Which affordable low light street photography lens?

Written by Gary on January 16th, 2011

There are 2 main lenses most people need for their travel photography:

  • general purpose zoom lens – eg. a 10x zoom is favored by many such as the Panasonic 14-140mm HD lens
  • a lens for hand held low light (eg. indoors in art galleries or restaurants with friends) or night photography

Other commonly desired lenses include a ultra wide angle zoom (eg. the Olympus M.ZD 9-18mm) and a wide aperture macro/portrait lens (eg. Olympus 50mm f/2.0).

This post is to look at what is available in the 30-50mm focal length range (in 35mm terms) for cropped sensor travel cameras at a reasonable price.

Although I love my Panasonic Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 Four Thirds lens which is my favorite general purpose lens now, it is too expensive to be included in this category, as are the Canon and Nikon pro lenses such as the 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 lenses.

Panasonic are rumoured to be making a Micro Four Thirds version of this fabulous 25mm f/1.4 lens which one could expect to be much more affordable as it does not need the more complex design of a Four Thirds lens which is further from the sensor.

For Micro Four Thirds then, the main lens to consider is the brilliant Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 ASPH pancake lens:

  • although Panasonic place a ridiculous RRP of $A799 on it in Australia, it is available for $US350 in Asia and in the US.
  • this lens is incredibly sharp even wide open – see dpreview.com which shows that at f/1.7 even out to 50% towards the edge it’s resolution is above 1150 line pairs, and at the corners this drops to 750. At f/2.2 it is much better still across the frame.
  • this lens does have some CA and some distortion but these were part of the compromise for such as small lens design and are corrected in-camera by Panasonic bodies but may need correction in post-processing when used on Olympus bodies.
  • it’s AF is not the fastest or quietest but usually this is not a great problem in practice unless shooting video.
  • it also does not come with a lens hood given it is a pancake design, and unfortunately has the rather unusual 46mm filter thread, but at least t does not rotate so one can use polarising filters.
  • at 100g, combined with sharp optics and an almost perfect street photography focal length of 40mm, this is regarded as the one must-have lens for Micro Four Thirds users.

If you are looking at a lens for a Nikon DX dSLR, your main affordable choice is the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX:

  • a consumer level cheap lens with rather ordinary optics – disappointingly soft wide open.
  • it weighs twice as much as the 20mm f/1.7 but does have a 52mm filter thread and comes with a lens cap
  • at an effective focal length of just over 50mm, it is getting a bit long for street photography, but then I use 50mm a lot so this may not be a show stopper.
  • see dpreview.com which shows that this lens is very soft wide open with only its centre sharpness exceeding 1150 line pairs while corner sharpness drops to a very soft 450 line pairs. It is best used at f/3.5 but even at this aperture, CA becomes prominent which will need post-processing to remove.

Samsung NX users have the option of the Samsung 30mm f/2 pancake lens:

  • see dpreview.com which shows good sharpness wide open, perhaps comparable to the 20mm f/1.7 wide open but not as sharp as the 20mm lens is at f/2.0.
  • it does better than the 20mm lens in terms of CA and distortion – but these are corrected in-camera for the 20mm anyway.

Sony NEX camera users are out of luck, there is no such AF lens available for their system as yet.

Canon APS-C dSLR owners have the Canon EF 35mm f/2.0 lens:

  • non-USM thus noisy AF
  • poor bokeh quality as unlike the above it is an old 5 bladed aperture design
  • relatively sharp in the centre – but “really bad in the corners” – see here.

Canon users also have the EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens:

  • gives a nice 45mm effective focal length
  • uses 58mm filters
  • a much better build than the above, weighs just over 300g, but still very soft in the corners wide open – see here

Sigma produce a 30mm f/1.4 lens in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Four Thirds:

  • a heavy lens at 430g, with a large filter of 62mm
  • HSM AF is fairly fast and quiet
  • sharp in the centre wide open but extremely soft in the corners – see here for tests on a Canon APS-C dSLR

Conclusion:

While the latest Canon and Nikon dSLRs have marginally better high ISO performance than a Panasonic GH-2, marginally better ability to blur backgrounds, and certainly have better AF for moving subjects, and you can have remote TTL flash if needed, if you want edge to edge sharpness to match the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 or the Samsung 30mm f/2.0 lens, then forget the cheap 35mm f/1.7 and f/2.0 lenses and pay up for the professional quality lenses as the consumer Canon and Nikon lenses have very soft images away from the centre wide open.

In low light, Olympus Micro Four Thirds / Pen camera body users get the extra benefit of in-camera image stabilisation which extends the hand held capability of the 20mm f/1.7 (or 25mm f/1.4 lens) even further.

My preference is to pick the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 up for $US350, and use it with a Panasonic GH-2 if video and its other benefits are a priority, or team it with an Olympus E-PL2 if image stabilisation, remote TTL flash and smaller body size is your priority – but in this latter case you may need to do some post processing to remove CA and distortions.

It will be very interesting to see when Panasonic brings out as a 25mm f/1.4 Micro Four Thirds lens, and Olympus bring out an even wider 12mm or so prime which hopefully will be about f/2.0 aperture.

Image stabilisation is NOT available with prime lenses on Canon or Nikon cameras.

Some of my low light and night photos using the Panasonic GH-1 with a Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 lens hand held can be seen in these galleries:

All my shots on this page were done with the older GH-1 with either 14-140mm lens or the 25mm lens  – the indoor (eg. photos inside the vatican) and night shots were with the 25mm f/1.4 lens (no IS) with only the night ones of the Vatican being on a tripod, the rest were hand held.
These photos were taken in Denmark with same combination (day shots mainly 14-140mm lens, indoor and night shots all hand held with 25mm f/1.4 lens on GH-1 – EXCEPT for 1 night shot from my hotel room where I used a tripod).
These photos were taken in Melbourne on one day with GH-1 plus 25mm f/1.4 without tripod.
 

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