Since the release of the Nikon D3 in 2007 and the Nikon D700 in 2008, low-light sensor technology has been improving by leaps and bounds. For many photographers, the first thing they look at when a new camera is released is the performance of the camera at high-ISOs. For many photographers, low-light capability takes a back seat to resolution, but there are those of us that photograph mostly in the dark.

Caption: Being a live music photographer means sometimes shooting in worse than ideal situations. Even with an f/4 lens I can capture relatively noise-free shots in near darkness when the ISO is pushed to the max. Nikon Df with Sigma 24-105mm f/4 Art. Exposure 1/200 at f/4, <a href=
ISO 7200 pushed 1.3 stops in LightRoom 5 (ISO equiv. 18720) ” width=”650″ height=”433″ /> Caption: Being a live music photographer means sometimes shooting in worse than ideal situations. Even with an f/4 lens, I can capture relatively noise-free shots in near darkness when the ISO is pushed to the max. Nikon Df with Sigma 24-105mm F/4 Art. Exposure 1/200 at f/4, ISO 7200 pushed 1.3 stops in Lightroom 5 (ISO equiv. 18720)

More recently, Nikon released the D4 and then the Df (with the D4 sensor), which were the apex of low-light cameras until Sony tossed their A7S into the mix, just edging the Nikon cameras out of the top place. Of course, there are other cameras that excel in low light, but these are the top three cameras as of now and listing a whole lineup would be impractical.

With this new ability to shoot at ISO 6400 with almost no noise and even get very usable images at ISO 12800 (along with the current trend of many photographers becoming aware of the weight of high-end camera gear such as professional f/2.8 lenses), I’ve noticed a trend among quite a few of my fellow photographers of switching out their flagship f/2.8 zoom lenses and replacing them with smaller, lighter, and more inexpensive f/4 zooms.

Caption: New high-ISO options allow shooting street photography at night and maintaining enough depth of field to capture background details that are in focus. Nikon Df with Sigma 24-105mm F/4 Art. Exposure 1/40 at f/4, ISO 6400 pushed 1 stop in Lightroom 5 (ISO equiv. 12800)

I know many people are skeptical about trading their “fast pro zooms” for what were considered “kit lenses.” I was one of those photographers. I liked my beastly pro lenses; they gave me clout when I was working. I didn’t look like your typical “Uncle Bob” photo guy because I had the real pro gear.

I’m in a different place today. For years, I traveled with the “holy trinity” lenses (Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8G, 24-70mm f/2.8G and the 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII). I shoot concerts a lot. In the spring and summer, I may shoot up to a dozen festivals, which can range from 15-20 bands in a day. Walking or running miles a day between stages for 12-14 hours a day, lugging two pro-sized cameras with these enormous heavy zoom lenses on them and a bag with another heavy zoom and a fast prime or two, I always ended the day ragged out with an aching back and a massive headache.

In my line of work, sometimes when photographing events I need to capture the odd product placement shot in less than perfect light. Nikon Df with Sigma 24-105mm f/4 Art. Exposure 1/20 at f/4, ISO 6400
In my line of work, when photographing events, I sometimes need to capture the odd product placement shot in less than perfect light. Nikon Df with Sigma 24-105mm F/4 Art. Exposure 1/20 at f/4, ISO 6400

When I got my little Nikon Df, I was scheduled to shoot a relatively small festival in Austin, which was only a couple of miles from my house. I decided that I didn’t want to drag around all that gear, so I went to my local camera store and rented a Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VRII for the three-day ‘Fun, Fun, Fun Fest’ to see if I could manage to capture everything I needed using one camera and one lens instead of two cameras, one with a 24-70mm f/2.8 and one with a 70-200mm f/2.8. I had no concern about the lens being “only” f/4 during the day, but as night fell, I began to worry that f/4 may not be fast enough.

That evening when I got home and started editing my photos, I realized that the images were great. I used Auto-ISO and capped it at ISO 6400 (I’ve since raised the cap to ISO 8000). I shot the next two days of the festival with only the Nikon Df and the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VRII and never missed a shot. The zoom range was perfect for the small stages as well as the main stages. Although I needed to crop at times, it wasn’t much.

That festival changed the way I viewed the need for fast f/2.8 lenses. I really didn’t need the extra stop to get my shots. I was ready to buy the Nikon lens when I went back to the shop to return the rental. Sigma had just recently released the 24-105mm f/4 Art lens so I took a look at that lens as well. I found I preferred the image quality of the Sigma so I ended up buying it. Obtaining this lens wasn’t so much about saving weight because the Sigma 24-105mm is a beast of a lens. This was about carrying only ONE camera and ONE lens with me all day, being able to capture wide crowd shots, full band shots, and close-ups without switching camera or lenses. (On a side note, not having multiple cards with the same performers made importing much quicker and easier as well).

Gary Clark Jr. at the 2015 Austin Music Awards. Nikon Df with Sigma 24-105mm F/4 Art. Exposure 1/125 at f/4, ISO 4500

After switching my workhorse lens, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G for the Sigma 24-105mm f/4 Art, I started looking into other f/4 options and I noticed that in all other cases, the lenses were smaller, lighter, less expensive, and in many cases, the image quality was better. Now my main lens kit consists of a Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR, Sigma 24-105mm f/4, Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VRII, and an older model 300mm f/4 ED IF (which is sharp as a tack, extremely small, pro-built, and also very inexpensive).

This isn’t a Nikon only migration. One of my good friends bought a couple of Canon 1DX cameras and ended up swapping out his f/2.8 zooms for the Canon 17-40mm f/4L, 24-105mm f/4L, and a 70-200mm f/4L.

I think there’s a reason why we’re starting to see many lens manufacturers making constant f/4 zoom lenses; the need for faster zooms is as pressing as it used to be, and for extreme low light and selective focus “bokeh” shots, ultra-fast primes are readily available in many different focal lengths.

So given the great high ISO capabilities of today’s camera, you may want to take a look at your gear and consider whether or not you really need that extra stop from your lens or can you make it up in your camera by setting the ISO a stop higher without compromising image quality?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

About the Guest Contributor

J. Dennis Thomas is a professional photographer and author based out of Austin, TX. He specializes in concert and live music photography and is represented by Corbis Images and Alamy Ltd. He has written nearly two dozen Nikon Digital Field Guides for Wiley Publishing and two books for Focal Press including the highly acclaimed Concert and Live Music Photography: Pro Tips from the Pit. He’s also a frequent contributor to Digital Photo Magazine. His images have been published in many notable magazines including Rolling Stone, SPIN, Ebony, W Magazine, Thrasher Magazine, Us Weekly, People, Time, National Geographic, Premier Guitar and Modern Drummer.