Overview of Wedding Photography DSLR Bodies & Equipment
With so many different styles of photography out there, wedding photography equipment can vastly differ from one photographer to another. For example a natural light photographer would require a very different set of lenses and accessories than a photographer with more fashion and studio lighting influences. Even more different might be a fine art film wedding photographer, compared to a digital SLR wedding photographer.
Regardless, we still can narrow our list down to what we think the majority of Wedding Photographers should own. For this particular article we will focus on DSLR bodies only, and other articles will get into lenses, lighting, and accessories that a wedding (or “lifestyle portrait” type) photographer might need.
Top Recommendations: Full-Frame DSLR Bodies
Sheer Performance Champion: Canon 5D Mk3
This is quite possibly the ultimate wedding photography camera, with it’s flagship quality cross-type focus points that work amazingly well in low light. That plus a great frame rate, dual card slots for image safety, and of course mRAW mode for those high-volume shooters who do a lot of general candid journalism.
These are the main features (if you’re not a videographer) that make the 5D mk3 stand out against its closest competition, the Nikon D800, Nikon D700, and of course its predecessor the Canon 5D Mk2. Throw in the gorgeous image quality up to ISO 6400, and the selection of Canon bokeh-licious lenses, and you definitely have a champion of a wedding / portrait camera body. The only shortcoming of the 5D mk3 is that it has less dynamic range than it’s Nikon competition, but this isn’t worth “jumping ship” over for 99% of photographers.
Sheer Performance Runner Up: Nikon D800
Make no mistake, The Nikon D800 is just as good of a camera as the Canon 5D Mk3, or better in some respects. However in our opinion for wedding photography in particular, the 5D mk3 is better suited. Mainly, the 5D mk3 is slightly faster and has off-center cross-type AF points. Is it worth jumping ship for? No, and that’s the bottom line. The D800 is a killer camera, and decently suited for weddings.
Of course shooting weddings with the D800 will triple your memory card / hard drive storage costs compared to our next recommendation, the Nikon D700, and if you are a high-volume wedding photographer that can costs you many thousands of dollars per year. But for the average full-time / part-time pro, it shouldn’t be too big of a deal. Personally for example as a high-volume Nikon wedding photographer, I would still prefer to have both a Nikon D800 and a D700, simply so that I can shoot general candids and whatnot at “only” 12 megapixels.
All-Around Value Winner: Nikon D700
As far as bang-for-the-buck is concerned, without compromising any amount of professional reliability and performance of course, you just cannot beat a (used) Nikon D700. Currently going for $1300-$1600 in great condition, no other full-frame camera comes close to matching the combination of amazing low-light performance, both high ISO image quality AND autofocus reliability, that is. The Canon 5D Mk2 does have amazing image quality, but has poor autofocus performance in low-light.
Additional Full-Frame Recommendations
First and foremost, you might ask, …what about Sony? Until recently we felt it was difficult to recommend Sony DSLR bodies for wedding photography in particular because while they do provide exceptional value and lots of professional grade features that many photographers will love, we felt that their original 24 megapixel full-frame sensor suffered from poor low-light performance beyond ISO 800-1600. Capable? Yes. Highly recommended? Not when Nikon and Canon were both achieving incredible performance at ISO 3200 and 6400 even. The Canon and Nikon competition also have historically had slightly better autofocus in low light which is equally important to a wedding photographer.
However the Sony A99 has indeed bucked this trend. Sharing an incredible new 24 megapixel sensor with the Nikon D600, it has fantastic low light performance and good solid autofocus even in low light. (Check out our full review HERE.) There are also a good number of fantastic Zeiss and Sony lenses available exclusively in this mount, including the bokeh-licious 135mm f/1.8. (Fun fact- Sony’s Zeiss lenses are some of the ONLY Zeiss lenses to have autofocus; most / all of the Zeiss glass available for Canon and Nikon is all manual-focus!)
Unfortunately there is one slight caveat to the Sony system that is especially important to professional wedding photographers, and that is the current un-commonness of the system itself. In other words, a Canon or Nikon pro has great access to a fellow photographer’s gear, for general team shooting or especially in an emergency situation. If you are a Sony shooter however, you often must be totally self-sufficient, and you might want to know your way around uncle bob’s Canon / Nikon just in case something really terrible happens to your gear mid-wedding. This isn’t really that high of a risk, but one we thought was worth mentioning. In a few more years this will certainly no longer be the case, but for now you’re largely on your own. All the more reason to have a highly capable backup camera!
The Canon 5D Mk2 is also a real workhorse, almost every bit as capable as the 5D mk3. If you are on a budget as a Canon shooter, we might recommend this camera over something like the 6D because it offers similar image quality, yet more professional functions such as CF card use and a PC sync port which is essential to photographing wedding receptions with wireless flashes. (Unless you buy into Canon’s expensive 600EX flash system, and/or the similarly pricey Pocket Wizard TTL system)
Just know that the 5D mk2’s autofocus system is one of the least capable of any full-frame camera out there, ; more alike the Rebel series and ~60D really. Therefore if you’re really concerned about low-light autofocus but are on a (Canon) budget, the 6D might be a better option.
The Canon 6D, “little brother” to the 5D mk3, is certainly capable of professional results despite it’s partly “prosumer” body design and interface. It actually delivers some of the best low-light performance of any Canon DSLR, ever! However the slightly less robust / functional body, the single SD card slot, and lack of a PC sync port make it a tough decision versus the 5D mk2, especially if you are heavily invested in a wireless flash system that requires a PC sync port on your camera. (Certain Canon hotshoe flashes do have a PC sync port, though..) Therefore, the 6D versus the 5D mk2 is a decision you have to make based on your own personal equipment system and preferences. Me personally? I’d rather have two 6Ds than a single mk2 or mk3, simply because I don’t mind SD cards and I highly value low-light focus performance. Plus the built-in GPS and lightweight portability are great for my hobby, adventure photography!
The Nikon D600 receives a similar recommendation- If you’re an aspiring professional or a hobbyist who only shoots weddings “on the side”, the D600 is great, however if you have very serious full-time professional aspirations, the D700 makes a better professional value.
Of course do keep in mind that if you’re a full-time professional, any “intermediate” or low-budget purchases don’t have to go to waste in the long run; they simply become your backup camera once you upgrade! A responsible professional ought to have 2-3 fully capable camera bodies in their arsenal, so don’t panic if you can’t immediately afford the absolute best camera on the market.
Lastly, regarding full-size flagship cameras. Why don’t we recommend the Canon 1DX, or the Nikon D4 for wedding photography? Simply because we believe that they aren’t necessary for weddings. For the same ~$6,000 investment, you could buy TWO Canon 5D Mk3‘s or Nikon D800‘s. And for wedding photography especially, having a backup camera is extremely important. You might find a good deal on a used Nikon D3, or a Canon 1Ds Mk3. However other than that, stick with our top recommendations. :-)
Top Recommendations: Crop-Sensor DSLR Bodies
As desirable as full-frame DSLR bodies are, crop sensor camera bodies are totally capable of getting the job done, and then some. However because of the emphasis that wedding photography in particular places on low-light image quality, it is hard to recommend crop-sensor camera bodies as the best long-term investment. With that in mind, we make these crop-sensor recommendations because they are totally capable, even though we do believe that a serious wedding professional should own at least one full-frame camera in the long run.
The Nikon D7100
This 24 megapixel 1.5x crop DSLR has better low-light image quality than a few of the earliest full-frame cameras, actually! With the right set of f/2.8 zooms or fast primes, ISO 3200 and even 6400 on this camera can get the job done. It also has a complete arsenal of semi-pro features and functions, including good solid autofocus performance, frame rate, and dual card slots.
All in all, if you’re going to rely on a crop-sensor DSLR as a wedding photographer, this camera is the top choice!
The Canon 70D
This 20 megapixel 1.6x crop sensor DSLR from Canon is still relatively new, however again the ISO performance in-the-field seems to be on par with or better than early full-frame sensors. Also capable up to ISO 3200 and maybe even 6400 depending on your personal standards, the only thing this camera lacks is dual card slots. (It even has off-center cross-type AF points, something a 5D mk2 cannot tout!)
As we have already mentioned, these cameras are absolutely capable of professional results, regardless of their sensor format. It is far more important to know what you’re doing, and to have the right lenses for the job, than to have this or that pro-grade camera body. Still, it is wise to keep long-term professional investments in mind when purchasing crop-sensor lenses or bodies.
Additional Crop Sensor Recommendations
There are plenty of other very capable camera bodies out there that didn’t make the cut, mainly just because there are so many out there to list them all! For example the Nikon D7000 is almost as capable as the Nikon D7100, and the Canon 7D is roughly equal to the Canon 70D and even superior in many respects.
However keep in mind that this guide is intended to advise new buyers, NOT to validate whether or not you can accomplish wedding photography with whichever camera body you currently own. Because you can photograph a wedding with pretty much any DSLR, ever.
So if you don’t see your camera listed here, don’t infer anything because of that. However if you’re shopping for a camera and you plan to use it for wedding photography, then these recommendations apply. If you already own a handful of good quality crop-sensor lenses, (Not counting the kit zooms that came with that bundle you got on Ebay!) …then indeed your best investment might be one of the current best APS-C DSLR bodies, or another recent model.
Using Beginner DSLRs For Wedding Photography
There is one very common debate that we wanted to address in this buying guide, and that is the viability of using the most basic, beginner-oriented DSLR cameras for wedding photography. Some people argue that you simply shouldn’t even consider shooting a wedding unless you have a pro-grade camera, while others point out that any camera can get the job done as long as you know what you’re doing. If wedding photographers could get the job done 10 years ago with the very first DSLRs, or 20 years ago on film cameras, then the image quality from all of today’s cameras is acceptable by a very long shot.
Can you accomplish pretty much anything these days with even the most affordable cameras? Certainly. Does that mean you should make a habit out of it, let alone consider it acceptable for long-term professional work? Absolutely not. Why? Because even though beginner DSLRs these days have amazing sensors, that is only half the battle for a wedding photographer. The other half is reliability and performance. This is what a flagship camera body offers.
So while a very experienced photographer could pick up any camera and get the job done, that shouldn’t be confused with an in-experienced photographer telling themselves that it is an acceptable long-term working situation. We have made our recommendations with this in mind.
Using Other Digital Format Cameras For Wedding Photography
What about Micro Four Thirds, or digital medium format, you might ask? Again, all are fully capable, however we feel that they would deserve their own separate guide that encompasses more than just wedding photography.
Thank you all so much for reading, and take care! If you have any questions about a specific camera, or a particular aspect of wedding photography, please feel free to leave a comment!
PS: A Word Of Caution
Especially when shopping for camera bodies, look out for online retail scam companies. Read our article about scam groups HERE. We can only safely recommend shopping from three online retailers: B&H, Adorama, and Amazon. (And be careful of Amazon 3rd-party sellers, especially with respect to things like memory cards!)