Photography / Buying Guide

The Wedding Photographer's Guide to Canon L-Series Lenses

Lens selection is a highly personal choice for most photographers. Client base, shooting style and cost all factor in directly when you're deciding how to build a kit intelligently. Wedding photographers need a diverse assortment, given the expectation that they must cover such a broad range of subject matter in one day’s work. As a working professional, the natural progression is to begin investing in high quality, timelessly valuable lenses of superior durability and construction: for Canon users, this is the L-series.

Marked by the tell-tale red band around the barrel of each lens, Canon’s professional L-series is renowned for its exceptional mastery over mechanical and optical design. These lenses are tough, many with rubber seals in place to eliminate interior contamination from dust, dirt, or moisture. They each contain a combination of ultra or super low-dispersion glass, as well as fluorite and aspheric elements. In addition to effectively reducing unintentional distortions such as blur, haze and chromatic aberration, these high-quality elements expertly render accurate color detail and contrast. Non-rotating front elements make it easier to adjust and use circular polarizer filters for optimal results. Most implement a ring-type ultrasonic motor, which makes autofocus smooth and lightning fast. It also gives you the option of full-time manual focusing, which means you can still adjust manually without needing to switch out of AF mode. Superior optics make for an overall faster, sharper lens that simply outperforms many outside of the L-series.

While these lenses can be used with all of Canon’s EOS digital and film SLRs, they do lend themselves especially well to cameras with full-frame sensors. Many professionals do shoot with full-frame DSLRs, and the exceptional sharpness at the edges of the image frame is notable, compared to lower-quality glass. A smaller sensor, such as an APS-C, will result in the apparent narrowing of your field of view. While this shouldn’t dissuade you from upgrading altogether, it is an important factor to bear in mind if you’re purchasing for a camera with a smaller than full-frame sensor.

Standard Zoom Lenses

Fulfilling the role as the all-purpose workhorse, a standard zoom is versatile enough to handle nearly the entire job. Its variance in some of the most commonly used focal lengths make it the perfect walk-around lens for a ceremony or reception venue, able to cover broad vistas and intimate portraiture. If you’ve yet to upgrade to any L-series lens, consider making the ever-useful standard zoom your first investment.

The 24-70mm is often hailed as the most popular choice for a variety of photography professionals, including wedding shooters. Canon offers two L-series interpretations of this lens, the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and newer EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM. While appearing similar in title, the two share little apart from focal length, angle of view (84° – 34°), and minimum focusing distance of 1.25’. They also both offer a zoom lock mechanism that prevents your lens from creeping when it’s at its most compact, as well as 9 circular aperture blades. The EF 24-70mm f/4L boasts a Macro Mode, which can be switched on at the end of the 70mm zoom range. While this doesn’t equate to full 1:1, it comes incredibly close at 0.70x magnification. Here, Canon also implements its Hybrid Image Stabilization system, which provides up to 4 stops of shutter speed compensation when shooting up close. The EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II is a faster lens, given its maximum aperture of f/2.8. It does not offer any Image Stabilization, but still produces a razor-sharp final image. While the EF 24-70mm f/4L utilizes two super UD elements, the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II has one. The latter is also a slightly larger lens, heavier and almost an inch longer. It also requires an 82mm filter, whereas the f/4L’s filter thread is 77mm.

If you need an option with a longer focal length range, the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM covers wide angle through medium telephoto. A great lens for professionals and amateurs alike, it lends itself well to handheld shooting. Image Stabilization works to reduce increased image blur at shutter speeds up to 3 stops slower. It’s also a lightweight body, weighing 1.47 lb and measuring a bit more than 4” long, which makes it easy to carry and balance. A constant maximum aperture lets you set your exposure at the widest f-stop and zoom through to 105mm without ever needing to slow the shutter speed. Its minimum focusing distance is 1.48', and like the EF 24-70mm f/4L, it accepts a 77mm filter.

Macro Lenses

A fast, dedicated macro is the obvious go-to lens for capturing the details in flowers, decorations, the cake and the rings. With a life-size magnification ratio of 1:1, the mid-telephoto Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is a sophisticated update from Canon’s previously comparable macro. Now an esteemed member of the L-series lineup, the EF 100mm f/2.8L offers a super-fluid Utrasonic Motor and Optical Image Stabilization Technology for up to 4 stops of shake control. It’s also the first lens on the market to feature Canon’s Hybrid IS system, which effectively targets camera shake while shooting at close range. The comfortable amount of space allowed between the camera and subject gives you the freedom to compose with less instance of shadow interference, and minimum focusing distance is as close as 1'. This lens is tack sharp, and with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, holds its own in low light. Its favorable focal length gives you the added option of doubling its use, as a portrait lens. 

The EF 100mm f/2.8L can be fitted with a 67mm filter of your choice or optional tripod collar. It's also compatible with a number of Canon extension tubes, which increase magnification for some extraordinary close-up shots. 

Portrait Lenses

One of the most obvious requirements for a wedding photographer is shooting portraiture, both formal and casual in nature. A prime medium telephoto, such as the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, is the go-to lens for portraits. One of the fastest lenses in its class, with a maximum aperture of f/1.2, it gives you the freedom to tackle low-light shooting without noise overpowering your images. The wide, 8-bladed circular aperture also creates a super-shallow depth of field. Selective focus can be used to create dynamic, professional portraits with smoothly blurred backgrounds. A focal length of 85mm is slightly longer in perspective than the human eye sees naturally, flattening and complimenting the subject’s features without distortion. Like most primes, the 85mm f/1.2L II does not offer Image Stabilization, but its speed and lightweight frame make camera shake less of an issue. Its minimum focusing distance is 3.12', and encompasses a 28-degree angle of view. It also takes a 72mm filter.

For a bit longer reach, and even greater visual compression, the EF 135mm f/2L USM is a viable option for portraiture and working with other subjects from a comfortable distance. The f/2 maximum aperture is effective for working in low-light conditions and, paired with the 8-blade aperture, also helps to realize a smooth out of focus quality in selective focus imagery. The USM focusing motor produces smooth and consistently accurate AF performance and an integrated focus range limiter helps to speed up focus when working subjects further than 1.6m away. The optical design of the EF 135mm f/2L USM incorporates two UD elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and produce sharp, clear imagery. Its minimum focusing distance is 3' and will accept 72mm filters.

The telephoto zoom is another valuable addition to the wedding professional’s kit. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a popular choice that offers multiple areas of coverage, including portraiture.

A longer focal length creates the perception of a narrowed field of view, which results in very shallow depth of field, especially at wider apertures. This can be an effective way to shoot portraits with cluttered backgrounds. By controlling blur to your advantage, you can eliminate distracting surroundings. The telephoto lens also captures subjects from farther away, which is a necessity at a larger venue. Additionally, it allows you to keep a respectful distance so as not to intrude on intimate moments. If you have access to balconies or ladders, you can achieve some creative results by taking advantage of different shooting angles.

Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a fast lens in its class, and the image stabilization system offers up to 4 stops of shutter-speed compensation. Two-stage Image Stabilization works hard to suppress shake and keeps even moving targets sharp, a crucial element when shooting telephoto. Its minimum focusing distance of 3.94' is impressive for its length, letting you get fairly close to your subject, even in a compact space. For added control, a focus limiter switch restricts the range of distances at which your camera will attempt to focus. This makes autofocus faster and more efficient. The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM accepts 77mm filters.

In addition to the benchmark 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, three other L-series 70-200mm lenses are available: the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, without image stabilization; the lighter weight and more compact EF 70-200mm f/4L USM; and the f/4 version with image stabilization, the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM. And for those looking for a bit more reach while maintaining the classic 70mm wide position, Canon also has the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM.

In addition to the benchmark 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, three other L-series 70-200mm lenses are available: the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, without image stabilization; the lighter weight and more compact EF 70-200mm f/4L USM; and the f/4 version with image stabilization, the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM. And for those looking for a bit more reach while maintaining the classic 70mm wide position, Canon also has the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM.

Prime Lenses

There is a benefit to owning several prime lenses. Primes have fixed focal lengths, which simplifies and maximizes their optical design. Their incredible speed makes them perfect for handling difficult lighting at an acceptable ISO. In a dim reception venue, these can be ideal for walking around and shooting candid portraits of the bridal party and guests. A super-shallow depth of field can soften a chaotic background, making your subjects the central focus of the photo.

The EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a standard-length lens with a 46-degree angle of view. For something slightly wider, the EF 35mm f/1.4L USM offers a 63-degree angle of view and features a large maximum aperture for its class. It will focus as close as 1’, while the 50mm f/1.2L needs an extra six inches. Both lenses are similar in weight and dimension (the 35mm f/1.4L being almost an inch longer), and both accept 72mm filters.

For an even broader perspective, the EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM maintains a similar fast maximum aperture and sophisticated optical design, which incorporates two aspherical elements and two Ultra Low Dispersion elements.

When combined with the aforementioned 85mm f/1.2, this quartet of fast primes is the standard kit to hit the key perspectives for a wide range of shooting applications. The consistency in maximum apertures and robust build quality also make switching between focal lengths nearly as seamless as working with a zoom, but with the added speed benefits and optical quality inherent to prime lenses.

Super-Wide Lenses

In order to encompass a broader field of view, you will need a wide-angle lens. Super wides are a necessity in tackling group portraits, and offer a great perspective of guests dancing. They’re also invaluable for documenting the architectural elements of venues. Short focal lengths offer an immersive point of view that puts the observer in the midst of the action, a key element in visual storytelling.

Canon offers several L-series choices for wide angle. The EF 11-24mm f/4L USM has the distinction of being the widest rectilinear full-frame lens available for Canon shooters, and has the added benefit of a constant f/4 maximum aperture for greater consistency when working in low-light conditions. A mixture of Super UD, UD, and four aspherical elements control aberrations and distortions, and SWC and ASC coatings help to prevent lens flare that is common to such wide-angle lenses.

The EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is another very wide offering, however this time in a prime lens design. It offers a 114-degree angle of view, which is just shy of being a fisheye. A fixed petal-shaped hood protects the protruding glass, and a gelatin filter holder is accessible in the rear of the lens. The EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM is an ultra-wide zoom option, with optical elements to ensure edge-to-edge image quality. Its angle of view ranges from 108° to 63°, and it can focus as close as 11.2". Sacrificing a bit of the speed, but gaining image stabilization, there is also the EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM option.

The slightly longer EF 17-40mm f/4L USM encompasses a 104- to 57-degree angle of view, and also focuses at around 11” from its subject. While it accepts a 77mm filter, you have the option of using a rear gelatin filter holder as well. The 16-35mm f/2.8L II requires an 82mm filter. All four of these lenses have elements in place to reduce many of the chromatic aberrations that plague an image at a wider angle, such as vignetting and color bleed.

Fisheye Lenses

Able to capture 180° of view, the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM offers an alternative “big picture” perspective for an element of fun. On a full-frame camera body, it delivers both circular and full-frame fisheye images depending on what range of zoom you use. Keep in mind if you shoot with a cropped-sensor camera, some field of view will be lost. However, a zoom lock mechanism limits focal-length range to the best possible full-frame view to avoid unwanted vignetting for APS-C or APS-H. A holder in the rear of lens will hold up to three pre-cut gelatin filters, and a sub-wavelength coating on its glass works to reduce image ghosting.

For more information, please stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, or contact a sales professional over the phone at 1-800-606-6969 or online via Live Chat.

Discussion 17

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Two lenses missing the most:
24mm 1.4L II
135mm 2.0L

135mm f/2.0L is the lord of the red lens.

Great Tips thanks very much is very helpful

Surprised to see no mention of the extraordinary 24mm f/1.4 L!

Sorry, have to edit.
1. Typo in Portrait Lenses: f/2.1L should be f/1.2L.

2. Many of these articles are written from the point of view of "experts who've been working for 20 years with all the Canon lenses". In this case, (I think) you should be writing to the audience of someone planning or wanting to buy a lens.

Read the section on "Standard Zoom Lenses". Reads like a catalog, right? Each detail in those paragraphs is something I would just as easily get from the catalog page, and that's fine, but not helpful to _me_. I want to know which of the three zoom lenses in this section addresses _my_ problem. Which lens excels in which situation?

Look at your article - all the lenses are "great"; ok, this one has IS, but that one is f/2.8... And the cheapest of the three has the widest zoom range. Why isn't that just automatically the best? Why spend an extra $250 and go from 24-105mm down to 24-70mm? So, what should _I_ do?

Let me digress for a moment - search for "canon 50 mm lens" on your site. You'll get back
-- "A High Performance Standard lens with Fast f/1.8 aperture" for $125;
-- a "Fast standard lens" for $450; and
-- a "Normal 50 mm f/1.2 lens" for $1600.
I don't think anyone would call the 1.8 "fast" if they are also looking at the 1.4, never mind the 1.2. But, I know which looks more attractive (especially if I don't know any better - e.g., looking for a gift).

To be useful to me, as someone willing to plunk down a few grand (but unwilling to lug around the whole set), I want to know which one(s) meet my need(s), solve my problem(s). Aside from price, how do I differentiate between the lenses? When should I plunk down $2100 vs. $1200? I'm happy to lay out $2K as long as I understand why it will work better in my situation.

Your section on Portraiture was better - I actually came away understanding which lens, and why (and, in fact, why I might really want both, and maybe a new body to avoid having to switch :-).

Remember, your audience _wants_ to buy something. That's why they're here. All these lenses will take great pictures, and these truly are the cream of the crop. Now, put hyperbole and rhetoric aside and help me choose which one(s) I want, in particular.

As somone who shoots a TON of low light action photography from wedding to contemporary dance, the 24-70 f2.8L is THE go-to lens in my kit, and the one I could not do without. I also have a 16-35 f2.8 which is amazing and razor sharp which I use for everything from real estate to weddings (video and photo) and a 70-200 f4 which is much lighter than the f2.8 but without the IS and not as good for portraiture but wonderful in most of my shooting situations and well worth the lower price for me. The 85 mm f1.2 is absolutely amazing on a full frame but I would probably not choose it for an APS-C sensor. It's razor sharp and has gorgeous bokeh.

I also regularly use a 50 mm f1.4 and 35mm f2.0 IS, neither of which are L series and there is a big difference in optics. The non-L series glass is great for amateur gigs and personal projects, but I never use it on pro gigs, it just doesn't have anywhere near the same quality.

Thank you for your insightful comments and suggestions!

Spot on - great feedback!

very good sugestins

I am a new Canon camera owner and am trying to learn as much as I can to take better photographs.

Very good article.

Could you recommend any of the above for use with the Sony A7 Emount camera?

To use any of the Canon L lenses with the Sony a7, you will need a lens adapter.  I would suggest looking at the Metabones Canon EF Lens to Sony NEX Camera Lens Mount Adapter III.  It is one of the few adapters on the market that will allow you to control Canon lens’s apertures on Sony E-mount cameras. As for which lens to use, that would depend on what you are looking to shoot.

I need an input for 70-300mm f/4-5.6 USM lens.

Canon does offer one L lens in the 70-300mm focal range with the USM motor and also features IS Image Stabilization.  See the link below for details on the lens:

I have a rebel T3, but want  better quality . I use a 75-300 kit lens and usually shot birds and other nature shots (sunsets, bodies of water, ect).  Would it be better to invest in a Lens that is a better quality lens or a higher grade camera, or both?  Thanks !

I would suggest looking into a new lens first.  Especially if you shoot birds, something with more reach could really help in getting the photos you want.  You might look at the Sigma 150-500mm lens.  It is an extremely popular option for nature/bird photography, and would be a step up from your current lens.