Back in the 1990’s when I started working as a professional sports photographer I used to shoot motorsport and football and we shot on film.
The lenses I took to work were as follows;
16-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 300mm f/2.8
Film dictated the quality that we could work at. Generally, the moment you went above ISO400, the drop-off in quality was enormous. The grain of the film became large and the image lacked contrast. F/2.8 lenses allowed me to shoot at 1/500sec and freeze the action on ISO 200 or ISO 400 film during the day (depending on the amount of sunshine available). Night games were a different matter altogether. Floodlights may seem bright to your eyes, but when it comes to providing enough to expose the film it took a lot more. I remember shooting England Vs. France at Wembley on a freezing-cold February evening. The best exposure I could get was the required 1/500sec and to achieve this I used Fujifilm SuperG ISO 800 print film, pushed three stops during processing to ISO 3200. The image quality was awful. photographic prints looked more like newsprint, but it was the best we could do. Images also had a green hue from the colour of the floodlight. It was a laborious and also a very expensive way to work.
The problems didn’t disappear with the invention of the digital SLR. Early sensors were as bad as film at collecting light. If shooting portraits, weddings and press pictures with heaps of flash then the digital SLR was an amazing tool. It allowed speedy delivery of photographs to the client and the necessity to rush to a professional lab was becoming a rarity. This was amazing when there was enough light available, but after sunset it became a nightmare. We needed f/2.8 lenses to pull in as much light as possible and lower the ISO rating of the sensor as much as possible. Anything over ISO 400 resulted in noisy, wooly-looking pictures.
Big gains were made with crop-sensor cameras, but full-frame cameras – due to the high cost of the sensor – lacked the ability to suck in light, so using an f/2.8 lens was still advantageous.
I’d say this was true until about 2012, but it’s now five years further down the line things have moved-on now and the CMOS sensor in your camera can far out-perform anything 99 per cent of us photographers need it to, but there is still the obsession to attach a f/2.8 lens to the front. The Sony A7s series of cameras may only have 12megapixels, but boasts ISO up to ISO 1/2million (still very good results at ISO 102,400.
Camera manufacturers still obsess about f/2.8 lenses. For example, Sony, has just announced a 400mm f/2.8 lens for its E-mount mirrorless cameras. But why? It will be prohibitively expensive, cumbersome and incredibly heavy. There is little chance of being able to handhold that beast. I use Sony and love my f/4 zoom lenses. Why not expand on the f/4 range and dispel the myth that f/2.8 is the be all and end all of lens specification.
I moved-over to using Sony’s mirrorless system a few years ago. It’s smaller and lighter. It gives me no difference in image quality to a bigger SLR, so why would I want to pop a massive heavy lens on the front?
Let’s be honest, how often could you honestly tell the difference between a picture shot at f/2.8 and f/4. OK, there may be a few times the sweet spot can be found if shooting an outdoor portrait on a 70-200mm at f/2.8, but for the majority of wide-angle or super-telephoto (above 150mm), I doubt if the difference can be seen. I know I can rarely see a difference.
With a negligible difference in quality between sensors shooting at ISO 3200 (The maximum I could shoot at with film) and ISO 6400, is there really a necessity to shoot with an f/2.8 lens? Personally, I have taken the decision to change all my zooms to f/4. I now carry a smaller camera bag and it’ far kinder on my back. I don’t feel it has held me back in any way. The only f/2.8 lens I now have is a Sony 300mm A-mount lens. The only reason for this is because Sony does not have a 300mm f/4. It’s the lens I want most. Nikon makes one and it’s gorgeous.
Take a look at this line-up from Nikon. The 300mm f/2.8 on the right is far bigger and heavier than the 300mm f/4 (second left). I know which oe I would prefer to carry. It’s also a third of the price of a f/2.8. What’s not to like? By having an f/4 line-up in my lens arsenal, it means I can fly with my equipment as hand luggage and carry everything easily in a backpack if I am shooting a sport where I need to move around like professional cycling or skiing. Sadly, the perception is that everyone wants and needs to shoot with an f/2.8. It’s a perception I don’t understand. Maybe it is because I have worked as a photographer with both f/2.8 and f/4 lenses.
Fuelling The Clueless
I know a guy with a photographic studio. About ten years ago he told me he was. buying an f/2.8 lens so he could get professional results. Im not sure if he ever managed to turn his lights down low enough to shoot at f/2.8 or if he was just throwing the number around in conversation because it’s a “pro” thing to say. I’ve seen people in Internet forums asking if anyone has an f/2.8 lens they could borrow as they have managed to weasel a press pass for a gig. Somebody offered them a 50mm f/1.4 lens and an 85mm f/1.8 lens, but he point-blank refused as he was told he “had to have a 2.8.”
In the mid 1990’s I woke in a camera shop and at the time, Pentax used to sell a compact camera with a zoom up to 200mm. It was awful and I seem to remember the maximum aperture at 200mm was f/13. Useless in the majority of situations, but they flew off the shelves because customers thought that longer was better. Contrary to our advise that the majority of pictures with a compact camera are taken with a wide-angle lens,
All cars must do 200mph
Imagine if the same mentality went into driving cars. If you could only drive like a pro if your car had 500BHP and the car was capable of 200MPH. That goes for taxi drivers, bus drivers, Amazon delivery guys and keen leisure motorists. All of them are amateurs unless they turn-up in a Lamborghini. It’s ridiculous. People use the vehicle which suits the situation. Most people know they will never drive at 200MPH, so they don’t buy a car capable of it. Those who do have this attitude usually drive premium German cars and are idiots anyway. Let’s face it, the 2.8 lens cult is pretty much a genital-waving competition. It’s obvious just by looking at the guys who walk around a camera show with their white lens dangling from their shoulder.
So do the majority of photographers need a f/2.8 lens? No, is the simple answer. I wish camera manufacturers would realise this and start making lenses which compliment the system instead of trying to force the idea of f/2.8 down our throats. The best camera and lens combination is the one you have with you when you want to take a picture, so if you are leaving those cumbersome f/2.8 lenses at home because they aren’t convenient to carry, there is no point having the lenses at all.