On Fast Lenses and Return on Expenditure — It’s No Longer About Speed, but Character, Stupid!

The old argument that I have to spend heavily on good fast prime glass because I love to shoot in low light is dead. That’s a reasoning that dates back to film and early digital photography when you had to push that Ilford and early imaging sensors too achieve the best possible compromise between detail, noise and color/tonal accuracy. Who in today’s world with acceptable ISO reaching 12,800 cares about “to F1.4 or not.” But that doesn’t make good fast prime glass less important. Today you buy good glass for its “character” and unique rendition.

Many a photographer's imaginative climax: Noctilux 50mm F0.95 -- but with what return on expenditure?
Many a photographer’s imaginative climax: Noctilux 50mm F0.95 — but with what return on expenditure?
Nah, doesn’t work anymore to try to explain to your wife that you really need the Summilux because your style of photography requires lenses wide open. Even better a Noctilux! Soon you’ll find out that the Noctilux is a speciality lens with its razor-thin depth of field so difficult to focus that even many a hardcore Leica loyalist throws in the towel and the precious glass becomes a dust collector in the drawer.

Well Leica is a bad example anyway. Because with the current M’s CCD sensor you’re really glad for every additional stop as noise is already disheartening around ISO 800 (for such an expensive camera). The new M (Type 240), however, promises betterment, so when you’ll be torn between say the 28mm Cron and Elmarit, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to go for the Elmarit. If we’re talking importance of stops gained/lost only.

One stop gained or lost doesn’t really matter anymore in today’s digital imaging world. But there’s the very important, highly subjective “character issue”:

While the 28mm Cron has a somewhat weird, addicting bokeh shot wide open, the Elmarit is much more neutral and even, if not boring.

It goes without saying that you’re not buying a wide angle lens for it’s bokeh. This is just to prove the point that fast glass still matters even at wide angles. Not for speed, however, but more so for subjective rendition.

This subjectivity comes at a price. Especially in the world of Leica a stop gained or lost can easily mean a few thousand dollars spent or saved. So think rationally when you’re about to succumb to the temptation. But who can resist the characteristics of a 50mm Summilux, whatever built/generation.

Alright, the character of a lens is subjective. But it’s safe to say that a lot of engineering and quality material goes into fast expensive glass. Their color rendition and overall contrast and clarity is usually no match for cheaper glass. And it’s these characteristics that give a lens its character and that determine how a lens handles out-of-focus a.k.a. bokeh and achieves or achieves not a three-dimensional look.

Fast lenses’ quite often amazing performance is proof that a lens can’t solely be measured objectively. The subjective values are not less important.

You get what you pay for, as the old saying goes, but in today’s photography world we’ve reached a point with so many products that more expensive gear offers a diminishing marginal return on expenditure whereas cheaper, smaller gear offers an increased marginal return on expenditure.

The borders between maximum performance for exponential expenditure and good enough performance for reasonable expenditure diminish.

If you’re not after the “signature” of a lens then better don’t even bother about fast glass because most lenses start to look alike when stopped down.

I for myself don’t hesitate a second to pay a premium for character. But less so for speed.

And here’s an appeal to imaging software makers. We have filters for everything. But not a single one to give an image the character of a specific lens. Now there’s a market I’d be willing to pay for.

  • Drazen B.

    You’ve just opened a can of worms with this one, my friend…;)

  • More than welcome to prove me wrong, Drazen.

  • I’ve been shooting for a year now with a 40 then 35 Summicron on my GXR. This past week I bought my first Leica body, the M-E, and now looking for the 50 Lux. It’s the character I’m after. You’re describing me above!

  • mololo ingrid

    It’s about the ‘acceptable’ you mentioned above.
    When it comes to lenses, the acceptable is good and sufficient for Johnny Public who hasn’t seen or learned better, but for many of us nothing short of best and perfect will do.
    People reading this blog are photophiles, not much different from audiophiles who with their demands for perfect sound, components, cables etc managed to stun and confuse the rest of the populus.

  • Ray

    This week’s best and perfect or last week’s? Pay attention to Johnny Public. They discovered you can enjoy fine music without spending $1,000 for a meter’s worth of interconnects.

  • mololo ingrid

    You’re again mixing an average consumer experience and needs with the ‘phile’.
    We all know the difference no need for preaching the obvious.

  • I’m still tempted, despite knowing better, by the 50/2 APO. Hopeless?

  • We have a number of “youngsters that join some of us old farts at times. Their priorities in lenses usually are

    1 – Number of lenses for bragging rights

    2 – How close they can get to the flower and still focus

    3 – Bokeh bokeh bokeh – and not the fine characteristics of it, just how big iand how much of it there is. Many do not take the light into account and are disappointed that there is no Bokeh.

    When we discuss color and contrast of a lens they will start playing on their iPhones.

    I love Leica glass, but I’ve recently been shooting with C Mount CCTV lenses and it’s the best fun I’ve had in a long time.

    For myself I would never buy a Nocti 0.95 simply because there would be little real use for it in my case.

    Nice article – thanx.

  • PWL

    Well, I’d disagree with you a little here. Sure you can shoot up to ISO 12,800, but–the higher your ISO, the more compromised your image is going to be by such things as noise, etc . So I think the argument for fast glass still remains valid–better to shoot at lower ISOs with the promise of better quality photos–and let the glass get the speed for you.

  • Sure depends on the camera, but can’t recall to need more than ISO 3,200… Again depending on the camera, IS sure helps — and hold that baby steady!

  • PWL

    Guess my thing is that I shoot in venues at ISO 1600, where I need to be at F2 at least, to be sure of getting a fairly fast shutter speed. So for me, F2 is a necessity and F1.4 is gravy, just in case I need that extra bit of speed. But I’ll admit, I have no need for anything like a Noctilux.

  • Steve Weldon

    Nice to read someone talking about lens character, it’s an oft forgotten quality of a lens. Yet, it isn’t the only one. I shoot a variety of photography types and often teach the same in my workshops. From this perspective I divide lenses into three qualities. Character as mentioned, image quality (sharpness, contrast, color rendition), and speed. Depending on the type of photography I’m currently chasing I could be after either one or all of these qualities.

    Speed remains important to sports photographers. The trouble is we’re stuck with the same F2.8 and F4 telephotos, so there’s little to gain if your sport requires such a lens. But what about the martial arts, boxing, indoor gymnastics, wrestling, etc,, where you’re using a 24-150mm focal length? The more speed you can fit into an acceptable DOF still results in more overall image quality.

    Even wedding photography still benefits from fast lenses as you compete in the industry for the best overall image quality. It’s no secret that years ago the vast majority (figures as high as 90% are quoted) of Canon 200/1.8’s were purchased by highly competitive South Korean wedding photographers who were offering ultra-expenses flashless weddings. I didn’t give up my own 200/1.8 until the new 200/2’s hit the shelves and it was still emotional.

    I could keep going, but I think it’s fair to say the more experienced photographers have always appreciated lens character, but so do they speed and quality.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Soon two years after this article was written I would like to second Dan’s insight and add that for wildlife photography this is doubly true.
    You do not need extreme apertures for wildlife photography because available light and post processing light recovery in for example Lightroom is usually enough for shooting at up to f/8.
    You also do not need zooms or extreme focal lengths because today’s high resolution cameras allow you to crop down to 1/8 of the original image for plenty of detail and more than adequate resolution shooting with high quality 200mm or 300mm primes.