The Best Lenses For Wedding Photography
I've been asked to write this post for a while now. It has been difficult to do as I believe that lens choice is such a personal thing. We all see the world differently, and the lens is just a tool to help us interpret what we see. I thought about how to approach the subject, and decided that rather than just listing my favourite lenses, I would put some ideas and thoughts out there to help photographers make an informed decision.
My background I've been shooting weddings professionally for 30 years. For the past 25 years, I have been using 35mm format SLR, rangefinder, and DSLR cameras for all of my work. I was a Canon Ambassador for eight years with access to all sorts of lenses which I used in my wedding work. Some were good, some bad, and some I shot with for a long time. The lenses I use for weddings are similar to what I use for street, landscape, and editorial photography. I like to keep my eye consistent across all disciplines. This is just a personal thing.
Should I buy the lenses my favourite photographer uses?
This is a starting point for many, and while it is tempting to follow a photographer and go with their recommendation, there a couple of things to consider. The first one I alluded to in this post. We aren't the same, and we don't look at the world in the same way. Everything from our physicality to life experience affects the way we see the world. A photographer who is 5'8" tall will see the world differently to someone who is 6'1". Give both photographers the same lens and their pictures will look very different. Someone who is comfortable being in close proximity to others, is unlikely to work with a telephoto.
Try and look past glowing reviews given by brand ambassadors. They are paid to say nice things. Look for comments made by photographers in the field, those that don't have any affiliation to a brand. A lot of lenses are given to influencers to test, and in some cases there is a mutually beneficial transaction taking place. If you can, try and rent a lens before buying.
Primes vs zooms for weddings The age-old debate. Which is better? Like a lot of things, it depends.
A pro-level zoom will be as good, and sometimes even better than a prime lens in the real world.
The argument manifested itself when the first zoom lenses, which offered great convenience to a lot of photographers, weren't that good optically. Having used pro-level zooms on and off for over 20 years, it has only been in the last decade that the optical quality has reached a level which can be compared to a decent prime lens. Optically, some high-end zooms have actually exceeded prime lenses. The quality argument is now consigned to history. A pro-level zoom will be as good, and sometimes even better than a prime lens in the real world. Add the advances in high ISO and image stabilisation technology, and you can easily shoot with one zoom lens for an entire wedding day. This is a compelling argument for using zooms. One which I will come back to shortly.
So, if the zoom is so good, why bother with primes? Prime lenses have some advantages over zooms. They tend to have a faster maximum aperture which gives a different look to an image, especially wide open. If a wafer-thin-depth-of-field look is for you, then a fast prime is what you need. For cameras with an optical viewfinder, a faster prime lens will give a brighter image when looking through it. This can be an advantage in low-light situations.
a prime lens encourages discipline in terms of framing and composition
Ignoring the expensive, gigantic, pro-level ultra-fast primes for a moment, a basic prime lens offers advantages in both size and weight. A smaller and lighter lens is less fatiguing over a long wedding day, and less intrusive if you are shooting documentary-style photographs. They are cheaper too, and mechanically there is less to go wrong. A good set of non-pro prime lenses can be bought for less than one pro-level zoom.
A prime lens also encourages discipline in terms of framing and composition. The lens sees just one field-of-view, you can't alter it like you can with a zoom. Zooms can confuse photographers, with inconsistency in positioning, bad framing, and indecisiveness in focal length choice. In other words, by the time you've seen the picture, zoomed in and out a couple of times, the shot has gone. This is why I would always suggest that the newcomer to weddings gets used to using prime lenses first. Even though a lot of popular camera manufacturers bundle a standard zoom lens as part of a camera kit.
In my opinion, a basic prime lens wedding kit should have three standard lenses, each doubling the focal length from wide to long. On a full-frame system; 24/28mm, 35/50mm, 85/100mm or their nearest equivalent based on the camera model. You don't need pro-level lenses unless you require a super-wide aperture or weather sealing. If you think using cheaper lenses is unprofessional, when I met Sebastião Salgado three years ago, he had a small 40mm pancake lens on his camera. You can pick them up for less than £200.
Once you have some prime lens experience under your belt, then you can take a look at zooms.
When working with a zoom, set the focal length BEFORE putting the camera to your eye.
I realise that this advice goes against conventional photographic wisdom which decrees that you progress from zoom lenses to primes. Not the other way around. I've never succumbed to photographic wisdom, but I do believe that to use a zoom successfully requires a certain mindset and skill level. Something which comes with the experience of using primes.
First of all, I don't like the term 'zoom' as it suggests the lens should be used to zoom in and out of a scene. I prefer to think of a zoom as a collection of prime lenses.
When working with a zoom, set the focal length BEFORE putting the camera to your eye. If you get your position slightly wrong, a small adjustment to the focal length can be quicker and less obtrusive than moving. A zoom gives a lot of options when working quickly, and in tight spaces where movement isn't allowed (during the ceremony for example). Those that master the zoom rarely use anything else. I can't emphasise this enough though, treat the zoom as a collection of primes.
Which is the best zoom lens for weddings? The standard zoom lens is often regarded as the wedding photographer's lens with a focal length from 24-70mm. An aperture of f2.8 is preferred as f4 is a little slow to cover a lot of situations. The 70-200mm is also synonymous with weddings. I still don't know why as it's always been too long for me. It is also incredibly intrusive, especially if you have the white Canon version. As I said earlier, we are all different!! I would always recommend a standard zoom over any others, but a wide-angle zoom can be really useful for those that like to work close to people.
So what lenses do I currently use to shoot weddings?
Over the years, I've tried to get the amount of gear I use to a minimum. I'm working longer hours and need a lot of flexibility when shooting. I'm a prime lens photographer, and even though I've used zooms, I keep coming back to primes. For me, it's that defined field of view and knowing exactly what will be included within the frame. No hesitation. No distraction of being able to zoom in and out. I also like to know that whatever light conditions I may face, the lenses will be fast enough to cope. Primes tend to be better balanced on the camera body whereas zooms can be quite fatiguing over a long day. I've worked with two cameras for as long as I can remember, and it just makes sense for me to use two primes on two bodies. For the past two or three seasons, I've worked mainly with 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses. The 24/50 combination I've used extensively since 2008. Even when I worked with a zoom, the 24/50 lenses came out once the light dropped.
What about other lenses?
I would always recommend people avoid the lure of gimmicky lenses; fisheye's, super long telephotos, tilt-shift. After using them for a couple of times, I can guarantee they will end up on eBay. For weddings, a really wide lens isn't necessary but it makes sense to have a reasonably long telephoto for things like speeches and ceremonies in big churches. My preference is for a prime, simply because of the weight and size. 120-150mm is long enough for weddings.
In conclusion I hope this article was interesting for those seeking to get into the industry, and food for thought for experienced photographers. The main thing to remember is that we are all different and should use what is most comfortable and intuitive for the way we shoot. All modern lenses are more than capable of covering a wedding. Go for what suits you and your style. There are no rules.