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.