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Choosing a Lens for Wedding Photography – Stepping into Wedding Photography Part 2

Recently Charles Clawson from blog.chaselliot.com wrote a post here on DPS called Stepping into Wedding Photography. Today he follows this up by looking at how to choose the right lens for Wedding Photography. Charles is a Nikon guy so this is reflected in his recommendations for Wedding Photography lenses (although a lot of his advice applies to others also) – but we’d love to hear your suggestions for other brands in comments below also!

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Choosing the Right Lenses for Wedding Photography

So you’re serious about stepping into wedding photography, you’ve starting getting experience and your portfolio is growing. Now you want to know what gear the pros are using so you can start building your own formidable wedding arsenal.

The problem is, when researching how to invest that hard earned cash, you get a different answer from as many photographers as you choose to ask. The reason why is simple. There is no perfect wedding kit and every photographer will swear by this lens or that camera body.

Without asserting that it’s the equipment that makes a good photographer, here I hope to present some basic suggestions and let you take it from there. Some of the information I present here is Nikon specific, only because that is what I have experience shooting with. I hope that others will share suggestions in the comments on makes and models not included here.

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Choosing a Wedding Portrait Lens

First things first, every wedding photographer needs a good portrait lens.

One of the more technical aspects of portrait photography, and perhaps a new concept for beginners, is the importance of camera-to-subject distance and its relationship with the focal length of your lens. You already know that if you put on a wide-angle lens and shoot your subject up close, it appears enormous in relation to everything in its surroundings. The closer the subject gets to the lens of the camera the more exaggerated this distortion becomes. This phenomenon is sometimes called foreshortening and can be used for some very cool creative effects.

The problem you can run into however is this same effect manifesting itself where you don’t want it. The famous “big nose, tiny ears” look may not go over well with a bride (unless she has a small nose, big ears complex). Even small changes in the position of your camera can change the overall feel of your image.

I came across one scientifically developed study on the topic, which involved showing similar compositions taken at different focal lengths to a sample of reviewers. After filling out a questionnaire on each image, it was discovered that closer portraits gave a subtly more soft and intimate tone, while shots taken at further distance made the subject appear stronger or firm in nature.

There seems to be a sweet spot in which images appear most pleasing to the human eye. So in short, to avoid unwanted foreshortening and achieve natural looking perspectives of facial features or body parts, a good rule of thumb is to try and shoot portraits from a distance of around 3-4 meters or 10-15 feet. (Of coarse when it comes to photography, rules are more like loose guidelines, as you often want to achieve a certain look that falls outside of the norm.)

In order to accomplish this you need a lens with enough magnification to let you stand at least that distance from the subject, but not so far that you have to shout in order to communicate. For 35mm film and full frame cameras, 85mm is often described as the best portrait focal length. Because of the 1.6x crop that occurs with smaller sensor cameras, a small sensor equivalent might be the 50mm lens. This of course all depends on the type of portraiture being taken. Longer focal lengths, all the way up to 200mm are great if you have the room maneuver. Remember, longer focal lengths combined with wide apertures exaggerate the blurred backgrounds that nicely isolate the subject from the distracting background details. Below are a few my personal suggestions. Look for equivalents made by your manufacturer of choice.

Good Wedding Portrait lenses:

Nikon 50mm f/1.8 – US $100

A great lens for an unbeatable price. Every photographer should look into getting this or a similar lens.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 – US $1000

Considered by some to be the best portrait lens ever made by Nikon. It’s an extremely sharp lens, for both your photos and on your wallet.

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 – US $750

This lens provides a great portrait focal length and has the added ability of taking stunning macro (close-up) shots such as wedding rings, cakes and bouquets.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 – US $1,600

Probably the only telephoto-zoom you’ll ever need. Aside from portraits, for events where you can’t get up close and personal a 200mm lens is crucial.

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Choosing your walk-around lens for Wedding Photography

As nice as it would be to shoot with only prime lenses, having 3 cameras around my neck with 3 more lenses attached to my belt isn’t really practical and will only serve to intimidate partygoers. Having a high quality zoom lens makes life much easier and you wont miss any shots messing with your gear. Wide-angle zoom lenses, sometimes also called standard zooms, to the rescue.

I find the best lens for wedding photography to be a lens that covers somewhere around the 20-70mm focal length range with an aperture of f/2.8. This ideal range lets you get wide enough to avoid constantly reaching for a dedicated wide-angle lens and close enough to capture facial emotions in your candid shots. It also doubles as a good lens for portraits. In the end, this type of lens is on my main camera 80% of the day. Again, sorry Canon users but here is a short list for Nikonians to research.

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 – US $1,700

A new lens to Nikon’s lineup, and replaces the 28-70mm lens. It’s compact, very sharp and has a good focal range.

Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 – US $1,400

The previous standard for this type of lens. Built like a tank, but almost as heavy as one too. Not quite as wide as the newer Nikon lens above, but a great lens.

Nikon 17-55mm – f/2.8 – US $1,200

This was Nikons first DX wide-angle zoom that has the needed constant f/2.8 aperture. Its angle of view is great and versatility unbeatable. Having used this lens and loved it, the only caution I would give is to seriously consider your upgrade path ahead. This lens will be at a great disadvantage when mounted on Nikon’s newer full frame bodies at reduced resolution. If you plan to stick with the DX sensor, and word is Nikon has more coming down the pipes, this is a must have lens.

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Adding Creative Lenses

For the majority of your wedding shots, both photo-journalistic and portrait, the above lenses should have you covered. But as a wedding photographer you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get those creative shots that help you stand out from the rest of the pack. These are lenses you won’t use quite as often, but when you need them, they are essential.

First up is a good wide-angle lens to get those cool wide-angle shots. Since your walk-around lens can often go decently wide, it can often be used at its widest setting. But if you want to take it to the next level look into getting a dedicated wide-angle lens. If you have an extra camera body, even an older one, you may just leave your wide-angle lens mounted and grab it when necessary. I prefer the versatility of the zoom lenses, but if primes are your thing there are some great wide angles at the 14, 20 and 24mm focal lengths. Below are two wide-zooms that stand out.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 – US $1,500

Nikon 12-24mm f/4 – US $900

Next in the creative category is a good telephoto lens with a wide aperture. As mentioned above, a nice blurred background can be achieved with wide apertures and long focal lengths. These lenses aren’t only good for blurry backgrounds or shooting events from a distance. I have seen some stunning facial close-ups from creative angles above or below the subject that don’t exhibit the normal distortions of large chins or shrinking heads that come from wider lenses. Below are a few to look into.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 – US $1,600

Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 – US $915

Not as pricey as the lens above with similar quality.

Nikon 180mm f/2.8 – US $750

A solid prime lens and a decent price.

Lastly, used even less often but very cool is the fish-eye lens. The angle of view is simply insane. With a fish eye lens you are able capture images with a 180 degree field of view for stunning special effects.

Nikon 16mm F/2.8 – US $760

Again, insane angle of view and also good in low light situations.

Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 – US $600

Same as above, this is an awesome lens for DX cameras, but consider your future upgrades before purchasing. All DX lenses shoot with lower resolution on FX camera bodies.

That about sums it up. There are some great lenses made by Sigma and Tamron that match the quality of the big players and cost much less. The resale value is sometimes lower on these lenses but definitely they are worth looking into. Do as much research as possible before making your big purchases by reading formal reviews as well as user ratings.

Feel free to sound off in the comments with your own thoughts and recommendations.

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Chas Elliott
Chas Elliott

is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

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