In Praise of Inexpensive, Fast Lenses

A few months ago I wrote about how much I enjoyed using a 50mm f.18 lens on a trip to Peru. It was fun to work with extremely shallow depth of field, and using a fixed lens, instead of a zoom as I usually do, made me shoot differently.  But there are other reasons to use lenses like that.

One question I regularly get from students is how to get good pictures at indoor events that involve action. This could be sports, theater, dance or just kids at play. They’re getting dark or blurry pictures and don’t know why. As always, the answer comes down to exposure.

A camera needs light to take pictures. We know that, though we may not always think about it. And the less light we’ve got, the slower our

1/80 second at f/5.6 (widest aperture for that lens), 3200 ISO, Nikon D7000. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

shutter speed becomes. When that happens, we usually counter by raising the ISO, which then allows us to use a higher shutter speed. But there are limits. Each camera has a maximum ISO setting, and odds are you won’t like the looks of photos shot that high anyway. So if you’re only comfortable shooting up to 3200 ISO, and that still gives you too slow a shutter speed, what then? Your only choice at that point is to use a wider aperture.

Most people are using the zoom lens that came with their camera. And most of those lenses, once zoomed out a bit, have a maximum (largest) aperture of f/5.6. However, there are faster (wider) lenses available.

If you want a fast aperture zoom lens (let’s say f/2.8), you’re going

1/500 at f/1.8 with the Nikon 85mm 1.8 lens, ISO 3200, Nikon D7000.

to spend a lot of money. Normally around $2000 depending on the lens. And they’re worth it if you need that type of lens and can afford it. But if you only have occasional need, or a smaller budget to work with, there are some fixed focal length (not zoom) lenses with fast apertures for much less money. They cost hundreds, instead of thousands, of dollars.

Recently I shot photos for a friend of his daughter’s basketball game. At ISO 3200 and f/5.6, the fastest shutter speed I could get was 1/80 second. And not surprisingly, those pictures were all blurry. But switching to an 85mm f/1.8 lens (about $500) let me shoot at 1/500 second. And now I was making good pictures.

I use Nikon gear, and they now have a bunch of fast fixed lenses that are very reasonably priced, with f/1.8 lenses in 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. They also have some faster (f/1.4) more expensive lenses, in some of those same focal lengths. As I said before, I love the shallow depth of field I can get with these, but they’re also great when you don’t have much light and can’t spend a lot of money. That makes them the perfect solution to a common problem. Even better, a solution that doesn’t cost a lot of money. I love that.