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Technical

August 2007

Certain lenses in the Canon EF lens range are more suitable to use in low light than others. They offer larger maximum apertures to gather more light as well as greater control over the depth of field in your images.

L-glass lens technology

The Canon L-series lenses are the pinnacle of the company’s lens technology. Designed for professional use, they incorporate the latest available lens technologies.
There are three technologies used in L-series lenses. To be classed as part of the L-series, a lens must feature one or more of these technologies: fluorite elements, aspherical elements and UD or ultra-low dispersion glass elements.
The fast primes discussed below all use aspherical elements, and the EF24mm f/1.4L USM lens also uses a UD lens element.

Aspherical
Generally, lens elements used in photographic lenses are made in a spherical shape. This is because they are the easiest shape to manufacture and produce acceptable results. However, in the quest for better optical performance, Canon discovered that an aspherical lens shape could be created to converge the light rays passing through the edges of the lens more accurately with those passing through the centre of the lens and so bring all light rays into focus as a point. This corrects the spherical aberrations associated with lenses made entirely of spherical lens elements, where point light sources are not recorded as single points of light, but as a soft diffuse spot with a halo because they are not correctly focused. Spherical aberrations give the image the appearance of being shot through a veil, with lower contrast and poor focus.
Aspherical lenses are used mainly in wide-angle, large aperture lenses where spherical aberrations are more prevalent due to the size of the lens elements.

Fluorite
Fluorite is a natural occurring crystal with three properties that make it highly desirable when producing high-quality lenses. It transmits both infra-red and ultra-violet light well, has low dispersion and a very low refractive index.
Having a low dispersion makes it easier to focus the light source since it is less broken up. This makes correction of chromatic aberrations much easier.
A low refractive index means that light passing through is bent less than if had it passed through glass, again making it easier to focus the light to a single point.
Natural fluorite is not very abundant, and where it does occur, it is only found in small crystals unsuitable for use in lenses. Therefore, Canon began a programme to grow its own synthetic fluorite crystals that were both large enough, and abundant enough, to make into photographic lenses.

Ultra-Low Dispersion
Growing and grinding fluorite crystals is both expensive and time consuming. After solving the problem of fluorite, Canon engineers set about designing an optical glass that featured similar properties but that could be manufactured and worked into lenses easier.
It has many of the same properties as fluorite – low dispersion and a low refractive index, to minimise chromatic aberrations, but is much more cost-effective to use.
Its performance is not quite as good as fluorite, but it is markedly better than ordinary optical glass.


Advantages of large aperture lenses

With large aperture lenses, you no longer need be afraid of the dark. The large aperture allows two distinct advantages over smaller aperture lenses: low-light shooting and greater depth-of-field control.
When using a large aperture lens, shooting is possible in situations that would otherwise require the use of a tripod or a much higher ISO setting. In many cases, using a tripod may not be appropriate, as you could still be prone to subject movement. By shooting wide-open, it is possible to attain a faster shutter speed and hence still freeze subject motion even when the light levels drop. Combined with a higher ISO setting, it means shooting handheld in low-light is possible.

Having a larger maximum aperture allows you to separate the subject from the background by shooting wide-open for minimum depth of field. Although focus distance has a greater effect on the depth of field, having a lens capable of shooting at f/1.2 or f/1.4 will allow shallower depth of field than one with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/2.8. Although it may not seem like a lot of difference, to take the 50mm lenses as an example, there are three in the range – EF50mm f/1.2L USM, EF50mm f/1.4 USM and EF50mm f/1.8 II. They all have a closest focusing distance of just 0.45cm.
If you were to focus on a subject at the closest focusing distance and shoot at maximum aperture with each lens, the total depth of field you would attain with each lens would be:

f/1.2 = 6.05mm
f/1.4 = 7.06mm
f/1.8 = 9.07mm

Although there seems to be little difference, when photographing a person, for example, a couple of millimetres more or less depth of field can make a large difference to the look of the final image. The other advantage is that since most lenses perform better when stopped down from their maximum aperture, shooting with a faster lens that is not only optically better but also not shooting at maximum aperture, will result in sharper images.

The final advantage concerns the focusing. More light can be gathered by these lenses because of the larger maximum aperture making it easier for the autofocus sensors within the camera to find contrast even in low light or low contrast situations. Lenses with smaller maximum apertures may struggle to focus in such low light conditions as they cannot allow enough light into the autofocus sensors.

The low-light lenses

EF24mm f/1.4L USM

 

24mm lenses produce a wide-angled field of view. Used properly, they can show a powerful sense of perspective to help separate subjects from backgrounds. This lens is most commonly used to photograph landscapes where the full force of the wide field of view can be used. It can also be used for interior shooting when space is limited and you want to capture as much of a room as possible.

The EF24mm f/1.4L USM lens provides an expansive view perfect for landscapes.
 

The EF24mm f/1.4L USM lens provides an expansive view perfect for landscapes.

The lens is constructed from 11 elements in nine groups, including both an aspherical lens element and a UD glass element to fully control all aspects of distortion. It features the largest maximum aperture in its group and has a closest focusing distance of just 25cm.

The non-rotating front lens element makes it simple to use circular polarising filters and square filter systems for more creative effects.

Lens Specification

Angle of view (horzntl, vertl, diagnl) 74°, 53°, 84°
Lens construction (elements/groups) 11/9
No. of diaphragm blades 7
Minimum aperture 22
Closest focusing distance (m) 0.25
Maximum magnification (x) 0.16
AF actuator USM¹
Filter diameter (mm) 77
Max. diameter x length (mm) 83.5 x 77.4
Weight (g) 550
Magnification - Extension Tube EF12 II 0.66 - 0.50
Magnification - Extension Tube EF25 II -
Lens hood EW-83DII
Hard Case -
Soft case LP1214
G.F.Holder III (hood III*) NC
G.F.Holder IV (hood IV*) (0)

EF35mm f/1.4L USM

 

A 35mm lens is second only in usefulness to the 50mm standard lens. It can be used for street scenes and low-light city shooting to indoor concerts and low-light portraits at weddings and other indoor functions.

The large maximum aperture makes it possible to autofocus in low light when zoom lenses or those with smaller maximum apertures would be unable to find sufficient contrast.

  The EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens is at home in low-light city scenes where the large maximum aperture helps focusing and the field of view can be used to find a perspective similar to that of the human eye.
 

The EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens is at home in low-light city scenes where the large maximum aperture helps focusing and the field of view can be used to find a perspective similar to that of the human eye.

When used on an APS-C sensor camera, the field of view is almost identical to that of the 50mm standard focal length.

The lens is made of 11 elements in nine lens groups and features an aspherical lens element to minimise aberrations. The closest focusing distance is 30cm. A non-rotating front filter attachment makes it easy to use circular polarisers or square filter systems.


Lens Specification

Angle of view (horzntl, vertl, diagnl) 54°, 38°, 63°
Lens construction (elements/groups) 11/9
No. of diaphragm blades 8
Minimum aperture 22
Closest focusing distance (m) 0.3
Maximum magnification (x) 0.18
AF actuator USM¹
Filter diameter (mm) 72
Max. diameter x length (mm) 79 x 86
Weight (g) 580
Magnification - Extension Tube EF12 II 0.54 - 0.36
Magnification - Extension Tube EF25 II 0.97 - 0.79
Lens hood EW-78C
Hard Case -
Soft case LP1214
G.F.Holder III (hood III*) NC
G.F.Holder IV (hood IV*) (0)

EF50mm f/1.2L USM

 

The 50mm focal length is described as the standard lens for 35mm photography. Although it is considered by many to be the most useful focal length, it is a lens that requires practice and mastering to get the best out of it.

The EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens features great low-light performance and very shallow depth of field for flattering skin tones in portraiture.
 

The EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens features great low-light performance and very shallow depth of field for flattering skin tones in portraiture.

Having a field of view so close to the human eye makes it ideal for natural portraits without distortion, and the large maximum aperture makes shooting handheld in low light much easier. This makes it perfect for weddings where church lighting can be low and tripods are too cumbersome to manoeuvre.

The lens construction features eight elements in six groups including one aspherical lens element to produce sharp images with high contrast even when shooting at the maximum aperture. The circular aperture diaphragm produces smooth out-of-focus highlights and a creamy bokeh.

To achieve the maximum weatherproofness, a protection filter should be used on this lens to stop water from getting between the lens barrel and the front lens element.

Marco’s kit bag:
EOS 5D
EOS-1Ds Mark II
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF24mm f/1.4L USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF85mm f/1.2L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
Canon Speedlite 580EX
5 batteries for the EOS-1Ds Mark II
3 batteries for the EOS 5D
For this particular story Marco mostly used:
EOS-1Ds Mark II
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF85mm f/1.2L USM

Lens Specification

Image size -
35mm film equivalent focal length -
Angle of view (horzntl, vertl, diagnl) 40°, 27°, 46°
Lens construction (elements/groups) 8/6
No. of diaphragm blades 8
Minimum aperture 16
Closest focusing distance (m) 0.45
Maximum magnification (x) 0.15
Distance information Yes
Image stabilizer No
AF actuator Ring USM¹
Filter diameter (mm) 72
Max. diameter x length (mm) 85.8 x 65.5
Weight (g) 580
Magnification - Extension Tube EF12 II 0.39 - 0.24
Magnification - Extension Tube EF25 II 0.67 - 0.53
Lens hood ES-78
Soft case LP1214
G.F.Holder III (hood III*) (0)
G.F.Holder IV (hood IV*) (1)
Extenders EF1.4x II and EF2x II Not Compatible

EF85mm f/1.2L II USM

 

While a 50mm lens is considered the standard focal length, a 85mm lens is known as the portrait lens. The natural perspective and large maximum aperture produces shallow depth of field and soft skin tones that flatter the model.

Head and shoulders portraits are the natural place for the EF85mm f/1.2L USM lens
 

Head and shoulders portraits are the natural place for the EF85mm f/1.2L USM lens

Shooting at or near the maximum aperture will help the subject standout from the background. The large f/1.2 maximum aperture also makes this lens ideal for shooting in low light either after sunset or indoors where available light levels are low.

Constructed of eight elements in seven groups with the inclusion of one aspherical glass element helps control aberrations and optimises image quality. A new autofocus CPU and improved algorithms also makes this lens focus faster than its predecessor – very useful when shooting in low light where contrast for focusing is low.

Like the EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens, this lens features a circular aperture for smooth bokeh and pleasant out-of-focus highlights.


Lens Specification

Image size -
35mm film equivalent focal length -
Angle of view (horzntl, vertl, diagnl) 16°, 24°, 28° 30'
Lens construction (elements/groups) 8/7
No. of diaphragm blades 8
Minimum aperture 16
Closest focusing distance (m) 0.95
Maximum magnification (x) 0.11
Distance information Yes
Image stabilizer No
AF actuator Ring USM¹
Filter diameter (mm) 72
Max. diameter x length (mm) 91.5 x 84.0
Weight (g) 1025
Magnification - Extension Tube EF12 II 0.25 - 0.15
Magnification - Extension Tube EF25 II 0.42 - 0.33
Lens hood ES-79 II
Soft case LP1219
G.F.Holder III (hood III*) (4)
G.F.Holder IV (hood IV*) (4)
Extenders EF1.4x II and EF2x II Not Compatible

EF135mm f/2L USM

 

The EF135mm f/2L is rated by many photographers as their favourite lens since it combines a telephoto effect with a large aperture for shallow depth of field and a slightly compressed perspective.

The large aperture makes it great for indoor sports events where light levels are low, as it allows for faster shutter speeds to stop the action. The focal length also helps draw the action closer and the small size and weight of the lens make it easy to handle.

 Use the telephoto effect of the EF135mm f/2L USM to isolate the part of the scene you want to include.
© John McDermott

Use the telephoto effect of the EF135mm f/2L USM to isolate the part of the scene you want to include.

Using it with an EF1.4x II or EF2x II Extender allows shooting at 189mm f/2.8 or 270mm f/4 with autofocus. It is also a favoured portrait lens, giving a little more distance between the photographer and the model, although the close focusing distance of 90cm allows you to fill the frame with ease.

Constructed with 10 elements in eight groups and one UD glass element helps to minimise secondary spectrum for excellent image quality.

Angle of view (horzntl, vertl, diagnl) 15°, 10°, 18°
Lens construction (elements/groups) 10/8
No. of diaphragm blades 8
Minimum aperture 32
Closest focusing distance (m) 0.9
Maximum magnification (x) 0.19
AF actuator USM¹
Filter diameter (mm) 72
Max. diameter x length (mm) 82.5 x 112
Weight (g) 750
Magnification - Extension Tube EF12 II 0.29 - 0.09
Magnification - Extension Tube EF25 II 0.41 - 0.20
Lens hood ET-78II
Hard case LH-D16II
Soft case LP1219
G.F.Holder III (hood III*) (5)
G.F.Holder IV (hood IV*) (5)