I’m often asked by other DP’s or shooters, which lenses are best for shooting in ultra-low light conditions. While some of the best lenses for shooting in low-light are course quite expensive (Zeiss Superspeeds for example), there are some fantastic options that are reasonably priced and particularly well suited to shooters that use DSLRs or interchangeable lens camcorders.
My top 10 low-light lens choices have been based on a number of factors including, price, build quality, image quality, and overall value. Please note though that some of the lenses listed below may not work with your camera’s mount. If you’re shooting on a mirrorless camera (like the GH3) you should be able to use just about any of these lenses on your camera, however there are some Micro Four Thirds lenses on here that of course will not be adaptable to Canon DSLR’s or other larger sensor camcorders. And keep in mind, these are by no means the only lenses you can use in low-light situations. There are definitely some other great low-light lenses out there so be sure to do your homework, but regardless here are my personal top 10 picks for affordable low-light lenses in no particular order:
Canon 50mm 1.4 – $339
Here’s a lens that a lot of you may already have in your kit. This lens by Canon is not only one of their most popular, but it is also extremely cost-effective given the quality that you’ll get from it. Canon also have a cheaper version of this lens that is an F1.8, but I find this one to be a much better quality lens both in terms of the image it produces, and also the build quality. Canon also has a great 50mm 1.2L lens, but I didn’t include it on this list (although it’s an incredible lens), as from an affordability standpoint, the 1.4 is hard to beat.
Voigtlander 17.5mm 0.95 – $999
Arguably one of the most popular and essential low-light lenses for the Micro Four Thirds format. At F0.95, this lens can practically see in the dark and can be a life saver in extreme low light situations. The build quality of the lens is also superb, which is something that’s very important to me when picking a lens as I want to know that it will last. After all, these days your camera body is practically outdated the day you buy it, but your lenses will stay with you for many years. When shooting wide open with this lens, it is a little on the soft side – especially at infinity focus, but nonetheless it isn’t anything that you can’t work around to get your shot.
Sigma 18-35 1.8 – $879
This is the only zoom lens on the list, and it’s here for good reason. It’s the fastest DSLR parfocal zoom lens that you can get, coming in at F1.8. Normally when I’m looking to buy an ultra-low light lens, I’ll look for lenses that are a maximum of 1.4, but in this case I can make an exception, given the fact that it’s a zoom. Having the ability to have an 18-35mm that you can run-n-gun with in low light situations is an absolute dream. If you haven’t already shot with this lens or seen it in person, you’re bound to soon as it’s quickly becoming very popular.
Sigma 30mm 1.4 – $499
Sigma makes some really amazing lenses that often come in at very competitive price points. While there’s no shortage of fast 35mm lenses, many of them can be quite costly especially compared to their 50mm counterparts which are generally more affordable. For those of you looking for a great lens in the 35mm range, but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg, this 30mm from Sigma may be an excellent choice as it produces a beautiful image with very nice bokeh, and is extremely well priced. For you full frame shooters though, note that this is an APS-C lens, so it will vignette on your 5D.
Rokinon Cine 35mm 1.5 – $489
I’m a huge fan of Rokinon’s Cinema lenses. I have nearly all of the lenses in their cinema lineup, but this is my favorite of all of them and the one I use most. Besides the fact that this lens produces a gorgeous image and is fantastic in low light, it’s also of course set up as a cinema lens. While Rokinon also sells a non cinema version of this lens, if you’re shooting video this is the way to go. I absolutely love the smooth de-clicked aperture ring, and not having to worry about adding follow focus gears is a huge bonus. Unlike many fast 35mm lenses, this one is actually quite sharp, even wide open.
Rokinon Cine 85mm 1.4 – $349
Simply a no-brainer for many shooters, this lens is an absolute steal given the price point. I’ve been shooting with it personally for about a year now and am continually blown away by the quality. When shooting wide open, it can be a touch on the soft side, but nothing to be too alarmed over as by the time you are at f1.8 or so it starts to sharpen right up. Like the 35mm version is housed as a cinema lens, but is also available in a non cinema version if that is appealing to you. In terms of price to performance ratio, this lens may be the best value of any on this list.
Zeiss 50mm 1.4 – $699
You probably knew a Zeiss lens was going to pop up sooner or later on this list, as after all they do make some of the best lenses in the world. The only reason there aren’t more Zeiss lenses on here (including any from their superspeed line) is simply because of their prices being so high. The 50mm is one of their more affordable lenses and an excellent alternative to the Canon 50mm that I listed earlier. The build quality of Zeiss lenses is second to none, and once you shoot with one it’s really hard to go back to anything else. So while there are loads of fast 50mm lenses on the market, if you need one that will last for many, many years and deliver unprecedented image quality, then it is absolutely worth the investment.
SLR Magic 25mm 0.95 – $799
I really love SLR Magic – they are a relatively small lens manufacturer that really are pushing the boundaries of what is possible with modern lenses, not to mention they have an excellent grasp on exactly what shooters like you and I are looking for in a lens these days. This lens perfectly represents what they are capable of as a company as it is simply one of the fastest (if not the fastest) 25mm lens out there. Most 25mm lenses that are considered fast will at best be an F1.4, which is still great for most situations, but for those situations where you’re shooting in nearly no light at all, this lens will be your best friend. Keep in mind though, this is for Micro Four Thirds cameras, so if you’re on a Canon or Nikon you are out of luck!
SLR Magic 12mm 1.6 -$599
This was one of the first lenses I bought for my GH3 and to date one of my favorites. Like other SLR Magic lenses, it is exceptionally well built and truly feels like a cinema lens in every possible way. The image quality is gorgeous, and even wide open it is quite sharp. The colors from this lens are beautiful and it really has a cinematic feel to it. It isn’t a perfect lens optically, which is one of the best things about it. The issue I have with many modern lenses is that they are too clinical looking, and ultimately to get a cinematic look you want to shoot with lenses that have character – and I assure you that this lens does! Like the 25mm above, this one is also built for Micro Four Thirds cameras, so please be aware.
Nikon 50mm 1.4 – $469
I know there are already a couple of 50mm lenses on this list, but this one had to be included as well for one main reason – it’s fully manual. If you love manual glass (I know I do), then the 50mm Canon that I listed at the top of this article may be out of the question for you as it is electronically controlled. And while there are other reasonably priced manual lenses in this focal length (like the Zeiss listed above), this provides an excellent alternative for those that either prefer the Nikon brand or simply are on more of a budget. The lens is incredibly sharp and renders colors beautifully, just like many of the other manual Nikon lenses do.
Having fast lenses for shooting in low-light situations is as important (or in some cases more important) than having a camera that can shoot cleanly at high ISO’s. Any of the above lenses are fantastic choices for low light shooting, but ultimately your decision on which to purchase should be dictated by asking yourself what you’ll actually be shooting with it and how long you want to keep your lens for. If you want a great all rounder that will last forever, the Zeiss 50mm would be an amazing choice. Or maybe you’re on a tight budget, but it’s still important that you have a cinema housed lens, in which case the Rokinon lenses are probably the way to go. Everyone has different needs, but the purpose of this list is to provide you with a starting point to help you gauge which lenses or brands are the best to meet your needs and budget.
For those of you looking to purchase any of the lenses above, be sure to check out Adorama.com – they’re an affiliate of this site and having extremely good prices on everything!
Be sure to also check out my recent article – 10 Tips For Shooting With Available Light.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!