To Zoom or Not to Zoom: Choosing Lenses

Share

How many lenses do you really need? If you’re Henri Cartier-Bresson, one might be enough. But if you’re shooting a complex event like a wedding, you’re going to need a more generously stocked camera bag. The most important tools for any photographer are cameras and lenses. Deciding which ones are necessary requires some serious thought.

Optics come in two varieties: zoom and fixed focal length. The “ideal” lens arsenal is a matter of personal taste. Zoom lenses are convenient—they save a lot of legwork by enabling you to frame tight shots from a fixed position, which at a crowded wedding can be a big plus. The downside is that with rare exceptions, the widest aperture you’ll find is f/2.8, which is fine for outdoor shooting but less than optimal for indoor shooting. How can you get around this lens-speed issue?

The saving grace for shooting with zooms indoors and in low light is that many of them are available with image stabilization (IS). Image stabilization, depending on the make and model, enables you to shoot handheld at shutter speeds three to four stops slower than one would be able to handhold a comparable lens without stabilization. That’s quite an advancement of technology. Combining this three- to four-stop advantage with the ability of most DSLRs to expand the ISO range to ISO 6400 and beyond, it’s suddenly possible to capture sharp, relatively noise-free image files in very dim lighting without having to rely on a flash. 

Wide-angle zooms such as the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD, and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM are standard lenses for many wedding photographers. Long and relatively fast zoom lenses including the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM are also popular. Keep in mind that while image stabilization enables sharp handheld photographs of static, non-moving subjects at low shutter speeds, moving subjects will still appear blurred, especially if you’re not tracking your subject.

Fixed focal length optics require you to move around a bit more in order to frame tight shots, but with maximum apertures as wide as f/1.8, f/1.4—and wider—zooms pale in comparison. Besides a brighter image in the viewfinder, wider aperture fixed focal length lenses focus more quickly; establish light readings faster and more accurately, and in many cases, can focus closer to your subject than comparable zoom lenses.

Wider-aperture fixed focal length lenses also allow you to employ selective focus techniques, in which the foreground and background can be knocked out of focus, which makes the subject pop out as the center of attention. Fast wide-angle primes worth considering for wedding photography include the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, EF 28mm f/1.8, EF 35mm/f2.0 and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM. Fast wide-angle offerings from Nikon include the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED and AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G.

Fast, short telephotos, which are ideal for portraits and tight low-light detail imagery, include the  Canon super-fast EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, EF 100mm f/2.0 USM and EF 135mm f/2.0L. Nikon’s fast telephoto lineup includes the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D, and Bower also makes an 85mm f/1.4 Manual Focus Lens. Regardless of whether you’re shooting with a full-frame or APS-C format DSLR, you’ll have little trouble finding uses for a fast 50mm lens, which from Canon include the EF 50mm f 1.8 II, EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and super-fast EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. From Nikon, we have the Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G, AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and for shooting in the lowest of light levels—albeit in manual focus only—the Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AIS.

The Nikon DC series lenses (the AF DC Nikkor 105mm f/2.0D and AF DC Nikkor 135mm f/2.0D) go one step further by offering a fast (f/2.0) maximum aperture as well as the ability to adjust the angle of focus by shifting the alignment of the front lens element. Depending on the degree of the shift and the positioning of the front element, you can further alter the degree of focus fore, aft or to the sides of your subject(s), which makes for interesting picture possibilities.

DC optics aside, no wedding photographer worth his or her salt should head off to a wedding without a fast, mid-range telephoto lens in their camera bag. For full-frame DSLRs this means a fast (f/2, 1.8, 1.4, or 1.2) lens in the 85mm to 105mm range, or in the case of compact DSLRs, an equally fast 50mm and 85mm lens.

With the exception of the formal portraits, many wedding shots are taken in tight quarters, in which you often have to squeeze many people into the image frame. As such, you’re going to find yourself depending on wide-angle lenses during the course of the day, and don’t be surprised if your 28mm (or equivalent) lens doesn’t quite cut it for many photo ops. If anything, you’re going to find a lens in the 20- to 21mm range to be far more useful at a wedding, which is why many wedding photographers swear by 16- to 35mm zooms for full-frame 35mm DSLRs, and zooms in the 10- to 24mm range when shooting with compact (APS-C format) DSLRs.

Fisheye lenses, specifically the full-frame variety, can also be used effectively for wedding photography; they should be used judiciously, though (don’t get too close to people). Most full-frame fisheye lenses can capture anywhere from 160° to 180° of a given scene. Even though fisheyes inherently curve straight lines other than the center horizon line, they can be extremely effective at capturing the entirety of the ceremony, dancing and other broad tableaux that would normally require you to back up, when that space isn’t available.

What’s particularly nice about shooting with full-frame fisheyes is that it’s possible to “straighten out” these images through the use of de-barrelizing software, which narrows the angle of view to a still respectably wide 110° to 120°, minus the distortion factors common to fisheye pictures. Canon has two fisheye offerings: the Canon Fisheye EF 15mm f/2.8, a fixed focal length lens with a full-frame (rectangular) 180° field of view, and a new Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L USM Fisheye Ultra-Wide, which zooms from a circular 180° field of view to an ultra-wide (approx 110°) field of view.

Nikon manufactures two non-circular fisheye lenses—the Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED DX Fisheye for Nikon APS-C format DSLRs and the Nikon 16mm f/2.8D AF Fisheye for Nikon's full-frame DSLRs—both of which can be straightened using Nikon NX 2 software (RAW-NEF files only). There are also a number of third party de-barrelizing applications designed to correct fisheye distortions using full-frame fisheye lenses from almost all manufacturers.

One last group of optics worth looking into is macro lenses, which enable you to focus as close as life size to your subject. Macro lenses can be used to capture close details of table settings, flowers, table cards, the couple’s rings and other details that bring out the special atmosphere of the day. Macros are available in a range of focal lengths for APS-C, full-frame “35mm,” and medium-format cameras.

Do you have a particular lens or set of lenses that you like to use for photographing weddings? Regardless of whether you are a professional who shoots two weddings per week, or if you only photograph the occasional wedding, most of us have very subjective preferences when it comes to the gear we use. Please feel free to share your opinions here in the Comments section and tell us about some of your experiences, preferences and handy workarounds.

Items discussed in article

Add new comment

This article on wedding photography is excellent. I just wanted to add that I shoot weddings and most of my work comes from word of mouth advertising. I get great images with cheap Nikon lenses. My rig consists of a D80 camera with the 18-135 ED zoom that came with the camera. A 50mm 1.8D lens, and a SB 800 flash. I also have a SD 8A battery pack for quick flash recycles so not to miss a moment due to slow flash recycling. Anyway my 18-135 sees the majority of the workload. This lens makes some of the most sharpest, colorful pictures I've ever seen. And when It's time for outdoor portraits there's nothing out there that can touch this $100.00 50mm 1.8D lens. It's super light, has great bokeh. All I do is take my D80 off of matrix metering set it to center-weighted metering, move in to frame it tight and presto photos that look like a $1200.00 lens made the shot. A wedding photographer dosen't need a big heavy bag of gadgets. I've been using my set-up for five years now and counting. My D80, 18-135 zoom, 50mm 1.8D, SB 800 flash. And every now and then a tripod. I just wanted to inform those who may be thinking that It cost a fortune to get started in this kind of photography that it dosen't have to be. By the way the D80 can only take a 4GB SD card as a maximum capacity. This is still plenty of memory for the pictures that I take which are always in JPEG FINE mode. That setting gives me 530 pictures with dead on color accuracy where any kind of RAW photo retouching is simply unnecessary. I've found with my D80's white balance set to cloudy, wedding images come out perfect even with flash. No need to go RAW!!! Hope my two cents helps those who might've thought they couldn't do this. You can.

Not all photographers use Canon or Nikon cameras, including wedding photographers.  The complete exclusion of any reference to other makes and how they also have lenses and stabilization systems well-suited to wedding photography is unfortunate, to say the least.  In fact, some of these other systems, with their in-camera stabilization systems, which are able to work with any lens, including fixed focal length and wide-angle lenses for which their are no IS or VR counterparts from Canon or Nikon, might arguably make them even better suited to wedding photography.  For example, Sony's 16-35/2.8 Zeiss, 24-70/2.8 Zeiss, 50/1.4, 85/1.4 Zeiss and 135/1.8 Zeiss lens are all stabilized on an A900 FF body and provide outstanding optical performance.  Sony's 70-200/2.8 G also is an excellent lens and is the only one for which there is a comparable IS or VR lens from Canon or Nikon.  Olympus, which also features in-camera stabilization, has some high quality faster-than-normal zooms of similar effective ranges, though the 4/3 format does have more compromises for high ISO shooting.

The continual emphasis, focus, orientation, or whatever other descriptive word you want to use, on Canon or Nikon to the exclusion of their competitors, only serves to misinform the reader/consumer and perpetuate an oligopolistic system that makes it even harder for worthwhile competitors.

Mr. Weitz does a disservice to his readers and to B&H customers in limiting his discussion of lenses appropriate for weddings to only Canon or Nikon.  While he certainly is not the only industry writer to do this, that doesn't make it right.  It is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence in the industry and trade press.

Just to share my experience, from analog to digital photography.

I've always used two sets: two Leica M6, for low light and no flash pictures (Summilux 35/f1.4 Aspherical and Summicron 90/f2.0 Apo) and a Nikon F6 (several original Nikkors in more than 30 years, always fixed lens, but mainly 24/f2.8, 50/f1.4, 105/f2.0 DC, 180/f2.8), I do like Nikon "flash performances" with both Nikon and Metz  flashes. Kodak Portra for colour or Ilford HP5 for B&W....

Now, even if I still have one M6 and the F6, I use a Leica M8 (waiting for a M9...) and a D700; same lenses plus a Zeiss Distagon T 18/4.0 for the M8 and a Zeiss Distagon T 18/3.5 ZF2 for the D700 (here, sometimes, I miss the autofocus).

Besides, as cleverly stated in the article, the main thing is not the stuff but the photographer's eye and sensibility.

Ok, this is going to be a very basic comment. I've been asked to photograph a friends wedding, with little money for a camera upgrade. So I am going to be using my Pentax K100D. 

Could anybody give me advice an what lenses would be most suitable for the job? 

Thanks in advance

Do yourself and your friend a real favor and tell them to step up and hire a real pro to do the job. This is a once in a lifetime and its not a time for them to be your learning curve. If you are lucky everything will be fine and you'll have some decent shots and they will thank you. If something goes wrong and your camera or lens or flash doesn't work, you'll probably be screwed and your friend will be totally screwed. You'll probably won't have the back up gear or the experience to improvise. Your friend may not get upset because you're doing it for free or for cheap but the guilt you'll have will be well deserved. Even worst, your friend may forget that you're just an amerteur and complains about how you screwed upon his wedding!

I agree with the reply before mine. I think it would be ok if you are a back up photographer for your friend's wedding. With a Pentax K100D, I do not expect you can get high quality images, especially in low light condition. Moreover, you would loose many good pics due to its slow focus. To be a wedding photographer, not only good equipments are needed, but you also have good enough skills. In a case that you shoot as a second or back up guy, you may consider using prime lens such as 31mm f/1.8, 50mm or 55mm f/1.4, 77mm f/1.8, if you have one of those.

If you disregard the excellent reposnes to your enquiry (and I strongly concur in their views), a wedding is the absolute worst possible time to be breaking in a new camera system.

If you try to focus manually, will you slip and turn the lens in the wrong direction (Manual focus Canon and Nikon lenses turn in opposite directions for focusing? Are you going to have difficulty remembering what each setting for the exposure system stands for so when you are trying to shoot a backlit shot, you will get a burned in image?

If you use a camera that is as familiar as your right hand, you are still going to miss some shots during a wedding - they are that hectic. How familiar are you with techniques for getting 10 people to simultaneously line up, hold a good pose and give you their best smile without blinking?

Doing a wedding is a lot of work. Just go and enjoy the party. Besides you can't drink if you're shooting and you probably won't have time to eat.

Sorry, forgot to say that the part about practicing with the flash was NOT about just using a flash mounted on the camera. Shooting the posed shots will benefit hugely if you can add at least one additional light source places at a good angle, even if it's the sun. However, you need to have some idea what the pictures will look like ahead of time, hence the practice. Even with a single flash you can help things by not having a wall close behind them to show the shadows so clearly.
Try posed flash pictures ahead of time!

I really have difficulty taking the following seriously:

"Fast wide-angle primes worth considering for wedding photography include the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM"

Most brides, and even more importantly - their mothers, are interested in straight representational photography that show them and their guests in flattering light and poses. It is hard to imagine how many scenes would be suitable for a 14mm as these lenses need to be held absolutely horizontal to avoid the perception that everything is falling over. I have a 14 Canon and can't imagine circumstances where it would be worth taking to a wedding. To a lesser degree, the same comments apply to 24mm lenses as well.

To me, the bread and butter lenses for a wedding are 28mm through 100mm fast lenses with even longer lenses being useful in those denominations that restrict the photographer to the choir loft or back of the church during the ceremony. Macro lenses are useful to a lesser extent for ring shots, bouquets and the like. But with just had a fast 35 and fast 85, most photographers could handle any wedding adequately. And, since most photographers would always carry two bodies anyway - you don't have to change lenses!

I am still only starting on photography courses and learning, but everyone I have spoken to uses 1 lens for a wedding on their Canon, the 24 - 105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens, saying they get all the shots they want from that little beauty. They might add in a 50mm here and there, but most of the time only the 24 - 105mm is used

The reason for being Canon, in South Africa, Nikon is a lot more expensive on their products here, most of the people I have spoken too like or love Nikon, but price wise Canon is King here.

Being fast on your feet, as well as optically, and able to focus on the bride's circle are the most important aspects of photographing any wedding, and the last thing you want to do is to be caught up in the changing of lenses, or with just one camera.

The solution that has always worked for me on my Nikons (now the D700, one with grip) is the AF85f/1.8D on one body and the AFS17-35f/2.8D on the other.

Control of depth of field is often less critical with wide shots, so the Nikon 17-35 is a great choice (FX) for covering every need in the wide field and isn't too heavy.

While I prefer the 105mm as a portrait lens for head-waist to head-and-shoulders shots (and alter shots during the ceremony from back in the audience), it is often too cramped in wedding venues to use it, so the 85mm is what I use just for weddings in the portrait and distance length.

I also keep a Pentax 645 medium format with 150mm lens (they're excellent, and dirt cheap now), which I use for individual and group portraits before and after the ceremony if the bride tells me she will want very large prints in 16 x 20-inch or larger for framed wall hanging.

I am relatively new to shooting weddings, with just 30 or so under my belt to date, and I can say with confidence, it has taken approximately 10 weddings to settle on a selection of lenses I can honestly say I will cover most the images I am likely to take on any given wedding day. Lens selection is such a personal thing, dependent on your style and the types of shots that you have before known for.
I shot my first few weddings with a 28-135 and a 70-200L, although wasn't long before I saw the shortcomings of the 28-135, and swapped out for a 24-70L.....which now hardly gets used at all. The only zoom I use now is the 70-200L, having added 3 sub 2.8 primes to the kit.
The advantages for me were sharper out of camera files for starters, and much less post editing after the fact, not to mention the creative possibilities with each primes lens. The primes have transformed my offerings to clients, which I'm really happy about, and they are a hoot to shoot with, they are that good. Each to their own, everyone is different.