Cheap DSRL for low-light?
February 26, 2009 10:20 PM   Subscribe

What cheap kit should I get to take relatively low-light photos?

So I found out that shooting hockey indoors is out of my price/skills range. Still looking for a camera. My subjects would be people in low-light situations, at close range (players on the bench, people in the crowd). Later, I'd use that setup to shoot family gatherings. Ideally, I'd like to spend less than $1000. I own no lenses, or body. It seems that a DSLR with an APS-sized sensor + a fixed lens would offer me the best compromise in terms of low-light performance vs. weight vs. cost.

This leads me to:

This Nikkor lens + a D40 (or D60 if I should) seems like the cheapest/lightest setup with a "normal" (like a 50 mm lens on a 35 mm camera) perspective. Amirite? Is there a good reason to avoid the D40?
Should I step up to a Sigma 30 mm/1.4? Here in Canada it's more than double the price.

Fast 50 mm lenses are relatively cheap. Would putting one on an APS body be an hindrance, given that I intend to shoot in close quarters (e.g.: people in a living room)?

Finally, am I overthinking this? Would whatever cheap kit zoom be enough for my purpose? For "shooting around a hockey game", a zoom would be nice since I could get relatively "close" to the players on the opposite bench.

Oh, and should I care about stabilisation, since I'm shooting people?
posted by Monday, stony Monday to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Your lens link is all wrong.

Are you fixed on Nikon? I've generally found Canon's sensors & image processing pipeline have better noise charactaristics than pretty much anyone else. Might give you similar picture quality at higher ISO sensitivity compared to a Nikon at a lower ISO. A stop of added sensitivity can ~halve the price of the lens you'll need for a given aperture and shutter speed.
posted by Good Brain at 10:45 PM on February 26, 2009

Your lens link doesn't work, but the only fast 50mm Nikon lens that works with the autofocus system (AF-S) on the D40 costs about $500. You can get a fast 50mm prime for much, much less if you are willing to focus manually on the D40.

Regarding what Good Brain said above, I have a D60 and anything at or above ISO 800 looks pretty bad, to be fair.
posted by halogen at 10:55 PM on February 26, 2009

Your Nikkor link is busted, but I'm assuming you're talking about the 35mm f/2.0.

50mm lenses indoors are pretty tight. There are some good calculators online to help you visualize what certain lenses will do in certain situations. A D40 with a 50mm lens at 8 feet gives you a ~4' x 2.5' frame, which is only going to fit two or maybe three people horizontally. With a 30mm lens, you'd have a much more reasonable 6' x 4' frame to work with. Be aware focal lengths are not linear (i.e. the difference between a 14mm lens and 19mm lens is huge; 200mm and 205mm are basically identical) so for 30mm vs 35mm you might want to run the numbers both ways.

Similarly, you can work backwards based on known exposure values to figure out what kind of aperture you might need for lighting. Using an exposure value of 7 (high end for "home interiors") and the chart above that, at f/2.0 (the fastest on the Nikkor) the exposure time would be 1/30s. Following the (1 / focal length) rule for lens stability, since you're working at an effective 52.5mm (30mm * 1.5, the crop factor), you're probably going to see blurring unless you use a tripod (more $$$). The chart on Wikipedia is for ISO 100; if you're willing to go up to ISO 400, the exposure time would be 1/120s and you'd probably be OK (though you'll have a lot more noise in the picture). Upgrading to the 1.4 buys you one stop of exposure, so you could either shoot 1/240s or drop the ISO down to 200 in this case. Or it might keep you from being completely hosed if it's a darker room and the exposure value is 5. Stabilization on the wider lenses is usually of little value since subject motion is more likely to cause blurring than camera shake.

Another option would be to just get the cheapo kit lens and a flash unit that can tilt/swivel. Indoors with a bounced flash you can get away with pretty much anything in terms of exposure at the cost of things not looking as natural.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:57 PM on February 26, 2009

One of the best digital camera review sites is dpreview. There you can analyze and compare the high iso noise performance of cameras in your price range.

I agree that for close quarters, a 50mm lens on an APS sensor camera is not so good. Nikon just announced a 35mm f/1.8 lens (about $200) that should do nicely.
posted by conrad53 at 11:51 PM on February 26, 2009

FWIW, I shoot people in normally-lit living rooms all the time, with a Canon 35 f/2 on my Rebel XTi. ISO still pretty much always has to be jacked up at 1600, but I get reasonably-good shots and noise-reduction software helps a lot. It's still not great, but better than no shot at all. If you go longer - even up to 50 - you'd need even more speed to get shots without blur, and if you're already at ISO 1600, that's really tricky. Definitely recommend a 35mm or 28mm, regardless of your Nikon/Canon choice.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:13 AM on February 27, 2009

I own a D40 and it's a great camera for the price, but don't get it if you are looking to get a cheap, fast 50mm as currently the only options are quite expensive. Certainly there is nothing to compare with the ridiculously cheap EF 50mm f/1.8 II. My biggest problem with the D40 is that the only Nikon lens that comes close to this one is at least double the price and doesn't auto-focus.
posted by afu at 1:13 AM on February 27, 2009

I have a nikon d40 and it was pretty good at doing low light for me. im not camera expert though.
posted by majortom1981 at 4:41 AM on February 27, 2009

Check out Ken Rockwell's Nikon Lens Reviews.
posted by Mach5 at 4:55 AM on February 27, 2009

You might be overthinking a bit.

Do this: Get the Nikon D40 with the 18-55 kit lens. Honestly, it will do what you need. Don't be afraid to shoot at 800 or even 1600 ISO. Work on your skills. Then, there are countless lenses you can add later if you want.

Whatever you get, do not fall into the trap of thinking "grain=evil." (Technically it's noise, not grain.) Nearly all of my friends get obsessed about this, and it's a big stumbling block. Here are some photos I shot with my D40 at 800 and 1600 ISO. See for yourself.

For under $500 (US), including the kit lens, you can't go wrong with the D40. (Skip the D60. More pixels on the same size sensor will introduce more noise in low light. I regularly make 12x18 prints from my D40 with no problem.)
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:14 AM on February 27, 2009

Just want to add 2 things:

I just checked, and with my D40 and kit lens, I can shoot a subject lit by a single 60 watt bulb (a couple feet away) at 800 ISO, at f 3.5 and 1/30 sec shutter speed at the 18mm end of my kit lens. This is a hand-holdable speed. Hand-holding at slow shutter speeds is an acquired skill you will need to work on.

Also: the built-in flash, used properly does a great job for exactly the kind of photos you want to take. True, flash can kill the mood of the available light if used improperly. But learn to use it correctly and it will be a lifesaver. Slow-sync (rear curtain) flash mode will preserve the background lighting, but add enough appropriate light to your subjects. If the photos look too flash-y, you can dial down the power on the flash very quickly and easily.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:35 AM on February 27, 2009

50mm is rough shooting anything but closeups and tightly composed shots inside. 35mm or 30mm would be better. Also consider just simply a tripod (if you are doing family gather portraits) or an external flash (and point it at the ceiling, not directly at them). The Canon XTi is $200 more than the D40 (on Amazon) but it gives you more lens flexibility and you could still get a flash or 35mm and come in under $1000.
posted by starman at 6:10 AM on February 27, 2009

I think you have things pretty well figured out. An SLR with a modern sensor and a 35mm lens as mentioned above would work well. If you buy from or other used dealers you could save substantially over new. Also watch

Check out Ken Rockwell's Nikon Lens Reviews.

Don't listen to Ken Rockwell. While there is an occasional turd-nugget of truth on his site, he is full of shit and says outrageous bullshit to drive traffic.
posted by fake at 6:52 AM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would encourage you to go a camera store and try out various bodies first. I was convinced I was going to buy a D40 and ended up with a Canon Rebel XS because it just felt better in my hands in a hard-to-define-but-impossible-to-argue-with sort of way.

Once that's done, look at your lens choice. I will say that I have the 1.4 50mm prime lens for my Canon and have been able to take really fantastic pictures with it, indoors, no flash. Granted at close quarters you have to compose pretty tightly, but that actually suits my style.

Basically - try before you buy, because it will do you no good to buy a camera that you end up never using because it makes your hands cramp or something. And good luck!
posted by oblique red at 8:31 AM on February 27, 2009

D50, very low light, 50mm f/1.8, ISO 800
posted by lee at 10:59 AM on February 27, 2009

The AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G is the lens I was thinking about.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:44 PM on February 27, 2009

(And I now realize that while some stores have the DX 35mm f/1.8G in their online catalogue, it's not in stock yet).

Thank you all for the advice. I'm going to try to get my hands on a Canon (I already tried a D40 and a D60 and liked them) and decide on what I'll do.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:02 PM on February 27, 2009

Ahah. Great fun. I could get a used Rebel XTi with the cheap zoom + all accessories for $550, or a new D40+cheap zoom but not accessories for $450, or a D60+cheap zoom for $650.

But then I want a fast fixed 30 or 35mm. The Nikon 35mm (for small sensors) is not available yet (so I can't do just new D60+35mm until a few weeks have passed), but it has f/1.8 and an ultrasonic motor. The Canon 35mm f/2 isn't in stock anywhere near me, and it's more expensive than the Nikon, but it's in production right now. It doesn't have an ultrasonic motor, but it can be used with full-frame sensor (if I decide to upgrade in a few years).

Both cameras could take the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, but it's $680 and a bit heavy (okay it would make the system weight a full kilo-g instead of a nice 750 g). Yeah, all those are canadian dollars.

My brothers have a tournament next weekend, and I'd like to have a new camera then. I figure I could deal with the slow zoom during the long days of summer, and then get the f/1.4 to take photos of my uncles playing dice this winter.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:20 PM on February 27, 2009

One more thing to think of - the sony/alpha cameras have stabilisation built into the body, so if you buy a cheap/fast prime lens, it too will be stabilised, unlike in the canon/nikon systems. The A700 is their best low-light performer, but it's not real cheap ($1000ish new, probably $700 second hand).

However, if you get an A200 (cheap, entry-level, about $500 brand new with kit lens, much less used), the noise performance is acceptable - on par with the D40 and D60 - plus you get stabilisation. Add a second hand 50/1.4 (<>hand-held by candlelight for under $700, perhaps under $500. That's not something I'd try with the canons or nikons unless it's a D3 or D700 (full frame and $3000 for the body alone).

For family gatherings, get an off-camera wireless flash (which basically means you buy Sony or Nikon) and bounce it off the ceiling. Gets you much much better light and is a better investment in your portrait quality than any one lens.

Also with in-body stabilisation, you can buy cheaper third-party lenses... and they're stabilised. And the whole back-catalogue of excellent glass too. Seriously, do not underestimate the value of that. And the best thing about the alpha system is dyxum; you will not find anything else like it for getting good information.

Beware very fast lenses though... it takes a fair amount of practise to nail a headshot with 3mm of DOF (you want the eyes sharp, the nose will not be) so no matter what you get, don't get frustrated and give up because every shot is blurry the first evening you try it. Even worse, fast lenses are addictive and lead to that most dreaded of photographic diseases: lens lust. Next it will be the 85/1.4, the 135/1.8, perhaps a 28/2 or 35/2 and oh my.

Disclaimer: I own and use a lot of Alpha gear. I don't hold any Sony or related stock though...
posted by polyglot at 12:54 AM on February 28, 2009

damn posting broke my tags - worked in preview!

End of 2nd para should be: Add a second-hand 50/1.4 (<$200) or 50/1.7 ($100, though the 50/1.4 is better up to f/2.8 and you'll want to be at about f/2) and you can shoot people hand-held by candlelight for under $700, perhaps under $500.
posted by polyglot at 12:57 AM on February 28, 2009

Update: I bought a Canon Rebel XS a few days ago. It came with a kit lens (17-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS for crop sensors), and I used it to take a few photos over the weekend. I got a few almost-usable shots at the hockey game, and some nice one at my brother's birthday dinner. I now find that I need to upgrade my computer if I want photography to be any fun (my current comp. is a tank, but it doesn't have USB 2.0 or firewire), so I plan on getting a 50 mm f/1.8 for portrait fun in the early evening, and a tripod for the rest. A fast normal lens will have to for next year, I guess.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:39 PM on March 9, 2009

If noise/grain really does bother you, check out Noise Ninja. Although I don't find a moderate amount of grain objectionable, Noise Ninja can do miracles. Try the trial version on some of your high ISO shots, and you'll probably end up buying a license.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:51 AM on March 11, 2009

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