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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.

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 II, or cropped like the Nikon D90).

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 ;)

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.

lens-selection-8.jpg

35mm – ISO400 – f/4.0 - 1/500th

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35mm – ISO400 –  f/2.8 - 1/3200

lens-selection-3.jpg

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.

lens-selection-7.jpg

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.

lens-selection-1.jpg

85mm – ISO250 – f/2.2 - 1/2000

lens-selection-4.jpg

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 and subtly – something we’re very much still learning.

lens-selection-5.jpg

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)

lens-selection-6.jpg

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.

Reviews, Renting & Buying

You can check out the following sites for reviews of lenses and cameras:

The Digital Picture – Reviews of Canon Lenses and bodies

Fred Miranda – Reviews of Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina and Tamron lenses

It’s also a great idea to test out new lenses and cameras before you buy them:

If you’re looking to purchase a lens or camera new check out B&H for the lowest price around! 

However if you’re looking to purchase a used gear, you can also check out 

If you enjoyed this post you’ll want to check out Part 2 where we take a look a cameras for wedding and portrait photographers.

Is there a lens that you just can’t live without? Tell us in the comments below!

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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Extremely Essential Camera Skills

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Discussion

24 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Don't forget LensProToGo, Calumet, and Ziplens for lens rentals in the US!

  2. A very detailed and informative article here, truly appreciate your knowledge sharing.
    The one lens I love is the canon 50mm, just can't live without it!
    Good Day!

  3. Great info, I really enjoy my Canon 135mm L. It is super sharp and great for portraits!

  4. Am I correct to assume the above images were all taken with your FF camera?

  5. Yup your right, the above images were taken with a full frame camera. Either the 5D mk II or the original 5D.

  6. Have you guys tried the 135L? I've considered getting it until I can save up the money for a 70-200 2.8 MKII.

  7. When you said "A portrait photographer can get by with just three lenses" were you including wedding photographers or do you think something longer than the 85mm prime would be required for weddings? I know there is no absolute answer, but I was curious about your opinion.

    Thanks for the great article, it has given my quite a bit to think about.

  8. *@Joshua* – We've tried the 135 and I think it makes a great portrait lens (awesome bokeh), but I think it's a bit too long for our style of shooting.

    *@Dave* – Thanks for the comment! I would say that a fast 70-200 is a pretty useful lens for a wedding photographer. You need the longer lens for wedding ceremonies (where you can't get as close as you'd like) and receptions (for things like speeches). As a wedding photographer you might also want a macro capable lens for detail shots.

    Great question!

  9. I'm on the right track! I love my primes. I have my trusty 20 2.8, 35 1.8 DX and 105 2.8. All Nikon. All on my beloved D90 (crop).
    To L or not to L is hard: Everytime I put on my 105 instead of the 35 (most expensive vs. cheapest lens) I'm amazed at the sharpness. Not that the 35 isn't fantastic (it is!) but the pricyer 105 just has that bit of extra photo-magic.
    My dreams for my photo future includes a 50 1.4 and maybe a used D700 (to go full-frame – can't wait!) when the replacement hits the shelves and makes the used-D700-prices plummit. ;D
    Just my 2 cents – to say thanks for yours.

  10. My first comment! First of all, thanks for coming out with all the wonderful resources and guides. Your Extremely Essentials guide is fantastic! I knew zero to everything I needed to know in order to start digging deeper into photography!

    I own an entry level dSLR camera (Canon Rebel t3i) and recently rented the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens. I had read that this lens is great with low light. I had issues with my pictures being way too overexposed and no matter how I tried to balance the exposure, I couldn't get it to balance. The lowest ISO my camera can go is 100 and the highest is 6400. The shutter speed maxes out a 1/4000 at an aperture of f/1.4 during a cloudy mid afternoon sky.

    What can I do to improve the exposure of my pictures with the camera body that I have? Is it not possible to obtain that shallow depth of field?

    Any advice would be great! I may have already read the answer somewhere, but can't remember what to do.

  11. *@Kayce* Great to hear you enjoyed Extremely Essential Camera Skills! Mid afternoon sky, even cloudy, is pretty bright. What you would need to do is close down your aperture a bit.

    If you wanted to shoot at wide open apertures like f/1.4 during bright conditions (in order to get really shallow depth of field) then you might need to use a neutral density filter to reduce the intensity of the light.

    Some cameras allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds (1/8000) or lower ISOs (ISO50). These would also allow you to shoot in brighter conditions while maintaining a lower aperture.

    Finally, don't forget that you can achieve a shallow depth of field (even at smaller apertures) by getting closer to your subject and shooting with longer focal lengths.

  12. very informative!!! thank you!!

  13. Hi Rob,

    Care to share the actions you used on editing your photos you posted here?

    Thanks

    • Hello! Thanks for commenting!

      No photoshop actions were used processing these images. All our image editing (except for basic retouching) is done in Adobe Lightroom. We actually have a tutorial (Super Photo Editing Skills) that goes through exactly how we use Lightroom to process our images.

  14. Hi, great info thanks !! I’m planning on buying a canon 60d ( i think ) read about the rebels and still think this one is a better choice plus the flexible screen is a +++ for me since I have a canon G12 with the same screen, gonna use it for portraits, cant afford yet a full frame one (canon Mark II def. my pick also)
    got a tight budget to start off haha .. sooo at the moment I can afford that and can you recommend 1 lens that I could buy out first to start out until I can upgrade or buy another one ??a friend told me to start off with the 18-200mm but it’s not even in one of your choices.. I really like the background blurry in my pics.. and also which flash ??? and if not canon brand which one is good but cheaper ?

    thanks a lot, starting out and very confused on what to buyyyyy !!! hahah lol

  15. @liz.g – When I first started out last year, I knew that portraiture is what I was most interested in, and after reading a lot of reviews and opinions, I landed on the Canon 50mm f/1.4 as my first lens, and I have never regretted that decision. Hope that helps. :)

  16. Hi

    I got Canon 550d three years ago. I was hoping to buy new lenses. I was told that 24-70mm f2.8 L is good but I thought they are far too expensive.

    Is Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM good? But i have read mixed reviews about it so i am unsure.

    I like to take photos of wedding, people, sea, city etc.

    Which lens shall I buy?

    Thanks

    • Hi Helen!

      The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is fantastic (as we recommend in this article). The 24-70 is also incredible and we’ve actually started using that lens a lot more.

      I think if you’re taking photos of a wide variety of things (portraits, landscapes) then you can’t go wrong with the 24-70.

      You’ll want to keep in mind that the sensor is your camera is cropped (smaller than a full frame camera like the 5D3). So you’ll need to adjust your lens choices. The 50mm will likely be a bit too long for all purpose lens on the 550D – instead you might want to check out the Canon 28mm f/1.8

  17. Great opinions and thoughts! You guys might be able to help me. I shoot mostly people and weddings! Im planing on investing in a new lens! I have a 85mm 1.8, a 24 105 f4 and i m in a dilema about what lens to choose! I want a fast lens to make some images not using flash(weddings). Which one should i go for! The new sigma 35 1.4 or a canon 50 1.4? Thanks

    • Hi Rafael,

      I think it depends on what size your camera sensor is. If you’re shooting on a cropped sensor then the new Sigma 35 f/1.4 would be perfect (that works out to about 50mm on a full frame). If you’re shooting a full frame sensor the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is fantastic. Both lenses will serve you well under low light conditions.

  18. a) between Canon 85 f/1.8 and Sigma 85 f/1.4 – don’t you think Sigma is a better option (unless you had enough space to shoot with 135L because it is amazing in sharpness and focussing speed otherwise – I use 135 for all my tight shots but have been lately considering to have a 85 too in scenarios where 135 is simply unusable)

    b)If you don’t have anything wider than 35 – how do you take some of those shots when you need something at least upto 24?? I have a 24L and I know what you mean when you say its kind of costly given the not so frequent usage – but what about at least having a 16-35 f2.8 ? Can a wedding photography kit ever be complete without anything wider than 35? I have my doubts. Yes, you might still have 95% of the shots, but my guess is 5% shots would have looked better on an extreme wide

    c) Have you tried sigma 35 f1.4 – I have just ordered mine (yet to arrive) – I have heard it’s as good as Canon L at a considerable lesser price (I have spent hours looking at pics clicked by Sigma 35 and reading reviews) – seems to be amazing

    d)I never tried a Canon 50 f1.4 but after reading reviews from those who used both Canon and Sigma 50 f1.4 (Sigma is slightly more costly) – Sigma emerged the winner. I use it all the time and till my 35mm arrives, 50mm is the default lens I use

    e)I have shot about 100 weddings (India) and never needed to use anything other than a prime – so will never carry a huge and bulky lens like 70-200 f2.8 – afterall, nothing is that far way in a wedding that 135L can’t do the job. If you need 200 really – then may be you are spying :P – just kidding – to each his own

    do answer some of my questions if want to…

  19. This is a great article. How long do camera bodies usually last for photographers who shoot as often as you two? I am just starting out, and just bought a used Canon 50D. I can’t wait to get a FF. I have the 50 mm 1.8 but am now wishing I had gone for the 1.4 after reading this article, though other photographers said they felt the 1.8 is just as adequate. Maybe in the future. I was also thinking about the 24-70mm because I’ve been told of its adaptability and that it would limit the number of lenses you need to have, but this article makes me question that. As a portrait and family photographer (not weddings), if you could only have two lenses, what would they be?

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