Wednesday, February 4, 2015

With all the new DSLR cameras shooting at high ISOs, is f/4 the new f/2.8?

For the last ten years, I have always leaned towards purchasing high quality lenses that let me shoot at f/2.8 or better. But, as you all know, these lenses tend to cost a lot more than their counterparts which top out at f/4.

Why have I preferred f/2.8 lenses?

Mainly for three reasons:

1. I love shooting at wide apertures to blur the background and give me great selective focus on my subject.

2. Quite often the more expensive f/2.8 lenses have the higher quality glass and yield the best images.

3. These lenses let me shoot at faster shutter speeds in low light situations (dark events and dimly lit sports venues mostly).

The first point still stands, and there is no substitution for a narrow depth of field, especially when shooting portraits. The really "fast" lenses can shoot at apertures like f/1.2 or f/1.4. And  I still love shooting with these lenses at events to separate my subject from everyone else.

The second point is still true in many cases, but there are plenty of excellent lenses that max out at f/4.

But the third point is becoming less relevant, with the advent of newer cameras. The reason is this...the newer cameras now let you shoot at crazy high ISO levels with very little digital noise.

This photo was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 3200 at f/6.3 at 300mm. 
Look at the photo above. This was taken at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN. I brought in my Canon 5D Mark II, with a consumer grade Tamron 28-300mm lens (figuring that there was no way they would let me shoot with a big old pro lens). I shot this at f/6.3 all the way out at 300mm. I cranked up the ISO to get me a shutter speed of 1/125 sec.

Lets look at an example from 10 years ago when I was shooting sports indoors. Back then I was using a Canon 20D and would never have pushed the ISO about 800, because the image quality degraded too much. So I would set the camera to ISO 800. I would then mount my Canon 70-200 2.8 lens on the camera and set the aperture to 2.8. But even then I might only achieve a shutter speed of 1/100 second. Yikes! Not nearly fast enough to capture a fast action hockey game. If I were to use a variable aperture lens and shoot at f/5.6 it would be even worse!

Today, I am using cameras like the 1DX, 7D Mark II, or 5D Mark III and I can push the ISO to levels of 10,000 and still get usable images. So having a fast lens is not as necessary.

This photo was taken at ISO 1250 at f/4
I mentioned the advantage of f/2.8 with the narrow depth of field, but sometimes that can work against you. If I am shooting a hockey game at f/2.8, it is likely that the athlete I am focusing on will be in focus but all the other athletes will be out of focus. This is not always ideal. There are times when I want to photograph a group of athletes and have them all in focus. In this case, I would probably want to shoot the photo at f/5.6 or f/8. But if I am indoors and at a low ISO, this would be darned near impossible. With a high ISO, this now becomes possible. we have to have a f/2.8 lens to shoot sports? I don't think so.

As a matter of fact, I really like using the Canon 100-400mm for sports since it is light weight (compared to the really big lenses).

But, my dream lens from Canon is the 200-400mm lens with the built in teladapter. It is f/4 all the way from 200mm to 400mm, and if I switch on the teladapter, I can shoot all the way to 560mm at f/5.6. And, if you read my blog a lot, you know that I love using zoom lenses, so that I have options in how I compose a shot. I used a prototype of this lens at the London Olympics and a shipping version in Sochi, and the image quality was just great!

I have heard people say, I would not use the Canon 24-105mm lens because it is an f/4 lens and not f/2.8, but I have used that lens for years and had excellent results. It is very sharp and has a nice focal range to shoot wide or closer in.

So...if you own a newer DSLR camera, and are looking for a new lens, you might be able to save some money with one of the less expensive lenses and capture good photos even in low light.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.


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Unknown said...

Thank you for your post as always, Jeff. I →love← my Canon 24-105 4 lens. On my 6D, it's fantastic. I was just talking about this wonderful truth last night, so reading this sure added to the pleasure of that conversation. ☺

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing, Jeff! I still love shooting sports at f/2.8 because of that extra bit of separation it gives, but I agree with you that newer bodies like the 1D-X and 7DII have no problem handling higher ISOs with f/4 lenses. Definitely helps to save a nice chunk of change in cost of lenses :)

Jeff said...

Thanks for making these points. I might not have considered "all the angles" you mentioned. It is always good to keep on learning from the voice of experience!

Unknown said...

Thanks for info.
With 2.8 at 200 the photo is not always sharp away from center.
F4 will help

Russ White

rcortinas said...

Thanks Jeff. As always great tips and advises on how to increase our photographic skills. I see that you used a tamrom lens for this shooting and the picture looks great. I am starting in photography and the budget is my worse enemy. What do you think about the Tamron 70-300 Di Vc lens? It has very good reviews, it has a great zoom range and the prize is more affordable. HAve you ever used it?
Thanks for sharing all your knowledge.

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

rcortinas - The Tamron lens is fine. I may not use it for my event photography, but it is more than capable for everyday shooting.

I have not tried the 70-300, but assume that it falls in the same category of quality.

Mia Hunt said...

F / 4: This is the minimum aperture used for shooting a man with enough illumination. Aperture can limit the autofocus so you risk to miss wide open. Choose your editing soft and you will get better results I guess

Valueone said...

If you want to capture a right moment of an important occasion, than you should have a good DSLR camera.