Here’s Why Canon’s RF f/1.2 primes and Nikon’s Z f/1.8 Mirrorless Primes Are Both Smart Ideas
Two of Canon and Nikon’s biggest criticisms right now have to do with the choices they’ve made regarding their full-frame mirrorless lenses. Simply put, Canon’s RF L primes are very expensive and large, while Nikon’s Z primes are “just” f/1.8, and appear mediocre on paper at first glance.
Indeed, Nikon and Canon have gone in very opposite directions. Nikon already has a nearly complete lineup of “modest” f/1.8 Z-mount primes, from 24mm to 85mm, and Canon has put out two (well, three) f/1.2 RF-mount, L-series primes. (Plus one f/1.8 non-L prime, mind you.)
Those Canon L primes are well over $2,000, while all of the Nikon primes are well under $1,000. So, really, what the heck is going on here?
Unfortunately, not everybody seems to “get it” with either of these decisions, and a lot of people have asked, “where is the [f/1.4] love, CaNikon?”
I too wondered why this was the case, quite a few times during the last year. Then, I started getting my hands on all of these lenses, and actually trying them out in the field. What I found was very impressive, and telling…
(NOTE: To those of you who are already itching to comment, “why are you heaping praise on Canon and Nikon for these (controversial) lenses; don’t you ever say anything critical?” …to you, I say, yes, I do have criticisms aplenty, and my mile-long lists of dislikes about each camera brand will continue to appear in future articles. I’m also open to suggestions; leave a comment below if there is a “hot” topic or question you would like to hear our collective thoughts on!)
Nikon and Canon Are Both Playing To Their Strengths
First, let’s set the stage: what were the expectations for these newcomer full-frame mirrorless systems? Above all, they needed to stand out, plain and simple. They needed to be not just truly impressive, but also unique in a way that Sony (and the third-party FE options) had largely not yet achieved.
Because, let’s be honest- if any of the new lenses were even remotely mediocre in their actual performance, they’d be laughed at. So, goal number one was/is, whatever the focal length or aperture, it has to deliver jaw-dropping images.
Second, it would be wise to cater to existing customers. What would likely “wow” Nikon or Canon DSLR shooters the most? Basically, we find ourselves asking- what are Canon and Nikon best known for?
Canon, on the one hand, has always been known for its high-end L glass, including not just f/2.8 zooms and some f/1.4 primes, but their most exotic optics, the legendary f/1.2 L’s.
In fact, as the #1 market share leader for many years now, Canon’s marketing has historically been all about the illustrious status of their top-tier “L” optics.
Indeed, many serious Canon shooters don’t own a single lens that doesn’t have a red ring around it, and even a beginner who first picks up a Canon Rebel (or an EF-M mirrorless camera) has their eye on some L glass that they dream of owning someday. And, for the most part, this tactic has worked well for Canon.
Nikon, on the other hand, being the #2 market contender for many years, has made its systems all about a well-rounded lineup of lenses (and bodies), at all price points, not just at the highest-end.
Sure, their flagship f/2.8 zooms and f/1.4 primes are impressive workhorses, but it’s likely the more affordable and medium-priced options that first attract a new photographer in the first place.
For their F-mount DSLRs, for example, Nikon has made a half-dozen f/1.8 G primes in the last half-dozen years or so, and they’ve all been rather impressive. Canon, meanwhile, hasn’t launched an all-new f/1.8 (EF) optical formula since, (oh dear, this isn’t going to look good) …1995, according to Wikipedia. (Hint: it’s the 28mm f/1.8; their “new” 50mm f/1.8 STM is the same optical formula as their 1990 optic!)
This has left a gap in the mid-range for Nikon to fill, and fill it they did. While their f/1.8 G primes weren’t perfect or flagship-grade, they are still widely respected as venerable optics today.
In short, for Canon, the name of the game is prestige and sheer performance at the top level, even if only a minority of photographers will ever own such exotic lenses. For Nikon, it’s been about offering a well-rounded lineup that impresses customers of (almost) any budget, not just the most cash-heavy shoppers.
So, you guessed it- that’s exactly what they’re doing with their full-frame mirrorless lenses, at least for now.
Nikon Z Mirrorless Primes: f/1.8 Doesn’t Mean “Cheap Beginner Option” Anymore
Unfortunately, the first thing that most experienced photographers think when they hear “f/1.8” or “nifty fifty” is, probably, “cheap beginner optic”. For some reason, that stereotype about cheap 50mm primes has translated to most of the other f/1.8 primes out there, from 20mm to 85mm. Maybe not so much in the eyes of anyone who has owned a lens like the venerable Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G, but generally speaking, people don’t associate “flagship” and “f/1.8”, not between 24mm and 85mm at least.
Don’t Judge An Optic By Its F-Number
The truth is, Nikon’s Z/S mirrorless primes are far from mediocre, in every way. Firstly, they’re built extremely well, with weather sealing and (some) metal parts. They really handle like flagship lenses, and not a “kit” or aftermarket, consumer-grade option.
Secondly, they deliver the goods in terms of both sharpness and other optical measurements. The bokeh they achieve is unprecedented, largely (pun intended?) thanks to the enormous Z mount diameter that allows for much more glass compared to the previous, significantly smaller diameter DSLR F-mount.
True, they’re not all flawless; there’s still a faint bit of color fringing here and there, but honestly, that’s about it. (Plus, color fringing is one of the things you can remove relatively easily in post-production.)
All in all, the bottom line is that if you usually shoot at f/2 or f/2.8, the Z-mount S-series f/1.8 lenses will absolutely blow you away.
Could Nikon have done f/1.4 instead, or even f/1.2? Yes, but remember- these first lenses need to be as perfect as possible, otherwise they will get laughed at. (Also, if Nikon was listening at all to the chatter about full-frame mirrorless over the last 5+ years, then they heard people’s expectations of it being lighter and smaller!)
Thus, f/1.8 was a smart choice, if Nikon wanted to get the Z system into the camera bags of many photographers as possible, as quickly as possible. A “perfect” f/1.4 or f/1.2 S-line prime would have been much bigger, and a little too cost-prohibitive for too many (hobbyist or pro) Nikon shooters. Besides, Sony already has now-legendary 24mm and 85mm f/1.4 lenses, and a whole slew of other great (and some mediocre) f/1.4 and f/1.8 options. So, the competition is strong.
My advice? we should get rid of our prejudices against the number “1.8”, and give the Z/S primes a try. You can rent all of them, from 24mm to 85mm, from somewhere like LensRentals.com. I’m positive that you’ll be blown away. (I apologize in advance for making you want to sell all your F-mount lenses and go 100% Z!)
Canon RF Optics: L Glass On A Whole New Level
Just like how Nikon’s f/1.8 primes are on a whole new level in almost every way, Canon has said “hold my beer and watch this!” when it comes to their legendary L glass. The RF f/1.2 L primes (and their one f/2 zoom, to be sure) are absolutely incredible, with the wide-open sharpness plus gorgeous colors, contrast, and bokeh that L lenses are famous for.
Most serious Canon shooters have at least rented or borrowed one of the DSLR EF f/1.2 L primes once or twice. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L and EF Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L are widely renowned for offering gorgeous images, whether shot wide-open or stopped-down; their rendering of color, contrast, and bokeh is just beautiful.
However, neither of them could be considered “ridiculously sharp” (pardon my scientific terminology)… If you wanted truly decent resolution on an EF 1.2 L, you had to stop down to f/2.2 or f/2.8. If you wanted maximum sharpness, it was somewhere around f/3.5-5.6, according to some lab tests!
Now, the mirrorless RF primes achieve the impossible: absolutely gorgeous overall image quality, with clear, crisp colors and tones, buttery smooth bokeh, …AND “insane” sharpness even wide-open. Seriously, what these lenses achieve at f/1.2, I’ve never seen from a previous L lens any faster than f/4. (And again, the 28-70mm f/2 is sharper at f/2 than any 24-70mm f/2.8 I’ve ever seen at f/4-5.6!)
The “lab tests” are sort of confirming this already, although our most-trusted lab, LensRentals.com’s OLAF operated by Roger Cicala, does not yet have a mount that is able to accept RF or Z-mount optics, last I checked. Suffice it to say, they’re all very sharp, and not only that, but they also have impressively low aberrations such as color fringing anywhere in the image, or prominent coma “wings” in the extreme corners.
Canon: “Let Us Show You How It’s (Optically) Done”
The bottom line? If you’re a Canon portrait shooter, whether it’s weddings, families, or commercial/fashion, you’re going to love these RF L lenses, once you eventually save up to buy them! They’ve taken everything that Canon L glass has stood for to a whole new level.
Could Canon have made a few more modest f/1.4 or f/1.8 primes first instead? Sure, and I hope they do that very soon. It would be smart for Canon to hit the entry-level customers with many more competitive options than they ever have before. In a shrinking ILC market, existing customers are now almost less important than scooping up fresh, new customers before anyone else does!
Either way, the reality is that Canon had something to prove, and prove it they did: they’re still the bokeh/DOF champion.
Speaking of exotic lenses and the competition, let’s be honest: who else is going to make so many lenses like this? If you want an arsenal of multiple f/1.2 primes and what will likely be multiple f/2 zooms, where else can you turn? Canon is likely going to be “it” for quite a while.
Yes, Sigma is entering the f/1.2 prime realm, on Sony’s FE mount. But, speaking of Sony, remember that it’s their full-frame (E/FE) mount that is “just” 46.1mm in diameter, which is actually barely 2mm larger than the 2x-crop Micro Four Thirds mount, and even smaller than Canon’s crop-sensor EF-M mount, at 46.5mm. Canon (and Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless mounts are both relatively massive, with Canon RF at 54mm and Nikon Z at 55mm.
The Sony E-Mount Can Of Worms
Now, before you start leaving comments about my bringing up this mostly blown-out-of-proportion complaint, let’s be clear: Yes, Sony’s E-mount can accommodate f/1.2 primes. This is already obvious, thanks to Sigma and the handful of other (manual focus) lenses. There’s even an f/1.0 and an f/0.95 optic, if I’m not mistaken…
So, here’s where the difference will manifest itself: With Canon’s RF mount, you can cram more glass into the optic itself, and achieve two things- 1) Better resolution (and brighter transmission, fewer aberrations…) in the extreme corners, and, 2) Better overall super-smooth bokeh, again especially in the corners.
In other words, Sony users will have no problem getting sharp f/1.2 lenses in the central area of an image, but outside of that area, Canon’s RF L lenses will likely stay far ahead of the competition in every way.
So, honestly? If you never pixel-peep the corners of your images, and if you’re doing fine with f/1.8 and f/1.4 primes already, then don’t worry, and please, don’t argue, just go take pictures. Just try to avoid playing with either the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 L or the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 L, though, because the images can be extremely addictive.
Speaking Of Mount Diameters, Back To That Nikon Z-Mount…
Of course, when it comes to lens mount diameters, Nikon’s Z mount takes the cake at 54mm; that’s one millimeter wider than Canon’s RF mount. So, it will be very exciting to see what they accomplish with their f/1.2 Z/S lenses that are slated to begin shipping in 2020. We know a Z 50mm f/1.2 S is coming for sure, and there was either a rumor or a “fake rumor” about a 35mm f/1.2, too.
Having said that, it is still probable that the historic trend will continue- Nikon will offer a balanced range of value in lenses overall, mostly focusing on f/1.8 and f/1.4 primes and f/2.8 and f/4 zooms.
Canon, on the other hand, has a bigger decision to make: In the long run, do they continue offering mostly high-end optics with a few low-end and middle-end options thrown in, or will they start balancing out their lineup with an equal number of affordable options, now that they’ve made it clear that they’re still the champion of DOF and bokeh?
Your guess is as good as mine, but I do suspect that the key to Canon and Nikon both doing well will be to offer fully-fledged, well-rounded systems that attract all types of photographers, from brand-new beginners to high-end pros.
Conclusion | Spot-On Decision-Making, Canon & Nikon. Now, Keep Going!
In short, do we need to see some f/1.4 or f/1.2 primes for Nikon Z mirrorless, and should we expect to see more non-L f/1.4 or f/1.8 primes for Canon RF? Yes to both questions, absolutely.
However, from both a business tactics perspective, and in terms of what real-world photographers will actually appreciate and pay good money for, both Canon and Nikon’s lens-making decisions so far have been spot-on.
Nikon Z mirrorless users should get past their outdated prejudice against the f/1.8 label and see these Z primes for what they really offer, because the actual image quality plus the physical durability and reliability are absolutely flagship-grade in a prosumer package. In other words, there’s never been a better value in Nikkor history.
With things like in-body stabilization and increasingly acceptable ISO noise levels, these f/1.8’s are already far superior to most previous F-mount and competing f/1.8 optics, and more useful too.
Canon users, on the other hand, can expect their reputation for exotic lenses to be fully upheld, indeed, raised to a whole new level. And for those who simply prefer Canon’s interface and ergonomics, but can maybe only look forward to ever affording one or two L lenses, don’t worry! Rest assured, third-parties like Tamron, Sigma, Rokinon, and Tokina are actively working to develop lenses for these new mirrorless mounts, too!
Of course, if you completely disagree with me, let’s have a discussion! Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the lenses discussed in this article, or any of the predictions for Canon and Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless future.
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