Your Complete Guide to Capturing Wedding Details

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Wedding Photography DSLR Prime Lenses – The Complete Guide

By Matthew Saville on September 30th 2013

Overview of Wedding Photography 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 would be a fine art film wedding photographer compared to a digital SLR wedding photographer.

Regardless, we still can narrow down our list of recommendations to what we think the majority of wedding photographers should own.  For this particular article we will focus on prime lenses only, and other articles will get into zoom lenses, camera bodies, lighting, and accessories that a wedding (or “lifestyle portrait” type) photographer might need.

To view our complete guide to DSLR bodies for wedding photography, click HERE.
To view our complete guide to DSLR zoom lenses for wedding photography, click HERE.

Prime VS Zoom

The very first thing we need to discuss is primes VS zooms.  When it comes to wedding, event, and portrait photography this always seems to be the biggest issue that divides all the advice-givers out there.  There are highly zealous people who passionately argue in favor of each!

In our opinion, it is simply a matter of preference, not a “better / worse” type thing.  Some photographers find that they simply hate zooms and love primes, while others cannot live without a set of good f/2.8 zooms.  Both systems are capable of delivering amazing results; it simply depends on your style as a photographer.  (How much you like to move around, or be challenged to think creatively, or if you have a bad back or something lol?)

Therefore, we will make our recommendations from both perspectives, in separate guides, and this article will focus mainly on zoom lenses.

Before we get to individual lens recommendations though, we need to talk about your overall kit.  Recommending individual lenses just doesn’t complete the whole story for a wedding photographer because there are just so many different angles to cover!

A Complete Kit – Zooms

The absolute safest bet for wedding photography is a set of 2-3 fast zooms and 1-2 fast primes.  For example a 70-200 plus a 24-70 and/or a 16-35 zoom, and a 35mm, 50mm or 85mm prime thrown in for creative shooting and low-light.  That right there is many wedding photographers’ go-to setup.

Some photographers prefer the 24-70 mid-range because it is versatile enough to shoot almost everything from details and venue shots to candids and formal portraits.  Other wedding photographers feel that 24mm just isn’t wide enough for their style and they opt for a dedicated wide-angle zoom instead.  (Sometimes these folks wind up never using their 24-70 again!)

Either way, the bottom line is that it takes about 3-4 total lenses to create a well-rounded “product” for a wedding.  (Not even counting specialty lenses such as macro or fisheye lenses.)

If you rely heavily on your zooms, then it is usually better if they are f/2.8, sharp as heck wide open, and stabilized if possible.  Oppositely, if you rely more on your primes and only rarely use your zooms, you might be able to get away with f/4 zooms, or older / third-party f/2.8 zooms.  But we’ll get into budgeting in a bit.

A Complete Kit – Primes

Usually the wedding photographers who love primes fall into two categories-  Those who love 50mm only, and barely use any other lenses, …and those who prefer a combo of two or more primes, usually a 35mm and 85mm setup.  You often find these photographers shooting with two camera bodies at once, with those two primes permanently attached to each camera.

In my professional experience, I prefer a combination of primes and zooms.  I love 85mm primes and 28-35mm primes, but wider and longer angles are best covered with a zoom.  (The “zoom with your feet” thing really works best between 28mm and 85mm!) To be frank, I just find that 50mm gets boring after a while so I love having an 85mm prime on one of my cameras, paired with something wider on a 2nd camera.

Of course when I talk about “permanently” attaching certain lenses to your cameras, I just mean the one or two lenses that a wedding photographer would use most frequently.  You still need to supplement your arsenal with a few other lenses, in my opinions.  Shooting with a single lens just won’t produce a full and complete product.  For example a prime shooter might rely mainly on a single 50mm prime, or a 35+85 combo, but also have a 14-24 and 70-200 in their bag as I mentioned above.

This article will focus mainly on prime lenses and specialty lenses for wedding photography.  Our article on zoom lenses can be found HERE.

The Lenses That “Define Your Style”

Whatever your style, you should be able to identify that one special lens that you just adore, the lens that helps you define your style.  This is the lens you should spend the most money on, and maybe even consider having a backup of!

For example if you love 85mm like I do, you might want to consider the Canon 85mm f/1.2 L, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX, or the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G.  All of those lenses are quite expensive though, and a little sluggish when it comes to fast-action autofocus performance, especially in low light.  So, why not also buy the f/1.8 versions as a backup, or for shooting more active situations where you need very snappy autofocus?  The Nikon and Canon 85mm f/1.8‘s are both incredible lenses, and they are great at nailing focus consistently even in terrible light.  Plus they’re much lighter and smaller, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you’d rather be unobtrusive or incognito.

I say this because often times beginners feel compelled to go straight to the absolute most expensive lenses, all across the board, before they even know what their style is.  To these people buying anything less than the absolute best is just a waste in the long run. If money is no object to you then that’s great, you can start shopping now; the rest of us can keep reading and figure out which lenses to invest in first etc…

In my opinion as a working professional, buying an affordable lens in the short term just becomes a backup lens in the long run.  Especially if it is that one special focal length you just love.  Imagine if you accidentally drop or get a splash of water your favorite lens, mid-wedding, and it becomes non-functional.  What do you do for the rest of the day?  Do you just completely change your shooting style and not use that focal range at all?  The difference would really, really show in your final delivery.  So don’t be afraid to purchase a mid-price lens if it is all you can afford at first.  Also, it is better to make a small investment in a lens that you wind up only using here and there, than to mistakenly spend $2,000 on a lens that you hardly ever use once you define your style…

So, spend the most money on the lenses that define your style.  Then “fill the gaps” with other lenses.  Maybe this means you get a few of the high-end prime lenses that you love, and just use third party lenses to cover a zoom range that you use less often..  Or a combination of both primes and zooms; whatever suits you!

Disclaimer #1: Of course this philosophy of prioritizing your budget mainly applies to those who are just starting out.  As you achieve success as a professional, (hopefully!) you’re welcome to fill your camera bag with all best lenses on the market.  Reward yourself for all your hard work!  We’re not here to encourage hard-working photographers that they should buy a set of low-budget lenses.  However when you’re just starting out, keep your overall budget in mind and try to define your style before making big investments.  Renting lenses and 2nd shooting at weddings, for example, is a great way to try stuff out.

Disclaimer #2: We understand that even our “value” recommendations may seem a little pricey to some people.  We simply believe that any aspiring professional wedding photographer should be able to invest this much in at least 2-3 lenses.  If you’re on an even smaller shoestring budget, we simply find it difficult to recommend any lenses below a certain price point because they usually do have more significant drawbacks that can cause you to regret the purchase eventually.

Without any further ado, we will break down the must-have prime lenses for wedding photographers, in our usual Gear Guide categories- “Performance Champions” and “Value Winners”.  Enjoy!

50mm Prime Lens Recommendations

All-Around Value Winner:
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G

From the aspiring pro wedding photographer who is on a budget to the veteran who is simply tired of lugging around a bag of heavy lenses, and even the f/2.8 zoom lover who barely ever uses primes, …there is no better news than Nikon’s decision to revamp their f/1.8 prime lineup in sharp, professional-grade new lenses.  The $200 Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G is the most affordable of any new lens that we recommend to wedding photographers.  This is not your uncle’s crappy “plastic fantastic” 50mm, it is a well-built, reliable piece of glass that even has a weather-sealing gasket at the lens mount!

I try not to publish “fightin’ words”, but from my tests this dirt-cheap beginner prime has equal or better sharpness than even our bokeh champion, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L.  Yeah, it’s that good. No, the DOF and colors aren’t as good; the Canon 50 L is still in a league of its own. I just want to make it clear that this Nikon 50mm is a force to be reckoned with if all you need is sharpness and solid quality.

Of course if you really love 50mm as a focal length and are working as a professional, you might as well just spend another ~$250 and get the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 or the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, since they too are relatively affordable at around $400-500.  You should only budget so little money for a 50mm if you already know that your style lies more with a different focal range.  Personally, I’m happy with the 50 1.8 G because I love to use 85mm and 28mm / 35mm a lot more.  I really only get out my 50mm anymore for specific group shots that require that exact focal length.

Why are there no other “value winners” in this category, you might ask?  Because quite honestly the other 50mm f/1.8 options out there are just not a good long-term investment for a professional wedding photographer.  If you’re a Nikon shooter then this new 50mm 1.8 G should be your starting point, and if you’re a Canon shooter you should actually skip both the Canon 50mm F/1.8 and the f/1.4, and just get the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 instead.  It is way sharper and stronger built than either of the affordable Canon 50mm’s. Yet the Sigma is so good that it belongs in our performance champion category!  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Performance Champion – 1st place:
Canon 50mm f/1.2 L

Unless you count the rare and elusive Canon 50mm f/1.0 L, this lens is the champion of all DSLR 50mm’s when it comes to DOF and bokeh.  Its price tag, size and weight are pretty significant though, making it a big decision to purchase.  It’s worth every penny, for sure.  It destroys the other Canon 50mm’s with respect to sharpness and build quality.  (Although the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX does come very close.  As we already mentioned, the Sigma is much sharper and more well built than either of the affordable Canon options.)

Keep in mind that the Canon 50 1.2 L is a little sluggish to focus, and accuracy can drop in low light, depending on which camera you shoot it with and especially if you “shoot sloppy”…  A flagship Canon might never let you down, but with a rebel or almost any camera with less AF power than the 5D mk3, …you will struggle to nail focus consistently.  Therefore, this lens is best suited for general posed portraiture, and only light photojournalism.

Performance Champion – 2nd place:
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX

Even though it is only $400, (with a $100 instant rebate that is often available) …this Sigma lens finds itself in the performance champion category because it is just that darn good.  In fact it competes well with the Canon 50 1.2 which costs a whopping $1,000 more!  Unlike most copies of the Canon 50mm f/1.4 which desperately need to be at f/2 in order to really start getting sharp; the Sigma 50mm is good enough to be shot wide open even for very important shots.  When it nails focus, that is.  Sigma’s HSM focus motor in this lens is just barely more snappy than Canon’s USM focus motor in the 50 L.

Performance Champion – 3rd place:
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 G

Roughly the same image quality as the Sigma 50mm, the Nikon f/1.4 G lens is a solid performer.  The Sigma is built a little more rock-solid, but the Nikon is a little more reliable to focus in low light.

If you already own the older Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D and you don’t use 50mm all the time, you can probably just keep on using that older lens.  However if you really like 50mm and value wide-open sharpness, you should certainly consider upgrading.

Medium Wide Angle Prime Lens Recommendations

Between 24mm and 50mm there are a handful of prime lenses that many wedding photographers (especially the photojournalist types) love to use.

Again keep in mind that depending on your style, you might be much better off with a 24-70mm zoom instead, and you should rent / try out lenses before investing.  Basically, the only main reason to buy a prime lens in this range is if you really want an aperture faster than f/2.8, otherwise you’re better off with a zoom.  These are some of the most commonly regretted purchases among newbie photographers, so proceed with caution!

35mm Performance Champion:
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 EX DG “Art”

This relatively new Sigma “Art” class lens has taken the prime world by storm, surpassing its direct competition, the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L and Nikon 35mm f/1.4 G, …and at almost half the price!  While the name-brand 35mm’s are indeed also performance champions, this Sigma steals our recommendation for any new buyers.

Of course if you already have a name-brand 35mm f/1.4 you probably won’t really need to upgrade, unless you’re truly obsessed with sharpness and megapixels.  Then again, if you’re truly obsessed with rugged construction, Canon users should stick with their 35 L’s which are all-metal and rock-solid.  The Nikon is also very rock-solid and when bought new has a 5-year warranty; Sigma lenses usually only have a 1-year warranty.

35mm Value Winners:
Nikon 35mm f/2
Canon 35mm f/2

Both of these lenses are relatively affordable, and good performers.  They’re only f/2 though, making it tough for them to compete with the latest razor-sharp f/2.8 zooms.  Unless of course you’re also looking to save weight – both of these 35mm’s are about the size and weight of a “nifty fifty”, making them a delight to shoot towards the end of a long wedding day.

These aren’t exactly “go-to” staple lenses though, for a long-term, heavy-duty workload.  They’re certainly still a good intermediate buy, however, to indulge in your need for lighter and smaller lenses to use towards the end of a long wedding day, as I mentioned above, or simply to test the waters of this focal range and see how much you like it.

35mm Performance AND Value Champion:
Canon 35mm IS f/2

An oddball, this lens is.  While it costs almost as little as its un-stabilized, aging siblings from Canon and Nikon, it is amazingly sharp, built almost like an L lens, and stabilized!  Therefore we feel that it deserves both value and performance recommendations.  If you are a bit jittery and hate heavier lenses, give this one a try for sure.

28mm Performance AND Value Champion:
Nikon 28mm f/1.8 G

Some prime-loving photojournalists feel that 35mm isn’t wide enough yet 24mm is a little too wide.  Queue the 28mm primes! This new Nikon 28mm f/1.8 is a stunning performer. The image quality is superb, as good as any of its f/1.4 competition at 24mm or 35mm.

For those of you Nikon history buffs out there- why didn’t we bother listing the legendary Nikon 28mm f/1.4 in this category?  After all it is indeed a “performance champion”…  True, but unfortunately it has become such a collector’s item that it is highly overpriced compared to the alternatives.  If you’re a Nikon die-hard fan you could consider it, otherwise you can find many better ways to spend ~$3,000!

Performance Champions:
Canon 28mm f/2.8 IS
Canon 24mm f/2.8 IS

These two lenses are great but difficult to place in our guide- they are relatively expensive,  for such under-whelming specifications.  They’re stabilized and sharp as heck though, so if you really like shooting natural light and hate the weight of a 24-70mm, consider one of them.

There is always the older Canon 24mm f/2.8 and the Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AF-D, which are showing their age on higher resolution camera bodies but still work great for general photojournalism.

(Again, why would you buy an f/2.8 prime if you can get an f/2.8 zoom that is sharper?  Portability and affordability, that’s all…)

 

 

Value Winner: Canon 28mm f/1.8

A little more affordable than the Nikon 28mm f/1.8, but not as sharp.  The Canon 28mm is still a great value for anyone who is looking for a general wide angle prime that has a little extra aperture for shooting hand-held in low-light.

 

Performance Champions:
Nikon 24mm f/1.4 G
Canon 24mm f/1.4 L mk2

While these two beauties aren’t much cheaper than an f/2.8 zoom that covers their range, they are at least a bit lighter and smaller.  Also while the ability to create shallow DOF at 24mm isn’t that dramatic, the faster aperture does wonderful things for shooting hand-held in low-light, making them favorites among wedding photojournalists who prefer natural light.

This is one of the main “love/hate” relationship lenses for full-frame wedding photographers.  Some find they never use it and just stick with their 24-70, or a 35 / 50mm prime, while others fall in love and the lens never leaves one of their cameras.  Either way, if you love this focal length and you love shooting hand-held in natural light, these two lenses are awesome.

…Then again, if Sigma winds up making a 24mm f/1.4 “Art” that is nearly as good as their new 35mm f/1.4, these two name-brand 24mm’s could potentially get bumped out of their top spot.  (It’s Sept. 2013 now; only rumors thus far about a Sigma 24mm)

Speaking of Sigma wide-angle primes; currently of course there are three older f/1.8 primes available, the 20mm, 24mm, and 28mm f/1.8.  All of these lenses are decently sharp enough to be considered, though a little too pricey  for a “value winner” title.

Ultra Wide Angle Prime Lens Recommendations

First I need to disclaim that ultra-wide angle prime lenses are pretty uncommon in wedding photography. To be honest most wedding shooters should probably just consider one of our ultra-wide zoom lens recommendations which we discuss HERE.

Why?  Because most of the older primes in the 14-20mm range are totally eclipsed in performance by today’s zooms, and some of the more affordable zooms are almost as affordable as a comparable prime. So unless you randomly come across a great bargain at a garage sale or on Ebay, stick with the ultra-wide zoom recommendations.

Then again, all of these recommendations offer a significant weight savings over most ultra-wide zooms, as well as a decent cost savings.

Nikon 20mm f/2.8
Canon 20mm f/2.8

These two primes are tough to justify buying even for a prime lover, because they both cost even more than one of our favorite f/4 ultra-wide zooms, (the Tokina 17-35mm f/4) …and only a few hundred dollars short of a used f/2.8 ultra-wide zoom.  Yet they are getting pretty old, and corner softness / field curvature can be a problem.

In fact compared to a zoom, the only reasons to buy one of these two lenses are like I mentioned- if you really care about keeping your total kit as light as possible, or if you “score” one for really cheap.

 

Tokina 17mm f/3.5 ATX Pro

A much better choice in my opinion than any other ultra-wide prime, the Tokina 17mm f/3.5 ATX Pro is a little-known gem.  While most other ultra-wide primes either have bad image quality, fall-apart construction, or are cost-prohibitive, …this lens is decently sharp, rock-solid yet tiny, and extremely affordable!  (The Nikon 18mm f/2.8 and Nikon 20mm f/2.8 are both $600+, while this lens is <$300) Additionally it is compact, lightweight, and compatible with 77mm filters!

These lenses are a little hard to find, but create a “saved search” on Ebay or check KEH.com every now and then, and you should be able to score one for about $300 or less eventually.

Canon 14mm f/2.8 L
Nikon 14mm f/2.8 D

These two lenses are for the low-light photojournalist who often works in tight quarters and wants something as wide as possible without having to pony up for the likes of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G or Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L mk2, and/or have it take up a ton of space in their bag.

They are the classic “rent one to see if you like it, don’t just randomly buy them” type of lens.

 

 

 

Fisheye Lenses

We can once again harken back to our landscape ultra-wide lens recommendation here:  Fisheye lenses are such specialized items that you should only invest in them to the extent that you plan to use them.  If you’re obsessed with the fisheye look, such as for dance floor action shots or other interesting angles, then maybe consider a Nikon 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye or a Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye.  However the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Fisheye is a great option too if you just use it as a “play around” type lens.

Personally as a Nikon user, I’d rather just get the oldschool manual focus Nikon 16mm f/2.8 AIS Fisheye, because it’s built like a rock (no, literally!) and I can just jam it in the bottom of my rolling camera case and not worry about it.

Telephoto Prime Lens Recommendations

Since there are primes available from 85mm to 200mm, once again we’ll have to just throw all the “performance champions” and “value winners” together in a jumble.  Here goes nothing!

All-Around Value Winners:
Canon 85mm f/1.8
Nikon 85mm f/1.8

A great alternative to the 70-200 for low-light candids and portraits, these two lenses are well-loved by any photographer who shoots couples’ or solo portraits.  They’re also killer for general low-light photojournalism.

The Nikon 85mm 1.8 G is relatively new and ranks as one of the sharpest 85mm’s ever made, while the Canon is many years older but still a good buy.  Be sure to use automatic removal tools in post-production for chromatic aberrations, though!

They don’t fully replace a 70-200 zoom, though, if you shoot a lot of big churches.  You might need to get a cheaper 70-200 or another telephoto prime to supplement an 85mm prime.

 

Canon 100mm F/2

Another little-known gem, for those who tried and liked 85mm but want a little extra reach.  Great sharpness and overall image quality, once again the only issue is that you need to remove chromatic aberrations in post-production.  Also, like the Canon 85 1.8 it is a little less rugged than an L prime.

Sheer Performance Champions:
Canon 85mm f/1.2

The king of bokeh, as they say!  A little more sluggish than it’s f/1.4 and f/1.8 alternatives, but for anyone who shoots portraits and weddings this is a gorgeous lens to own.

Just be sure you “master it” before jumping into an action-packed wedding day; nailing focus at any aperture faster than f/4 on this lens is an endeavor that requires much practice.  Preferably, use a camera body that has flagship grade autofocus for the most consistent results.

Sigma 85mm f/1.4
Nikon 85mm f/1.4

Hot on the heels of the Canon 85 L, and spectacular performers in their own right, these two lenses are a great balance of gorgeous bokeh, incredible sharpness, …and at least in the case of the Sigma, relative affordability.

As with any fast prime you should remember to use chromatic aberration removal in post-production, but other than that the image quality of both lenses is world-class.  Both are also well-built.

The older Nikon 85mm 1.4 AF-D is also a good option; it is roughly as sharp and has the older style Nikon focus motor, which is faster than Nikon’s new SWM focusing but a little noisy and not as precise in poor light.

Nikon 105mm f/2 DC
Nikon 135mm f/2 DC

Two of the more obscure Nikon telephoto primes, these lenses come with Nikon’s quirky “Defocus Control” system.  Even if you ignore the DC capability these two primes make great wedding and portrait lenses, with gorgeous bokeh.

Their only potential drawback is their older AF-D autofocus system which you may not prefer or trust in quiet or low-light situations.

Currently in Sept. 2013, it is likely that one or both of these two lenses will soon be updated or replaced by Nikon, and the new versions may or may not include VR stabilization, for what it’s worth.

Canon 135mm f/2 L

A truly legendary lens among Canon photographers, you just cannot go wrong with this lens if you are looking for an alternative to all the the hefty 70-200’s.  Although it lacks IS stabilization, the added stop of light and shallower DOF is worth it!

 

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS Macro EX DG

While an 85mm or 100mm lens is not “long” enough to fully replace a 70-200mm zoom, this Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS Macro is close enough to do the job quite well.  (Especially considering that we’re probably less than a year away from seeing 40+ megapixel DSLR’s with incredible cropping power!)

Those with a phobia of third-party lenses might prefer the Nikon 180mm f/2.8 ED or the Canon 200mm f/2.8 L, however in my opinion that is their loss!  The Sigma offers stabilization, macro, and great sharpness.  I owned the original, un-stabilized version for over five years and it was a rock-solid performer.

Exotic Performance Champions:
Canon 200mm f/2 L IS
Nikon 200mm f/2 VR

These two lenses, although almost entirely overkill for weddings and lifestyle type portraits, seem to be the “rolex” status symbol of the industry.  If you’re really making bank and you want everyone to know, you buy one of these puppies.  Or, if you’re just a huge gear head, and you work out a lot so the 70-200mm f/2.8 seems like nothing and you want a little MORE lens.

Bottom line, these two lenses are both flawlessly sharp, incredibly snappy to focus, and very  useful in extreme low-light situations.  Although even the most highly successful wedding photographers could of course do just fine with a mk2 70-200mmm, we should point out.  Personally, I call this “the mid-life crisis lens”…  It’s what camera geeks buy when they hit 40, instead of a Harley.

 

 

 

 

 

Sony Prime Lenses For Wedding Photography

Once again, we have not forgotten you Sony users!  In fact Sony’s connection with Zeiss should make any wedding or portrait photographer jealous, especially considering that Sony affords these Zeiss lenses two things that no Canon or Nikon DSLR user will ever have on a Zeiss lens: autofocus and stabilization!

Sony Zeiss 24mm f/2 T

Though it starts at f/2 instead of f/1.4 this lens is sharper wide open than any other 24mm around, throughout all but the extreme corners.

By the way if 24mm is a little too wide for you and you’re looking for a 35mm prime, skip the Sony 35mm f/1.4 (it’s not Zeiss) and just get the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 EX, of course.

Sony Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 T

As robust (and pricey) as the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L, this Sony Zeiss is definitely no ordinary “nifty fifty”.  Wide open sharpness is usable and roughly as impressive as other lenses in that range, then by f/2 it is incredibly sharp from center to corner.  What else would you expect from a Zeiss 50mm, eh?  Bokeh is beautiful, almost as smooth as the Canon 50 L…

Sony Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 T

The only thing this lens has going for itself compared to your (only?) Sony alternative, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4, is its image quality which is great, as usual for a Zeiss lens.  However even then, the Sigma is roughly on par, and almost $1,000 cheaper.  Considering that the Sony Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 uses the older, slightly sluggish autofocus system and has a considerably prominent external moving part, I have to encourage any Sony user to strongly consider the Sigma 85mm as well.

Sony Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 T

In my opinion the bragging right of any Sony wedding or portrait photographer, the 135 f/1.8 is an ultimate prime lens.    With awesome sharpness, bokeh, and solid construction, the only thing holding back this lens is its relative heft and the lack of a current generation autofocus motor, which causes the lens to be a little underwhelming to focus.

But then again if you need insanely snappy AF in terrible light for photojournalism, that’s what a 70-200 is for usually.

Manual-Focus Prime Lenses For Wedding Photography

While I personally have a hard time recommending manual focus lenses for use in wedding photography due to the active nature of weddings, there are a few photographers out there who seem to be able to pull it off.  I must admit, though, they’re certainly very fun to play with from a camera geek standpoint, or as a “bokeh afficionado”…  The most popular manual focus primes are the classic focal ranges- 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm.  Nikon, Zeiss, and Rokinon are usually the common players here with Nikon and Zeiss offering great image quality and incredibly robust lens construction, while Rokinon (and Bower and Samyang) offer the opposite-  great image quality, if not better, but with construction that dictates you take good care of the lenses, lest they fall apart after a year or two of heavy use.

My personal favorites?  Though I would barely ever use them at a wedding, I love the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 AIS, The Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AIS, and the Zeiss ZF 85mm f/1.4.  However again, keep in mind that diving into this world is only advisable for the experienced shooter who knows how to manually focus quickly and accurately.

Also if you find that you really love these types of lenses, consider getting an aftermarket focusing screen such as a KatzEye.

 Crop-Sensor Prime Lens Recommendations For Wedding Photography

What if you shoot with a crop sensor camera?  To be quite honest there are almost zero prime options, unless you’re interested in the 30mm or 35mm focal range so that you can achieve the equivalent of a 50mm lens.  (In which case the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX is a good value, and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC is a high-performance winner)  There are also a couple crop-sensor fisheye lenses out there, but again those are specialty items.

Other than that, you’re just going to have to stick with full-frame primes….which is fine!  A 50mm or 85mm prime on a crop sensor makes a great portraiture / candid / ceremony lens.  At the wider angles there is not much to offer aside from using one of the rather expensive 24mm f/1.4’s to roughly achieve a 35mm angle of view, or the manual focus Rokinon 16mm f/2.  To be honest, if you’re shooting on a crop sensor and are looking for professional, fast glass wider than the 50mm equivalent, by far your best choice is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom.   We only mention it here because with such a short zoom range and an aperture of f/1.8, it is practically a prime lens anyway!

Specialty Lens Recommendations For Wedding Photography

Wedding photographers are a versatile bunch.  At the beginning of a wedding day in a dimly lit hotel room, they can go from shooting candid group photos  to macro close-up photos of wedding rings and other jewelry within a matter of seconds.  This begs the question- should you buy a dedicated macro lens, or just use your 24-70 or your favorite prime?

That is really a personal decision, simply based on how much you love doing macro photos.  If you really just want to get them out of the way, we recommend getting a set of extension tubes or a close-up filter.

Macro Lenses – Value Winners:
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro
Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro

If you really like doing high-quality wedding ring shots, you’re in luck-  You don’t really need to break the bank if all you need is something that is super-sharp and focuses extremely close-up.  Either of these three lenses will work amazingly well, especially if you plan to use manual focus and shoot from a tripod, or use flash.  (We recommend manual focusing for macro shots anyways, but if you really prefer to hand-hold and use autofocus for your macro shots, you might consider a lens with stabilization. See below)

Oppositely, if you’re on an even tighter budget and you’re just looking for any old lens with which to do a few close-up photos, the Tamron 90mm f/2.5 adaptall is very tiny, (though it only goes to 1:2 reproduction, not 1:1) …and the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro is even lighter and smaller. (Although sharpness may not be up to par on the latest high-megapixel sensors.)

 

Macro Lens – Performance Champions:
Canon 100mm L f/2.8 IS Macro
Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR Macro
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 OS Macro
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 VC Macro

This trio of lenses is a little bit overkill for the average wedding photographer, unless you also like to use the lens for general portraiture or candids.  Maybe your arm gets tired of lugging around a 70-200 all the time?

Or if the ~100mm range isn’t long enough for you there is the Sigma 150mm, which we already mentioned earlier as a general telephoto prime.  Sigma also makes a 180mm f/2.8 Macro, however it is about as large and almost as expensive as a high-performance 70-200, so we can’t really recommend it for weddings.

Either way, if you’re just looking to shoot a couple photos of wedding rings, definitely don’t worry about spending ~$1500 on a specialty lens like this.  All of our “value winners” are solid performers, …or like we said earlier, just get a set of extension tubes or a close-up filter.

Tilt-Shift Lenses

Tilt-shift lenses were designed to correct perspective and improve depth of field, however many portrait and wedding photographers dabble in using these lenses to significantly alter depth and perspective in, well, very weird ways.  It’s a difficult skill to perfect, and should only be used sparingly in our opinion, but it’s still pretty cool.  Canon and Nikon both make 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm tilt-shift lenses, and Rokinon now makes a 24mm tilt-shift that is in our opinion the best option out there considering the specialized nature of these lenses and the expensive price point of the name-brand options.

Conclusion & Additional Reading

Remember, your 1-2 favorite prime lenses are only part of a wedding photographer’s system, and depending on your style you may want to supplement the wide and/or long end of your range with a zoom or two.  The important thing is to practice a lot and define your style before making any major investments…  If you’re just starting out, we highly recommend renting a bunch of different lenses and finding opportunities to 2nd shoot, or just get out and do some general practice on your own!

Click HERE to read our complete guide to wedding photography DSLR bodies!
Click HERE to read our complete guide to wedding photography zoom lenses!
Click HERE to return to the main collection of photography equipment recommendations!

Terms: #Zoom Lens

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

17 Comments

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  1. Edwin Glenn

    Awesome. Primes discussed has made the difference in any photographer or videographers work. 70-2OO 2.8L series works just fine too.

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  2. Gavin Forster

    Great summary. As you say its a very personal thing and what works for the individual. I shoot on primes, mostly at 50mm but have 24,135 on me at all times. 70-200 in my bag along with a macro and a 14mm. worst case i would shoot on 50mm! Its always an evolving feast that sort of moves a bit with trend in styles too.

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  3. YourStage YourMusic

    I currently shoot with a canon 5D Mark 2 and Canon 7d as far as lenses I use a two primes that I love rokinon 85MM and 24mm 1.5 t and for zooms canon efs 55 – 250mm, 18-55mm and 10 – 20mm which covered all areas. The Rokinon are so sharp and so awesome in low light and for less than $800 bucks each worth every penny.

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  4. jd kizzo

    I don’t shoot weddings but I do a lot of portraits…I use the 16-35mm 50mm 1.8g 85mm 1.8g and the 70-200mm. For me it’s the highest quality and most affordable way to cover everything.

    I don’t like the look of 35mm for portraits usually as there is a bit of distortion and more of the frame is in focus, so it’s harder to blur out backgrounds if you don’t want them. If I want a wide I like the UWA zoom for more options. 50mm and 85 are both great for most indoor applications unless it’s too tight. The 70-200 comes out for outdoor and tight headshots (a 135mm F/2 DC would be better, but it’s not as versatile and doesn’t have nano coating). I don’t like the 24-70 b/c there are cheaper, lighter and better options in that range now (the g lenses). I see it more as a high end walk around or journalism/event lens…

    ** I personally wouldn’t advise using any older D lenses if you are shooting a D6** or D8**…. the new bodies reveal more of their flaws. I sold mine immediately when I got these bodies and got the g versions.

    ** The 14-24 is a better performing lens than the 16-35 but doesn’t take filters…and doesn’t cover the 28/35 shots…and more expensive.

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  5. Jorge Vazquez

    amazing write up. I am going to start a career in the Wedding Photography business, I plan to do some fashion photography too. Ii is worth it to spend the extra thousand and get D810 instead D750? I am looking into the long term investment.

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    • jd kizzo

      Yes, the D8** are better for portraiture/landscape. The D7** are better for sports/moving objects.

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  6. Jae Hammond

    This is a very informative article. My question is would it be worthwhile to buy a prime lens such as the sigma 50mm f1.4 A knowing the the focal will be equivalent to 80mm on my canon 70d or invest in a 35mm lens to get roughly 50mm focal. If your working to a budget, knowing further down the track you will upgrade to a full frame. My wish list is the 70-200mm Tamron, 24-70mm tamron, and a 50mm sigma to cover anything from sports, portraits to weddings.
    Is this a possible kit to start with.

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    • jd kizzo

      I would personally dump the canon 70d. In fact, I have a wedding in a few months and I will be particular about the photographer. If somebody showed up to my wedding with a crop sensor this day and age I would hire somebody else. I’d rather it be shot on an old film camera with good glass as I know they are going to be printed large. If you must keep it, dump all your glass and get the 24-70 canon and a speed light as that lens can cover a good bit on a crop. I advise if you get a gig to rent a good body or good glass instead of investing in crappy stuff.

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  7. Al cu

    I’m moving to a Prime setup i have a 30mm 50mm 90mm and need a prime tele my options are 120 or 150. currently i’m limping along with a legacy 200m that gets about 10 frames before going back in the bag. I’ve noticed alot of talk about the 70-200mm my question is if you went through your raw data would the bulk be closer to 120 or 150 given the typical reception hall event (indoor/people) situation.

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  8. Kurk Rouse

    Would love a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 but that would surly break the bank for me. That lens i really have to work for.

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  9. GTB

    I am assuming you will have to update your list since the performance champion in both the 35 and 50 mm class is now with the sigma art line. In the macro category, I think the Sigma 70mm 2.8 EX DG macro should be included not only as a cheaper alternative but I think a better performer than Tamron’s 90mm and even sharper than the Canon 100 2.8L albeit not image stabilized. Thanks.

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  10. Max

    Hi, very nice article. It would be nice to update this article with the new Nikkor 35mm 1.8 fx lens. I really doubt between this lens and the nikon28mm 1.8 lens.

    Further I like to write that I exchanged the Nikkon 85mm 1.8G lens for the Tamron 90mm USD macro lens. The Vibration reduction makes this lens more versatile on the D800 than the Nikkor. The Bokeh is also better and the lens is, thanks to the focus limiter, quick focussing. The macro capabilities I see as a bonus and this lens is razor sharp!

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  11. Christopher McCrory

    As a aspiring wedding photographer needing gear advice with a midlevel budget, I have found your articles to be very inspiring and helpful as well as the positive and negitive comments left by other readers. SLR lounge has pretty much answered any question I’ve had.

    Thank you .

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  12. Murray Clarke

    Excellent article worthy of many more comments surely! Thanks ;)

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  13. Phoneutria

    As advanced-amateur I have Canon 6D and 7D, i.e., one camera is full-frame, second – crop.
    What lenses would you put on those cameras for wedding?
    I’d appreciate some TOP3, for example, 6D=16-35mm, 7D=50mm.

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  14. Vernon Boyce

    I’ve been taking family pictures for a long time, I started doing photography after the Moore Tornado on May 20th 2013. I’ve been a firefighter in Moore,Oklahoma for 22 years now and I have been very fascinated with taking pictures. I’ve started out with doing session like senior pictures, family portraits, newborn,& kids photography putting them on our facebook page Vern Jen Photography now I’m wanting to start my website page. I have Adobe Lightroom 5.2 on my Laptop for all my editing. I came upon your website just looking for good photography website, I have to say I don’t have to look any further now that I’ve found your SLR Lounge website it is a very informative website like it a lot. I’m wanting to get into doing weddings next year (2014). I’m having problems learning Lightroom 5 period so do I need the 3 programs you’ll offering if not which one you think I need. I do want the preset v5.1. Thank you!

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  15. Joel

    Very good summary… I used to use a 35/85 combo but ended up moving on to the 50/1.2 for pretty much all my posed shots and low light as well. Another lens that might have been worth mentioning a little more in depth is the Canon 200/2.8L. I know you mentioned it in passing but I have found it to be a great alternative to the 70-200 since I found myself generally shooting on the long end anyway. It’s great not carrying around one of those 70-200 anchors all day and its so light for a telephoto that it doesn’t really need image stabilization.

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