Have you ever wondered which lenses for wedding photographers are best?
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 huge collection of lenses, many of which hardly see the light of day.
But 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 lenses took some time and serious consideration over the course of my career.
- The 70-200mm f/2.8
- The 24-70mm f/2.8
- The 85mm prime
- The 35mm prime
- A macro lens (105mm or 60mm for Nikon, 100mm or 60mm for Canon)
Let’s look at each lens 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 and even with a stopped-down aperture (thanks to the compression created by the long focal length).
A 70-200mm f/2.8 makes a wedding photographer invisible. You don’t have to be 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 wedding ceremony, when 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, the vows, and the kiss discreetly.
If you require an even longer zoom while staying at the same distance, you can choose to photograph using Crop mode (if you shoot full-frame and your camera offers this option). This will generally give you a 1.5x crop factor (it only uses a portion of the image and enlarges it approximately 1.5x). 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, if you are shooting with a 12 MP camera in its full-frame mode, when you convert to your Crop mode the camera becomes a 5 MP camera. This is below the minimum amount of pixels you need (generally around 6 MP) to enlarge prints to a decent size.
And if you have to crop in post-processing, 5 MP will not offer enough pixels to do so without compromising print output sizes.
However, if you are photographing with a 36 MP camera in Crop mode, it drops to 15.3 MP. While this is a significant resolution reduction, it still leaves you enough wiggle room for minimal and sensible cropping if necessary.
If you use Crop mode, don’t forget that when photographing on a full-frame camera, or when using a lens designed for APS-C cameras, 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 two examples.
When using APS-C lenses on a full-frame body, the rest of the unused sensor area is blacked out. But when using full-frame lenses in Crop mode, this is not the default. You will still see the entire full-frame sensor if you don’t change your settings.
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. My 70-200mm f/2.8 lens also has a built-in lens collar you can use to steady your setup when hand-holding (and you also have the option to attach it to a tripod).
Without a tripod, you can steady yourself as much as possible by leaning against something strong like a wall or a stable surface such as a table. You can also keep your arms pinned against something sturdy to reduce camera shake, especially when using your lens for portrait work at the longer end of its focal length.
There are also 70-200mm f/4 lenses, which you can purchase at vastly cheaper prices 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 avoid the 70-200mm f/4. It is lighter and smaller (it has fewer glass elements compared to its more expensive counterpart) which lessens the weight you have to carry around 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 require 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 for that type of image. 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 on the wedding day, and is definitely my other workhorse for capturing people, wider shots, and behind-the-scenes images.
Many photographers use a much wider lens for location photographs, such as a 14-24mm f/2.8. But while I would love to add this lens to my arsenal, this is not an absolute necessity. With the 24-70mm, you can photograph location scenes wide enough. And 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 is the same, standing on a fixed point, then capturing a set of images while adjusting your composition slightly.
You can do the same for a photograph of all the guests, too. In fact, the two times mentioned above are the only times I need an ultra-wide lens for a wedding, so I cannot yet justify adding it to my 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 and small groups (the list goes on!).
As a fixed lens, an 85mm prime 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 about this lens is that it is tack sharp from the sweet spot on. Accurate, light-sensitive, with great results; this is my go-to lens, and it never leaves my bag. As 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 an 85mm lens. I was asked on the day if I could cover the wedding and I agreed, with only the D700 and my 85mm lens in hand (I generally carry that combination with me for personal snapshots and photos of my family).
The photos from that wedding are published on one of the UK’s top wedding blogs, which is proof that you can photograph a wedding with what you have, given that you know your gear well enough.
The 85mm for Nikon F-mount cameras comes in either as an f/1.8 version ($480 USD) or an f/1.4 version ($1597 USD), with a huge price difference between the two due to the glass elements and optics. You can also purchase the 85mm f/1.8 S for Nikon Z-mount cameras for just under $800 USD.
Canon has an 85mm f/1.2 available for $1999 USD, as well as an f/1.4 version ($1599 USD) and an f/1.8 version ($419 USD). For Canon mirrorless users, there’s the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 (for an admittedly premium price). And Sony offers an 85mm f/1.8 for $598 USD and an 85mm f/1.4 for $1798 USD.
I have the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 and it has always performed marvelously for me. The f/1.4 has been on my lens list forever, and while I could buy it I have held off, given that I have never felt the need to upgrade.
One of my early serious lens investments was the amazing 35mm f/1.4. If there is a lens I can always rely on, it’s this one.
It’s an ultra-versatile lens that you can use to photograph the bride getting ready, which is the time when wedding photographers are usually under pressure to capture everything. This includes the location, the many accessories, any small details, candid shots, the dress, the natural interactions between the bride and her loved ones, and group portraits. Plus, you must do this in a very short amount of time, often in small spaces like cramped hotel rooms.
A 35mm lens is also perfect for photographing wider scenes, because you can get images without the exaggerated distortions caused by a wider focal length.
This lens is super fast and sharp. It has yet to fail me. With this lens, you can get close, which is very handy when you are in a crowded space.
As if that weren’t enough, my 35mm lens opens up to f/1.4, which allows you to photograph in extremely low light, especially if you are too pressed for time and space to use off-camera flashes.
Even though the 35mm focal length is already covered by the 24-70mm f/2.8 (discussed above), the difference between f/1.4 and f/2.8 (two extra stops for four times the light) cannot be underestimated.
The 35mm is also offered as an f/1.8 version by Nikon, but it’s a DX lens that you can purchase for cheap (under $200).
You may wonder about 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 the lens becomes 52.5mm which can be very limiting in tight spaces.
Secondly, the 35mm view is close enough to what the eye naturally sees, and I like that view. It allows you to capture images that give the viewer the impression that they could have been there seeing the scene themselves. This is an important element in any wedding photography, specifically wedding photography with a documentary style.
If you ever get to physically hold each lens in your hands at the same time, the enormous price difference between the f/1.4 version and the f/1.8 version 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 capabilities in its own right, and for crop-sensor cameras may be more than sufficient. It is definitely easy on the budget.
If you already have a 50mm lens and your budget is constrained, then a 50mm prime could replace the 35mm prime on this list. It is also an incredible lens.
Although a 50mm doesn’t give you as much room to maneuver in smaller spaces as a 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 lens, the 50mm is available as an f/1.8, f/1.4 or, for Canon cameras, an f/1.2 maximum aperture. The price difference is small between the f/1.8 and the f/1.4, but it jumps up to a huge number for the f/1.2.
5. 105mm (100mm) or 60mm macro lens
A macro lens is the last of my must-have lenses for wedding photographers. It’s absolutely key if you want to capture detailed images of rings. You can also use your macro lens for photographing jewelry and other accessories while the bride is getting ready.
If the bride’s dress is adorned with jewels, a macro lens would also be ideal for photographing the details.
In addition, macro lenses are also great for portraits if you do not require an aperture wider than f/2.8. This makes macro lenses versatile options to carry around, especially 60mm macro lenses, which look and feel minuscule compared to the 105mm options (100mm for Canon). These macro lenses can generally stop down to f/32, which is handy, especially when photographing location landscapes in extremely bright sunlight.
Some photographers even use the 105mm macro lens as a substitute for the 70-200mm lens if the latter is just too out of reach. You can use the 105mm in Crop mode, which gives you 157.5mm; this is long enough to still be very inconspicuous at a wedding. A 105mm lens is also smaller and lighter, and it opens up to f/2.8. Plus, it doubles as a macro lens.