Natural Light Photography – Choosing Your Lens

May 14, 2012

in Photography Creative Team, Photography Tips, Photography Tutorials, Susan Keller

I Heart Faces Natural Light Lenses Photography Tutorial

This month, Susan Keller will be sharing her tips for taking photos indoors in a series of photography tutorials on I Heart Faces. This is the first of a 3-part series.

Natural light photography is something that’s easily accomplished out in the great wide outdoors. It’s a little trickier not to use your camera’s flash indoors, because, well, there’s simply less light than there is outdoors. So, in this short series of posts, we’re going to talk about making the best use of the light we have. And specifically in this post, we’ll be discussing your best lens options for grabbing as much natural light as possible.

Choosing a Lens for Natural Light Indoor Photography

Today, I’m going to talk lens technicalities, and show you why prime (aka “fixed”) lenses give you a slight edge over zoom lenses in grabbing light.
There are three main ways to grab as much light as possible:

  1.  Bump your ISO
  2.  Open up your aperture, and
  3.  Use slow shutter speeds

Each way has a “dark side”: high ISOs mean higher “noise”; wide apertures can create razor thin depth of focus and chromatic aberration; and shutter speeds that are too slow can make for blurry pictures.

Prime vs. Zoom

Let’s look at how effectively different lenses grab light using shutter speed as our barometer for measurement. To that end, I’m going to use Darling Girl as my “model” (she stands still and looks consistently pretty way better than any of my wiggly dudes). Each of the following images had the same settings of 1250 ISO and f/4. All of the images are SOOC, just cropped and sized for web. Darling Girl is placed in a dark corner of my kitchen with no direct light source.

I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial

I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial
I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial

I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial
I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial

Please note: 1st piece of evidence that a prime lens grabs more light than a zoom lens. The 50mm prime lens only needed 1/100 second shutter speed to properly expose this image. That same focal length of 50mm on my 24-105mm zoom lens needed 1/60 second. Likewise, the 35mm fixed lens had a marginally faster shutter speed for proper exposure.

Long Focal Lengths

I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial
I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial

Now note: longer focal lengths need longer shutter speeds to properly expose the same image. Oftentimes this longer shutter speed will result in a blurry picture either due to camera shake or to subject movement. Also, keep in mind, that longer focal length lenses generally need faster shutter speeds to achieve sharp images (the rule of thumb is 1/x seconds where x=focal length; thus 100mm lens needs at least 1/100 second shutter speed to avoid camera shake.)

Considering ISO

One last comparison example. This time I’m dropping the ISO to 400, which is an ISO level that most cameras can comfortably handle without too much noise. I kept the aperture at f/4 so I could compare my fixed 35mm to my 24-105mm zoom (which has a maximum f/4 aperture).
I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial

I Heart Faces Choosing Lens for Natural Light Tutorial
Again, the prime lens required a shorter shutter speed than the zoom lens at the same focal length. Plus, I can handhold my prime 35mm at 1/30 without camera shake issues. The lowest I can get away with handholding my 24-105 is 1/80 sec (in an emergency and trying really, REALLY hard to hold still), though I’m safer at 1/125 sec (I’m not the steadiest shooter).


So. In a nutshell, these are the nitty gritty details for preferred lenses when shooting indoors utilizing natural light :

1. Prime lenses are faster and gobble light more effectively than zoom lenses at the same focal length.
2. Prime lenses generally have wider maximum apertures than their zoom counterparts. Again, good for gobbling light.
3. Shorter focal lengths (ie. 15mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm) gobble more light than telephoto focal lengths (ie. 85mm, 135mm, 200mm)
4. If you’re shooting with a zoom lens and need more light, shoot at the widest end (smallest number) of the focal length.

I’m lucky enough to have pretty awesome and abundant light in my home. But even with all the great light, I tend to leave my 35mm f/2 lens on my camera most of the time here at home. Each of the pictures below was taken with a fixed length lens (either 35mm or 24mm).
I Heart Faces Natural Light Photography Tutorial

Now that you know which lenses to choose for indoor situations, you will want to stay tuned during the month of May for Susan’s other tutorials in this series on Shooting Indoors with Natural Light.

Susan Keller for I Heart FacesSusan Keller is an Orange County Baby, Child & Family Photographer who loves coffee, good books, big landscapes, her dudes, and using ellipses instead of words… You can find her on Facebook and blogging at Short on Words.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim May 29, 2012

So helpful! Thanks!


Christy Peterson May 21, 2012

I don’t get how all the images are exactly the same when you are taking your camera down and changing lens. I’m new, so I a wondering what I am missing. could someone explain this to me?


Luca September 15, 2014

Hi Christy,

Probably you already know the answer…but just found strange that nobody answer you, so here I am! 😉
The secret is to have a tripod, so you can keep the camera in the same position while changing the lens. To shot even better pictures (on not moving subjects) a remote shutter release (wired or wifi) is also helping to avoid camera shake. 😉
Hope this help, if not you, anybody having the same doubt right now.


Hanna Bell May 18, 2012

I love her too.. and her works. Hoping for more articles to come out soon.


Shutterfly May 17, 2012

Photography Tip – Natural light photography how to choose your lens


Nik May 17, 2012

Very helpful and useful comparison! I was taught/read somewhere that to be safe you should double the shutter speed vs focal length (e.g. 1/400 when you’re shooting at 200mm), but that might also come from the sports shooting side of things where there’s often more movement.
Thanks again!


asian wedding photographer May 16, 2012

Thanks for settling that for me, great too see your photos you can notice the difference in them.


Susan Keller May 15, 2012

Hi Kim – congratulations to your sons! Tips … if you’re going to be far from the stage, you’ll want a long lens. With a long lens, remember to keep your shutter speed high enough (copying from above: the rule of thumb is 1/x seconds where x=focal length; thus 100mm lens needs at least 1/100 second shutter speed to avoid camera shake.). If it’s dark, bump your ISO as high as your camera can decently handle. To be totally honest, this kind of picture (on stage, far away, dark room, stage lights) is hard to capture excellently. Good luck!


Declan Mc Glone May 15, 2012

Natural Light Photography – Choosing Your Lens {Photography Tips} #photography


tinafreysd May 15, 2012

The foundation and blush may have looked great in the package at the store, but harsh fluorescent light distorts the true color. Determining your undertone color and testing under natural light will help you purchase the right kind of makeup.


Kim Rose May 14, 2012

THANK YOU for a great article!
I am getting ready to shoot my twin sons graduation next week.
Give me some tips. It will be in a school gym.
Most likely our seats will be higher up.
What size lense do you suggest as well as manual settings?


Robin May 14, 2012

love Susan, and her great articles! Thanks!


MaryLou May 14, 2012

Would love to see tips on using the proper White Balance for indoor shooting!


Ashley May 14, 2012

Thanks for these tips! It’s good to know the pros and cons of each


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