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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

Through the Gadling Lens: choosing the right lens

Thanks for all your comments on the previous post, “what kind of camera should I buy?” — there were some really going points made, and some great feedback. Today, as promised, I thought I’d go through a quick guide on why there are so many lenses out there and why they differ — as well as why you might want a particular one on your trip.

Generally, lenses are described by their focal length. A quick Google search of the term “focal length” returns some fantastically technical definitions — my current favourite is, “The focal length of an optical system is a measure of how strongly it converges (focuses) or diverges (diffuses) light. A system with a shorter focal length has greater optical power than one with a long focal length.

Here’s how I like to remember it: the larger the focal length of a lens, the bigger the subject looks and the less of the background you’ll see in your shot. The smaller the focal length of a lens, the smaller your subject will look in your photograph, but you’ll be able to see a whole lot more background.

In other words, if you stand 10 feet away from an apple sitting on a table, the photograph you take with a 35 mm lens will have a lot more background and a lot less apple; with a 100 mm lens, the picture will have a lot more apple and a lot less background.

Clear as mud? Not so much?

Okay, let’s look at a few practical examples. (Note: all of the following images are taken right out of the camera — I didn’t do any cropping, or processing, other than to size them to fit on this post.) I asked convinced coerced my 4-1/2 year old daughter Alex outside to act as a model, and took several pictures of her, using different lenses. I asked her to stand on the curb, while I switched out lenses. That’s her on the left:

Isn’t she cute?

Okay, so the first shot I took, I used a 50mm lens. In general, lenses that are between 35mm and 70mm are called “normal” lenses — in other words, when you look through the viewfinder, what you see is pretty much what you would see without the viewfinder — everything looks about the same size, you don’t see any more detail than you would with the naked eye, that sort of thing. Disposable cameras, for example, usually have lenses between 35mm and 70 mm. So taking the shot from the opposite curb, like so …

… the image of Alex looks like this:

A perfectly suitable shot, and the kind of image that conveys exactly what I saw at the time that I saw it. This sort of lens works if you’re going for street photography, or documentary-style photography.

But watch what happens when I switch my lens out for a 200mm lens. The following image was taken at the same spot, on the opposite curb from Alex:

See? All of a sudden, it’s like I was standing right in front of her, even though I’m still standing across the street on the curb. She looks bigger in the shot (and you can see a whole lot more detail); however, I’ve lost a lot of the background (i.e, you can’t really see the house or the trees anymore). The beauty of this lens is that you can take wonderfully intimate shots of people (e.g., the old men playing chess in the park) or wildlife (the boa constrictor wrapped around the tropical vegetation) or sports (that touchdown made by only inches) without actually getting in the way of the subject — the old men, boa constrictor or running back will likely not even know you’re there.

The downside of this sort of lens? This bad boy is huge (see the photograph at the top of this post), and therefore very unwieldy. On major trips I do usually take this lens with me, but I generally only devote one day to using it (getting lovely intimate shots of people talking to each other at a cafe, or otherwise interacting), and then put it away for the rest of the trip, instead using a lens with a smaller focal length (usually between 50mm to 100 mm).

Speaking of 100mm lenses, let’s say you don’t mind if your subject knows your taking her picture — and in fact, you want to get a nice tight portrait shot. Generally speaking, lenses with focal lengths between 75mm and 135mm are known as “portrait lenses,” and they enable you to take lovely, magazine-cover-shot type images of people.

And so, grabbing my 100mm lens, and standing right here, about three feet away …

… I’m able to take a lovely tight shot of Alex’s face, like so:

Now, is it possible for me to take a shot this close to Alex using the 200mm lens? It is, but I’d still have to stand about halfway across the street to do it, in order to get the focus right. And I probably couldn’t take a shot like this with the 50mm lens, because I would have to stand really close to Alex to take the shot, and would likely end up with a really blurry shot, because I would be too close for the lens to get a really sharp focus.

For what it’s worth, I always carry my 100mm lens (or a lens which “passes through” that focal length, like a 70mm-120mm zoom, for example), particularly when I travel; primarily because I love portraiture, and I love shooting the faces of the people who are native to the countries I visit.

Finally, let’s take a look at a macro lens: the type of lens that let’s you get really up close and personal. Again, I’ll use Alex as a model, but this time I’ll get very, very close to her (about 8 inches away):

And — you’re going to love this — check out how much detail I can capture of her here:

See how you can make out every eyelash in this photo, every tiny contour of her skin? Macro shots are beautiful for grabbing very tiny details, sometimes in breathtaking ways. And there’s no other kind of lens that can get this sort of detail than a macro lens — other lenses just can’t focus that well.

Now, obviously, you’re not likely to walk up to an individual, get all up in their personal space and shoot their eyeballs. But macro lenses can be really fantastic for getting details of, say, the bumps on the back of some weird-looking tropical insect, or the stamens of a truly exotic flower
. I always carry my macro lens with me if I’m going somewhere known for its beautiful flora and fauna — I never know what I might get.

Finally, for those of you with point-and-shoots, don’t despair: these days, point-and-shoots have wonderfully wide ranges of focal lengths for their built-in lenses. For example, the following two shots were taken with my Nikon Coolpix. According to the Nikon website, the Coolpix has a focal length range of between 28mm and 112mm.

So again, standing on the opposite curb from Alex, here’s a shot at approximately 28mm (also called a wide-angle shot, used for architecture or landscapes):

(Notice now, how much more background I get than even the 50mm shot at the top of this post? Although Alex is tiny in the shot, now I not only get the house and the two trees, but the next-door neightbour’s house as well!)

And here’s a shot zoomed in at 112mm; this time, again, standing on the curb across the street from her:

Whew — that’s a lot to cover in one post! Hopefully, this helps you better understand what different camera lenses can do, and when they’re appropriate for your favourite type of photography — and for those of you who like crib sheets, there’s a great one covering the kind of photography each lens is best for here. As always, if you have any questions, or would like me to cover anything specific in an upcoming post, please feel free to let me know in the comments below, or e-mail me directly at I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

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.

Spring photography roundup

Travel photography enthusiasts will be pleased to hear about the flurry of recent product launches and news floating around the web. Perhaps everything was timed to the warm weather and extra daylight of Spring? Those tricky camera manufacturers – how diabolical. Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more interesting news.

Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LZ10

Engadget has the scoop on Panasonic’s new 10-megapixel Lumix DMC-LZ10. I’m not the biggest fan of Panasonic’s digital cameras, but Engadget and Photography Blog both give it high marks, calling it “one of the most versatile compacts in its class.” They were particularly impressed with the camera’s manual controls and image quality. Considering it retails for less than $250, it could be a nice model to snap up for those family vacation photos. Remember, if you’re in the market for a point and shoot digital camera, don’t get too caught up with the number of megapixels. A better optical zoom and a quick startup/shutter speed are much better indicators of quality.

Hacking your Canon digital camera

Enterprising Canon camera owners should also head over to Wired, where they’re offering a cool Wiki on how to modify your camera’s software. Why would you do such a thing, you might ask? Because digital camera hardware can often do much more than is allowed by its standard software. For instance, Canon only allows shutter speeds up to 1/1,600 of a second, but the camera is actually capable of up to 1/60,000! Once you’ve installed the hack, you’ll unlock all manner of cool functions like super-long exposure shots, RAW file format and battery readout. I tried it last night on my Canon SD630 and it worked like a charm. It’s worth noting that the process can get a bit technical – make sure you know what you’re doing and that you have a compatible Canon camera before giving it a try. Jump over to Wired for full instructions and FAQ.

The Ultra-fast Casio Exilim EX-F1 SLR

Meanwhile, New York Times gadget guru David Pogue reviews Casio’s speedy new semipro Exilim EX-F1 digital camera. A typical digital camera snaps about one picture per second, but the Exilim, which is billed as the world’s fastest camera, can take up to sixty. Remember that shot of the cheetah chasing the antelope you missed on safari because you couldn’t get your camera snapping in time? This is the model you’re looking for. It also has a motion detector which will wait, for hours if necessary, until motion is detected and then automatically snap a rapid fire of 60 shots. Pretty awesome. The Exilim retails for $1,000.