I am often asked by other DPs or shooters which lenses are best for shooting in extremely low light conditions. While some of the best lenses for shooting in low-light conditions are of course quite expensive (e.g. Zeiss Superspeeds), there are some fantastic options that are inexpensive and particularly suitable for shooters who use DSLRs or camcorders with interchangeable lenses.
My top 10 low light lens selection is based on a number of factors including price, build quality, image quality and overall value. However, please note that some of the lenses listed below may not work with your camera mount. If you're shooting with a mirrorless camera (like the GH3), you should be able to use almost any of these lenses in your camera. However, there are some Micro Four Thirds lenses that of course cannot be adapted to Canon DSLRs or other larger sensor camcorders. And remember, these are by no means the only lenses you can use in low light conditions. There are definitely some other great low light lenses out there. So be sure to do your homework, but regardless of that, here are my top 10 personal tips for affordable low-light lenses in no particular order:
canon 50mm 1.4 – $ 339
Here's a lens that many of you may already have in your kit. This Canon lens is not only one of the most popular, but also extremely inexpensive because you get excellent quality. Canon also has a cheaper version of this lens, namely an F1.8, but I find that this lens is of a much better quality in terms of both the image it creates and the build quality. Canon also has a great 50mm 1.2l lens, but I haven't included it on the list (though it's an incredible lens) as the 1.4 is hard to beat from an affordable perspective.
Voigtländer 17.5 mm 0.95 – $ 999
Probably one of the most popular and important low-light lenses for the Micro Four Thirds format. At F0.95, this lens can practically see in the dark and be life-saving in situations with extremely poor lighting conditions. The processing quality of the lens is also excellent, which is very important to me when choosing a lens because I want to know that it lasts a long time. Today, your camera body is practically out of date on the day you buy it, but your lenses will stay with you for many years. When shooting with this lens wide open, it's a bit soft – especially in infinity focus, but it's not something you can't work on to take your picture.
Sigma 18-35 1.8 – $ 879
This is the only zoom lens on the list, and for good reason. It is the fastest DSLR parfocal zoom lens you can get and comes with F1.8. When I want to buy an ultra low light lens, I usually look for lenses with a maximum of 1.4. In this case, however, I can make an exception because it is a zoom. The ability to have 18-35mm to run your gun in low light is an absolute dream. If you have not yet taken this lens or seen it in person, you are required as soon as it becomes very popular.
Sigma 30mm 1.4 – $ 499
Sigma makes some really amazing lenses that are often offered at very reasonable prices. While there is no shortage of fast 35mm lenses, many of them can be very expensive, especially compared to their 50mm counterparts, which are generally cheaper. For those of you who are looking for a great 35mm lens but don't want to issue an arm or leg, this Sigma 30mm lens may be an excellent choice as it creates a nice image with very nice bokeh and extreme is inexpensive. Note, however, that this full-screen shooter is an APS-C lens so it vignettes on your 5D.
Rokinon Cine 35mm 1.5 – $ 489
For many shooters a no-brainer, this lens is an absolute bargain considering the price. I have been taking pictures with it personally for about a year and I am always enthusiastic about the quality. Shooting wide open can be a touch of the soft side, but nothing to worry about when you are at f1.8 starts to sharpen. Like the 35mm version, it is housed as a cinema lens, but is also available in a non-cinema version if you like it. In terms of value for money, this lens may be the best value on this list.
Zeiss 50mm 1.4 – $ 699
You probably knew that a Zeiss lens would appear on this list sooner or later as they eventually make some of the best lenses in the world. The only reason why there are no more Zeiss lenses here (including one from the Superspeed line) is simply that the prices are so high. The 50 mm lens is one of the cheaper lenses and an excellent alternative to the Canon 50 mm lenses listed above. The processing quality of Zeiss lenses is second to none. Once you've photographed with a lens, it's really difficult to go back to something else. While there are a lot of fast 50mm lenses on the market, if you need one that lasts for many, many years and delivers unprecedented image quality, it is well worth the investment.
SLR Magic 25mm 0.95 – $ 799
I really love SLR Magic – they are a relatively small lens manufacturer that really pushes the boundaries of what is possible with modern lenses, not to mention that they know exactly what shooters like you and me are looking for in a lens days. This lens perfectly represents what you as a company are capable of, as it is simply one of the fastest (if not the fastest) 25mm lenses. Most 25mm lenses that are considered fast are F1.4 at best, which is still great in most situations. In situations where you shoot with almost no light, this lens is your best friend. However, please note that this applies to Micro Four Thirds cameras. So if you're using a Canon or Nikon, you're out of luck!
SLR Magic 12mm 1.6 – $ 599
This was one of the first lenses I bought for my GH3 and remains one of my favorites to this day. Like other SLR Magic lenses, it is exceptionally well built and feels like a cinema lens in every respect. The image quality is great and quite sharp even when opened wide. The colors of this lens are beautiful and it feels really cinematic. Visually, it's not a perfect lens, which is one of the best things. The problem I have with many modern lenses is that they look too clinical. In order to ultimately achieve a cinematic look, you want to take pictures with lenses that have character – and I assure you that this lens does this! Like the 25 mm above, it is designed for Micro Four Thirds cameras. Please note this.
Nikon 50mm 1.4 – $ 469
I know this list already contains some 50mm lenses, but this had to be included for one main reason – it's completely manual. If you love manual glass (I know I do), the 50mm Canon I listed earlier in this article may not be for you because it is electronically controlled. And while there are other inexpensive manual lenses in this focal length (like the Zeiss listed above), this offers an excellent alternative for those who either prefer the Nikon brand or are simply on a budget. The lens is incredibly sharp and reproduces colors beautifully, just like many other manual Nikon lenses.
Fast lenses for shooting in low light conditions are just as important (or in some cases more important) than a camera that can shoot cleanly at high ISO values. Each of the above lenses is a fantastic choice for shooting in low light. Ultimately, however, your purchase decision should depend on what you actually take with it and how long you want to keep your lens. If you're looking for a great all-rounder that will last forever, the Zeiss 50mm is an amazing choice. Or maybe you're on a tight budget, but it's still important that you have a cinema lens. In this case, the Rokinon lenses are probably the way to go. Everyone has different needs, but the purpose of this list is to give you a starting point from which to judge which lenses or brands best suit your needs and budget.
For those of you who want to buy one of the above lenses, Be sure to check out Adorama.com – You are a partner of this website and have extremely good prices for everything!
Also take a look at my last article – 10 tips for shooting with available light.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!