Why You Should Shoot Fast Prime Lenses at the Beach

The dynamic duo back in their natural element, the Canon 35mm f/1.4L and 135mm f/2L lenses on a proper full-frame camera, the Canon EOS RP.

Now that I’m back to shooting full-frame with the Canon EOS RP mirrorless camera, I’m overjoyed that all of my lenses make sense again, and especially my Canon 35mm f/1.4L and 135mm f/2L fast primes. I adored these lenses on my old full-frame Canon 5D Mark II, but as digital rot set in on those bodies, I longed for something newer and with a zipper frame rate and autofocus. I found that the successor 5D Mark III was just too much money for a professional non-professional enthusiast level photographer, and that the new full-frame Canon 6D (Mk I at the time) seemed like more of a side-grade or even a step down in various respects versus my 5D2, so I went with the crop frame APS-C 7D Mark II instead (and don’t ask me about Canon’s model naming convention). The 7D2 was and still is a brilliant camera, and probably one of the most well-rounded cameras I’ve ever owned with its much more modern tech, crazy fast autofocus system, and blazing fast 10 fps frame rate. I loved everything about it and still have it, except that it’s just not a full-frame camera. My high-end lenses didn’t work as they should, and it just doesn’t deliver the “look” that a full-frame camera does.

Canon EOS RP with 35mm f/1.4L at f/1.4, 1/4000s, ISO 50 at 2PM at the beach. Check out the natural vignetting. I love it and it gives a much more “organic” look than the totally flat rendering that you’d get with a crop-frame camera.

I can and do walk around all day with a wide-normal prime lens like the 35mm f/1.4L, which is why the Fuji X100F with its built-in 23mm f/2 lens and a 34.5mm equivalent focal length is such a great fit for me. But that 35mm lens on a crop-frame camera suddenly becomes a 56mm equivalent, which just feels awkward to me. The 135mm f/2L is a brilliant medium telephoto lens on a full-frame camera, but becomes too long most of the time at 216mm equivalent on an APS-C. In addition to the crop frame equivalent focal lengths ending up being awkward, given that you’re only utilizing the center of the image circles of these lenses on a crop frame camera, you lose all of the glorious vignetting that really adds character and another dimension to your photos that you get when shooting with them on a full-frame camera. As brilliant of a camera as I’ve found my 7D Mark II to be, it’s always had a very flat and dull image rendering that I found lacking, and it’s entirely due to the format.

Some people will think I’m crazy or old-fashioned, but I love all of the vignetting and distortions of the “older” lenses that were originally designed back in the film era when shot on full-frame cameras, and feel that modern lenses are over-corrected. A lot of people disagree with that blog, but I don’t, almost wanted to scream from my rooftop when I first read it because I thought I was the only one, so I really don’t care what other people might think or how many times its been “debunked” on the Internets. I’ve always found it crazy that people spend thousands of dollars on the latest over-corrected lenses, just to add things like vignetting and various distortions back in in post-processing! How crazy is that? My “old” full-frame lenses do that all by themselves, and if you don’t like it just stop down a bit. There’s definitely some niche areas of photography where the latest and greatest super corrected modern lenses can help you and might make more sense, but for the most part I think it’s just splitting hairs or pixel peeping, and I’m quite happy with my old film era designed lenses.

Enough Gear Talk, The Beach!


Anyways, this is about the beach. I’ve already been to the beach with the Canon EOS RP, but that was to Turks and Caicos with my 17-40mm f/4L ultra-wide and 70-200mm f/4L telephoto zoom lenses, and places where there weren’t going to be a million people. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the summer after schools have just gotten out is a very different place, and the thing that’s always irked me about trying to get good photos of my kids at the beach is just how many people always end up being in the background of my photos. Without fail, whenever I manage to get a really awesome shot of my kids, either there’s some hot girl in a bikini in the background and I get slapped on the shoulder by my wife and accused of actually trying to take a photo of the girl (it’s happened!), or something closer to the exact opposite of that. Either way, crowded beach photography can be a total pain in the ***!

135L at f/2.5, 1/2500s, and ISO 50

You’re never going to be able to frame your subject at a crowded beach such that there’s nothing distracting in the background, and cropping isn’t always an option either. The solution is to just shoot a fast prime lens, keep your kids in focus, and then yank whatever else is out there as far out of focus as possible. You can do this with a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom also, but those are massive hulking lenses that are a pain to lug around. Something like the Canon 135mm f/2L lens is a fraction of the size and weight, so much more fun to shoot with, and you get a stop of additional speed and subject isolating ability with it.

Yes, you can shoot fast primes at the beach, and no you don’t necessarily need an ND filter. With my old Canon 5D Mark II, this was a piece of cake. You could drop it down into its special ISO 50 mode, and then with a top shutter speed of 1/8000s you could practically shoot at f/1.4 in broad daylight at the beach. That was always a little overkill, and shooting at f/1.4 while keeping a dynamic and moving subject in focus at all was virtually impossible, so f/2 to f/3.2 or so tends to be the sweet spot. The Canon EOS RP has a top shutter speed of 1/4000s, so not quite as good as the top cameras, but it still has a trick ISO 50 mode so I had no trouble shooting at large apertures at all. One of my old Nikon cameras used to have a base ISO of 200, and a top shutter speed of only 1/4000s. That’s where you’ll struggle and really need an ND filter in bright conditions if you’re trying to shoot at large apertures, but as long as your camera can do at least a 1/4000s shutter speed with a base ISO of 100, you should be good most of the time to shoot in the f/2 range.

I’ll just let the results speak for themselves, and say that even in restaurants I find something like the 35mm f/1.4L to be amazing with its ability to yank other tables and parties in the background so far out of focus that you don’t even know that they’re there.

William Hits The Waves

This series of photos were all taken with the Canon 135mm f/2L lens, which is one of Canon’s classics and very best, and at least to my eyes these photos all have one thing in common. They’re not distracting at all and keep your eyes focused on the subject, despite having potentially distracting elements in the background. The other beach goers in the background are far enough out of focus that your eyes aren’t drawn towards them, and the natural vignetting of the lens shot at or near full aperture further helps to center your eyes on the proper subject.

135L at f/2, 1/2500s, ISO 50. If my camera only had a base ISO of 100, the needed shutter speed for this photo would have been 1/5000s, above the top shutter speed, so I’d have had to stop down to about f/2.2. Big deal. For the most part I was okay without the special ISO 50 mode, but it was handy to have for situations like this and not have to dork around with ND filters.

135L at f/2, 1/2000s, ISO 50.

135L at f/2, 1/2000s, ISO 50.

135L at f/2, 1/2000s, ISO 50

135L at f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 50

135L at f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 50, cropped. You can always shoot at 135mm and crop a bit if needed, but if you’re already at 216mm equivalent on a crop-frame with this lens, it’s often already too long and you can’t make it wider! The 85mm f/1.8 is a better option for crop-frame cameras.

The depth of field is so thin with an f/2 medium telephoto lens that just your subject ends up being the only thing in focus, and everything else just melts away. It’s glorious! And this little 135mm f/2L lens is a joy to take anywhere, and isn’t a hulking beast like the 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses which are a stop slower. I used to own a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens when I shot Nikon. It was a glorious lens, except it was so big and heavy that I never wanted to take it anywhere! The 135mm f/2L is so small and light in comparison.

35L at f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 100.

35L selfie at f/3.5, 1/2000s, ISO 100.

The Rehoboth Beach Father’s Day 5K

The auto eyeball grabbing autofocus system in the EOS RP is good enough that I can hand my wife or kids the camera with one of these lenses on it, and it’ll generally be smart enough to grab focus on the proper subject. I had her take a few of us with the 35L lens, and then swapped the camera over to the 135L so that she could get race photos of us coming in to the finish line.

35L at f/1.6

35L at f/3.2

The 135mm f/2L prime is super handy for my wife! I don’t know why she does this, but she’s just so used to her iPhones after all these years, that she no longer understands zoom lenses. As many times as I’ve told her to ZOOM IN with any of my zoom lenses, she’ll burst a hundred photos of one of us at the wide end of a lens while we’re still a mile away and just a tiny spec in the viewfinder, leading to totally useless photos. With the 135mm f/2L prime, she’s PRE-ZOOMED and cannot “zoom out”, and was finally able get some nice race photos of us! :)

The Hulk coming into the finish! I ran the 5K in a 30:24 which is pretty freaking good for this hulking 6’3” 270lb giant who still suffers from post-cancer chronic fatigue issues!

William is 10 and ran a 28:05. He’ll be going out for track in middle school, which is why I’m holding onto my Canon 7D Mark II and Canon 100-400L II lens. :)

Banner tow plane at 135mm and f/2. What you’re seeing here is the natural vignetting of the lens.

Sand castles at 135mm and f/2.

ROWR!!!! Here’s the one hot babe I can photograph at the beach and not get in trouble for! 135mm f/2L at 1/3200s, ISO 50, and f/2. Yes, there’s people in the background here on both sides who may or may not have been distracting in some way, but there’s so far out of focus that you almost don’t even realize they’re there, which is why you want to shoot these lenses at the beach.

Dinner Time

Our fav! Henlopen City Oyster House in Rehoboth Beach is so good that we’ve come here during the off season just to eat here. Yes, it’s that good. See the full album for food photos.

Father’s Day. Slight boo-boo. There wasn’t quite enough depth of field here with the 35L at f/2 to keep Katie in focus. Oops! You definitely need more shot discipline when shooting full-frame, but it’s worth it. f/2.8 probably would have done the trick.

The 35L at f/2.

35L at f/2

35L at f/2

35L at f/2

Evening Stroll on the Boardwalk

Moonrise with the 135L at f/4, 1/160s, and ISO 250.

35L at f/1.6 - the other guy in the background is already falling well out of focus.

Morning Catch on the Beach

135L at f/2.5, 1/2500s, ISO 100.

135L at f/2, 1/2000s, ISO 100.

35L at f/2, 1/2500s, ISO 50

35L at f/3.2, 1/2500s, ISO 50, +1.33EV and then pushed in post. I was trying to see how well the Canon EOS RP would do with a contre jour type backlit photo, and the answer is not nearly as well as my Fuji X100F, although I probably could have exposed it better.

Fess up to the f*ck up. 35L selfie and even at f/4 William is way too far out of focus. LOL. You can definitely get away with sloppy technique much better on APS-C. Full-frame is much less forgiving.

35L at f/8

35L at f/8

35L at 1/4000s and f/2

135L at f/2, and the people in the foreground are melted out of focus. Some people might dislike it or find it distracting, but I took an identical shot at f/8 and much preferred this one.

135L at f/2.2, 1/3200s and ISO 100.

Fess up to the f*ck up. This is the ONE photo I took with my 17-40mm f/4L ultra-wide, the family selfie before leaving, and of course I messed it up. Somehow the lens got bumped from autofocus to manual focus mode, and didn’t focus properly. Oh well.

Versus the Fuji X100F


I’ve previously brought just my Fuji X100F to Rehoboth Beach, and I know it’s a totally apples to orange comparison, but I still like both cameras for various things. The Fuji has killer flash capabilities with its virtually unlimited flash sync speed, you can do some pretty neat tricks with the built-in 3-stop ND filter which is switchable at the push of a button. It’s also the best food camera I’ve ever had with its close focus ability and ease of fitting on a crammed dinner table. It also looks cool in nice restaurants. That said, I still prefer Canon colors a lot more in comparison to the Fuji’s “fun house” like color palette. And of course, the fixed wide-normal lens on the Fuji isn’t going to get cool photos of my kids riding the waves.

The Fuji X100 line is a master of its own universe and fills a nice niche for photogs with the know-how when they just want to relax and shoot more casually, but it won’t ever replace a full camera system. It’s a great compliment to an existing system, or as photo blogger Ken Rockwell has described, the pro’s fun camera. I’ve thought of selling my Fuji X100F to help fund some more Canon RF mount lenses, but it serves its purpose well and I’ll continue to use and enjoy it.

The Basics Are All You Need


As I wrote in the above blog, The Secrets To Getting Great Photos, you don’t need to have dropped tons of money on super high end lenses to get great photos, but you do need the right tools for the job. I have and shoot the best because photography is a great hobby for me and something that I love to do, but you can get very much the same photos with lenses like Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 lenses. The 50mm f/1.8 prime lens* for $125 will serve as a nice short telephoto lens on an APS-C crop-frame camera, and the 85mm f/1.8 for just $349* on rebate at B&H is a steal, and will provide the same medium telephoto view on a crop frame camera like my 7D Mark II or a Rebel as the 135mm f/2L does on a full frame. It doesn’t quite have the “magic” of the 135L on a full-frame camera, but believe me when I say it’ll deliver a helluva lot better results than most crappy zoom lenses. The Canon 40mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens is a handy little lens also, but since I was already bringing the 35mm f/1.4L on this trip, it was redundant and stayed at home.

* Note that my website is entirely personal and non-commercial, and paid for out of my own pocket. I make nada dollars selling anything and don’t have affiliate links anywhere. This is purely free and personal photography advice from “that dad” at the beach, so take it for what it’s worth, but you can’t go wrong with lenses like these. They’re absolute gems, and way better than the zillions of boring slow f/5.6 zooms out there which often cost MORE money!

Related: PETE & MARNIE - OCTOBER 2015

I did a sort of post-wedding engagement shoot of my friends Pete and Marnie, which I guess is the last pro-style photo shoot I’ve done, and I used my two Canon 5D Mark II cameras with these same 35L and 135L prime lenses. Their rendering is amazing and timeless, and anybody who says otherwise is nuts!

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this blog and some of our beach photos. You can check out the full albums below. I split the beach photos and our 5K race photos into two different albums. We’ll be going to Virginia Beach later in the summer where I’ll again bring these two lenses, but add my Canon 100-400mm L II lens to the bag, as there’s a lot more distance shooting opportunities at that beach with the long sand bar.

Drop me a line if you want to talk about photography at all via the contact button below.