How to Battle Blurry Photos with a Fast Prime Lens

by Barrett

Why is everything crystal clear in this picture except for my son?  The problem is my young bowler is the only part of the image moving quickly!  A faster camera lens could have frozen this action shot.

Why is everything crystal clear in this picture except for my son? The problem is my young bowler is the only part of the image moving quickly! A faster camera lens could have frozen this action shot.

It’s hard to believe it, but my son is almost five years old, and I’ve probably taken at least 5,000 pictures of him so far. I think 4,598 of them have been blurry.
(I exaggerate only slightly.)

He just moves too darned fast. With the exception of his first year when he wasn’t that mobile, he has proven too swift for my inadequate photo arsenal to keep up.

So I know that anybody can take a decent picture outdoors with lots of light to support an average camera lens. But as any amateur photographer has probably realized, unwanted blur usually has to do with indoor or low-light situations. That’s the Achilles’ heel for many consumer-grade lenses, which are too slow to freeze all the action in their line of sight.

Sure, you can throw some flash on your subject, but that strategy has its own set of limitations. If you want to capture the beauty of a moment in natural light, you may not want to ruin it with an obnoxious flash.

Of course, the simple solution is to buy more expensive gear.
(Isn’t it always?)
But as you start to look at your options, it quickly becomes an expensive proposition. A good zoom lens can cost you $1,000 or more…

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. You’ve got to start somewhere…

Begin the Journey to Snapping Sharper Photos
Five years ago, I bought my Canon DSLR knowing I needed more than a point and shoot camera to get the job done.
(It’s the EOS Rebel T1i, which has since been superseded by five newer versions. The Canon T6i has just been announced.)

I picked up two ‘kit’ lenses, which were packaged with the camera body as part of a holiday sale. One was an 18-55mm zoom. The other was a 55-250mm zoom.

I found the super zoom to be relatively useless in freezing action. I liked the basic zoom better. It enabled a significant jump in the general quality of my pictures over my Canon PowerShot Elphs, but it also had trouble in low light.

The reason was neither were high-end lenses. Specifically, they weren’t very ‘fast.’ The 18-55mm had a maximum aperture of f/3.5-5.6, while the 55-250mm was only an f/4-5.6.

To capture the action, you need a faster lens with a larger maximum aperture and lower ‘f’ number. Fast lenses let in more light, allowing you to use quicker shutter speeds to freeze any motion in front of you.

But of course, they cost a whole lot more than a couple hundred dollars.
(Which is what the kit lenses go for)

Discover Prime
Fast-forward two years…
I was struggling over how to proceed forward with my increasingly expensive hobby, when a friend, who was a professional photographer, suggested I buy a ‘prime’ lens. A prime is a lens with one fixed focal length, which means it doesn’t zoom.

The quality of these lenses is typically quite high. They’re fast, and their cost… by comparison with fast zoom lenses…is a steal.

So I decided to try out a prime as a cost-efficient next step on my journey to photographic enlightenment.

50mm Prime
I just had to figure out the focal length I wanted…
I was concerned about having enough reach without a zoom.
(I didn’t want my photo subjects to look like tiny dots…)

My friend suggested a 50mm lens as a good starter prime.
So I bought the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens.
(It’s currently $399 at B&H Photo. But if you wait for the next Canon rebate, you can knock off $50 or so…)

When I popped on the 50mm, I immediately saw the benefits of its speed.
However, I found its reach to be a bit too tight when trying snap a photo of my boy from only a few feet away.

With the ‘cropped’ sensor of my Canon Rebel, (and I assume all entry-level DSLR bodies) its framing was 1.6x tighter than what you’d see using the same lens on a more expensive full-frame DSLR body. As a result, I always found myself stepping back as far as I could to get the shot I wanted.

I became frustrated with the results, and eventually left my DSLR at home in favor of my less bulky pocket cameras. Then, my powerful iPhone 6 Plus showed up, which takes a pretty good picture all on its own.

It was like I had dropped out of Photography 101 and was just winging it again. But I knew I needed to get back on the digital horse and find another prime lens that wouldn’t make the world seem so crowded…

35mm Prime
So I’ve been doing more research and recently came to the conclusion that a 35mm prime should give me the extra ‘room’ I want…

For Canon DSLR owners, it’s the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM.
Unfortunately, it’s a pricy prime that goes for $599.
(You can almost buy a brand new DSLR body for that price!)

I then came across a review from Ken Rockwell about the previous generation 35mm Canon lens.
(The Canon EF 35mm f/2)
He loved it, suggesting it was almost as good as the current version and half the price. Unfortunately, this older lens has been discontinued.
But he mentioned you can still find it for sale in the used camera market.

A new browser window later, I found one at B&H Photo for just $249.
(lucky)

How Solid is a Used Lens?
The question was whether I should gamble on a used lens? B&H rated this lens as a ‘9,’ which is two points shy of looking like new. So it’s not going to win a beauty contest. But the lens is still supposed to work, right?

One comforting factor that continued to lead me towards the uncharted waters of the ‘used market’ is the fact that B&H Photo offers a 90 day warrantee on its used photo equipment.

I figured the lens is either going to function properly out of the box or it won’t.

Click.

So that’s the end of this chapter in my quest to become a better photographer.
My new (used) 35mm lens comes in the mail next week…

In Search of a Faster Zoom Lens
But this is not the end of the story…
You can’t really live your life shooting only with primes.
(My son will be in the next county by the time I switch lenses.)

The question here is the proper lens upgrade path for any amateur photographer aspiring to be something more. I know the endgame is to have a few really great lenses. Every professional photographer I know talks proudly about his or her arsenal of ‘glass.’

But I’m not hoping to become the next Ansel Adams. I just want snap better pictures of Junior in action.

Sure, I know my camera body is due for an upgrade.
(Hello, T6i?)
But I also know that one day soon, I should also spend some serious dough on a fast zoom. I just need to feel confident about the choice.

Anyone have any suggestions…?

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