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:

Rainforest Alliance announces second annual “sustainability” photo contest

“Sustainability” has been quite the buzzword over the past few years and has been interpreted in many ways across a number of different industries. Now, the Rainforest Alliance wants to see what your interpretation of the word is in the form of a photo, as they launch their second “Photo Sustainability” contest.

The contest is co-sponsored with Fujifilm and is open to U.S. residents only, but offers up some great prizes, including a Grand Prize of a five day trip for two to Costa Rica that includes a stay at the Pacuare Jungle Lodge and a whitewater rafting expedition. The winner will also be awarded a new digital camera from Fujifilm.

In addition to the Grand Prize winner, four other winners will be named in the following categories:

  • Wildlife on farms, forests or other natural habitats
  • Landscapes (forests, waterways, flowers and plants, beaches, wetlands)
  • Sustainable tourism (hiking, bird watching, mountain biking, and other land-based nature activities; surfing, scuba, kayaking, snorkeling and other coastal or marine activities; other ecotourism-related subjects)
  • Conservation (people working to protect natural resources, including water, flora and fauna)

Each individual winner will also receive a new Fujifilm digitial camera as well as an honorary one-year membership to the Rainforest Alliance.

Up to five submissions in each category will be selected by Rainforest Alliance staff, who will then post them on their website where the public will be able to vote on them, helping to determine the category winners. The Grand Prize will be awarded by noted outdoor photographer Art Woolfe, who will be looking for “overall composition, creativity, artistic merit and relevance to the Rainforest Alliance mission.”

All submissions will be added to the Alliance’s library of photographs to be used on their website and other publications as they pursue their goal of raising awareness about conservation issues and the general theme of sustainability. To enter the contest go to between now and November 1st. Register online and upload your best photos. Winners will be announced on the Rainforest Alliance website on December 15, 2009.

Good luck everyone!

Daily gear deals – $1 Bluetooth headset, rolling luggage and more

Here are the hottest gadget deals for today, Saturday June 13th 2009. Remember, these deals are often only valid for one day, so act fast before they are gone.

Earlier this week, I posted a $2 Bluetooth headset – that very same one is now on sale for just 99 cents (after a $15 mail in rebate). Best of all, it ships for free! Click here for this deal.

In need of a really sexy digital camera, but don’t want to overspend? eCost is selling the 7.1 Megapixel Fujifilm FinePix Z10fd (in orange) for just $61. This camera is refurbished, but still comes with a carrying case and a 2GB memory card. Click here for this deal. is selling a three piece Sharper Image luggage set for $99. The set includes 2 large (4 wheel) rolling bags and a 21″ carry-on bag. As always with Woot, the deal could sell out at any moment. Shipping is just $5. Click here for this deal.

And finally in today’s lineup – these Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 noise canceling headphones are perfect to block out any unwanted noises on your next flight. Best of all? They are on sale for just under $60, making them one of the most affordable pro-brand noise canceling headphones on the market. Click here for this deal.

Instant photography is not dead (yet)

Several days ago, I wrote about the death of the Polaroid instant camera, and the attempts to bring the iconic instant camera back from the dead.

Turns out that may not be necessary for everyone, as Fujifilm jumped into the void left behind by Polaroid with their new Instax 200 instant camera.

The concept is very much like the Land cameras sold by Polaroid; you insert a film cartridge, make a photo, and a minute later you have a colorful print of whatever you snapped.

The camera itself is a pleasantly low $49.95, but film cartridges will run you $21.95 for a twin pack of 10 prints. For comparison – Polaroid cartridges cost about 50 cents more for the same number of sheets.

The camera itself has received a favorable review from the folks at B&H Photo, which is where you’ll also find it in stock, if you want to continue your tradition of instant prints. Of course, real Polaroid lovers will probably never settle for anything other than the real thing!

Naturally, technology will eventually replace the chemical process used in these instant cameras, and one the first cameras using a new digital instant print system dubbed “Zink” recently appeared on Japenese store shelves.

That same technology also powers a pocket digital printer made by Polaroid as well as their own version of a digital camera with an integrated printer.

Daily deal – Fuji 8.2 megapixel digital camera for $99

Today’s deal of the day is for the Fujifilm J10 point-and-shoot digital camera.

This 8.2 megapixel ultraportable camera features a 3x optical zoom, a 2.5″ LCD display and 16 different scene settings. The camera takes several memory card formats; xD, SD and SDHC. No memory card is included, so expect to invest an extra $10-$30 for a storage card, depending on the size you require.

The Fujifilm J10 digital camera is on sale through for just $99. It is however currently out of stock, you can still place your order, but it may take 3-4 weeks to ship.

A very comprehensive review of the Fuji J10 can be found here, or if you have a spare 10 minutes you can watch a full product introduction video here.