The best low light lens requires a large aperture to capture more light. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best lenses for low light photos.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October 2019. It’s been freshened up with new pictures and commentary on January 5, 2020.
How to get more light
With light being the foundation of a photograph, shooting in low light can be difficult if you don’t have the right lens. When there’s limited light, the right exposure can mean sacrificing quality.
Whether you’re shooting portraits at night, early in the morning, or somewhere without much light, take the following steps to increase exposure:
- Decrease shutter speed.
- Increase ISO.
- Decrease f-stop (aperture).
Although these three ways will surely increase the exposure and brighten your image, there are problems that you’ll encounter.
If your shutter speed is too slow, the image will be blurry. This is a result of motion blur or camera shake which leads to a loss of sharpness in the image.
For handheld photos, the slowest shutter speed depends on the focal length of your lens.
For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens, the slowest shutter speed would be 1/50. If you’re using a 100mm lens, don’t go slower than 1/100. The longer your focal length, the faster the shutter speed.
Depending on how steady your hands are, you may be able to use slower shutter speeds. When you use slow shutter speeds, use a tripod or monopod to help stabilize the image.
ISO, which is less commonly referred to as ASA, is the sensitivity to light. It originated from the days of film photography where the higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film was to light.
Now, digital cameras have become more popular than film but the idea of ISO remains the same. Instead of film, digital cameras have digital sensors.
Increasing the ISO can result in grain and noise in the image, which means that the photo will lose quality. The key to retaining photo quality is to use the lowest possible ISO.
Often, the lowest ISO is 100, which is also known as the base ISO. The base ISO will produce the highest-quality image, so use it as often as you can.
The aperture is the opening in the lens which controls the amount of light that can reach your camera sensor. The larger your aperture, the more light that enters your camera, which results in a brighter image.
You can make the aperture larger by decreased the f-stop number. When you enlarge the aperture, the depth of field gets shallower which means less of the image will be in sharp focus.
Problems arise when your lens doesn’t allow you to use a lower f-stop or the depth of field becomes too shallow. This is why the lens is important when you’re shooting low light photos.
At f/4, you may be able to capture low light photos but there’s a high likelihood that you’re not getting enough light. Therefore, it would be better to opt for a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or below.
Many prime lenses have an aperture that goes as low as f/1.4 or f/1.8 which will open wide enough to capture good low light photos.
Best low light lens
Depending on the focal length and aperture you desire to have, the following lenses are the best for low light:
- Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L
- Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
- Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E
- Sony DT 35mm f/1.8
- Sony DT 50mm f/1.8
- Sony 85mm f/2.8
- Sony Zoom 16-50mm F/2.8
- Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA
- Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G
- Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (Canon, Nikon, or Sony)
- Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (Canon, Nikon, or Sony)
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (Canon, Nikon, or Sony)
- Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (Canon, Nikon, or Sony)
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art (Canon, Nikon, or Sony)
- Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art (Canon or Nikon)
- Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM (Canon or Nikon)
- Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 (Canon or Nikon)
- Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 (Canon or Nikon)
- Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 (Canon or Nikon)
- Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 (Canon or Nikon)
- Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 (Canon or Nikon)
- ZEISS 35mm f/1.4 (Canon, Nikon or Sony)
- ZEISS 50mm f/1.4 (Canon, Nikon or Sony)
- ZEISS 85mm f/1.4 (Canon, Nikon or Sony)
- ZEISS 100mm f/2 (Canon or Nikon)
Examples of low light situations
Moving on, you know that these lenses are great for low light so let’s take a look at examples of when you would need to use them.
1. Early Morning or Night Portraits. These times of day are low light because the sun isn’t out yet. Use a fast lens to capture enough light to illuminate your photos without sacrificing quality.
2. Indoor Events. If you’re shooting indoor events, many of them are dimly lit. Therefore, the best lens to use would be one with a large aperture. Zoom lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 can help with getting shots at different focal lengths without swapping lenses.
3. Cloudy Days. Sometimes, cloudy days can be more dark and gloomy than normal. For these types of days, the lens is important because there’s a big difference between f/4 and f/1.4.
The best low light lens has an aperture of f/2.8 or below. When it comes to affordability, the 50mm f/1.8 is the most affordable lens. Generally, the nifty-fifty ranged from $80 to $200, which is great for a lens that can capture great photos in low light.
Additional lens resources
Want to learn more about camera lenses, or gear? Here are a few additional resources:
Featured photo courtesy of Unsplash.