Best lens for low-light photography with a Nikon D50?
September 3, 2008 9:54 AM   Subscribe

What is the best lens to use with a Nikon D50 for low-light situations where the subjects are moving?

I would like to photograph people at swing dances, which are usually low-light settings and the people tend to move fast.

A friend has gotten some really amazing shots using a Canon EOS 30D with a fixed 28mm lens. (exposures were typically lasting .005-.01 seconds, f 1.8 or 2.) No blurring, beautiful colors. Really just gorgeous portraits of people having a good time, like a freeze-frame in the middle of their dance, and just enough blurring in the background to bring the viewer's focus to the subject.

I have a Nikon D50 and this friend has told me Nikons are not as good as Canons in low-light situations. But I don't really want to invest a lot of money in a whole new body *and* lens.

Is there a lens for the D50 that could accomplish this? (And that would be not-too-expensive? I'm happy to buy used.) In case it matters, right now I have the Nikon 18-200mm lens, which has been fine for everyday shooting but doesn't do as well in really low light. I might be willing to sell this lens to put the money towards the low-light one. (esp if the low-light one could also be used for more general settings like outdoors in the afternoon.)

thanks for your advice! :)
posted by inatizzy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Nikon D50 is fine in low light so there's no reason to get a new camera. You might try the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, it's an inexpensive lens that could work well for this type of shooting.
posted by spindling at 10:13 AM on September 3, 2008

Ideally you want a lens that's f2 or faster. The actual focal length would depend upon how close you are to your subjects when shooting.

Presuming you want to stay with Nikon brand autofocus lenses, possibilities would be a 35/2 AF or AF-D, giving you the rough equivalent of a 52mm lens on a 35mm film camera (the traditional "normal" lens), a 50/1.or 50/1.4 AF or AF-D, which would function like a modest telephoto, an 85/1.8 or 85/1.4 AF or AF-D (longer telephoto), or perhaps a 105/2 or 135/2 AF or AF-D, which is getting into real telephoto territory and probably too long for your purposes.

As regards your friend who told you that "Nikons are not as good as Canons in low-light situations" more than a few experienced photographers, including myself, would find that blanket statement to be a real stretch, if not downright laughable. This is in terms of both delivered image quality and the ability of the respective cameras to autofocus quickly and accurately in low light situations.

I'd suggest you go to a brick and mortar camera shop and try out the lenses I've suggested. If the 50mm focal length works for you, you'll find it extremely inexpensive.
posted by imjustsaying at 10:25 AM on September 3, 2008

Remember to set the D50 to a very high ISO. The default is auto, and I'm not sure how high that goes, probably not to the max in order to reduce noise. There are some very expensive VR lenses that go down to f2.8, and supposedly the VR gives you "two more stops" however I think they are all 70mm or longer. (Equivalent to a 135mm)
posted by Gungho at 10:38 AM on September 3, 2008

Good advice above. It's unclear what your shooting distance is likely to be. Another possibility on the wide end would be the Sigma 30/1.4. In any case, be prepared to shoot in the ISO 400-800 range.
posted by psyche7 at 10:47 AM on September 3, 2008

Also, VR is useless for moving subjects.
posted by psyche7 at 10:49 AM on September 3, 2008

Everyone else is pretty much spot on, just remember the higher your ISO the more noise you're likely to get. The best thing you can do is a "practice shoot". Play with all your settings in a similar environment, adjusting them one at a time until you find your sweet spot. Then when the time comes to take your pictures you can concentrate more on composition and having fun than fiddling with dials and being frustrated.
posted by wavering at 11:04 AM on September 3, 2008

A friend has gotten some really amazing shots using a Canon EOS 30D with a fixed 28mm lens. (exposures were typically lasting .005-.01 seconds, f 1.8 or 2.) No blurring, beautiful colors. Really just gorgeous portraits of people having a good time, like a freeze-frame in the middle of their dance, and just enough blurring in the background to bring the viewer's focus to the subject.

You know, a lens is probably not what you need right now. You seem to understand some of the numbers that are involved with cameras but you don't know what any of those numbers mean. You getting a new lens, while an important step to improving your low-light photographs, won't necessarily lead you to better photos (and you need a new friend - nikon and canon are pretty much the same in terms of quality for amateur photographers). You really need to figure out what f numbers, ISO, etc mean and what they do when it comes to photography (if you did, you would understand why your 18-200 lens doesn't do what you would like it to do).

Check out this book: Understanding Exposure. Read it, understand it, apply the ideas in it to your current lens. Then go out and buy the cheap 50 mm 1.8 and practice using that lens. Note that since you don't have a fullframe camera, a 50 mm will work like an 85 mm (my math is off but it's close) so you will have to stand back further from your subjects but since it sounds like cost is an issue, the cheap 50 mm 1.8 will work best for you.

But, seriously, get that book first and understand the terms and then go out and shoot.
posted by Stynxno at 11:20 AM on September 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far, everyone! Really, this is great. Keep it coming. And I am glad to know I'm not silly for doing lowlight shooting with a Nikon instead of a Canon.

To answer the question above, my shooting distance will generally be within 10-20 feet of the subjects, I think, though I am sure it will vary a bit depending on what is going on in the room at the time. (sometimes it is nice to get a wider shot of what is going on the room as a whole, not just the individuals.)

I suspect that most of the lenses listed so far are not going to capture close-ups very well. (am I wrong? I really enjoy the wider angles on my current lens, which goes to 18mm, and I'm afraid that 35mm will not be wide enough for shooting so closely to the subjects.)

Do you know of lenses that would get the wider angles, like I think my friend's 28mm is able to do? And, are there any lenses that can do lowlight well AND can do some zooming? (so I can go wide when people are close by, and zoom in when they're farther away? Maybe that is asking too much. :)
posted by inatizzy at 11:22 AM on September 3, 2008

Remember when you're zooming you're narrowing in on a subject and loosing a lot of the ambient light in the frame and it will effect everything about your setup. If you want to take action shots in low light I would definitely favor a prime lens. And I second the recomendation by Stynxno. Understanding Exposure is a great book with lots of example shots to help you visually understand. It's sitting on my coffee table at home right now!
posted by wavering at 11:42 AM on September 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks again guys. I do understand the f numbers, ISO etc. and that zooming means I lose light. But what I am not familiar with is what equipment is out there. (For all I know there's some crazy cool lens that has zoom but is fast enough at its widest to do low light well.)

And that book looks awesome; I think I am going to get myself a copy of it.
posted by inatizzy at 12:15 PM on September 3, 2008

I find your friend's comments ironic, since the D50 was rated fairly well for low noise characteristics at the higher ISOs. I like mine for astrophotography (completely different environment, situation than yours of course)

>(For all I know there's some crazy cool lens that has zoom but is fast enough at its widest to do low light well.)

Yes, they do exist. Sports photographers use them, and they start at $2000 range and go up up up. :(
posted by rdhatt at 12:47 PM on September 3, 2008

The Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 is an affordable, reasonably-fast zoom lens that works well for indoor shooting. It's a couple stops less sensitive than a good fast prime, but it zooms, and the image quality is really good.
posted by kindall at 1:35 PM on September 3, 2008

I shoot with the 50mm lens spindling recommended on my D50 in similar situations.
posted by Lynsey at 2:36 PM on September 3, 2008

> (For all I know there's some crazy cool lens that has zoom but is fast enough at its widest to do low light well.)

The f2.8 Nikon AF-S zooms probably fall into this class. I own the 17-35/2.8 AF-S, the 17-55/2.8 AF-S, the 28-70/2.8 AF-S, the 80-200/1.8 AF-S, and the 70-200/2.8 AF-S VR.

They're all excellent optics. Even at f2.8 they're good to the point where I very rarely dip into my locker of fast prime lenses for hard core available light work.

The problem, from your point of view, would be that even if purchased used, they're high end lenses with high end price tags. They're also all, without exception, very heavy, bulky, and potentially intimidating to your subjects because of their physical size. For the kinds of jobs I shoot their benefits outweigh nearly all of these disadvantages.

However, most of the time when I'm just shooting for myself, I'll either take only my 18-200 AF-S VR, or my manual focus 20/2.8, 50/1.4, and 85/1.8 if I expect to be in minimal light.

If you really think you want a lower cost decent zoom, you might look at the 17-55/2.8 Tamron SP AF 17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di-II. It's still big, but physically smaller than the equivalent Nikon product. It will also autofocus considerably slower than the Nikon AF-S crazy cool lenses.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:37 PM on September 3, 2008

In my first paragraph above I meant to say 80-200/2.8, not "80-200/1.8".
posted by imjustsaying at 2:41 PM on September 3, 2008

You want one of two lenses:

1) 17-55mm f2.8, if you want to retain the ability to zoom.

2) 50mm f1.4, if you're okay with a non-zoom lens. You can also get a 50mm f1.8 if you want to save some cash.
posted by CharlieChu at 2:49 PM on September 3, 2008

In addition to the notes about a fast lens and a high ISO, you might want to look into creative flash techniques. (I can't tell if the scenario you talk about shooting would allow a flash, but if it does, this adds an amazing new tool for you to use)

Fill-flash and second-curtain flash both allow for a lot of expressive uses, and when coupled with a good camera like the Nikon or Canon give you nice results without looking like they were taken with a flash. (See here for a reasonable explaination of the technology of second curtain flash; here's an exampleon Flickr.) Strobist will teach you everything you wanted to know about flash photography that doesn't look like flash photography.
posted by printdevil at 3:11 PM on September 3, 2008

One thing people haven't mentioned is noise reduction software as part of post processing. That may help with the digital noise that comes from high ISO settings. Take a look at Noise Ninja and its competitors. I believe Noise Ninja has a trial version (i.e., all your images get watermarked with "Buy Noise Ninja" or somesuch, but at least you can compare its output with your originals).

Being cheap, I have a 50mm f/1.8, which is nice. Oh, Nikon's cheap flash, the SB-400, is nice and cheap, at around $110. While it's not going to light up a ballroom, it can give very nice results.
posted by chengjih at 3:52 PM on September 3, 2008

Lots of great advice here. Given the inexpensive price of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, it's a must have for anybody who's shooting low light. It might be a bit telephoto on your D50 but it's so much performance for the price, it's worth it.

In my experience, the fastest a zoom lens gets is f/2.8 (constant). Be aware, too, that there are zoom lenses whose maximum apertures change dependent on focal length.

I am a concert photographer and my fellow concert photographers feel your pain about trying to freeze motion in low lighting conditions. As far as lenses go, for wide, fast (f/2.8 at a minimum), and inexpensive: choose two. And whatever lens you buy, you have to deal with the multiplication factor, too. Plus, for whatever reason, there's just a smaller selection of wide and fast lenses for Nikon shooters as compared to Canon shooters. Sigma has stepped in with some alternatives like the 30mm f/1.4 lens but YMMV.

Compare a constant f/2.8 aperture zoom with a prime lens, which is often able to open up to f/1.8 or f/1.4:
f/2.8 is a stop slower than f/2.
f/2.8 is a stop and a third slower than f/1.8.
f/2.8 is two stops slower than f/1.4.

Assuming your friend's Canon camera was at 1600 ISO, shutter 1/100, and f/1.4, and if you were to use a zoom lens and open the aperture to f/2.8, to let the same amount of light in, you'd need to use settings of 1600 ISO and a shutter speed of 1/25 (because f-stops are related to powers of sqrt 2). Not so great if you want to freeze motion without underexposing by too much.
posted by kathryn at 7:21 PM on September 3, 2008

Also you should be shooting in RAW mode. Otherwise you'll get a compressed JPG. The RAW mode offers you greater flexibility in post processing provided you have software capable of editing your RAW files. Usually a camera specific plug-in is required.
posted by Gungho at 10:38 AM on September 8, 2008

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