Whats the best lens for low-light photography?

Discussion in 'Canon EOS' started by mike_jack|1, Jun 19, 2009.

  1. My kit as it stands now is an (unfortunately outdated) Canon 20D, 24-105mm f4L and a 50mm f1.8 (mark 1).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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. My opinion of "focusing issues" with fast lenses is that there is always a price to pay. Image stabilization is nice, but it won't stop subject movement. To shoot low light with moving subjects, you have three options: Extreme ISO, extreme aperture, and flash.
    My experience at weddings has taught me that it is often the combination of extreme ISO AND extreme aperture. Flash is not something I want to use at a wedding ceremony.
    So I went with fast glass and cameras that were exceptional with noise control. I never had focus problems. Always use the precision focus screen, and don't be afraid to manually focus.
    The 85 f/1.2L II is not so slow to focus automatically that it can't be used, hence it's extreme popularity.
    The 50 f/1.2L is even faster focusing, and does fine focusing in low light. Beware of closeups between f/2 and f/4. Everything else works perfectly.
    The 35 has no issues at all for focus.
    So, I'll stick with the fast glass. Focus is not an issue for me.
    I'd also like to second the 70-200 f/2.8L IS. A wonderful, versitile lens. A bit tight on the 20D, but that was my sniper rig at weddings. It's not going to help much in the dark. f/2.8 is not really that fast.
  12. I own an 85 1.2L $1500 lens. I upgraded my 30D to a 5D Mark II to take advantage of this lens. It is way too long on my 30D. Point is I would not spend that kind of money on lenses for a 20D. Even if you purchased a cheap Rebel Ti I think you will be able to step your ISO up to 800 or 1600 and get cleaner shots than your 20D at 400 ISO. In most cases i believe in getting good glass before upgrading camera, but you are have two excellent lenses that can certainly do the job on a better body.
  13. Just an idea: Why not stick with the 24-105 and invest in a camera with better high ISO performance? No problems with shallow DOF and you do not have to give up IS and zoom.
  14. Just a note on the Sigma 50 F1.4. I believe the focus issue was mainly when the lens was just released. I recently purchased one and bokeh and image sharpness wide open are really good. Although the depth of field at 1.4 can be so narrow that the camera will frequently focus on the wrong item in the image. In fact in my experience with narrow depth of field on any lens is that I find manual focusing works better.
    Otherwise you have already gotten a lot of good advice. The only other addition I would make is to make your purchase through a good quality company. That way if you do get a defective lens you can return it for another.
  15. Thanks for all the responses! All good advice and certainly gives me something to think about - many of these options I hadn't even considered! I've been doing some more thinking about this and this is where I am at now:
    Read a bit about the 70-200mm f2.8L IS and would love it to get it, but I need a lens that can shoot in more confined spaces for the time being so this may have to be the next lens option for the future. The next camera body I intend to buy will be a full frame so I'm conscious of getting something that is useful now on a 20D and will still be useful down the track when I upgrade to a 5D mark II. I can't quite afford to get the upgraded camera body at this time so that's not really an option right now for higher ISO performance unfortunately. I'm wary that there are other good 50mm options other than the 1.2L once you've stopped down - so I'm not convinced this is the way to go. I'd rather get something that performs well in low light and then at some point in the near future perhaps buy an additional 50mm f1.4 for use in the mid aperture ranges. Also once I convert to full frame the 50mm loses much of it's portrait potential and from what I'm hearing the 70-200mm f2.8 on a full frame body will be a excellent and more versatile choice when i make the switch over. I could even consider the 135mm f2L or the 85mm f1.2L for a specialized portrait lens down the track, but the focal length of these primes are a bit long for me at this point in time on the smaller sensor.
    The problem, for me, with relying to heavily on IS is that a lot of what I shoot is at events I host where artists are painting in low light or wedding and documentary style shots where the subjects will be on the move. I know IS is great for counteracting hand shake, which still has relevance definitely, but I think I'll probably need the faster shutter speeds more often. And as the upgrade to the full frame sensor with better ISO performance is some way off - I'll think probably need to go for a faster lens at this time?
    So I'm thinking perhaps the 35mm f1.4 for now and then at some point in the near future I should be able to afford the 50mm f1.4 as a temporary portrait lens on the 20D. Both these lenses will still be useful when I upgrade to full frame - the 35mm would be very useful as an actual 35mm in low light and the 50mm will be good for general street shooting when the light isn't super low. Then I could look into the 70-200mm f2.8L and 135mm f2L or 85mm f1.2L down the track. If I went this way, I would be looking at a future kit that looks like this:
    5D Mark II
    35mm f1.4L
    50mm f1.4
    70-200mm f2.8L IS
    24 - 105mm f4L IS
    (and way in the future) 135mm f2L or the 85mm f1.2L
    Think I'm on the right track here?
  16. I haven't used the 20D so I don't know how well it performs ISO-wise. But I've used my 17-40L f/4 with my old trusty EOS 1N to take good sharp shots with high-ISO (1600) film at concerts and such. I've never used a crop DSLR but now use the 5Dmk2 so when choosing between the 17-40 and the 16-35 f/2.8 I realised that the latter would not be so useful as the camera's ISO capabilities of the mk2 make it easy to get sharp pictures in low light. But if confined spaces are an issue for you, and bearing in mind the crop factor of the 20D, I would go for the 16-35. To this I would add a 50 f/1.4. I have one as well and I've never thought it's not sharp wide open. But even if you use it from f/2 and up, where it is supposedly sharper, it will still be a capable low-light portrait lens on the 20D. The autofocus is very fast and accurate, even on the old 1N. And later when you get a full frame body, it would make a great lens because it's so ridiculously small and light.

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