When it comes to glass, it’s about Fast, Fast, Fast…

As we planned for a vacation in Savannah, GA, one of the most historic and beautiful cities in the United States, I decided to take along something new I’d wanted since getting back into the photography game:  f/2.8 long glass, specifically the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED.  As is often the case with photography, this new piece of equipment came with several lessons and some new doors to open. Perfect fodder for Enthusiast Photographer, right?

Before we get to the doors and lessons in future posts, let’s cover the subject of “fast glass.”  It’s a term you hear a lot in the photography world.  Every new photographer inquiring whether he/she should upgrade an old body invariably gets hit with the “spend the money on fast glass” advice.  But what is “fast glass” and considering lenses featuring low apertures tend to cost more than their more mundane cousins, especially zooms, why does an enthusiast photographer want it?  I boil the differences down to three P’s:  Packaging, Price and Performance

First, Packaging – there are big physical differences.  For the OEM (Canon/Nikon) lenses, these tend to be the top lenses made by the manufacturers – you’ll hear them called “pro glass”.  They are big, they are heavy and they feel like they are carved out of smoothest marble when you focus or zoom.  You’re going to find a lot less plastic and a lot more metal in their construction since they are made for the people who are making a living at photography.  Even the aftermarket makers (Tamron/Sigma/etc.) are generally putting their best stuff in these lenses, so expect it to be more robust – and more expensive.

The second difference is Price.  Where an old, used Nikon 80-200 f/4.5-5.6 might cost you $80 in nice shape, the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED is going to run you $800.  Used.  A new one at B&H is $1119.  Move up to the old 70-200 f/2.8 VR I and in exchange for $1500-$1600 on the used market today you’ll get the “VR” stabilization technology that minimizes camera shake so you get sharper, better pictures when you hand-hold (and let you use slower shutter speeds, etc.).  The latest version of that lens, the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII is well over $2000 used and $2399 new at B&H.

So they are heavy and they cost more – where’s the benefit?  The answer is Performance. On top of the fact they’ll have the highest quality optics, coatings and generally the most advanced technology you can cram in a tube for the best image, they are the ticket for shooting in low light.  Ever have a zoom lens hunt back and forth for focus or have low-light shot turn out blurry no matter what you do when hand-holding?  This is where the low-aperture lenses make a huge difference.

Even without the fancy stabilization (which I covet greatly, but can’t afford in this class of lens), having a low-aperture lens gives you a number of advantages.  First:  You can shoot better in lower light. Why?  The lower aperture is giving your camera more light – the lower the number, the bigger the hole to let light through.  Since the size of the hole is bigger, the lowest aperture number is called the “maximum” aperture.  Have you noticed that most zoom lenses show a range of apertures in their names?  That is because the maximum aperture of the lens grows as you zoom out.  The old consumer 80-200 I mentioned above starts at f/4.5 maximum at 80mm, but by the time you zoom all the way out the maximum has grown to f/5.6.  What that means to you when shooting is that less light is getting through the further out you zoom, and you’ll have to use longer shutter speeds or higher ISO’s  to get the exposure right.

You’ll also have more problems with good focus in low light since your camera can’t see very well.  This is because at f/5.6, the amount of light the camera can use is reduced by almost half compared to f/4.5.  And the pro glass at f/2.8 is giving your camera four times more light to work with than at f/5.6.  An f/1.8 prime would give you more than eight times more light than at f/5.6.  That gives you a lot of flexibility for faster shutter speeds that give you an opportunity to successfully hand-hold and lower ISO that will give you better image quality with lower noise.

In high end zooms, the aperture is fixed.  In other words, the aperture stays constant no matter the focal length, so f/2.8 is f/2.8 no matter how far you zoom out.  On consumer lenses, the farther you zoom out, the wider the minimum aperture will be. “Prime” lenses have no zoom capability – they are a fixed focal length (50mm, 85mm, 105mm, etc.), and tend to have lower fixed apertures.

Another benefit of low-aperture lenses is the ability to reduce the depth of field.  If you really want to isolate something, going to a low aperture will make what is visible in focus outside of what you specifically focused on less clear.  The term you’ll see is “bokeh”, which essentially is the pleasingly fuzzy background you see in so many portraits.  Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the subject of bokeh.

Lastly, all this great technology and optics also tend to give you really excellent, sharp pictures.  Ultimately, this is why you want to spend the money.  You’re getting more flexibility out of your equipment and better pictures to boot.  The good news is that this kind of investment tends to serve you well.  Did you notice above how close the prices for used fast glass was to the brand new price?  These lenses tend to keep their value extremely well.  Where the pro-quality D2X cost over $4500 in 2005, it can be had for well under a thousand bucks today.  If you bought the pro-quality 70-200 VR I for $1650 at the same time, you’d still be able to get $1500 for it today.  Not bad, eh?  Prices tend to slide down slowly over time, but it is extremely slow.  Net:  there is no better investment in the photography world than in good lenses.  They improve your shooting flexibility in a variety of ways, and you’ll be able to get most of your money back out of them, even years later.

One way to experience the joys of low-aperture shooting is prime lenses.  Nikons f/1.8 35mm and 50mm primes are very affordable and give you terrific flexibility for shallow depth of field or low-light shooting.  Your feet are now your zoom, but that is fun, too.

So, hopefully now you’ll understand what’s behind the sometimes-maddening “get fast glass” advice.  If you’re on an older body, you’ll get more bang for the buck with better lenses, and generally they’ll be able to graduate with you to later cameras and perform as well or better while holding their value!

I’ll say, however, that while I’m loving the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED a lot, it is a heavy lens.  You’re going to feel it in your bag carrying it around.  It is going to test your holding technique, etc.  These are some of those doors and lessons I was talking about…

I’ll come back and update this with some pictures shortly.  Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “When it comes to glass, it’s about Fast, Fast, Fast…

  1. Pingback: “Should I get a new camera?” | Enthusiast Photographer

  2. Pingback: Enthusiast Photographer Lens? Nikon Announces the 70-200 f/4 | Enthusiast Photographer

  3. Pingback: Lens Dilemma | Enthusiast Photographer

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