By Lily Sawyer
Have you ever wondered which lenses are in a wedding photographer’s bag? There is a plethora of choice when it comes to lenses, and lens companies come up with new products all the time. Many photographers are attracted to these bright and shiny things and end up with a mammoth collection of lenses, many of which hardly see the light of day. If you have to pare back to the absolute necessities, and are allowed five lenses in your wedding photography bag, these are the ones that I would recommend. I have been a professional wedding photographer for seven years now, and deciding on these five took some time, and serious consideration over the course of my career.
Let’s look at each individually to see why.
#1 – 70-200mm f/2.8
It’s big, bulky and heavy but I wouldn’t do a wedding without this lens. The 70-200 f/2.8 is my workhorse when it comes to weddings. It is a versatile lens that gives you amazing sharpness at all focal lengths. The bokeh is beautiful, especially at 200mm, even with a stopped down aperture due to the compression caused by the long focal length.
This lens makes a wedding photographer invisible. You don’t have to be so close to people’s faces; you can capture candid expressions and serendipitous moments from a fair distance away. This lens is especially useful during the ceremony, where you would rather be far away and out of sight, or hidden behind a wall or door. It allows you to capture the exchange of rings, vows, and kiss discreetly.
If you require a longer zoom while being at the same fair distance, you can choose to photograph in DX mode (if you shoot full frame and your camera offers this option) on your camera, and the lens will give you 1.5x distance more, making 200mm into a neat 300mm zoom. If you do this, make sure that you have enough pixels for the crop, in case you feel the need to straighten or change your composition in post-processing.
For example, of you are shooting with a 12MP camera such as the old Nikon D700 on FX mode, when you convert to DX mode the camera becomes a 5MP camera, which is below the minimum amount of pixels you can have – 6MP – to be able to enlarge prints to a decent size. If you have to crop in post-processing, this will not give you enough pixels to be able to safely do so without compromising print output sizes.
However, if you are photographing with a Nikon D810 in DX mode, your image goes from 36MP to 15.3MP but still leaves you enough wiggle room for minimal, and sensible cropping if necessary. If you use this functionality, don’t forget that when photographing in DX mode on a full frame camera, or when using a DX lens, the camera only uses the center of the sensor. So if you forget to compose accordingly in camera, you will get a nasty surprise after you have taken the image: cut off heads and limbs, and badly cropped compositions are some examples. When using DX lenses, the rest of the unused sensor area is blacked out but when using FX lenses in DX mode, this is not the default and you would still see the entire full-frame sensor if you don’t change your settings.
The 70-200mm is an excellent focal length for flattering portraits. When photographing at 200mm, I typically stop down to around f/4 or f/5.6 at a shutter speed of 1/200-1/400th, and the sharpness of the image is stunning against a creamy bokeh background. This lens also has a built-in lens collar you can use to steady it when hand holding, or attaching it to a tripod stand. Without a tripod, you can steady yourself as much as possible by leaning against something immovable like a wall, or on a stable surface such as a table, or keeping your arms pinned against something sturdy to reduce camera shake, especially when using this lens for portrait work at the longer end of the focal length.
You can now get a f/4 version of this zoom lens (for Nikon, Canon has always had one) at a vastly cheaper price compared to the f/2.8. I personally do not have the f/4 version but if you’re on a budget, and you don’t mind not having the option to photograph at a wider aperture, then I see no reason why you should not get the f/4. It is lighter and smaller, understandably so because it has less glass elements compared to its more expensive counterpart, and may not only suit the budget better, but also lessens the bulk you have to carry at a wedding.
#2 – 24-70mm f/2.8
The 24-70mm f/2.8 offers the focal length versatility needed when you are photographing on the go, which is what wedding photographers need for most of the day. You can use this lens to capture wider location scenes, candid photos of people, guests arriving, people milling and chatting while waiting for the ceremony to start or during the wedding breakfast, some decorations and details, the first dance, and the leaving photos, to cite just a few.
I use this lens for photos that do not require close portrait work, although it can definitely be used as one. The 50-70mm range will yield pleasing results, like the image directly below. However, my preference is to use prime lenses for portraits. The 24-70mm lens sees a whole lot of action during the wedding day, and is definitely my other workhorse for capturing people, wider shots, and behind-the-scenes.
Many photographers include a much wider lens for location photographs such as the 14-24mm f/2.8. While I would love to add this lens to my arsenal, this is not an absolute necessity, in my opinion. With the 24-70mm, you can photograph location scenes wide enough – but should you need to capture a wider scene, you could photograph a few images and stitch them together in Photoshop as a panorama. This is easy enough to do by making sure the exposure setting for the series of shots are the same, and you stand on a fixed point, inching your way across the panorama. You can do the same for a photograph of all the guests too. These would be the only times I would need an ultra wide angle lens for a wedding, hence I cannot just yet justify adding it to the list of must-haves.
#3 – 85mm prime
This is my all-time favorite lens, and the one I use for portraits of the bride and groom, bridesmaids and groomsmen, individual guests or small groups, and the list goes on. As a fixed lens, this requires more work on your part – you have to zoom in and out with your feet. But, the extra effort is worth it – the portraits are cleaner, the backgrounds are creamier, and it is a fabulous lens in very low light conditions.
The best thing I love about this lens is that it is tack sharp from the sweet spot on. Accurate, light sensitive, great results on skin, this is my go-to lens, and it never leaves my bag. Being a prime lens, the 85mm is fast, small, and extremely reliable.
I have photographed an entire wedding of a relative (as a guest) using only this lens. I was asked on the day if I could cover the wedding and I agreed, with only the D700 and 85mm combination in hand, which I carry with me most times for personal snapshots, and photos of my family. The photos from that wedding are published in one of the UK’s top wedding blogs: proof that you can photograph a wedding with what you have, given that you know your gear well enough.
The 85mm for Nikon comes in either an f/1.8 ($479 USD) or f/1.4 version ($1595 USD), with a huge price difference between the two, due to the glass elements and optics (Canon also has an f/1.2 available, it’s $1999 USD). However, many photographers are divided between which lens is better. I have the f/1.8, and it has always performed marvellously for me. The f/1.4 has been on my lens list forever, and while I could buy it as the 85mm is on my necessity list, I have held off given that I have never felt the need to upgrade.
#4 – 35mm
One of my early serious lens investments was this amazing 35mm f/1.4. If there is a lens I can always rely on, it’s this one. This is an ultra versatile lens that you can use to photograph the bride getting ready – the time when wedding photographers are usually under pressure to capture everything from location, the myriad of accessories, details, candid shots, the dress, the natural interactions between the bride and her loved ones, and group portraits – in a very short amount of time and more often than not, in small spaces like cramped hotel rooms. It is also perfect for photographing wider scenes, and you get images without the exaggerated distortions that you get with the 24mm.
This lens is super fast and sharp, and has yet to fail me. With this lens you can get close, with 0.3m (11.7″) minimum focusing distance – very handy when you are in in a crowded space. As if that weren’t enough, this lens opens up to f/1.4 which can let you photograph in extremely low light, especially if you are so pressed for time and space to use off-camera flashes. Even though the 35mm focal length is already covered by the 24-70mm, the difference between f/1.4 and f/2.8, in its ability to allow more light in (two more stops of 4x the light), cannot be underestimated.
The 35mm also comes in f/1.8, a DX lens you can purchase inexpensively (under $200). You may wonder why the astronomical difference in price compared to the professional f/1.4 counterpart. First of all, you cannot use the DX lens on a full frame camera without losing pixels, and without the 35mm focal lens becoming a 52.5mm, which can be very limiting in tight spaces. Secondly, the 35mm view is close enough to what the eye naturally sees which people say is around 40mm in loose terms, and I like that view. As a wedding photographer, it allows you to capture images that gives the viewer the impression that they could have been there, seeing the same view themselves. This is an important element in any wedding photography, specifically that with a documentary style, in my opinion.
If you ever get to physically hold each lens in your hands at the same time, the enormous price difference won’t even be in question. The f/1.4 is considerably heavier, and much bigger than the pocket-sized f/1.8. But, don’t be fooled by appearances. The f/1.8 is also an outstanding lens with exceptional performance in its own right, and for crop sensor cameras may be more than sufficient, and is most definitely easy on the budget.
If you already have the 50mm and your budget is constrained, then the 50mm could replace 35mm on this list. It is also an incredible lens. Although the 50mm doesn’t give you as much room to maneuver in smaller spaces as the 35mm, the bokeh on the 50mm is stunning and it’s impressively sharp too, which is one of the top benefits of prime lenses. Like the 35mm, the 50mm is also available in f/1.8, f/1.4, and for Canon f/1.2. The price difference is meagre between the f/1.8 and the f/1.4, then it jumps up to a whopping figure with the f/1.2.
#5 – 105mm (100mm) or 60mm macro lens
A macro lens is a must for you as wedding photographer, if you want to capture amazing images of rings in close detail. You can also use this lens for photographing jewellery and other accessories when the bride is getting ready. If the bride’s dress is adorned with jewels, the macro lens would also be ideal to photograph the details. In addition, macro lenses are also great to use for portraits if you do not require an aperture wider than f/2.8. This makes it a versatile lens to carry around, especially the 60mm which looks and feels minuscule compared to the 105mm (100mm for Canon). Both lenses can also stop down to f/32, which is handy, especially when photographing location landscapes in extremely bright sunlight.
Some photographers use the 105mm as a close substitute for the 70-200mm, if the latter is just too out of reach. You can use the 105mm in DX mode which gives you 157.5mm, long enough to enable you to still be very inconspicuous at a wedding. It is also smaller and lighter, and opens up to f/2.8, as well as doubles up as a macro lens.
Do you have other must-have lenses in your wedding camera bag? Please share them here below.
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