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5 Must-Have Lenses for Wedding Photographers and Why

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Have you ever wondered which lenses are in a wedding photographer’s bag? 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 mammoth collection of lenses, many of which hardly see the light of day. 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 took some time, and serious consideration over the course of my career.

They are:

  1. The 70-200mm f/2.8
  2. The 24-70mm f/2.8
  3. The 85mm prime
  4. The 35mm prime
  5. A macro lens (105mm or 60mm for Nikon, 100mm or 60mm for Canon)

Let’s look at each individually to see why.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer_0001

#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, even with a stopped down aperture due to the compression caused by the long focal length.

This lens makes a wedding photographer invisible. You don’t have to be so 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 ceremony, where 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, vows, and kiss discreetly.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

If you require a longer zoom while being at the same fair distance, you can choose to photograph in DX mode on your camera (if you shoot full frame and your camera offers this option), and you get 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, of you are shooting with a 12MP camera such as the old Nikon D700 on FX mode, when you convert to DX mode the camera becomes a 5MP camera, which is below the minimum amount of pixels you can have – 6MP – to be able to enlarge prints to a decent size. If you have to crop in post-processing, this will not give you enough pixels to be able to safely do so without compromising print output sizes.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

However, if you are photographing with a Nikon D810 in DX mode, your image goes from 36MP to 15.3MP but still leaves you enough wiggle room for minimal, and sensible cropping if necessary. If you use this functionality, don’t forget that when photographing in DX mode on a full frame camera, or when using a DX lens, 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 some examples. When using DX lenses, the rest of the unused sensor area is blacked out but when using FX lenses in DX mode, this is not the default and you would still see the entire full-frame sensor if you don’t change your settings.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

The 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. This lens also has a built-in lens collar you can use to steady it when hand holding, or attaching it to a tripod stand. Without a tripod, you can steady yourself as much as possible by leaning against something immovable like a wall, or on a stable surface such as a table, or keeping your arms pinned against something sturdy to reduce camera shake, especially when using this lens for portrait work at the longer end of the focal length.

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You can now get a f/4 version of this zoom lens (for Nikon, Canon has always had one) at a vastly cheaper price 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 not get the f/4. It is lighter and smaller, understandably so because it has less glass elements compared to its more expensive counterpart, and may not only suit the budget better, but also lessens the bulk you have to carry at a wedding.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

#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 need 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.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

I use this lens for photos that do not require close portrait work, although it can definitely be used as one. 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 during the wedding day, and is definitely my other workhorse for capturing people, wider shots, and behind-the-scenes.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

Many photographers include a much wider lens for location photographs such as the 14-24mm f/2.8. While I would love to add this lens to my arsenal, this is not an absolute necessity, in my opinion. With the 24-70mm, you can photograph location scenes wide enough – but 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 are the same, and you stand on a fixed point, inching your way across the panorama. You can do the same for a photograph of all the guests too. These would be the only times I would need an ultra wide angle lens for a wedding, hence I cannot just yet justify adding it to the list of must-haves.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

#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 or small groups, and the list goes on. As a fixed lens, this 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.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

The best thing I love about this lens is that it is tack sharp from the sweet spot on. Accurate, light sensitive, great results on skin, this is my go-to lens, and it never leaves my bag. Being a prime lens, the 85mm is fast, small, and extremely reliable.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

I have photographed an entire wedding of a relative (as a guest) using only this lens. I was asked on the day if I could cover the wedding and I agreed, with only the D700 and 85mm combination in hand, which I carry with me most times for personal snapshots, and photos of my family. The photos from that wedding are published in one of the UK’s top wedding blogs: proof that you can photograph a wedding with what you have, given that you know your gear well enough.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

The 85mm for Nikon comes in either an f/1.8 ($479 USD) or f/1.4 version ($1595 USD), with a huge price difference between the two, due to the glass elements and optics (Canon also has an f/1.2 available, it’s $1999 USD). However, many photographers are divided between which lens is better. I have the f/1.8, and it has always performed marvellously for me. The f/1.4 has been on my lens list forever, and while I could buy it as the 85mm is on my necessity list, I have held off given that I have never felt the need to upgrade.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

#4 – 35mm

One of my early serious lens investments was this amazing 35mm f/1.4. If there is a lens I can always rely on, it’s this one. This is an ultra versatile lens that you can use to photograph the bride getting ready – the time when wedding photographers are usually under pressure to capture everything from location, the myriad of accessories, details, candid shots, the dress, the natural interactions between the bride and her loved ones, and group portraits – in a very short amount of time and more often than not, in small spaces like cramped hotel rooms. It is also perfect for photographing wider scenes, and you get images without the exaggerated distortions that you get with the 24mm.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

This lens is super fast and sharp, and has yet to fail me. With this lens you can get close, with 0.3m (11.7″) minimum focusing distance – very handy when you are in in a crowded space. As if that weren’t enough, this lens opens up to f/1.4 which can let you photograph in extremely low light, especially if you are so pressed for time and space to use off-camera flashes. Even though the 35mm focal length is already covered by the 24-70mm, the difference between f/1.4 and f/2.8, in its ability to allow more light in (two more stops of 4x the light), cannot be underestimated.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

The 35mm also comes in f/1.8, a DX lens you can purchase inexpensively (under $200). You may wonder why 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 without the 35mm focal lens becoming a 52.5mm, which can be very limiting in tight spaces. Secondly, the 35mm view is close enough to what the eye naturally sees which people say is around 40mm in loose terms, and I like that view. As a wedding photographer, it allows you to capture images that gives the viewer the impression that they could have been there, seeing the same view themselves. This is an important element in any wedding photography, specifically that with a documentary style, in my opinion.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

If you ever get to physically hold each lens in your hands at the same time, the enormous price difference 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 performance in its own right, and for crop sensor cameras may be more than sufficient, and is most definitely easy on the budget.
5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

If you already have the 50mm and your budget is constrained, then the 50mm could replace 35mm on this list. It is also an incredible lens. Although the 50mm doesn’t give you as much room to maneuver in smaller spaces as the 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, the 50mm is also available in f/1.8, f/1.4, and for Canon f/1.2.  The price difference is meagre between the f/1.8 and the f/1.4, then it jumps up to a whopping figure with the f/1.2.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

#5 – 105mm (100mm) or 60mm macro lens

A macro lens is a must for you as wedding photographer, if you want to capture amazing images of rings in close detail. You can also use this lens for photographing jewellery and other accessories when the bride is getting ready. If the bride’s dress is adorned with jewels, the macro lens would also be ideal to photograph the details. In addition, macro lenses are also great to use for portraits if you do not require an aperture wider than f/2.8. This makes it a versatile lens to carry around, especially the 60mm which looks and feels minuscule compared to the 105mm (100mm for Canon). Both lenses can also stop down to f/32, which is handy, especially when photographing location landscapes in extremely bright sunlight.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

Some photographers use the 105mm as a close substitute for the 70-200mm, if the latter is just too out of reach.  You can use the 105mm in DX mode which gives you 157.5mm, long enough to enable you to still be very inconspicuous at a wedding. It is also smaller and lighter, and opens up to f/2.8, as well as doubles up as a macro lens.

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

5-must-have-lenses-wedding-photographer

Do you have other must-have lenses in your wedding camera bag? Please share them here below.


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Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • This is one of the best lens comparison articles I have ever read. Thanks for all the tips, photos, and information Lily.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you Simon – such a compliment coming from YOU!

  • Really informative article. Using a crop sensor lens is there are focal length equivalent for the 70-200mm similar to the 17-50mm being the equivalent for the 24-70mm? How does the How would you rate the canon 50mm macro to the 60mm macro?

  • Mark

    One thing you don’t state – how many bodies are you carrying and what lens is on them. I’m presuming you don’t want to continually change lenses so would perhaps have a 70-200 on one body and the 24-70 or a prime on the other etc. To me this is where the Sony mirror-less cameras have a lot of potential for not only image quality (A7R II) but also weight saving. Personally I like their weight and EVF but prefer the multi-controller and button access of my Canon full frame. I’d imagine that they’re starting to cause pros to ask a lot of questions of their current setups.

    I did note that you mention regularly stopping down the 70-200 for f4 in which case, as a Canon user, I’d recommend the f4L over the f2.8L due to the large cost and weight savings.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thanks for the comment Mark. I totally agree, the f4 is a good alternative and easy on the budget so would definitely recommend it over the f2.8 if budget was a big consideration. I stop down when it’s handheld to minimise camera shake but I do like being able to open up to f2.8 when using a tripod or when shooting in low light and I have somewhere to rest the camera or steady myself on. Re the camera bodies, yes I tend to carry 2 (plus back-up in the bag) on a double rapid strap to minimise lens changes but sometimes I just swap the lenses. If I have a second-shooter with me I tend to share the lenses out so again minimising lens changes. It is a bit of a hassle isn’t it but sometimes it’s worth it especially if I’m changing to a prime which I love using. I haven’t tried a mirrorless camera yet but I have heard about its huge benefits!

  • Neoh Soon Hueng

    I’m covering weddings in Penang, Malaysia. Over here the land in scare and the houses are small (think 700 ~ 800 sqft). During the wedding day, the groom will bring an entourage to “propose” to the bride and have some games.

    Hence at such occasion, the 16-35mm is my most handy tool. And it is perfect for taking group photo of the whole family in the tight apartment.

  • Sorin

    Good article, congrats 🙂
    I would go even further, and say only the 3 primes în your top 5 should be enough, each of 35 and 85 on a body. Since you May have 24 mp you can cut however you like. And not because of budget, but because of weight: 50 wedings pe year, 20 hours with one of the zooms hanging on your neck, 10 years în a row, it must damage the body. So mirrorless full frame, another weight advantage.

    All The Best,
    Sorin

  • Thanks Lily. This was a great read. I particularly enjoyed it. The wedding photos themselves are pretty good.

  • Pablo8paul

    Looking though your photographs, there are a number of them, that I would have deleted in camera, or would need to work on much more in Photoshop before they were ever released for viewing. Perhaps my standard comes from many more years as a Professional. Flair…blown-out / over-bright distractions appear in too many of your examples. I started into Wedding work with a Leica, and added a Nikon F. in 1959, For quality weddings in the 1970’s, I started to use Hasselblads…, lenses were 40mm f/4 (WA) 80mm f/2.8 (Standard) and 150mm f/4 (Tele). I went kicking and screaming into the Digital age, and reverted back to Nikon, because I had so many of their fine lenses from film working days. Have retired my business and left the weddings to the ‘Spray & Pray’ brigade. Hope you enjoy many years of productive work in Professional Photography. I know, I did.

  • Rich Billig

    I really liked the article and I also shoot weddings and events. Funny, I get a lot of comments regarding the weight of the 70-200 and 24-70 and suggestions that I switch to all primes etc…I guess I’m still old fashioned or stubborn but I usually use just 3 lenses, the above 2 and a 50 1.8 and get what I need. There are soo many opinions about lens choices and all have merit, however, I think you nailed it pretty well. I also liked your images and wish you continued success!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Hello. Thanks for your comments and for taking the time to read. All the best.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thanks Photofilm. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks too for your kind comments about my work. Much appreciated. Best, Lily

  • Lily Sawyer

    Hello Sorin, So I hear mirrorless is the way to go. I should really try it! I totally agree about the wear on the body with all the weight. I do find that a hand strap or a sling – I use rapid strap if I’m on my own or handstraps if I have a second shooter – helps with the weight rather than around the neck. But still a lot of weight to carry around!

  • Lily Sawyer

    I would love a super wide angle if I had the budget. Definitely the lens that you need over there it sounds like!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you Dwayne. I am not familiar with Canon unfortunately. But Canon does have longer zoom / telefoto lens. So guess if you check the crop factor of your camera and multiply that to the 70-200 range and check the longer Canon lenses, you might find a lens that gets you close to the equivalents? Re the 50mm and 60mm I haven’t used a 50mm macro (if you are referring to the old f2.5) as I’m a Nikon user. I do love the 60mm macro – very handy and sharp but I also have the 105 macro (Canon has 100mm) and I find it better for macro work as I can get really close without needing to be too close to the object. This might also be an advantage if you are shooting bugs with macro and don’t want to scare them away. I love the 60mm as if it can double up as a portrait lens and a macro lens with the only downside being the maximum f2.8 aperture in case you want to shoot with a wider aperture. BUt it is really small and light and therefore space and weight-saving.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you Dwayne. I am not familiar with Canon unfortunately. But Canon does have longer zoom / telefoto lens. So guess if you check the crop factor of your camera and multiply that to the 70-200 range and check the longer Canon lenses, you might find a lens that gets you close to the equivalents? Re the 50mm and 60mm I haven’t used a 50mm macro (if you are referring to the old f2.5) as I’m a Nikon user. I do love the 60mm macro – very handy and sharp but I also have the 105 macro (Canon has 100mm) and I find it better for macro work as I can get really close without needing to be too close to the object. This might also be an advantage if you are shooting bugs with macro and don’t want to scare them away. I love the 60mm as if it can double up as a portrait lens and a macro lens with the only downside being the maximum f2.8 aperture in case you want to shoot with a wider aperture. BUt it is really small and light and therefore space and weight-saving.

  • Thank you very much

  • Bernie

    Hi, thanks for an interesting article. I’m a portrait photographer – haven’t ventured into weddings. The 85mm 1.4 has been on my wish list for a long time. I notice you have stayed with the 1.8. Can you please tell me if there is a big difference between the 105mm 2.8 and 85mm 1.8? I have the 105 and love it. I use it for portraits and head shots all the time. I mostly shoot as wide open as my lens will allow. I’ve been trying to convince myself that I can make do with the 105 because my budget won’t stretch to the 85mm at this time. Just wondering if you would agree? Thanks

  • Dear author
    thanks for you given actual wedding photography right size and guide for doing this service nice articale.yesterday our chairman son wedding day i am not seeing your post.if i am gate this before i can makes more effective photo.Really nice thanks from our Zilhajj Group Bangladesh.

  • Bob Dumon

    Excellent article because you explain WHY you have each of the lenses you use. I’m shooting with a Nikon D7100, and generally use my Tokina f/2.8 11-16mm for my real estate interiors, a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 VC, Tamron f/2.8 24-70mm VC, and a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC. The latter tacked onto the D7100 takes great photos while at the same time providing an excellent weight-lifting workout! Boy that combo is heavy, but they do the job. I’m no longer carrying a prime len as these are so sharp, and seem to work well for my portrait sessions. I shoot a lot of dress rehearsals inside theaters, so the f/2.8 on these lenses is necessary. Also just getting into wedding photography, but the four I’ve shot seemed to please the brides, so I guess so far these lenses are doing the job for me…. Thanks for the article.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you Bob. I’m glad you liked the article. Primes are really down to personal preference. The zooms for weddings are a must – I totally agree!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you. The more you shoot the more you learn. All the best!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Yes there is. The 105 is bigger and heavier. It is also slow focusing and tends to suck a lot of light. The 85 1.8 is fast, handy, sharp, excellent for low light. It is not a macro though and the minimum focusing distance is not at all helpful for close work. They are quite different lenses and not really comparable. Both are portrait lenses but in other areas I use them for different purposes. I would suggest to go for the 85mm 1.8 instead of the 1.4 if budget is an issue. I hope this helps.

  • Bernie

    Thanks for your helpful reply. Now I want the 85mm even more!

  • naseer

    I really appreciate you excellence psot.I love to read it more again and again.
    http://educationworld1.co.nf/colleges

  • The nomad Photographers

    Very well written and complete article ! I’m amazed to see that at the little difference that I chose the 50mm f1.4 over the versatile 24-70mm, we share the same photo bag for weddings : http://www.thenomadphotographers.com/The_photographic_equipment_to_carry_around_as_wedding_photographers-305-1.html

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thank you for your kind comments, Rich. Yes the zooms are really heavy esp when combined with the bigger pro cameras. I find them versatile though compared to the primes especially in a fast-paced shoot such as weddings, However, I love primes and I’m sure you can have the same coverage as with the zooms if you put in the extra legwork with the primes. I love the 50mm too.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Yes I see! I use the 24-70 out of necessity as I need 24mm focal length. The 50mm is a superb lens! All the best to you and more power / continued success!

  • Rich Billig

    I agree completely but the legs don’t move as fast as the mind! I am looking at some older, less expensive used Nikon primes. Ones that I understand have superb image quality. If there’s one lens I would really like now though is the Nikon 85mm 1.4g. The 3d image quality really stands out to me although its really expensive, even used. What do you like about it? I’m learning more about micro contrast and see how important that is versus sharpness, although related. Don’t know if you’ve ever used manual focus lenses but I’m concerned I’m just not quick enough during a wedding which you correctly stated is fast-paced.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Same here I would love the 85mm 1.4 (I have the 1.8) but at the moment I am really happy with my 1.8. I have read reviews saying the price difference isn’t worth the upgrade as the 1.8 is phenomenal. Perhaps I was lucky enough to get a really good 1.8 copy!? I sometimes switch to manual focusing esp when using macros or the primes very close-up – I do find it hard judging where the focus lies when on Manual. I just have to prioritise at weddings… for portraits it’s worth the hassle of changing lenses and using primes, not so much on candid captures of people milling etc – that’s when I let the zooms do the walking.

  • Alexander Lupascu

    nicely said,though i don’t fancy the 24-70 the 35/85 combo are my most used lenses , 70-200 just for candids and 16-35 / 10.5 fisheye for those crazy party shots 🙂

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thanks Alexander – Yes I prefer the primes too but the ease of having the zoom helps a lot when it comes to fast-paced shoots. I would love a fish-eye lens!

  • Alexander Lupascu

    well it depends mostly on your workflow style..though zooms offer more felxibility i love the creative factor of fast primes…the fisheye is a nice lens to have though fairly expensive if you want a new brand version…i got my 10,5 dead cheap at about 300 euros used and in mint condition,there arent many situations i use it in a given wedding day but for some parts it does wonders..especially on the dance floor party or a really nice church…i dont mint it beeing dx since i use it exclusively on my d810

  • Alexander Lupascu

    http://www.facebook.com/lupascuphoto or http://www.lupascuphoto.com if anyone is interested on how i see primes at weddings

  • Alexander Lupascu

    go for the 85 1,8 afs..its really cheap and holds its own big time against his big 1,4 brother 😀

  • Lily Sawyer

    That’s a really good idea! I cannot justify the cost of getting a new one but dx and second hand on the d810 (I have the d800) might just be the ticket for a fun lens and occasional use! Thank you!

  • William Wilson

    I’ve never shot a wedding, but my personal fav is the EF 135 f/2. Great contrast and bokeh. The 85 is on my wishlist, but a bit pricey. I’m waiting for Sigma to release an 85 and I’ll look for the comparisons.

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