What lens to use for taking photos in low light

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Question: What lens do you recommend for low light situations?

lowlight-photography-tips-corner-stars_0943 copyHere’s a question I received recently on the PTC Facebook page: “What lens should I use for an indoor event that’s going to be in a dark room with not much light. And I prefer not to use a flash.”

MY QUICK ANSWER: For low light photography use a lens with the widest aperture you can get your hands on.

*If you’re looking for a quick lens options, scroll straight to the bottom of this post for links.

**Unfortunately, there’s no one “best low light lens” that will suit all your needs. But I hope what you read below will give you some guidance.

A LITTLE LONGER ANSWER:

First of all, the term “low light” is subjective. Everyone’s standard for “low light” varies so this is not an easy question to answer without any context.

You probably know by now that there’s not a “one size fits all” lens that can meet all your needs. Different tools are required for various scenarios.

The two main variables that I can think of in low light choosing a camera or lens for low light photography are, your subject, and budget.

What you’re going to photograph in low light makes a different in what lens you’re going choose. For example, photographing people at an indoor event is different from photographing a night sky.

Photographing people at an indoor event in a room with low light mean you probably need a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens depending on the size of the room. Also, you’d have to use a shutter speed fast enough that can freeze any movement. Needing a faster shutter speed means you’d either need to be able to set your camera on high ISO or be able to open your aperture wide(a small f-stop number), or both.

On the other hand, if you’re photographing a night sky, a wide angle lens will be sufficient. Unlike photographing people indoors at an event, you’d need to place your camera on a tripod or a steady surface while using slow shutter speed in order to bring in more light to the camera sensor though.

Budget is also factor in what lens you’re going to choose. Everyone’s budget is different. I can recommend a $100 50mm lens, a $1,500 24mm wide angle lens or a $2,000 telephoto lens.lowlight-photography-tips-corner-stars_0933

Here are some important questions to consider before photographing in low light conditions:

1. What am I going to photograph?
2. How dark is it going to be?
3. How well does my camera perform in high ISO?
4. Does my lens open up to a wide aperture such as  f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.0?
5. What is the FPS(Frames Per Second) on my camera

  1. As mentioned above, think about what you are going to photograph. The reader who asked the question needed to photograph an indoor event in a dark room. That means a wide aperture lens is needed, also the ability to increase the ISO to shoot at a faster shutter speed.
  2. Find out how dark it is going to be. Being prepared is important in photography. You may not want to use a flash but what if it’s going to be too dark and my equipment doesn’t allow me to comfortably photograph at all? What if your camera high ISO image qualities are poor but you have no choice but to shoot in high ISO, and your lens widest aperture is f/3.5, or f/4.0 or f/5.6? Slow shutter speed leads to motion blurred images and poor high ISO images leads to grainy, noisy images with poor colors.
  3. A camera body that performs well in high ISO is important for low light photography. The ability to use high ISO allows you to use a faster shutter in low light. I love the fact that many newer cameras on the market have excellent high ISO capabilities. When I entered the digital photography world 10 years ago I did not even consider photographing in ISO 6400 or higher on my Canon 20D. The noise level and image quality at ISO 1600 were poor. However, today with improved high ISO image qualities you can now photograph in low light situations that weren’t possible in the past. With my Canon 5D Mark III I’m able to photograph in ISO 3200 or 6400 during weddings in church buildings with low light or in dark reception halls.  Another question to consider about low light is camera’s ability to autofocus. I’ve heard from my Nikon photographer friends that Nikon focuses way better in lowlight than Canon cameras. I believe them. For the most part camera companies are doing an incredible job improving camera’s focus capabilities as they are improving the high ISO feature.iso12800 low light photography tipsAbove is an image taken at ISO 12800 on my Canon 5D Mark III, aperture f/1.4, shutter speed 1/40 sec with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. Notice the grains and noise level? They’re visible but not terrible. I took this in the evening in a dark room with the computer screen light as the only light source. It wasn’t even shining directly at the subject. Below is the same image with the Noise Reduction feature cranked up to level 100 in Lightroom.iso 12800 with noise reduction low light photography tips
  4. It’s also important to use a lens with a wide aperture in low light. Aperture f/3.5-f/5.6 is my main gripe I have with kit lenses. Although the quality of kit lenses have improved over the years, a lens with a variable f/3.5-f/5.6 aperture is a good way to crush any beginner’s spirit when they see blurry photos taken indoors with the pricey DSLR camera they just purchased. And Image Stabilization(IS) won’t help you that much when you’re handholding your camera and your shutter speed is too slow. Wide aperture means the lens is able to let in more light into the camera. Aperture value of f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.0, or f/2.8 are considered wide. Wide aperture lenses must be harder to make because they tend to be higher quality lenses that are more expensive. Have link to aperture.
  5. When I’m photographing people in low light, I shoot in burst mode taking two or three shots in a row. When you’re shooting an event you don’t have to time check every image on the back of the screen. Photographing in burst mode ensures that at least one photo out of the two or three you took is going to be sharp or sharper than the others. 

SUMMARY

In order to photograph in low light without a flash, you’ll need either 1, 2 or both:
1. A lens that has a wide aperture that has an f/stop of at least f/2.8, 2.0, 1.8, or f/1.2 if it’s in your budget

2. A camera that performs well in high ISO

3. The focal length of the lens is for you to decide. It will depend on your need, what you’re photographing.

Recommended Lenses for Low Light Photography

Here are lenses with wide apertures that I’d suggest:

Recommended DSLR Cameras for Low Light Photography

As for low light shooting techniques, I’ve written a post already, but here’s a quick summary of how to photograph people in low light:

  1. With the little light that you have find a way for to photograph the subject facing in the direction of the light source
  2. Do not use a slow shutter speed. The goal is to bring in as much light as possible without compromising camera shake caused by using shutter speed that’s too slow. Also when you use a slow shutter speed and the subject is moving, you won’t get a crisp image. Generally speaking, if you’re handholding a camera with a smaller lens like a 35mm lens or a 50mm lens, a shutter speed of anything below 1/60 is slow. At at a shutter speed any slight movement by you or the subject will cause a blurry image. The size, weight and focal length of the lens also matters because for a longer heavier lens like the 70-200mm it’s harder to be hold the camera steadily so you’d want a faster shutter speed to minimize shake.
  3. Shoot in burst mode. It’ll be helpful to know the Frames Per Second(FPS).

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