on the market for the money (and even regardless of money). The 50mm 1.4 and 35mm 1.4 equal or exceed image quality of almost every other lens in these focal lengths.  Only drawback is that they are not weather sealed!

I agree and wonder if they are only listing the lens companies that paid to be in this article. I just purchased a Sigman 20mm 1.4 art lens from B&H and love it and also a Sigma 50mm 1.4 art lens.

Hey Scott,

If any lens companies paid for this article, please let me know when I can expect a check in the mail! 

I did my own research on this subject, and chose to include only lenses with apertures wider than f/1.4 If I included f/1.4 lenses, Sigma would have been certainly included in the article, but their widest lens today is f/1.4.

Thanks for reading and thanks in advance for forwarding those commission checks to me!

Totally agree with you. Sigma 50m 1.4 Art is way sharper than canon 1.2 at 1.4. It is heavier and not weather proof but that is not a big deal for portrait.

Hi lister,

Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!

Hey Dean,

This article focuses on lenses that have apertures wider than f/1.4 and the Sigma are great fast lenses, but if I had to write an article including every f/1.4 lens on the market, you might be still reading a really long article. I chose to focus on the wider aperture and more exotic lenses.

Thanks for reading!

Hey Todd,

You're absolutely right on the plethora of quality f/1.4 glass.

But to get more focus (no pun intended) on really fast glass, the article would benefit from removing the paragraph on quality/equivalent f/1.8 glass...

Keep it up! Kind regards

Hey Peter,

Thanks for your comments.

I agree, the mention of the f/1.8 glass might have confused people, but I wanted our readers to know that there are alternatives to the exotic super-aperture lenses so that they might not get dismayed at some of the price tags they likely saw when clicking on the links.

I appreciate you checking in and reading the article! Thanks!

An arbitrary cut-off at (below, actually) F 1.4, when discussing "Fast-Glass", seems more(Worse than) unfair to your READERS. It seems to me that very-fast or ultra-fast should there-fore, have been your title.   For most, I believe,photographers, F 2.8  F 1.8  and certainly, F 1.4, are all the "FAST" that they own.   It is the case for me personally.    And I was hoping you would discuss Pentax's Quicker-stuff.   Happy new year...    RJM

Hey RJM,

I understand where you are coming from, but we did use the word "Fastest" in the title, and you cannot get faster than fastest, you can only get more fastest.

If the article incorporated lenses with f/2.8 and wider apertures, it would have been unbearably long. Yes, those lenses are fast, but we wanted to discuss the "fastest" lenses, so I made the reasoned decision to make f/1.2 the cutoff for this article and I said this in the second paragraph: "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."

You are also correct, most photographers' widest lenses are between f/2.8 and f/1.4. But the goal of this article was to show the price-is-no-object fastest glass.

By the way, my coworker just got the Pentax SMCP-FA 77mm f/1.8 and she loves it. Amazingly compact for a large-aperture portrait lens!

Thanks for reading!

don't understand this comment.  this article is about the "fastest glass money can buy", you know, the hyper-exotics if you have the money.   mostly, for the average person, it's like a car magazine featuring ferraris and lambos, which some people just like to read and drool over.  it's not meant to be about recommendations for what you should use in your own photography.  there hundreds of articles online reviewing those Art lenses, as you are well aware--who needs another?  if you are looking for something to read, try reading the title.

Thanks for reading, dean!

A huge miss.....where is all the Sigma fast glass?

Hi Rick,

All of the lenses featured in the article (minus the "other" MF Nikkors) are wider than f/1.2 or wider. Sigma's widest lens is f/1.4.

Thanks for reading!

Had to look up that Zeiss .33 ... turns out it was a PR stunt, not a real lens! Still, fun stuff. I'd like to see somebody make a 24-200 2.8 ... even a computer rendering ... just to see how big it would be.

Hey Chris,

Sounds like a good kickstarter campaign! Let me know when you make one and I will write the hands-on review! Fuji or Nikon mount, please!

Thanks for reading!

Given the unavoidable compromises in the optical quality to design a respectable ultra-fast lens, one could compensate for it with the inherently [by design] better optical quality of the slower lens and extra senstivity of the faster film or the optical sensor. Not for nothing the "sweet spot" [best performance] of most lenses is at around f/8.

Hey Gregory,

You make a good point. That lens unicorn is the f/0.95 glass that is super sharp wide open, corner to corner!

The other advantage of truly fast glass is the super-shallow depth of field, so don't forget that part of the equation.

Thanks for reading!

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