Travel Photo Tips: using a 50mm F1.4 lens to redefine low-light shooting

50mm f1.4

If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other when it comes to DSLRs, it’s usually one dealing with low-light shooting. Being able to effectively capture a scene in dimly lit situations (or at night altogether) is one of the toughest things to do in photography. Even if you have a flash, you have to be careful when firing it if you don’t want to simply blow everything out and ruin the “mood” and “feel” of a night shot. The most common problems with night images are this: too much blur, too dark of a shot overall or too much noise in the shot. How do you solve those issues? It obviously depends on the camera and accessories you’re using, but one surefire way to make your existing DSLR entirely more capable at night is the purchase of one single lens. The 50mm F1.4 is as close to a magic bullet as there is in the photography world, and if you travel, you can bet you’ll end up wanting to take photographs after sunset.

The 50mm F1.4 has a lot of things going for it. For one, it’s available for nearly every DSLR out there. You can find dedicated versions (either first-party such as Nikkor or third-party like Sigma) for Nikon, Canon, Sony and Olympus DSLRs, with plenty of aftermarket solutions out there for even more brands. Secondly, it’s incredibly small. My D3S camera body dwarfs the 50mm F1.4, and when I’m trying to conceal my camera and get it into concert venues and the like, having a “stub-nose” lens like this makes it much easier to get through. Thirdly, it’s relatively cheap by FX (or full-frame) standards. And finally, the shots you can get from this lens are truly amazing, and they can enable you to capture memories of a trip that you’d otherwise never be able to. Read on for a few examples and suggestions on how to best make use of this low-light masterpiece.

%Gallery-116211%First, you’ll need to understand a little about why this lens is so cut out for taking low-light shots. The trick is its aperture. For a refresher on how aperture affects your photographs, have a look at a prior article here. This lens can “step down” to f/1.4, which is a fancy way of saying that it can allow a flood of light in compared to most lenses, which can only step down to f/3.5 or so. When you’re shooting with limited surrounding light, having the ability to let your lens pull more light in from practically nowhere is vital.

50mm f1.4

This allows your shots to be brighter, your shutter speed to be faster (which lessens the chance of unwanted blur) and your trips to be more memorable. The 50mm aspect is also important; this is not a zoom lens. It cannot be zoomed at all. If you aren’t familiar with “prime” lenses this will probably be strange to hear, but you literally have to walk forward and back while holding the camera to get closer / farther from your subject. 50mm, however, is a solid distance that’s useful in the vast majority of circumstances, and since there’s no zoom to worry over, the lens is the easiest in my collection to travel with.

50mm f1.4

Using the 50mm F1.4 at night is pretty simple. Regardless of what DSLR body you have, I’d recommend setting the aperture down to f/1.4 (using Aperture Priority or Manual Mode) and firing a few test shots. Compare that to shots with the aperture set at f/3.5 or higher, and you’ll notice an immediate impact. The flood of light that is allowed in by the F1.4 lens is really incredible, and in many cases, it allows a shot to be taken that would never be possible otherwise. Of course, all of this is assuming that you’re trying to avoid using a flash in order to retain the mood of your scene; lowering the aperture all the way to f/1.4 is simply an alternative to using a flash, and it’s one that natural light lovers greatly prefer. The gallery below gives you an idea of why — retaining the low-light vibe while still letting in enough light to capture a bright, sharp and blur-free image is reason enough to consider one of these lenses for your collection.

50mm f1.4

Owning this lens most definitely isn’t the only way to take low-light shots. You could use a flash, purchase a new body with a higher ISO range (something like the Nikon D3S) or move your shot into a place with more external light. But if you’re unable to move your shot (the Grand Canyon is a little hard to relocate, especially after sunset), you aren’t willing to spend thousands on a new DSLR body and you aren’t fond of how a flash distorts the vibe of a night shot, there’s hardly a better and more affordable alternative than the 50mm F1.4. For Canon owners in particular, there’s a 50mm F1.2 that allows even more light in, but of course it’s over four times more expensive; the 50mm F1.4 for Canon bodies is around $350 on the open market, whereas the F1.2 version is over $1,600. It’s hard to justify that increase.

50mm f1.4

I should also mention that while the average 50mm F1.4 lens will cost around $350 – $400 regardless of what brand or body you’re buying for, there’s a bargain alternative even to that. Many companies also make a 50mm F1.8 lens, which allows nearly as much light in, but not quite as much. The good news is these are usually around half as expensive as the F1.4 variety, but in my experience, it’s definitely worth saving up and getting the F1.4. It’s a lens that’ll never leave your collection, and will likely follow you around for as long as you’re into DSLR photography. $350 or so is a low price to pay for the ability to take blur-free images in dimly-lit restaurants, at outdoor sporting events and in concert venues, not to mention millions of other after-dark opportunities.

Curious to learn more about travel photography? See our prior articles here!

Shopping for a new 50mm F1.4 lens? Check here:

Travel Photo Tips: What is aperture, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is aperture

You’ve schooled yourself on ISO, and you’re starting to get a handle on shutter speed. Next stop? Aperture. This particular setting is exceedingly important when trying to wrap your head around the basics of manually controlling a camera, but it’s also one of the more confusing. For starters, not every camera and lens can achieve the same f/stops (in case you couldn’t guess, aperture levels are measured as f/[number]), and similar to shutter speed, changing the f/stop does more than just one thing.

Tweaking the aperture can change the outcome of your photo in a drastic way. But before you go cranking that number beside the “f” on your camera screen, let’s break down the basics on what aperture is, what it affects and why you should care. Read on for a few pointers that every shooter should know.Have you ever noticed those black blades within your lenses? In optics, an aperture is simply the hole through which light travels. As you can imagine, changing the size of that hole can make a huge difference in the look and feel of your photographs. There’s an exhaustive definition of the topic over at Wikipedia if you’re interested, but we’re assuming you stopped here because you’re just looking for the long and short of it. Here are a few general rules to understanding aperture:

  • The lower the f/stop, the more light is allowed in.
  • Exceptionally low f/stops (f/1.2 through f/2, for example) are only found on a handful of lenses, primarily professional DSLR lenses.
  • Most point-and-shoot cameras only stop as low as f/3.5 (at best), limiting the amount of light you can fetch when shooting in dimly lit scenarios.
  • You’ll pay dearly for exceptionally low f/stops. A Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 can be found for ~$100; the same lens with an f/1.4 rating (just one step lower) is three times more expensive at ~$300.
  • Lower f/stops narrow your depth of field; a shot at f/2 will have a very tight focal point, with a tremendously blurred background, whereas a shot at f/14 (as an example) will focus on the foreground and background with essentially no ‘bokeh‘ to speak of.

Now that you’ve got a grip on that, we’re going to break down the most common uses of aperture when it comes time to compose a shot.

  • A lowered f/stop can be artisically chosen if you want to focus in tight on a foreground subject while introducing a silky, beautiful blur (that’s the ‘bokeh’ we mentioned above) around the subject. This is great for focusing on a person with a less-than-exciting backdrop.
  • A higher f/stop is useful for capturing vast groups, where you want the persons on the edges to be just as sharp and in-focus as the person in the center of the image.
  • A lower f/stop is very useful for letting more light enter an image during dimly lit or dark situations; this prevents you from having to boost your ISO (and thus, inject noise and grain) or dramatically slow your shutter speed (and thus, potentially introduce unwanted blur from hand-shake).

Let’s look at an example of how lowering your f/stop can be beneficial at night and in situations where you want oodles of bokeh surrounding the subject. The image below shows an identical shot at f/1.4 and at f/8, both taken in a dimly lit room with very little ambient light around. Lowering the f/stop allows a tremendous amount of light to flood in, in turn giving us a useful image without resorting to firing a flash. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop when you’re in dimly lit areas — your images will thank you!

what is aperture
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Now, let’s look at an example of injecting bokeh into a shot. These two pictures were taken with a f/1.4 (left) and f/16 (right) aperture. You’ll notice the shot on the left has a soft, silky, progressive blur surrounding the focal point. This highlights the subject and simultaneously hides the ho hum background. The f/16 shot has most of the background in focus, effectively destroying your ability to focus only on the foreground subject and disregard the lackluster backdrop. On the flipside, your backdrop is in focus, so if that is your goal for a shot, now you know how to accomplish it. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop if you want to introduce bokeh, bring out the foreground subject and blur the background; raising the f/stop will help you to focus on a larger image, such as capturing an entire soccer team.

what is aperture
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Our suggestion now is to give it a try! If you have a camera where you can adjust the aperture manually, try placing your camera in Aperture Priority (the “A” mode on the dial) and stopping it completely down as low as it’ll go. This will vary based on the lens, but toggle the f/stop and lower it to the smallest number allowed by whatever lens you are using. Focus close on a foreground object, and snap the shot. Check out that bokeh! If you’re having a hard time getting the bokeh effect, try holding an object out in your hand and focusing; that’s an easy way to get the background to blur nicely. Now, try that same shot with an aperture of f/8 or greater in order to see how wide your focal range becomes.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of aperture to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in aperture for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, using the aperture to help you focus on your kids while blurring crowds behind them, ensure that your entire background is in focus in self-portraits, and more. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous articles on ISO and shutter speed, you’ll be three steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • The lower you set your f/stop, the more light you’ll have access to. This allows you to rely less on a boosted ISO and a sluggish shutter speed to still get a usable image in low-light situations.
  • If you need to focus on a large group of people, or you want the ocean behind you to be sharp, use a higher f/stop.
  • If you want to introduce artistic blur (or ‘bokeh‘) into your images, use a lower f/stop.

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO and shutter speed can be seen here.

Through the Gadling Lens: apertures and shutters and ISOs, oh my!

So, so far, we’ve discussed two things: how to pick a camera and what kind of lenses you might want to take with you on your trip. Today, I thought we’d talk about the exciting world of apertures, and shutter speeds and ISO.

Wait, where are you going?

Okay, I know that for a majority of you, you couldn’t care less about these sorts of things — you’d rather just pick up your camera, set it on automatic, and go. And I promise, going forward, we’re going to talk about less dry subjects, like shooting techniques and using Photoshop and the like. But the truth is, understanding ISOs and apertures and shutter speeds can help give you a lot of power over your resulting shots. So trust me on this: it’ll be worth it, even though the sketches that follow are a travesty to art.
So, basically, your camera, regardless of brand, whether it’s a point-and-shoot or SLR, or how simple or complicated it is, works like this: light comes into your lens, and passes through an aperture, then through a shutter before it finally hits the film (or digital sensor and storage media), and then it magically turns into a photograph. Obviously, there’s a lot more physics to it than that, but dude, I’m not a physics major, and believing that it’s “magic” is a lot more interesting, so go with me on this.

Graphically speaking, and viewing your camera from the side, it looks somewhat like this:

Now, I could try to draw exactly what each of those items actually looks like, but as you’ve probably guessed by now, sketching isn’t my strong suit. Nonetheless, it turns out that you really don’t need to know what they look like, but it’s sort of important to understand what they do. And to help illustrate what they do, take a look at this image:

I know this looks kind of crazy, but stay with me:

Your aperture acts sort of like a curtain: it decides how much light in total you want going into your camera.

Your shutter acts like a door that quickly opens and shuts, limiting the amount of actual light that gets to the film/digital sensor, regardless of the total amount the aperture actually let into the camera in the first place. Think of it this way: remember, back in the day when you had a film camera, the biggest catastrophe that could occur on your vacation was that the back of your camera would open up, and all that light would get in and ruin the film, rendering all those great images of you doing tequila shots in Tijuana completely useless? That’s because too much light overexposes the image. The shutter opens and shuts really quickly, so that only the right amount of light gets in, and the image is correctly exposed.

And finally, the film (or digital sensor/memory card) captures the remaining light and uses magic to turn it into a photograph.

Now, the very cool thing about your camera (and what you may not have realized if you’ve just been shooting on automatic this entire time) is that in many cases, it allows you to control each of the aperture, shutter speed, and film/digital sensor capacity. It’s almost like there are tiny little people living in your camera, just waiting for your command:

At the risk of your believing that I’ve finally lost it, I’ll press on.

APERTURE

As I mentioned above, the aperture helps control how much total light goes into the camera. Now, if you’ve ever heard the term “f-stop” or seen weird numbers like “f/1.4” or “f/16” on your camera or next to an image online, those terms are referring to how open or closed the aperture (or in our case, the “curtain”) is, and therefore how much light is going into the camera. There are, of course, mathematical reasons for the number designations, but really, knowing that isn’t necessary. Here’s the only thing you need to remember:

If the aperture number (f-stop number) is large, then when you take a picture, you’ll have more detail in the background of your image (i.e., your background will be more detailed, a “large depth of field“).

If the aperture number (f-stop number) is small, then when you take a picture, you’ll have less detail in the depth of your image (i.e., your background will be less detailed, a “small depth of field“).

Some practical examples might help.

Say you’re taking a vacation in the American heartland, for the express purpose of capturing an image of those “amber waves of grain.” Or, perhaps instead, you’re in Houston, in my overgrown front garden. Here are a couple of images that you might get, when playing with the aperture on your camera:

I shot the image above at f/16, which is sort of a large aperture number. Notice how you can make out the detail of each of the little slats in the black shutters in the background, and the foliage in front is just a jumble of branches. Everything, pretty much, is in focus, or you would say that this image has a “large depth of field.”

Now contrast the above with the following image:

This image was shot at f/4.2, which is, in comparison to the above, a small aperture number — the lens is the same, I’m standing in the same spot, and I took the image at the same time of day. In this image, you can no longer really make out the detail of the black shutters, and in fact, the only thing in focus is the branch at the very front. Everything else is out of focus, and therefore this image has a “small depth of field.”

Does this sort of make sense? Therefore and ergo, going back to your vacation in the American heartland, back to those amber fields of grain, before you take the photograph, you can think to yourself, “Self, do I want to show how vast the amount of grain is in this field, and therefore use a high aperture setting, so that all of the grain is in focus? Or, Self, would I rather just focus on this one golden reed of grain, and blur all the others in the background, so I should use a small aperture setting?” Then you’d set your aperture, you’d aim, and you’d shoot. No Photoshop required.

SHUTTER

Remember, this is the part of the camera that acts like a door, opening and closing quickly, to moderate the amount of light that actually gets to the film/digi
tal sensor at the back of the camera
, and thus creating the best exposure. I will be honest with you — I rarely, if ever, try to control the shutter speed of my camera. I’m far more likely to mess with my aperture settings (the “curtain guy”) to control my depth of field (how blurry I want my background to be, described above), or my ISO setting (the “light catchers,” which will be discussed below), and let the camera figure out which shutter speed would be most appropriate. That said, there’s one application where you might want to play with your shutter speed setting, and that’s to control movement.

Here’s what I mean: you’ll find shutter controls described in seconds, or fractions of a second, otherwise known as “exposure time.” With a long exposure time, the shutter will be open longer, and movement will look more blurry. With a shorter exposure time, the shutter will be open for a shorter time, and movement will look frozen in time.

For example, this shot …

… was taken at a shutter speed of 1/160th of a second — notice how the water looks like it’s rushing over the rocks. There’s movement, it conveys what it felt and sounded like to be there on that beach in Cozumel, Mexico.

But in this picture …

… the shutter speed was at 1/250th of a second — much faster, making the water coming out of my backyard hose look frozen, and therefore more refreshing on a hot summer day.

ISO

Remember back in the day when you were buying film, the box of film would have numbers on it like “100” or “400” or “1000”? That was the film’s ISO number. ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization ” (I know that mixes up the initials, but I didn’t come up with acronym, so don’t blame me), and basically the ISO number has to do with the sensitivity of the film to light. Nowadays, with digital cameras, there are still ISO settings, and understanding how they work can help improve your images. To help me remember what the numbers mean, I like to think as the ISO number as the “number of light catchers” the camera needs to use:

In other words, remember this:

The lower the ISO number, the fewer light catchers you’ll be using to catch the light. Low ISOs work better in bright sunlight — no flash necessary.

The higher the ISO number, the more light catchers you’ll be using the catch the light. High ISOs work in overcast or low light — and again, no flash will be necessary.

For example — see that photograph of my garden hose, above? That was taking at an ISO setting of 200 — because it was taken in the middle of a hot summer day, there was TONS of available light. So I knew I only needed 200 light catchers to catch the light when the shutter (“door”) was open to let the light in. Contrast this with the following shot I took of my husband this past weekend:

This was taken just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. The light was low, so I knew I needed to employ as many light catchers as I could to grab any and all available light: this was shot at an ISO setting of 3200.

And finally, compare the above shot with this one:

This shot was taking at the same time, but this time the setting was at ISO 500. See how completely blurry and out of focus Marcus is? That’s because when I decided to shoot at 500, the Door-Opening Guy (the automatic shutter control) went, “SERIOUSLY? FIVE HUNDRED? In *this* nonexistent light? That’s so not enough Light Catchers. I’m going to have to keep the door open longer to let more light in, and expose the photograph properly.” So he did — the shutter was open for 2.5 seconds. The problem is that when the shutter is open for that long, the slightest movement — my hand holding the camera dipping ever slow slightly — causes blur in the resulting image.

Given all of this, it sounds like you’d never need a flash again, right? Just crank up that ISO setting, and bam! No flash needed! Well, not quite: the problem with using high ISOs is that while you might get the image you want, the image tends to be grainier then at low ISO settings (contrast the quality of the first image of Marcus with the image of the hose, above). So if you’re looking for a nice sharp image in low light, you might want to either (a) use a flash or (b) use a tripod with a low ISO setting — that way the camera (“Door-Opening Guy”) can keep the shutter open as long as necessary, without worrying about camera shake.

So that’s it — you’re now an expert (sort of) on apertures, shutters, and ISOs! Better still, that’s pretty much as technical as we’re going to get about the workings of your camera here at Through the Gadling Lens, so never fear. As it happens, I’m leaving at the end of this week for a two-week holiday to England, so for upcoming posts I’ll talk about planning for a trip, and executing photo shoot days. In the meantime, keep clicking those cameras!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.