To answer the question in one sentence, the best lens for wedding photography I have is the…
Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8L IS II USM.
Well, I am actually going to give you a little bit more than that. Stick with me.
The Canon 70-200 mm is honestly the best lens I’ve ever used, but if you’re shooting a wedding, you need to look beyond just one lens. With so many different elements to a wedding, whether it be shooting groups close up and indoors during bad weather or photographing the bride and groom at distance, you are going to need enough range of focal length to be able to handle these different scenarios.
There are some zoom lenses that have an extremely broad focal length range, but even these rarely cover what is needed, and the general rule is that image quality suffers as the range increases, certainly to the extremes required in wedding photography. In practical terms, you need at least two lenses to cover from the wide angle to the telephoto.
The other key reason why one is not enough becomes painfully obvious if your one lens stops working (or gets dropped!). You simply have to have at least two lenses at hand for this reason alone.
Before going through the details of which lenses I use and which you might want to add to the 70-200, I want to link the discussion to a couple of important issues, the first to do with focal length, the second to do with aperture.
Lenses have different focal lengths or ranges of focal lengths. The exact value is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, the lower the focal length, the wider the camera angle you can obtain, meaning you can include more of what you see in front of you. So if you want to get a large group of people standing close to you all included in the shot, you need a lens with a low focal length.
A high focal length lens will not allow you to include as much in the shot, but it will allow you to photograph subjects in the distance without them appearing too small.
Another effect of low focal length is that the background of the image will appear relatively distant compared to using a higher focal length camera. The higher the focal length, the closer the background seems. In other words, the depth of field is smaller. Shortening the depth of field with high focal lengths results in an extremely professional looking image (your compact camera won’t have this range), and is amazing for a shot of the bride and groom walking towards you, or standing in an avenue of trees for example.
To complicate matters, many digital cameras right across the budget range do not have a full sized sensor, full size being that of a classic 35mm film negative (24mm x 36mm). The effect of the smaller size is to increase the actual focal length of a lens by a multiple, typically x1.3 or x1.6. So, a 70mm lens on a camera with a small sensor might actually function like a 100mm lens.
As well as stating the focal length, the specification of a lens will include the maximum aperture or how wide the opening is to allow light on to the sensor. The larger the aperture, the more light that can come in. Importantly, if the aperture can open very wide, the shutter speed setting will not need to be as slow. In low light conditions, this might be the difference between getting a good shot or having it ruined due to camera shake. An maximum aperture of f/2.8 gives you lots of scope for low light photography. f/1.2 is even better.
The other benefit of having a lens that can open up as much as this is that a high aperture will result in only a very small part of the image remaining in focus, the part that you focus the lens on. So you can focus on the bride’s eyes, and throw everything else out of focus. This makes for a very powerful shot, breathtaking even. A setting of f/2.8 will get you this.
My list of favourites
I’ve listed here the lenses I always take with me to a wedding. Some of these are not absolutely essential but instead allow me to add more creativity and variation to the collection of image I give to the bride and groom.
The first two though are definitely must haves for me.
1. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
As I said earlier, this is the best lens for wedding photography Canon wise without a doubt. I take around 70% of my photos using this lens. It allows me to take classic portrait shots, but also, with a focal length of 200mm, I can get great shots of the bride and groom hidden away in the gardens of a venue, or shoot the flower girls and pageboys chasing each other, or zoom right in to the bride’s eyes.
And using the high focal length means I don’t have to get too close. This might otherwise affect the intimacy between the couple and I also don’t need those extra seconds to race up to my subject, often meaning I’d miss the moment. It’s also perfect for photographing the guests during the drinks reception. Whenever I see a laugh or hug or funny moment, I can get it very quickly without risking spoiling by getting in the way.
And with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, you can really focus in on a single element of the image on the one hand, but also shoot in low light during the ceremony without a flash.
This lens is one of Canon’s L series, which are their top range and give beautifully sharp and clear images. The IS stands for image stabiliser which in this case means you can hand hold the lens with 4 stops less light than otherwise without causing camera shake in the image. This feature alone is incredibly important, for the ceremony shots for example. The USM refers to the ultrasonic motor which is very fast and very quiet and is used during focusing.
The top reason I love this lens is harder to put my finger on though. It’s just that the images look amazing. Certainly, the ability to use a long focal length acts to reduce the depth of field in the shot, which makes it stand out from other lenses in providing truly professional looking images.
I have to admit I actually took my other lenses in for servicing after I bought this one. It is so much better than anything else I’ve ever tried, I thought there might have been a problem with some of the others. Turned out they were working perfectly, but it certainly got me hooked on the 70-200mm.
2. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L USM
So the 70-200mm is for me the best wedding photography lens but nonetheless it is cannot do some jobs. You need a wide angle lens for group shots, and to allow you to put your subject in to more of a context, incorporating more of the architecture of the church, the elegance of a banqueting hall or the grounds of a stately home for example.
The 17-40mm lens shares the same USM feature of the 70-200mm and is also part of the L series of Canon lenses. I use it to take most of the rest of my images on the wedding day.
A few years back my second key lens was no.3 in this list, which has a focal length range of 24-70mm. This worked beautifully, but I decided in the end that, although it allowed me to do the key wide angle shots in the day, the feel of the images was quite similar to the 70-200mm when down at 70mm.
Instead, the 17mm setting gives you a really wide angle without heavily distorting the edges of the image like a fisheye lens (the camera I use with this lens doesn’t have a full size sensor so the effective focal length is a little higher).
What it does do though is narrow the top of a building in on itself if pointed up, and vice versa if pointed down. This look is more interesting I think and adds some variety to the shots I get with the 70-200mm.
Another invaluable bonus of using a lens that is as wide angle as this is that the subject can virtually be on top of me, on a cramped dance floor or during an indoor drinks reception, and I can still get good coverage, without cropping off the outside members of a group of people.
3. Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM
I was and still am very happy with this lens, and I know plenty of people for whom this is amongst their staple lenses for wedding photography. Nonetheless, I prefer to use the wider angle 17-40mm to complement the 70-200mm. I still carry this with me in case one of my other lenses stops working, but it is more of a backup now than anything else.
Certainly, it does have a higher maximum aperture than the 17-40mm, but one benefit of a lower focal length is that you can get away with slower shutter speeds without causing camera shake, so it’s not really an issue.
4. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM
Including some detail shots in the final wedding album look great. They break up and complement the pictures of the bride and groom, and help to give some context to the day.
The jewellery the bride is wearing often has great sentimental value, the shoes and dress will never look so good again, and normally a lot of thought and hard work has gone in to the table settings and all manner of other refinements.
It is possible to get some nice detail shots with the 70-200mm and this works for some types of table setting shots, but macros make great wedding photo lenses, allowing you to get some amazing close ups, of the intricate textures of the dress or fine details of a tiara. With the camera set at f/2.8 you can really enjoy the shallow depth of field and create images worthy of any top end catalogue or magazine.
I only use this lens for 10 or so shots, but I couldn’t get near these results without it. However, the exact one I’ve referenced is not an L series. At the time of purchase, I didn’t feel I could justify the expense, and I’m more than happy with the image quality.
If you do want to go for the very best, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is the one to consider. Canon do another L series macro with a 180mm focal length but you don’t need to get this kind of distance between youself and the subject. It is more designed for wildlife photography where you are keen not to disturb your subject.
5. Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
Great for one of two shots of the bride and groom, and sometimes all the wedding guests during the drinks reception, of from above shooting down on to the wedding breakfast. If you shoot the bride and groom with this lens, try to get them right in the middle of the image or they will get overly distorted.
I also use this lens a lot during the dancing with direct flash. The flash only fully illuminates the central element of the image which is much more atmospheric.
Again, I haven’t gone for the L series option on grounds of affordability, but if you do, the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is the one.
6. Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
As far as wedding photography lenses go, this one is a bit of a luxury, but it’s a fantastic lens.
I use it predominantly for portraits of the bride. With the aperature set to f/1.2, only her eyes are in focus.
It is also useful if you have serious low light conditions. f/1.2 lets in a massive amount of light.
Are you a Nikon user?
I use Canon, so that’s my field of expertise, but Nikon is the other market leader.
Based on the research I’ve done and chatting to some of the photographers I know, the best lens for wedding photography Nikon wise based on my preferences above is the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm 1:2.8G ED VR II, very closely mirroring the functionality of the Canon 70-200mm.
For a wide angle lens, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm 1:4G ED is comparable to the Canon 17-40mm. One key advantage it possesses is image stabilisation but on the downside it’s a little bigger and heavier.
So, the best lens for wedding photography was a bit of a cheeky title I suppose. You need at least two lenses minimum but to create a really professional set of photographs with variation and imagination, one or two extras are a real benefit. If I had to choose two on top of the 70-200mm and 17-40mm, I’d go for the macro and fisheye definitely.
Please let me know if you have any comments or questions, and I’ll do my best to get back to you.
Thanks for reading…