#1173. Why I lost interest in superfast lenses

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Feb 18

It’s not snobbery, it’s not reverse-snobbery. It’s all about how I like to define depth in images.

Loosing interest would imply fast lenses were once close to the epicenter of my photographic experience. But, when searching the thousands of photographs I’ve posted on DS over the years, it was surprisingly difficult to find many made in the traditional shallow depth of field manner that characterises those lenses. So I made a new one specially using the delightful 120 Macro.


And, of the list of lenses that have come under my scrutiny for this blog comes to mind, it’s obivous a lot of my favourites weren’t that fast at all (Loxia 25, Loxia 85, Hasseblad X1D lenses, Summicron 50). So maybe I was never actually a true member of the bokeh-heads club after all?

But it’s also hard to deny the impact the Zeiss Otus 28, Otus 85 and Distagon 1.4/35 ZM had on me. And, while f/1.4 is seemingly the new f/4, those were indeed fully-blown fast lenses at the time of their release.

erie plant shadows against an orange wall

So what’s changed?

What is it that used to draw me to those wide aperture monsters that now leaves me cold?

Video … that’s my excuse, as explained further down.


When f/1.4 lenses weren’t an option, technically or financially, Photoshop was my source of bokeh. Perfect bokeh, since I would slap gaussian blur over gradually receeding parts of the image to augment the sense of 3D in my photographs, as above and below.

A view of Venice from San Giorgio maggiore wide open for very shallow depth of field
Minature Venice

The recipe still appeals to me, and now lenses are available to do the trick in camera (though rarely with blur as linear and gaussian as Photoshop can muster). Still, other influences have steered me away from those, in recent years. Mainly: cinematography, not that I do any.


2 roles of shallow depth of field

In my experience, a shallow depth of field can serve two purposes : isolate a subject (as in portrait photography, or as immediately above) and suggest depth.

To my eyes, the first can quite easily become quite gimmicky, sometimes even lazy and boring. And there are more interesting ways of suggesting depth. Which is where video (or, rather cinema) comes into play as well.


Close up photography can combine both effects. The depth of field, shallow by virtue of the magnification, both isolates the subject from a potentially noisy background and gradually melts away depth. With the right lens (clean linear bokeh) and the right hands (Philippe’s, for instance), it can lead to wonderful results that stimulate the imagination and create imaginary worlds.

But I also enjoy the opposite approach, one that has been mine for a long time and uses sharp details from front to back to juxtapose and create layers, as above. This is the way of cinema (although some scenes can also use shallow DoF, don’t get me wrong), which I would love to explore more in photography.

Cinema plunges you into a story. The image, however manipulated and toned, needs to create a lot of 3D to be believable. Cinematographers have the luxury of set design and lighting to do so, but this still requires *a lot* of talent.


Cinematographers use frames, depth of field, lighting of edges and other techniques to suggest planes and, therefore, depth.

It is a craft I would dearly like to master, but I’m still pretty much a white belt at it 😉 Still, it brings me pleasure to try and recognise scenes and opportunity in natural lighting, and give natural 3D a try.

And fast lenses would hinder this learning process 90% of the time. So … bye bye 🙂


Of course, gear quality plays a major role in this as well. In spite of the multiple layers in the Tokyo photo above, this image feels quite flat. 3D is largely absent, compared to the b&w chapel interior image below it.

I’d love to tell you I know exactly what makes for realistic 3D, in gear, and what doesn’t. But that would be a lie. Some lenses, such as the Zeiss Distagon 1/4.35 ZM are abyssal 3D monsters, while others look distinctly flatter. And some cameras produce more life-like photographs / videos than others, irrespective of price points.


But, really, I think the rules of the craft, such as using layered planes outlined by edge lighting, frames within frames, subtle loss of focus through depth, colour shifts in the distance, …, all play a greater role than the lenses and cameras used to capture them. See the last pic above, heavily cropped into a cheap phone image, for instance Lousy quality, yet good 3D.

Of course, it’s better still with better gear 😉


So fast lenses are out for me, while I try to train my eye to actual 3D. Once that’s done, then maybe the two can be mixed intelligently? 🙂


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Oh dear.

    Well – for one thing, if you’re really looking for “sharpness”, first you have to find your lens’s “sweet spot”. Commonly this is somewhere around F/8. Generally it’s more than F/11 and less than F/6.3.

    Then you have to decide how much DoF your photo needs. In portrait, that would be nice if it stretches from – say – the nose to the ears, at least. Any more is optional – and you need a reason for it. Does it help or do the opposite? You won’t really know the answer, till you print it. Happy days – think hard – don’t scratch too hard, though, or you’ll go bald.

    Actually I agree with the theme of your article Pascal. I don’t buy an F/2 to get a bigger aperture and lose all my depth of field – I bought my Otus’s because I worship Carl Zeiss optics. It’s a love affair I’ve had since I first replaced the second-hand Kodak BOX Brownie I was given at age 12, with a pre-war Zeiss Super Ikonta 120 roll film folding camera. I’ve been a Zeiss junkie ever since.

    Which is why I am merely dabbling with Nikon’s Z-range and sticking with my Nikon F-range gear. Play with one, work with the other. The Optus 55mm and D850 are king! But I’m still gearing up to do more crazy horse stuff like photographing the moon with my 2 metre focal length telescope, and more bees flying around my backyard with my Nikon Zfc and a Z 105 macro (rated at around 150mm, I believe, on that camera).

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aha, here’s a challenge for you Pete : make a portrait of beautiful Selene that’s sharp from the Sea of Serenity to the Sea of Crises, and blurry thereafter 😉 😉

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I meant to ask – do you have a drone, now? – did you attach the Hassy to it? – however else did you shoot those images in Venezia?
        And I also meant to compliment you on the first shot (who needs F/2 OR “sharp”? – so many photos are FAR more interesting with a mystical dream like appearance – that was what “got me” with that exhibition of photos of Lake Eyre, and I dreamed about those photos for weeks & weeks afterwards!). And the second-last photo: pure unadulterated Hasselblad! – no other cameras produce that kind of image!

        • pascaljappy says:

          No drone, Pete. This was made from the top of a church giving a commanding view over all of Venice. It was years ago with a camera from your stable. The lovely CCD based Nikon D80 and its “el cheapo” 28-200 kit zoom. Photoshop did most of the magic here, but the source file colour was gorgeous. I can honestly say no camera in my possession has ever matchd that cheap Nikon.

          Thanks for the kind words 🙂

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Mmm – that reminds me – when I was gazing at the range of stuff Nikon has been introducing, I paused for a bit – and asked the dumb question. Forget the pro’s, there’ll be range of cams for them, look at the D5 and the D6! But what’s their intention, in relation to replacing the D850? These new Z-range models are simply pouring out, where’s the D8 (or even a D8II), to replace the D850?

            And I thought the answer that got was rather peculiar. I was told it was because the number “8” is unlucky in Japan. Well in that case, why your D80? My D810? My D850?

            I suspect the real answer is “don’t be so impatient!”

  • peter Krusell says:

    I was delightfully stunned by your opening photograph, and highly impressed with others. I have been shying away from superfast lenses myself, for me, I believe the weight is part of the issue. I will need to carefully review your article repeatedly to extract all that you have presented. Thank you.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Peter! Good lenses with shallow depth of field can be delightful. I just feel they trap me in a certain style, and stop me from learning other ways of dealing with depth and photography.

  • Auke says:

    If you study the paintings of Titian, you’ll find that he uses many layers to create the illusion of depth. For example, in The death of Acteon from ca 1565 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_Actaeon) you’ll see a little bush in the foreground as first layer, then Diana, then the first hound, then Acteon, then the second hound, then bushes, then the river, the land behind the river, more trees, bushes, even more trees but now in the shadow, a man on a horse, the clouds on the background…
    I must have omitted some layers, but I think you can find 15-20 layers in this painting!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Auke. That’s a wonderful example! I hadn’t thought about classical painter, but you’re right. I love how sutble touches of light create all the layers you describe in the painting and that is something I would like to be able to recreate in natural light photography. It takes some patience but is very rewarding.

  • Pascal O. says:

    Dear Pascal, your post is so true.

    I would just like to add my two cents, as seen from a different angle ;-).

    Fast lenses also mean more bulk and weight than slower siblings.

    As I grow older, I am more sensitive to weight, and thus less willing to carry faster lenses
    Secondly, equipment improvements allow to compensate for slower lenses in low light conditions.
    One can also say that ultimate picture quality is not necessarily synonymous with bokeh. I am very happy with my light and nimble CV 35 APO which is “only” F2 when Voigtländer offers an F1,2, which is less my cup of tea for my type of photography.

    Nancee, as a for example, has given us some prime examples of brilliant pictures where ultimate bokeh or background separation was just not the issue.

    As to the pics, at the risk of repeating myself, always superb. Thank you.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you very much, Pascal 🙂 The way a lens draws is far more important to me than how fast it is. As you say, gear has made so much progress in low light that aperture is less of a consideration today. You are happy with your CV 35/2 and we are happy with the images you make with them 😉 All the best.

  • Jeffrey D. Mathias says:

    Actual 3D ??? have you tried stereo?

    Let’s see:
    diminishing size,
    contrast lower,
    saturation lower,
    detail or texture less,
    converging shapes or lines,
    darkness receding,
    cool color receding,
    all these can be totally in focus and indicate depth (3-D).

    Then there is blur:

    To me cinematography and photography are very much alike with their differences too, the most obvious being the number of frames exposed. Both can gain much from fast lenses when used appropriately. There are many cinematographers who enjoy using a fast lens and create great films with them. As well, I find nothing wrong with blur itself… it is how it is used.

    I recall one of your past photos, Pascal, out of focus person walking by in focus boats with motion blur from pan… a really nice image… and all blur.
    Also nice photos here… much nicer than the words. I do appreciate your preference for draw over fast, but large aperture does have a significant place, especially when drawing well.

    I got an Otus 28mm mainly for it’s image quality and lack of chromatic aberrations, but it can produce real beauty at any level of focus.
    For those who want a lighter lens with the greatest depth of field, consider using a pinhole. Sharpness alone is not the greatest of things.

    • pascaljappy says:

      ” I find nothing wrong with blur itself… it is how it is used.” You are quite right.

      And I should have explained this in the post, but didn’t want to make it too long : most of the visual distance cues you mention are good (and I plan to make a post about that to illustrate each of them) but the interesting thing is that most of them reinforce one another. But shallow depth of field doesn’t. It does its own thing and partly masks the others.

      It’s an interesting topic and I hope to write more about it soon.

      Thanks for the interesting comment, Jeffery.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Superb pictures and ever-interesting topic, Pascal!

    The b&w chapel interior image is my favourite… superb application of framing, lines, lighting, luminosity contrast… mirroring the mental contrast of nudity in a « sacred » place (well, after reading the explanation… having a cross or any religious sign on the image would be the final achievement)… modernity of the mannequins vs the ancient look of the piece of wood… all this with an « apparent simplicity », wow! To be honest, I see your texts as boosters to thinking deeper, but I keep some of your images forever as a « hope I can do that one day » 😀

    Cinematography is fascinating and inspiring for photographers… as you know I ventured into it 30 years ago, Ming Thein had very interesting ideas about it, you begin since a couple years too.
    But let’s not forget an essential point: 99% of photos taken outside happen in the « real world »… 99% of the films taken outside happen on… cleared locations!
    « Cinéma vérité », « run and g.. », and of course documentary being the exception; but then the main characters are the topic, not the beauty of the image; a few filmmakers have Salgado’s talent, but this is rare… maybe a few films on thousands.
    I keep re-visiting « Citizen Kane », of the famous F64 « school »… and coming back to traditional « selective focus » movies; most of these swap between scenes intended to connect us to the mood of the person (very often long lenses opened to max) and scenes intended to immerse us in the surroundings (large lenses, closed aperture).

    One reason « In the Mood of Love » is in my Top 10 list since its release is not only because I am madly in love with the story (I am 100% European but always felt close to Asia – ethnic transgender :D), but because, as I discovered later, it was a movie where Wong Kar-wai decided to film only in real places, no studio, and to « let the location inspire him »!
    No script written in advance, the story progresses by itself; he always had a strong nostalgia of « the Hong Kong of his childhood », in the 50s, so of course he selected locations suiting his dream.
    But it still took ages, burned everybody involved, broke his relation with Maggie Cheung… and became a world-class reference.
    Guess why 🙂

    Well, in photography we sometime try to achieve that « feeling », right?
    No wonder we don’t succeed often 😀
    The « famous » scene where the « couple » cross each other in the stairs make the stairs and the thermos flask as strongly perceived as the couple; but then, the *rythm* is fundamental… not applicable with a static image 🙁
    Hence triple kudos for those who achieve something approaching that feeling with photography!

    Sorry for the long digression, your fault (hem)… in fact, any « philosophical reflexion » in photography opens a wide world 🙂
    Let’s keep trying… after all, we have all our life before us… the journey is interesting, right?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly, the goal is to create the same feelings in real life than the big studios to in their locations. The limit of the exercise is that we can only use cine movies for inspiration, and not try to reproduce their techniques. But seeing the movies trains the eye to recognise the scenes in real life, I feel. Cheers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    GAS, dabbling, and what “they” think?

    Well – I’ve tried. Maybe it’s not true of ALL “super telephoto lenses”. I wouldn’t – couldn’t! – know, there’s no way on earth I could ever try them all.

    But here’s what I am currently thinking.

    No. 1 – my photography is “for fun” – for the pleasure I personally get out of it. I’ve published a book of photos a friend and I took – that was fun too, but I’ve no interest in doing it again. I’ve been vilified over one photo I took many long years ago, when I was tagging along behind some steam train addicts, and took a photo of one of their trains which I still actually like – but which they thought offended even the most basic “rules” for taking photos of a steam train. Most recently, I posted a photo which I thought was really just a snapshot, of the cafe across the road from my front door – and it’s now had nearly 180,000 hits, without even being on social media. In short – I’ve been around. I’ve experimented with all sorts of gear within my price range, and the fog is clearing. So let’s move forward.

    No. 2 – you’re offered an f/2.8 or an f/4 – same quality, just 2 stops the difference – you suffer from GAS, so you choose the f/2.8? Why – when it costs twice the price, and you’re never going to use it except in its sweet spot – around f/5.6 to f/8 – anyway? I bought the f/4, by the way – and got it even cheaper, because when I went to buy it I found the store was closing, after 106 years in the business! Just over a quarter of the retail price tag on the f/2.8. (They do the same job, by the way – except when you want a wider ap. than f/4)

    No. 3 – Pascal knows all about this – I’ve been experimenting with – amongst other things! – ultra telephoto in recent years. And I’ve never been able to get the kind of sharpness that I want. Now I’m discovering reviews of some of them, which point to the real reason why. These lenses aren’t designed to be sharp at infinity – and the ones I’ve tried certainly aren’t. No – they’re designed for pros, like sports photographers, who CERTAINLY aren’t looking to photograph someone streaking into the lead, on the horizon – or birders, looking to get a shot of a bird 200 metres away.

    No. 3 – so now I’ve moved to phase 2 – next up is trying to use a telescope instead. And shortly, I am moving my junk upstairs so I can assemble it all on the balcony and take a shot of the moon. So far, all I’ve done is a photo from a distance of 20 metres, and all I got was a leaf.

    No. 4 – and I’ve done something similar with my macro work – about to get back to photographing bees, on Nikon Z-mount gear, and an effective focal length of around 155mm, which I think should be pretty well perfect. My wife gave me the gear for my last Christmas present. Guys – that’s a wonderful loophole! – she cannot possibly complain what I spent when she was the one who bought it!

    • PaulB says:


      Infinity! What a concept! And a Nebulous one at that. Since everyone thinks they know what that means (to them).

      I have had similar experiences to your #3 Phase 1 using my M43 system. A 25mm M43 normal lens does not give the image I expected based on using 50mm (35mm format) normal lens. This led me to question “where does infinity begin?”

      Being an engineer, and a techno-camera junkie, I have come to a conclusion that seems reasonable, or at least helps me manage my expectations.

      Good luck using the telescopes and macro lenses. And have fun doing it.


  • Mer says:

    Another great article with images to back it up – or is that images with text to back them up? Either way, some interesting thoughts on offer.

    I have to go for strong agreement on this one. A recent process of some images led me to a lightbulb moment, when a mundane subject showed me why I was dissatisfied with many of my photographs. The suggestion of 3D, or rather, the lack of. A dive back into my older images confirmed my suspicions and switched on lightbulb number two – I do not naturally tend to take photos with visual depth, I tend to take a lot of images that are flat and will have to train myself to do better.

    So, much as you’ve done, out with 1.8 and in with 5.6 to 11. Early days, but hopefully I can better learn to find the subjects that will suggest depth with visual clues rather than bokeh. Honestly, I think you do much better with 3D than you’re giving yourself credit for.

    Like you said, those photos taken with the d80 have glorious colour. I didn’t realise I was hiding under an image-processing rock, but this is the first time I’ve heard about that gaussian blur trick, though I guess I’ve seen the results many times.

    Finally. Many thanks to anyone who’s posted an article here. I’m a frequent reader, infrequent(very) commenter, but I always enjoy your contributions.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Mer 🙂

      I think 3D helps realism, while flat images help abstraction. So a compressed image using a long lens can look like a collage, but most cine movies, which are my inspiration of the moment, use many tools to suggest layering and depth. And yes, shallow depth of field can be one of those tools, but rarely is 😉


  • PaulB says:


    It’s interesting that you are making such a radical turn in your lens selection choices. Temporarily I hope. Since your are responsible for me getting in the “fast lane” with the Zeiss 35mm f1.4 ZM Distagon (a.k.a. Audry).

    Your timing is also interesting, in that I have been evaluating my lens collection using a new high mega-pixel mirrorless camera, to see how they render and decide if I should keep them. So far I have traded 2 of my 6 50mm lenses (one f1.4 and one f1.2), and brought in a vintage f2.8 wide angle to try.

    My method is to shoot 3 images of what ever catches my eye; 1 defocused, 1 focused and wide open, and the third focused and stopped down three stops. My hope is to decide which lenses have a worthy rendering (character, or a “Look”) and which one are merely average and available for trade.

    Since a few of my lenses are 60+ years old and/or fast I think I have noticed a couple of things that seem to detract from having a pleasing image quality. One is poor coverage of the image plane (film/sensor) wide open and the other is high field curvature. Together these are traits that can restrict the shooting envelope where you get pleasing results, even with stopping down. What is your opinion on this idea?

    Good luck with your quest.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Paul, do not worry, I’m not giving up on those lenses. I’m only using them less often at full aperture. Audrey is really good at creating 3D at most apertures and I often loved using it at f/2.8.

      I don’t wholly understand why but often notice that higher-resolution cameras make some lenses look more “ugly” and even if you downres afterwards. My guess is that the glass overlays in sensors completely alter the way those lenses render compared to the zero millimeter of overlay in film. And my hunch is that the microlenses over each pixel may exacerbate this more when there are more, smaller pixels, each with its own microlens than with fewer larger pixels. Just a guess. But your methodology seems solid to test each one individually.


  • Bruno says:

    Hmmm, there is technically no reason to “loose” one’s fast lenses. Lenses, just as cameras, are tools. So if your practice evolves in one direction the tools have to follow for a better control of the parameters and the results, whatever your new direction is just use the right tools, that’s all. After decades of photography I find myself going in the opposite direction and drifting toward faster lenses as they open up more possibilities (available light, shallow depth of field) while giving all the advantages of slower lenses. They have also become far more accessible. I recently discovered 2 very affordable TTartisans lenses 35 mm f 1.4 and 85 mm f 1.25 that have opened up new doors for me. Again I do not think we can advocate for any specific rule or advice in terms of equipment except just use the one that feels right to you and provides you with the results you are looking for.
    On a separate note, I’d rather create “real” bokeh in camera and on the field than do that in Photoshop in front of a computer screen. But that is just me. I love photography because it allows me to be outdoors and creative. I can be creative indoors but the “rub” is that I am indoors, a place and stimulation that, for me, cannot compete with outdoors.

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