I don't know if Rodney Dangerfield was into photography, but if he was he must have used f/3.5 lenses, judging by the way he was always bugging his eyes out. Which would be understandable, because any half-baked photographer knows that f/3.5 is a raging vortex where photons go to die, leaving your eyes straining for the faintest trace of light. Not to mention the utter impossibility of achieving anything remotely resembling shallow depth of field with such an infinitesimal iris. No proper lens jockey would be caught dead with such a miserable excuse for a photographic tool. So if you have any remaining shred of photographic self-respect, let me save you the trouble now of reading any further ;-).
Whither Goest Thou, O Dim One?
What a difference seven decades dost maketh! From being cutting-edge in wide angles and telephotos in the early 1950's to an afterthought in our enlightened age, the lowly f/3.5 slogs along today in consumer zooms that are optically better than they have any right to be for all of their pitiful plastickiness. How has it managed to survive, and even thrive in a sales context, despite the widespread antipathy (from photographers in the know ;-)) towards its humble qualifications? In a word: affordability. F/3.5 hits about the perfect balance between cost, size, and sufficient performance for the so-called "average" photographer. But how much of a performance hit do you really take with f/3.5 versus, oh say...f/2.8, particularly when it comes to lenses from the mid-1970's when the 3.5 primes began to be displaced by 2.8s as the standard offerings from the manufacturers?
A Bit of Background (Not too blurry; this is f/3.5 after all)
The original 35mm still camera, the Leica A (1924), sported a 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens. From the 1930s onward, the Zeiss Tessar (and its imitators) became the dominant common lens on all sorts of cameras due to the blend of performance vs. price. Although the design was pushed to f/2.8 early on, the Tessar is happiest (you guessed it) at f/3.5. And that leads us to the first big advantage of this moderate maximum aperture: it requires less correction for aberrations than larger aperture lenses as it requires fewer and smaller elements. More light-gathering capability and more correction require larger (and more) elements thus increasing complexity, size, weight, and therefore, cost. Fewer elements also made a larger difference in the period from the 1930s to 1950s, when lens coatings were more primitive (or non-existent). Every air-to-glass surface (two for each lens element or cemented group) robs light and contrast, so using the least amount of elements (and/or groups) possible during that period was critical. So we find that wide angle (at that time, 35mm) and telephoto (90 - 135mm) lenses for 35mm cameras tended to bottom out at f/3.5 - f/4 for the best balance of cost vs. performance for enthusiasts and even professionals in that period. They were not budget optics by any means.
Fast forward to the 1953 and the introduction of the first 28mm retrofocus (reverse telephoto) wide angle lens by Angenieux. And the chosen aperture? Good ol' f/3.5 :-). They followed that up with a 24mm f/3.5 in 1957. The retrofocus design was essential to achieving proper wide angle lenses for SLRs due to the greater back focus length that the mirror box prescribed. And it was 28/3.5s that led the early Japanese wide angle charge: Nippon Kogaku (later Nikon) introduced their entrant in 1959, Asahi Optical (later Pentax) followed in 1962, Minolta in 1963, and Canon in 1966. Of these, the Nikkor would prove to be the most influential in subsequent wide angle development, particularly with regard to the arrangement of its rear elements. Optical principles discovered in its creation are still used in modern designs to this day. Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax would all offer a 28/3.5 into the mid-1980s, while Canon dropped theirs in 1975 with the introduction of their first 28/2.8. You could say that 1974-77 basically marked the turning point for wide angle 3.5s. They were either eliminated completely from lens lineups or moved to the lowest budget position, as f/2.8 became the standard prime aperture, with f/2s, f/1.8s, and f/1.4s becoming more widely available in the mid-to-upper echelons of lens hierarchies. Minolta didn't even offer an f/3.5 wide angle prime in North America post-1975.
When it came to longer lenses the story followed the same script, but just a bit faster. At the dawn of the SLR revolution (say 1957-1960) most of the medium telephotos (135s & 200s) topped out at f/3.5 (with most 200s settling around f/4, even less palatable to any self-respecting photog ;-)). With the exceptions of Minolta and Canon (who had a 135/2.8 or 2.5 available from 1960 onward), this held true until the mid-'60s with the 135s, after which the 3.5s had assumed the menial mantle of budget.
As far as the 180/200s went, the timeline fairly mirrored that of the wide angles. Nikon brought out their first 180/2.8 in 1970, Canon a 200/2.8 in 1975, Pentax their 200/2.5 in 1977, and Minolta (finally) their 200/2.8 in 1979. But these premium optics were still quite rare in enthusiast's bags. The moderate-aperture 200s still ruled the medium telephoto market. As a matter of fact, your average 200/4 cost as much as a 24/2.8 at that time. Rather than the fast 2.5-2.8s being the cause of the slide of the 200/3.5-4 to the basement, it was the convenience of similar-aperture zooms that spelled the end of the moderate prime telephoto.
Dost Thou Darest Defile Your Camera?
Okay, so obviously f/3.5 is not the be-all and end-all. Otherwise, everybody would still be using the same lenses we had 40 or 50 years ago. But let's try to take a semi-rational (I know that's a stretch ;-)) look at the situation by starting with the real and perceived drawbacks of moderate apertures.
Distance 0.3m 1.5m 5m 20m
Next up 135mm, at distances of 1.5m, 5m, 20m, and infinity:
Distance 1.5m 5m 20m 295m
Ooookaaay...so what does all of this add up to? Clearly, as subject distance increases, the disparity between large and moderate apertures becomes more apparent. But what does this translate to in the real world? Well first, let's think of what we commonly use these focal lengths for.
28mm is generally regarded nowadays as the bare minimum for a wide angle when we are talking the 35mm format. But it has increasingly become the standard perspective that the smartphone generation has become familiar with. So it has become a catchall focal length and thus gets used for everything from landscapes & street (traditional) to portraits (definitely a newer application, and one that requires some skill to manage the inherent distortion when used in that way). So the first thing to decide is whether you are going to be using such a lens for more traditional applications or in a more modern fashion. If portraits (or other shallow DOF or very low light situations) are going to be a big deal for you, f/3.5 is not going to cut it. However, if you are more of a landscape or hyperfocal street shooter, you will likely be living from f/5.6 and up, and that is where a 3.5 can shine. Let's just take a quick look at the 1.5m data for the 28mms. Comparing the f/2 and the f/3.5 we see that the acceptably sharp range on the 3.5 is about 10cm (4") more in front of the subject and about 19cm (8") further behind than the f/2. So all in all, 29cm (11.5") total more DOF. When compared to the f/2.8, that figure is cut in half (4cm in front and 10cm behind = 14cm overall). Is that enough of a difference to notice? For some people and applications, definitely. But in general shooting, most people would very likely never notice. Increase the subject distance much more than that, and no 28 is going to blur out your background into bokehlisciousness. There are better tools for that job, and focal length and subject distance are going to be far greater factors than 2/3 - 1 2/3 stops in aperture.
Let's move to the 135mm end of the scale now. Traditionally, 135mm was at the long end for portraits, being used in that 1.5m - 5m range, mostly. At 1.5m we are talking literally mere millimeters of difference between the f/2 and the f/3.5. Most DOF calculators simply round the overall DOF to 2cm (3/4") for all three apertures. Really. Even at 5m, f/3.5 expands the zone of acceptable sharpness 6cm (2 5/16") in front of and 7cm (2 3/4") behind the subject as opposed to f/2. In other words, less than 15cm (6") total. Again, how noticeable will that be to you? And there really are not that many 135/2s running around out there; f/2.8s were much more common as competitors to the lowly 3.5s. That cuts those figures in half. Splitting of hairs, no?
Dare to be Different
It's not that f/3.5 lenses will necessarily give you more than an f/2 or f/2.8 in any given situation, rather it's how much performance they give you outright for their smaller size, lesser weight, and much lower cost. Their simpler optical constructions often give them equal or even slightly better contrast than their wider-eyed siblings, particularly if quality multi coatings were used. The larger-aperture lenses (particularly the 35 - 70 year old optics we are talking about here) often need to be closed at least a half or a full stop to match the wide-open 3.5 as far as flare and contrast are concerned. And by the time you get to f/5.6 with either lens, there will be virtually no difference. And that brings us to the most important aspect of whether you should look at f/3.5 lenses. Do you really need more aperture in the first place? (Only you can answer that.)
For example: the Minolta MC/MD 28/2 (1975-85) is a gorgeous lens that regularly sells for $250 - $300 USD, and weighs from 265 (last version) to 340 (first version) grams. The corresponding 5-element 28/3.5 (1975-85) sells regularly for $60 - $75 (which is also about $20 USD less than the 7-element 28/2.8), and weighs 160 (2nd last version) to 220 (first version) grams. If you are primarily a daylight landscape shooter, for instance, does it make sense to spend 4 times the money and carry over 50% percent more weight to have a lens that you are going to be setting at f/5.6 to f/11 for 90% or more of the time? That's your call :-). Now, obviously, there are more things to consider than just the maximum aperture and weight of your lenses. The "look" that they give you is more important. But the objective of this little exercise is to emphasize that f/3.5 alone should not dismiss a lens from your consideration, especially if you do not need the extra light-gathering capability.
R...E...S...P...E...C...T - A Few Good Lenses
The following list traces the evolution of the Big 5's f/3.5 prime lenses. The amount of choices may seem overwhelming initially, but don't panic, it is a fairly simple process to pare them down based upon your personal priorities :-). My personal picks are highlighted in green. I should add that the same basic trends apply to the smaller manufacturers such as: Contax/Yashica, Chinon, Fuji, Konica, Topcon, as well as the aftermarket.
How to Choose??
So what are my reasons for choosing certain lenses over others in the above list? It comes down to my personal priorities (which may be far different from yours, and that's OK :-)). Please note that these factors are not independent of one another, they often converge and have to be considered in light of the others. These are listed in order of importance (for me) and are far from hard and fast, but you will notice some definite trends:
Let me give you a practical example of this decision-making process using the Minolta 28/3.5, of which there were 9 iterations.
What you want (Baby it's got it)
What you need (Do you know it's got it?)
Ain't gonna cost you much money...
All I'm askin' is for you is to give it a little respect (just a little bit)
Take care, TCB ;-)
Canon FD Lenses @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/
Minolta Manual Lenses Index @ http://minolta.eazypix.de/lenses/index.html
Minolta MC/MD 28mm Tests on 24 MP Digital @ http://artaphot.ch/minolta-sr/
Nikon Lenses @ http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz/nikon/lenses.html
Nikkor - The 1001 Nights #12 @ https://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/0012/
Olympus Zuiko Lenses @ http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/hardwares/
Pentax Lenses @ https://www.pentaxforums.com/lensreviews/
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.