I’m often asked what my favorite lenses are to use for weddings and portrait photo sessions. I know that it’s easier to feel more confident in such a large investment when it comes with a recommendation from someone else in the industry that uses and loves it!
But I want to go in a little more depth in this post than I do when I’m just answering the question “what lenses do you use?” Because the reality is, that the lenses you choose to use are such a personal decision! And different lenses create different looks, and are used differently from person to person. What works great for someone else, even if it’s a great quality lens, just may not be your cup of tea. So I’m going to talk about the lenses I use, and WHY. As well as a comparison of different looks that are achieved. I always recommend renting a lens to take it for a spin before you commit, and I speak from expensive experience! So if anything, I hope this gives you an idea of what to try next.
Here is a list of every lens that I own, and what I personally believe is a perfect set up for wedding and portrait photographers:
– Sigma Art 35mm f 1.4
– Sigma Art 50mm f 1.4
– Nikkor 50mm f 1.4
– Nikkor 85mm f 1.8
– Sigma 24-70 f 2.8
– Nikon 70-200 f2.8 (This one I don’t own, but have tried and do recommend for some)
First, let’s talk about prime lenses verses zoom lenses. As you can see in my list, almost all of my lenses are prime (or a set focal point). This means that I “zoom with my feet.” I have to physically move to get closer and further back… which I personally believe is a small price to pay for the sharpness that comes along with it! Not that you can’t achieve sharp images with a zoom lens, but there is just something extra special about primes. I also love to shoot wide open, at 1.4 and 1.8 for a very soft background. Many zooms open to 2.8, which is still quite wide and can achieve beautiful bokeh, but primes are able to take it that extra step.
Zoom lenses are great for wedding days because you’re able to quickly change from a close up to a wide shot during busy times, and all in all work quicker. I personally shoot on all primes for wedding days, and haven’t run into any issues feeling like I missed something because of it. My set up includes me shooting on either a wide or close up lens, and my second shooter (cute husband) on the opposite, and then we’ll trade half way through to get plenty of variety. And I frequently change lenses throughout the day, which I’m okay with. But I know a lot of great photographers that love using zoom lenses, and I totally understand why!
In general, the lens I use the most frequently, is my Sigma Art 50mm f1.4. In my opinion, this is one of my most versatile lenses! It’s flattering for close ups, but wide enough to get awesome wide shots in most situations. This is what I shoot engagements and bridals, and a lot of the wedding day. I also have Nikon’s version of this lens, which is a more affordable option! The Sigma is just a bit sharper and I like the quality for client work. But when I upgraded, I kept my Nikon because it’s so small and lightweight, so it’s a perfect lens for travel and personal photos. Here are some of my favorites taken with my 50:
Another one of my favorites is my 85mm. This one…. is just beautiful. It creates a creamy, smooth background that looks incredible. Because it’s a longer focal length, it compresses the image and brings the background closer to the subject. The only downside to this lens, and the main reason I don’t ALWAYS shoot on it, is that you have to stand quite far back from your subject. Most of the time this isn’t much of an issue, but it can be difficult to give posing directions from so far back. Because of this I have to move back and forth a lot, so it’s not ideal in situations where I’m trying to work quickly. Some favorites taken with my 85:
And the last one I want to talk about is my 35mm. This one is a great lens and I’m glad I have it in my collection! It’s amazing for wide shots, large group photos, and tight spaces. I don’t personally like to use this lens for portraits, but you can. However, you have to be careful about distortion. Distortion happens when you shoot really close to your subject, and it pulls on whatever is closest to the camera. This can give you a slight fish-bowl affect which is not really flattering for faces! But I know a lot of people who use it for portraits, and use their 35 for almost everything (they way I use my 50). It’s all about preference! Which, is why I highly recommend renting and testing out lenses before you purchase.
I’ve mentioned compression and distortion – if you haven’t heard of these things I want to show you some examples. If you’re curious about the scientific explanation for these things… I can’t tell you. But what’s most important is to know how your images are affected by it! Basically, the longer your focal length, the closer the background will be pulled forward. Here is a gif that’s an awesome visual aid:
Below are two images of the same couple, the left is shot on a 35mm and the right is on an 85mm. Both are great photos! But this is a great example of how compression changes the look of your background. On the right, I was standing much farther back, so the trees are soft and blurry, and the trees look closer than they really were. Whereas on the left, we were all very close in a tight corner, so you lose some of the blurred out affect, but the background actually looks closer to how you’d see it in person. I love both looks, so I just make my lens choice based on each situation.
Below are photos of the same building behind different couples. The left is taken on a 50mm and the right is taken on an 85mm. This is just another example of how the longer focal length compresses the image. The building looks way closer to us on the right, even though I was shooting from about the same spot.
And last but not least, a close up portrait. The left photo is taken on a 35mm and displays distortion like I mentioned earlier. Since I was so close to her, it pulled the front of her face forward without the rest. Where as with the 85 (right photo), I was standing much farther back. The right is a more accurate picture of her!
I can’t make your lens decisions for you, but I hope this gives you a little guidance to help you understand what will be the best fit for you. If you’re looking to invest in your first lens, my recommendation is a 50 first, and then a 35, and then an 85. And I think these three are the perfect prime set up. If you only want zooms, the 24-70 and 70-200 are a perfect combination and cover all the bases. Or, you can totally mix and match! I don’t believe that you need all five lenses (35, 50, 85, 24-70, and 70-200), but I think that anyone can find their own perfect combination within those five.