Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?

Started Apr 14, 2013 | Discussions
vjk2
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Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
Apr 14, 2013

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

headfirst
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

autofocus doesn't make lenses dim - there are e.g. f1.2 AF lenses. It is of course an added cost though.

Making zooms with a constant wide aperture is harder & hence more expensive than making a prime with an equivalent aperture.

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Hugowolf
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

vjk2 wrote:

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

Nothing has changed, There have been wide aperture fixed focal length lenses for a long, long time - zooms are different. Until the recent bubble in digital cameras, you could pick up Olympus 50 mm f/1.4 lenses for US$40. I bought one five years ago just to use as a +20 dioptre close up lens to reverse mount on my Canon lenses.

Canon had a 50 mm f/1.0 that was introduced in 1989, and there have been faster lenses. F/1.2 or f/1.4 is more common.

Brian A

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edispics
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

Faster lenses were more important back "then" because it was exceedingly difficult to take high ISO, low noise photos, so those additional F stops really made a difference.

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hha
hha
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

vjk2 wrote:

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

There are at least two reasons:

In the classical lens design the whole lens ensemble moves for focusing. This was abandoned  in the early 90s to allow the autofocus design, where only one or two small lenses of the whole lens assembly (maybe 10 lenses or more) needed to be moved. This makes the design more costly and/or more sensitive to  miss-alignment.

The lenses of the 80s were designed with a 30 micron blur spot at maximum aperture. Some of the professional Nikon lenses reach a 10 micron blur spot. With the advent of digital cameras with 4 micron pixels and smaller, the corner softness and the flair of even the best lenses from the 80s at maximum aperture is disturbingly obvious.

For some applications, like astrophotography, some of the old lenses are still unequaled, particularly if they are used in the APC format.

hha

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tkbslc
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It's "only" f2.0 because it's also a macro lens.
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

You are making a limited comparison.  In the specific case of Olympus, the 50mm prime is a macro lens.  There are very, very few macro primes that are f2.0, so it's actually a very fast lens.   If you look at any other system, there are plenty of f1.4 options and even some f1.2 options.

For the Olympus E mount, there is a Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4, which represents the 50mm FOV that your old lenses would have had on film.

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JulesJ
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to Hugowolf, Apr 14, 2013

Hugowolf wrote:

vjk2 wrote:

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

Nothing has changed, There have been wide aperture fixed focal length lenses for a long, long time - zooms are different. Until the recent bubble in digital cameras, you could pick up Olympus 50 mm f/1.4 lenses for US$40. I bought one five years ago just to use as a +20 dioptre close up lens to reverse mount on my Canon lenses.

Canon had a 50 mm f/1.0 that was introduced in 1989, and there have been faster lenses. F/1.2 or f/1.4 is more common.

Brian A

But this doesn't answer the OP's question!

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JulesJ
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to edispics, Apr 14, 2013

edispics wrote:

Faster lenses were more important back "then" because it was exceedingly difficult to take high ISO, low noise photos, so those additional F stops really made a difference.

This sort of answers it.

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hotdog321
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

Specifics will differ, but generally, taking a photo at high ISO in the film days was problematic at best. A sports photo at ISO 1600 was pretty darn "crunchy" and getting almost unusable if the light was contrasty. Heck, even photos shot at ISO 400 were pretty grainy. A film photo at 3200 was generally totally disgusting and barely acceptable even in newspapers with rotten reproduction.

Thus a "fast" lens wasn't just a nice thing to have so you could enjoy swell bokeh--it was absolutely necessary to produce any kind of usable image whatsoever.

These days any decent digital camera can easily handle 1600 speed or even much, much faster speeds and still produce stellar results. You can still find fast lenses if you want to pay for them; they just aren't so vital these days. Long live digital!

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Mike_PEAT
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nt)There are some f/0.95 micro 4/3 lenses out there!
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

nt=No text

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peevee1
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 14, 2013

vjk2 wrote:

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

In film times, nobody cared about angles of incidence of light hitting the sensor, very few about the ridiculous resolutions, especially wide open, and those who did, shot LF, not 135.

If you put those old 35mm lenses on modern 35mm cameras like Nikon D800, you will easily see how absolutely horrible they are. Even much newer legacy lenses are horrible. For example:

and it is not even fast

some off the charts vignetting on a Nikon 50 1.4D

Very little of that old junk even gets tested. But it might be fine for some low-res video, especially B&W to mask aberrations.

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Hugowolf
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to JulesJ, Apr 14, 2013

JulesJ wrote:

Hugowolf wrote:

vjk2 wrote:

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

Nothing has changed, There have been wide aperture fixed focal length lenses for a long, long time - zooms are different. Until the recent bubble in digital cameras, you could pick up Olympus 50 mm f/1.4 lenses for US$40. I bought one five years ago just to use as a +20 dioptre close up lens to reverse mount on my Canon lenses.

Canon had a 50 mm f/1.0 that was introduced in 1989, and there have been faster lenses. F/1.2 or f/1.4 is more common.

Brian A

But this doesn't answer the OP's question!

Well, the answer is that they don't. Fast fixed focal length lenses have been here for a while, and there are as many of them now as there ever were. 'Older camera lenses' don't have 'faster f-stops'.

Brian A

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hotdog321
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to peevee1, Apr 14, 2013

Yeah, I was going to bring that up, too. Many of those old film lenses were pretty horrible, especially when shooting wide open. And quality zooms were non-existent, especially at f/2.8 apertures.

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SergioNevermind
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 15, 2013

Older film lenses, specially in the manual focus era (pre 90's) had to deal not only with limited ISO film but also with the ability to allow you to focus manually using in the best case a split image viewfinder. A brighter lens wide open may not be sharp, but it will help you focus, and then stop down and then click.

So autofocus, plus digital sensors capable of getting higher ISO than film with decent results, gave designers the chance to make MUCH MORE CHEAPER lenses, just as APSC kit zooms, e.g. 18-55 f 3,5-5,6.   Won't get any DOF at any focal length out of that.

Not all oldies are bad. On the contrary, many of them can still get very good images today.

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Barrie Davis
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 15, 2013

vjk2 wrote:

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

It IS because the older lenses were of fixed focal length, not zooms, that the manufactures had more freedom to produce wide aperture designs.

Wide apertures were more necessary, too.

For a long time the fastest available colour film was 400 ASA (ISO)... the quality of which was so grainy (noisy) that people used it with reluctance, often choosing to stick with 100 ASA (ISO) stocks instead.... Slide films were even slower: The best Kodachrome was 25 ASA (ISO).

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Barrie Davis
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to SergioNevermind, Apr 15, 2013

SergioNevermind wrote:

Older film lenses, specially in the manual focus era (pre 90's) had to deal not only with limited ISO film but also with the ability to allow you to focus manually using in the best case a split image viewfinder. A brighter lens wide open may not be sharp, but it will help you focus, and then stop down and then click.

So autofocus, plus digital sensors capable of getting higher ISO than film with decent results, gave designers the chance to make MUCH MORE CHEAPER lenses, just as APSC kit zooms, e.g. 18-55 f 3,5-5,6. Won't get any DOF at any focal length out of that.

Huh?!

Errr... do you mean, "won't get any SHALLOW DoF out of that...??"
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Joseph S Wisniewski
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f1.8 equivalents...
In reply to Mike_PEAT, Apr 15, 2013

Yes, because it's micro four thirds, and the DOF and you need f0.9 to have the light gathering and DOF equivalent of the "plastic fantastic" $100 f1.8 lenses on FF. So, some old "cine" lenses get reincarnated.

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EinsteinsGhost
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Re: f1.8 equivalents...
In reply to Joseph S Wisniewski, Apr 15, 2013

Joseph S Wisniewski wrote:

Yes, because it's micro four thirds, and the DOF and you need f0.9 to have the light gathering and DOF equivalent of the "plastic fantastic" $100 f1.8 lenses on FF. So, some old "cine" lenses get reincarnated.

DOF yes (at same FOV), exposure no.

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Joseph S Wisniewski
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Re: f1.8 equivalents...
In reply to EinsteinsGhost, Apr 15, 2013

EinsteinsGhost wrote:

Joseph S Wisniewski wrote:

Yes, because it's micro four thirds, and the DOF and you need f0.9 to have the light gathering and DOF equivalent of the "plastic fantastic" $100 f1.8 lenses on FF. So, some old "cine" lenses get reincarnated.

DOF yes (at same FOV), exposure no.

Exposure yes.

Cut the sensor area into a quarter of what it was, and you have 1/4 of the photons in the picture, so you need to throw 4x the light at it to get the same results. Just like in the film days, when tri-x was probably my most shot film on the 4x5, while tech pan was one of my favorites on 35mm.

Physics is a bear.

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EinsteinsGhost
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Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?
In reply to vjk2, Apr 15, 2013

vjk2 wrote:

I've gotten into vintage lenses lately, and it seems like with these older lenses, they're often much faster than the lenses I've gotten used to in the modern era.

Assuming you are comparing prime to prime, I don’t think your argument is true. It could be argued that film SLR kit lenses used to be 50mm f/2 or f/1.8 or similar. But now, we are more likely to see a kit zoom lens which changes the equation. The market has simply switched to the convenience of zoom lenses for kit. And larger aperture is also not as much a need as it used to be for low-light conditions with the flexibility of adjusting ISO on the fly.

I use Olympus and while I know that there is a 50mm f2.0 prime lens that costs $400, there are a number of less expensive vintage manual lenses I know of which will range from $50 for a f2 50mm to at most something like $150 for a f1.4

In this case, you are likely comparing price of a new lens to some very much used lenses. For example, I bought a Vivitar Series I 70-210mm f/2.8-4 (Konica AR-mount) for my Sony NEX and paid only $50 for it. That included shipping. This wasn’t a cheap lens in its day, in fact it was premium priced.  When we also account for inflation adjustment, it is likely we may actually be paying less today for many lenses and a part of it has to do with using cheaper markets for building them.

Could it be...what, autofocus, maybe the zoom design that makes modern lenses so dim?

But, you can find a 50mm f/1.4 today, as one could in 1970. However, there is another consideration worth bringing up: contrast. I bought an Elicar 90mm f/2.5 V-HQ Macro, probably from late 70s or early 80s (built by Komine). It is a very nice lens, and surprisingly with an f/2.5 aperture on a macro lens. However, the lens is clearly not designed to be used at f/2.5. It lacks contrast when used wide open. It is an excellent lens to use for macro between f/11-f/16, however. This lens was used by dentists, and while shooting at f/11 with live preview (manual aperture) in a Sony NEX isn’t limiting, it had to be on the Yashica it was mounted on. The large aperture likely enabled focusing under low light conditions, but images were likely taken at much smaller apertures for proper contrast and DOF.

I do use a 1980s Contax-Zeiss 50mm f/1.7 Planar on my NEX. It is a great lens and surprisingly sharp and contrasty, even wide open. Although, I’m not sure it was considered cheap during its time and f/1.7 is extremely common for max aperture on 50mm today.

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