Wedding photography is by far one of the most important genres of photography we can work in. As professional wedding photographers, our job is to capture once-in-a-lifetime moments that cannot be repeated. You'll be capturing love, laughter, tears, dancing, friends, and everything that goes with a day on which two people commit to spending their lives together. Different cultures may celebrate it differently, but our job is the same: capture those fleeting moments in a beautiful way.
Since this is such an important job, it stands to reason that we’d want to choose equipment that we can trust and that will respond when we need it to in order to serve our clients and make the best wedding photos we can for them. We want fast, dependable and portable equipment that doesn't weigh us down but still allows us to get those must-have wedding photos. The key components we need are, of course, our camera and lenses. But we'll need to support those with lighting and accessories.
In the early days of digital photography, the camera recommendation for wedding photographers was a little simpler than it is now: just get a good full-frame DSLR and you'll be set to go. Now we have extremely high quality APS-C sensors along with excellent mirrorless camera options that greatly broaden the pool of viable options.
The features you’ll want in a camera will vary with your personal style, but at the very least you should be looking to the top rungs of your manufacturer of choice. As well as compatibility with high-grade interchangeable lenses, these cameras usually have the best image quality and autofocus that the manufacturer has to offer. Other features defining the best cameras for wedding photography include high ISO performance, dynamic range and burst speed, and ideally two card slots.
Invariably, at some point you'll find yourself in a dimly lit church or reception venue that will require you to photograph in less than ideal conditions. Having many autofocus points spread out across a large area of the frame, and a dependable autofocus system that will focus quickly and accurately in dim or low contrast lighting is a must for wedding photographers.
High ISO settings are used commonly to capture the mood in indoor venues and avoid disrupting the ceremony with a speedlight, thus allowing for more natural wedding photography than was possible in the past. A camera that produces clean files at ISO 3200 or even 6400 is ideal for wedding photographers. Capturing moments with great clarity while not having to employ a flash is one of the greatest things digital photography has enabled us to do.
Dynamic range is the amount of tones that a sensor and processor combination is able to pull from a given scene. Looking for a camera that boasts more dynamic range will allow you to pull shadows and highlights back in post-processing and have them look natural in tough conditions. It will also save you when the inevitable heat-of-the-moment mistake happens and you miss your exposure. As a general rule, larger sensors capture more dynamic range than smaller ones. Also, dynamic range tends to decrease as ISO increases, so looking at dynamic range in the higher ISOs will give you a good picture of how this will affect you as a wedding photographer.
Capturing the perfect moment is extremely important, especially for images during the ceremony. Having more frames to choose from is a great way to hedge your bets. Not to suggest you simply ‘spray and pray’ throughout the whole wedding, but controlled bursts of 8 or 10 frames per second can help maximise your chances of capturing that perfect moment.
Dual Card Slots
While a single slot will suffice, dual slots are better. For wedding photographers, there are several benefits to having two card slots. The first is a very practical one: redundancy. Having two copies of the images you make is good practice for any photographer but for those of us who capture moments that can't be repeated, it is a necessity. Even if we shoot RAW to one card and JPEG to the other, we still have one form of backup. These JPEGs can also be used to deliver real-time to the client if requested.
The Mirrorless Advantage
Mirrorless cameras are a fantastic option for wedding photographers for a number of reasons. Mirrorless camera bodies (and lenses, in some cases) tend to be smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts, thus offering greater mobility. Also, working in challenging lighting situations with an electronic viewfinder to preview exposure makes light work of what is potentially a difficult task. On top of that, mirrorless cameras’ quiet (if not silent) operation is yet another way we can make ourselves invisible during the proceedings. This is, of course, a big advantage for documentary wedding photography.
The Trusted DSLR
For all the advantages of mirrorless systems, a lot of wedding photographers continue to use DSLRs—and for good reason. Many DSLR cameras, particularly more professional models, are incredibly durable and can shoot for hours on a single battery charge. And while mirrorless cameras’ electronic viewfinders are improving almost to the point of being indistinguishable from optical viewfinders, there’s guaranteed to be no lag in an optical viewfinder – crucial when it comes to capturing, say, the bride and groom’s first kiss, or some other never-to-repeat moment.
One or Two Camera Bodies?
Whether you use both at the same time or have one just as a backup in case of the worst, there is no compelling reason for a wedding photographer not to have two camera bodies. Aside from being able to ensure you get the job done, you can also have two different sets of focal lengths on you at all times to capture all the important moments. You might choose to have a zoom on one body and a fast prime on the other, two primes, or maybe even two zooms, depending on your style. Regardless, by having two bodies you only increase your ability to get the shots you require.
A successful photo collection from any wedding requires variety. In order to capture a set of unique wedding photos, a selection of lenses with different focal lengths is required. An 85mm f/1.4, for example, may not be the best lens for capturing an overall shot of the venue or a group photo of all the guests together, but it's great for portrait photography at the wedding. Similarly, a fisheye may not be the best choice for the exchange of rings. By considering first the different images we need to capture, we can select the right tools for the job.
As we progress as photographers, our style and sensibilities will change and may require more specialised lenses to capture certain aspects of a wedding day in our own unique style. Let's take a look at two paths that we might take in the beginning to choose the best lenses for wedding photography.
The Prime Path
A great place to start with prime lenses is the classic pairing of 35mm (for a more inclusive field of view) and 85mm (for details, separation, and isolation). These are distinct enough that it makes sense to begin with them. They are also offered by all manufacturers in extremely fast aperture versions so they're great for low light photography; separating your subjects from the background; and sharp, candid wedding photography that demands high shutter speeds.
From there, you might add a 24mm or 20mm for ultra-wide shots, and maybe a 135mm for an even tighter field of view. Then, perhaps a 50mm and a macro lens for those detail shots. Quickly, you'll notice you have a very full bag and a lot to think about. Not everybody needs or uses all of these options, and this can be one reason that some photographers take the zoom path.
The Zoom Path
Rather than using a collection of primes that need to be switched out during the course of the wedding, some photographers opt to use zoom lenses. Together a 24-70mm and 70-200mm give you everything from wide shots of the venue to close-ups and details during the ceremony. You may want to add something like a 16-35mm over time and even get a macro lens for tiny details. If you really need shallow depth of field during the day, a 50mm f/1.4 can be an excellent addition to the zoom kit.
Over time you can, of course, mix and match these to fit your evolving style and/or craft more creative wedding photos. You might eventually find yourself working almost solely with a 24mm f/1.4 on the wide end and a 70-200mm f/2.8 on the long end. Don't be afraid to experiment.
Spare memory cards and spare batteries are two areas you don't want to cut corners on. To make sure you capture all those one-off moments, get the fastest and highest quality memory cards you can and keep a few spares on hand.
You'll also want to invest in a fast memory card reader so you don't spend hours copying your files when the day's work could otherwise be imported as you make your morning coffee.
Speedlights, LEDs and strobes
Considered essential by many, additional lighting can bring another level of polish to your images in many circumstances. Having a small video light or speedlight on hand and knowing how best to use it can be a valuable asset that also helps to separate your work from others’. Not only that, having a speedlight during the reception can help with making the guests look great. Even battery-operated strobes can help with group shots when needed. Just remember: the more complex the lighting gets, the longer it will take and the more hands you'll need to make it work.
The ideal bag for wedding photography
Finding the perfect bag can be a particular challenge for photographers, what with changing demands and growing collections of gear. Every time we feel like we've found the perfect bag, it lacks in one key area for us. For a wedding kit, a two-pronged approach can be beneficial: one bag to get your gear to the location and one for moving around the venue. That way you can take everything you need for the whole day (as your requirements may vary from section to section) but keep it light when you are moving around so you don't tire over the course of the wedding.
For transportation, there's nothing quite like a rolling bag. Rolling bags allow you to pack a large amount of gear without needing to support the weight yourself. That makes them the ideal tool for getting your gear to the location. How large a bag you purchase will depend heavily on your gear, but make sure it has room for your camera, lenses, extra batteries, memory cards, lighting equipment, computer, hard drives, and whatever else you'll typically take with you.
On the move
Once you're at the venue, a comfortable messenger or shoulder bag can be used at certain times of the day to carry a little more than you can hold in your hands. Another approach to this is a belt or holster system. These will allow you to carry a second or third lens, spare batteries, extra memory cards, and even a speedlight for unexpected lighting challenges.
A Final Note
The most important thing to remember in all these gear purchase decisions is this: our job is to record what will be one of the most momentous days of two people’s lives. Whatever path you take with your equipment choices, they should all be geared towards keeping yourself mobile and helping you to create the best images possible.
If you’d like any more advice on wedding photography, be it gear related or otherwise, we’d love to help. Pop into one of CameraPro’s showrooms or contact our knowledgeable team online or over the phone.