Nikon and Canon Digital SLR Lenses: Best Large-Aperture Primes for DSLR Cameras

Members of the Wedding Photojournalist Association use a combination of zooms and prime lenses. Nebraska-based Eric Francis often avoids zooms entirely; using only 20mm, 50mm and 135mm primes.

Prime Lenses are Brighter

Prime lenses can be four to eight times brighter than zooms.

Consumer zooms typically start at f3.5 at the wide-angle end, which is practically an f4. Zooming-in will quickly decrease the aperture to f5.6. Even professional quality zooms are only f2.8 at best. In contrast, prime lenses can be as bright as f1.4

  • two stops (four times) brighter than f2.8
  • three stops (eight times) brighter than f4
  • four stops (sixteen times) brighter than f5.6

How to Use Prime Lenses

Primes can be used

  • For available-light photography: taking photographs without flash. This results in natural-looking photographs. Flash doesn’t work well beyond tens of yards or meters, so available-light can be the only choice for some situations.
  • To isolate the subject. Primes are used for portraits of people. The large aperture results in shallow depth of field. This causes only the subject to be in focus, with the background pleasantly blurred. Attention is naturally drawn to the subject, without distractions from details in the background.
  • To amplify bounce flash. Flash units are pointed at the ceiling in order to provide soft, even lighting. High ceilings (more than two floors high) can stretch the capabilities of powerful flashes. Primes allow the use of bounce flash even with high ceilings (churches, ballrooms).

Wide angle Primes (28mm to 35 mm equivalent)

20mm to 24mm on 1.5x or 1.6x cropped digital SLRs.

Camera and lens manufacturers have been ignoring this segment of the market, preferring to concentrate on zooms. Sigma is the exception, with f1.8 20mm, 24mm and 28mm primes.

In contrast, the fastest Nikon and Canon 20mm is f2.8, though Canon does have an f1.4 24mm. Nikon’s fastest autofocus 24mm is f2.8 (the 24mm f2 is manual focus only).

Wide angle primes need to be used with caution. With their wide field of view, some subjects can be disturbingly just slightly out of focus – neither in focus nor blurred out into insignificance. They are more difficult to use properly and should be avoided by beginners.

Normal Primes (50mm equivalent)

28mm to 35mm on 1.5x or 1.6x cropped digital SLRs.

Commonly said to approximate human vision, providing a natural perspective view. Some photographers disagree, preferring wide angles and portrait lenses and skipping this intermediate range entirely.

Sigma also supports this range best, with an affordable 30mm f1.4 autofocus designed for cropped digital SLRs.

Nikon has a 35mm f2 autofocus but the expensive 28mm f1.4 is no longer in production, and the 28mm f2 and 35mm f1.4 are manual focus lenses.

Canon does have a 28mm f1.8 and a 35mm f2.

Short Portrait (75mm to 85mm equivalent)

50mm on 1.5x or 1.6x cropped digital SLRs.

50mm (f1.8 and f1.4) SLR lenses have long been considered some of the best lenses available: cheap and producing sharp images.

On cropped digital SLRs, they become 75mm or 85mm equivalent portrait lenses, perfect for head-and-shoulders portraits.They make good first lenses for beginners. With a narrower field of view, their shallow depth of field is easier to use compared to wide angles.

How to Photograph in Low Light: Tips for Night Photography Using Available Light

Often in night photography it is too dark for reading the explanatory symbols for the controls on the camera’s body. Photographers need to operate their equipment without looking at the controls, instead locating and adjusting them by feel. You even need to be familiar with the locations of the settings of the illuminated menu system, because these can be very different from normal daytime photography, so as to be able to find them in the menus structure, because reading the manual in the dark could be difficult.

Know Your Gear

Cameras have different characteristics, particularly regarding digital noise performance and inbuilt shake reduction. Just because there is a high ISO setting available it does not mean the digital camera will produce useable images. This is often a creative decision for the photographer as to how much noise they find acceptable in each situation. This takes some experimentation with different ISO settings to find the upper ISO setting that limits noise to a comfortable level.

Various camera systems offer shake or vibration reduction systems, either in the camera body or built into the lens. This allows slower shutter speeds without the need for tripods or other supports. Their effectiveness is influenced by how steady individual photographers can hold a camera, so experiment and find the slowest shutter speed that produces sharp pictures with each system.

High ISO

Normally the best image quality comes with low ISO settings as these minimize any digital noise produced in the image making process. In low light photography some noise is almost inevitable and in some situations adds to the mood. Carefully select higher ISO settings to give enough sensitivity to produce the image while balancing the amount of noise. Expect some digital noise in dark areas.

Flash Ruins The Mood And Colors Of Dim Lighting

Particularly in concert photography using electronic flash is either ineffective or overpowers subtle stage lighting designed as an integral part of the performance.



Find the Light

Rather than lament the lack of light in one location, search out spots where the light is good and make the best use of it. Sometimes this means waiting for the subjects to come to the light.

  • Wide Angle Lens: Shorter focal length lenses are often better in night photography as they are not as sensitive to camera shake due to slow shutter speeds as are longer focal length lenses. A photographic rule of thumb is the slowest shutter speed for safe camera handholding is 1/focal length of the lens.
  • Prime Lenses: These lenses often offer wider apertures to let in more light at a reasonable cost. For example, a 50mm f1.4 is a common choice for low light photography as even expensive zooms struggle to go beyond f2.8.

Manual Metering Mode

Auto metering modes are programmed for daylight shooting and attempt to expose for 18% gray and overexpose the shots, low light shots should be dark. Experiment and use the LCD monitor as a rough guide to aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Take a number of shots at different apertures and shutter speeds until you get a feel for how the camera’s LCD screen displays images. It is a guide not a precision exposure meter.

Learn To Hold The Camera

If the camera has an optical viewfinder in then use it in preference to using a live view image on the LCD screen. This is start to holding the camera properly to minimize camera shake at the slower shutter speeds of low light photography. Elbows tucked into the body and camera viewfinder braced by the head is the most stable camera holding technique. Also look for solid objects such as walls fences chairs, and garbage bins help to steady the camera – of course use a tripod if possible.

Flash Contradiction

Sometimes flash is useful in available light photography so long as it is only part of the overall lighting plan, such as highlighting a portion of the scene. There is more on this topic in upcoming advanced flash techniques articles.