The Portrait and Wedding Photographers Tool Kit // Part 1 : Lens Selection

When you’re just starting out it can be a pretty daunting task trying to figure out what equipment you need. The options, and opinions, are endless.

Ultimately personal preference will play a large role in determining what gear you end up with, but I thought it would be useful to do a series of posts detailing the gear we use and why.

UPDATE: You can view our complete Recommended Photography Equipment List here. We’ve also put together the Ultimate Guide to Buying a New Camera which you can find here.

In this first series we’re going to take a look at lenses for portrait and wedding photographers.

Now before I even get started with what lenses we use I just wanted to mention that your choice of lens selection will vary depending on what type of camera you shoot (full frame like the Canon 5D mk III, or cropped like the Nikon D500).

Shooting a cropped camera has the effect of multiplying the focal length by between 1.3-1.6x (i.e a 35mm lens would be 56mm on a cropped sensor camera.) Keep that in mind as you read on!

Big statement time.

A portrait photographer could get by with just 3 lenses.

1. 35mm – We shoot with the Canon 35mm f/1.4. And by we, I mean Lauren since she doesn’t usually let me near it 😉

UPDATE: The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 has since been released which provides better image quality and is more affordable!

This lens works out well capturing detail shots, as well as photojournalistic shots. You can get close to people without too much distortion.

It’s also wide enough to capture a scene from a normal looking  perspective, but not so wide that things seem a bit awkward.

Lauren also uses this lens for portraits quite a bit as it helps the viewer feel close to the subject – like they’re standing there with us.

The biggest strength of this lens is it’s versatility, as you might guess. It can perform in any type of situation, and get a great shot.

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35mm – ISO400 – f/4.0 – 1/500th

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35mm – ISO400 –  f/2.8 – 1/3200

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35mm – ISO250 – f/5.0 – 1/250

2. 50mm – We use the Canon 50mm f/1.4. This is one of the best lenses Canon makes for the price.

This is the lens that we recommend most photographers should start off with. It works out well for nearly every type of portrait shot (full length, three quarters, head/shoulders and upper body, and just head and shoulders.)

It’s also great for wider shots, as it helps keep distortion out of the environment (since you have to backup quite a bit in order to get a wider shot).

I really can’t recommend this lens enough. Lauren and I both have one and we use them at every wedding and every portrait shoot.

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50mm – ISO400 – f/2.5 – 1/1000 

3. 85mm – We use the Canon 85mm f/1.8. When you want a tighter shot, or you want to really throw the background of your image out of focus then this is the lens to use. You can also use this lens to capture speeches, or parts of the ceremony that are more difficult to get close to.

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85mm – ISO250 – f/2.2 – 1/2000

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85mm – ISO250 – f/2.5 – 1/640

First you’ll notice that we only shoot primes for portraits.

We experimented with shooting zooms including the Canon 24-70, and 17-40, but found that we weren’t able to get the same crispness from those lens that we could with primes. Our prime lenses were always sharper.

The other reason for shooting primes for portraits is that the wider apertures (f/1.4 to f/1.8) allow us to shoot images with very shallow depth of field (the background and foreground blur out of focus beautifully, making the subject pop out of your image).

We generally don’t shoot wide open (since the lenses aren’t their sharpest wide open) but rather shoot the majority of our portraits at between f/2.0-f/3.2. We may go wider (f/1.6) if we’re shooting a close up portrait and we know we’ve nailed focus, or we may stop the lens down to say f/4 if it’s a large group shot. If we’re shooting a landscape shot we’ll also stop our lens down a bit more.

(One P.S. about primes vs. zooms: One thing that is fantastic about shooting primes is that it forces you to move around, and get in the right position to make your shot. With zoom lenses, it’s easy to get lazy and just stand in one place while you zoom in and out. Though an obvious advantage of zooms is being able to very quickly compose a shot from a wide variety of focal lengths. There are always tradeoffs!)

Other Lenses

A specialty lens that we frequently use is the 45mm tilt/shift.This allows us to control the plane of focus, and exaggerate lens blur in out of focus areas.  It’s a tricky lens to learn how to use (manual focus + controlling the plane of focus), and even trickier to use it effectively andsubtly – something we’re very much still learning.

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45mm ts-e – ISO250 – f/2.8 – 1/800 (Notice how by controlling the plane of focus you’re able to put things that would normally be in focus out of focus)

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45mm ts-e – ISO250 – f/2.8 – 1/400

Telephoto – For wedding ceremonies and receptions it definitely helps to have a longer lens to capture the action. For that we use the 70-200mm IS f/2.8. It’s actually the one zoom lens that we own!

This lens is amazingly sharp, and has incredible reach
(especially on a cropped camera). It’s a standard lens for wedding photography even if you just use it at the ceremony and reception. It’s also is a fantastic portrait lens (in terms of sharpness, and subject isolation) but I find I need to get too far away from my subject to feel comfortable using it.

Wide Angle – We currently don’t have any ultra wide angle lenses. We used to have a 24mm f/1.4 as well as the 17-40mm f/4 but got rid of both those lenses. The 24mm was a fantastic lens but we used it too infrequently to justify the higher cost.

Fitting Your Budget

Of the three lenses I listed above, the 50mm, and the 85mm are quite reasonably priced around $370 each brand new. The 35mm 1.4 is an “L” series lens and priced considerably higher at $1,370.

Having owned several L series lenses I can say that I enjoy using them quite a bit. Is it worth the extra money? Probably not when you’re just starting out.  I think in the long term we’ll convert all of our lenses to L series for the larger aperture and better colour they produce, but for the additional price they cost, it’s not high on our list of things to purchase right away.

Do your research, read reviews, and you can find great lenses that aren’t “L” series!

I didn’t mention them yet but you can check out the Nikon versions of the lens mentioned above

One thing that I do want to mention is that it’s best to plan your lens line up around a full frame camera, even if you’re not shooting with a full frame camera right now.

Lenses will last you much longer than your camera body, and sooner or later (sooner!) you’re going to want to move up to a full frame camera. Shooting full frame makes a huge difference in your photography in terms of depth of field, image quality, and shooting experience.

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