I’m quite amazed at how intensely popular wedding photography has become over the last few years, especially here in India. There are literally scores of amateur-turned-professional photographers who are bringing in intense creativity and excellence into shooting Indian weddings, and I’m quite confident that we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. The person or people who benefits most from this literal explosion of talent of course, is the bride and the groom! However, Indian wedding photography is really tricky — and not something that can be done professionally without being suitably equipped for it.
Indian Weddings: Complex, intricate and so difficult to shoot!
Most weddings in the west are day affairs: typically a day ceremony, followed by a early evening reception. Indian weddings, if you’re not familiar with them — go on for days! As a photographer, you’ll be expected to deliver winning pictures in all sorts of conditions — a brightly lit sunny day with the hot Indian sun directly overhead, a small room where the bride’s getting her mahendi done lit only with incandescent tube lights, or a wedding ceremony late at night lit with bright yellow fluorescent halogen lights. Lighting is only something that YOU know – as a photographer – something that can make or break the shots you take. The only thing you can do is carry the right gear, and use your experience the best you can to get the perfect shot. Remember, after the wedding is over and done with, nobody will remember how late at night it was, or how terribly the venue was lit — but your brilliant picture of the bride just before she marries her husband — is what will live on for eternity.
Apart from all the other equipment I usually carry, I’m going to focus this post on some of the best lenses I wouldn’t leave home without. I’m a Nikon shooter, so most of the gear below is geared towards Nikon, but the same holds true for other camera companies.
The portrait and just about anything lens: Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G
If there ever came a time where I was only allowed ONE lens on my camera — this one would be it. Brilliantly sharp, with a crisp creamy bokeh that no other lens can ever deliver – this is my go-to lens for just about anything. This lens loves being shot wide open – bang away at 1.4 as long as you want, the brilliant auto-focus ensures you’re locked on to your target for as long as your heart desires. With an open aperture of 1.4, you can shoot literally in darkness — as this lens lets in more light than anything else you’ve probably seen. With 4 times more light than a 2.8 lens, that translates into four stops of more light coming into your sensor – use this at night for gorgeous results you’ll love. Now I can wax eloquently about this lens for the rest of this post, but I think examples speak louder than anything I can ever say, so here are a few examples for a wedding I recently shot.
The heavy-duty general-purpose lens: Nikon 24-70 f/2.8
(Or Nikon 24-70 2.8 G ED AF-S if you want to get technical. Also applies to the Canon EF 24-70 f2.8 USM lens). The 85mm is what I’d want to take if I were only allowed one lens. This is the lens I would probably actually wind up taking once my conscience kicked in. This baby is so wonderfully general purpose. you could shoot an entire wedding without ever-changing gear. Meant for full-frame cameras (35mm equivalent, referred to as FX on Nikons) – this lens is brilliantly wide at the 24mm end (perfect for that sweeping wide-angle shot) and decently tight at the 70mm end (great for getting closer for that special moment you don’t want to miss) – and ALWAYS OPEN at f/2.8 all of the time! What’s so great about being open at 2.8 you ask? Well, any wedding photographer, especially an Indian wedding photographer will tell you — that your best friend throughout is always light. The more light that enters the camera, the happier everyone is going to be once you dump your pictures into your favourite image editing software. And shooting at f/2.8 sure lets in a lot of light. I won’t even begin to talk about the sharpness and clarity that this lens offers, because that’s something I would expect from a lens that costs this much, but being able to let in more light is what is key. I don’t think I’ve ever used mine at any other aperture setting other than 2.8. Why would you? I’m a bokeh junkie!
Again, here are a few examples to show you what I mean. I have literally tons of photos shot with this lens — this is really my bread-and-butter wedding photography (and just about every other kind of photography) lens.
The monster tele: Nikon 70-200 2.8
(Or Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 ED VR II AF-S. Also applies to the Canon EF 70-200 IS USM Telephoto). This lens should be called the wrist killer. This lens is actually what makes my kit weight as much as it does, and has resulted in many an airport check-in executive give me the look. However, I wouldn’t leave home without it. This is one of the oldest focal lengths manufactured, and no self-respecting professional will leave home without it. The 70-200 is a perfect focal length at a wedding — and as the lens above this, it’s 2.8 all the time. Yaay! The f/2.8 comes in even handier when you’re shooting something that’s far away and need to zoom in and have an appropriately fast shutter speed: and that’s where the f/2.8 shines! (The rule of thumb is that you need to have a shutter speed equivalent of the focal length you’re using — so zooming to 200mm would need a shutter speed of 1/200 ideally — to avoid camera blur). As I think you’ve inferred by now — I’m a bokeh junkie, and f/2.8 is really what you’re paying for — so I don’t think I’ve used mine at any other setting other than f/2.8!
Getting the details: Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Macro
(Or Nikon 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED). This isn’t a lens you’re going to be using all the time at a wedding. As a matter of fact, you’ll probably only mount it a couple of times. But at the end of the day, it’s the ring shot that’s your bread and butter. And there’s nothing better for a ring shot than this lovely macro. I personally prefer a longer focal length for macro shots (there are other versions of this lens with wider focal lengths, but a longer lens really lets you get into the meat of it). Perfect for weddings, food photography, nature, insects, and anything that you would to really get close to — this lens is brilliantly sharp with an incredibly shallow depth of field. This isn’t the kind of lens that you can suddenly pick up and shoot with — you need to learn how to use it. Learn the quirks. The eccentricities. And once you’ve mastered how it performs at what distance, you’ll never want to put it down.
Other useful lenses to consider
The lenses above are the ones on my top priority list. However, if you have a big bag 🙂 and lots of people to lift your stuff for you, you can’t go wrong with some of these babies:
- Superwide – Nikon 14-24 f/2.8G ED: This is a great lens. This doesn’t make my priority list above because this isn’t a ‘people lens’ unless used properly. The thing with super wides is that unless your subject is right in the middle of your frame — you’re going to wind up with alien-heads. Or bubbleheads. Or horrible, unflattering and ghastly distortion that will make a bride throw her wedding heels at you. And mind you, those stilettos can be sharp. Superwides need to be handled with care, used judiciously, and only for the right shot. Don’t use them for people photography, and CERTAINLY not at weddings. You don’t want to make the bride look fatter than she was, or the mother of the bride looks like someone who had just stepped off her space-craft. Seriously. Heed my words!
- Prime lenses – The 35mm f/1.4, and the 50mm f/1.4: Also equally good, much cheaper, and one-stop lesser are the 35 mm f/1.8 and the 50mm f/1.8 variants. These are excellent lenses, there’s no doubt about it. I love mine. Again, I don’t include them on my priority list because:
- Shooting a wedding is all about flexibility. Imagine you had the 35mm mounted but spotted a great opportunity that needed you to get in closer. If you start changing lenses at that point, the moment is long gone. I shoot with two bodies at all times — and find the fixed nature of a 50 mm or a 35 mm a little too restrictive.
- You’re shooting a wedding – you can’t carry the kitchen sink with you. When I prioritise, I choose my bread-and-butter lenses
- 35mm can sometimes be a little ‘too wide’ and 50mm can sometimes be a little ‘too close’. Again, I’m just belly-aching here. The two focal lengths are great — I love my lenses — but it probably wouldn’t be my first port of call had I to shoot a wedding with it.
That’s really it! Let me leave you with some final caveats:
Caveats and last words
You’ll note that most of the lenses I’ve listed out are Nikon. That’s because I use Nikon. Wedding photographers are primarily either Nikon or Canon shooters. The Canon equivalent (yes, they exist) are all equally good.
The lenses above are expensive glass. Really expensive glass. I had to save up a long time, work really hard and prioritise to buy them. Such purchases take time — but remember, camera bodies get outdated and fade away. But good glass lasts a long time.
All of these lenses are built to be mounted on full-frame 35mm equivalent cameras — and not the new breed of consumer DX cameras. While the foundation of this divide is clever marketing, professionals use this level of glass. DX camera lenses are just not suited for the rigour of professional use. I’ll explain why after these budget lens recommendations:
Budget Wedding Lens Recommendations
You’ve read this, but you’re thinking – “Wow! I’ll never be able to afford all of this!“. Trust me, I felt the same way when I was starting out. These lenses are serious investments, and like all investments, they take time. Here are cheaper “prosumer” lenses that will fit DX cameras. These lenses are great to learn with – and to get your career started. But remember, you will be challenged when conditions during a wedding change rapidly, and you’ll be really agile to move with the flow!
- The cheap primes: The 50mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/1.4 are EXPENSIVE lenses. For one-stop less light, you get a lens that is less than a fifth of the cost. Can’t afford the f/1.4 glass? Buy the f/1.8 variants. It’s just one stop of lightless. And it’s a serious bang for your buck. Consider that the 35mm f/1.4 costs approximately $1800 (INR 1 lac) while the 35 mm f/1.8G costs $200 (INR 10,000). That’s a FRACTION. Why do pros spend so much more for one stop more you ask? You have to try it really know why! 🙂
- The general purpose lens: Nikon used to manufacture an 18-70mm lens many years ago that I still have today. It’s shame they stopped making this lens — it’s a great focal length. In the meanwhile, the 18-55mm variants offer GREAT value for your money. Available at ridiculously cheap prices, these lenses won’t put a serious dent in your pocket.
- The cheap zooms: Without a doubt, I’d recommend the 70-300mm VRII. I use this lens sometimes when the f/2.8 doesn’t matter to me. The best part? This is an FX lens, so when you mount it on a DX camera, you actually get something in the range of 110-400mm. Like when I want to shoot birds or animals and that 100mm extra make a BIG difference.
At the end of the day, if you’re billing someone for your time — you need to deliver quality work. Cheap tools can let you down. Here’s why:
Why is wedding glass so expensive?
Two words. Variable exposure. Let’s say, instead of the 24-70 f/2.8 lens you were using the general-purpose 18-55mm I listed above. It’s important to remember that the lens is actually called Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED. What this means is that at the shorter side, the lens will open up to f/3.5 and at the longer side, the lens only opens up till f/5.6. Why does this matter? Well this matters because if you’re shooting in manual (as you should), and need to zoom and shoot on the fly, you’ll be automatically changing your exposure by FOUR whole stops! That’s four times less light. Which means not only do you have to change your zoom, everytime you do, it’ll affect your exposure. You’ll need to constantly adjust your exposure to match your aperture – which is set by the lens. And that’s precious time wasted. When you don’t have the advantage of time, and you don’t have the advantage of ambient light — the more light that enters your camera is the better for you. And that pretty much is why the 2.8 lenses are so horrendously expensive.
I hope you find this post useful! For any questions, or general comments – leave a note in the section below!