Which Nikon lens for low light kid photos?
July 23, 2012 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend a Nikon (or nikon compatible) lens for taking photos of a busy toddler without a flash? (Anon so I can surprise my husband for his birthday.)

We want a lens to take lower light indoor photos of our two year old. We have a Nikon 5100, a 18-55mm lens and a 70-300. I'd like to spend less than $500, but that is not a firm budget. Is this possible?
posted by anonymous to Shopping (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Basically any of the f/1.4 or f/1.8 primes will do. There are lenses at 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Some of those are FX format, which will work on your camera, but the effective focal length will be multiplied by 1.5 (so those become basically 50mm, 75mm, and 125mm, respectively). I don't know what kinds of environments you're shooting in (i.e. tight spaces or fairly large rooms), but choose the length that's right for where you'll be shooting.

If you want some options you could pick up both the 35mm f/1.8G (DX format) and the 50mm f/1.8G (FX format) and still be within $500. That would give you a 35mm lens and (effectively) a 75mm lens, which is pretty good for indoor shooting.

If you don't like fixed focal length lenses or would really prefer to stick with a zoom, then I think your only reasonable option is the 24-85mm f/2.8-4. It's not ideal for low-light at the far end, but it's still faster than what you have, I suspect.

Another option to consider is buying an external flash. Even one of the less expensive models is much better than the built-in flash. On the other hand, the toddler may not appreciate the flash going off or may lose spontaneity.
posted by jedicus at 4:49 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the best for you would be the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G, under $200 as you shop around. This lens gives you a "normal" field of view, right in the middle of the zoom range of the 18-55 that came with the camera. There is also a 50mm f/1.8 at a bit lower price, but that is near the far range of the zoom you have, and not too good for indoor shots.

Either will let you shoot in "2 stops lower light" than your 18-55 zoom lens, that's about 1/4 the light level of your 18-55, roughly, all else being equal.

Without going all techie, this 35mm lens or the 50mm is the best buy and I think the 35mm would be best for catching the kid in low light.
posted by caclwmr4 at 4:51 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of people will recommend the 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 or 35mm f/2 ... but with that kind of budget, I would consider an external flash. Bouncing it off a ceiling or wall will actually give you very flattering results, and in the long run might actually be more versatile than a fast lens. (However a fast lens will be great for portraits......... but a good flash will help you capture a little one that won't sit still with a better chance of decent focus).

On preview, what jedicus said!
posted by starman at 4:51 PM on July 23, 2012

Lots of good advice above.

My wife uses the 50mm f/1.8 on a D90 for exactly this purpose and the results are stunning.
posted by The World Famous at 4:53 PM on July 23, 2012

I've got the 35mm f/1.8 DX, which is what I would suggest. It's one of the cheapest autofocus lenses Nikon has and it works well in low-light. Doesn't work well with FX, but you don't have an FX camera, so that shouldn't be an issue.
posted by ckape at 4:57 PM on July 23, 2012

caclwmr4: "I think the best for you would be the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G, under $200 as you shop around. "

I have this lens, and this is the lens that you want.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:58 PM on July 23, 2012

OH NO, my first message inadvertently linked to that company's "direct import" version. You want the USA version at this link. The price is the same, but the USA version comes with the no-problem USA warranty. For this lens, the price at that company is the same for the USA version or their direct import.

(For various reasons the big camera stores sometimes do a direct import from Japan or even from Europe, because sometimes it can be significantly cheaper than getting the official USA version through Nikon USA. The lens is exactly the same. But the direct import version comes with the "International Warranty", and since there is an official USA import version through Nikon USA, Nikon will charge a handling fee if the international version is submitted for a warranty issue in the US, even though warranty repair or replacement would still be free. This kind of thing has gone on since the 1950s with Nikon.)

I bet you will never have a problem with this lens either way, but get the official USA version at the link in this message or from a different retailer. Sorry about my first link.
posted by caclwmr4 at 5:14 PM on July 23, 2012

I shoot my very active kids (oldest is 7) almost exclusively with a 50mm/1.8 and can recommend it. Make sure whatever lens you get will auto focus with the camera body. It's a bit tedious to ensure if you're not familiar, but this lens compatibility chart on Ken Rockwell's site (highly recommended for lens buyers) helps.

I'm of two thoughts about the external flash. On one hand it does give waaaaay better results than the built-in, and the photos will be fine. However, one of the things the flash does not do, that the 35mm and 55mm will, is bring the focus to the kid's face and expression while defocusing all the crap that usually surrounds kids. This has given many of my 50mm photos the edge over other focal lengths because they just look timeless from the moment they're taken. My kit lens with external flash is fine, but the total wreck of my house and the hand-me-down Fisher Price castle is then also flatteringly lit, and competing for attention.

I think I've rented the 35mm and found it was tough for me to get the right distance consistently to frame the way I wanted. That might be more of a dynamic between me and my kids that doesn't affect you. Which reminds me, renting each for a weekend might be a nice present, with the follow-on being that you'll purchase whichever he likes best. I've used LensRentals.com and another I can't remember, with great success.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:29 PM on July 23, 2012

I really like the 35mm 1.8 mentioned above. I have the D5000, and there's almost nothing I can't capture with that lens and a high ISO. (Don't be afraid to go to 1600 ISO with that camera.) I can't remember the last time I used flash to capture an image.

A friend has the 50mm prime, which is also a great lens but for my taste frames too tightly for indoor use. I'd rather shoot wider and crop the image if needed. You have plenty of megapixels at your disposal to crop and still get excellent prints of any size you would normally want.

One caveat: just because you can shoot wide open doesn't mean you should. Any prime wide open will result in very shallow depth of field, making preside focusing vital. Regardless of your choice, he will just need to take some time to figure out the the best methods.
posted by The Deej at 5:58 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Echoing The Deej, shooting fully open can be at your own peril. Few things more frustrating than that otherwise great shot soft on the kid but sharp on the table/chair in front/behind them. I'd recommend an 18-50 with a constant 2.8 (Tamron and Sigma both make in your budget). I've got the Sigma. It's replaced my kit lens and lives on my camera 80% of the time indoors or out.
posted by dismitree at 6:56 PM on July 23, 2012

If his is a DX format camera, I can't recommend the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Nikon-Mount lens highly enough. I have the Canon mount version of that lens and have found it ideal for the toddlers in my family.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:00 PM on July 23, 2012

Oh, also, given the DX (APS-C) aperture size, you are likely to find that shooting "wide open" or close to it (that is, 1.4-1.8-2.0) will not give as narrow a depth of field as you have been warned about, if the warners are thinking of shooting at those apertures on 35mm sensor cameras.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:02 PM on July 23, 2012

Urgh, I meant DX (APS-C) *sensor* size. My apologies.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:02 PM on July 23, 2012

With an external flash, you can "bounce" the light off the walls and ceiling, avoiding the harsh shadowing you get with the built-in flash. Nothing has improved my indoor photography more than learning to use a flash.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:16 PM on July 23, 2012

I have the Sigma 30 f/1.4 on a Nikon DX camera and it's great for low-light natural shots of kids and things indoors, or for super-crisp high-speed shots in better light conditions, like outdoors on a swing.
posted by cardboard at 7:58 PM on July 23, 2012

For indoor shots, above-mentioned 35/1.8 or 50/1.8. You can't go wrong with either.

The thing about these lenses is neither has a very pleasant bokeh. For indoor shots, you are unlikely to care, since it's hard to find non-prepared backgrounds within the hose that will blur pleasantly, especially if you are chasing a toddler around the floor. But if you have spare money, and want a lens that will give you crazy beautiful bokeh for outdoors photos, I'd recommend a longer, slightly slower prime lens. I have a Tamron 90/2.8 and it's my favorite.

Here is a random example of soft bokeh which is achieved effortlessly with that lens: link. It's also a full 1:1 macro, lightweight, and damn high quality. At ~ $500 it's a steal.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 10:53 PM on July 23, 2012

Definitely try out the lens first to make sure you are comfortable with the view you get. I preferred a slightly wider view than the 35mm so I got a Sigma 24mm f1.8 which I've found great. Its also a macro lens which is kinda cool, but it takes "normal" photos perfectly well.

I used to have a 30mm Sigma f1.4 that lived on my old Pentax that was supurb too.
posted by Admira at 11:21 PM on July 23, 2012

I've used the 50mm f/1.8 on a D90 for this purpose for years. I'd intended to get the 35mm, but was given the 50mm as a gift and decided that it was perfect as-is. Just remember that the zoom is in your feet.
posted by togdon at 12:05 AM on July 24, 2012

Pretty much exactly what everyone has said, with a couple of caveats - Whether or not it's FX or DX Nikon indicates the lens length with the same number: A DX 35mm lens has the same field of view on your crop sensor camera as an FX 35mm lens. The 35mm is actually effectively 50mm-ish and 50mm is 70mm-ish as noted. I have both the DX 35mm 1.8 and the FX 50mm 1.8, and I now use the 35 much more often. 50mm is just too tight inside if you're trying to get more than head and shoulders. You can zoom with your feet, except when there's a wall in the way.
posted by mzurer at 10:00 AM on July 24, 2012

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