Lenses: Speed Kills (Your Thai Bank Account)

You might well have been there: Is my lens fast enough? It’s a symptomatic and worrying condition.  It often starts with the purchase of nice lens, maybe even an excellent lens. All is well at first, you like the shots you have made, it has a beautiful signature and generally performs very well indeed. It’s like the start of a new relationship over those first few dates with a new flame. It’s all going well and things feel positively hunky dory. Then it starts to creep up on you, you find yourself poring over reviews of the ‘other lens’ from the same manufacturer which is only one stop faster but twice the price (or more). You start imagining the endless extra possibilities in your photography that this magical extra stop or two could give you. Image searches of this coveted slice of top glass on the net seem to only lead to what appear to be the best photos you have ever seen in that focal length before. Suddenly you find yourself fawning and pining for the new flame’s more attractive sibling and pangs of confusion and regret slowly start to emerge in your stomach. What is then seemingly hard to find on the internet during the throes of such a condition is what you probably need to hear the most: This is often completely irrelevant to taking and making great pictures in most places, especially in a bright and sunny clime such as Thailand.


In the past I have suffered greatly from this condition, and almost always to my financial detriment. The Nikkor 85mm 1.8 was a really, really good lens but the 1.4 had a legendary status that eventually proved too formidable an opponent. The various 35 ‘Crons I have had seemed like greased lightning when at first acquired but I just could not go on without the word ‘Summilux’ in my life. Loved the Rolleiflex 3.5, but I ultimately had to get me some Zeiss 2.8 love. What I found in general is that, as with so many things in life, paying the extra massive premium just to get that very last upper percentile of a given performance factor is often simply not worth it. I’ll even go one further, in my case; I actually found it to be detrimental to my work. With really fast lenses (let’s assume primes for the sake of argument), the trade-off for the ultra fast end of things is typically that they are not always even in their high performance throughout the full aperture range. Some high-speed lenses are not as good stopped down as their contemporaries and, to add insult to injury, they are not guaranteed to be that hot when used wide open. Think in terms of a racing car, its engine built to a high level of tune with an aggressive cam profile, super big wheels with tiny profile racing tires that are really wide. It’s really good when on the cam and giving the highest engine speeds flying through chicanes on smooth race tracks but certainly not what you want when looking to steadily cruise or start/stop drive through traffic to the local store. It would also suck the proverbial appendage on a constant long-haul drive on varying road surfaces. What do you want it for? Ask yourself this and be truly honest about it. If you are only shooting in very low light conditions with this lens, well this would perhaps be akin to racing and redlining with the speed factor, maybe you really would benefit from the high state of tune of the fast glass designs.  But if you are also shooting in daylight and under a range of different circumstances then you’ll be stopping her right down anyway. If you don’t then you’ll need to be allowing for the extra expense and hassle of ND filters and accepting any negative impact that they may possibly have on the lens that you bought for its high performance in the first place.  In Bangkok, in the daytime, things are ridiculously bright, even on overcast days. Every single Leica 35mm I have ever owned (and that’s a few now) had to be stopped right down to a minimum of f8 or more when shooting outside pretty much any time after six thirty in the morning and before sunset. I would only use the wide-open capabilities of the ultra fast glass for maybe two half-hour periods during every twenty-four hours, unless I was a big night shooter, which I tend not to be in general. The other twenty three hours of the day, my glass would not only be just fine, but perhaps even better than the faster option. That assumes using film and Tri X at ISO 400. Yes, I could use slower film but I prefer not to. I have noted that at these apertures, in real life usage, all of these lenses looked very similar and equally fantastic. In fact, the cheapest one I have ever owned is the old-school brass and chrome 35mm Summaron 2.8 and I think I like the look of this over all the others (including ‘crons and lux’s of a similar vintage) during the daytime. It’s also very small and handling is among the very best of any lens I have ever used on any camera.


How I used to love my 35 ‘lux pre-asph. I have even bought (and subsequently sold) two of them. I have learned that lenses are like jobs and relationships, once it’s over and you’ve left, you should never go back and try again. It’s never as good, and if it had been that good, you probably wouldn’t have left. The Canadian made lux’s form factor, its speed and handling were all sublime. Yet in all honesty though, wide open it was a real crapshoot and the frames came out with lotto scratch card like odds, all over the place in low-light, even down another stop and it wasn’t always gravy. I’m picking an unfair example perhaps as this lens is well known for being a handful when wide open but it’s a common enough trait applicable to many fast primes. With my lux, Ninety-five percent of the time I was at f2 or more anyway and at such apertures, it wasn’t any better than the rest. Good glass is expensive and decisions need to made accordingly, if it’s to be a monogamous relationship, if she will truly be your one and only, then get something that works well as an-all rounder and is easy to live with. Highly fast lenses can be fussy prima Donnas, for real life you want an Emma or a Debbie instead.  For film users, pushing your film a couple of stops or using a faster film will still get the baby bathed. Night photography is all about the shadows and darks anyway, when using super fast film at night, it can just look like daytime shots and I personally don’t much care for that. I think I prefer Tri X pushed a couple of stops than super fast night films anyway. Point being, you have low-light options for nice results that don’t mean selling a kidney. If you’re on digital, I really don’t see the need for speed these days with such great low light performing sensors abound in so many different camera types.


If you are still not convinced, perhaps at least look at systems where the faster options are still reasonably affordable, Leicaland is not a nice place to be for those with a speed habit of Walter White customer proportions and limited funding. Nikon is not a bad brand in this regard as their reverse lens to body compatibility is nearly as good as Leica and this means that many examples of manual-focus faster lenses can be had for fair money, on account of their age.


Mine is not to suggest that all fast glass is to be avoided per se or that all such lenses are inherently bad performers across the board. There are many good all-rounders that also happen to be on the faster end of things, I’m merely advising against the perils of assuming that faster always means better. It often simply isn’t the case.


Voltaire said that “Perfect is the enemy of the good”. With modern lens designs and manufacturing, this can even be the very good. Be honest with yourself and be practical, all modern lenses are likely way better at their job than we are as photographers. Will you really out shoot your glass? Look at what the masters did with the limited lenses of decades past. Think most bang for your Thai baht and have some sympathy for your bank account in these frugal times. You’ll feel great getting the best shots ever ‘despite’ the lens rather than ‘because’ of it. It’s honestly mostly nonsense if you really think about it. Just because there are no speed limits on the road to photographic success, doesn’t mean you have to drive down it the fastest.