Wedding Photography DSLR Zoom Lenses – The Complete Guide
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 might 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 zoom lenses only, and other articles will get into prime 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.
Our complete guide to DSLR prime lenses for wedding photography is coming soon!
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 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 later.
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 35mm and 85mm two-prime setup. You often find these photographers shooting with two camera bodies at once too, with those two primes permanently attached to each camera.
In my personal experience I prefer a combination of primes and zooms. I love 85mm primes, but wide angles are best covered with a zoom. 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 that they use for wide angle venue photos, and telephoto shooting in restrictive churches.
We will delve more into the use of primes for wedding photography in a completely separate guide.
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!
If you love 70-200mm for example, you might want to consider the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 mk2, or the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR mk2. However both of these lenses are extremely expensive, and quite big and heavy, and thus quite overkill if you don’t really use that range very much. That’s okay; the mk1 versions of these f/2.8 lenses, as well as the f/4 siblings, are all incredible performers as well.
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 $2,400 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 the name-brand 70-200 and 24-70, but a third-party ultra-wide lens. Or who knows, maybe your style is the other way around?
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 to settle for less in the long run. When you’re just starting out though, keep your overall budget in mind and try to define your style before making huge 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 strongly 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 zoom lenses for wedding photographers, in our usual Gear Guide categories- “Performance Champions” and “Value Winners”. Enjoy!
Wedding Photography Ultra-Wide Angle Zoom Lens Recommendations – Full-Frame
All-Around Value – 1st place: Nikon 16-35mm f/4
Hands-down the most versatile ultra-wide lens on the market right now is the Nikon 16-35. It’s sharp as heck, built solid but not too overweight, and it’s stabilized. (People who talk about how stabilization is useless on wide-angle lenses have clearly never shot on-the-fly reception ballroom photos hand-held in a pinch, lol.) If you are absolutely sure you don’t need stabilization though and can’t live with f/4, there is also the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8, which is similarly rock-solid and sharp.
All-Around Value – 2nd place: Canon 17-40mm f/4
Pretty dang sharp, and much smaller, lighter, and more affordable than all its f/2.8 brothers, this lens is really probably all most Canon shooting wedding photographers would ever need. Of course if you’re really in love with ultra-wide low-light shooting then you might want to consider the Canon 16-35, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
All-Around Value – 3rd place: Tokina 17-35mm f/4
If you rarely use ultra-wide lenses at a wedding and just want a simple zoom that can get you to 17mm with great sharpness and rock-solid build quality, this is a great option. However a runner-up recommendation goes to the Tokina 17mm f/3.5 ATX PRO, if you really don’t use ultra-wide much and want to save as much space as possible in your bag.
Performance Champion – 1st place: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
As we mentioned in our Landscape Wide Angle Lens Guide, some call this lens “Nikon Witchcraft” because of its flawless sharpness. While 14mm is a little less practical for weddings and 24mm is a little restrictive, there is still no other lens on the market that delivers comparable performance.
Does this mean that every wedding photographer should own the Nikon 14-24? Certainly not- this is an extremely specialized lens that really only belongs in your bag if you’re obsessed with ultra-wide perspectives. It is about as big and heavy as a (weird-shaped) brick, and it costs about $2,000. Most wedding photographers would be much better off with the f/4 alternatives from Nikon / Canon / Tokina, or any of the other f/2.8 alternatives that have a more practical zoom range. (35mm is really useful to have, especially if you don’t bother with a 24-70mm)
Performance Champion – 2nd place: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 mkII
To be honest, this lens is only in the “performance champion” category right now because Canon simply hasn’t come out with a 14-24 of their own yet. The 16-35 mk2 is soft in the corners and has some wicked field curvature, especially at the wider end. However it is still built rock-solid and has more than enough central sharpness to satisfy most photojournalists.
Performance Champion – 3rd place: Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8
Roughly as sharp as the Canon 16-35 mk2 at 16mm, (or sharper if you get a good copy!) …the Tokina 16-28’s only downfall is that it’s almost as big and heavy as the Nikon 14-24, yet it only goes to 28mm and is actually kinda soft at that end. Still, it’s incredibly sharp at the wide end.
Admittedly, we had a hard time deciding whether to put it in the “Value” category or the “Performance” category, because it offers both!
Wedding Photography Mid-Range Zoom Lens Recommendations – Full-Frame
All-Around 24-70 Value Winner: Tamron 24-70mm F/2.8 VC
The reason that this Tamron is our only “Value Winner” in the 24-70mm category is because, simply put, no other third-party 24-70 comes close to matching it, in fact it even surpasses older name-brand f/2.8 zooms such as the Canon 24-70 mk1 and the Nikon 28-70. Admittedly the Tamron is still a little pricey at ~$1200, but we believe that if your budget is lower you should instead consider one of our next value recommendations…
All-Around Value 24-100+ Value – 1st place: Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS
If you’re a really serious prime user and you just don’t feel like investing much in a mid-range zoom, the Canon 24-105 is a great choice. It’s sharp enough for the general types of photos that a prime lover might need a zoom for, and it’s stabilized. Plus it is built with the Canon L quality, unlike any other lens in its price range, which is why we recommend it.
All-Around Value 24-100+ Value – 2nd place: Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR
Not to be out-done by Canon, Nikon cranked out this 24-120mm that delivers equal or better sharpness and has great stabilization. However its construction is a little less rugged than the Canon. Of course it really just depends what system you shoot, and whether or not you rely heavily on mid-range zooms.
Sheer Performance 1st place: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 mk2
One of the newest 24-70mm lenses on the market, this is hands-down the sharpest one ever made. Simply put, this is the type of lens that is ready to handle a 40+ megapixel camera if Canon ever makes one.
The only drawback is that the hood is the dinky kind, more like the Canon 24-105 than the original 24-70 mk1. Certainly not a deal breaker if this is your favorite focal range, though.
Sheer Performance 2nd place: Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED N
Roughly on par with Canon’s mk2 24-70mm, Nikon’s 24-70 is an incredible performer even though it is quite a few years older. It has a lot of metal parts, but for some reason is a little less robust than the Canons.
Wedding Photography Telephoto Zoom Lens Recommendations – Full-Frame
All-Around Value – 1st place:
Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR,
Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS
For the prime lover who doesn’t use a telephoto zoom enough to justify the $2400 price of the mk2 70-200’s from Canon and Nikon, these two lenses are probably a better value than a used mk1 70-200 2.8, let alone the un-stabilized older f/2.8 versions.
Keep in mind though, this is only true if you already know you prefer primes and are looking to save not just money but also space and weight in your bag. Otherwise, we do recommend those other f/2.8 alternatives. (See below)
Alternately, should you consider the 70-300mm telephoto zooms? Only if you really only need them in daylight conditions, and don’t mind the slight loss of DOF. Maybe for example a hobbyist who loves general nature and travel photography, and only photographs a wedding every now and then.
All-Around Value – 2nd place:
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR mk1,
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS mk1
For the photographers who are indeed looking for an affordable f/2.8 telephoto zoom, and cannot settle for an f/4 zoom, we do recommend the two name-brand mk1 70-200 f/2.8 lenses. Mainly because they are just so tried-and-true, rock-solid performers. They’re sharp enough for general photojournalism in the 12-22 megapixel range, they have reliable and accurate autofocus, and did I mention they’re built rock-solid?
All-Around Value – 3rd place:
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 OS,
Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC
We understand that some photographers have a phobia of third-party lenses, and that’s their prerogative, however we have found these two lenses to be worth their price. Again, you need to know your priorities in this respect. If you really don’t use 70-200’s that much and are looking to just “fill a gap”, you may also want to consider an f/4 version if you shoot mostly in normal daylight conditions, or a name-brand f/2.8 version if you do shoot in low light and are rough on your gear. Having said that, both of these lenses are a good overall value considering their brand-new, warranty-included price compared to an older, used name-brand 70-200 that may have god-knows-what wrong with it…
Sheer Performance Champions
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS mk2,
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR mk2
These two lenses stand alone as the best performers and most useful lenses in many, many wedding photographers’ bags. Their price tag should make this pretty obvious, though; both msrp for around $2400 usually, however there are frequent ~$300 rebates.
Having said that, certainly the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR mk1 and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS mk1 can also be considered “performance champions”… They were the workhorses of the industry for many years, and many owners simply don’t feel a need to upgrade to the mk2’s. The mk2’s do have superior focusing and stabilization though, and their sharpness is much more “ready to handle more megapixels” compared to the mk1’s which kinda hit their ceiling of flawless image quality somewhere between 12 and 22 megapixels… (To put it simply. Pixel-peepers, please refrain from nitpicking here, thanks!)
Wedding Photography Sony Lenses For Wedding Photography
Once again, Sony has become a force to be reckoned with in the industry of wedding and portrait photography. It never hurts when you commission Zeiss to make some of your lenses! As wedding photographers usually describe it, there is a “holy trinity” of f/2.8 zooms that any system needs to have in order to be complete for wedding photojournalism, and here they are:
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T*
As sharp or sharper at 16mm than any other 16-XX or 17-XX zoom lens, this lens’ only weaknes is off-center sharpness at 24-35mm. But then again, that’s what a 24-70 (or a prime) is for, right?
Sony 24-70 f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T*
Another incredibly sharp zoom that is built rock-solid, this Sony is comparable to the Nikon and Canon equivalents, aside from the persistent vignetting on full-frame at 24mm- it makes corners almost black wide open, and is still present even at f/8.
Sony G Alpha 70-200mm f/2.8
Not a Zeiss lens, the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 is still an incredible performer, on par with Nikon and Canon’s mk2 70-700.
Oh, and by the way, since Sony has in-body stabilization, all of these zooms have stabilization. Yay!
Wedding Photography Crop Sensor Lens Recommendations For Wedding Photography
While for the most part we recommend that aspiring professional wedding photographers plan their system around the full-frame format in the long run, there is no denying that a handful of crop-sensor lenses are just downright awesome. Especially with cameras like the Nikon D800 offering a 16 megapixel DX crop mode, you could even consider these few lenses to be a tactical long-term decision to save weight and size in your camera bag.
Or more likely, if you are simply a hobbyist who is better suited with a crop-sensor system in general, these lenses make great long-term investments for general shooting for those who demand more than what an f/4-5.6 kit zoom offers, but don’t want to lug around the excessive weight of a full-frame zoom.
Performance Champion: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 EX DC A
Hands-down the biggest reason to use crop-sensor DSLRs for general portraiture and photojournalism right now is this lens- the only f/1.8 zoom on the market! (Here is our complete field review!)
Perfect for both candid photojournalism and portraits, the Sigma 18-35 1.8 can allow a crop-sensor shooter to recover more than a whole stop of low-light performance compared to any other zoom lens on the market, effectively giving the shooter the performance of 2-3 prime lenses in a single zoom.
It’s also built rock-solid and sexy to Sigma’s new “Art” lens standards, looking more like a classic Zeiss prime than anything else!
Performance Champion: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8
In the ultra-wide category we have the only f/2.8 aperture zoom lens available in this focal range for crop sensors. As with all Tokina lenses, this one is built like a rock and very sharp! Once again we make this recommendation both to photographers who are dedicated to the crop-sensor format, as well as any full-frame wedding photographer who barely ever needs the ultra-wide perspective and maybe has a crop-sensor camera laying around. (The Tokina 11-16mm, though not perfect, is about as sharp at 11mm and throughout most of the image / zoom range as any full-frame equivalent, actually.)
Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 DX,
Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 EF-S
The equivalent to a 24-70, these two name-brand lenses offer similarly great sharpness, yet unfortunately with similarly fickle field curvature at their wide ends, so be careful if you want to use these lenses in dimly lit chruches for formal portraits of large groups.
The Nikon 17-55 is built like a tank, yet lacks stabilization, while the Canon is built a little less robust yet includes IS. (Neither are worth switching brands for, we’re just pointing out their strengths and weaknesses.)
Unfortunately, this type of zoom is the #1 lens that gets bought and then sold when a photographer upgrades to full-frame and gets a 24-70. Therefore unless you really need the exact focal range, we actually prefer to recommend just getting a 24-70 and “making do” with it on a crop sensor body until you can afford a full-frame body. Or, just buy your 17-50 type lens used, take good care of it while you own it, and you can probably sell it for about the same amount if you ever decide to upgrade.
All-Around Value: Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM
Almost as cool as the Sigma 18-35, you could definitely call the Sigma 50-150 “tiny” compared to it’s full-frame 70-200 f/2.8 competition. With the great ISO 3200 and almost acceptable ISO 6400 that today’s crop-sensor cameras are turning out these days; we can finally begin to consider such a setup as perfectly qualified as a good (budget) long-term solution…
Yes, we were very excited when Sigma announced an improved, stabilized version of this lens, the Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM. While this lens is a performance champion indeed, we leave it out of the recommendations because it simply comes so close to weighing and costing as much as a regular 70-200 2.8 that it’s really an oddball. The un-stabilized 50-150 2.8 on the other hand can be found for $400-$500, and is the size / weight of a kit zoom yet delivers the ruggedness and sharpness of a pro lens!
Personally, I have owned the original version of the Sigma 50-150, the mk1 un-stabilized version, ever since it came out in 2006. It is still alive and working well today.
This duo of lenses, the Sigma 18-35 and 50-150, make great choices not just for photographers who use a crop-sensor camera exclusively, but also for full-frame prime shooters who sometimes need the versatility of a zoom but don’t want to weigh down their lightweight prime kit with massive f/2.8 full-frame zooms.
All-Around Value Winners:
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8,
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS DC
These two lenses are a lot more affordable than their name-brand competition, just as sharp, and the Sigma is stabilized. Neither are nearly as hunk-like and rugged as the Nikon 17-55, and the older Tamron 17-50 has the less desirable version of autofocus that may choke a little bit in extreme low light, however you just can’t argue with the price of either lens.
Conclusion & Additional Reading
Remember, zoom lenses are only part of a wedding photographer’s equipment system, and depending on your style they may play a major or minor role compared to prime lenses. 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, before making any significant investments.