Equipment for Wedding Photography
Wedding photography is an interesting specialty, which can really separate the pros from the amateurs. As always, what’s behind the viewfinder is the most important piece of equipment (your brain!).
But, with the number of naive photographers with their first DSLR who seem to see wedding photography as an “easy way to make some money” with their brand new camera kits, I thought it made some sense to look at the minimal entry requirements, from a camera equipment standpoint.
Weddings combine the technical aspects of fashion and portrait photography with the high pressure and tight time-lines of corporate event photography. You have to produce elegant portraits of brides in delicate white dresses standing next to grooms in black tuxedos, while preserving detail in both, under challenging (and often variable) lighting, and working on-the-fly with no chance for a re-shoot.
I know that in a previous post, I said that “your camera doesn’t matter“, but I have to wonder what the groomsman in the background of this photo will be able to produce with the little disposable camera that he’s using? I suppose that there are some minimal standards necessary for entry into this particular photographic specialty.
So, what do I consider the minimum requirements, equipment-wise, to shoot a wedding?
First, you need a good camera. It doesn’t need to be the latest, greatest, most expensive camera, but it needs to have a few important features that your average “point and shoot” camera won’t have:
- Fast, reliable focusing. Things move fast at a wedding. If you can’t quickly and reliably get your shots in-focus, then there’s no point in you even being there.
- Easy manual control of aperture and shutter speed. As I already said, things move fast. Dials and knobs will beat menus and buttons for quick adjustments eight days a week, and twice on Sundays.
- A way to mount and trigger an external flash unit. Usually, this means a “hotshoe” on top of the camera. You will need to use flash, especially when outdoors, to fill in overly-dark shadows. A built-in flash will just not “cut it”, in terms of power, battery life, or (more importantly) position. You need to be able to get the flash up a ways over the lens, in order to avoid red-eye, and to avoid casting shadows from the lens and/or lens hood.
- The ability to use interchangeable lenses. For portraits, you’ll want medium-long focal lengths. For the dance floor, you’ll probably want wide-normal focal lengths. For ring and flower shots, you may want a macro lens (or at least a lens that focuses fairly close). Generally speaking, you’re not likely to find a good quality single lens that does “everything” — at least not well.
In most cases, these requirements mean you should probably be using a DSLR.
Then, you’ll need another one. You MUST have at least one backup camera. A wedding is a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event. There are no “do overs” if you drop your camera and break it. You don’t get a “mulligan” if your shutter dies and refuses to fire any more, or if your autofocus suddenly decides to stop working. Make it the same brand, so that your lenses are all interchangeable between bodies, and so that the control layout will be familiar to you. (It doesn’t have to be the exact same model, but if it isn’t, you need to make sure you’re just as familiar with its controls and quirks as you are with your main camera.)
(If you’re smart, you’ll have a third camera, as well, so you’ll still have a backup when you continue shooting after one of your cameras dies. “When”, not “if”: Murphy was an optimist.)
Now, let’s talk lenses.
Generally speaking, you’ll want “fast glass” (aka lenses with wide maximum apertures, f/2.8 or better). This is for several reasons:
- Some churches don’t allow the use of flash during the ceremony. If you want any pictures at all, you’ll be shooting in low light, which means wide apertures, slow shutter speeds, and high ISO values. You need every last photon you can get, and wide apertures are the absolute best way to achieve that.
- Subject isolation through limited depth of field. If you want to throw the background out of focus to isolate and draw attention to your subject, you’ll want wide apertures. You might be able to “fake it” with Photoshop after the fact, but it’s always much better to get things right in-camera. It generally looks much better, and it’s easier, too.
- Image quality. Generally speaking, the wide-aperture lenses in every manufacturer’s lineup tend to be among the best they make, in terms of optical quality. Making wide aperture lenses requires the largest, most expensive glass lens elements. It only makes sense that manufacturers would do their best to make sure that these expensive lenses are truly “top of the line” in all ways, not just in terms of maximum aperture.
You probably won’t need extremely long focal lengths — you are shooting a wedding, not capturing tiny, elusive, and easily-spooked birds from a great distance. But, a medium-to-long zoom lens will probably be your number one lens for the ceremony and formal portraits. And, a moderately-wide-to-normal zoom lens will probably be your “go-to” lens for the reception. If budget constraints force you to choose, put the most money into the medium-to-long zoom. You’ll be able to use flash at the reception.
Again, backups are important for lenses, as well. You probably don’t need identical expensive lenses as your backups, however. Slightly slower lenses can act as backup for the more expensive fast glass. Maximum apertures of f/4.0 are probably good enough for your backup lenses. You can crank up the camera’s ISO another stop, and simply live with having to filter out more grainy noise in post-processing. It won’t be quite as good quality, but it’ll be worlds better than nothing, and your skills will help to (partially) make up for the not-quite-as-good lens.
Finally, don’t forget things like flash units (at least two, so you always have a backup), and extra fully charged batteries and empty memory cards. Most importantly, you should have lots and lots of time under your belt spent practicing with your cameras, so that you know all of their quirks, and can change settings quickly and intuitively to deal with changing conditions.
What equipment do I use?
I shoot Olympus DSLR cameras. I’ve been shooting pictures with a variety of film and digital cameras for years, but I bought in to the Olympus DSLR system when I first got a DSLR.
I started out with an E-520 two-lens DSLR kit. At the time, it was the absolute best “bang for the buck” DSLR kit available, by a fairly wide margin. The “kit” lenses are both remarkably sharp, and the body includes image stabilization. And, it was priced several hundred dollars cheaper than the closest equivalent Canon or Nikon rig. It was a very good purchase, and I’m still quite happy with it.
Since then, I’ve added a number of higher-quality lenses and other pieces to my kit. I shot my niece’s wedding last weekend with the following:
- Olympus E-3 body with HLD-4 battery grip. This is a solid, professional-quality body with incredible “never worry about the pouring rain” weather-sealing, image stabilization, and controls that I could use blindfolded. With two batteries in the grip, I can shoot all day without running out of power, and it balances nicely with heavier lenses.
- Olympus E-520 body. While it lacks the battery grip and weather-sealing, it has similar specs to the E-3 in most other respects. It’s a solid performer, and I’m very familiar with its controls, as well.
- Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0 Super-High Grade Zuiko Digital zoom lens. This is one of my favorite lenses. It’s not lightweight, by any stretch of the imagination, but it produces beautiful images, and the constant f/2.0 maximum aperture across the medium-to-long zoom range is perfect for portraits, and for low-light shooting.
- Olympus 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD high-Grade Zuiko Digital wide-to-moderately-long zoom lens. This is the perfect “all purpose” lens. With flash, it’s perfect indoors. It gets wide enough to get close, and long enough to step back a ways. Image quality is excellent, and it’s super-versatile.
- Olympus 50mm f/2.0 Zuiko Digital macro prime lens. I used this lens for close-up shots of the wedding rings, but it’s also a great backup to have on-hand for portraits and for low-light situations.
- Olympus FL-50 flash, and Metz 48 AF-1 flash. I kept the FL-50 on the E-3, and the Metz on the E-520, because I own an external battery pack for the FL-50, and the E-3 was my primary camera most of the day. Both flashes have similar guide numbers, so their flash power is comparable. Both are compatible with the Olympus TTL metering system, so there was no real difference there, either. So, I used the one with the external battery pack on the camera I used most often.
- Backup equipment. In my truck, I had the following backup equipment handy, just in case:
- Olympus E-1 DSLR body. This is an older, lower resolution model, without image stabilization. But, it’s weather-sealed like the E-3, and it’s better than not having a backup if one of my main cameras had died.
- Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 Zuiko Digital lens. Not as fast as the 35-100mm f/2.0 lens, this one is still a great performer, and would have worked just fine if something had happened to the 35-100.
- Olympus 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 Zuiko Digital lens. Not quite as versatile as the 12-60mm lens, but still a great performer with almost identical (and excellent) image quality.
- Assorted extra batteries, memory cards, and other lenses.
In my hands, probably not.
My experience with my equipment’s particular controls, quirks, and idiosyncrasies probably outweigh five-to-one any differences in the cameras or lenses, themselves. If you don’t know your cameras cold, you’re just asking for trouble. I know mine, and trust them to intuitively work as an extension of my arms and my eyes. I know how to get them to perform at their best, and they help me to perform at my best. Any brand can do that, as long as it’s YOUR brand, and you put in the time behind the eyepiece.
I have. Have you? If not, start walking….