The Fastest Glass Money Can Buy

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Leave it to the world of photography to confuse size and speed. In lens speak, the term “fast glass” refers to lenses with large apertures. The aperture is the opening of a lens. Its size is expressed as a number that shows the ratio of the opening to the size of the lens. This number is referred to as an f/number, f/stop, focal ratio, f/ratio, or relative aperture.

How fast is “fast?” Or, how big of an aperture opening gives me truly fast glass?

In “professional” zoom lenses, the aperture of f/2.8 is generally regarded as fast. When it comes to prime lenses, depending on your level of lens snobbery, what is truely fast starts between f/2.0 and f/1.4 with many “professional” lenses featuring f/1.4 maximum apertures. Faster-than-f/1.4 lenses are the exotics of the 35mm format optical world.

We call these large-aperture lenses “fast” because they allow cameras to take photos at relatively fast shutter speeds for a given amount of ambient light. A fast lens might make it possible to take photos handheld in low light. Faster shutter speeds offer greater options for freezing action and less chance of camera shake, both of which can cause blur in your images, no matter how bright the scene. A large aperture means that you can photograph with very shallow depth of field.

Why do you want a fast lens? If you ever do off-tripod low-light photography, maybe at a concert or night club, you will want a lens that can open wide to maximize light-gathering. Wedding photographers often find themselves in less-than-ideal lighting scenarios at the church or reception and need larger apertures, too. Street photographers working at dusk or dawn may benefit from more light striking the sensor or film. Finally, sports photographers working to freeze action and isolate subjects will appreciate large apertures.

Glass is heavy, which leads to an increase in weight when a lens is built with larger glass elements. More significantly, optical elements are also the most expensive part of a lens, so fast glass usually arrives with a premium price tag. For now, let’s put budgetary restrictions aside and talk about some sweet, fast lenses with apertures wider than f/1.4.

Canon f/1.2L USM Lens Family

In the modern DSLR world, the leader of the 50mm fast glass pack is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. Its cousin, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, offers photographers extremely shallow depth-of-field performance, in a classic portrait focal length. As a product of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), these Canon lenses combine tried-and-true EOS system electronics, coatings, and autofocus technology with truly fast apertures.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens

Knowing the value of its f/1.2 lenses to pro and amateur Canon shooters, when Canon rolled out the new EOS R mirrorless camera system, the company immediately released the new Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM and Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM lenses to accompany the new cameras.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Lens

Fast NIKKORs

If you want super-fast speed with a Nikon SLR lens, you must step back into the world of manual focus NIKKOR lenses. The Nikon autofocus lenses stop at a very respectable f/1.4, but the still-in-production NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 continues to have a devoted fan base, since its introduction in 1978, and remains the fastest SLR NIKKOR lens available.

Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 Lens

And, today, users of the new Nikon Z-mount mirrorless cameras can get their hands on the insanely fast NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct lens that revives the legendary “Noct” designation from Nikon’s past (see below).

Nikon NIKKOR Z 58m f/0.95 S Noct Lens

FUJIFILM XF 56mm f/1.2 R Family

Bringing “fast” to the FUJIFILM X-Mount camera lineup is the FUJIFILM XF 56mm f/1.2 R lens and its stablemate, the FUJIFILM XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD lens, which features an apodization filter to manipulate bokeh. For use on the Fujifilm X system, when opened to f/1.2 at the minimum focus distance (2.3'), the depth of field is a very shallow 0.3".

For those looking for even faster Fujifilm glass, the company has also announced that the XF33mm f/1.0 R WR lens will arrive in the year 2020.

FUJIFILM XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD Lens

Micro Four Thirds f/1.2 Lenses from Olympus and Panasonic

Micro Four Thirds (MFT) System users should know about the Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS lens, which is gaining legendary status among MFT shooters and is the 35mm equivalent of 85mm—perfect for portraits. The 42.5mm lens was the fastest OEM lens available for the system until the addition of the Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 25mm f/1.2 PRO lens, featuring a normal focal length 35mm equivalence of 50mm for MFT cameras and, what I think is a record of 19 glass elements in a prime lens! That 25mm is joined by two more f/1.2 Olympus PRO offerings, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f/1.2 PRO and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.2 PRO lenses that have 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 34mm and 90mm, respectively.

Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. Lens

Aftermarket Fast Glass

There seems to be a lot of demand for fast glass, and not everyone wants to pay premium prices to get premium f-stops. To meet the needs of these photographers, there is a bevy of aftermarket fast lenses on today’s market.

If you want super-fast glass for the Micro Four Thirds System, German lens manufacturer Voigtländer has created a quad of Nokton lenses that clock in at f/0.95. The Nokton 10.5mm f/0.95 (21mm, 35mm equivalent), the Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 (35mm, 35mm equivalent), Nokton 25mm f/0.95 Type II (50mm, 35mm equivalent), and the Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 (85mm, 35mm equivalent) give Micro Four Thirds shooters a range of fast primes to choose from at an exotic aperture size. Several other Voigtländer lenses get the “Nokton” designation, but none have apertures as large as the f/0.95 lenses designed for the MFT system.

Voigtländer Nokton 10.5mm f/0.95 Lens for Micro Four Thirds

Sony E-mount shooters can try the beautiful Voigtländer Nokton 40mm f/1.2 Aspherical lens that has a de-clickable aperture ring for video. The Leica M-Mount version skips the video-friendly modifications. Also for the Leica M-mount, Voigtländer offers the new Nokton 50mm f/1.2 Aspherical. There is the nice-looking Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.1 and the Voigtländer Nokton Aspherical 35mm f/1.2 II Lens for Voigtländer VM or M-mount cameras.

Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.1 Lens

Newly arrived are the Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2 and identical Samyang XP 85mm f/1.2 lens for Canon EF mount. The versatile Rokinon 50mm f/1.2 lens can be purchased for the Sony-E (APS-C), Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, and Micro Four Thirds mounts. All versions are available in black or silver. Rokinon also has the Rokinon 35mm f/1.2 ED AS UMC CS lens for the Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, and Sony E.

Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2 Lens for Canon EF

SLR Magic makes the SLR Magic Cine II 50mm f/1.1 for Sony E-mount video work or stills.

SLR Magic Cine II 50mm f/1.1 Lens for Sony E-Mount

Chinese lensmaker Mitakon Zhongyi builds the Mitakon Zhongyi FreeWalker 42.5mm f/1.2 lens for Micro Four Thirds. The company’s latest Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 III lens is available for Canon RF, Nikon Z, and Sony E mounts. A classic portrait focal length lens, the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2, is available for Sony E, Sony A, Canon EF, FUJIFILM G, and Nikon F mounts. Other lens options include the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedster 35mm f/0.95 Mark II lens, in black or silver, for Canon EF-M, FUJIFILM X, and Sony E, and, for Micro Four Thirds, the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedster 25mm f/0.95 offers a 50mm (35mm equivalent) field of view.

Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 Lens for Sony E-Mount

For those who want glass but are budget-minded, lens maker 7Artisans has rolled out some very inexpensive fast glass. The 7Artisans Photoelectric 35mm f/1.2 lens is available for Canon EF-M, FUJIFILM X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E mounts. For rangefinder shooters, the black or silver 7Artisans Photoelectric 50mm f/1.1 will attach to your Leica M-mount camera.

7Artisans Photoelectric 35mm f/1.2 Lens for FUJIFILM X-Mount

Fast Glass Need Not Break the Bank

To be clear, this article features only lenses with apertures of f/1.2 and wider. However, if you have clicked on some of the lenses above, you may have experienced some sticker shock—even with lenses made by lesser-known brands. Big glass usually equals big money. All is not lost, however. For fast glass on a budget, the f-stop you need to know is: f/1.8.

While not exotically fast, the difference between f/1.8 and f/1.4 is less than one stop, or exposure value of light. If you compare prices between, for example, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 lens, you will see the value placed on that extra light-gathering power, with little to no gain in sharpness, color rendition, or distortion control. In fact, there are even a few f/1.8 lenses that outperform their f/1.4 counterparts in some specific areas.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens

Also, if you are used to the variable f/3.5-f/5.6 aperture of a kit lens, the nearly two-stop gain of an f/1.8 lens might drastically expand your photographic adventures by allowing you to shoot in much dimmer light and/or significantly shorten your depth of field for portraits and still life photos. For more poetic waxing on the "Nifty Fifty," click here.

Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Lens

Did you think I would write about fast glass and not mention the Noctilux? Ha! When the term “fast glass” escapes one’s lips, the lens that comes to the forefront of the minds of most photographers is the legendary Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH lens; according to Leica, it is “the world’s fastest aspherical lens.” Many consider this gorgeous optic to be the world’s premier 50mm lens and no respectable discussion of “fast glass” will happen without a nod to the Noctilux.

Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. Lens

The Noctilux f/0.95 is the third 50mm in the Noctilux family, following the original Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 and the Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.0—both mythical lenses themselves. And, I should give a nod to the newest Noctilux, the Noctilux-M 75mm f/1.25 ASPH. even though it missed my f/1.2 cutoff.

The Legendary (and Mythological) Fast Glass

In the realm of fast glass, there have been some legendary lenses that are long since out of production. If you have some spare time between reading B&H blog articles and shopping the B&H SuperStore, you can have some fun researching the following lenses:

Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 was designed to capture images on the dark side of the moon during the Apollo missions. Film director Stanley Kubrick bought two.

Canon made the Canon 65mm f/0.75 for its manual focus FD mount; the EOS line briefly saw the Canon 50mm f/1.0; and the Canon 50mm f/0.95 was made for rangefinder cameras.

The Nikon 58mm Noct-NIKKOR f/1.2 commands premium prices on the second-hand market. Its aspherical element was designed specifically to reduce sagittal coma flare when shot wide open, and to reproduce points of light as points of light, instead of blobs.

Minolta shooters enjoyed the Minolta 58mm f/1.2 MC Rokkor and Minolta 50mm f/1.2 MD Rokkor-X.

And, don’t forget the legendary Carl Zeiss Super-Q-Gigantar 40mm f/0.33!

Keep an eye out for some of these fast lenses, with the exception of the Super-Q-Gigantar (it’s a myth), at the B&H Used Store.

From Our Readers

This article gets updated at least annually, and our readers have chimed in below to tell us about some fast glass that they like. Have fun looking for these lenses on the Interweb or at the B&H Used Store!

  • SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.2
  • SMC Pentax-K 50mm f/1.2
  • Carl Zeiss N-Mirotar 210mm f/0.03
  • Mt. Prospect 90mm f/1.0
  • Kowa 62mm f/0.75
  • Rodenstock TV-Heliogon 68mm f/1.0
  • Rodenstock XR-Heliogon 42mm f/0.75 (Focus: ~2cm)
  • Canon FL 50mm f/1.2
  • AstroBerlin 65mm 0.75 C Tachon Lens
  • X-FUJINON 50mm f/1.2 EBC DM (Also branded as a Porst lens)
  • Contax 85mm f/1.2 Planar T* Lens (50-year and 60-year Anniversary Models)
  • Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95 lens
  • Handevision IBELUX 40mm f/0.85
  • Contax Planar T 55mm F1.2 MM (100th Anniversary—only 1,000 units made.)
  • Konica M-Hexanon AR 57mm f/1.2 Lens

Did we miss any faster-than-f/1.4 glass past or present? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

Items discussed in article

91 Comments

SLR Magic 25mm .95 is one not on the list... 

Hi Mark,

You are correct, Sir. However, the SLR Magic lens comes up in my searches as a cine lens and I wanted to keep this article focused on photo lenses. There are a lot of cine lenses with larger than f/1.2 apertures for sure!

If they made a non-cine version, please let me know!

Thanks for reading!

Re: fast lenses.
There is also from Carl Zeiss the:
CONTAX Planar T 55mm F1.2 MM 100Anniversary, only 1000 units made.
There is one for sale on eBay right now:
eBay item number: 352875257214 .
Greetings,
Joe

Hi JOSEF! I shall add that to the list. Thank you!

And thanks, in advance, for buying it for me! :)

I recently came across the Kaxinda 25mm f/0.95 for various mirrorless APS-C mounts or smaller like the E-mount, M43, EF-M and X-mount. I was hoping anyone here who tried it could share their opinions on this lens. TIA

Thanks for sharing, Philip! I wonder if we will start to sell those lenses at B&H.

The number of inexpensive lenses coming from the Western Pacific these days is interesting—some are very very good.

No mention of the Kamlan 50mm f/1.1 for mirrorless cameras? It originally came out for E-mount but I believe they have them in M43, EF-M and maybe X-mount too.

No mention...we don't sell Kamlan at this time and I, honestly, didn't scour the web for stuff that we aren't currently selling. Sorry!

Perhaps I somehow missed it, but I'm curious as why I didn't see any of the Sigma f/1.4 Art lenses on your list.  These are superb lenses.

Because his cutoff was a max aperture of f/1.2 or faster. He made an exception for 1 lens, a f/1.25 lens, but that's it. f/1.4 is too slow to make this list. There was a small side article on budget fast glass (f/1.8) but f/1.4 glass is usually too expensive to make it into the budget section.

Thanks for having my back, Philip!

Hi Michael,

Philip is correct. f/1.4 didn't make the cut for this article even though the Art lenses are awesome. If I included f/1.4 and below, this article would be much, much longer!

Thanks for reading!

Back in the '70s, Konica made a Hexanon 57mm f/1.2 for their SLRs

Thanks, Asyouknow! I will add that one to the list!

I'm lucky enough to own the Minolta Rokkor 58/12 and Fuji 56/1.2  mentioned in the article. Both are wonderful lenses. With care, the Minolta can be adapted to the EF bayonet - its rear element will impede mirror movement if it's focused at infinity. It's also a heavy brute. Used up close, the Minolta can deliver a sharp 3D feel to images.

I recall three other fast lenses that I've owned or used. My favourite would be the OM-Zuiko 55/1.2 from the early 1970's. Wide open, this lens is never really sharp but the residual spherical and chromatic aberation can produce a very interesting glow. Its more modern cousin, the OM-Zuiko 50/1.2 from the mid 80's is smaller and considerably sharper - in a digital world it produces a reasonably crisp image to feed a processing engine.

My final offering is the Canon 50/0.95 Dream Lens that was designed for the Canon 7 (late 1960's). It's a rare bird which I've used sparingly - connected to an image intensifier of all things. A friend in HK modified his to suit a Leica M-mount so I assume it could be attached to other mirrorless cameras. The image quality is - well - dreamy.

Hey Bruce,

Great stuff! Thanks for sharing the information about those classic lenses. What kind of mount did that Canon have?

It may be time for an update to include the new Zenitar lenses - there's a 50mm f/1.2 for APS sensors and a 50mm f/.095 for mirrorless  

Hey Richard,

Unfortunately, we don't carry the Zenitar lenses at this time. I guess I could add them to the article, but let me sleep on it! I wonder if we will carry them some day. Thanks for the heads-up and thanks for reading!

The Canon 50mm 1.2 is slow compared to the earlier 1.0

And the people who talk badly about it, don't 'get' it.

Noted! Thanks, Jim!

What about Pentax A 50mm f1.2 ?

Hey T,

Yep, that one would qualify for the article, but it is no longer in production, unfortunately.

Based on what I just found the web, it looks like a great lens, albeit, with mixed reviews.

Thanks for bringing my attention to this Pentaxian legend!

There was a lens for the Contax RTS system that was produced in very limited numbers in the early/mid 1980s:

Carl Zeiss N-Mirotar 210mm f/0.03

Our Y/C sales rep brought a photo that was taken by law enforcement using this lens of a guy stealing a car. The car theif was smoking a cigarette and the glow from the cigarette illuminated his face enough that they were able to identity him. This made quite an impression on me at the time, but I could not afford to buy that lens, even with my employee discount...

Hey Mark,

That is insane! At first I thought you were talking about a fictional lens, but, there they are...on the Internet!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

If you are on a budget and have a decnet mirrorless camera with crop sensor (e.g.: M4/3, APSC), try using a focal reducer in combination with a sharp/fast legacy prime (e.g.: FD 50/1.4, Takumar SMC 50/1.4). Some of the newer chinese FR's are in the ~$90 range, while a very nice legacy lens can be acquired on eBay for well under $80.

With that minimal investment you can get a manual portrait lens with a FOV of 71mm (i.e. = 50mm x 2 x .71) and the light capturing intensity to the sensor equivalent to f1.0 (i.e. = 1.4 x .71).  A very FAST combination for the money IMO.

Thanks, Stoli89! 

I am afraid most of us are on a budget! Thanks for the pointers!

I'm a bit surprised that the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8 L USM lens didn't get mentioned in the "legendary" catagory.

Hey A.M.,

That is certainly a fast lens, and definitely rare air with that focal length, but for this article I chose to focus on lenses that were wider than f/1.4.

Thanks for reading and thanks for the mention of that Canon glass!

Pentax 50mm smc-a 1:1.2

Thanks, Douglas! I see we do not sell this lens. I assume it is out of production. Would you care to tell us what you know about it? Thanks for sharing and thanks for reading!

Have a look at this webpage by Matt Mueller (?): http://www.muellerworld.com/exhibits/fast_lens/

He has the following (mount adapted) very fast lenses:

  • Mt. Prospect 90mm f/1.0
  • Kowa 62mm f/0.75
  • Rodenstock TV-Heliogon 68mm f/1.0
  • Rodenstock XR-Heliogon 42mm f/0.75 (Focus: ~2cm)

I have no clue on current availability or their quality, but it's nice to know they're there...

Thanks for sharing the link, Peter! 

Mitakon Zhongyi is planning a SpeedMaster 135mm f/1.4:

Admittedly, not faster than f/1.4, but for a 135mm it is very fast! (and may affect other lens qualities...)

Mitakon Zhongyi has a SpeedMaster 85mm f/1.2 for Sony E, Canon EF and Nikon F mount: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=mitakon+zhongyi+85+f%2F1.2&N=0&...

Hey Peter! Thanks, again. I'll have this added to the article text. Thanks for keeping us straight! 

All this stuff and not a single mention of the very late model and fantastic SIGMA line?  Really?  perhaps you should see some of the items I have gotten from the new 20mm f1:1.4!

Hi Richard,

Yes, no mention of Sigma except for all the Sigma fans chiming in in the comments!

In this article, the featured lenses all have apertures wider than f/1.4, so I did not include any Sigma lenses as their maximum aperture is f/1.4. This article highlights the more exotic lenses that range from f/1.2 to f/0.85. Including the dozens of f/1.4 lenses on the market would have made the article too cumbersome.

Thanks for reading and plugging Sigma's 20mm!

Any for Sony a600

Hey Dieter,

Yes, several of the above-mentioned lenses are made for the Sony E mount. Also, your Sony will accept a lot of other mounts with specific adapters, allowing you to use nearly all (or all) of these lenses.

Thanks for reading!

I started with a Leitz Summilux f/1.4 in 1964 and design laser optics today so I have a love of the asphere and other techniques available today but... at these apertures the Canon image stabilization methods that make my own low-light-level photography possible do not work. I don't think that I will trade my stabilized lenses for fast glass anytime soon. I only get 1 in 10 with stabilization given subject motion but I get the trade-off of greater depth of field. You end up with a different aesthetic in the images using the two approaches. I'd like to see a discussion of the best available combination of fast glass and image stabilization techniques (detector dithering?) for modern low-light level photography.

Hey Stephen,

Thanks for your insightful comments.

I suppose fast glass, incredible image stabilization, and no-noise extreme high ISO sensors are the goal of a lot of cameras and photographers.

For the two latter goals, IS and high ISO, technology is constantly evolving and improving. IS systems are getting better and better and sensors are getting less and less noisy. In-camera IS is a boon to those who have it as every lens becomes stabilized by the system. I believe that we are not far from a digital future where noise is almost nonexistent at 6-digit ISO settings.

Having said that, fast glass will always be fast glass and shooters of extreme wide aperture lenses will get the benefits of that light-gathering power as well as the technological boost from lens or body-mounted IS systems and low noise sensors.

By the way, I had to look up "detector dithering" on the Interweb. Very cool stuff! Sometimes astro-tech trickles down to the photo world, and other times the information flow goes the other way. 

I don't know if this is kicking off the discussion in the direction you want it to go, but feel free to respond or encourage others to chime in! Thanks for reading!

back in the '80s when I was working in a camera store, an old Canon FL  50mm f1.,2 lens was traded in and I scoffed it up very quickly. That was an amazing piece of glass.

Hey Kevin!

Great investment! Thanks for sharing and thanks for reading!

You missed the Voigtländer/Cosina Nokton 50mm ƒ 1.1...

Oops, for the Leica M-Mount rangefinders...

...yep. Found it!  Thanks, Paul!

Argh!

Thanks, Paul! So much for my research skills! Get that lens here!

I appreciate you all covering my back! Thanks for reading!

Rick Booth asked the right question - where is the Sigma fast glass, specifically the Art series 50mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, the 24-35mm f/2 and the 20mm f'/1.4 - these lenses are not only fast, but incredibly sharp and well built. And while we're on sharpness, What about Zeiss? The Otus 28mm f/1.4 and the other lenses in that line? Big miss indeed.

Hey Bill,

Yes, right question. Same answer from me.

In this article I wanted to focus on lenses with apertures larger than f/1.4. Including all f/1.4 lenses would make for a super-long article with some more-common lenses. The Sigma and Zeiss lenses are certainly "fast glass" and terrific optics, but I chose to talk about f/1.2 and wider lenses.

Thanks for reading!

The Nikkor 200mm f/2 is also a great example. A beautiful looking lens too.

Hey Peter,

Yes, the NIKKOR 200mm definitely qualifies as fast glass and is awesome. For this article I wanted to focus on lenses with apertures greater than f/1.4, so the 200mm doesn't show up above, but thanks for mentioning it here!

Feel free to send me your extra copy!

Thanks for reading!

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