We’re often asked by wedding photographers what’s the best camera gear to start with. I got a call yesterday from a photographer attending our upcoming “Recharge at Rancho” workshop who wanted our opinion on the best long zoom to purchase… So I thought I’d talk a little about gear. Most of us are Canon or Nikon shooters. I’ve been shooting Nikon for many years, so I’m more comfortable, and faster, with that brand. During the dark D2x days, however, I purchased a Canon 5D with a few primes (85 1.2, 50 1.4, 35 1.4 and 24 1.4) and also got to play with Canon’s 70-200 2.8 IS. The Nikon D2x did not do a good job for me in low light, and I loved the high ISO files from the 5D, but found the body hard to work with. Once the D3 came out, and now the D3s, I was back shooting only Nikon. That makes things much less complicated. I would advise someone starting to build their system to go with Nikon or Canon. Try to work with both, in the camera price point you can afford, and then make your decision. There are significant differences in the way the systems, especially the camera bodies, work. The more gear you accumulate, the more expensive switching brands becomes. Also, if you’re renting a lenses, extra body, flash units, etc., working with one of the two major brands will insure you can find the gear you need easily.
If you can afford it, go with a full frame sensor camera. The Nikon D700 is an excellent full frame camera, so is the Canon 5D Mark II. If you go with a smaller sensor, the Canon 7D and Nikon D300S are great, less expensive alternatives. Remember, with smaller sensors, your lenses will have more “reach”, but at the wide end you might be a little limited. This is where a DX short zoom comes in handy. Lastly, as far as camera bodies are concerned, I would not invest in a D3x or the Canon equivalent (a 24 megapixel sensor). You may want this for portrait or commercial work, but for weddings, you’re giving up speed, they’re very expensive, and the files take up too much room.
From L to R: D3s, D3, D700 w/ vertical grip (lets you use D3 batteries) and D300 .
You should always bring at least a second body to every wedding, Mirta and I bring four. If you only own one camera, rent the second one. You’re a professional and you owe it to your client to have a back up gear. You might even rent the main camera (the one you’ll buy next) and use your own as a second body / back up.
Now for the glass… The first lens I would recommend is the one I enjoy working with the least… But you got to have it! It’s my KTLA lens (Keep The Lawyers Away) the 24-70 2.8. You can do an entire wedding with that lens. Both Nikon and Canon make an excellent one, and they even have a limited Macro capability. Also, if you have a full frame camera with a “crop down” feature like the D3, D3s and D700, (sorry, Canon doesn’t offer this feature now), you can extend the reach to the equivalent of a 105 mm lens.
The second lens I would purchase would be a 50mm 1.4 or 1.8. I don’t think you need the 1.2, but that’s only my opinion. This lens is very useful in low light. With the crop down feature it becomes a 75mm lens and it can back up your 24-70 if it decides to take a dive.
From L to R: 16mm 2.8 Fisheye, 14-24 2.8 zoom, 105 2.8 VR Macro, 70-200 2.8 VR zoom, 24-70 2.8 zoom, 85mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.4
The third lens I would invest in would be my favorite piece of glass in the bag; the 70-200 2.8 VR II, or Canon’s equivalent. Both Nikon and Canon redesigned this lens recently and they rock! This is a very sharp lens with shallow depth of field for portraits and a great look for groups (if you have the room to back up a little). Now you’re ready to shoot any wedding. You have 24 to 200 mm range with 2.8 zooms plus a 50 mm for low light and back up.
The fourth lens I would recommend would be the 14-24 2.8 wide angle zoom, or Canon’s equivalent. This is one of Nikon’s best lenses, and you can make very dramatic images with it, but it takes time to master it, and it’s very expensive. I would invest in a second body or extra flash unit before this purchase if you don’t have them.
The fifth lens would be, in my opinion, the 85mm 1.4 or Canon’s 1.2. Here I prefer the Nikon version because it’s lighter and faster to grab focus. I really don’t need to shoot at 1.2.
The sixth lens to buy in my book is the Fisheye. Nikon’s is a 16 mm and Canon’s a 15 mm. Both 2.8. Don’t get carried away with this lens. Not everyone likes the distortion. You have to get good at shooting with this puppy, and don’t over do it.
The 105 macro (Canon’s is a 100) comes in seventh. Nikon’s has the VR (vibration reduction) feature, a newer design, and it’s very cool. They’re both very sharp and great for those small details and close up portraits.
And last in the bag is a fast moderate wide angle; the 35 mm 1.4. Both Nikon and Canon make an excellent one. I just got mine and it’s waiting for me at Samy’s. This lens, along with the 105 macro, the fisheye, and even the fast 85 are very nice to have, but not essential. As I mentioned earlier, there are other items you should consider before investing in these lenses.
Don’t forget the filter… I always use a UV filter on my lenses. The expensive multicoated ones, you don’t want to put a cheap piece of glass in front of your expensive optics. When you’re shooting wide open, every little bit counts. I use Heliopan filters but there are 2 or 3 other very good brands out there. I tend to be less careful about dust on the lens, or cleaning it with my shirt tail when a full grown Bengal tiger spits on it (it happened) because I know the filter will protect the fragile multi coating on the front element. A UV or Skylight filter is cheap insurance… And talking about insurance, don’t forget to insure your gear. You can use the kind of coverage offered by professional organizations or talk with your insurance agent. Mine is Pam Burket with State Farm, they have a policy for self employed photographers. Her information is on our Partners & Resources page.
Another important point about expensive gear (camera bodies and lenses) is where to buy them. I buy all my stuff from my local Pro camera store, Samy’s in Orange County. A large Pro store will give you a very competitive price. Sure, you can save a little by buying online, but I like to examine the gear before I buy, maybe take a few shots with it to see how it feels, make sure it’s working properly. Being able to bring something back the next day if I’m having a problem is nice too. You can’t get that kind of service with mail order. And if you’re thinking “I can save on sales tax by buying out of State” think again… California law now states that you must pay sales tax to the State even if you purchased your gear out of state. If you choose to forget about reporting the purchase, you better forget about depreciating it too… I like to play it safe. One last thing, you should establish a relationship with “your guy” (or girl) at your camera store. Someone who knows the kind of work you do and can recommend the right gear and answer your questions. To me that’s worth a whole lot. My “guy” at Samy’s is Barry Evans, Pro Dpt. manager (he’s a Canon guy, but I don’t hold that against him. I highly recommend you talk to Barry if you have equipment questions. He, like us, likes to make long term relationships with his clients, not just make a sale.
There are lots of other very useful items we use at weddings; on and off camera flash units, reflectors and other light modifiers, etc. I wanted to limit this post to camera bodies and lenses. And please, excuse my ignorance if I made any mistakes when referring to Canon gear…
Questions or comments? We love to read them. I’ll be happy to answer your questions or address them in future posts.