There is plenty places discussing such choices, but the advices aren’t always equally sound. Or it is sound, but just doesn’t apply to you. Choice is great, but it also means staying focussed on understanding your own needs.
Most photographers today will use one or more zoom lenses to cover their needs. A standard starter kit will include a lens covering reasonably wide angle to mild telephoto range. The great thing about such lenses is that they help you a lot getting an initial idea which focal lengths work and which less so.
Choices, choices, choices
Moving beyond that, it becomes more and more obvious that every choice means sacrificing something else. Zoom lenses easily get large and heavy. Fixed focal lenses sacrifice zoom range. Choice is great, but it also can get stifling.
It’s probably no surprise: my preference is lenses with a fixed focal length (a.k.a. prime lenses). And probably equally unsurprising: I like fast lenses. Large apertures float my boat. So I spent a lot of time reading up on them and doing so, I’ve repeatedly come across a couple of statements on how sensible fast lenses are. One of them sounds really reasonable. And it is anything but.
The statement goes more or less like this: with modern cameras with excellent high ISO performance, there is no reason anymore to spend more money for a wide aperture lens.
Sounds very reasonable. High ISO performance with modern digital cameras is very good. You can use ISO1600 or 3200 without even noting any degradation in the image. So in all normal light conditions, it is perfectly doable to shoot at f/5.6 or f/8. Then indeed, why spend more for something that can do f/2 or spend a lot more money for f/1.4?
There is one simple clear argument against that: aperture affects depth of field, and depth of field has a profound effect on the composition of the image. It’s not just about low light.
The next standard counter argument is that photos with low to minimal depth of field are just a fad, make no sense and aren’t any good. So large apertures would only cause poor photography, and cost a lot.
F/8 and be there
That counter-argument may be true for you. Not for me. And that’s a bit the core point with all that online advice: it may or may not suit you. It suits the person giving it, but that’s not you yourself. De gustibus non disputandem est.
It does fit in with another recurring truth-ism: the myth of ‘f/8 and be there‘. Please do follow this link for a really nice article on the background on this mantra on the Casual Photophile, a site worth visiting anyway.
Now, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that mantra. Always shooting at f/8 does resolve a fair number of problems. Nearly every lens is good to excellent at this aperture, so no need for expensive exotics. A lot of the image will be in focus, so focussing (be it AF, be it manual) becomes less critical. It removes a variable from the equation (where to focus), so it makes shooting a bit easier again. And I’ve heard often enough that in a quality image, everything should be sharp. So, f/8 and be there…. What is not to like?
What is not to like is that it removes a consideration from your mind that ought to be there. Where you put the focus in the image is an important choice: it typically indicates the subject of the photo. This should really be a deliberate and conscious choice. It’s what you want to show. That is not some detail or technical thing that photographers may notice. It is at the very core of what the image will end up being.
It is not the ‘f/8 and be there’-mantra that is wrong, but the mindlessness that it promotes. In the same way that ‘super zooms’ (lenses with 10x zoom range or more) tend to make their users a bit lazy when it comes to actively choosing a focal length to match their image. Yes, it can be tiring to think actively about every image and force yourself to deliberate choices. But that extra bit of thought does tend to make photos a whole lot better. Thinking works.
Perhaps there is a deeper difference at play. The idea that everything should be sharp in an image to me just says that the photographer is trying to show what was in front of the lens. There is a sense of mere reproduction to it. It is clear about what is in the image. But it doesn’t raise a lot of questions about what is not in the image. What you see is what you get.
While instead actively choosing where to focus and using limited depth of field to force a choice what the subject really is, open the doors to story-telling. The photographer is interpreting the scene, and selecting what matters. The choice of what is important also means some elements are not, or play just a supporting role, or are deliberately missing. All this poses questions or triggers the fantasy, and encourage a more active role for the viewer.
A lot of viewers do not want questions, do not feel the need to engage their fantasy. They want images to show them something they like. The viewers that like to have their fantasy tickled is a smaller group. If the size of your audience matters to you, you know what to do. But if you feel a need to express yourself creatively, to try put something into an image that is specifically yours – then I’d argue having a fast lens of sorts is a great tool to enhance your options.
As they would say on the Shopping TV channel… But wait, there is more!
Many really fast lenses have more outspoken characters. They tend to deliver something special in how they render the scene. Many people don’t believe it and feel that such lenses are just flawed. But if it works for you, they’re your only choice.
And frankly, I’ve never seen a zoom lens do this. Not even the best f/2.8 zooms. It’s the territory of the fast primes: f/1.4 and beyond.
In any case, more often than not, the faster lens is the whackier one. The f/1.8-f/2 lenses are the sensible choices, the f/1.4 lenses have more character and be more specialist tools.
Yet, no matter how quirky and weird, like all other lenses: f/8 just works. The quirks come at wide apertures. So you don’t give up anything (except for a dent in the wallet), but you do gain something.
So, the argument that you wouldn’t need the fast lenses because high ISO will offset the need is just a stupid statement that irritates me to no end. It’s a one-sided view on why large apertures exist, and results in promoting gear that limits the creative options, rather than enhance them. After all, every f/1.4 lens can stop down to f/16. A f/4 or f/5.6 lens can not open up to f/1.4.
Do you always need to use these wide apertures? Sure not, but sometimes they are the better choice. Just like sometimes a closed down aperture like f/8 or f/11 is the better choice. As photographer, you should be considering those options, rather than close them off.
Why this pointless rant?
Obviously to justify my love for fast lenses. And to justify my frequent use of their widest apertures. Do I overcook it? Oh yes, more often than not. Am I pretentious in making those choices? Most definitely.
Fact is, making such images makes me happy. And the very first person that has to like my photos is me. So it’s self-serving to a large degree. But it’s not entirely thoughtless. It typically is an attempt to add atmosphere into a photo, a sense of depth, and emphasising what is near and what is far. Getting rid of background with details that could detract from the actual subject. It’s aiming for the quirky behaviours of those marmite fast lenses, and making them sing.
Do I need to justify myself? Mostly no, but this rant it about making conscious choices – when you choose a lens to buy, when you use a lens and when you make your photos. It should be your own individual conscious choices.
Partly yes; the two lenses used in this posting aren’t exactly bargains and there have to be some reason to spend loads extra to go from f/1.8 to f/1.4. Every single photo in this post is shot at f/1.4, and in all cases in willingly and consciously. So, if there is a justification, it should be in those photos.
Do I see it? Honestly, not sure. But what I do know: I’m glad I had the choice to make them this way. If I followed the idea that high ISO made these lenses obsolete, I’m quite sure 70% of these photos would not exist, because I would not feel compelled to make it.
And that is enough justification for me.