The Top 4 Lenses for Portrait and Wedding Photography

The Top 4 Lenses for Portrait and Wedding Photography

top 4 lenses

One of the most often heard questions on the Shoot Me: MCP Facebook Group is: “what lens should I use for (insert specialty) photography?”  Of course, there is no right or wrong answer, and there are an exponential number of external factors that play into this decision: what is the space like, how much room will you have, is there enough light, and how many people in the frame, and what type of photography are you doing, just to name a few.  So, we took this to MCP’s Facebook Page and asked users their favorites. The following is a very unscientific compilation of their real world experience and preferences when it relates to portrait photography. We’ll also mention a few other types of photography along the way… We aren’t brand specific since that would be a much longer article.

 

Here are the top 4 lenses (as you can see we kind of snuck in a few more since we included 1.2, 1.4, and 1.8 versions on a two of the primes).  A little sneaky.

 

50mm (1.8, 1.4, 1.2)

One of the most talked about lenses, and a great intro to primes is the 50mm 1.8 (most brands have one). A 50mm does not produce much distortion, is lightweight, and can be purchased starting around $100 or so. This means that this is a great lens for portraits, and it is used by many newborn photographers. Shot at an aperture from 2.4-3.2 will show off this lens’s sharpness and bokeh. This is a “must have” lens for both crop and full frame camera bodies. For more advanced hobbyists and professionals, they may opt for the pricier versions in 1.4 or 1.2 (not available for all manufacturers).

85mm (1.8, 1.4, 1.2)

True portrait length on a full frame. The sweet spot, or aperture that is generally most sharp, is around 2.8. This lens is a favorite among many portrait photographers because it is not too long (allowing you to maintain a close proximity to the subject) while producing a creamy and rich bokeh. Again, the 1.8 version will be least expensive, climbing to higher prices in a 1.4 or 1.2 version (when available in a specific brand).

24-70 2.8

An excellent all around lens. This is the go-to focal range for a walk-around zoom lens, or for tight, low-light, spaces indoors (yep, back to those newborn photographers).  Sharp wide open, yet even sharper around 3.2, this lens is perfect for both full frame and crop sensor camera bodies. Most brands have this length, including some manufacturers like Tamron, who make them for a number of camera brands. I personally have the Tamron version of this lens.

70-200 2.8

The wedding and outdoor portrait photographers dream lens. A great low-light lens that is also fast. Sharpest from 3.2-5.6. This lens consistently produces creamy backgrounds with tack sharp focus due to image compression at longer focal lengths. I love this focal length.  I have both the Canon and Tamron versions of it and they both are super sharp and amongst my favorite lenses. When at your next sporting event, look to the sidelines.  Every sports photographer I know has at least one or more of these, in addition to their longer telephoto primes.

Honorable Mentions

  • 14-24mm – Great for Real Estate and Landscape photography
  • 100mm 2.8 – a great macro lens. Super sharp at f 5. Also good for wedding and newborn detail shots.
  • 135mm f2L Canon and  105mm f2.8 Nikon –  Two favorite portrait primes. Amazing results.

Deciding to purchase a new lens can be overwhelming with all of the options available. And many are confused at the cost difference from a 1.8 to 1.4 to 1.2 aperture, which can be the difference between a $100 lens and a $2000 lens! The larger the maximum aperture, the more expensive and heavier the lens becomes. This is because of the lens components needed to create sharp images while the lens and sensor are wide open. However, you do not need to spend thousands of dollars on a lens to produce a great photograph. Understanding the exposure triangle and strong composition are  the most important factors in consistently producing great photographs.

Now it’s your turn.  What are your favorite lenses and why?

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53 Comments

  1. September 18, 2013 at 11:59 am — Reply

    Your lens list is spot on! As wedding photographers, we pretty much live and die by the 50mm and the 24-70mm. We’ve also recently been using the 35mm quite a bit and it’s pretty awesome as well.

  2. September 19, 2013 at 8:22 am — Reply

    This is a great list. I have all 4 on the list and am not sure I could pick a favorite. The 85 1.8 for Canon is a great little lens that is very sharp and not very expensive!

  3. September 19, 2013 at 12:33 pm — Reply

    i feel that the 24-70 is too heavy for me, any recommendation for a lighter lens?

    • September 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm — Reply

      Lucia, if you’re shooting Nikon then the 17-55 is a great alternative to the 24-70. A little lighter than the 24-70 but still a great focal range. Maybe give it a try and see how it works out!

    • September 20, 2013 at 9:10 am — Reply

      Lucia, anything less than 50mm would make your subject look a little wider, especially noticeable in portraits. If you are looking for a lighter lens, then I’d suggest you go with a prime of 50mm 1.4/1.8, or 85 mm 1.4/1.8, both are lighter than the 24-70mm and would be great for intimate close up portraits and weddings. You would have to move around more since it is a prime it’s fixed and you won’t be able to zoom in or out. Good luck!

    • September 20, 2013 at 11:02 am — Reply

      Well primes (non-pro grade) tend to be smaller and lighter. But for zooms, I love a 24-70. That said, I also own a micro 4/3 camera, and it is way lighter and has a 2x crop factor. So on it – the lens with the same focal length is a 12-35 2.8 and it weighs a fraction of the 24-70. I used it all over Europe. Something to consider if weight of gear is an issue for you.

      • September 26, 2013 at 8:52 am — Reply

        Jodi, forgive me if this is a stupid question, but I have a crop body Nikon, so to get the same view on my my camera as a full frame with a 50mm, I have to have a 30-something mm lens. My question is, is there still distortion since this is a wider angle lens? Or is the distortion minimalized because of the crop factor?

        • September 27, 2013 at 10:55 am — Reply

          It’s all about the focal length you end up with. So if a lens acts as a 50mm – that you get a 50mm perspective.

          • December 30, 2013 at 9:21 am

            Actually, you get the the image of what ever focal length that you shoot and the image is then cropped to fit on the sensor size as a tighter shot. This gives the appearance of a longer focal length but it is just a cropped picture.

    • March 24, 2014 at 5:36 am — Reply

      I thought the same, and went with Canons 24-70 f/4L with a .7 macro feature and IS. This lens is extremely sharp and beat the 2.8 at some focal lengths. It is considerably lighter, weather sealed. I’ve got it mounted on a 6D that is FF and handles high ISO very we’ll. that was my deal- breaker in buying this lens. I can compensate with the ISO capability even though I’ve lost a a couple stops.

  4. September 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm — Reply

    I prefer the Sigma 17-55mm 2.8 (EX/DC OS) as a walkabout lens on my APS-C. It is has a nice heft without being heavy, sharp, fast, well-reviewed at a fraction of the cost of a comparable OEM lens. I think it is a good alternative to the 24-70mm.

  5. September 20, 2013 at 8:14 am — Reply

    a great and reassuring post!

  6. September 20, 2013 at 8:14 am — Reply

    “A great low-light lens that is also fast.” Aren’t all low-light lenses fast?

    • September 20, 2013 at 11:00 am — Reply

      Good point. I suppose that is similar to when the airlines tells you it is a very full flight (as opposed to the one that is just “full”). Redundant – yes.

    • March 23, 2014 at 8:58 am — Reply

      No, all low light lenses are not first! He mentioned fast as in fast for focusing. And 50mm 1.8 is very low light lens, but it’s focusing system is too slow. On the other hand 70-200mm f2.8 is ii is a low light lens with lightening fast focusing system. 🙂

  7. September 20, 2013 at 8:41 am — Reply

    Sweet list! Have two of the four, but still searching for that perfect all around lens. I too have heard that the 24-70 is heavy. Any alternatives? I shoot Canon.

    • September 20, 2013 at 9:56 am — Reply

      Pam, in adition to the 16-35 2.8 Zeiss ,I have the 28-75 2.8 Tamron and although it feels a bit crappy compared to the Zeiss, its almost half the weight and the optics are absolutely first rate even compared to the 50m Summicron.
      Cant recommend this Tamron enough.

    • September 20, 2013 at 10:04 am — Reply

      However I love using the 24-70, I prefer shooting with primes. At a wedding, 24 1.4L is a perfect choice for capturing dance, and 135 2L is perfect for detail shots.
      But I couldn’t live without the 24-70… 🙂

      • September 20, 2013 at 10:59 am — Reply

        Tamas, I have never owned a 24mm prime, but I bet I would love it 🙂 I do love the 135L for outdoor portraits, but usually prefer a macro for detail images. Great suggestions. Thanks!

    • September 20, 2013 at 11:18 am — Reply

      Hi Pam,

      As Cory mentioned above the 17-55 mm is a great alternative if you have a crop sensor body. Canon has a version as well. On a crop sensor it gives you the full frame equivalent of 27-88mm. The crop factor with Canon is 1.6. Nikon is 1.5. So not quite as wide as the 24-70, but more reach. It’s as close to the 24 – 70 range Canon has in a crop sensor lenses. I’ve rented it and can say it is a FANTASTIC lens. Very sharp, great color, heads and shoulders better than the kit 18 – 55mm lens. It only fits crop sensor bodies, so if you have a full frame or plan on upgrading to a full frame in the near future, I’d think about the 24-70mm.

  8. September 20, 2013 at 8:59 am — Reply

    There is also the question of sensor size. You did not mention whether these lens were used on full frame cameras of on APC sensors. Surely this makes a difference to your choice

    • September 20, 2013 at 10:24 am — Reply

      Garrett, That is an excellent choice. I do shoot full frame, and it is from that perspective. Thank you for pointing out my oversight in the article. Jodi

  9. September 20, 2013 at 9:31 am — Reply

    i have four of them, worth to have it and some additional lens namely, Nikon fisheye 16mm F2.8 and Nikon 16-35mm F4….

  10. September 20, 2013 at 10:09 am — Reply

    Great list and exactly what I’ve read up on myself. I have the 50 mm 1.4, and I’ve rented the 24-70 2.8 (the Canon copy and the Tamron). I personally preferred the Canon version. (Maybe I just got a bad copy of the Tamron, or needed a little more time with it to find the sweet spot.) I’m saving up for the 24-70 M2 2.8 because I thought it had a great range for a walk around lens.

    Just a side note for Lucia and anyone else who finds it a bit heavy. If you’re shooting Canon, the Mark II version is lighter and shorter than the original. I also invested in a camera strap from Rapid (I have no affiliation with the company, just thought it was a good product), that goes over my shoulder which has the camera hang down near my waist, instead of the stock straps that have the camera hanging from around your neck. This made it much more comfortable for me to carry around. I have rented the 17-55mm and found that a FANTASTIC lens, but also heavy when hanging around my neck. I almost went with it, but I’ve decided to upgrade to a full frame body and that lens is only for crop sensors.

    I hope this helps, and thank you Jodi for a great article.

  11. September 20, 2013 at 10:46 am — Reply

    The 1 lens I feel like I’m missing is the Canon 16-35. I shoot alot of automobile but also event photography. From wide out interesting composition to tight (35 side) enviromental portrait I think this piece of glass could come in handy.

    • September 20, 2013 at 10:57 am — Reply

      I love that lens as well and for street photography/environmental portraits it works well. On a crop sensor it also can work better at 35mm end for portraits (than on full frame).

      So, while it did not make our list, it is an excellent lens for sure.

      • October 17, 2013 at 5:48 pm — Reply

        What are your thoughts on the 28 1.8? I usually use the 50 1.4 with my mark II. I wanted a lens that worked better with larger groups on a rare occasion that there is a large family.

  12. September 20, 2013 at 11:39 am — Reply

    I canNOT thank you enough for this information I have been searching for!!!! Thank you!!!!! 🙂

  13. September 20, 2013 at 11:55 am — Reply

    I LOVE my 105mm for my Nikon. It’s my favorite lens. I’m saving my money for the 18-200mm lens.

  14. September 20, 2013 at 4:21 pm — Reply

    This may be a very inexperienced question but on the varied focal length lenses (ie, non-prime) does the aperture vary as it does on a kit lense? For example, on the kit lense I’m not able to keep a low aperture when at the highest focal length. Thanks for the info!!!

    • March 23, 2014 at 9:04 am — Reply

      All the high end zoom (L series for Canon) has constant aperture throughout the zoom range.

    • March 23, 2014 at 9:20 am — Reply

      Ela,it depends on the lens. The 24-70 2.8 and the 70-200 2.8 remain 2.8 throughout the zoom range. If the lens lists 75-300mm 4-5.6 then the aperture will change depending on the zoom.

  15. September 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm — Reply

    Perfect set of lenses for weddings and portraits. You have all the bases covered.
    I’m a Maui wedding and portrait photographer and use the 24-70, and the 70-200 both F2.8 with great results on every wedding and portrait session I shoot. Got my eye on the 85 1.4 and agree this is the perfect portrait lens especially for bridal head and shoulder shots. Although vey pricey, I think this lens will pay for itself with the results you can achieve from using it especially at F1.4. I also own the 14-24 and although used rarely it can sure give a great look too. The trick is to know when to use the super wide look to your advantage and not compose with your subject too close to the edges of the frame.
    These lenses can get heavy especially on an all day wedding, but I wouldn’t even consider trading them. Just something you get used to. Perfect if you missed a day at the gym!

  16. September 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm — Reply

    List is short and suspect, IMHO.

    50mm is fine for group shots, but way too short for portraits.
    85mm is a decent lens, but still too short for tight shots. Ok for full length or 3/4 shots.
    24-70mm – Please- great for weddings, not true portraits-too slow, too short.
    70-200mm f/2.8 – good but not great portrait lens, at the longer end.

    IMHO, most of your lenses are too short. They force you to be too close to the subject, with too much distortion. People are used to looking at others from 6-10 feet away, and at 6-10 feet, most of your lenses are just too short.

    My list would include (these are primarily Nikon numbers, though I am sure Canon and others have similar lenses):

    135mm f/2 DC, which on a sub-frame camera is a 200mm f/2!
    180mm f/2.8
    200mm f/2 (rare, expensive and heavy)
    300mm f/2.8

    Don’t believe me: I was at a talk given by a photographer who has done a couple of the Sports Illustrated issues. His primary portrait lens: 300mm f/2.8. And he sometimes added a 1.4 TC!

    • December 30, 2013 at 9:15 am — Reply

      Shooting portraits at 200mm or 300mm will cause its own kind of distortion, by flattening features or even making faces look borderline concave. A great lens for Sports Illustrated doesn’t equal a great portrait lens.

    • March 23, 2014 at 9:09 am — Reply

      Yah these ranges might be helpful for sports photographer but imagine shooting a wedding portrait with 300mm+1.4 extender. Lolz. Probably you should use ur head a little bit more.

    • jdope
      November 30, 2015 at 1:14 pm — Reply

      This… I dunno about the 300mm but the others…yes, 135 180 and 200 are the best primes for outdoor portraits, forget the heavy and expensive 70-200mm… forget the 24-70mm also. These lenses are for wedding photography, journalists and sports.
      If you are doing planned shots, the primes are better (and cheaper). I pretty much do only art/portrait composed shots. I’ve never shot a wedding/sporting event, and never plan to.

      I use a 50 85 and 180. I’d like to get the 135 but it’s too much $$.. 180 will do instead.

      I use a 24-120 for my walk around/fun lens.

  17. October 8, 2013 at 10:54 am — Reply

    I am looking at purchasing a 85mm f1.4 for my Sony camera. I am doing senior portraits, all outdoors and I am a little confused at what the aspherical lens is. Can anybody help, is this what I want?

  18. December 28, 2013 at 2:23 am — Reply

    Hi,

    Im starting my photography as hobby and i would like to make as my business soon.
    I have Nikon D5200 camera and couple lenses such as 18-55mm f/35-56G VR and 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR.
    I wonna do more weddings and family portraits. What extra lenses i should buy without braking my budget? also what flash i should buy??
    Thanks in advance,

  19. December 30, 2013 at 9:22 am — Reply

    Nitpicky, but the paragraph about the cost differences between apertures makes it sound like that extra little bit of aperture is the sole reason for the cost increase. The components are typically higher quality as well, resulting in a clearer image with fewer issues like haze, chromatic aberration, etc. The 50L, for example, is built DRASTICALLY differently from the 50mm 1.8 — the $1000 price difference isn’t simply for the shift from 1.8 to 1.2.

    • March 23, 2014 at 7:31 pm — Reply

      Kara, that is a great point – there are other factors for sure, including build quality, etc. I do find that CA is still prevalent on prime lenses when open wide though – even on a 1.2 or 1.4.

  20. December 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm — Reply

    As a portrait photographer, my favorite (portrait) lens is 105mm Nikon but the f/2.0 DC one. It allows amazing bokeh control.

  21. February 8, 2014 at 8:57 pm — Reply

    I am having difficulty with that crisp clear photo. Opened up, closed down, ISO, shutter, just bummed.. Upgrading to full frame and my first purchase is the 24-70.. I felt though, until I mastered what I have, upgrading is not really going to benefit.. I have a D5100 Nikon and 35mm 1.8, nifty fifty,50mm1.4, and 18-200 5.6 advise?

  22. March 4, 2014 at 8:44 pm — Reply

    We have photostudio business.I need ur advice for what lenses d best for my d600, d800 in portraiture?

  23. March 23, 2014 at 9:04 am — Reply

    Has anyone tried the Sigma 150mm f2.8 macro lens? Which do you prefer…the Nikon 105mm or the longer lens…I have a full frame Nikon D600.

  24. March 23, 2014 at 10:51 am — Reply

    I love prime lenses!!!! I use the 50/1.4, the 85/1.2 & 135/2.0 but I also use my 24-70/2.8 the most when I need versatility. All 4 lenses give me terrific results that I can count on.

  25. March 23, 2014 at 6:08 pm — Reply

    With the 70-200mm 2.8 lens, you said you have both the Tamron and Canon versions – my question is regarding your Canon version: is that an L-series lens? I am curious as to the quality (sharpness, focusing, etc) of on non-L-series lens (2.8) at that general focal length range! I already have the 24-70mm 2.8L and the 85mm 1.8 prime for my Canon 6D, so although I’m interested in going telephoto, I don’t have the budget for another L-series lens!

    • March 23, 2014 at 7:30 pm — Reply

      Matthew, The Canon is an L lens, version II.

      The Tamron is very close in quality and is $1,000 less I believe. Definitely a lens to consider if you want quality but are on a budget. I will say, it is NOT cheap. Be sure if you want the really good one that you get the one with VC. It is retail $1,500 I believe.

  26. March 23, 2014 at 8:50 pm — Reply

    I have 3 if the 4 & I use them all specially weddings.

  27. March 24, 2014 at 8:22 am — Reply

    I don’t shoot weddings – but I have 3 of those 4 lenses on this list. And I use them. Only one I am missing is the 24-70 – but I have that covered in the 24-105. Almost always use the 85 1.2L for portraits in studio, and outdoors use the 70-200 to compress the background. Love the bokeh from those two lenses

  28. November 1, 2014 at 9:12 am — Reply

    Thank you very much, Jodi, for sharing your experience on the selection of best lenses for portrait photography. Provision of some sample images from each of these lenses would have helped us in selecting the right lens for us.

    Thanks a gain for sharing your insights with us. 🙂

  29. March 9, 2015 at 10:45 am — Reply

    The holy trinity from canon 🙂 these are the best options.
    I have 16-35, 24-0 and 70-200 all L II.
    I think i will buy 100 macro L – great portrait and macro lens.
    What do you think?

  30. Jerry
    November 25, 2015 at 10:32 am — Reply

    I wanted to buy nikon 24mm-70mm f2.8 but just can’t afford it so I’m opted for 28mm-70mm instead. Is that lens good enough to substitute the 24-70mm?

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The Top 4 Lenses for Portrait and Wedding Photography