Some of the most frequent questions I am asked from people that are curious about my job is regarding my equipment. Canon or Nikon, what camera I use, how much did it cost, do I shoot film or digital, etc. When someone knows a bit about photography, I often get asked about my lenses. In this article, I’ll go over what lenses I use as a wedding photographer and why I choose to use them.
Firstly, I will say that there is no one best Canon wedding lens. Multiple lenses are typically needed to meet the requirements you’ll encounter during the unpredictable and ever-changing wedding day. A photographer’s “favorite” lens is largely dependent on your own style, budget, and of course, the wedding that will be photographed. I will also say that a wedding should not be photographed with only one lens, camera, or flash; backup equipment is a necessary investment if you’re going to shoot weddings professionally. There are no do-overs with a wedding, and if your only camera’s shutter fails, it can ruin what is arguably the most important day of someone’s life. That disclaimer being said, there are several factors you should consider when purchasing a lens that will be used for wedding photography.
Speed, quality, focal length, versatility, and other features, such as image stabilization and macro capabilities are things that will vary lens to lens. Speed refers to the maximum aperture of a lens. A “fast” lens is one with a large maximum aperture, allowing for more light to enter to the camera’s sensor, thus allowing for a faster shutter speed. The fastest of Canon’s zoom lenses are f/2.8, whereas Canon’s two fastest prime lenses have a max aperture of f/1.2, those being the 50L and 85L. Having a fast lens is important for weddings because you will be faced with dark and poorly lit environments throughout the day. Churches can often be very dark and sometimes prohibit the use of flash photography as well, thereby necessitating the use of a large aperture to gather as much light as possible. Night receptions are also sometimes held in poorly lit reception halls, so large aperture lenses come in handy here as well.
Glass and build quality is also an important factor when purchasing a wedding lens. If you can afford it, I recommend using Canon’s L series lenses for the best optical quality, and superior build quality. Luckily, there are several non-L prime lenses that can still produce excellent images, but at a much lower price point.
Focal length is another consideration – many photographers prefer the versatility of a zoom lens; a few common wedding zoom lenses are the Canon 16-35 f/2.8L, Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. Other photographers prefer using prime lenses, such as the Canon 50mm f/1.4L, Canon 50mm f/1.2L USM, and Canon 85mm f/1.2L II. This is more a personal choice than a “A is better than B” scenario. Using zoom lenses covers a very wide range of focal lengths; everything from 16mm to 200mm with only three lenses which allows you to get a very wide variety of shots. On the other hand, prime lenses typically have larger maximum apertures than zooms, which lets more light to enter through the lens. This can create a shallower depth of field and allowing faster shutter speeds due to their larger-than-f/2.8 max apertures. Prime lenses are also typically sharper than zooms due to their simpler optical designs. To get the variety of shots a zoom offers though, you would need to change lenses more often if you’re using primes.
Another thing to think about is image stabilization (IS). IS compensates for camera shake when handholding a lens for slower shutter speeds. It’s great for low light environments when the subject is stationary. Using a lens with IS in a church is beneficial, because the bride and groom are usually fairly motionless. On the dance floor, however, IS will be of little help, because it compensates for camera movement only, and not subject movement. One of Canon’s most popular wedding lenses is the 70-200L, which comes in four variations: f/4, f/4 IS, f/2.8, and f/2.8 IS. Obviously, the best choice is the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II (there are two versions, I being older, and II being newer) because it is the faster of the two variations, and also has IS. With those features however, comes the highest price point of the four. It is also the largest and heaviest because of the large amount of glass and electric motor for the IS system. People are also often torn between the 24-70mm f/2.8L and 24-105mm f/4L IS. The 24-70 is faster at f/2.8 vs. f/4, but the 24-105 has IS built in. Personally, I prefer a lens with a larger aperture over one with IS, because it lets more light into the lens to begin with and doesn’t need to be “compensated” by a longer shutter speed. It also allows for a shallower depth of field to separate subjects from their background.
Other more specialized features can come into play when choosing a lens as well – macro, tilt shift, and fisheye designs, to name a few. These lenses have more specialized features and aren’t nearly as versatile as the standard zooms and primes, but they can definitely find their way into many wedding shooters’ bags because they can create unique and unusual perspectives that other lenses simply cannot duplicate. For 95% of the photos I take during a wedding, I don’t feel the need for these, but they do have their time and place.
So what do I shoot with? For camera bodies, I have two Canon 5D Mark II’s, and a Canon 7D as well. One thing to keep in mind is that the effective focal length of a lens will seem different between a full frame sensor and a cropped sensor. My 7D’s sensor basically crops the full frame’s framing by 1.6x. I use three zoom lenses, which are very popular among wedding photographers: the 16-35 f/2.8L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. I also have three prime lenses: the 35 f/1.4L, 85 f/1.2L II, and 100 f/2.8L IS Macro. Also in my bag is a non-Canon (shh, don’t tell anyone!) fisheye lens which is circular on the 5D and a full frame fisheye on the 7D (because of the 1.6x crop factor of the 7D’s sensor size). I have owned and have used a variety of other lenses over the course of my career, but my set of lenses is what I’ve decided works best for me. I will say that the three zooms I own are often considered the “industry standard” zooms for professional wedding photography on a Canon full frame camera, but the primes are much more of a personal choice. Some prefer primes of other focal lengths, like the 24L, 50L, and 135L; a focal length that works well for me might be too tight or too wide for someone else’s taste.
I tend to switch lenses quite a bit, because I like a variety of perspectives in my clients’ gallery. Choosing which lens to use is largely dependent upon the stage of the wedding as well. I find that the “getting ready” part of the day is slower paced, and I have more control over where I can be, so I tend to use primes – the 35L and 85L, and sometimes the 100L macro for closeups on lips, eyes, etc. During the ceremony I almost always have the 70-200 on one 5D so I can stay stay out of the way but still get a tight shot. Some churches have strict rules regarding how close you can get to the couple and where you are allowed to photograph from, and so a long lens is usually needed. I often have either the 24-70 or the 35 on my other 5D to get wider shots. If I can get somewhere that shows the entire venue or the grandeur of the church, I’ll use the 16-35 or a fisheye to get that ultra wide perspective to take it all in.
The formal and family photos can demand different lenses depending on the size of the family or bridal party, and also the background, but for 90% of the family portraits, I use the 24-70. If it’s a very large wedding party and I have limited room to work, I’ll use the 16-35. If the background is rather boring or unattractive, and there are few people in the picture, I sometimes use the 70-200 and step back to compress the background as much as possible. It’s nice to have a zoom for the formals as the size of the group changes, and you don’t usually need the wide aperture that a prime offers since you want everyone in the group to be in focus. Portraits of the couple allows for more creativity and aren’t as chaotic as with the entire bridal party and family there, so I have the time and control to use primes. the 35 and 85 are a great combo of a semi-wide and medium-telephoto, and their very large apertures allow for a very shallow depth of field to isolate the couple. Of course, closing the aperture and incorporating the background can be nice too, since weddings often take place in very beautiful places.
You’ll find a lot of variety in the reception. I like to use the 70-200 to get natural candids of guests from afar or tight shots of the bride’s face during a slow dance, the 16-35 to capture the entire venue, or the 100mm macro to get details of the cake, flowers, or wedding rings. I switch it up a bit as the night goes on; I often find myself using the 35 for faster paced songs, and the 85 for slow dances; and the 24-70 for everything in between.
So what is the best Canon wedding lens?
Well, I try to use each lens in my kit at least once during the course of a wedding, just because I like the variety. But looking at my Lightroom library statistics, I use the 24-70mm most often. It find it has the most “usable” focal length, and is a great all-around lens, but I wouldn’t say it’s my “favorite,” it is just more often than not the right tool for the job. Second most used is the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II - a heavy, but absolutely fantastic lens produces great images. The 35L, 85L, and 16-35 see around the same amount of usage, simply because they don’t have the versatility of the two aforementioned lenses. And last but not least is the 100 f/2.8L IS Macro macro. The only major difference between the 100L and the 70-200L @ 100mm is the macro capability, so I tend to use it for only a few shots during a wedding. For closeup work though, it’s an excellent choice.
As I mentioned before, there is no one “best” wedding lens, only “favorite” lenses based on different factors. The more weddings I shoot, the more I’m starting to favor prime lenses over zooms. Despite their lack of versatility as far as focal length goes, their speed and sharpness provide superb quality that aren’t matched by zooms. I’ve found they tend to take some practice though, because “zooming” is done by stepping forwards and backwards, and you can’t simply turn a ring on the outside of the lens. With so many options, choosing a set of lenses is a very personal choice for photographers. Your lens choices are often more important than your camera choice, and I recommend thinking of what you want as a long term lens setup before plunging into a hasty purchase. Below are different lens setups that I recommend – and while of course I prefer the lenses I own (that’s why I own them, after all!), all the choices below can provide high-quality and professional images in the right hands. Any prime lens that you are comfortable with can be added to a kit of zooms as well – some of the more popular choices include the 14L, 24L, 35L, 50L, 85L, 100L, and 135L. Many L lenses have more budget friendly cousins, like the 85 f/1.8, 28 f/1.8, 35 f/2.0, to name a few. If you are looking for one prime lens only, I recommend the 50mm, since it provides a very normal looking and “usable” perspective – not too wide, not too tight. Canon offers three flavors of the 50mm prime: f/1.8, f/1.4 USM, and f/1.2L USM.
I hope this article has helped to lead you on the right path with your next lens purchase. Making an expensive investment in your equipment can be difficult, but the best lens choice is one that will complement your other lenses, expand your art and business, and fit within your budget.