I thought this would be a great article to read if you are in doubt about what to bring on a location or a wedding shoot. As an assistant photographer in Los Angeles for five years, I was fortunate to have been trained by some of the best photographers in the field. You need to be prepared for all lighting challenges you will face.
Lenses with a large maximum aperture of f/2.8 or larger are extremely valuable for weddings. The option to use available light, even in dark churches or dimly lit reception halls, is a strong tool for the wedding photographer. Even more important is the option not to use a flash, as few people would describe the light cast by an on-camera flash as romantic. Furthermore, some locations have restrictions on flash photography during the ceremony itself, or a bride might specifically request that a flash not be used. The extra two stops of shutter speed between a f/2.8 lens and a cheaper f/4-5.6 kit lens can make the difference in getting the desired photograph.
There are photographers who make wonderful images with three to four fast primes and photographers who have every focal length covered with multiple lenses from 15-300mm. Most professional wedding photographers, however, use a set of three zoom lenses: a wide-angle zoom, a wide-to-tele zoom, and an image-stabilized telephoto zoom.
- Canon full-frame body: Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM (review)
- Canon small-sensor body: Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM (review)
- Nikon full-frame body: Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF AF-S
Nikon small-sensor body: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S
The wide-angle zoom lens is indispensable. This lens makes it possible to photograph in confined spaces, such as the bride’s dressing room or a packed dance floor. The wide angle perspective creates a sense of expansiveness and grandeur by showing the entire church or ceremony location. Wide images are easier to create with a full-frame sensor camera, as there are no f/2.8 lenses in the 10-22 range that gives and equivalent field of view with a small-sensor camera.
- Canon full-frame body: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (review)
- Canon small-sensor body: Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM (review)
- Nikon full-frame body: Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S
- Nikon small-sensor body: Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX
The wide-to-tele lens is the single most important lens for wedding photography. It is wide enough to take a group photograph, but still long enough to take a three-quarter portrait of a couple without the unflattering effects of wide-angle perspective distortion. Given just this lens, most professional wedding photographers could cover an average wedding to their usual standards of quality. Both Canon and Nikon offer high quality f/2.8 wide-to-tele zooms designed for a small sensor-body. These lenses are less expensive and physically smaller than their full frame counterparts.
Many photographers keep their lens kit to the three zoom lenses discussed previously. These lenses would probably cover 80-90% of the photos for any given wedding. It is worth including 2-3 fast prime lenses in your bag as well. These lenses are small, light, and fairly inexpensive. There are times at a wedding where, either for artistic or technical reasons, even an f/2.8 aperture is not enough to get the motion-stopping shutter speed or shallow depth of field desired. The faster prime lenses are ideal in these situations. An image that requires a 1/10th of a second shutter speed at f/2.8 will only require 1/30th of a second at f/1.8. That can be the difference between making a sharp image and a blurry one. However, for most professional wedding photographers, the best reason to include a few prime lenses in their wedding kit is that they provide an economical backup to their zoom lenses. Nothing is quite so terrifying as having equipment fail at a crucial moment. At a wedding in 2004, the aperture blades of a Canon 28-70/2.8 froze during the formal portraits. I remembered the 35/2 and 85/1.8 in my backup bag. After telling everyone to “take five” so I could run to the car, the backup lenses allowed me to finish the wedding without anyone noticing the failure.
My preferred three lens prime kit consists of a 28/1.8, 50/1.8, and 85/1.8, all used on a full-frame body. The 28mm takes in the full scope of most ceremony locations and also works in crowded spaces, the 50mm is good for small groups or a dancing couple, and the 85mm is long enough for ceremony vow/rings/kiss images. A wedding can be successfully photographed with just these three lenses. What is better, telling a bride that you missed the kiss because your one long zoom lens malfunctioned, or providing her with an image, even if it isn’t the absolute best photo you could have possibly taken?
Three-Lens Prime Kit:
- 28mm: Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM, Nikon 28mm f/2.8D AF
- 50mm: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (review), Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor
- 85mm: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (review), Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor
Most professional wedding photographers would agree that the essential tool for wedding photography is one of the current full-frame Canon or Nikon digital SLR’s. As of late 2007, the best choices would be the Canon EOS 5D (review) or the Nikon D3 (review). These bodies offer the best wide-angle capabilities with current lenses and the best image quality in low light. Does this mean that weddings cannot be photographed with a less expensive camera? Absolutely not. There are many excellent wedding photographers who use small sensor cameras such as the Nikon D300 (review) and the Canon EOS 40D (review). These cameras have excellent imaging and AF systems and, as mentioned earlier, provide a welcome boost in magnification for telephoto work. Their main drawback is the lack of f/2.8 wide-angle lenses.
What about the entry level DSLR bodies? Could you photograph a wedding with a Canon Digital Rebel or Nikon D40? In theory, yes. The imaging systems in these cameras are very good and skilled photographers have no problem creating excellent images with them. However, these cameras do not make our list of recommended primary equipment for several reasons: (1) slower handling due to increased use of buttons/menus, rather than dials; (2) reduced AF speed; and (3) inferior low light/high ISO performance. Despite those limitations, these cameras make excellent and economical backup bodies.
- Canon full-frame body: Canon EOS 5D (review)
- Canon small-sensor body: Canon EOS 40D (review)
- Nikon full-frame body: Nikon D3 (review)
- Nikon small-sensor body: Nikon D300 (review)
Only a fool would try to photograph an event as important as a wedding with only one camera body; bring a back-up body. If you do not own a back up body, or only have an entry level DSLR, look into renting.
Flashes and Accessories
- 2-3 500-800 w/s monolight heads
- 2-3 “speedlight” on-camera TTL flashes
- light stands for each flash
- umbrellas/softboxes for each flash
- flash triggering device (radio slaves, optical triggers, or PC cords)
- hand held flash meter
There are two schools of thought regarding electronic flashes for wedding work. Photographers with a lot of studio experience usually feel most comfortable with the flexibility and power that a set of studio monolights provide. Photographers with more editorial experience often feel more comfortable with “speedlight” TTL flashes due to their light weight and speed of setup/takedown. Studio flashes have the advantage of significantly more lighting power and many options for light modifications such as softboxes, snoots, and barn-doors. This can be an advantage when you have a large wedding group to photograph, or when the location calls for some creative lighting to achieve the proper romantic feel. In my experience, time is the scarcest resource at a wedding. The faster you can set up and tear down, the happier you and your clients will be. For my personal wedding photography, TTL flashes’ quick setup and lack of need for extension cords or electrical outlets have proven to be a far greater advantage.
With either studio strobes or speedlights, you will need light stands and light modifying devices for each flash. Umbrellas are very popular due to their easy setup, but softboxes have better light softening and directional abilities. The real-world answer is that you should use whatever you can afford and are comfortable with. Monolights require fairly sturdy dedicated light stands. Even the small ones are somewhat heavy and require a lot of support. Small TTL speedlight flashes can be mounted on just about anything, but most photographers find that investing in a set of sturdy light stands is a worthwhile investment. For those new to working with external flash, the photo.net Studio Photography Primer and Lighting Equipment and Techniques Forum will be useful resources.
Remote Flash Triggering
When setting up remote flashes for formal portraits, radio slaves are very handy. They allow you to eliminate long cords that wedding guests may trip over and to place flashes in locations where a cord would never reach. However, they are not necessary and many photographers successfully rely on optical flash triggers or infrared devices that allow the duration of remote flashes to be controlled by the camera body’s through-the-lens flash metering system.
Hand-Held Flash Meter
With the instant preview available on digital cameras, it is easy to take a test photo, check the exposure on the rear LCD, and adjust flash exposure if needed. However, a hand-held flash meter can be valuable when setting up flashes for formal portraits. It is easy to stand in front of the flasheswith a light meter in one hand and a radio slave trigger in the other. You quickly get an accurate idea of exposure and ratios among the different flashes you are using. Given how small and inexpensive a flash meter is, it is wise to make one a part of your wedding photography kit.