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New Lens or Flash? dSLR for stage photography.
August 23, 2011 10:54 AM   Subscribe

New Lens or Flash? -- Stage, low-light photography.

Hey guys,

I'm relatively new to dslr photography. I've got a Canon Rebel XSI camera, and a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which I've been using to take some photos at theatre shows. I'd like to start tinkering around with taking promotional photos for some performer friends of mine, but am not sure where to put my resources... a decent off-camera / slave flash, or a new lens? My budget is around $500.

I've been looking at the Canon 85mm f/1.8, as it looks like a nice lens for fast, low-light situations. Looks like you can buy it used for ballpark $350 which is pretty attractive.

I've also been looking at the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 lens, as it seems a bit more versatile, and could be useful for taking photos outdoors. Many seem to recommend this as a good outdoor lens for walkaround photography, and would be useful in settings that are brighter than a show on stage.

I've been poking around a bit on and trying to learn more about flashes, but I still feel pretty hopelessly lost when it comes to this stuff. Would it be in my best interest in shelling out for a new Canon Speedlite TTL flash?

What do you guys think? Any and all comments and suggestions weighing the pros and cons here are welcome and appreciated!

Here's an example of a pretty ok photo I took of a friend of mine on stage a few months ago. Here's another!
posted by ThomThomThomThom to Technology (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The 85mm f/1.8 won't help you in low-light situations; you'll just be more "zoomed in". It might turn out to be a better overall lens, though.

I'd go for the Speedlite 580ex.
posted by supercres at 11:01 AM on August 23, 2011

Oh, and the zoom lens will be significantly worse in low-light situations. You want to look at the maximum aperture size-- the number after the "f". The lower that number is, the bigger your aperture, the more light you take in. With a zoom lens, and a range of minimum f-stops, the lower number corresponds to when the lens is zoomed all the way out. (17mm -> f/4; 85mm -> f/5.6.)
posted by supercres at 11:03 AM on August 23, 2011

Personally I would be frustrated shooting in low light with an f/4 lens.

The 85mm 1.8 is a really, really nice lens. However on your crop frame camera, it's going to be more like...140mm. Fairly long but not too long (I'm probably screwing up the conversion but something like that). If you are shooting from the audience, that might be good.

One thing that might be really good to invest in is a monopod. It's going to give you a couple of stops (if not more) of shutter speed than you can handhold. That said, it will not eliminate any motion blur.

Are you shooting live at live shows? Than I think a flash is not going to work. But if you are shooting during rehearsals, it might be a matter of setting things up and shooting with the room lights, perhaps using a tripod. And you might be ok with your setup.

It might be helpful if you showed us the kind of pictures you'd like to take, and then we could tell you how to take them. is a great resource in a lot of ways. In my opinion though, you will rarely see a truly great photograph on there. It's a lot of amateurs helping amateurs, and that's awesome, but a lot of it is sort of navel gazy...people are imitating each other and developing a style, but a lot of it is pretty cliche and tired.

That's my opinion anyway. My advice: read the site, get everything you can out of it, but make sure you are checking out the very best in photography, and you will not find it there.
posted by sully75 at 11:04 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

erm supercres, the 85mm will definitely help in low light situations relative to the zoom. It will be the same as his 50mm lens. It's not going to get much faster than that.

really though, if the only lens you have is a 50mm, you are already pretty long. 50mm on your camera is really like 80mm on a full frame camera, aka long. You should maybe think about getting a shorter prime lens for your normal lens, or a normalish zoom. I think the 17-35 2.8 is the normal suggestion. Big bucks but I think it's a good lens. Read reviews though, i don't know.
posted by sully75 at 11:07 AM on August 23, 2011

Speaking as a non-professional photographer, but a graphic designer who has been doing theatre brochures for 10 years or so now, I'd definitely stay away from a flash. Go for the largest aperture lens you can get and a monopod/tripod as Sully suggests.

I've looked at a LOT of theatre photos taken by good and bad photographers in a variety of situations as well as done some myself and what I think looks really great is when you are preserving the lighting that the designer has set up....or even just bare & gelled stagelights. They're just so sexxxy lookin.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 11:16 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I shoot live music indoors with a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 at ISO 1600-3200 on my APS-C Canon 30D. I prefer it over my EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM even though I end up having to move around more to frame things the way I want. I have found that although the IS compensates for camera movement just fine, the slow shutter speeds make the musicians moving hands blur. That's a cool effect, sometimes, but not on every shot. Flash would certainly freeze motion but it's not really all that welcome, particularly by the musicians.

I'd recommend either something like the Sigma (i.e. a fast "normal" lens) if you can get close to the stage and a fast 50mm if you can't. The 85mm might be a little too long for handheld use in reduced lighting.
posted by tommasz at 11:17 AM on August 23, 2011

I of course meant "help, relative to the 50mm". I can't see how that isn't obvious form reading.

If you want to stay at that focal length, the 50mm f/1.4 is within your budget.
posted by supercres at 11:18 AM on August 23, 2011

Supercres - Thanks for the recommendation. Also, I didn't realize that the f-stops were marked that way relative to the zoom. Good to know!

Sully75 - would you suggest something more like Canon's EF 28mm f/2.8?
posted by ThomThomThomThom at 11:18 AM on August 23, 2011

I think supercres was saying that the 85 1.8 is not an improvement over the 50 1.8 other than the longer throw (as you note, it's clearly going to be much better than the zoom!).

If the goal is doing theater photography, you're not likely going to be able to use a flash; it's very distracting. Honestly, if you're looking to shoot productions, $500 is not really going to get you anywhere--unless you get the 50 1.4 (which is a million times better than the 1.8 in contrast and color, but only 1/3 stop faster). You should be looking more for a 24-70 2.8 (Canon is rumored to be introducing a new version, which should drop the prices on the existing model--or maybe the older 28-70 2.8). Depending on where you set up, the 70-200 2.8 IS should be another long-term goal.

If your goal is to shoot portraits, your existing 50 1.8 is going to "feel like" an 85 on your crop body, and 85 (and 50, too) is sort of the "standard" focal length for portraits. Again, you'll do better with the 50 1.4--but in each case, you're going to want to stop it down several stops. Strobist is fun and all, but I'm with Sully--there's not a lot of great stuff there; just a lot of people trying all sorts of random shit and seeing if it sticks.

If it were me, I'd get the 50 1.4, and then just practice with existing stage light and natural light portraits. Some of my best portraits were natural light. See also: Anton Corbijn, who only shoots portraits with natural light.

In my mind, portrait photography is 70% connecting with the subject, 25% "vision", and 5% technique (including lighting).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:22 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, sorry. Somehow I read past the "theatre" part and was assuming musicians on stage, where another flash wouldn't be that distracting, relative to spotlights, etc.

So go with a large-aperture lens in the focal length with which you feel most comfortable. See this question as to how the nature of photos change when you change the focal length.
posted by supercres at 11:27 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The vast majority of production (as opposed to headshots) stills in my theatre galleries were shot unposed during dress rehearsals, stage lighting only, with a Nikon D200/D90 on auto ISO allowing up to ISO 800 at 1/15 sec with the stabilized 18-200 lens set at maximum aperture. Maybe 5% with an 85/1.4 and 5% others with the 12.5 fish. But probably 90% with the zoom.

Honestly if there's enough light to see the actors clearly on stage (and there almost always is), then VR and ISO400 or so will get you most of the way there even with a slow lens. I use the zoom because I need the dynamic framing possibilites it provides.

I do shoot over 2000 exposures per show because I know I'll get a lot of blur and shit but that's why we shoot digital.

(Some early shows were done with two speedlites in the wings but I haven't shot that way in two years and like the results much better with stage lighting instead.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:41 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I strongly recommend going for a better lens instead of a flash for stage photography. On my full-frame camera (a Canon 5D, but that's irrelevant) I shoot concerts with a 28mm 1.8, a 50mm 1.4 and a 70-20 2.8 IS. The 28mm and the 50mm typically get 90% of the keepers in this sort of situation.

When I used a crop-frame camera, the 28mm 1.8 was on my camera 90% of the time. It's a very, very useful lens, which can come with you if you decide to upgrade to a full-frame camera. I'd recommend it anyway, as it's a very useful general purpose view on a crop camera. I'd really try and get the 1.8, as the extra stop and a half will be extremely useful for low-light photography. It's also built much better, and is much more pleasurable to use.

If you do want a zoom, the 17-55mm 2.8 IS is the only one that's worth considering for your needs. However, it's not cheap, and it can't be used on a full-frame camera.

Q: Are you going to small productions with relatively dark, simple lighting, or big productions with bright, choreographed lighting? If it's the former, you will probably want to shoot at f/2.8 at the absolute tightest. If it's the latter, you can sometimes get away with f/4 or f/5.6, though again you'll usually want the aperture to be wider than that. I'm often shooting at f/2 or wider, if I think the depth of field can take it.

A flash is very useful, but it's a very different tool in your arsenal from a "fast" (wide aperture) lens. Using a flash is definitely a skill worth learning, but it is basically an entire additional skillset. I think reading some of the earlier Strobist posts (like the 101 "course") would be useful, and experimenting heavily is absolutely essential.

One thing you haven't said is what you actually want to get out of this gear purchase. Is there a look that you're going for? Have you found that your current kit isn't cutting it?
posted by Magnakai at 11:44 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

As others have said, from a "low light" perspective you aren't going to get much better than the 50mm 1.8 lens that you already have. The 85mm will perform similarly.

I'd look for a used full frame camera - probably a 5D Mk I. You can get one for around $1,000, and maybe a little less if you look around. It's more money than you want to spend, I know, but the low light performance will be WAY better and you can use the same lenses.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:55 AM on August 23, 2011

Magnakai - I'll generally be shooting for smaller productions, at least for the meantime.... lots of circus/variety shows with a smallish company in the Northeast. I'd like to be able to take photos like this or this.

Thanks for the pointers, everyone! This has pretty much convinced me that I need to get either the 50mm f/1.4 by Canon or perhaps something wider like the Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 .
posted by ThomThomThomThom at 11:59 AM on August 23, 2011

(...or find a happy medium, like the Sigma 30mm f/1.4?)
posted by ThomThomThomThom at 12:20 PM on August 23, 2011

FWIW, I've got Canon 100/2.8, 50/1.4 and 70-200/f2.8 and a Sigma 30/1.4 and the Sigma gets used more often than all the others combined. Not as good if you can't get close to the stage, of course, but it's a DAMN nice lens.
posted by pjaust at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2011

I think the Sigma 30 1.4 is supposed to be a little soft when you're shooting at its widest aperture (though these things do vary by lens a bit, and vary a lot by different users' subjective feelings...). Sounds like maybe the same for the 28 1.8--have you seen Very in depth reviews of camera gear by a rather rigorous camera dork (who seems awesome).

But different strokes for different folks. I think the 50 1.4 is the best value I ever got on a lens; I have a lot of lenses, ranging up to the $2200 85 1.2L II--but I don't think I ever got a better deal on great photos than buying the 50 1.4 for $250 off of Craigslist.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2011

In the course of my work as a photographer I shoot around a dozen live performance events (theatre, music, etc.) annually. Despite the fact that I own plenty of fast prime lenses, I shoot 90% of these images with a 70-200/f2.8 zoom. I nearly always shoot wide open and will crank the ISO up to 3200 if necessary to achieve hand holdable shutter speeds.

I usually have the luxury of shooting dress rehearsals instead of actual performances, and can therefore move around as much as I like. Although I some cases I can even shoot from on the stage,
the fast, high quality 70-200 give me the versatility to shoot everything from tight candid head shots to full scenes.

I have a couple of examples on my blog here.
posted by imjustsaying at 12:59 PM on August 23, 2011

For low light, you need a low f-stop. You have a XSI, so there's only so much you can bump the ISO. I'd recommend the 1.4 50mm really. As others have noted, the 85mm won't be so nice with the crop frame.
And yes, no flash for live-performances! If you really want to continue doing this, I'd just keep saving up for some nice L glass down the line, and just really working on your eye and technical skills over any equipment, as the 1.4 will really suit you well technically for what you want to do.
posted by xtine at 1:41 PM on August 23, 2011

after shooting a bazillion concerts in both craptastic and 'nice' lighting, my tips are, in addition/perhaps duplicating the ones you read above

1. Stage Lighting: if somebody's lights the stage nicely for you, like in pro theatres (or even amateur theatres - in tiny dive bars and rock clubs it rarely is worth a damn), then you can easily keep using what you have with a 1.8 and it should look pretty good. Maybe not 'the best', but pretty darn good.

2. Manual Exposuring for low light action shots: If you didn't know this, or haven't tried it on purpose - if you shoot in any mode where you can manually adjust the exposure on the fly, you don't have to purposely get the exposure set where the camera tells you it will be 'perfect'. Because often that might make your shutter speed too low to freeze the action. If the picture is a bit darker than you'd like, you can try to fix it later. But you can't really 'fix' blurred parts of peoples' bodies like you can the exposure. So try shooting with a faster shutter speed than would create a perfectly exposed pic, sometimes, and see what you get.

3. Shoot RAW: You may or may not have realized that shooting RAW allows for more latitude, after the fact, jacking with highlights and shadows and exposure, moreso than jpeg.

4. Noise Reduction SW: Despite the noise of high iso's on lower end dslrs, you can get surprisingly decent results from noisy high iso shots if you are not overly aggressive with anti-noise software. There are various brands, some of which are quite amazing. Some unfortunately make it look like you've mannequin-ized everyone in addition to nuking the noise.

5. Faster Lens?: It never hurts to have more stops. For really low or craptastic lighting, without any light source of your own, you can still end up getting junk sometimes. It won't be your fault (at this time.... someday when even the cheapest cameras have ISO 20000000 that isn't noisy, it might be your fault). Thus

5b. It is totally worth having at least a 1.4 lens if you are going to keep shooting stuff in low light. I would totally own a 1.0 lens if they weren't like $2000 and the latest generation of digitals weren't getting so much better at high-iso-low-noise.

6. Full Frame? [mini rant=on] The canon 85 1.8, followed by the 50 1.4, have taken nearly all my best pictures, ever - and most were done with the original Digital Rebel... you can see some here . In 2007 I upgraded to the 40d, which is still not full frame, and I have had many an argument with Canon tech support over the fact that frankly, I think the images I took with that original digital rebel -which cost way, way less than my 40d - beat the hell out pictures I have taken on my 40d using the same exact lenses. I suspect this has to do with the increase in megapixels, and me not buying some L lenses to go with it. Yes, I've sent all the lenses and the camera to Canon maybe 3 times, but they deny there's ever been a problem with sharpness. Nor do they mention the fact that by increasing the amount of megapixels everyone goes gaga over, you might need better lenses to compensate. Other 40d owners have disagreed with me, but not all. Either way, my point is: I don't buy the fact that just getting a full frame camera with a much better dynamic range is going to solve all your problems. You might fix one, but have another. Still...

7. New Camera?: Yep. Newer cameras are sure getting those high iso's to be way less noisy. This is why I must buy a new camera now. Grr. And likely all new lenses to go with it. Maybe I'll switch to Nikon.

8. Flash? Ya, as other people have said, learning to use flash is a whole 'nuther skill. And even if you excel at it, it is another tricky thing to have to deal with in crowd if you have limited space to move around. It is definitely a skill worth having though, if you have no other option in an extremely poor lighting situation.

That, Sir or Madam Thom, is my 50 cents.
posted by bitterkitten at 2:07 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Bitterkitten - I don't think using your experiences with the 40d, which as you say is NOT full frame, have any bearing on the value of a FF camera. There is a very significant difference.
posted by The Lamplighter at 2:34 PM on August 23, 2011

Bitterkitten - Thanks for the insights! I've played around a bit with shooting in RAW, and think I may do well to keep experimenting with that in photoshop and lightroom.

Do you have any experience with Sigma lenses, like the 30mm f/1.4 I linked to earlier? What did you shoot the photos on your site with? I really, really dig those... in particular the Shaolin Monk photo.
posted by ThomThomThomThom at 2:43 PM on August 23, 2011

wait, buying a f1.4 lens to replace your f 1.8 lens is getting you basically nothing at all. It's definitely a better quality lens, and way quieter than your current lens, but you will be getting limited improvement in functionality.

Bitterkitten, you are confused as to the value of a full frame camera. The advantage is being able to use 35mm lenses at their designed focal length. A 50mm lens on a full frame camera is actually a 50mm lens, rather than the equivalent of an 84mm lens. To get a normal lens, you'd have to use a 24mm or something around there. The inexpensive Canon wides are of dubious quality and the good ones are really expensive.

I believe I heard that the Sigma 30mm lens was pretty soft, this was a couple of years ago though, maybe it's better now.
posted by sully75 at 3:02 PM on August 23, 2011

Lamp - I didn't say there was not a significant difference - there most definitely, assuredly is! - my point is that it is clear to me that just upgrading one's camera body only, from a crop sensor to full frame, may not be a guarantee of an overall increase in quality - e.g., just because dynamic range increases dramatically (lower noise high ISO speed), or perhaps you have much faster shutter speeds, or maybe the autofocussing works better, not to mention the increase in what fits in the frame - that doesn't mean the degree of softness may not alter, which is what I experienced, due to what I suspect is the change in the # of megapixels/pixel density - without an increase in lens quality as well.

It's totally possible I just had a dud, but the fact that Canon does not tell anyone this technical fact made me extremely annoyed. Also true, the 40d is not full frame, and thus perhaps my 'argument' is specious - but it seems to me that if I went from a cropped-sensor, essentially first-consumer-DSLR-ever-made in 2003, to a much more evolved crop-senor camera in 2007 in the 40d - if anything, the quality should have at least stayed the same, assuming everything was working properly.

Thus, I just like to warn people to test out your older lenses on a new camera body if you can before you drop a bunch of cash.

But anyway I am threadjacking Thom's thread. Sorry Thom!

Thom - I have not shot with the Sigma, but I have used a Tamron that works pretty great. They don't make it anymore though. ; ) Almost all those pictures you see were shot using the original Canon Digital Rebel (300d?), and either a 50 1.4 or the 85 1.8. I think a couple were shot using my Tamron 70-210 2.8, and maybe those two wedding pictures were from the 40d. I also have the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, which is a pretty good zoom for the price, but it has not taken as many good pics for me as the primes.
posted by bitterkitten at 3:02 PM on August 23, 2011

"perhaps my 'argument' is specious" - it is. Both of your cameras had crop sensors.

If you were just to say "more expensive cameras are not always better/worth the money" I'd agree, but the move from a crop sensor camera - even a high end one like the Canon xxd series - to a FF camera makes a huge difference in low-light performance.
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:34 PM on August 23, 2011

The "high end" crop sensor cameras have advantages over the Rebels, like more features, better build quality, etc. but the core quality of the images is pretty much the same.
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:36 PM on August 23, 2011

Ok let's keep things simple, because your question is very simple.

First off lens vs. flash.

You want a flash to take control of your lighting. If the light is no good then you want a flash to add a little something extra, or to completely light the whole scene.

Stage lighting is generally great. It highlights what needs to be seen, it adds colour, and it's part of the show, you are trying to capture the show.

If the stage lighting is terrible, or non-existent then you might want a little fill flash, maybe with one of those fancy gary fong things to add the definition or contrast that the stage lighting should be there to provide.

The vast majority of the time you won't need flash. On top of that it's usually not allowed anyways. But it's still a useful thing to have with you on the off chance it becomes useful.
Shooting events is all about being versatile. A good flash is just one more tool to have with you.


Right now you're just shooting with a 50 1.8. So basically anything else sufficiently different from that is going to be useful to have with you.

You're shooting low light, without flash, so you need a large aperture lens that is not a 50mm, because you already have a large aperture 50mm.

The more focal lengths you can cover, the more versatile you can be, so you can take one of two approaches: Either cover that range with a couple of good zooms (ie. 24-70mm 2.8 L + 70-200mm 2.8 L) or with a handful of bright prime lenses (ie. 2.8 fisheye + 30mm 1.4 + 50mm 1.8 + 85mm 1.8 + 135mm 2.8 etc.).

Whether you go with zooms or primes is your own preference, but based on your budget you'll get far more bang for your buck just building up a collection of prime lenses one by one.

So get yourself a nice prime lens that is sufficiently wider or suffieciently longer than your 50mm to be useful.

If you find yourself always up close to the action get something like the 28mm 1.8 or Sigma 30mm 1.4 (FWIW my experience with the sigma has always been fantastic.).

If you find yourself out in the back, or wanting to get those tight, thin-DOF headshots then get an 85mm 1.8.

If you find a good deal on craigslist get both! (Or grab a flash along side one just for the fun of it. Any Canon flash that ends in EX, eg. 380ex, 420ex, 430ex, will work with your camera just fine, all EZ flashes only work with older film bodies.)
posted by breakfast! at 5:39 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read breakfast's post and ignore all this other stuff. As in pretty much every camera thread, people are derailing all over the shop.

breakfast! has some great advice. I'd only disagree on a couple of minor points. Firstly, I've had much better experience with the 28mm 1.8 than the Sigma 30mm 1.4 (better focusing IMO), but they're sufficiently similar as to be both very useful for your needs.

Secondly, if you did buy a flashgun (and I really don't think you should), make sure it's one with an adjustable head. Canon typically have three flashes in their lineup at any one time. The cheapest is just a light source that points ahead. The second has a fully adjustable head. The most expensive is a higher quality version of the middle one, with more features, like wireless control of other flashes. You'd probably want to aim for the middle one for your first flash, and the most expensive one for your second one.
posted by Magnakai at 4:04 AM on August 24, 2011

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