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by Bart Arondson

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I'm doing an indoor shoot of a large event with lots of people (which I was informed the lighting is "dark-ish" -- think large party) and I'd like to get candids without getting too close. I'm split between the 135 f/2L and the 70-200 f/2.8L IS (mark I) since both are the same rental price.

The 135L offers a slightly faster aperture and is lighter, but the 70-200 offers versatility and IS, albeit it's much heavier. In your experiences as an indoor photographer, which would be the smarter choice?

For consideration, other things in my kit for that night:

  • Canon 5D III
  • Canon 7D
  • EF 24mm f/1.4L
  • EF 50mm f/1.4
  • EF 85mm f/1.2L II
  • Speedlite 580

I'll also be wearing a tuxedo or some sort of suit/formalwear if ergonomics can be a factor. Thanks!

(PS: I tagged with wedding since I presume this to share many similarities with shooting a wedding.)

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Here is a very similar(but different) question: Is replacing a 70-200mm Canon lens with a 135mm and extender a good idea?. I've owned both, and finally settled on just the 135L due to the weight and size of the 70-200's. For indoor event photography, a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS is always a good idea! –  dpollitt Oct 4 '13 at 13:30
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I want to point out that this is a highly debated subject for many low light portrait photographers. You will find plenty of opinions but the only way to know for sure is by using both yourself! –  dpollitt Oct 4 '13 at 13:37

4 Answers 4

In the past when looking for a bit more reach/separation I've experimented with both the Canon 100 f/2.8L IS and

I found the IS of the 100mm not to be that useful when using ambient light only since shooting at 1/50s or 1/25s leads to subject motion blur in a lot of cases (especially when people are gesturing, laughing etc.) In most cases I had to use 1/100s or higher thus I found the 135 f/2.0 preferable (it also has the advantage of greater subject isolation).

The same would probably be true of the 200 f/2.8L IS, unless shooting right at the 200mm end at people who are relatively still (however I found 135mm to be about the limit for indoor event shooting, I've never succeeded in using a 200mm).

Here are some examples of the 135L indoors, bounced flash (you have to zoom it and get the angle right so it's hitting the ceiling above your subject, otherwise you loose too much power):

Here are some examples of an indoor event shot with the 135L, bounced flash (you have to zoom it and get the angle right so it's hitting the ceiling above your subject, otherwise you loose too much power):

Having said that I don't use the 135 f/2.0 that often indoors due to space concerns.


A few more random indoor 135 f/2 shots (the church ones were darker than they look!)

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If the question had been about a ceremony in a church I would have definitely recommended longer focal lengths, but that wasn't what the question asked. As you say yourself, you don't usually shoot at such long focal lengths at a party either. Although it is somewhat of an artistic decision, I haven't been happy when shooting events in reception halls with longer focal lengths. While some may like the business around an isolated single subject, that look is a little cluttered for my taste. It does all depend on what look you want, though. –  Michael Clark Oct 4 '13 at 17:31
    
Is the question about shooting a formal, sit-down dinner or about shooting a party? –  Michael Clark Oct 4 '13 at 17:49
    
@MichaelClark Party. Think high school prom. –  jp89 Oct 5 '13 at 0:45
    
If you are shooting a high school prom you will probably need a longer focal length for the lead out. –  Michael Clark Oct 5 '13 at 9:48
    
+1 for nice pics! –  Arsen Zahray Oct 24 '13 at 8:52

I would consider neither the EF 135mm f/2 L nor the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS for that situation. Others will disagree, but that is my preference at a large party where most of the guests are up and moving around. Of the lenses you don't already have available the best candidate for rental would be the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. If your budget can't handle that, then the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC. It is a little sharper than the original Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L and also has image stabilization. The other thing I might consider if I were in your shoes would be using the three excellent primes you own and if changing lenses is an issue, then renting a second FF body. But then you'd also need a second E-TTL flash (you don't want to try shooting an event like this with people constantly moving around using manual flash - if they're seated in the same spot most of the time it would be a different story). The problem with the longer focal lengths is three-fold:

  • The inverse square rule. Your flash loses power exponentially the further away your subject is. At f/2 or f/2.8 in most reception halls/restaurants/banquet rooms you're still going to need flash regardless of the lens you use. I get better results putting a diffuser on the flash, either bouncing it off the ceiling or holding it off camera (with an off-shoe cord and either via bracket or using my left hand), and getting a little closer. The further you are from your subject, the closer to the optical axis your flash will be in angular terms for the same distance it is held from the hot shoe.

  • Obstructions. Trying to shoot from 15-20 feet so as to not be intrusive sounds like a good idea - until you get in a crowded room with wall to wall people and you can't get a clear view of anyone at that distance without someone else walking between you and the subject(s). And frankly, most people at a party prefer to be given the opportunity to pose and present their best look before the shutter is snapped. That's not to say you shouldn't try to get some candid, unposed shots. But even then, you don't want to catch them stuffing their face with food, swigging a drink, or with their mouth contorted talking to someone - which is mostly what they'll be doing when they aren't posing for you.

  • Groups. You need a wider angle of view to shoot groups of 3-4 people than you need when shooting individual portraits. Most people attending a party are going to be in groups, not by themselves. For groups of 2-4 people I use focal lengths between 35mm and 50mm the most on a full frame body. Since the subject distance is further than if you were trying to fill the frame with a single person, you won't have issues with facial distortion. Perspective is strictly a function of shooting distance, not focal length as many people believe. To get 3 people in the frame you need to use about 35mm to use the same shooting distance you would use with a 90mm lens shooting an individual.

Even with faster glass, such as your EF 50mm f/1.4 or EF 24mm f/1.4 L, you often can't leverage the wider aperture because you need a deeper depth of field to make sure everyone who may be closer or further away from the camera are properly focused. Those lenses are perfectly usable, but you will need to stop them down a bit to get the depth of field you will likely need.

Forget the 7D in that type of environment. I've got one and it is a good sports camera in decent light, but for events in darker environs, the 5D III is clearly superior in terms of high ISO noise performance, dynamic range, noise, white balance/color accuracy, noise, and noise.

The following were all shot using a Canon 5D II + EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L + 430EXII (w/Stofen Omni-Bounce diffuser). Aperture Priority with Tv limited to 1/200-1/60 sec via C.Fn I-07 (flash sync speed in Av mode) and E-TTL flash mode. Essentially I was shooting manually at 1/60 sec + selected aperture unless the ambient light was too bright (not likely) in which case the Tv would be shortened. The E-TTL flash then added whatever was needed to expose the subject. I adjusted the ISO based on the ambient lighting in the frame. I selected aperture based on desired depth of field. I set Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) based on distance, subject reflectivity, and the mood desired.

51mm. ISO 1600, 1/60 sec, f/2.8. FEC -1. Flash mounted on hot shoe bounced off ceiling. Cropped from 5616x3744 to 5327x3551 before resizing for web. Party 1

24mm. ISO 800, 1/60 sec, f/2.8. FEC -1 1/3. Flash bounced off ceiling. Cropped from 5616x3744 to 4423x3537 before resizing for web. Party 2

32mm. ISO 1600, 1/60 sec, f/2.8, FEC -1. Flash hand held ≈24-30 inches left of camera (probably a bit too far). Cropped from 5616x3744 to 4676x3117 before resizing for web. Party 3

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I like the technique of mixing ambient with TTL flash, I would also suggest geling the flash to help with the white balance of the background. –  Patrick Hurley Oct 4 '13 at 12:25
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Renting a 24-70 f/2.8 would be redundant given the questioner already has that range covered by lenses 2 stops faster (I find doing rounds with each focal length to be preferable to shooting two bodies at once). There are however use cases for a longer lens indoors, if you have space. Also you can usually still bounce the flash and get good results if you zoom and angle it right (see the examples I posted). –  Matt Grum Oct 4 '13 at 12:36
    
The user already has one of the best prime lens lineups in that focal length range. Picking up a 24-70 is pointless with the excellent glass they already have, not to mention that the primes they have significantly wider max apertures. –  dpollitt Oct 4 '13 at 13:34
    
@PatrickHurley The background ambient lighting in shots 1 and 3 was heavily tinted stage lighting the band at the other end of the room was using. You can see the mini light towers if you look for them. –  Michael Clark Oct 4 '13 at 17:09
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I like your suggestion of getting closer and using a wide-angle lens. It prevents having heads, flowers, chairs, and other extraneous things blocking your subject. –  dcaswell Oct 4 '13 at 23:39

I have used the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II extensively shooting indoor sports and have rented the 135 f/2 a couple times. They are both stunning. For indoor events, I would personally go with 70-200, because for me 135 would be too long much of the time and being able to get a wider field of view would be more important than the extra stop (especially shooting with a 5dm3, which can handle high ISO without too much trouble).

At the long end the IS will help, but you are going to start getting a fair amount of subject blur if you let your exposure times get too long, unless people are more or less standing still (not so much the case when shooting candids across the room).

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I'd stick with the 85mm f1.2. It's the fastest in the repertoire and that focal length is wonderful for portraiture.

If you are going to use an APSC camera, 135mm might be a little bit too long... I have some experience with that focal length and I won't recommend it for indoor use or crowded places. You always end up with super tight shots or with people/stuff between your camera and the subject.

And about the big zooms... They are awesome for safaris, but people usually do not like to feel like they are being hunted ;)

If you feel comfortable carrying around two cameras, a good compromise would be taking the 5D MkII with the 24mm and the 7D with the 85mm. If you feel that the perspectives are too extreme and need something more natural, just swap the lenses :D

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I'd agree with you if the 7D wasn't so dang noisy in low light. –  Michael Clark Oct 5 '13 at 9:52

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