Short version: What primes are good walk-around lenses for an indoor, dark, crowded environment where you'll be taking pictures of individuals or small groups ad-hoc, walking around and stopping in unpredictable lighting scenarios? This is on a full-frame camera and a flash (430 ex ii) is available. Will 35 and 50 cut it? Or do people use portrait lenses, 85 in particular, for such a thing?

Long Version:

As a quick background, I've had a 450D for a while, and a 6D (full frame) is in the mail and on its way. My lens collection is at the moment: a (Canon) 35 1.4L, 50 1.8, and a 70-200 IS F4L. I've personally taken some of my best pictures of people with the 50, on the cropped camera, making it effectively 80. The downside is that things felt VERY cramped, and you're always needing to step back a lot (not always possible in narrow areas, which is the topic of this question).

Now I'll be using full-frame, making my 35 35 and my 50 50. Does the 35 risk making a poor fit for this scenario, giving people big noses, making me have to crop a lot on the PC, making me have to get very close to people? Is the 50 the right match? Something else?

I'm taking pictures of people, so these are almost like ad-hoc portraits (with more than one person occasionally) without the ability to set up.

  • Remember you can always correct for distortion in post. Jan 20 '13 at 19:42
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    I think I'd want a 25-70mm zoom or thereabouts. At 3x zoom ratio, the quality could still be quite good from a good lens. Sometimes you need the wide angle to get the scene because you can't get back far enough, but you still want 70mm or so for portraits of individuals. Bring a bounce flash if the place has reasonably light colored low ceilings. Jan 20 '13 at 21:30

Your 50mm prime will certainly get the job done, on full frame or APS-C. On APS-C for event photography 50mm works very well for 1 or 2 subjects, typically covering the torso. Unless you step back considerably, 15-20ft - you aren't going to get full body portraits or more then 2 people in the frame. When you switch over to full frame, the 50mm becomes better suited for 1-4 subjects and also full body portraits. You can comfortably shoot a group of 4 people standing near each other posing for you for example. With a 50mm on APS-C you would find yourself uncomfortably far away.

To directly answer your question - a 50mm prime will cut it for indoor event photography, and it will work especially well on a full frame camera. You will likely find it even better then your experiences on the APS-C camera because now you don't have to backup so far.

I would consider moving up to the 50mm f/1.4, as it is better built and gives you a bit of extra light. I don't want to get to far into it on this thread, but I have owned both and have found the f/1.4 version to perform better at f/2 over the f/1.8 version at f/2. I wouldn't shoot either wide open, and by f/2.8 they are similar - but I am assuming you would like to shoot at f/2 if possible. The 50mm f/1.4 is going to perform better for this.

I greatly enjoy the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. That might be one that interests you, and it isn't very expensive. You don't have a general purpose zoom lens that you mentioned, and for indoor low light event photography - the big gun in the room is the 24-70L. This might be something that interests you down the road.

  • Thanks for that. I'll vote this answer up as soon as I have the pointage to do that... To actually comment on the content, now it's going to be hard keeping the 35 1.4L when I need to upgrade the 50 to the 1.4 and possibly get the 85 1.8. 35 and 50 together seem redundant, unless I lug around my crop body as well.
    – Emmel
    Jan 20 '13 at 23:12
  • The 35L is an amazing piece of glass. You might even consider the 85L if you really want to keep up that level of performance. The 50 1.4 and 85 1.8 are on the same range - great performance per dollar, but not top of their respective classes. Sigma also has a very highly regarded 85mm 1.4 if you end up going that route.
    – dpollitt
    Jan 20 '13 at 23:18

Great question. I'm a humanitarian photographer, working mostly in developing countries for ngo's, and some photojournalism on the side, which brings me to a lot of rather small spaces with little light and not too much space to walk around (classrooms, for instance). I only take pictures of people, lots of close-up portraits and some wide shots of the situation. Seems like we shoot in comparable situations. I carry a Canon 5D Mark II and a 24-70mm 2.8 and 16-35mm 2.8 standard. That covers most of my needs. (I also carry a 70-200 f/4, but I hardly ever use it). However, due to the poor light conditions I often meet, I'm looking for a faster prime lens. I'm debating between a 35mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.4.

I agree with the above poster that the Canon 24-70 2.8 is a GREAT all purpose lens in the situations you mention. However, your question is about primes. I love to get close, so even 50mm makes me feel cramped most of the time. Especially, as you mentioned, when there's no room to step back. I've just filtered my latest Lightroom libraries and it turns out I'm a 35mm man. If you like to get close - or have no other option but to get close - I'd recommend 35mm 1.4 in dark, crowded places. But if you don't own the 24-70, I'd go for that. And to get REALLY into the action, the 16-35mm 2.8 is awesome. If you're going for 35mm, the Sigma 35mm 1.4 seems to be the logical choice. I'm thinking about buying that one, since it apparently outperforms the Canon and is cheaper too.

As always, which lens you need, depends on your style. I like to get close and personal.

  • I suppose the EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 is a scaled down version of the same (GREAT) design. That's becoming my favorite indoor close-proximity lens. It certainly impresses.
    – JDługosz
    Dec 27 '14 at 2:19

The 35/1.4 is my preferred lens on a full frame in that situation. Or the 24/1.4 on a 1.3 crop.

  • Okay. So how does one avoid perpective distortion -- (not barrel distortion, which can be corrected in software)? The worry is, on FF and 35, I'll be taking pictures of women who'll find their noses and other aspects of their faces will have grown! :-) Or am I exaggerating the extent of the distortion (no pun intended)? Or do you correct by stepping back and cropping a lot?
    – Emmel
    Jan 20 '13 at 23:09

I would agree with the suggestion that the 50mm f1.4 is the better option, but remember you will have to bump up the ISO to maintain a decent shutter speed when shooting indoors as the assumption here is that you will not be using flash to augment the light. Having said that bumping the ISO quite high on a 6D wont be a problem.

Even at a 35mm focal length the perspective distortion will be minimal providing you're not right up in their faces with your lens. Pulling back a little will help with this and if you want tighter shot you can always crop in PP. I suggest you take both on the night and experiment as a lot will depend on how much room you have.

An 85mm f1.4 or 1.2 is ideal for portraiture but you do need some room especially if you are doing group shots of two or more people.

  • Agreed, the 6D has no issues at ISO 6,400 and even 12,800 is quite acceptable to me. Don't forget the excellent Canon 85mm f/1.8. It's not quite as wide of an aperture, but still a great low light portrait lens and a great value.
    – dpollitt
    Jan 21 '13 at 15:03

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