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See Clearly Now: How to Choose Your Next Camera Lens Purchase

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Wedding photographers have to capture absolutely everything, working mostly unobtrusively and rarely in ideal situations. Suzy Clement, author of Weddings: From Snapshots to Great Shots, explains how to choose lenses that give you the best combination of performance and agility so you can get once-in-a-lifetime shots that will please the bride and groom.
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When photographing weddings, I'm often approached by digital SLR-carrying guests who are interested in having a conversation about my equipment, especially my lenses. The two that I use the most, the 24–70 mm f/2.8 and the 70–200 mm f/2.8, are quite large, and they attract attention—and desire.

I adore these lenses. They're my wedding workhorses, each one very sharp, with a wonderful wide aperture of 2.8 all the way through the range of focal lengths. The 24–70 mm is incredibly versatile, great for everything from "getting ready" shots to family portraits to ceremony overviews (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 A high-quality mid-range zoom has many uses, including overview shots.

The 70–200 mm lens is perfect for getting closer during the ceremony and capturing a sense of intimacy (see Figure 2), or keeping a distance during the portraits with the bride and groom (see Figure 3).

Figure 2

Figure 2 A focal length of 200 mm allows me to "get close" during the ceremony without being intrusive or distracting.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Shooting bride and groom portraits with a long telephoto lens gives the couple space to enjoy the moment, resulting in naturally intimate shots.

In short, both of these lenses are fantastic tools for photographing weddings, and I recommend them to anyone seriously interested in the subject matter, professional or not. But they're also very expensive—around $2,000 each. While a budding professional may be able to justify the expense, these lenses are obviously out of reach for many people, at least when first starting out.

Without question, you need high-quality equipment to create consistently high-quality images, but there are ways to stretch your budget dollars, slowly building up your collection of gear—while still producing great images every step of the way. So, let's say that you have a decent camera body and the kit lens that came with it. You'd like to acquire a new lens or two that will be most useful for shooting weddings, but you have limited funds to invest and aren't sure what features are the most important.

What factors should drive your decisions regarding lens choice? For me, the most important aspect of wedding photography is capturing the element of emotional truth in the images—the authentic moments, big and small, that occur organically over the course of the day. I want to remain inconspicuous to my subjects, shooting very unobtrusively in the background so that my presence doesn't actually interfere with the moments as they unfold. For this reason, and because I simply prefer a more natural look for the images, I utilize available light whenever possible. These are my biggest priorities when shooting a wedding, and I base my lens decisions around them.

Speed Matters

Because of my desire to shoot with available light whenever possible, lens speed becomes a huge consideration (the wider the aperture opens, the "faster" the lens is). I frequently shoot at f/2.8 or wider, either out of necessity because of the darkness of the environment (see Figure 4), or as an aesthetic choice for the shallow depth of field in the resulting images (see Figure 5).

Figure 4

Figure 4 The light was very low at this nighttime reception, and a very wide aperture allowed me to shoot the decor much more quickly than with a tripod.

Figure 5

Figure 5 I intentionally chose a wide aperture for this image to create a very shallow depth of field.

In fact, for my shooting style, slow lenses or zooms that open only to a range of, say, f/3.5–5.6 (such as most kit lenses that come prepackaged with many consumer and prosumer camera bodies) aren't particularly useful for photographing weddings. Of course, there may be exceptions, but generally speaking these lenses just aren't fast enough, and sometimes they're not manufactured to the same quality standards as a great prime lens, or the more expensive zoom lenses. In addition to being too slow, they may have issues with sharpness, color, contrast, and durability. No matter how talented you are, if your lenses are substandard, your images will suffer.

If the great f/2.8 zoom lenses are out of your price range, I recommend investing in a few fast, high-quality prime lenses instead of the less expensive, slower zooms. These lenses will be vastly superior in terms of sharpness, contrast, and speed, and all of that capability trumps the inconvenience of a more limited range of focal length. They're relatively small, so you can keep a few of them with you in a grip bag and change them quickly when needed. Even more ideal is to shoot with two bodies, so that you can have two prime lenses in play at any given time. You can compensate for the inability to zoom by simply moving around more, and you might be surprised at how much variety you can capture even with a fixed focal-length lens.

This isn't merely theoretical musing on my part. Like most people, when I was just starting out I didn't have the money to buy everything I wanted. In fact, my very first weddings (photographed for friends, simply to build a portfolio; I wasn't the actual hired photographer) were shot with an very old mechanical Olympus 35 mm film camera and three completely manual lenses: 35 mm, 50 mm, and 135 mm. There's no question that I was limited in what I could do, but that fact forced me to be more thoughtful about my choices. And the quality of those lenses was outstanding—the great glass produced beautiful, sharp, rich images. Today, 15 years later, I'm still very happy with these images (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

Figure 6 These images are from one of the first weddings I ever photographed, and they were captured with very basic gear.

If you go this route, I recommend purchasing one wide, one normal, and one telephoto lens (see Figure 7). The best part is that you can get great-quality prime lenses for a fraction of the cost of the great-quality zooms. Looking at Nikon as an example, you can purchase a 35 mm f/2.0 (wide), a 50 mm f/1.8 (normal), and an 85 mm f/1.8 (telephoto) lens for under $1,000 total—about half the price of one 24–70 mm f/2.8 zoom—and the primes are all faster.

Figure 7

Figure 7 A selection of great-quality prime lenses such as these will serve you well as you start out, and continue to be useful as you gradually add more gear to your arsenal.

Obviously, these lenses don't provide the flexibility in focal length of some of the zoom lenses, particularly on the telephoto end of the spectrum, but affordability and great image-quality are more important when you're just getting started. And these lenses will continue to be useful for many aspects of wedding work even as you acquire more gear, because they're significantly faster than even the best-quality zoom lenses; I still use mine regularly. Evening receptions, for instance, are of course often quite dark, with the subjects lit mainly by candlelight. During the toasts, I want to capture the couple's reactions without using a flash, which would disrupt the moment too much, and to do so I often need the ability to shoot at an aperture even wider than f/2.8. I put my zooms away, and I pull out either my 85 mm f/1.8 or my 50 mm f/1.8 (see Figure 8). I often use a very wide aperture for available-light shots of the first dance as well (see Figure 9).

Figure 8

Figure 8 Shooting available light for beautiful evening shots such as this requires an aperture of 1.8 or wider.

Figure 9

Figure 9 Using a wide aperture and available light during the first dance can really capture a romantic feeling.

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