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Wide aperture lenses can see more in the dark
Most lenses are designed to work under normal lighting conditions. In photographic terms, "normal" generally means outdoors. Normal lighting may work in overcast weather, shade of trees or buildings, or in brightly lit rooms with skylights and plenty windows, but the real world isn't always like that.
The inexpensive kit lenses used bundled with level SLRs have maximum apertures ranging from f/3.8 to f/5.6 and some point-and-shoots only have an f/6.3 maximum aperture! That won't be of much help in a dimly-lit room.
Just as with sports cars, computer processors, bullet trains, and Internet connections, being fast is great for camera lenses, too. It's much easier to take photographs in low light with an f/2 or f/2.8 than with an f/4.5 or f/5.6 lens mostly because it's easier to look through your camera at these larger aperture settings but also because you can shoot at a smaller than wide-open aperture and still maintain a crisp image.
The growing popularity of Live View functions on digital SLRs may make this last point moot but so far only Olympus has gotten it right, Nikon is really trying, and Canon needs to up its game. As long as some shooters prefer to look through the lenses, fast lenses will be in demand.
Let the light in: Canon's EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM offers the widest aperture of any lens in Canon's EF family and is a useful combination of focal length, depth-of-field control, and low light performance. If you want one, you'll pay for that lack of compromise thanks to its two grand price tag.
Zoom lenses for SLRs come in two varieties: fast or slow. Many slower zoom lenses have a floating maximum f/stop where that the maximum aperture changes within the zoom range of the lens. A 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens is a good example. At the widest focal length of 24mm the maximum aperture is the f/3.5. As the lens is zoomed toward the telephoto end, that maximum aperture shifts to f/5.6. Fortunately there are fast zoon lenses available but again expect to pay extra for the privilege of ownership.
Peak performer: The Zuiko Digital ED 14-35mm f/2 lens uses two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass elements to minimize chromatic aberration and contribute to its superb optical performance. At $2,299, the ED 14-35mm f/2 SWD features rugged, high-quality construction and is dust and drip-proof.
Joe Farace is co-author of "Better Digital Available Light Photography" along with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Barry Staver. It is published by Focal Press and is available in all the best bookstores.