- Pro Video
- Pro Audio
- TVs & Entertainment
- Optics & Outdoor
- Shop Categories
- Used Dept
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.
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 offer greater options for freezing action and less chance of camera shake, both of which can cause blur in your images, no matter how bright the scene. 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 larger apertures too. Street photographers working at dusk or dawn may benefit from more light striking the sensor or film. Finally, sports photographers working to freeze action and isolate subjects will appreciate large apertures.
Glass is heavy, which leads to an increase in weight when a lens is built with larger glass elements. More significantly, this is also the most expensive part of a lens, so fast glass usually arrives with a premium price tag. For now, let’s put budgetary restrictions aside and talk about some sweet, fast lenses with apertures wider than f/1.4.
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, offers photographers extremely shallow depth-of-field performance, in a 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 with truly fast apertures.
If you want super-fast speed with a 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, since its introduction in 1978, and remains the fastest NIKKOR lens available.
For the Nikon 1 system, those looking for razor-thin depth of field can grab the Nikon 1 NIKKOR 32mm f/1.2 lens with a 35mm equivalence of 86.4mm, Nano Crystal coatings, and a close-range correction system for macro work.
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, which 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"
Micro Four Thirds (MFT) System users should know about the Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS lens, which is gaining legendary status among MFT shooters and has a 35mm equivalence of 85mm—perfect for portraits. It was the fastest OEM lens available for the system until the addition of the Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 25mm f/1.2 PRO lens, featuring a normal focal length 35mm equivalence of 50mm for MFT cameras.
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, 35mm equivalent), the Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 (35mm, 35mm-equivalent), Nokton 25mm f/0.95 Type II (50mm, 35mm equivalent), and the Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 (85mm, 35mm 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 MFT 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. Rokinon also has the Rokinon 35mm f/1.2 ED AS UMC CS lens for the Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E.
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 FreeWalker 42.5mm f/1.2 lens for Micro Four Thirds. A classic portrait focal length lens, the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2, is available for Sony E, Canon EF, and Nikon F mounts. Other lens options include the Mistaken Zhongyi Speedster 35mm f/0.95 Mark II lens for Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, and Sony E, and, for Micro Four Thirds, the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedster 25mm f/0.95 offers a 50mm (35mm equivalent) field of view.
Clocking in at a huge opening of f/0.85 is the Handevision IBELUX 40mm f/0.85 lens, designed in Germany and made in China by Shanghai Transvision. It is available for Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E-mount cameras.
If you have clicked on some of the hyperlinked lenses above, you may have experienced some sticker shock—even with lenses made by lesser-known brands. As I mentioned above, big glass usually equals big money. All is not lost, however. For fast glass on a budget, 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. 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 to no gain in sharpness, color rendition, or distortion control. In fact, there are even a few f/1.8 lenses that outperform their f/1.4 counterparts in some specific areas.
Also, if you are used to the variable f/3.5-f/5.6 aperture of a kit lens, 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 and/or significantly shorten your depth of field for portraits and still life photos.
Nope, we did not forget 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 a nod to the Noctilux.
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 the B&H SuperStore, you can have some 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 made 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 to 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 (it’s a myth), at the B&H Used Store.
Did we miss any faster-than-f/1.4 glass? Let us know in the Comments section, below!