What Lens Should I Use to Shoot in a Small Room With Low Light?

By Todd Campitelli

Photographers are often challenged to create compelling photographs under tight constraints. Two of the most difficult are shooting in tight spaces and shooting in low light. Over the years, a skilled photographer learns techniques to overcome these challenges and, like any professional or trained enthusiast, has a wide range of tools to complete the job.

Shooting in Tight Spaces

To shoot in tight quarters, you need a wide-angle lens. Camera lenses are measured in millimeters, and the lower the number, the wider angle the lens. Wide-angle lenses have two distinct advantages when shooting in small spaces. First, wide-angle lenses are able to cover more of the scene, allowing the photographer to get more subject matter into the frame. Second, wide-angle lenses give the impression of a stretched perspective. This means that objects often appear larger than they actually are in relation to each other. For shooting in small rooms, this is often a good thing because it allows the room to appear larger than its actual dimensions.

For a traditional 35mm camera or a digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, a good wide-angle lens is anything in the 20mm to 35mm range, with the 28mm lens being a popular wide-angle choice. You can get wider-angle lenses, but they typically are known as fish-eye lenses because their edges begin to distort, creating the same effect as looking at the image from inside a fish bowl. While fish-eye lenses can create some very compelling images, the result is certainly a specialty effect and may not be suitable for all subjects.

When choosing a lens for a digital SLR, remember that many digital cameras have a magnification factor of 1 1/2 to 2 times the focal length of the lens. Therefore, you need to use a wider lens to get the same angle of view as you would have on a traditional 35mm film camera.

Shooting in Low Light

A lens’ ability to expose images properly in low-light situations is determined by its aperture. Aperture, measured in F-stops, is the lens’ ability to restrict or allow light entering the film plane. Generally ranging from f1.4 to f22, each “stop” represents half as much light as the stop before it, with the smallest f-stop representing the widest aperture. Lenses that allow for wide aperture openings are known as “fast” lenses because they require less light to have a proper exposure.

Fortunately, wide-angle lenses are also the fastest lenses on the market, with typical 28mm lens opening up to f1.4 or even f1.2. When choosing a lens, prime lenses with a fixed focal point often have a wider aperture rating than zoom lenses.

Other Tools For Operating in Low Light

While aperture and shutter speed are perhaps the two biggest factors in determining proper exposure and picture quality in tight, low-light environments, there are a few other tools or methods that can be used to get a good image.

The first is an on-camera flash. A camera flash can temporarily provide the needed light to get a good exposure. A good technique when using a flash in a small room is to bounce the light off of the room’s ceiling, especially if the ceiling is white. By aiming the flash at the ceiling, the result is a nice, even light that can bring up the general ambiance of a room.

The second is to decrease the shutter speed. Keeping the camera’s shutter open longer allows more time for light to enter the film plane. When taking pictures with a prolonged exposure, however, there is a risk of blurry images. In this instance, a tripod should be used to stabilize the camera.

Finally, film speed can determine how much light is needed to take a picture. With film cameras, you can buy film stock with a higher ISO rating that is more sensitive to light. Digital cameras also have a digital equivalent to ISO that you can set in the camera. While a faster film often can take photos with less light, it also introduces more grain to the image. Therefore, a photo taken with a high ISO-rated film will appear grainier than one taken with a lower ISO. This is also true for digital cameras.

About the Author

Todd Campitelli has been a writer for over 11 years and has been writing on all topics from health care to education for websites all across the World Wide Web. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and television production from New York University and is currently working on a master's degree in entertainment business.