There is no right answer obviously. But here in this post (and a long long post on that – I don’t expect everyone to read everything, hence have split it in so many parts), I would like to narrate my personal story – how and why I bought and sold what I did (for my camera gear). May be my experience will help some of you, who are considering wedding photography as an alternate profession. Do remember that photography is an art and there is no single right answer.
Best gear for wedding photography in India?
In my second year at IIT (2004), I bought my first camera. It was digital. I don’t remember it’s brand name but I think it was Logitech. It came for about 4,000 bucks. It was the cheapest digital camera that I could find. It took up all the money that I had saved over two semesters. The picture quality was 50% worse than my then computer’s default webcam. But then one could not use one’s webcam to shoot pictures outside the hostel room. And so I loved my first camera. I had the time of my life clicking everything left right and centre for about a year (and even shot videos once in a while, so what if I could record only 2 minutes of 240px video in one go before I had to clear the memory). This was the only camera I had. Once in a while, it was even borrowed by my IIT friends. After all, back then, not every Tom, Dick and Harry roamed around with a DSLR or even a point & shoot (I feel like an old man already).
[end of part 1 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
The next camera that I bought was a point-&-shoot Sony Cybershot (I don’t remember the exact model number). I bought it a day (or may be few days) before my first international trip (to London). It was the winter of 2008. By then I had known what DSLRs were (cameras in which you could change lenses and hence get different types of pictures; yes this is how I viewed them then). But I simply did not have enough money with me to be able to afford one. Not everyone gets paid a lakh or more a month in their first year of job after IIT. So I bought this Sony point & shoot for 10k because I was okay with anything better than my stone-age 4k camera from 2004. I actually liked the kind of images the Cybershot gave me. But once I was back from London, I started saving money and as soon as I had enough (I think about 80k), I bought my first DSLR – a canon 450D with a kit lens 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6.
[end of part 2 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
I could have gone for the almost four times cheaper 18-55 kit-lens (which a lot of guys opt for, when buying their first DSLR set) but let me tell you why I did not.
After returning from London (and before I bought my first DSLR), I had spent about a week with one of my best friends from IIT – Tiwari, doing a road trip in central India. We had borrowed Neelabh’s bullet motorcycle for that. Anyhow, so Tiwari had with him his recently purchased Canon EOS 1100D with a 18-55 kit lens. I used his camera more than him I guess. And during this trip, when in Khajuraho, I found it impossible to take close-up pictures of at least some of the nude sculptures (that were high above on pillars and ceilings – and you could not physically get closer to them). The 55mm focal length limit was simply not enough to capture close-ups. And so I knew I wanted a higher range than that when I was out there to buy my own DSLR. And that’s why I chose 18-200 over 18-55. Back then, I really did not understand anything more than focal length. Things like glass quality, aperture-size, focussing speed etc. were unknown to me. All I thought was that it was super cool to be able to click both wide angle and zoomed-in pictures using just one lens! I went on a million trips that year and I thought I was clicking great pictures. Till I bought a 50mm f/1.8.
[end of part 3 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
Logically since an 18-200 lens can shoot at focal lengths starting from 18mm all the way to 200mm (including 50mm), those who are totally new to this world of DSLR photography will wonder why then buy another lens of 50mm anyway? The answer lies in a) the f number and b) the beauty of primes.[expand title =”Those new to DSLR photography can click here to understand the concept of f-number and advantages of wide apertures”] f-number (things like f/1.8 or f/2.8 or f/3.5) designates the largest diameter of the aperture of any lens. A lens has open glass (with a detachable plastic cap) on one end, and on the other end (connected to the camera body), is a hole. This hole remains shut by default but opens and shuts back in a fraction of second (or in few seconds as the case may be) when you click the shutter button of your camera. It is this hole on the back side of the lens that is called the aperture. The diameter of the aperture = focal length of the lens divided by the f-number. So a 50mm f/1.8 lens has an aperture whose diameter = 50 mm / 1.8 = whatever. A lens with a smaller f-number like f/1.4 means that this lens has a relatively bigger aperture (because 50 / 1.4 is greater than 50 / 1.8).
In general, lenses that have bigger maximum apertures have three advantages:
- for everything else remaining the same, they let more light enter through the lens (which lets one capture good pictures even in low light – without the need to use flash-light)
- they help one create better “out-of-focus” backgrounds (also called as shallow depth of field)
- let you use the same lens at smaller aperture anyway – when you want to (so for example, if you have a f/1.8 lens and you want to shoot at f/3.5 for any reason, it can be done easily; the vice versa however is not true)
Now of course I did not know any of the above when I bought my 18-200 kit lens. It was designated as f/3.5-5.6, meaning its maximum aperture diameter varied from f/3.5 at 18mm end to f/5.6 at 200mm end. Let me assume that at 50mm focal length, the aperture diameter was limited to f/4 or 50mm/4. Now compare this to my new 50mm’s widest aperture: 50/1.8 mm. This new lens had more than double the diameter compared to the kit-lens. Suddenly I could shoot much better pictures in low light and was able to cut off background from main subjects simply by shooting always at widest aperture (i.e. at f/1.8). Plus, because it was a fixed lens (you can’t zoom-in or zoom-our a 50mm lens) – the glass mechanism inside it was simpler (compared to a relatively complicated system of glasses inside a 18-200 zoom lens). This meant that this new lens always gave a better overall picture quality (beauty of prime or fixed lenses). From then on, I could not like any single picture taken from 18-200.
Armed with a 50mm f/1.8 I was a happier photographer. I loved taking portraits using this lens. All portraits looked great (with just the face in focus and everything in the background getting blurred – shallow depth of field that is). I would still use the 18-200 once in a while, mostly to shoot wide angle shots like landscape or a group of 20 people who wanted me to click them from less than 10 feet away. And sometimes, when something was too far away from me to physically walk down to it, I would shoot at the 200 mm end of that lens. Everything else, all the other time, it was 50mm, 50mm and 50mm. And it came for less than 1/6th of the prize that I had paid for 18-200. Such is life!
[end of part 4 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
Today when people ask me what should be their first lens when buying a DSLR, I ask them to buy the 50mm f/1.8 and not the kit lens (18-55 or 18-200 or any other lens whose aperture is not at least as wide as f/2.8). It’s cheaper and it gives better looking images – that’s why.
Some wonder how will they shoot ‘everything’ with a lens that has no zoom-in / zoom-out feature. I tell them not to buy a DSLR if all they want to do is shoot everything with one lens – they should rather buy a costly point&shoot with a fixed lens. Because if you are buying a DSLR that lets you attach any lens to it that you can, it is a shame to opt for convenience over quality. A zoom lens is convenient to use, of course. Standing at the same place, you can zoom-in and zoom-out. With a 50mm you will have to physically walk closer to your subject if you want to zoom-in, and physically walk away from them when you want to zoom-out (and then there will be scenarios when there are obstructions and hence you can’t walk and hence can’t click certain pictures). But the bigger question is, what gives you better end-result? When people are going to look at a picture, are they really going to care ‘how’ you took them? Whether you could stand at one place and click or you had to walk around to take the picture? They are not. They will just say wow, when they see a good picture and say ‘hmm, good work’ when they see an average picture. And that is the problem with a kit lens – it lets you capture a range and is convenient to use. But well, it gives you only average picture-quality. Some can live with that, I cannot. Between the ability to shoot 100 average pictures and 50 good pictures, I would go for the latter.
[end of part 5 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
A lot of photographers who I know use 70-200 f/2.8 L II (with IS or image stabilization) – I have tried it once and I gave up. The ‘only’ advantage of this lens (the latest version of which costs more than double the price of 135) is that standing at the same place you can zoom-in and zoom-out. It is extremely heavy and obscenely huge and is white in colour (you can never move around quietly unnoticed with this lens – unless the idea is to show-off anyway, for which this is a good lens – makes you look and feel like a pro easily). I will tell you my biggest issue with this lens other than the price and weight. All said and done, a picture clicked with 135 f/2 almost always looks better than one clicked using a 70-200 f/2.8 (at 135mm focal length). So why should I use it?
Why do some people still use it? Well, many simply don’t believe they are capable of shooting with a fixed lens, especially in weddings. What if a moment happens suddenly and you simply don’t have time to walk closer or walk away? Wouldn’t a 70-200 be better off than a 135 in that case? The answer is yes, 70-200 will be better off in that case. But chances are, with the kind of weight the bulky 70-200 has, you probably will be too tired after half an hour of lugging around with it to notice great moments anyway. And in any case, 70mm is not that wide that you can capture everything by just zooming-out. So you might still need to walk way from your subjects if the shots look tight even at 70mm. And say, if you are far away when an important moment is occurring and you can’t zoom-in with your 135, you can just click and crop later (not the best solution, but a solution indeed for those will-be-over-in-2-seconds moments).
To sum it up, the little advantage of a variable focal length that a 70-200 offers, comes with too many disadvantages (excessively heavy, white colour, smaller aperture width, costlier and not as great picture quality as 135) and hence I stick to my favourite 135mm f/2. I simply carry another DSLR body with a wider lens attached to it, to take care of those moments where I can’t shoot with 135. Weight and cost of a 6d with say 50mm f/1.4 combined together is less than a 70-200 f/2.8 L II IS – I don’t see why I should then have a 70-200 with me. To those who use it, well, it’s your choice – enjoy. At least when you take it out, people notice you. Great show-off lens anytime. The look of it almost makes you believe it will by default click great pictures. It does click sharp pictures. Just that 135 clicks sharper pictures, and without hurting your wrist as much!
[end of part 7 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
When I bought my 135 f2, I was using my brother’s 550D (had passed on my 450d to dad). This is how I shot pictures then: use 135 f2 as long as you can for everything. If you don’t have space to walk away from your subject, use 50mm and if you still don’t have enough space just don’t click the picture. Unless someone really really insists and in that case take out your 18-200 and shoot with the 18mm end (with a sad face). So my next obvious move towards accumulating photography gear should have been to buy a high quality wide angle lens but before I could do that, I ended up upgrading my camera body instead. I will tell you how.
I was still working as a business consultant then and was trying to find out different ways of earning money so that I need not go to office 5 days a week (and work virtually six days a week). Not because I didn’t like my job but because I believed that if I had more free time with me, I could do something better with my life than just doing interesting consulting work and getting assured salary in return – year after year. One of the options that emerged in front of me was that of wedding photography and it made sense to give it a shot. I would not need to work all the time and would still be able to support myself financially. And with free time in hand, I could explore life the way it was not possible if I were stuck with my regular corporate job. Thankfully, Neelabh even found us a potential client who agreed to pay us after we shared with him some sample pictures that I had clicked during weddings of some of my friends – including that of Neelabh. This is when I wondered if my brother’s 550d was a good enough body to shoot a wedding professionally. By then I pretty much knew the significant difference a full frame camera like 5d mark 2 can bring in, to the quality of pictures, especially when shooting in low light conditions. This was March last year and 5d mii body came for about 1.2 lakh. None of us had the money to buy it really – we said to each other over phone one night. The next day, both of us bought a 5d mii body each. On EMI of course. And once you discover what a full frame body can achieve for you from the same lens, you can never ever go back to the consumer grade bodies like 450d or 550d (or even 7d as I would realize later).
Today I have two full frame bodies – the 5d mii that I had bought last year and a 6d that I bought this year. 6d is a nice upgrade to 5d mii, offers significantly better low light performance, has more focus points and is lighter in weight . But 5d is good enough. Some also use a 5d miii these days but I don’t see the point in buying it by spending 80k more just because it gives me so many more auto-focus points (and couple of additional features more suited for taking videos and for action / wildlife photography).
[end of part 8 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
During our first professional shoot, Neelabh and I were too excited to be holding full frame bodies to worry about the lack of a real wide angle lens with us. We split the 135mm and 50mm f1.8 between us and shot the entire wedding with just these two lenses. We loved our own work and so did our first client. 50mm was wide enough on a full frame body. The 18-200 kit lens that I still had was useless by then, because it was not designed to fit the full frame body that I now owned.
After few weddings, I thought of renting out a real wide angle to see if I really needed one (remember this was the time when I was obsessed with 135 f/2 and never wanted to shoot with anything else if I could afford to). So over the next few weddings I tried out these two wide angle lenses: 24-70 f/2.8 and 16-35 f/2.8 – these were the only wide angle options available to rent out (in Mumbai). Otherwise if I could, I would also have tried 14mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 (given my love for primes and wider apertures) before deciding on which wide angle lens to buy for myself.
Between 16-35 and 24-70 my vote went for 16-35 simply because it could shoot such wide dramatic pictures at 16mm. And if you didn’t want to shoot that wide, you could always shoot at the 35mm end. With a 24-70 I found I hardly used it to shoot at 50mm or higher (why not just use 50mm f/1.8 if you have to shoot at that focal length anyway)? So after some time I bought my first good wide lens – 16-35. I would have loved to buy a prime here as well but given that I had not tried any of them, I played safe. In any case, I knew I was going to click only few pictures with a 16-35 and stick to 135 as the default lens. So it didn’t matter much if its aperture was only as wide as f/2.8 or if it was not a prime lens. It didn’t matter till I laid my hands on 24mm f/1.4 – the lens that made me realize one can actually take beautiful pictures with shallow depth of field even with a wide angle lens.
[end of part 9 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
No. I now have a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 which is a significant improvement over 50 f/1.8 (and costs about 5 times more). I bought this new 50mm only recently. Did I really need to? Let me explain.
One camera with 24mm f/1.4 and another with 135mm f/2 is a really really deadly combination. You can easily shoot entire weddings with just these two without ever needing a 50mm focal length. However, once in a while, when things get too crowded in weddings and I cannot shoot from a distance (making my 135 pretty useless), I do get bored of shooting just with a 24mm. The problem with lenses as wide as 24 is that it becomes difficult to come up with different looking frames unless you get to move around a lot; so if you are stuck in a crowded place where you can’t move much, you do feel that need to have something which is not as wide as 24 and not totally unusable as 135. And so you end up using your 50mm (or some other focal length like say 35 or 85) in such cases. But the quality of 50 f/1.8 was relatively not good enough (in terms of sharpness and colour rendition even if one ignores the poor build quality though what can you really expect from a 7k lens) when compared to 135 or 24 or even 16-35. And so one day I upgraded my 50mm to the Sigma 50 f/1.4. Canon also offers a 50 f/1.4 by the way, but most existing reviews told me that the slightly more expensive sigma had a much better build, focussed faster and gave better images in general.
These days this is the lens I use most often (to the extent that I hardly use the 24 – find it too wide now unless in specific scenarios when say I am shooting a dance performance with a lot of people on stage, and I can’t move too far away from the stage – in such cases I do use the kickass 24).
[end of part 11 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 to begin with. I wouldn’t have been considering this had the 50 f/1.4 been giving me as crisp images as I get from 24 f/1.4 or 135f/2. It doesn’t. So however much I love the 50mm focal length, I am forced to explore alternatives. I will update this post on my experience with the 35mm Sigma once I get to use it. From whatever reviews I have read so far, this seems to be a killer lens (some say that it is even sharper than the Canon 35mm f/1.4 which is considerably costlier than this one). No wonder, it is running out of stock in India at the moment. But a friend has agreed to get it for me when he arrives from US to India later next month. Bye bye till, then! Enjoy clicking!
[end of part 12 – best gear for wedding photography in India]
The follow-up post on the new lesnes I bought and experimented with, after this is here: And the Experiment with lenses goes on