I know. You’re reading the headline and you’re thinking, of course there’s a need for fast lenses. Why wouldn’t we need them? The truth is we don’t need fast lenses. However, many photographers want them. Still, there’s a big difference between need and want.

I can already hear the clacking of keys from those who want to leave comments telling me I’m either A, stupid or B, crazy for even suggesting that we don’t need fast lenses. Hold on for one second though. Let’s take a look at fast lenses and how they have morphed from being a necessity to being a luxury in recent years.

In days gone by, you needed fast lenses

fast lenses
The Pentax Asahi Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 8 element on a modern Panasonic Lumix S5.

It wasn’t too long ago that film was the only format for photographers. In the early days of film, there weren’t many options when it came to film speeds. You had slow, slower and slower still. So, if you were a photojournalist, you needed fast lenses in case you were sent to shoot in dark locations. Without a fast lens, you’d be sunk as film can only be pushed so far.

So, fast lenses served a purpose. They were 100% needed to get the job done in low-light situations.

In the early part of the 20th century, fast lenses helped photographers overcome the limitations of the media they were using. It’s as simple as that. Fast lenses weren’t used to create a particular look or so that photographers could ooh and ahh over an extremely narrow depth of field. No, the lenses had one job, and they did it very well.

As we progressed through the 20th and 21st centuries, the roles that wide aperture lenses played began to change thanks to film with higher ISO ratings and easier-to-use flash technologies. Now, fast lenses are being re-imagined again in the digital age.

Fast lenses are status symbols

The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 is a beautiful lens, but it will make your wallet cry

I have nothing against fast lenses at all, so don’t take this post as a bashing one. I think that in the right hands, and when used in the right situations, lenses with incredibly wide apertures can be used to create beautiful images. Especially portraits.

The problem now is that creative snobs and influencers will tell you that unless you shoot with the latest f/0.95, f/1.0, f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens you’re not a pro. So, people go out and buy these lenses just to have them and not because they need them. I see so many photographers walking around with fast lenses shooting everything wide-open when there’s simply no need to.

When it comes to low-light shooting, modern cameras with in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and advanced sensors have become low-light monsters. IBIS can help you keep your ISO low and when you do need to crank the ISO, well I can tell you that there’s not a sensor on the market today that produces bad images at ISO 6400. Even APS-C and micro four-thirds sensors perform well.

I have tested cameras (Nikon Z 50 and the Pentax K-3 III; read our review here) that can produce clean images at ISO 12,800. So, we can say that the original need for fast lenses has disappeared.

It’s all about the bokeh

Today, fast lenses are mainly used for one thing. Bokeh. For the last few years, almost every single portrait posted to social sites has one eye in focus and everything else blurred out. It’s a little odd to me as I prefer to shoot my portraits starting at f/2.8-3.5 so that I can at least ensure critical focus on the eyes (yes, plural).

So, we could say that fast lenses are needed to create a particular style of image. Even then, every lens is capable of producing bokeh to some degree if you know how to place your subject relative to your lens and the background. So again, fast lenses aren’t really needed, they’re surely wanted, though.

Creative license

fast lenses
The Sony 50mm f/1.2 on the Sony a1.

Long gone are the days where you needed fast lenses to even get a usable image. Now, as we discussed above, we just want them to create a visual effect that only creatives give a darn about. I’ve never had a client come up to me and start a conversation about bokeh and bokeh balls. It just doesn’t happen. Creatives are the only people who pay attention to the area we don’t want others paying attention to. It’s absurd.

Fast lenses have stopped being a tool that’s needed for critical function and they have become one that’s used to be more creative, and that’s OK. Being creative is great. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to sell a body part to own a lens when a cheaper alternative can help you be just as creative.

Fast lenses = marketing hype

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Created with the ultra-affordable Pentax 28-105 f/3.5-5.6 at f/5 on the Pentax K-1 II. The variable aperture didn’t stop me from being creative.

Modern fast lenses, to me, are more of a marketing showpiece than anything else (Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct anyone?). I understand why companies keep pumping these lenses out though. Ooh, look what we can do! Our new f/1.0 prime will make sure that one eye is razor sharp! You NEED this! It makes for great marketing copy.

Personally, I’d rather spend thousands of dollars on multiple cheaper lenses than one lens that’s a one-trick pony. I trust my abilities and I trust modern cameras when it comes to low-light performance enough now that ultra-fast lenses simply aren’t needed. This is just my two cents, though. We’re all different and I respect that.

How do you feel about fast lenses? Do you think there needs to be so many of them on the market and are they worth the money? Let us know in the comment section below.