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I see that it is common to have professional grade lenses such as 24-70mm lenses made at f/2.8. After using a 50mm/1.8, I was wondering what would prevent a more versatile zoom lens to be made that operates at f/1.8 or even lower. I assume the prime lens can be made at f/1.2 even, because the optics are simpler at a fixed focal length. So, I'm wondering what prevents lens makers from making such a zoom lens at f/1.8 or lower. Is there a technical reason that degrades image quality (I understand the 50 is not at its sharpest at 1.8) or is it most likely a commercial decision?

EDIT: My question is different than this related question. I'm specifically asking as to why it appears in primes while it doesn't appear in zoom lenses, which the other answers do not address.

  • I'll be curious to hear what serious lens designers say to this. But from a high level, zoom lenses have only recently gotten decent. For a long time, they kind of sucked. Even today, good f/2.8 zooms are extremely expensive. So I bet a f/1.8 zoom could be made, but it would be prohibitively expensive. – theJollySin Jun 12 '15 at 19:06
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    Note that there is a Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 lens, but it's for APS-C cameras, and an Olympus 35-100 f/2.0 lens, but it's for 4/3. – DHall Jun 12 '15 at 19:41
  • I know it's a while later, but on the edit — it's still the same question even if the answers to the other aren't adequate. Better to update that one and get better answers. – mattdm Jan 6 '16 at 4:52
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It's most likely a commercial decision based upon cost and performance.

Let's take your prime at f/1.2 example.

Canon makes a number of 50mm lenses.

The EF 50mm f/1.8 II is about $100. It has 6 elements in 5 groups, 5 aperture blades and a plastic barrel. It takes a 52mm filter and weighs 130g.

Its replacement, the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is about $125. It has the same 6 elements in 5 groups the 50/1.8 II does, but 7 aperture blades, a metal barrel, and a step motor. It takes a 49mm filter and weighs 162g. (i.e., improvements aren't always about the optics).

The EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is about $350. It has 7 elements in 6 groups, 8 aperture blades, and a metal barrel. It takes a 58mm filter and weighs 290g.

The EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is about $1500. It has 8 elements in 6 groups, and 8 aperture blades. It takes a 72mm filter and weighs 590g. And people complain about its focus shift issue.

The (now discontinued) EF 50mm f/1.0L USM had an initial MSRP of $4000. It has 11 elements in 9 groups and 8 aperture blades. It takes a 72mm filter and weighs a whopping 985g. And everyone complained about its softness.

A larger maximum aperture implies several things in the design. A larger maximum aperture means a larger aperture opening, which in turn means larger glass elements, a larger barrel, and heavier-duty mechanisms to move these larger/heavier elements. Also, the wider the lens opens up, the more you have to deal with correction for chromatic aberration and the inherently softer the lens can get at wide open--which is, of course, where people are gonna use the sucker.

With a zoom lens, this just gets more complicated, bigger, and heavier, with more possible compromises in the design and at a much higher expense. At a certain point, it's just not feasible to try and sell the lens at the increased cost, and most manufacturers have fixed on f/2.8 as that point.

Only one brand goes faster (f/2), and that's Olympus. But they're designing for a smaller-than ASP-C four-thirds sensor, which means they can probably get away with smaller elements and simpler designs because they have a smaller image circle to project.

  • You pointed out several technical limitations, so then wouldn't the main reason be that. Why did you say it was a commercial decision? – Octopus Jun 12 '15 at 20:01
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    @Octopus because the technical reasons can be overcome for a price that nobody is going to pay. – null Jun 12 '15 at 20:07
  • Comprehensive answer. Thanks. Looking at how much money people drop on glass, this might be an interesting research problem to tackle ;) – dev_nut Jun 12 '15 at 22:23
  • Maybe consider moving this answer to the earlier duplicate? – mattdm Jan 6 '16 at 4:51
  • @mattdm Wouldn't make sense, moved there, as to why I'm going on and on about 50mm lenses, since there's no mention of a 50mm or f/1.2 lenses. :) – inkista Jan 6 '16 at 6:52

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