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Travel Photo Tips: using a 50mm F1.4 lens to redefine low-light shooting
The 50mm F1.4 has a lot of things going for it. For one, it's available for nearly every DSLR out there. You can find dedicated versions (either first-party such as Nikkor or third-party like Sigma) for Nikon, Canon, Sony and Olympus DSLRs, with plenty of aftermarket solutions out there for even more brands. Secondly, it's incredibly small. My D3S camera body dwarfs the 50mm F1.4, and when I'm trying to conceal my camera and get it into concert venues and the like, having a "stub-nose" lens like this makes it much easier to get through. Thirdly, it's relatively cheap by FX (or full-frame) standards. And finally, the shots you can get from this lens are truly amazing, and they can enable you to capture memories of a trip that you'd otherwise never be able to. Read on for a few examples and suggestions on how to best make use of this low-light masterpiece.
This allows your shots to be brighter, your shutter speed to be faster (which lessens the chance of unwanted blur) and your trips to be more memorable. The 50mm aspect is also important; this is not a zoom lens. It cannot be zoomed at all. If you aren't familiar with "prime" lenses this will probably be strange to hear, but you literally have to walk forward and back while holding the camera to get closer / farther from your subject. 50mm, however, is a solid distance that's useful in the vast majority of circumstances, and since there's no zoom to worry over, the lens is the easiest in my collection to travel with.
Using the 50mm F1.4 at night is pretty simple. Regardless of what DSLR body you have, I'd recommend setting the aperture down to f/1.4 (using Aperture Priority or Manual Mode) and firing a few test shots. Compare that to shots with the aperture set at f/3.5 or higher, and you'll notice an immediate impact. The flood of light that is allowed in by the F1.4 lens is really incredible, and in many cases, it allows a shot to be taken that would never be possible otherwise. Of course, all of this is assuming that you're trying to avoid using a flash in order to retain the mood of your scene; lowering the aperture all the way to f/1.4 is simply an alternative to using a flash, and it's one that natural light lovers greatly prefer. The gallery below gives you an idea of why -- retaining the low-light vibe while still letting in enough light to capture a bright, sharp and blur-free image is reason enough to consider one of these lenses for your collection.
Owning this lens most definitely isn't the only way to take low-light shots. You could use a flash, purchase a new body with a higher ISO range (something like the Nikon D3S) or move your shot into a place with more external light. But if you're unable to move your shot (the Grand Canyon is a little hard to relocate, especially after sunset), you aren't willing to spend thousands on a new DSLR body and you aren't fond of how a flash distorts the vibe of a night shot, there's hardly a better and more affordable alternative than the 50mm F1.4. For Canon owners in particular, there's a 50mm F1.2 that allows even more light in, but of course it's over four times more expensive; the 50mm F1.4 for Canon bodies is around $350 on the open market, whereas the F1.2 version is over $1,600. It's hard to justify that increase.
I should also mention that while the average 50mm F1.4 lens will cost around $350 - $400 regardless of what brand or body you're buying for, there's a bargain alternative even to that. Many companies also make a 50mm F1.8 lens, which allows nearly as much light in, but not quite as much. The good news is these are usually around half as expensive as the F1.4 variety, but in my experience, it's definitely worth saving up and getting the F1.4. It's a lens that'll never leave your collection, and will likely follow you around for as long as you're into DSLR photography. $350 or so is a low price to pay for the ability to take blur-free images in dimly-lit restaurants, at outdoor sporting events and in concert venues, not to mention millions of other after-dark opportunities.
Curious to learn more about travel photography? See our prior articles here!
Shopping for a new 50mm F1.4 lens? Check here: