Solutions: Really Low Light

Push the envelope with a superfast ƒ/0.95 lens
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ISO has been a hot topic for a few years. As sensors and processing engines have advanced, we’ve broken through the 100,000, 200,000 and even the 400,000 ISO marks. If you can remember the era of film when ISO 3200 emulsions were considered to be extremely high speed, being able to get a usable file from a digital camera set to ISO 51,200 will give you pause.

Photography is both art and science, and when technology advances, that leads to changes, sometimes dramatic changes, in the art. Emulsion and sensor sensitivity have been key advancements that gave rise to whole new ways for photographers to see and capture the world.

The youth movement in nature photography has been the quickest to align aesthetics with the advancements in technology. That’s not surprising. In the 1930s, it was the youth movement, best exemplified by Group f/64, who embraced the sharpness that camera, film and lens technology made available. In the 1940s and 1950s, the up-and-coming photojournalists embraced the handheld aesthetic that came with the new 35mm film cameras and they changed the face of photojournalism. In the 1960s, as 35mm transparency film exploded in popularity, the new youth movement embraced it, and in the process, replaced the black-and-white workflow that relied heavily on a darkroom to an aesthetic that shunned any kind of manipulation of the image, including cropping. As digital cameras came along, the photographers who were fully entrenched in transparency film looked for ways to make the digital image look more like their favorite emulsions, while a youth movement that wasn’t ingrained in film worked with the digital look. And, today, the photographers leading the way into the future are taking advantage of the extraordinary ISO advancements to shoot deeper and deeper into the edges of night.

In addition to the ISO capabilities of many modern cameras, a variety of lenses are adding to what we’re able to accomplish. Canon has had a 50mm ƒ/1.2 L-series lens in their lineup for years. It’s always been held as a sort of special-purpose lens, but more and more, these kinds of lenses are finding their way into more camera bags. And photographers are also rediscovering just how fast a lens can be.

The rise of zoom lenses changed our perspective on maximum aperture. When we’re looking at pro-level zooms, a constant aperture of ƒ/2.8 is the gold standard. Frequently, a similar lens is offered in an ƒ/4, as a less costly, but still reasonably fast alternative. Before zoom quality had reached the point where the lenses could be mainstream, most pros and serious amateurs relied on primes, and the differentiation between a pro prime and a solid, but less costly alternative was in the ƒ/1.4 to ƒ/1.8 range. There are still a remarkable number of lenses with incredibly reasonable price points for a photographer who doesn’t mind the loss of zoom capability. An ƒ/1.4 is three more stops than an ƒ/2.8!

The rise of mirrorless cameras has also helped to drive the use of even faster lenses. Leica users with M-mount bodies have had the very highly regarded (and very expensive) Noctilux 50mm ƒ/0.95 for years. Through the use of adapters, users of cameras like the Sony a7S have been able to make use of this incredible combination. That’s if they could afford the Noctilux. More affordable combinations can be had by coupling M-mount Vöigtlander Nokton lenses to an E-mount body, but the VM-mount Vöigtlanders aren’t as fast as the Noctilux. Also, as good as many adapters are, they aren’t perfect and you can almost guarantee that you’ll have a light leak at the worst possible moment.

Ultrafast ƒ/0.95 lenses give you some incredible options. The available models are limited in their automatic capabilities like AF and auto-aperture, but that’s a small price to pay for the ability to get a sharp image shot at ƒ/0.95.

For Micro 4/3rds users, Vöigtlander has expanded the Nokton line to include several MFT-mount ƒ/0.95 models. The MFT format gives you a 2X magnification factor, so the 25mm ƒ/0.95 Type II lens behaves like a 50mm on a full-frame camera. Other MFT-mount Vöigtlander lenses include a 10.5mm, 17mm and 42.5mm—all with ƒ/0.95 maximum apertures. These primes are manual focus only and cost between $1,000 and $1,500.

If you’re shooting with a Sony a7 body, there’s another interesting player in the ƒ/0.95 arena. Chinese company Zhongyi (ZY) Optics produces the Mitakon brand of lenses. They have a pair of Mitakon Speedmaster models in 35mm and 50mm. The 35mm ƒ/0.95 is designed for APS-C and smaller formats, and it’s available in MFT, Fuji X and Sony NEX mounts. The Mitakon Speedmaster PRO 50mm ƒ/0.95, however, is made with a Sony E-mount for the full-frame cameras. The Mitakon has been referred to as a clone of the 50mm Leica Noctilux, although it’s more accurate to say they’re similar. Price is where the similarities end—the 50mm Speedmaster PRO can be ordered for $849.

The primary use of these sorts of superfast lenses is usually considered to be for creating extremely shallow depth of field, but for a nature photographer shooting at infinity, you can also use them to see deeper into the shadows of the day. Even if you’re adhering to the maxim that a lens is at its sharpest three stops from wide open, that makes an ƒ/0.95 lens sharpest around ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/2—about two stops faster than a wide-open pro zoom!

An ƒ/0.95 lens isn’t likely to be the fabled “only lens you need,” but it can be another tool in your bag that helps you make new and unique photos.