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Whats the best lens for low-light photography?

Mike Jack , Jun 19, 2009; 02:02 p.m.

My kit as it stands now is an (unfortunately outdated) Canon 20D, 24-105mm f4L and a 50mm f1.8 (mark 1). I am looking to start freelancing more and I'm in a position to spend some money on an additional lens. I've found the 24-105 is great for general use but I need a high quality lens to perform in low light conditions at exhibitions & events, indoors, weddings and for documentary orientated photography. If it could double as a useful portrait lens that would be great.

My first thought was to go for an updated 50mm prime - however I have found after all the reviews and information i've read that none of them seem to swing me one way or the other to any particular 50mm lens. At first I was considering the Canon 50mm f1.4 but have since read that this lens doesn't perform well wide open. I then started thinking about the new Sigma 50mm f1.4 due to it's good reviews - except for the focusing issue. The Zeiss, being comparable in price, caught my interest but I also read a few different reviews that mention although it is an excellent lens stopped down, it doesn't perform well wide open either. I've even been toying with the idea of the Canon 50mm f1.2L - but it's so expensive! And again, the reviews I'm reading are not convincing me it's worth the considerable extra dosh.

Considering most of the low-light photography I'm intending to do will be hand held, I've now started thinking about the Canon 35mm f1.4 . I've heard great things and it's a little cheaper than the 50mm.

I am intending to start building my kit further from here, so I am really conscious of making the right long term decision. I know at some point I'll need to get a faster portrait lens than the 24-105 so perhaps down the track I'll look into the 85mm f1.2L . I was thinking that the 35mm f1.4L and 85mm 1.4L would be a awesome combo. However, money doesn't grow on trees and I would look in to buying a new camera body before i purchased a second lens - so whatever I chooce now will be 'it' for some time. So I've been wondering if the 50mm f1.2L was a good mid way compromise between the two lenses here? And is it worth all that extra money in terms of IQ - or should I take another look at the Sigma or Zeiss?

Anyway, I feel a bit oversaturated with all the reviews I've been reading and I'm really struggling to narrow down to the right choice here. Any help or advise would be greaaaaatly appreciated.


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Ross Murphy , Jun 19, 2009; 02:29 p.m.

1.4 or 1.2 lenses are probably the way to go, but not many lenses are best wide open, the 35 1.4 is sharper at f2, the 70-200 f2.8 IS may be a good solutuon and will cost less than 3 1.4 lenses.

Bueh B. , Jun 19, 2009; 02:33 p.m.

My experience has been that you really need some kind of image stabilization with slow shutter speeds. Super-fast primes are nice, but have AF accuracy issues (remedied by the AF assist light of a flash unit) and are less-than-stellar wide open. If you don't believe me, rent one of your dream lenses and see for yourself. The one or two stops advantage are not the bee's knee when it comes to low light situations.

I would try out an inexpensive camera with in-body IS like the Pentax K10D as a dedicated low-light camera. As the stabilization works with all primes, you can get amazing results at ridiculously slow shutter speeds, even when the Pentax glass is not as fast as the Canon L stuff.

Rainer T , Jun 19, 2009; 02:36 p.m.

On a crop body, I would take the Sigma 30/1.4 again (again, because i owned it, and sold it when I upgraded to fullframe). I now use a 50/1.2L on a 5D which also is very pleasing.

Nathan Meador , Jun 19, 2009; 02:50 p.m.

Based on what you are saying, looking to stay in the 'normal' lens range, I'd agree with Rainer and second the sigma 30/1.4. I use it with my 40D and find it does very well in low light. I've used it for basketball games, graduations, family portraits, vacations and am always happy with the results. It isn't too expensive either, less than $400.

Nathan Meador , Jun 19, 2009; 02:50 p.m.

Based on what you are saying, looking to stay in the 'normal' lens range, I'd agree with Rainer and second the sigma 30/1.4. I use it with my 40D and find it does very well in low light. I've used it for basketball games, graduations, family portraits, vacations and am always happy with the results. It isn't too expensive either, less than $400.

Peter Wang , Jun 19, 2009; 02:51 p.m.

Any gains you get from an f/1.2 lens will be mostly negated from not having IS, given that subject motion is negligible. Even so, DOF at f/1.2-1.4 is very, very narrow, and accurate focus now becomes problematic.

f/1.4 is three stops faster than f/4, but you can reliably get at least 2-3 stops in shutter speed with IS. So suppose you go wider. f/1.2 is now 3.5 stops faster, so now it's about a wash. Now you have to deal with fixed focal length, and in the case of the 85/1.2L II, you've got slower AF since the heavy front element has to move in this design.

So what's the answer? You could go with the 70-200/2.8L IS, which gives you one stop more than 24-105/4L IS. It's a longer lens, a bit cheaper than the 85/1.2L II, excellent optical quality, and with 3 stops IS you're still out ahead. Yes, you're going rather long when putting that on a 20D body. But you were considering the 85mm anyway.

Ed Rodgers , Jun 19, 2009; 02:52 p.m.

Assuming that a full frame body is in your future, I agree that it's a good plan to aim at the 35 f/1.4 and 85 f/1.2 as a killer combo goal.

The other option is to buy three lenses and have the 24 f/1.4, the 50 f/1.2, and the 135 f/2.

I think it's a good idea, if money is critical to you, to choose one set or the other. I happen to have all of them, but it's more of a luxury than a need. I started out getting the 35 and 85 for weddings, and I loved them. One on each body, no lens changes. Not quite long enough, not quite wide enough, but only two bodies to carry made up for it.

My love of these lenses compelled me to try out the others, and I was hooked.

Now that I have all of them, for personal work I tend to use the 24-50-135 combo more often. That's not to say the 35 and 85 do not have their own unique properties. I have a hard time imagining ever selling them. But carrying around 5 lenses all the time is brutal. :)

That said, I've used the Canon 50 f/1.4, and it's a fine lens. For the 24 or the 135, I don't see a close alternative.

If I had it to do over again, I would have started with the 50 f/1.2 and then picked up the 24 and then the 135. With your current 20D, the 50 will make a fine portrait lens.

Look at the bright side for the three lens solution. The 135 is probably Canon's sharpest piece of work ever, and it's the cheapest of the bunch by far. Combine that with a 50 f/1.4, and you're going to end up spending less than the 35 and 85. Buy a used 24 mark I and you will spend less than the 85 f/1.2 II on all three.

I hope my ramblings are of some assistance to you!

Richard Wang , Jun 19, 2009; 02:54 p.m.

It all depends on your shooting style and what you're shooting.

I shoot quite often in low light situations - photojournalism and events. I use zoom mainly because I don't have the ability to compose or plan, I just have to react. I'm also find myself in situations when I can't use a flash.

The two lenses I use most often are the 70-200 2.8IS and 16-35 2.8.

I use the Zeiss 50 1.4 and really like the look of the lens. But it's manual focus and in real low light situations if you don't have the right focus screen, bright viewfinder and good eyes you might miss the shot.<p>
I also have the 85 1.2, great portrait lens but awful low light lens because it focuses too slow and hunts around in low light.

Used the 50 1.2 last weekend at a concert and found it has the same problems as the 85 1.2.

Haven't ever used a 35 1.4 but I see quite a few colleagues who shoot weedings using it. But for the price of a 35 1.4 I'd recommend getting a 70-200 2.8 IS instead. I find it a very versatile lens and the quality is top notch.

Dave Crudele , Jun 19, 2009; 02:56 p.m.

A bit of a tangent to your direct question but... you might also want to consider upgrading your camera body to one with improved high ISO performance. I shot with a 20d for the past 3+ years and really liked the camera. I was fortunate enough to recently start shooting with a 5D mkII (personal camera) and 50d (work camera) and was just floored by the improved high ISO performance with both. I know the 5D mkII is pricey but you might also want to consider a used original 5D.

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