The best wedding lens set
It’s not unusual for couples to ask us about lenses we use, perhaps not in great detail, but often they’ll point out depth of field or compression effects they like and regularly comment on how sharp and clear the photo’s are as they view our sample albums. We’ll apologise in advance to those who don’t share an interest in bits of glass, but forgive us for being really interested please!
So, we thought it would be a good idea to share our thoughts on what lenses make for a great wedding shoot, why, how to find them, and perhaps some alternatives to the standard set ups.
There are a few factors to take into account, cost, weight, flexibility and durability. No, in fact there are many factors, so we’ll try and give as clear an insight as we can into our approach and experience on the subject, and accept that your mileage may vary!
The ‘Gump’ factor...
Weddings really are one of the most varied, dynamic and variable events to cover, you’re often busy snapping for 9 hours or longer, at varied locations, constantly changing light and trying to achieve a variety of effects in terms of styling for documentary or more romantic coverage. Like that famous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.
Bearing in mind you have to be quick on your feet and able to still be standing when the music starts for first dance (or the bar closes!) It’s really not practical to carry all the possible lenses in your bag for the day, even with an assistant it’s going to slow things down, and your assistant will grow to hate you! Generally speaking, high quality glass = heavy lens construction = weight. Attach some of these weights to the front of your already heavy camera and fix a pose for five minutes and you’ll recognise how significant weight is in your choices.
You can often get a sense of this from sight alone, backed up with a hands on, and it does count when your lens set is busy every weekend through the year and when changing lenses fast counts, quality lenses last longer, take the knocks and are generally more forgiving of rough handling. You might in some cases get weather sealing in the bargain too, and this can help when the weather lets you down.
Prime or zoom?
Maybe people get a bit snobbish about using only primes, and it’s true we favour fixed lens designs as they often provide a richer picture and faster focussing, but it’s not a hard and fast rule and in fact there are some zooms which perform pretty much as well, or better than many primes. A great zoom gives you framing options and can easily cover a range of focal distances without swapping out your glass every few minutes or changing bodies mid flight.
Super wide angle wedding lens’
For the crazy wide we use Sigma’s 15mm f2.8 EX DG prime, it’s more versatile than you’d think; For starters as a diagonal fish-eye it’ll grab pretty much the whole scene (180 degrees) and show it on a full frame camera, admittedly this will result in distortions, but careful placement of your couple will give a range of creative options and something really different to the shots ‘Uncle Bob’ is taking. You’ll find its minimum focus distance is something really close like 150mm, which offers another creative opportunity and also that at f2.8 extended above a crowd in a busy setting, just about everything is in focus. That one will seem like a wild card to many, but it’s one we’ve had such fun with, you just have to remember not to shoot your own feet and elbows in the picture!
Wide angle wedding lens.
Our favourite is Canon’s 16-35 F2.8 L Mk2 zoom which is an old friend now anyway. 16-35 focuses fast and across most of the frame is very sharp and distortion free in practical terms (avoid putting people at the far extreme edges though or they’ll appear wider) it’s a go-to lens for (artsy) architectural work and landscape and gives us a chance to frame lots of negative space or scene setting around our couples. Let’s not forget that many couples find hanging a big print of the their happy faces above the fireplace, a little too much -but they’ll pay for an A1 print with lots of pretty negative space and them shown small and intimate in a corner of the frame, it just looks cooler! The 16-35mm is my favourite for first dance and general dance shots too, usually while I’m set up with this, Lisa will be using her 35mm with a different light set up or high iso at the same time for variety of coverage. I love that you can get a great sharp focus on the couple whilst also showing their family and friends enjoying themselves.
Every wedding photographer needs a 50mm right?
Maybe, maybe not. 50mm’s are often the first lens and first prime lens experience for many and their sales in the form of the old favourite the 50mm f1.8 are based on a disproportionate ‘bang for your buck’ in image quality terms. Seriously, if you’re new to lenses, treat yourself for around £50 to something which will open new avenues to you (but avoid the more expensive Canon 50mm f1.4, it’s weak as a kitten and expensive to repair too) Anyway, we both loved the Sigma 50mm EX DG, and quickly bought the 50mm ART version on release...and yes it is sharp when if focuses- however, Sigma never get focus ‘just so’ and often you’ll spend too much time trying to calibrate a lens which just won’t behave itself. Build quality seems good but there are so many examples of Sigma ART stuff failing. We just gave up on them after trying 5 different lenses in a year. Don’t believe the hype about ‘ART’ stuff, the pro’s gave up and moved on some while back now.
Canon 35mm F1.4 Mk2
This lens, which we both use for maybe 80% plus of every wedding day, is extraordinary. It’s the most natural feeling view of the day and focuses fast and accurate, has great colour and contrast and is built like a tank. They are expensive, but If we had to, we could shoot and entire wedding with just this lens.
The ‘trusty’ zoom
Canon’s 70-200 f2.8 L comes in a few flavours, but best value is the Mk1 non IS. You can pick these up in decent condition for £400 or so these days, and genuinely is a fast sharp, well built almost military feeling tool that just won’t let you down. I held off trading mine in for the newer version since I didn’t feel it would make enough difference to me, and I couldn’t see that much use for IS when so much of our work is with moving targets. I was wrong in that the IS gives you a couple of extra stops in low light and does assist focus with moving objects - but it is more expensive, so maybe upgrade when you have other key elements purchased already. There’s an F4 version, which in mk1 format is actually a tad sharper perhaps, but we all know what a difference the extra light gathering capability makes in a church near mid winter right? The 70-200 gives you options to shoot full length people from about 25feet or so, but comes into it’s own for grabbing closer shots from distance. This means for large gatherings (maybe post ceremony or in an outdoor reception) you can grab quite intimate scenes without imposing on the atmosphere. In a time where Brides tell us they love candid shots, it’s an essential tool.
Portraits on a budget.
You’ll have heard, in hushed tones, talk about the Canon 85 f1.2 L yes? With good reason since its a beautiful lens giving great sharpness and shallow depth of field with some good compression effects too. We tried it several times before deciding it’s too slow to focus, and that it didn’t really do anything which could be achieved with other gear we already owned. The Canon 85mm f1.8 gives a hell of a percentage of the L glass performance for a fraction of the money and focuses faster too. It might be something to consider if you love that focal length for portraits, but in backlight it can offer annoying purple fringing effect. I still have one in the bag, its small, light and fast making it a useful cheaper lens you can stuff in your back pocket whilst dodging about for ceremony or during speeches.
Sunday best lens.
It’s non-essential, but it’s also a little bit magical, the Canon 135mm F2 L. This is consistently the fastest focussing and sharpest lens in either of our bags, it has useful reach down an aisle or for catching really nice portraits from a reasonable distance, and whilst the quite shallow depth of field makes for good isolation of subject from background, it’s the compression effect which will make you smile every time. Actually not a vastly expensive lens but one you’ll justify to yourself once you’ve played with it a while. This is one of the lenses people miss if they move away from Canon, and a big reason why we stay with them!
Ok, so maybe that should be a subtitle towards the beginning of the piece? I’ve left it until later because it is really relevant, but its relevance changes over time. If you have the money to go for newer versions of some of these lenses, it might be money well spent, but hey, do you need more memory, a faster pc, new light modifiers first? There is always something to buy if you consider it.
We both feel it’s better to go for one high quality lens and shoot the whole day with it, than to have a couple of average lenses and while having framing options, lose the potential for a consistently high image quality.
If you buy smart, ideally second hand with warranty from places like WEX in Norwich UK, or from the right people on ebay or your photographer friends, you really won’t get stung in buying quality lenses, even revisions of mark numbers, additional IS or other gizmo’s don’t have a marked effect on resale value and a really good lens will remain so for literally years (decades if you can keep it serviced) Be bold, research thoroughly and make an investment. If you find you don’t use a lens, you’ll sell it to someone who will and recognises it’s worth. in this way, we’ve sampled and played with dozens of combinations before settling on what we have now. Chances are, the process never ends!
A useful last point
You really can be lucky and find a perfect lens right out of the box, new or second hand, the better quality the lens, the greater the chance too; however, it’s so worthwhile to spend a fraction of the cost of your investment on having your lenses calibrated properly. We find a piece of software by Reikan called ‘Focal-Pro’ does exactly that. Buy the full pro version which is around £70 IIRC, hook it up to your camera, cellotape a target on the wall and let the software focus, defocus and refocus multiple times and adjust your camera’s micro-focus scale to ensure your body and lens are working in tandem as best they can. If you spend lots of time in the wide F-stops, you’ll thank yourself and it’s great to squeeze every drop of performance you can out of your gear.
Photographers can be a funny breed, and get pretty mentally erect when it comes to discussions about gear – there’s a lot of solid information and research out there, but a hundred times as much ‘noise’ around the subject of lens choice.
We’ve spent a lot of time, thousands of hours now, in trying, testing and changing our preferred line up to match our expectations and needs. Maybe some of that is useful information for interested clients, or beginner developing wedding photographers, and if so, we hope you all feel the benefit.