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How I Shoot: The 3 Lenses I Use Most!

I don’t often talk about gear here on the blog, but the tools I use are so important to what I do each shoot. So, I thought it was time to start going over the equipment I love most to create the work that I do.

When people approach me with questions about what camera they should buy (which happens fairly often!), they place all their focus on the camera body and forget that the lens they use can have even more impact on the look of the image than the camera! While cameras are obviously important to what we do, they get outdated every few years as the technology improves so rapidly. So, even if you buy the best of the best right now, you’ll likely have to upgrade in 3-4 years maximum to keep up with technology. Lenses, however, are more of a long-term investment that deserve thoughtful consideration. For example, I purchased a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens back when I first started shooting on my own in 2005 (a pricey investment for the new professional that I was!) and used that same lens for 12 years! I would still be using it today had it not been stolen last Fall (Another story for another day. Thank goodness for insurance.) In that same 12 years, I upgraded my camera 4 times!

Zoom vs Prime Lenses

To start the discussion on lenses, first let’s talk about the two main types of lenses: zoom lenses and prime/fixed lenses. Zoom lenses are lenses that can do just that, zoom in or out. Prime/fixed lenses, are a fixed focal length and cannot zoom in or out. Pretty simple, right? There are many more intricate descriptions of these differences out there if you just Google, but this post isn’t intended to be super technical. I want it to feel approachable so anyone reading (even beginners) can walk away with having understood the lenses I like and why. 🙂

Typically, I prefer to use only prime lenses when I can help it. The image is is clearer and crisper, the colors are clean, and to use a fixed lens gives me a better ability to anticipate what my end image will look like because I know so well how each of my fixed focal length lenses will shoot. Finally, a prime lens forces me to move around while I shoot as I don’t have the ability to zoom in or out to change my composition. Moving around during a session forces me to look at subjects or scenes from various angles which helps me with my creative process. When I taught photography, I always encouraged my students to use a prime lens and move around more during a shoot so they could see things from different perspectives, and I still do that every session.

While I do own a couple zoom lenses, I typically use those in limited circumstances (like my 70-200mm f2.8 is reserved mostly for wedding ceremonies where I don’t have the option to physically be close to my subject). My zoom lenses are still great, L Series lenses (L Series from Canon basically means premium glass – photography lingo for lens.) I just prefer the qualities of the prime lenses I own and try to use them most, but there definitely are times that I need my zooms. Read below for more on when I prefer to use my zoom lenses more.

My Fab 3!

Here are the three lenses I use most and have on me the vast majority of the time that I’m shooting. Each of these lenses have had their day as my favorite lens in my bag… Read below to learn how I use each lens and why! Note: I shoot, and have always shot, on Canon cameras, so everything below is Canon product. However, for most of the lenses below, Nikon has an equivalent!

Canon 50mm f1.2  |   Canon 50mm f1.4

Ok, so technically these are 2 separate lenses. However, while I recently upgraded to the 50mm f1.2 and that’s technically the 50mm lens I have in my bag right at this moment, I previously had used the 50mm f1.4 for about 12 years and my love for that lens will be eternal, so it deserved to be included in this round-up. It’s an amazing lens for the price at less than $400! I used to tell my students when I taught digital photography that if you have a limited budget for lenses, buy this one! I bought one way back in 2006 and used that for years. I replaced it with a new one in 2013 and used that as my only 50mm lens until just this month! Many photographers have raved about the 50mm f1.2 for years and years, but I always felt like my little 50mm f1.4 did such a great job I didn’t need to spend the $$$ (because it’s way more expensive). That all finally changed when I upgraded to the L-series 50mm f1.2 just this month. Why finally upgrade? For me, it was time as I found myself wanting to rent it more and more for certain shoots. Plus, I needed the tax deduction… (all you self-employed people can relate!) But, I created some of my most favorite images on that less-expensive 50mm f1.4 over the years and will forever love it for the price.

Bottom line, whether you’re in the market for a less expensive lens or a more expensive piece of glass, I think you definitely need a 50mm lens in your bag. The 50mm is such a great all-around lens. If I am going somewhere with the family and only want to bring one lens, this is it.

Below is an image of the two 50mm lenses, the 1.2 is on the left and 1.4 on the right. The one downside of the 1.2 is it’s bigger and heavier than the 1.4.

85mm f1.2

The Canon 85mm f1.2 is pricey. But I bought it about 8 years ago or so and it’s just so pretty with such great color. Because it’s a little longer than the 50mm, you get that zoomed-in effect of a telephoto lens and a more exaggerated depth of field, which is really great for portraits. Traditionally speaking, telephoto lenses (anything longer than 50mm) are better for portraits because they have no distortion and create a more flattering portrait over all for that reason. Wide lenses tend to distort/widen and flatten a person in a portrait and nobody wants that. Plus, with the 1.2 aperture of this thing, it’s super flattering for skin tones and the super shallow depth of field can really make for a dreamy image. While I could do a full portrait session with just my 50mm, I LOVE the look of my 85mm. The cons to this lens are that it’s heavier and is slow to focus, so not great for fast-moving subjects like little kids at a family session… 🙂 But, it’s so, so beautiful for portraits otherwise. Other really awesome uses include, reception detail shots, candids during toasts at a wedding reception, and I even really love it for landscape-type images for the depth it can give the image.

35mm f1.4

The Canon 35mm f1.4 is another L Series lens that I love! I used to use it more frequently when I was really into shooting slightly wider portraits. And even though I don’t use it as much as my 50mm these days, I still keep it on me so that I can mix in a few wide shots for each shoot, whether it’s a family portrait session or to show the whole room of activity while a bride is getting ready. I think having wider shots mixed in with a gallery of images is so important to give context to a shoot, no matter what the shoot is. Having my 35mm f1.4 as a wider option is especially important for any indoor shooting where my ability to physically back up from my subject is limited.

More On My Shooting Style

I shoot with one camera at a time (my Canon 5D Mk IV) and use a Shootsac to carry my lenses. I bought this bag about 11 years ago! And though I took a break from it for about 5 years in there to try other bags, I ended up coming back to this lens bag for it’s lightweight, comfortable construction. (And no, this is not a sponsored post. I just love the bag.) Gear is heavy enough without having to carry a heavy lens bag for 10 hours on a wedding day! And believe me, my shoulders and back have had enough of that. Because I’m only using one camera at a time, I change lenses frequently so I have one of the above lenses on my camera or in my Shootsac the vast majority of the time.

Ok, So When do you Use Other Lenses?

The small percentage of time when I’m not using one of these lenses is usually during a wedding ceremony or during the high-energy dancing portion of a reception. For the ceremony, I swap out my 50mm and 35mm for my Canon 24-70mm f2.8, and swap out my 85mm for my Canon 70-200mm f2.8. These zoom lenses give me more flexibility when a ceremony provides less opportunity to move around. For the reception, I love the 85mm for simple candids or the speeches, but I love the 24-70mm most for fun dancing shots. I can get into the action on the dance floor and use that 24mm wide lens to capture a lot in one frame. Plus, it’s also good at quickly focusing on my moving subjects.

This post, while a good start for figuring out what lenses to use, is just a quick guide. I hope you find it helpful to decide which lenses to purchase or how to get certain looks from the images you already may have. And because I loved writing about this so much, I plan on doing another post soon on everything in my bag, not just lenses!

Have more questions about gear or anything related to how I shoot? Send me an email and I’ll try to answer that in a future post!

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