Even if you haven’t been taking pictures for very long, you’ve almost certainly heard the term “fast lens.” But what exactly is a fast lens? Is it a lens that focuses quickly? A lens that’s easy to switch out? What does that term mean? Read on to find out.
The answer is: none of the above. A fast lens is a lens that can take photos in low light. Huh? What does low light have to do with speed?
To answer that question, you first need to know a little bit about how aperture and shutter speed work in concert to create a photograph. When you use your camera’s auto mode (or a semi-automatic mode like aperture priority) to attempt to shoot a photo in low light, you may notice that your camera will lower the shutter speed in order to get a well exposed picture. This can even happen in lighting situations that you might not necessarily interpret with your own eyes as “low light,” such as indoors during the day, outdoors on a overcast day, or late in the evening, The reason your camera does this is because it needs to lengthen the shutter speed in order to allow enough light to reach your camera’s sensor. But the other reason why it does this is because many lenses (kit lenses in particular, which are the mid-range zooms that are typically sold as a part of a DSLR package) don’t have the large maximum apertures needed to allow for faster shutter speeds.
##What is aperture?
Aperture refers to the size of the diaphragm, or the opening between the lens and your camera’s image sensor. The bigger the opening is, the more light can get in, and the more light reaches your camera’s sensor. The smaller the opening is, on the other hand, the less light reaches your camera sensor. This is why we refer to a larger opening as a “large” or “wide” aperture, while a smaller opening is referred to as a “small” or “narrow” aperture.
When you’re shooting images in low light, you need to use larger apertures because the larger aperture lets more of the available light in, which will allow you to shoot the scene using a faster shutter speed. There are a couple of reasons why this matters—the first is so you can hold your camera in your hands when you’re taking pictures, rather than having to mount it on a tripod. You may not really notice this issue if you primarily shoot outdoors on sunny days, but as soon as the light starts to fall, your shutter speed does, too. When you use a slow shutter speed and you don’t have a tripod available, you can end up with an image that looks sort of wobbly or jagged. We call this “camera shake,” and unless you’re using it for artistic reasons it’s generally something to be avoided.
But slow shutter speeds can also be a problem when there’s movement in your subject: you’ll get a kind of streaky blur in living or otherwise moving things unless you can keep your shutter speed above a certain number. For example, most people and animals need to be shot at shutter speeds of around 1/125 unless they are consciously trying to keep still during a longer exposure. And when something is moving very fast—such as runners, bikers, or fast-moving vehicles—you need much faster shutter speeds of up to 1/500 or more. Sometimes, especially when the light is low, it’s just not possible to achieve these kinds of shutter speeds without also being able to use large apertures.
That is where the term “fast lens” comes into play—when a lens has a very large maximum aperture, we call that a “fast lens” because it means that you can use faster shutter speeds.
##How fast is fast?
Depending on your perspective, a fast lens can be anywhere from f/3.5 or so to as fast as f/1.2. Most fast lenses are prime, which means that they have a fixed focal length such as 50mm or 100mm, rather than a variable focal length zoom such as 35mm to 70mm.
While there are fast zoom lenses on the market, they’re harder to come by than fast prime lenses are, especially when they feature longer focal lengths. The reason why this is true is pretty complex, but it really boils down to size and cost. Zoom lenses have more glass, so they have to gather more light to achieve the same apertures as prime lenses with similar focal lengths. This means that the lens must be a lot bigger and a lot more expensive in order to achieve those wider apertures—and economically speaking it’s just not something that can be done with a kit lens or a typical consumer-priced zoom.
Now depending on how much money you like to devote to your hobby a fast lens may not or may not be within your budget. I like to recommend 50mm prime lenses for beginning photographers because they do tend to be pretty inexpensive compared to other focal lengths—a typical 50mm prime lens, for example, has a maximum available aperture of f/1.8 and a price point of around $150 to $200. For about twice the money you can go even faster—both Canon and Nikon have lenses available that can go as wide as f/1.4. For a considerably higher base price you can even go as fast as f/1.2, but for that you’re going to be up in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. For most photographers, a 50mm prime lens that has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 is going to be perfectly adequate.
Now the thing that you do need to keep in mind with very fast lenses is that a large maximum aperture typically means a shallow depth of field, depending on a few other factors such as distance between subject and camera and distance between subject and background. So you may find, for example, that when you shoot head shots at those large apertures, you may end up with a subject who has a tack sharp eye, but a blurry nose. That may or may not be OK depending on your perspective, but it is something that you need to be aware of. If you’re not sure, take a test photo and check the depth of field on your camera’s screen—or, use aperture preview if your camera has that feature. And remember that you can also compensate by turning up your ISO (which will allow you to use a narrower aperture) if you don’t like the very shallow depth of field you get at those very large apertures. Higher ISOs can add noise, but you may prefer a little noise to that shallow depth of field that you get when you shoot at f/1.8. It’s really a creative decision, so you need to make sure you understand what those higher ISOs are and what that larger aperture will do so that you can make an informed decision about how you want your final image to look.
Also keep in mind that backing away from your subject can significantly increase depth of field, so if those head shots aren’t satisfying try shooting a head and shoulders shot instead, or a full torso portrait. You’ll likely still achieve a blurry background, but most of your subject’s facial features will be sharp even despite the larger aperture.
I love my fast lens because when I use it I almost never have to resort to pop-up flash—pop-up flash is really something you should avoid in all but the most extreme circumstances and if you’ve got a 50mm prime lens or another fast maximum aperture lens in your camera bag at all times, then it using your pop-up flash will most likely become something that you do only on occasion. Pop-up flash, you probably know, can add a lot of unwanted elements to your photos such as red eye, washed-out faces and black halo shadows behind your subjects. If you can swap those things for a small loss of depth of field, why wouldn’t you?
A 50mm prime lens is something I frequently recommend that beginners obtain, maybe even as their first lens in addition to the kit lens it that your DSLR came with. It’s an extremely versatile lens—no, it doesn’t zoom, but there’s something to be said for zooming with your feet, isn’t there? A prime lens can really take your photography to new places, so if it’s in your budget it’s something I highly recommend. Fast lenses can help almost anybody get better pictures, especially when the sun starts to go down.
Confession: I love cooking shows. I love cooking blogs, too. And it’s not just because I hope to one day be able to re-create all those recipes for my own family table, it’s also because I just think there is something magical about the process of taking raw ingredients and transforming them into something delicious. And there’s something even more wonderful about beautiful photos that chronicle the process.
The very best food blogs have this down to a science. They know exactly how to light and shoot the process of preparing a recipe in order to make it as enticing as possible to an audience. You can do the same thing, too, and you don’t even need a food blog. Here’s how.
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There was once a time when lens flare was considered a bad thing. No, really. It was an anomaly, something to be avoided. Today, lens flare is something we like. We use it for artistic and creative purposes. And only on a few occasions does it show up when it isn’t wanted. So how can you use lens flare creatively and effectively in your photos? Read on to find out.
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Glare can be a big problem for photographers. It crops up everywhere, in lots of different situations—from the obvious glare that you get when you use your flash in front of a window or other reflective surface, to the less obvious glare that you might get on the surface of water. But one place where you are certain to notice it is when you were shooting photographs of people who are wearing glasses. For tips on how to photograph eyeglass-wearing people, keep reading. Continue Reading »
There are a few experiences that are common to pretty much every photographer. One of those experiences is photographing sunsets. Now, depending on where you are on the learning curve, you may find photographing sunsets to be intensely rewarding, or you may find it to be hugely frustrating. Just about every beginning photographer has had the experience of standing in front of the most beautiful sunset ever, taking a photo, and then being completely underwhelmed by the results.
It seems like it really should be the easiest thing in the world to point a camera at a beautiful sunset and get a fabulous picture. But it doesn’t work that way. Read on to find out why. Continue Reading »
The other day, while surfing around the Internet in search of inspiration, I noticed a banner entitled “delicious Instagram food pictures.” And, I did not click on it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love looking at delicious food pictures, and I am, in general, a fan of Instagram. But this particular food photo that was used for this particular banner did not make me suspicious that there would be any actual delicious food photographs behind that link if I clicked on it. Why? Because whoever shot and/or chose that particular photograph clearly lacked some basic knowledge about what exactly a delicious Instagram food photo should look like. Do you know what makes a photo look delicious? Read on to find out. Continue Reading »
This might have been a harder sell a few decades ago, when a ruined photograph meant some sort of financial cost. Back in the day, if you ruined a whole roll of 36 exposures, you’d be pretty annoyed it yourself. Not only would you be out the cost of the film, you’d also be out of the cost of the development and the time that it took to take your film into the photo shop or pharmacy and wait around for it to come back. And after all of that, you might not be inclined to look at those exposures and try to figure out what went wrong. In fact, you might be annoyed enough that you just throw the whole lot in a trashcan and try to get on with your life.
Today, things are different. Today, we don’t have to pay for every exposure, so we can shoot 36 of them, or even 100, get them all completely wrong and not have to pay a dime. Of course, you might argue that there is a loss of time to take into consideration, but my counter argument would be that the time hasn’t really been lost. Because whenever you make a mistake of any kind, there is an opportunity to learn from that mistake. And these days we also have a little something called EXIF, which helps make it even easier to look at those failed photographs and judge exactly where they went wrong. Read on for more. Continue Reading »
Travel photography is something pretty much all of us do. If you ever leave your house with your camera, and you travel farther away than your hometown to take photographs, you are a travel photographer.
Whether we’re shooting images of our family and friends out there on the road or just images of the destination itself, very few photographers don’t love to capture visual records of the places we have been. But there’s a difference between just shooting a photograph of a tourist destination and capturing an image that has a real sense of place. How do you know the difference? Read on to find out. Continue Reading »
There was a time when a solar eclipse was considered a bad thing. The ancient Greeks believed that solar eclipses only happened when the gods were angry, and that natural disasters and general destruction were not far behind. The Vikings believed that when an eclipse happened, it was because hungry wolves were eating the sun. And in many cultures, a solar eclipse was said to portend death—King Louis the Pious died shortly after witnessing a solar eclipse, believing that it was a sign of God’s displeasure.
Today, of course, solar eclipses are just cool photography subjects. And they’re easy to photograph, too, provided you have the right equipment and a little bit of know-how. Keep reading to learn more.
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We all know about moody teenagers, right? In fact it’s almost a cliché—mom takes camera to event, mom points camera at moody teenager, moody teenager ducks behind another person or object in order to avoid being photographed. It’s maddening. And if you are the parent of that reluctant photographic subject, even more so. Continue Reading »
There’s no doubt that you love your pet, and if you had to say why, I know you could come up with a myriad of different reasons. And I’d bet money that one of those reasons would be “his personality
We love our pets in part because their fun and funny personalities make us smile, and because in a world of furry faces each animal is his own unique individual. So although you may have hundreds of portrait-style photographs of your pet, how many do you have that actually do a good job of letting your viewer know what his personality is like? If your answer is “not many,” then you need some strategies. Keep reading for my best tips on how to capture personality in your pet photos. Continue Reading »
If you use auto mode, aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, you may have noticed something. Most of the time, your camera does a pretty good job figuring out how to expose a shot, but every now and then—maybe even more frequently than you’re comfortable with—you get a photo that’s really overexposed, or really underexposed. How can this happen in auto mode (or priority mode) and is there anything you can do about it? Read on to find the answer. Continue Reading »
If you’re already an old hand at shooting sporting events, you may think you have the rodeo thing figured out. How different could it be? In any sporting event, things move fast, so you need to use a fast shutter speed to get clear pictures. Isn’t that all there is to it? Read on to find out. Continue Reading »
Death is not a subject that most of us like to talk about. It’s inevitable, but we like to pretend like it isn’t. So it’s not really something that we like to represent with our photography, either. After all, how can photographing death possibly be done tastefully? Read on to find out. Continue Reading »
Photographers spend a pretty large part of the learning stages trying to master the art of the perfectly exposed photo. A perfectly exposed photo, as they would have you believe, has a classic bell curve-shaped histogram that rises in the middle and tapers off gradually towards the highlight side and the shadow side. Now don’t get me wrong, I am in no way disparaging that classic histogram or the perfect exposure that goes along with it. But we should be questioning that word “perfect,” because perfect is nearly always in the eye of the beholder. And while there is a lot to be said for mastering that classically “perfect” exposure, you should not underestimate the power of also mastering the moody exposure. Read on to find out how. Continue Reading »