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What is a “fast” lens?

Last updated 2009-07-01 - Send Feedback
Related: howto, shutter

What is a "fast" lens anyway?

Applied to a lens, the term "fast" refers to faster shutter speeds made possible by the superior light gathering power of a lens.

A fast lens is always larger heavier and more expensive than a slower one. For example, a 50mm f/1.2 lens might cost $1600 compared to $300 for a 50mm f/1.4 lens and $100 for a 50/1.8.

Each f-stop represents a full shutter speed. So an f/1.4 lens allow one faster shutter speed than an f/2 lens, and two faster shutter speeds than an f/2.8 lens. That's a very big deal at dusk, or indoors.

Most consumer zooms are in the f/3.5 - f/5.6 range, meaning that they lose 2-3 shutter speeds, a huge difference leading to blurred images when the light levels drop (which requires a lower shutter speed).

Examples

An aperture which is 1.4 times the previous one is half as bright eg f/2 is half as bright as f/1.4. Faster apertures (e.g. f/1.4 or f/1.2 or even f/0.95) are far more challenging to design and build to achieve high quality.

Focal length range
(for 35mm format)
Max Aperture
12mm - 21mm f/1.4, f/2
22mm - 35mm f/1.4, f/2
50m f/0.95, f/1, f/1.2, f/1.4
85mm f/1.2, f/1.4
90mm f/2
100mm, 135mm f/1.8, f/2
180mm, 200mm f/2, f/2.8
300mm f/2, f/2.8
400mm f/2.8, f/4
500mm f/4
800mm f/5.6
Up to 1527MB/s sustained performance

Top recommendations for fast lenses

Lenses I've used and/or own, and can heartily recommend.

Click on links to each lens for reviews.

Zeiss for Nikon or Canon

View prices for Nikon or for Canon

Our trusted photo rental store

Canon

View prices.

Canon's f/1.2 lenses are unique. Nikon does not offer f/1.2 lenses as of 2010.

Nikon

View prices.

Leica

View prices.

 

See also

Durable and fast, up to 1800MB/s

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