Should I use a flash or get a fast lens?


This question came from a SAIT student of mine.

“I was trying to find a really good book on flash techniques, any ideas? Or should I just go buy a 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 lens and forget about the flash thing?

And again talking about lenses, which one of those I mentioned would you go for, mainly for indoor photography?”

Great questions, and really relevant for someone at your stage of photography.

At some point after you’ve purchased that entry level sub $1000 dSLR kit with a couple of consumer grade zoom lenses, you’re going to want a faster, sharper lens. By faster I mean one with a larger f-stop than the typical f3.5 you’re getting at the wide angle setting of the lens in the kits. Remember, a faster lens lets in more light, so you can you can use a faster shutter speed. That’s where the term comes from.

Thinking about using flash? Try this blog. Photographer David Honl the blog’s author, has some lessons on the right sidebar titled: Lighting 101 archive and Lighting 102 archive. A good place to start. If you are beyond the basics of flash photography, check out Joe McNally’s new book: Hot Shoe Diaries.

Prime vs. Zoom lens

As far as the camera lens goes, it really comes down to price. You could probably pick up a 50mm f1.8 prime lens for ~$125, but for the f1.4 it might cost you ~$400. You could even go crazy and get the f1.2 for $1600 and change. A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length such as 50mm, 85mm, or 100mm. A zoom lens on the other hand has a range of focal lengths, for example 24-70mm. Prime lenses tend to cost less and are better quality and faster than zoom lenses. However, they take up space in the camera bag if you need several different focal lengths.

The best way to decide, is go to a camera retailer with your own camera and try out each lens. Take a few shots inside and out in the daylight with both lenses, plus take photos with your own zoom lens set at 50mm focal length. Take photos in Aperture priority at the largest f-stop, a middle f-stop (f8) and the smallest f-stop. Use a low ISO to minimize noise, at least for the outdoor photos. Go home and compare the images from each lens. Open each file in Photoshop or other image editing program, and view at 100% or more. You want to check edge-to-edge sharpness at each f-stop.

Even the f1.8 is going to seem like a bright ray of sunshine compared with the entry-level zoom lenses you’ve been using so far. My main concern is that without a full frame sensor, it might not be wide enough for you. Remember, unless you are using a full frame sensor, you need to multiply the focal length by approximately 1.5 to get the effective focal length with your entry level camera. So 50mm optically acts like it’s 75mm. If you are shooting indoors, you’d have to have a fairly large room so you get step back far enough to get things in the shot. For portraits, you’ll be fine. If you do need a “normal 50mm looking” lens, you may have to consider purchasing a 35mm lens instead. For wide angle, you will have to go to a 20mm or shorter focal length.

You need to consider your long term plan for photography. What types of photography do you see yourself doing? Do you have money set aside to finance your future needs and desires? If you have the budget and want top quality glass, it will cost more. You will probably want to upgrade your camera body at some point too, but building a lens collection is something that will outlast your camera bodies. I’ve been using the same lenses for 10 years but have had four different camera bodies in that time, starting with a film camera.

You may also want to look for used lenses. Try places like kijiji or the Buy and Sell. Sometimes people sell packages of film camera gear not realizing they can use the lenses on their digital cameras. Just make sure its the right kind of lens mount. Some older Nikon lenses work on new Nikon bodies, but Canon FD lenses do not work on Canon digital cameras (nor on EOS Canon film cameras). And of course with anything used, take some test photos using your own camera and check them out carefully before plunking down your money.

For reference, a good all around kit is:
24-70mm L f2.8 – my main and most used lens
70-200mm L f4.0 – for portraits of 1 or 2 people. Keeps you a nice distance away and compresses features nicely. All are Canon L series lenses – good glass!

I’m mainly a fair weather shooter, f2.8 is fine for what I do. My next lens will be a macro for when I shoot jewellery. I’ve tested it one, and it’s incredible!


Want to know how to buy a digital camera system? Check out my free digital camera buying guide here.

Thanks so much for sharing!
Bob Bakker - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Hi Marlene, just wondering on your next target lens (100mm 2.8 Macro) if you are looking at the model with image stabilization or the one without. The price difference is pretty significant and I am wondering if there are any other appreciable differences between the two lens other than that feature. If a person was planning to either A) not generally shoot at low shutter speed or B) use a tripod when shooting at low shutter speed, then how big a deal is the image stablization?

    Marlene Hielema - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Hi Robert. Great question! The difference I’m looking at between those lenses is not really the IS feature, but the glass. The new model of this lens is made with L series glass, which is Canon’s highest quality. Any L series lens is going to be professional quality and you will pay for that! Here is the lens I’m getting.

    Best thing for you to do would be to try each one of them out and see if the price difference is worth it to you. Take your camera and memory card to your favourite photo retailer, and take photos with each lens under the same lighting conditions, using the same subject matter, at the same time. Try each at close up, medium (portrait) and far distances. Compare your results and then decide.

    Let me know the outcome!

Stephane Arsenault - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Hi Marlene,

Me again…I’m on fire: two questions in one night! Sorry, this is how I get after SAIT Photo classes. If you have to choose between a Macro 105mm F2.8 and a Zoom 24-70mm F2.8 what would it be? I already have a kit lens 24-120mm F3.5-5, but it is soft a F8 and bigger. I bought that lens before your Blog was born…

Close-up stuff is cool and I’m definitely serious enough about photography to step into high-quality (expensive!) glass. Can a compromise to a Macro 60mm F2.8 be a compromise to get me to both lenses quicker?

    Marlene Hielema - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    First off, never apologize for leaving comments on my blog. I love hearing from you, Stephane!

    So Nikon right? I already have the Canon 24-70mm L 2.8 lens, and I must say it is the lens I use the most. It’s the lens that’s on my camera when I’m traveling light. It’s fast and sharp. Heavy though, but all fast lenses are because of the wider f-stop which requires larger diameter glass.

    My next lens will be the new Canon 100mm f 2.8 Macro, but I have a full frame sensor, so I need the 100mm focal length, and I also shoot a lot of macro. If you are not using a full frame sensor, then that 60mm Macro will be like a 90mm when you factor in the 1.5x multiplication factor of the smaller sensor. So it might be just right for you. Actually a colleague of mine who is a pro shooter has just ordered that 60mm lens you ask about.

    For my money, I’d get a top quality all-around lens first, which in this example is the 24-70mm.

Stephane Arsenault - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Ok, thanks for the advice and I will never apologize again for leaving a comment on your blog!

I do shoot Nikon and have a full frame sensor, which I bought for the great low light performance. It is incredible shooting at ISO 3200 with no grain (ISO 6400 when shooting B&W)!

However, after the purchase, I realized how useful the 1.5x multiplication factor actually is and how I took it for granted. You not only save a lot of money on the camera, but also on the lenses. But I digress, what do you think of wracking-out the 24-70 for Macro work in comparison to the 60 mm lens?


    Marlene Hielema - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I have used a Nikon Micro 105mm f 2.8 lens and it was very sharp and very good! For my money I’d go with the longer focal length, given you’ve got the full frame sensor.

    Why don’t you do a side by side comparison of the 60mm, the 100mm and the 24-70mm all at macro and compare the shots on your computer at 100% or more. I do this every time I buy a lens and it really helps my decision making.

Robert Bakker - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Hi Marlene, I finally did the side by side comparison as you suggested on the 100mm macros and definitely see the difference. Just wrapping up the closeup nature photography class with Barry tonight and wish I had the lens for that course! Enjoyed Barry’s class and will probably be doing more of that kind of photography in the future, so targeting to add that one to my camera bag before the end of the end of the summer.

On an unrelated topic, do you know if they are planning on offering a course on Aperture 3 at SAIT in the future or in your opinion would techniques learned in the photoshop courses be easily transferrable for someone using Aperture? Thanks and have a great summer.

    Marlene Hielema - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for the update Robert! I’m glad you did the side-by-side lens comparison. I highly recommend that to everyone. Seeing is believing.

    As for Aperture 3, I’m not sure what SAIT’s plans are. You can post that question in the FaceBook group here, or contact the office directly.

    As for Aperture vs. Photoshop: Yes and no.

    I have been working with Aperture for the past several weeks, and I’ve been working with Photoshop for several years. Aperture does everything ACR does (Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw). Lightroom, Aperture, iPhoto, ACR, Capture One, and other post production programs do all the initial image editing such as:

  • fine tuning white balance
  • fine tuning exposure
  • spot removal
  • vignetting
  • curves and levels
  • adding vibrancy
  • minor retouching
  • skin smoothing
  • web galleries
  • contact sheets
  • sharpening
  • You need Photoshop proper to do image composites, close-cutting, layers, blending images, adding text and other more complicated tasks.

    If you just want to do basic image corrections, send photos out to the lab or to your blog, then Aperture, Lightroom, iPhoto, Capture One, (and all those types of programs) will be just fine for you. They are also easier to use and cost far less than Photoshop.

    Hope that helps!

Melissa - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I’ve had this very question on my mind for a long time now, and I think i’m leaning towards a fast lens, rather than a flash. I mostly use my camera indoors at social events, and don’t like the look of flash in photos (although, I use a pop-up flash, so it’s not very good light anyway). Also, I like candid photos and flash really draws attention to me!

I’ve recently discovered the rental program at The Camera Store, which is a great ‘try before you buy’, and with good rental rates.

Anyway Marlene, I rented the Canon L-series 24-70 2.8 on an entry level SLR, which was a wonderful lense, but very expensive. I’ve heard of the Tamron 17-50 (i think) 2.8 lens, which is cheaper and just as fast. What do you think of this? This lens is not for rent, and I’m afraid I’ll miss the extra focal length in the end. What do you think of the range? Brand?

    Marlene Hielema - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I have the 24-70mm lens that you rented, and I must say that it’s on my camera 80% of the time. I love it, though it is very heavy, so if you’re a traveler, it might be a bit much on a long trip via air. Road trip, no problem.

    Well a flash is cheaper than a fast high-end zoom lens and it has other benefits too! With a larger off-camera flash you can bounce light off the built in bounce card so you don’t get such harsh lighting. Those pop ups are nasty! You can diffusers for them, or make one yourself, to soften the light in those situations when you absolutely must use a flash.

    If you really don’t want a flash, consider a 50mm f1.8 fixed focal length lens. It won’t put such a big dent in your budget, and cheaper than a flash.

    I don’t know a thing about the other lens. I always recommend doing a side-by-side comparison and check the reviews on, or other sites. See if the Tamron is sharp enough for you. Compare with the Canon at the same time. Take photos with each lens at the same focal length and exposure.

    Lenses are an investment in your photographic future. I’ve gone through four camera bodies in the last 10 years, but I’ve had the some of the same lenses all that time. A lens will carry forward with you.

    Sometimes in low light situations, and high ISO even a fast lens is not enough to fill in the dark circles where people’s eyes are, so you might still occasionally need to use a flash. With a bit of practice you can make flash look pretty nice. There’s lots of books on the subject of small flashes. Try Syl Arena’s new book, or have a look at Joe McNally’s stuff.

    Thanks for writing Melissa!

Santisouk - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I took my first photo class at SAIT this year and love it. Took Basic with Jim – bought my first entry level dSLR then took close-up with Barry. Bought the 100mm L serie Canon, amazing lens!!! You will love it! I’m far from being and expert but would like to share some of the shots with you. Could I email them and maybe you could give me some feedback….

    Marlene Hielema - March 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I get so many requests to critique people’s photos that I can no longer do it for free. I have made a great presentation that teaches you how to critique your own photos. Why don’t you try it yourself first? Here it is:

    Let me know how it goes!

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