Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?

Started Apr 14, 2013 | Discussions thread
EinsteinsGhost Forum Pro • Posts: 11,977
Re: Why do older camera lenses have faster F-stops?

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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