I was looking idly at the (Tokina's name for its new line of big, heavy, ultra-high-performance DSLR lenses like everyone seems to be making now) and a strange thought occurred to me. I was musing about why these giant heavy primes ("prime" in its common meaning of a single-focal-length taking lens) seem to be suddenly fashionable—for fashion it must be—and the thought popped into my head—could it be that it's because they're as big and heavy as zooms?
Over many years in many different situations I've been impressed by the degree to which people become fond of what they're used to. I don't know anything about it formally, but I suspect it's an innate aspect of human nature—to help us to adapt to, and accept, the things we have to deal with, and to allow us to "grow into" accommodating with things, situations—even people. So the idea is that photographers have gotten used to big zooms and comfortable with them over many years of familiarity, such that a big prime with similar length and heft as a zoom will be more appealing at a subliminal level than the small, light primes I myself (and some of you) got accustomed to, and learned to prefer, in earlier days.
I hasten to add, lest commenters rake me over coals, that yes, I know that some people are, for legitimate purposes, looking for the ultimate image quality regardless of the size, weight, and cost of the lens. DPReview says "the [Opera] lens is specifically meant to be paired with high-resolution cameras like the Nikon D850 and Canon EOS 5DS R," a perfectly justifiable brief. This would seem to me to justify a few such lenses from maybe one company or two...but it seems like everyone's making such lenses lately, making it look more like something that's coming into style, or that's in vogue. You might or might not agree, I realize.
Carl Zeiss Contax 50mm ƒ/1.4 manual-focus 35mm format lens from the mid-'70s
The new Tokina Opera 50mm ƒ/1.4 FF, shipping at the end of this month
The new Tokina Opera is a 50mm ƒ/1.4, a spec that was once one of the most common lenses in most camera manufacturers' lineups (considered more deluxe and usually somewhat more expensive than the smaller and slower ƒ/1.7–ƒ/2 50mm's) and is still far from uncommon (although fewer people own and shoot with them now, unless I miss my guess). As it happens, the very first lens I ever bought myself was a lens of the same spec—the Carl Zeiss Planar T 50mm ƒ/1.4 for Contax, in Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount. So let's take a quick look at how the two FF lenses (Z for Zeiss and T for Tokina) compare:
Length: Z: 41mm, T: 107.5mm
Filter size (i.e., approx. diameter of objective [outermost] element): Z: 55mm, T: 72mm
Weight: Z: 290g, T: 950g
Focusing type: Z: manual, T: AF
Focusing method: Z: entire cell moves on helical, T: internal
Number of elements: Z: 7, T: 15
Aspherical? Z: no, T: yes
Number of low dispersion glass elements: Z: none, T: 3
Aperture blades: Z: 6, T: 9
Minimum focus: Z: 45cm, T: 40cm
Country of origin: Z: Early AE's were made in W. Germany, MM version from 1984 made in Japan, T: Viet Nam
More than three times the weight, well over twice as long, and with more than double the number of elements. That's...astonishing. Or would be if we weren't already used to it.
Now let's look at how the "plain spec" Tokina single-focal-length lens compares to a very good zoom, in this case the Canon 24–70mm ƒ2.8L II:
Length: T: 107.5mm, C: 113mm
Filter size (i.e., approx. diameter of objective [outermost] element): T: 72mm, C: 82mm
Weight: T: 950g, C: 805g
Focusing type: T: AF, C: AF
Focusing method: T: internal, C: internal
Number of elements: T: 15, C: 18
Aspherical? T: yes, C: yes
Number of low dispersion glass elements: T: 3, C: 3
Aperture blades: T: 9, C: 9
Minimum focus: T: 40cm, C: 38cm
Country of origin: T: Viet Nam, C: Japan
Really not all that far apart. And the big zoom is lighter. And of course, many zooms are smaller than the big Canon. (I'll add that the original  24–70mm ƒ/2.8L was the exact same weight and had only one more lens element than the Tokina Opera 50mm.)
What do you think? Any chance the new big 'n' heavy primes are appealing to people who are accustomed to the size and weight of zooms, who find them to feel more comfortable and more "right" because of that?
(Contax lens photo from KitSplit.com, "the Airbnb of cameras" [Forbes])
P.S. of the size of a Canon 6D with the Sigma ART 50mm ƒ/1.4 (the Tokina isn't on CameraSize yet) and my Fuji X-T1 with the similar FOV 35mm ƒ/2. My lens and camera has more D-o-F wide open, too! An added bonus. ;-)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Ned Bunnell: "Mike, I have a different take on why we’re now seeing big, heavy primes. It’s a new revenue opportunity for camera companies who have to find ways to offset their declining profits. Having worked at four different Japanese companies (and sat through many planning meetings) I can almost imagine the discussion...'Ned-san, all those camera nerds on DPReview only discuss wanting perfect optical performance. What if we make a new line of lenses that are big as an SUV which we know are very popular, offer the ultimate in image quality, and charge a lot for them. Do you think they'll sell?” My answer would be 問題ない (mondainai)...which loosely means 'no problem.' :-) "
[Ned is the former President of Pentax USA. —Ed.]
Andy Munro: "It's a good thought. I know I like small and light, but then again I'm familiar with small and light. Weight gives a perception of quality, hence justifying the price. You're buying by the pound. Or is it, make it bigger and heavier then people will know it's new. Small and light is so yesterday."
misha: "I don't understand the obsession with ƒ/1.4. It's 2/3 stop, and costs more than 0. The ƒ/1.8 is usually better all the way opened."
Mike replies: You want the real answer why we must have ƒ/1.4? It's because Super-XX, Kodak's high-speed film from 1940 to 1954, was only ASA [now ISO] 200.
...So you needed faster and faster lenses for low-light work. The lens-speed "arms race" in the '40s and '50s reached its "" at ƒ/1.4 (although many of the early ƒ/1.4's were slightly longer, e.g. 55mm and 58mm. The is an extremely elegant and optically very beautiful throwback). Although there were eventually faster lenses, triumphantly culminating in Leitz's covetable Noctilux in 1966, lenses faster than ƒ/1.4 tended to get larger and heavier (ahem!) and more expensive, and they had more easily visible aberrations at wide apertures. And then Tri-X came out with the dizzyingly high speed of ASA 400. As the '60s wore on, mindful of their wallets, our grandfathers and great-grandfathers in gearheadism gradually decided, collectively, that ƒ/1.4 was fast enough for most uses and that more lens speed (and cost) than that was overkill.
And that is why you need an ƒ/1.4 lens for your ISO-6400-capable Canon 5Ds DSLR and its even higher-speed brethren! 'S truth.
Mike Plews replies to Mike: "This thread sent me to the stacks to pull out my copy of the magnificent 1987 book of warbird photography, , with text by Walter Boyne and photography by Mark Meyer. The book is full of spectacular images of restored World War Two vintage aircraft in flight. They modified a B-25 Mitchell bomber so Meyer could shoot out the back unimpeded. The results are stunning and beautiful. He used a Leica R4 with 35mm, 90mm, and 180mm lenses. His stock was Kodachrome.
"Here is a quote from Meyer which may explain why I am gushing about his book in this context. 'The new 35mm ƒ/1.4 Summilux became a kind of time machine for me during the hectic days of shooting. With its added ability to gather light, I was able to shoot one-half hour earlier and one half-half hour later each day. This bonus of extra time allowed me to capture a very special kind of light and mood which can be seen through-out Classics.' And that dear TOP friends, is why you buy an ƒ/1.4 anything."
Mike J: Of course, that's with Kodachrome, which was ISO 25 or 64, most likely, and doesn't have 3200 or 6400 settings...but I'm sure you know that! And, thanks for the book suggestion. It's always fun to learn of books with exceptional photography that aren't specifically photography books.
Michael Perini: "I don't really think people 'seek out' weight in a lens because it makes them comfortable. But I think you could say that big zooms have conditioned us to accept bigger lenses. My own take is twofold. First, Mr. Bunnell is, I am sure, correct; it is something people will buy at a time when they are buying fewer cameras (because the one they own is sufficient)—it makes their old camera 'better' or more interesting; but second, as cameras get better, they show the deficiencies of older lenses and can make good use of more highly corrected lenses. Everyone has 20+ sharp MP, many much more, so upgrading lenses has a visible benefit. We see so many 50mm's because Canon and Nikon have not paid attention to those 50mm's (My favorite Canon 50mm is the plastic fantastic 50mm ƒ/2.5 compact macro. It is also interesting that both Canon and Nikon are coming out of the box with high-spec mirrorless 50mm's.
"It is a little ironic that just as some zooms got as good or better than primes, everyone is looking at primes. I have both versions of Canon's 24–70mm ƒ/2.8L; the old one was pretty good, the new one is astonishing. So really the only reason for me ever to buy another 50mm would be if it was super fast and highly corrected."
Mike replies: That old was one of the sharpest lenses I ever owned. Maybe too sharp. Plus it had a really pleasing character. I used mine on an EOS RT, a unique camera (with a strange story) that I also really liked.
Cliff: "I want pancakes. No syrup necessary. It was what got me to buy my first Pen camera and I still use and love on my stuck in a jacket pocket on a walk in the fall. (The body cap lens is another guilty pleasure.)"
Bear: "I have absolutely no use for large primes whatsoever. Their size and weight defeats my purposes in using primes altogether."
Dennis: "The big question in my mind is just how popular that high fashion will prove to be. Sure, everyone seems to be eager to make them. But how many people will buy them ? Will all the people who own a 24–70mm ƒ/2.8 or a 70–200mm ƒ/2.8 end up also owning one of these Otus-come-lately's ? Or will they hold a niche status ? Time will tell....
"Thom Hogan just posted that Nikon and Canon have yet to prove that the supposed benefits of their new lens mounts are meaningful to most people, suggesting that the flagship lenses (28–70mm ƒ/2 and a manual focus ƒ/.95 prime) might not make it into very many camera bags."
Ernest Zarate (partial comment): "Photography, in my mind, is a massive mansion, with many many rooms. Each is unique and within each room there are many variations. But, all these rooms fall under the same roof—still photography. It is, to my way of thinking, one of the most charming and indelible characteristics of the medium. Certainly, this variety is why I am both passionate and enamored with photography.
"I like big and heavy. Others like small and light. Some go to the middle. Some to the extremes. In the end, the only thing that matters is the end result: the photograph itself. Just like an author, no one who reads a book cares if it was written longhand, on a typewriter or using a word processor. The story is the essential part, not how it was written. Same with the photograph. The tools used are important to the creator of the image, but not to the viewer. As Mike often points out—Your Milage May Vary."
Hélcio J. Tagliolatto: "It would be interesting knowing how they compare today, image wise. In 1980, Modern Photography stated about the Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 that its performance was well above average, and the best 50mm to date."
B Grace: "It was dismissed by many as advertising hyperbole but Nikon's launch of the Z-series offering ultimate image quality points to where all of this is going. Some photographers are fascinated by medium format digital image quality at a quarter of the system price and then you add in edge to edge sharpness at wide-open apertures. If someone thirty years ago had said Brand X would sell a 35mm camera lens which could offer 6x6 or 6x7 system image quality a lot of folks would have been interested.
"I guess I'd like to see how that older Zeiss lens performs on a D850 because I know how many of the older Nikkors perform on my D600. They are a mixed lot from what I've seen with results I find pleasing and yet not very sharp at times even when stopped down. I've considered the Zeiss ZF lenses but the launch of the Otus and then Milvus lens lines leaves me curious about what it is I'd get with the older lenses. And then money factors in, of course.
"If ultimate image quality, presumably meaning corrected sharpness across as much of the image as possible at all apertures, was my goal I too would be looking at the new superzoom-sized primes. If I'm honest, I do find a combo of the Z6 and the two Z-primes very tempting."
Tim Smith: "I am a bit confused by the pervasive suggestion that light and small is somehow better. In my photography-forming years, I carried a leather mailman's bag stuffed with a view camera, film holders, light meter, focusing cloth, etc. over my shoulder and a Reese wooden surveyor's tripod in my free hand. After that, everything is smaller and lighter.
"If the new lenses were just bigger and heavier, then I might buy your theory. But (and I only own one 'new' example) they are indeed better, surprisingly so. And, as sensors improve, they deserve lenses that can match their new potential. Plus, with smart phone cameras improving into pervasiveness, one distinction between phone images and conventional cameras is narrow depth of field. Even with the new modes available on some phones, razor thin DOF is still the territory of conventional cameras and new, fast lenses."
Mike replies: Light and small isn't better for everyone. When asked what camera he used, Ansel Adams's standard answer was "the biggest one I can carry." My friend Kim Kirkpatrick, who taught at the Smithsonian for many years, used an enormous Bronica GS-1 6x7 rig like as a carry-around camera and disliked small cameras. It's all a matter of taste, purpose, and preference. There's no right and wrong.
Harry Teasley: "Camera companies have to make products that cannot be equaled by smartphones now. Older, smaller lenses from most manufacturers aren't good enough or small enough. With phones doing a great job of handling the 'ƒ/8 and be there' photo needs of the world, dedicated cameras need to do things phones can't, to justify themselves. So, super-sharp, super-fast lenses are the thing. And those need to be big."
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