Popular Lens Combinations for Wedding Photography

When asked what gear I use most for my work, I will first of all give tribute to the classic fifty and talk about how useful and versatile it is for my style of shooting. And yet I would never willingly rely on that lens alone, no matter how much I liked it. Nor should someone else, really. In this follow-up article I will describe the two most popular lens combinations used among professional wedding photographers. Both of these lens combinations are enough to cover the biggest part of the wedding and, in that context, can be called workhorse lenses. One of the duos is used primarily by fixed focal length lens shooters, the other is very successfully used by photographers who largely prefer zoom lenses. Each of the combinations has their advantages and disadvantages when compared to the other, but whether one is better than the other remains very subjective. Please note that lens choices presented below are a result of a mini-research, where we asked a number of wedding photographers what two lenses were their favorite / most used.

Nikkor AF-D 85mm f1.4 Sample Image 1

While talking about these lens combinations, I will also try to objectively highlight their biggest strengths and weaknesses when compared to each other.

A side note: it is important to remember that what I am about to talk about are just two most popular base combinations of lenses that can be successfully used for wedding photography. A lot of photographers tend to adjust these combos to suit them better and thus, either one of the lenses can be switched to another. I will provide some information on how photographers personalize these lens duos for their shooting style and maximize the use of each lens. These combinations are better suited for use with full-frame cameras, unless stated otherwise. So keep that in mind when calculating equivalent angle of view if you shoot with a crop sensor camera.

The 24-70mm/70-200mm Duet

Two of the most popular professional lenses for almost any sort of photography, the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses are built for the most demanding conditions you can think of. You can almost see them as twin siblings, because, more often than not, if a photographer owns one, he will own the other, too. There is a good reason for it. These two lenses cover such a wide range of focal lengths, that there are only a few specific situations where they will not save you. Photographers that use these lenses value their tough build, environmental sealing, great optical performance and astonishingly quick and reliable autofocus, just as much as creative possibilities.

24-70mm f/2.8 Image Sample (1)

Canon 24-70mm f2.8L II Sample Image

The 24-70mm f/2.8 class lens, such as the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, will work great in just about any environment, even one that is less than spacious. The fast (for a zoom lens) aperture also ensures it can be used when the light gets dim with reasonably fast shutter speed and just about acceptable ISO sensitivity. It may not be perfect for close-up portraiture, but will work very well for detail shots, group portraits and capturing candid moments, as well as environmental portraits. The wide 24mm end will instantly add some dynamics to your images and allow you to capture churches or outdoor environments with plenty of context. I am mostly a prime lens shooter, but I have had a chance to use this Canon lens a couple of times. Suffice to say, such versatility at the tip of your fingers (literally) is refreshing. For me, the greatest strength of the 24-70mm is its vast environmental portrait potential, it is just so versatile.

24-70mm f/2.8 Image Sample (2)

If close-up portraits is where the 24-70mm lens gives up, its 70-200mm sibling steps in without a second thought. Before purchasing my Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D lens, I actually thought about going for the AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR instead (before the updated version of this lens became widely available in my country). I am glad I didn’t, for reasons I will explain further on. There is no denying though, that a 70-200mm class lens is very good for portraits if you like compression and at 200mm @ f/2.8 it delivers very shallow depth of field. Being stabilized (and newest versions of these lenses generally are), it can also be used in a dimly lit church, for example. Suffice to say such a lens is also good for a lot of other applications, like the above-mentioned group portraits, details and candid photography in general. It helps the photographer remain unnoticed, too, thanks to its far-reaching end of zoom range.

24-70mm f/2.8 Image Sample (3)

All in all, a brilliantly versatile duo. But not without its flaws. First and foremost, the two lenses are expensive. Having said that, they do serve as a very good investment and, during weddings, are the essence of “workhorse” definition. So the price can be forgiven. The size and weight, on the other hand, not so much. It is hard for me to stress just how heavy it is to carry two camera bodies with the two lenses mounted on them. Not a big deal if you need to shoot for an hour or two, but for a 12-hour wedding it can be a real problem. No matter how fit you may be and how much time you spend at the gym, trust me, it is better to put down at least one of the cameras when it is not necessary. Your back and neck will thank you for it.

24-70mm f/2.8 Image Sample (4)

Another disadvantage that becomes apparent when you compare these lenses to fixed focal length options described below, is the aperture. The aperture of f/2.8 is plenty fast for a zoom lens, but it is 2 full stops slower than fast prime lenses. And that’s the difference between 1/25th and 1/100th, or potentially between a blurry and a sharp image! Image stabilization helps a lot on the 70-200mm, but most 24-70mm don’t have it. In addition, a slower aperture also translates to larger depth of field, which is not always desirable. Aesthetically, images shot at very wide apertures like f/1.4 tend to look better than those shot at f/2.8, especially at shorter focal lengths.

Variations

One or both of the described lenses can be successfully replaced by something else and still retain the versatility for most uses. The idea is that you have something suitable for general photography that allows you to go wide and normal, and something that delivers a bit more telephoto range. Having a focal length range of 24-200mm covered is great, of course, but the simple truth is that most photographers don’t use all of it. Generally, one tends to shoot at the extremes of the range. For example, a 70-200mm lens at 70mm and 200mm when shooting something like a ceremony from a distance. That means having gapless coverage is not essential for everyone, which allows one of the lenses to be replaced by something else.

24-70mm f/2.8 Image Sample (5)

Do you prefer wider angle than 24mm lens can deliver? That 24-70mm can be replaced with a 16-35mm class lens. Photographers using APS-C DSLR cameras will also want to take a look at the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens. Or you can get a 24-120mm / 24-105mm f/4 class lenses instead of the 24-70mm. It will be cheaper, lighter and optically stabilized, so is a good choice for those who do not need f/2.8 in the standard focal length range. At the long end, the focal length will overlap with the bigger 70-200mm lens, but that might mean leaving the heavy combo in the backpack in some situations, where 105mm (or 120mm in the case of Nikkor) might be long enough. The latest lens in this class is the new Sigma 24-105mm f/4 OS, which we are very curious to test.

70-200mm f/2.8 Image Sample (2)

Speaking of that big, heavy 70-200mm f/2.8 lens – there is an alternative that weighs and costs less, but for some can be just as capable. The 70-200mm f/4 class lenses, such as the new and highly regarded Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/4 VR can potentially replace their f/2.8 counterparts in terms of weight and bulk.

70-200mm f/2.8 Image Sample (1)

The 35mm/85mm Duet

At Photography Life, we spend quite a bit of time talking about fast prime lenses like 35mm and 85mm. With apertures as wide as f/1.4 (and a staggering f/1.2 in the case of Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens), they are not only good at even the darkest environments a wedding photographer may find himself or herself in, but are also brilliant for shallow depth of field photography, especially portraits.

Nikkor AF-D 85mm f1.4 Sample Image 3

85mm f/1.4 Image Sample (1)

In fact, there is hardly a better lens for classic portraits than an 85mm f/1.4 (and, perhaps, a 135mm f/2 lens). Such lenses tend to have a very natural, smooth rendition with a flattering compression for any subject. Modern 85mm f/1.4 class lenses are also impressively sharp wide-open, and that, combined with paper-thin depth of field, allows for a very unique look not possible with any zoom lens. For portraits at such wide apertures, even natural vignetting is welcome.

Nikkor AF-D 85mm f1.4 Sample Image 2

85mm f/1.4 Image Sample (2)

Naturally, portraiture is not the only application for a classic 85mm lens. It is equally good for candid captures if you don’t mind “zooming” with your feet (and those who buy that sort of a lens usually don’t mind at all), and even indoor photography, where space is sufficient.

85mm f/1.8 Image Sample (6)

If space is scarce, that 35mm lens you will have on your second (or, more likely, first) camera body is what you need. Remember all the good things I’ve said about my 50mm lens? Well, a 35mm f/1.4 lens is arguably even more versatile and is a very natural companion to the 85mm f/1.4 class lens, the two lenses just make so much sense together. It will be perfect indoors most of the time providing an angle of view that is not quite wide, yet at the same time wide enough to capture sufficient amount of context. It will work very well for larger detail shots, too, rendering beautiful images and never lacking light thanks to that fast aperture. Step outside and a whole world of possibilities for environmental portraits opens up – a 35mm fixed focal length lens is just perfect for those and whenever you want to frame your subject more tightly, you have a lens on your other camera that’s perfect for that, too.

85mm f/1.4 Image Sample (5)

The biggest strength of these prime lenses over zoom alternatives is, of course, fast aperture along with diminutive size and weight (in comparison). That f/1.4 aperture is not only good for low-light situations, but as I’ve already mentioned, you can’t find a substitute for the f/1.4 “look”. As for the size, well, not only will your back thank you for using such manageable lenses, but so will your subjects – an 85mm lens is that much less intimidating than a monstrous 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. A somewhat lower price is also a plus. However, there is no running away from the fact that such a combo covers only two focal lengths, however versatile they might be. Now, on one hand, after using the two lenses for a sufficient amount of time, you will hardly ever find yourself standing in the wrong place or using the wrong lens at a critical moment, simply because you will be able to pre-visualize your composition accurately before even lifting the camera to your eye. But then, should you ever need a wider angle, not only will you actually need to own such a lens, but also have time to mount it on a camera. It is the same story with a longer lens. Yes, zooming with your feet is not hard at all and, as I have already mentioned, most of the time and with enough practice you will know where to position yourself beforehand. However, there will be times when you won’t have the time or the luxury to get close, or where that 200mm compression is simply necessary and there is no way around it. In terms of outright focal length versatility, zoom lenses are at the top. Crucially, while zoom lenses are big and expensive, they cover such a broad range that you will need fewer of them in the end.

85mm f/1.4 Image Sample (3)

Variations

Just as with zoom lenses, the idea is to have something with more reach and a lens that will work with either larger groups of people and wider scenes, or in cramped indoor environments. Generally, that is what the 35mm lens is for, but as versatile as it is, that focal length – neither wide nor tele – is not for everyone’s taste. Some consider it to be a little… boring. Plain. In that case, you can always of choose a fast 28mm or 24mm lens instead. They will be even more usable in extremely tight environments, in addition to providing that dynamic edge in your photographs. On the other hand, if you find the angle of view delivered by a 35mm lens a bit too wide, there’s always that classic and cheap 50mm f/1.4 to save the day! And if you really want to take it a step further, the new Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G (read Nasim’s in-depth review) seems to yield very dreamy and gorgeous photographs.

85mm f/1.4 Image Sample (4)

Many consider the 85mm f/1.4 class lens to be perfect for portraits, but it is not the only lens that has earned such a reputation. If you tend to frame more tightly and/or work in more spacious environments, consider a 105mm f/2 or 135mm f/2 lens as a substitute. These lenses are arguably not as popular, but if a photographer owns one, he will most likely prefer it to anything else. The longer focal length ensures pleasing compression whilst the backgrounds will simply melt away thanks to that wide aperture. The Canon 135mm f/2L USM lens is also considered to be among the sharpest in the manufacturer’s line-up.

Find Your Own

There is no rule about mixing up lenses and combining primes and zooms, which also means you have no obligation to force yourself into using either one of these basic combinations. Because that is what they are – basic. Do you love that 85mm f/1.4 look but prefer to have a more versatile lens at the wide end? Use it with a 16-35mm lens. Then, replace the 85mm with a 105mm macro if you like. As long as it suits you, your subject and works well in the environments you find yourself in most often, no one can tell you that you are using a wrong lens. The point of this article was to help you find a starting point from which you can build your own collection, one that works best for you personally. So don’t be afraid to do just that. After all, if we all used the exact same gear, it would rid our photography of some of the uniqueness, would it not?

70-200mm f/2.8 Image Sample (3)

Two Lenses is Not Enough

The lens combinations described in this article will be responsible for the majority of the photographs taken at a wedding. However, that does not mean they are all you need. Several other lenses are often essential even if they account only for 1% of the images you give back to your client. For example, when you need a close-up shot of rings, it does not matter how close your 85mm f/1.4 lens can focus, it will just not be close enough. So a macro lens might be necessary. Do you tend to shoot at 50mm focal length and up? That does not mean you won’t find yourself in a situation where a wide-angle lens is necessary, so that cheap, small 24mm f/2.8 lens might save your day. It is best to have all situations covered if at all possible, including the chance that your most-used lens might stop working, in which case you will need to quickly replace it with something else. Even if you mostly use the extremely dependable Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, having a back-up 35mm f/1.8 might not be a bad idea.


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Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Jeff

    Thanks for this awesome article. I’m currently shopping around for a 70-200mm lens and I’m not sure if I want the Tamron SP 70-200MM F/2.8 Di VC USD or the Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS USM. Both are in the same price range. I cannot afford and cannot carry the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, so I’m deciding between the two. The Tamron has the fast aperture at a very nice price, but it’s a third party lens. The Canon f/4 is also well priced but it’s f/4 and low light may be an issue, even with dialed up ISO.

    What do you think?

    • Jeff, heard a lot of good things about both. If you shoot weddings, the Tamron might be a better choice, but I would test it for focus issues before you decide to keep it. Third party lenses tend to have more QA issues, although that’s not necessarily true during the last couple of years…

  2. 3
    ) Gary Clark

    Hi Roman,

    About 2 years ago you asked me for a few example photographs that I had taken myself, as an inexperienced photography enthusiast my images were not good!

    I was in London for new year and I wanted to share a few pictures with you, these were unfortunately capured on my camera phone (very very limited adjutment options) but a few made me think that I had captured a short story with an image.

    This is from the London eye:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/x2lswy6fz52j9pq/IMAG0094.jpg

    It is a picture of a city preparing for its biggest party of the year and I know you will see these images all the time (city at night/night sky line) but this is form a couple of hundred feet above Westminster and I can honestly say I was struck by how London, a busy and quite dirty city by day, can suddenly change its stripes after sundown and become a spectacle.

    If you would like to see more please email me on gary@garyjclark.co.uk and I will convert a few from the times it wasn’t raining so I could take my DSLR out with me. I have images from Tate modern and I believe the natural history museum, low light made this a tricky task but I managed a few!

    I wish I had my DSLR when I was on the London eye because I could have made the image above a lot more detailed and the dynamic range on my camera is far superior to my phone camera’s

    Wishing you and your colleagues a happy new year,

    Gary

  3. It’s quite telling that in the 35/85mm section, all of the samples are from 85mm ;)

    Personally I find 35mm, and even 50mm, a bit boring. But of course everyone has different taste.

    • Perhaps that is because I personally use a 50mm instead, at least at this time. And I know Lola likes the fifty a lot, too. :)

  4. 5
    ) Lester

    I am a budding photog. This is my kit so far 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 50mm 1.8, 85mm 1.8, 105mm 2.8. Pulse an old Russian 58mm. This year I am going to get the new Nikon 35mm 1.8 for fx and the 14 to 24mm and that’s it :) maybe in years to come I will upgrade my 1.8s to 1.4s. I shoot with a d600 and a d7100.

    For portraits I use only primes and the zooms for events. A lame rule I know. But I have time to switch lenses for portraits.

    These is just something about primes that make you think and frame better. Plus I have notices that images are a tad sharper nit enough that clients notices but i do of I pixel peep.

    I think the key is to practice with your gear to learn their capabilies. Practice outside of commercial work so you start thinking in focal lengths.

  5. 6
    ) Adam Koti

    Hi All, I’ve been recently thinking a lot about the same topic and I tend to lean towards the prime combo, specifically a 24mm f1.4 + 85mm f1.4.
    Besides “zooming with your feet”, I’m convincing myself with, that the zoom can be worked around by “zooming with your Crop function” as well to some degree.
    Whenever you don’t have time/space to zoom with your feet “forward”, you can snap a picture and later crop to the correct frame.
    You are losing resolution, but most for of the pictures, if printed 4*6 inches, or included in FullHD slideshows, are sufficient if they are about 2000 pixels wide.
    That means that if you have a 24Mp camera, (4000*6000 pixels), you can digitally zoom 3x, and still have enough resolution. In this sense, the 24mm prime can be a 24-72mm “digital zoom” and the 85mm can be 85-255mm “zoom”.
    Of course if you’re printing larger this doesn’t work that much.
    You are of course losing the additional value added by the shallow depth-of-field, but in many cases, that can also be an advantage:
    2 people in the same image, one behind the other, their distance to the camera 1-2 feet apart. It won’t fit in the DOF of the f2.8 zoom if zoomed in, but might fit in the DOF of the prime that is farther away from the “proper” position. In this case, the f1.4 “digital zoom” would still have the 2-stops advantage over the f2.8 “real zoom”, plus won’t be restricted so much in composing groupshots.
    What you lose of course in these cases is much of the bokeh, that would come from the prime.
    With all this I’m thinking that the prime combo, if both primes are selected from the wide end of the zoom range of the alternative zoom lenses (24mm prime instead of the 24-70mm zoom) can do almost everything the zoom can, or at least there are pretty good workarounds, but the zoom simply can’t work around the 2-stop disadvantage in low light. (unless it is a non-moving subject and the zoom can be shot with way lower shutter speed, but I think that’s far from being typical)
    Do you see any issue with my theory?
    Another aspect what I can’t really tell, where the zooms can be of advantage is the focus speed. We all know that 70-200mm is faster focusing than the 85mm f1.4, but how much faster exactly? How often do you find missing pictures due to the 85mm searching for focus while the zoom snaps to it? How much does it depend on your camera? Can for instance a D600 take advantage of the fast-focusing f2.8 zoom as much as a D4?
    Please let me know,
    Thanks
    Adam

  6. 7
    ) Esenam

    Wonderful thoughts here. I’m leaning toward getting the 35mm 1.4 for this coming season. Although I adore the 50mm 1.4 it can be a little too tight when doing the getting ready indoor when in small hotel room and sometimes for the capture of the exchange of the bride right after she walks down the aisle. I think for me when in low lit churches, the 35mm would be a really helpful lens.
    thanks again Nasim . Is the 35mm 1.4 sharper or as sharp as the 50mm 1.4? I might rent and see for myself.
    Cheers!

  7. 9
    ) Adam Koti

    Hi All, I’ve been recently thinking a lot about the same topic and I tend to lean towards the prime combo, specifically a 24mm f1.4 + 85mm f1.4.
    Besides “zooming with your feet”, I’m convincing myself with, that the zoom can be worked around by “zooming with your Crop function” as well to some degree.
    Whenever you don’t have time/space to zoom with your feet “forward”, you can snap a picture and later crop to the correct frame.
    You are losing resolution, but most for of the pictures, if printed 4*6 inches, or included in FullHD slideshows, are sufficient if they are about 2000 pixels wide.
    That means that if you have a 24Mp camera, (4000*6000 pixels), you can digitally zoom 3x, and still have enough resolution. In this sense, the 24mm prime can be a 24-72mm “digital zoom” and the 85mm can be 85-255mm “zoom”.
    Of course if you’re printing larger this doesn’t work that much.
    You are of course losing the additional value added by the shallow depth-of-field, but in many cases, that can also be an advantage:
    2 people in the same image, one behind the other, their distance to the camera 1-2 feet apart. It won’t fit in the DOF of the f2.8 zoom if zoomed in, but might fit in the DOF of the prime that is farther away from the “proper” position. In this case, the f1.4 “digital zoom” would still have the 2-stops advantage over the f2.8 “real zoom”, plus won’t be restricted so much in composing groupshots.
    What you lose of course in these cases is much of the bokeh, that would come from the prime.
    With all this I’m thinking that the prime combo, if both primes are selected from the wide end of the zoom range of the alternative zoom lenses (24mm prime instead of the 24-70mm zoom) can do almost everything the zoom can, or at least there are pretty good workarounds, but the zoom simply can’t work around the 2-stop disadvantage in low light. (unless it is a non-moving subject and the zoom can be shot with way lower shutter speed, but I think that’s far from being typical)
    Do you see any issue with my theory?
    Another aspect what I can’t really tell, where the zooms can be of advantage is the focus speed. We all know that 70-200mm is faster focusing than the 85mm f1.4, but how much faster exactly? How often do you find missing pictures due to the 85mm searching for focus while the zoom snaps to it? How much does it depend on your camera? Can for instance a D600 take advantage of the fast-focusing f2.8 zoom as much as a D4?
    Please let me know your thoughts,
    Thanks
    Adam

  8. Is there anyone using 200mm prime?

    I would imagine that lens can do some staning portraits.

    Thanks

  9. 11
    ) Max

    I just bought the new Tamron 90mm USD instead of the 85mm Nikkor. It is great to have a macro and portrait lens in one and the major reason to choose this lens was the image stabilization. I am very impressed with the quality this lens delivers! Extremely sharp and auto focus is quick and accurate (my main concern with off brand lenses).

  10. 12
    ) Ijaola Oluwaseun

    Thanks for the lovely article. It is time to consider the 35/85mm.

  11. 13
    ) Nelson

    Choice of lenses for weddings can be influenced by several things such as speed of lenses (aperture), angles of view (wide vs narrow), creativity, sharpness, versatility, handling (size/weight) , etc… and this all depends on your priorities as a creative shooter.
    If you prefer versatility over speed, having a 24-120 F/4 will probably be a better choice over the prime lens combination. An even better choice when prioritizing versatility would be the whole 24-70 2.8 + 70-200 2.8 combo. You have a faster lens combo, as well as an extra 80mm on the zoom range, but you will be sacrificing on handling by caring a few extra pounds (maybe even an extra body). If your main priority is sharpness, primes will be a great choice, but you will definitely have to sacrifice other aspects. You get the point…

    In my bag, form widest to tightest, I have a 10.5mm fish eye, sigma 18-35 1.8 (about 27-52mm on a 35mm camera)that I use on my D7000. Then comes the 17-35, 24-120 f4, 70-200 2.8, and also an 85mm prime that I use on the D600. You’re probably asking “WHY SO MANY LENSES?!?! Im sure you don’t use them all!”… and I guarantee you I DO! Let me explain:

    At bride/grooms house I always use the 18-35 1.8 and the 85mm, one on each body. This allows me to get all the wide and tight shots and use mostly ambient light. I used to use the 70-200 at the house but I can have the D600 with the 85mm on a black rapid strap and shoot it with one hand, without even having to put the other camera down. For me it’s the perfect combo. Super fast (1.8 from 18-35mm and 85mm), versatile zoom, and easy to handle.

    At the beginning of the ceremony I will use the 18-35 1.8 + 70-200 2.8 combo. Im definitely sacrificing handling for versatility, but I have virtually all the “zooms” covered. I will take a few minutes to change into the fish eye + 17-35 to take some wide shots of the church. At the same time im framing in my mind the shots I will be taking of the couple inside the church right after the ceremony is done. As I frame those shots in my head I know which focal lengths to use, and im sure I will have it somewhere in my camera bag lol

    At the park I usually start with the 18-35 and the 70-200, but I most of the times i end up also using the 85 as well as the 17-35. It all depends on what I envision.
    I go into the reception venue with the fish eye and the 17-35 in hand. I start with the wide shots, but still paying attention to the small details. Once im done, I change back into the 18-35 and 70-200. I will take some more detail shots and im ready for the party. During the dances I usually take a few shots with the fish eye as well. Latter in the party, when everyone is having fun at the dancefloor its time to use the 17-35mm and the fish eye again.

    As you can see I do use all my lenses, AND a macro lens is definitely the next to come. Now imagine how diverse the final product is! You know how distinct the looks are from a fish eye to 200mm. At the end your product feels complete, super diverse. If there is something I hate is envisioning a shot and not having the right lens for it…
    … oh… and if youre thinking “WAIT… WHAT ABOUT THE 24-120 f4 LENS! YOU DIDN’T USE THAT ONE!” … well, that’s the backup lens … or the “I feel lazy and tired lens” as I might use it when I don’t wanna carry 2 bodies around lol

  12. I use a two body combo.
    Full frame with 24-105 and APS-C with 70-200 (effective 112-320mm). Work out the math and there is no overlap in focal length. Carry back up 85L and 35L if I need for low light.

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