The Problem of Not Enough Light.

“I am constantly running into the problem of not having enough light,” my friend moaned in an e-mail. Join the club, dude. He asked a slew of questions related to what gear I use, or would suggest, to try to help combat that age old problem (ok…”age old” as far as photography is concerned anyway) of not enough light.

What are you using these days? I know you are very much anti-flash, which I basically agree with. But I am constantly running into the problem of not enough light. Are you mostly shooting with a 50mm f/1.8? Or are you jacking up your ISO? Or are you using a tripod? Which reminds me, my tripod recently broke, any recommendations on one (that is not in the crazy range, under $200)? Ok, so I am asking lots of questions, sorry. But one more, post production, what are you using? Lightroom? Photoshop? iPhoto?

Here is a quick summary answer to those questions: I like to have a camera and a nice bright lens. It can certainly differ with the situation, but easily more than 90% of the time, I try to keep things simple (i.e no tripod, no flash) and light, yet with a lens that provide me a lot of flexibility for low light situations.

Let’s get the little issues out of the way. Tripods. I am most certainly not a big tripod user, but sometimes you just need one. After years of looking, literally, I found the right tripod for me: light, small, simple, yet tall, quick to set up, and with a wonderfully useful ball head: the Velbon MAXi 343E. If I did more architecture or landscapes, maybe I would need a tripod more, but if my shutter speeds were so slow that I needed a tripod, the moving life of people would be blurred beyond recognition. I need a different solution to the light problem.

And as for flash, I am not anti-flash, per se, but I do tend to shoot available light most often. I have a great, though small, selection of lighting gear, but you will almost never see a flash mounted on my camera. If used, it is often mounted on that Velbon tripod, actually, shooting through an umbrella; that provides absolutely beautiful light. I also like to use a small softbox on the flash and hold the flash in one hand with a sync cord.

So, for most situations, I am not solving the problem either with a tripod or flash. Basically, as you mentioned, it does come down to ISO and lens. You have to know your camera to know what amount of noise you will have at any given ISO and also what amount of noise you are willing to endure. I tend to shoot as low an ISO as I can, though. If I had the dreamy Nikon D700 and its incredible (lack of) noise performance, this issue might be different, but I stay as close to the low end of the ISO as I can.

That only leaves lenses. From my very first camera to this day, I have shot relatively “bright” (large aperture), fixed length lenses. Sure, zooms are great and all, but I can buy a higher quality prime at a fraction of the price of the nice zooms, and have two or more precious stops of light advantage over them. In English, I pay much less for higher quality glass which can perform in way less light than even the best zoom lenses can. And on top of all that, primes are smaller and lighter. Some subjects are awkward enough around cameras, I do not want to make it worse by sticking a bazooka in their face. But again, that issue depends on your style, your subjects, and how much you have to gain by staying low key.

There are a lot of quality yet cheap options out there. Nikon, Canon, and most other camera makers have a 50mm f/1.8 lenses in their line up. That is a great lens, but on most people’s cameras (with a cropped frame sensor) that 50mm ends up being too long for general use. That would act like a 75mm on your old film camera. I love that Nikon came out with a 35mm f/1.8 for their cropped cameras, meaning there is a lens which feels like that ubiquitous 50mm of yesteryear.

If you are just starting to look into a “brighter” lens, I would go with something like the 50mm f/1.8 or (if you are lucky enough to shoot a Nikon) the 35mm f/1.8. Look around at third party dealers too, like Sigma, Tokina, and the like; I do not know what they have (I do know Sigma has some excellent but pricey primes, but I do not know about any cheaper options).

For reference, I have been shooting my 24mm f/2.8 the past few days on my cropped sensor camera. I am used to f/2 or f/1.4, and losing that stop or two really does make a difference. Moving that one stop from f/2.8 to f/2 makes a big difference. All the more if I could move another stop down to f/1.4. With that f/2.8, I have had to use (for me) uncomfortably high ISO settings or frighteningly slow shutter speeds. If I shot a professional quality zoom lens (which are f/2.8 at their widest), I would be forever stuck there. Again, with a lower noise camera, maybe you could just bump up the ISO and never feel the difference.

It all depends on your personal preference and the specific shooting situations you face the most.

And quickly, to answer all the questions, though it is a bit off topic: software. I hate that topic. The majority of folks I know have hundreds of dollars of photo editing software and use features that I have in free software. Sometimes, the nicer software is about saving time, making editing quicker, which really makes a difference for working professionals with a heavy workflow. That is where Lightroom and Aperture shine. For most folks I know, they could use Google’s free Picasa software, or maybe that iPhoto already loaded on your Mac, and get along without the need of any other software. Photoshop Elements, I hear, is also a cheaper way to solve your editing needs without breaking the bank or breaking the conscience (by buying that ripped off copy used by more people than I want to know).

Those are my solutions. They do not fit everybody. You will have to think about what solution works best for the shooting situations you face…though it is hard to go wrong with a cheap f/1.8 50 or 35mm.

Cooper Strange Written by:


  1. Kenny Lao

    Professor Strange,
    Love the blog! Just wanted to share my extremely limited experience as a DSLR newbie. Soon after I got my Canon EOS 550D (cropped sensor), I quickly realized that shooting candid pics of the kids INSIDE the house with the KIT LENS was a disaster. I was actually able to sell the kit lens and get myself a nifty fifty 1.8. Presto! Sharp, sharp, sharp indoor shots and beautiful depth of field. Great lens for portraits, but as you mentioned, 50mm is a little too zoomed in on a cropped sensor. After doing a little research, I got a deal on a used Sigma 30mm f/1.4. Wow! The Sigma stays glued onto my camera and soaks in all that available light. On a side note, the Sigma lenses have a tendency to front or back focus, probably because it is a third party manufacturer. My copy front-focused, but after a quick little tweak by the Sigma dealer, now it’s razor sharp! Looking forward to learning more tips from you, and hopefully seeing you guys again in the not too distant future.

  2. Michael

    Thanks for the insights. I will definitely look at the tripod, it looks like what I want. I agree that a nikon d700 would solve lots of issues, but that is definitely no excuse for my problems. I am not ready to make any leaps into the realm of flashes thought I have read a few articles, so that info will be back logged. I do like our thoughts on the brighter fixed length lens, though I do like my huge 28-270mm zoom. I had never thought of the 38mm, so that was new for me. I have a 50mm and do run into the problem of having to back up quite frequently. and the software question. You actually never answered the question as far as what you use, if anything. Add sharpening, reduce noise, crop, satiation, etc.

  3. 2011-09-08

    That’s a joke folks…I am no professor, though I do like the ring of that.

    Kenny, I have heard a lot about the Sigma 30mm f/1.4. Those Sigma primes are a bit big for my taste, but they certainly come highly rated and you could hardly go wrong.

  4. 2011-09-08

    And Michael, I have to admit I am a sucker for wide angle and spend almost all my shooting time there, but that is not going to solve every photographic problem you face. You know what length you need more than I do, but for general shooting, you and Kenny both seem to realize that a 75mm (equivalent on a full frame sensor) lens is just too close. 35mm to 50mm seems to be good for all around use, and with a cropped sensor, that puts you at 24mm to 35mm.

    As for software, I use Aperture most of the time, though Lightroom would be great too…honestly, Aperture was $100 cheaper. I use Google’s free Picasa to upload my family albums for family and friends to see, and I find Picasa can solve the majority of everyman’s needs out there, so it is worth a good look.

  5. 2011-10-04

    As for tripods, my most beloved tripod (for my style of use) is no longer available, except maybe if you could find one used. It is a Velbon MAXi 343e, which is light, folds down small, extends tall, and most importantly has a ball head.

    Just yesterday, though, helping a coworker find one for her son in a high school photography class, I found a decent replacement. I was looking for a fairly light, no too short when extended, ball head…oh, and cheap. For us light-duty tripod users, we do not want to drop a few hundred dollars on such equipment. I have not used it personally, but this really looks like a well thought-out tripod:

    Davis & Sanford Voyager Lite with BHQ8 Ball Head

    Try it and let me know.

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