Weddings: Maximum Bang for Minimum Buck! Part 1

Weddings are extremely challenging, because you are basically flying without a safety net. No do-overs, no re-shoots. So, it’s important that you go in with a game plan and with equipment that will keep you in the action.

I write for new photographers. We don’t have a massive bankroll to get the fanciest equipment on the market. I’m going to help you get the most bang for your buck for wedding photography. I want you to get the best pictures for the least money. First, I’ll talk about cameras and lenses.

Camera bodies:

Bring two. If you only have one, rent another. (Can’t afford it? You’re not charging enough.) You don’t need a top of the line body to shoot a wedding. I know canon, so I will use them as a reference point. I shoot with 2 Canon 30D bodies, which is a 3rd tier model, under the Canon 1Ds MK IV (what a mouthful!) and Canon 5D. Yes, compared to those models, you are making some compromises, and sometimes, those compromises will get you in trouble. But we’re talking Bang for Buck, here. Is the 5D worth the upgrade from the 30D? Not for me, yet. The 30D gets the job done very well. It really comes into its own at high ISOs. The level of detail at 1600 ISO is surprising.


You don’t want to spend a lot of time changing lenses, missing action. So your lenses will need to be broad, versatile, and work in low light. Zoom lenses are crucial at a wedding. You want to move around as little as possible, keeping a low profile. “Zoom with your feet” is just not acceptable at a ceremony. Here’s what I bring:

Canon 17-40 f/4 USM L

This is my wide angle lens. It only opens to f/4, but I have found that this is as much an asset as it is a hindrance. I have to make the occasional compromise with my ISO (I am not afraid of high ISO, though. I will post about that later, too.) but I am also guaranteeing myself a great bit of depth of field, as f/4 at 17mm is still pretty wide. (This awesome depth of field calculator says that, at 10 feet, f/4 has almost 50 feet of sharpness. Dayum!) Moreover, closer objects tend to be sharper, right? This lens does a lot of work for me at receptions. I like to get up close and personal, tell lots of jokes, and take great, personal pictures with this lens. That “L” means it is tack-sharp, too. At $650, it’s bang/buck ratio is off the charts. This lens’s big brother, the 16-35 f/2.8, costs $1400. Is that extra stop worth another $750? Not to me, it’s not.

Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

I love walking around with this lens. On my 30D, it turns into an 85 (or so)mm lens. This is an amazing wedding lens. It focuses fast, and at f/1.4, it pulls in a massive amount of light. Low depth of field is great for abstractions and such. I put this lens and walk around the ceremony and reception locations and get shots of the decor. Low depth of field lends itself well to doing this. Out of focus lights blossom into great portrait backgrounds. Opening up wide is dangerous, though. I tend to fire in bursts when I’m wide open, since my DOF is so narrow, and my subjects tend to move around a lot. Sure, I burn some frames, but I also get the shot. This lens is famous for its sharpness, its great color, and its gorgeous bokeh. Oh, and it only costs about $250-300. Every Canon shooter should own one.

Sigma 50-150 f/2.8 HSM

This is my longest lens, and it’s not very long. But, long-distance candids do not suit my style as much. Sigma’s high end line of lenses give the Canon L series a run for its money and at a healthy fraction of the cost (Note: the Canon L series is weather-proofed and the Sigmas are not.). This is a great range on my 30D. As I said with the 50mm, you have to be careful with this thing wide open. Fire in bursts at moving subjects.

Memory cards and other accessories:

Both bodies have right hand straps, of course. My camera straps, though, have memory card holders and a lens cloth attached. I keep a memory card wallet in my pocket for spent cards. All of my memory cards are 2gb. I don’t shoot with larger cards because I live in fear of memory card failure. Losing a bigger memory card means you lose a lot more pictures. Smaller cards are cheaper, too, so I bring 8. When they are full, I back them up to a Wolverine hard drive that I keep on-site, and then store them in a card wallet. I don’t wipe and re-use the cards. This way, I have two copies of all images as I shoot. So, smaller memory cards are cheaper, (usually) faster, and have a built-in insurance system. The only drawback is that you have to buy enough to cover your whole shoot.

And that’s all that I bring in terms of cameras and lenses. 2 bodies. 3 lenses. I wear both bodies (the spare hangs tight across my body and doesn’t get in the way) one with the 50 or 50-150 on, and the other with the 17-40 on. If I see something happening across the room, I can zoom to 150mm, get the shots, and then switch back to 17mm and get a wide angle shot. These two lenses allow me to cover a whole room from anywhere in it. The 50mm only comes out when I am shooting portraits or want to work without a flash.

Next, I’ll talk about lights. Lastly, I’ll talk about my emergency kit. That thing generates referrals like nobody’s business, so stay tuned. In fact, why not subscribe?


  1. Hi Shaun

    GREAT post and a great blog! Glad to see someone promoting something other than the “pull out the checkbook and buy the most expensive” mindset. I did have a couple of comments…

    1) If you’re looking for bang for the buck, doesn’t the 50 f1.8 make more sense than the 50 f1.4? You’re paying more than twice the price for only half-a-stop improvement…

    2) In Nikon-land we don’t have an equivalent to the Canon f4 zooms. Spec-wise, the closest to your 17-40 F4 is the Nikon 18-70 f3.5-4.5. Although this is a “kit-lens”, which attaches a certain stigma to it, it is well made and quite good. Because it is a kit-lens, it isn’t terribly expensive, either new or on eBay. The other option, for around the same price as your Canon, would be the Nikon 18-200 VR. Although this lens gets bashed by purists in the forums, it is “best-in-class”, and I suspect many pros use it because of its versatility.

    Keep up the good work. I look forward to seeing the rest of this series.

    Thanks for the great comment, Paul. I used to own the 50 1.8, and while it’s a great little lens, the auto-focus is slow. The construction is more than you’d expect from an $85 lens, but not next to the 1.4, which also has a separate focusing ring, and an ultra sonic motor. I’m more interested in those features than I am the extra half stop of light (In fact, I am usually pretty paranoid about such razor-thin DOF).

    It’s always good to have a Nikonian pop up and fill me on equivalencies, about which I am pretty ignorant. I looked up the 18-200, and it sounds like a must-have. I don’t give forum purists much attention. A great book I read is called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. He describes the difference between amateurs who can afford to do things for love, and professionals who must get results. Amateurs can afford to complain about such a fantastically useful lens, whereas pros see the value in a Swiss Army Lens.

    Thanks for reading!


  2. Hey,

    As a Nikon user I had and sold the 18-200mm, as a pro I find non-fixed aperture lenses a pain and usually shoot weddings / events at <f4 values. However, it is a nice lens, but I found myself too often wishing to have constant of f3.2 of f2.8, espcailly at the 200mm end. So for most weddings I recommend against the 18-200 if you are unlikely to be using flash.

    However, only last year did I finally buy a 50mm 1.4, and I agree it is amazing as a wedding tool!
    As weddings I usualyuse the 24-70mm 2.8 and 70-200mm 2.8 vr for my lenses, turning to the 50mm for the post-first dance shots.

    Hope this input has some interest.

  1. 1 Bang for Buck: 17-40 f/4 or 16-35 f/2.8? « clique

    […] in Equipment. Tags: Equipment trackback I’ve spoken about my Canon 17-40mm f/4 lens before (here, on wedding photography). It’s a great lens, and at just over $600, it’s an absolute […]

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