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The Cost of Speed

September 15, 2009 - Dave Hecei
In photography speed can mean a few different things. When talking about lenses it refers to the maximum aperture available. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 is considered a slow lens. A lens with a max aperture of f/2.8 is a fast lens, and one that is f/2 or lower is very fast. Fast lenses allow more light through the lens, which allows for easier viewing and faster focusing. It also allows one to shoot in much lower light and still maintain a fast enough shutter speed. The problem is that fast lenses are very expensive. But it can be worth it.

I now shoot Canon digital and over the last few years have acquired some nice lenses. I do have some slow lenses, some fast lenses, but only one very fast lens – the 50mm f/1.8. I am hoping to get a very fast wide angle sometime soon and have done a bit of research on them.

Very fast lenses are almost always single focal length lenses – 20, 24, 28, 35, 50, or 85mm are just a few examples. All of these lenses, except for the 50mm f/1.8, are usually very pricey. The same is true for all the camera makers – Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Pentax, etc., a very fast lens can be very pricey.

Canon has a special series of lenses that some think are just for professional photographers, they’re not, but they are priced that way. The Canon L-Series lenses are amazing. They have a 24mm f/1.4 priced around $1800, ouch. They also have a 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, and 85mm f/1.2 priced at $1500,  $1700, and $2000.

While these L-Series lenses are amazing and produce tack sharp photos, there are alternatives to these ‘L’uxury models. Canon has a 28mm f/1.8 for only $500, quite a savings compared to $1800. It’s a 28 instead of a 24, but it is still wide-angle and very fast.

Instead of the manufacturer’s lenses take a look at models from Sigma. They produce some very nice and very fast lenses. Sigma has a 20mm, 24mm, and 28mm at f/1.8. They also now have a 30mm and 50mm at f/1.4. The Sigma lenses are well built and produce excellent images and they are priced under $500, some under $400. While some professionals that stake their career on their images may not go for non-manufacturer lenses, most will not see a difference in images shot with these Sigma models.

Remember with any of these lenses, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, or other, on most digital SLR models there is a built in multiplier. On a 35mm film camera a 24mm lens is a 24mm lens. On a DSLR, like the Canon XSi, a 24mm will actually be the equivalent of just under 40mm. So when buying wide angle lenses for a DSLR you need to go wider than you think you need, especially if you are used to shooting with a 35mm film camera.

Actual mm Effective mm Actual mm Effective mm
20 32 24 38.5
30 48 50 80
60 96 85 135

 
 

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Canon 30D with an 85 f/1.4

 
 
 
 

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