Canon 50mm 1.4 – Handholding in Manhattan

| January 14, 2012
canon 50mm 1.4chrysler building at night

New York’s Chrysler Building on a misty January night

OK, I will admit that this is not as romantic as it sounds. Plus, Donna may not like the idea considering she was not with me on this trip. My schedule was very busy during my trip to New York this week but I did find a couple of late night opportunities to walk the streets and make a few photographs.

canon 50mm 1.4 times square billboard

Colorful billboard in New York’s Times Square

I really had just one goal for this trip with my photography. Take nighttime photos without a tripod. That’s it. What was my plan of attack for getting sharp handheld photographs? Well, take two of my fastest prime lenses and shoot at a high ISO setting. To be honest, It is easier than you might think.

Most of the photos you see here were shot at an ISO setting of 1250. For those not familiar with ISO, it is a common setting on digital cameras that sets the light sensitivity of the camera sensor. The higher the ISO setting, the higher the light sensitivity. Higher light sensitivity allows a photographer to use a higher shutter speed or smaller aperture opening to make a picture. Unfortunately high ISO comes with a compromise in the way of increased noise in the photograph. For handheld night photography, the trick is to pick a high enough ISO (but not too high) that allows you to use a fast enough shutter speed to overcome blur from camera shake.

canon 50mm 1.4 new york night life

Really? Having fun on a Thursday night in new York?

For instance, the shot below of our beautiful model drinking a Diet Pepsi was shot at ISO 1250, f/3.2 at 1/250th of a second. I was using the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens on my Canon 50D DSLR for this photo. The lens has no image stabilization so I really needed to keep the shutter speed relatively high to keep everything nice and sharp. Keep in mind that I don’t just rely on the camera to do the work. I help out by carefully composing the shot, taking a breath, and releasing the shutter as gently and smoothly as possible.

canon 1.4mm new york pepsi billboard

A gorgeous Pepsi ad I could not resist

I could have opened up the lens even further to the maximum of f/1.4 and cranked up the shutter speed. The problem with that strategy is that I would loose depth of field and the poster would have drifted out of focus in the foreground and background. The reality is that 1/250 is plenty fast enough and f/3.2 kept the entire photo in acceptably sharp focus.

canon 50mm 1.4 w hotel new york

An ominous-looking W-Hotel in Times Square

Now, about setting your exposure. With shots like these, I like to shoot in full manual mode with the camera. The light is so dynamic in this type of shooting environment that the camera cannot automatically meter the scene with absolute predictability. Shooting in manual is not that hard. First I set my ISO to 1250. That sets the first leg of the exposure stool. Next, I set the second leg with a fast enough shutter speed to prevent camera shake. Then, I experimented with my aperture setting to get the exposure I wanted. I checked my histogram after each shot to make sure I was not over or under exposing too much. The fact is, you may blow out highlights in some part of your photograph. That’s OK as long as you like what you are getting. I am usually more worried about under exposing because once a pixel goes black, I will probably not get the detail back.

As you can see in the shot of the W-Hotel above, even though the light of the sign blew out, there is still detail to be seen in the lowest and darkest part of the hotel. We expect lights to be bright so it was better to over expose that area of the photo, which enabled the shadow detail to be preserved. After you shoot, take the time to preview the image on the camera’s LCD at high magnification to make sure you are getting what you want in focus!


I meant for this to be out of focus. Pretty cool, huh?

For the shot directly above, I was not interested in detail. I wanted make an abstract image made up of the lights in Times Square. To do this, I used my 100mm f/2.8 canon prime lens with my aperture to f/4.0. F/4.0 gave me two benefits in the photograph. It allowed for a higher shutter speed to keep the car lights from streaking and it allowed for beautiful bokeh to occur. Bokeh is the blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image, or “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light. With my settings locked down, I merely auto focused on something close to me and recomposed a shot in the distance before pressing the shutter button. Since I focused close, all of the lights in the distance were rendered as the lovely multi-colored circles you see in the photo. Bokeh on some lenses looks better than others depending on the number of blades the lens aperture contains. Less blades means the circles start to look like polygons. Not a bad thing, just different and a matter of personal taste.

roosevelt hotel new york

Clock in New York’s Roosevelt Hotel

The goal of this post is to motivate you to get to know your camera and how it performs under different shooting conditions. Take some time to experiment and understand how different settings affect your outcome. Once you have a solid command of the camera, you will be more free to create the images you visualize!

times square billboard

Who needs coffee in Times Square?



Category: Photography, Travel

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jim Denham says:

    Great work here Lee. Love the first image for sure! Also like the bokeh-ized image, too! Well done!

  2. LeavesOfCrimson says:

    Another fabulously interesting post, Lee. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that clock in the hotel! I’m guessing it hails from the 1920’s? It is stunning!

  3. Ray Rempel says:

    Thanks for the brief, but informative lesson. And loved the outcomes of what you shot!

  4. Viviane says:

    Thank you for this trip! I think the first photo fantastic!

  5. A.Barlow says:

    Really like that first shot and that bokeh shot. Looks great!

  6. Lee says:

    Thanks all. Glad you like the Chrysler Building shot. It was my favorite too!