People often ask me to recommend camera gear for them to buy.
As Michelle would happily tell you, I’m not the best person to ask. The number of changes I’ve made to my equipment line-up over the years is pretty much legendary. So I usually suggest a camera like the Canon 500D or 50D and a lens like the Sigma 17-70mm, and leave it at that.
That said, I’ve settled on a kit that works for me, and the essentials of it haven’t changed for a while, so for my third instalment of workshop wednesday, here’s an attempt to tell you about the 3 lenses I love the most, and why.
Bear in mind that I use these lenses on full-frame cameras like the Canon 5D, so if your camera has a smaller sensor, they’ll behave differently, e.g. the 24mm lens will feel more like a 35mm lens.
primes vs. zooms
All of my favourite lenses are primes, meaning they only have one focal length, i.e. no zoom ring. They’re less versatile than zooms, but they have wider apertures that pass substantially more light through to the camera, they perform better optically, they’re lighter, smaller and less obtrusive, and I like the fact that they force me to have a more decisive vision for each photograph.
Most of the primes I own are very expensive (around $2000 each), but there are cheaper options available; in fact, if you want great quality optics and can’t afford to buy a pro-grade zoom lens, it’s worth picking up a few cheap primes instead. I’ll recommend some below 🙂
canon vs. nikon
I use Canon, so I’ll be talking about Canon lenses. Nikon produce similar equipment, but I’m not very familiar with it, so Nikon shooters will have to look up the equivalents themselves. I’d apologise, but I’m not really sorry … we both know you should have bought a Canon 😛
favourite #1: Canon 50mm f/1.2L
cheaper alternative: Canon 50mm f/1.4
or even cheaper, but with poor autofocus: Canon 50mm f/1.8
I love my 50/1.2 because it’s so capable in low light (there’s not much you can’t do at ISO 6400 with this lens wide open!), plus the “normal” 50mm focal length is pretty flattering, while being wide enough to set the scene behind my subjects. There’s also the crazy shallow depth of field you can get at f/1.2 😉
It’s my primary lens in low-light scenarios, or whenever I feel the need for a 50mm lens. If there’s plenty of light, I’ll often stop it down to f/1.6 or f/2.0, to get a slightly sharper photo with minimal purple fringing (a common problem with fast primes). Otherwise, I shoot it wide open.
I used my 50/1.2 for this photo from Matt and Kelly’s wedding. It was shot at f/2.0.
favourite #2: Canon 24mm f/1.4L
cheaper alternative: Canon 28mm f/1.8
First, a confession: sometimes I cheat on this lens with my 35mm f/1.4L 😳 There are occasions (e.g. when shooting larger groups) when the 24mm’s distortion is undesirable, and if I can only take one lens with me, the 35mm wins (being between 24mm and 50mm).
Otherwise, I love this lens to bits. It’s a wide angle that opens up to f/1.4 … that alone is all kinds of cool! It’s also incredibly sharp (even wide open), and it takes in so much of a scene that it’s a great storytelling lens.
It does force you to work quite close to your subjects, which can be challenging as a documentary photographer, and as with all wide angle lenses (even more so with ultrawides), it’s easy to miss things when composing your photos. But the rewards are worth it.
Here’s another photo from Matt and Kelly’s wedding, taken with the 24mm at f/2.0. I’d share other examples, but these are what I have on my computer at the moment!
favourite #3: Canon 135mm f/2L
cheaper (but shorter) alternative: Canon 85mm f/1.8
I used to prefer my 70-200mm zoom lens as a telephoto, and I do still use it occasionally, but now I much prefer my 135mm prime. It’s faster, lighter and less scary-looking. It’s also significantly cheaper 🙂
I use it for tight documentary images, e.g. of individuals or small groups, and for close-ups or maximum background blur when shooting formals. I shoot it wide open almost always. It’s that sharp!
Here’s a pair of candids, again from Matt and Kelly’s wedding, taken with the 135mm at f/2.
Well there you have it: the 3 lenses I can’t live without! I usually just take these 3 and my 45mm tilt-shift on portrait shoots.
Hopefully this post was useful to someone … if so, please let me know in the comments and tell your friends about it!
Oh, and please excuse the dodgy photos of the lenses themselves … I’m trying to make these posts more “visual” 😉