This piece is not particularly a technical piece, (there are plenty of articles online that covert that!) This is more of a opinion piece, an outline as to which lenses I use, why I use them and how they make a difference in the crazy social photography world within which I reside!
Canon EOS 1ds Mark III
Brett’s Score – 8.5/10
I believe that the camera body is only as good as the person using it and the lenses that you put onto it! Having said that Canon have a wide array of digital bodies to suit every budget , hand size! & style. Having grown up using Leica full frame bodies I wanted to wait until a full frame digital body came upon the market. My first digital body was Canon’s EOS 1DS , purchased in 2004, this 11.4MP body was overnight in my hands a joy to behold!
Switching to digital was although a very different proposition to film, funnily enough was pretty easy due to the cameras relationship with its predecessors.
I had used Canons 1V bodies beforehand and apart from the film /CF card slots the feel of the camera was to me very similar. Preferring not to look at the back of the camera for a good few months I treated it the same way and this is the way I shoot today. Using the screen for WB checking only.
I moved onto the 6.7MP Mark II body and then finally , ( for now) onto the the mark III body for which I have been using for my main work horse for couple of years now. For me a camera is a box for which I see the world through. Whereas years ago it was all about the FILM that we used, remember that? It is now about the body that we use. How it handles high ISO, color rendition, file sizes etc… There is a lot more to choose from now and a lot more at our disposal. For me if a camera feels right in the hand, if it helps you to produce the imagery by which you see with your eyes then go for it. For me the Canon Mark III body is an extension of my eyes. I have become so used to it, to the way it exposes, or should I say the way that I expose through it! The way it handles in the rain, the way it works feels like second nature now and I have always felt this when using Canon bodies. Not only do they produce the images that I expect but also ergonomically they work for me.
True, that technology is such that things are changing all the time. The 1DX body out now has far greater ISO at it s disposal, cleaner ISO which is one of the Mark III’s drawbacks. I find myself limiting my ISO to usually 800, sometimes to 1600 if need be. I know that the 1D family of cameras might be too large in physical size for a lot of photographers, the 5D mark II & soon III fill this gap perfectly. I know a lot of female photographers that choose the 5D over the 1D every time purely down to size & weight.
For me the Mark III is the perfect body for what I shoot.
It is weather sealed, I have had it down graves
( http://brettharknessphotography.com/training/discover/down-dirty/ ) on rooftops – (http://brettharknessphotography.com/g/commercial/ ) ,
on the beach, at fashion shoots all over the UK – ( http://brettharknessphotography.com/training/2012/02/23/funky-flash-manchester/ )
Weddings all over the world – (http://brettharknessphotography.com/wedding/ ) and countless other situations where it has never let me down.
All in all it is a tool but a very important one for sure. Without being able to rely on the equipment that you are using then it can make things very difficult indeed. I have faith in my tools, so that allows me to get on with the job.
Canon EOS 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II USM
Brett’s score – 8.5/10
Up until a couple of years ago this was the main work horse lens for me. I still use it a lot but a mix it up now with different focal lengths depending upon what I am shooting.
This is and always has been a beautiful lens to use. Only being bettered with the Mark II version of it which rekindled my love for zoom lenses! I shoot weddings all over the UK & beyond . This lens with others is my main shooting lens for weddings. It allows me to hold back, to keep my distance and to pick off moments. A great lens for documentary when you want to be discreet. Its focusing is very fast and having a minimum focal distance of 3ft or so makes it a very versatile lens. The stabilizer gives you an extra couple of stops and is something I use a lot. It is a Large lens and again you have to weigh up the weight and size if you have small hands but I do know a lot of female photographers that have embraced this lens and have never looked back! With an aperture of 2.8 all the way through makes it the perfect lens for the social photographer. Especially with the summers that we get here in the UK!! If you want to read more technical info about this lens PLEASE CLICK HERE.
I have to say that I have gone through a few stabilizers on the old Mark I version of this lens. The mark II seems to handle the stabilizer being used a lot better. Because I shoot with one body only (I have always done this) I do change lenses a lot. It is perfect lens for “ peering” through a crowd when you physically cannot get in there! Which can happen sometimes at very large weddings. Allowing you to pick off moments. Apart from the weight I cannot really fault the new 70-200 lens. Optically it is amazing, it handles superbly and adds another dimension to my overall documentary when shooting at a wedding.
I also use this lens for my pre-wedding shoots, leaving everything else at home and keep it very simple.
I also take it with me to family/ lifestyle shoots. Often being the only lens in my bag with the 50mm as it covers most of the focal lengths that I find attractive for shooting families. The focusing is very fast and pretty much silent. The stabilizer on the old one could get quite noisy but they seem to have fixed this issue on the new version.
Canon 50mm f1.2 L USM
Brett’s score – 9/10
This lens used to sit on my camera bag and I could hear it saying, “let me out !” I would keep it only for my personal work. CLICK HERE to read an article I wrote for Canon magazine on its use on a trip to India! This is not an easy lens to use , all fixed lenses ( not zooms ) are a lot harder to use than a zoom. Especially if you are not used to them.
The reason for this is that YOU the photographer has to become the ZOOM. Your legs have to be used. You have to get closer to the subject in order to fill the frame. I have to say that i LOVE this lens, it is the closest lens for me to perfection. It is hard to use as I have said and you cant underestimate that. Not only because of the tricky focal length but also because wide open on 1.2 it is very hard to get anything in focus! The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens’ closest focusing distance is 1.48′ (.45m) – nearly identical to the 50 f/1.4 . This makes it ideal for portraiture & a favorite amongst photojournalists who like to get in close. The build quality is very good and can stand up to the countless knocks that I have given to it! Having said that I once pulled it in half at a wedding and had to gaff a tape it together and use it in the synagogue and use myself as the bellows! I don’t advise trying that at home.
It is the perfect lens for travel, documentary and times when you don’t want to lug too much equipment around. Take a look HERE for images taken whilst teaching in London this year using only this lens. All in all this lens demands respect. It is not the easiest to use for sure but once you have mastered it then it will repay you tenfold. I have to say that over the last few years I have traveled the world with this lens. Being the only lens on my bag whilst out shooting in India, Prague , Canada & Miami. Taking me back to my roots as far as using fixed lenses. I first shot in India over 15 years ago now and only used a 24mm lens. Since the introduction of zooms into my life I almost forgot about primes until I bought this and fell in love all over again. For me the 50mm focal length is perfect for the way that I shoot. The 35mm is too wide, the 85mm is too long finding myself having to back up out of the action as it were. It is without a doubt a focal length that is very rewarding if used correctly and it does take time to master. There is a lot of “negative” space with this lens as I hardly ever use it vertically. This means that you have to look a lot harder as to what is in your background before you press the shutter. Turning the – space into + space is the art but is what can make or break an image or moment captured. For me I feel most at ease and calm when shooting at weddings with this lens. It fits the way I shoot documentary and when used in conjunction with other varying focal lengths gives out clients the whole range of what we shoot. There are cheaper 50mm lenses on the market, indeed my first 50mm was the 50mm 2.5 macro lens which I took to Cuba with me on a trip. An amazing lens for the money. Yes this is an expensive piece of kit but when you “nail” an image on 1.2 or 1.4 there is nothing like it.
Canon EOS 16-35mm f2.8 L IS II USM
Brett’s score – 7/10
This is a lens that I use on most of the jobs that I shoot. For me it is known as my “scene setter” lens. It is a great lens for shooting large groups shots at apertures of around f8-f11. For me and I don’t know if it is an issue with this lens but it can be a little soft on the edges especially at larger aperture – around f2.8 – f4. Although a vast improvement over the version 1. To be honest I mostly use this lens now for my “ big flash” shots where I want to get a lot of the scene in as well as the couple, when I am shooting like this then I tend to use it on f11-f16 so the alternative 17-40mm f4/L lens would be worth considering and at half the price a good buy! I know some guys use it taped down on 35mm , just to get more use out of it.
Canon EF 24-70mm 2.8 L USM
Brett’s score – 6.5/10
I know this lens has now been upgraded but I am writing about the lenses that I use at the moment every day within my business and this is one of them, although my 50mm has somewhat replaced its usage. Although optically a good lens if used incorrectly then it can make a bad composition worse! People who know my work or have heard me talk about my work will know what I say about this lens, not so much about this lens but about this certain focal length. What I mean by this is in the wedding world a lot of people use this lens and sometimes they use it too close to the subject. I see a lot of full length group shots taken with a 24-70 on 24mm and they can look stretched. If used correctly then there is nothing wrong with this lens. Ultimately any lens is only as good as the user! It can get me out of a tight squeeze especially in winter documentary if my 50mm 1.2 is too long. A good overall work horse of a lens but has to be used as it was intended. It is an easy lens to zoom as it is quite a short lens to hold. Before I owned the 50mm I would often tape down the 24-70 on 24,35,50 to see which focal length suited my style of shooting. Zooms are fantastic to use but can sometimes get in the way of the shot because a lot of photographers are not sure which focal length to use and can end up missing the shot altogether! All round a good versatile lens if you cannot afford primes and if you are looking for a lens that if used correctly will work very well in the social & documentary market.
Canon EF 15mm f2.8 Fisheye
Brett’s Score – 9/10
When I first purchased this lens some 7 years ago I remember using it at my first wedding and hardly taking it off the camera! Now I would say it comes out only once or twice a wedding if that because my style has changed so much! I use it mainly for very large groups of say over 70. The largest group shot being 500! Optically it is probably the best fisheye out there and I would say it is somewhat wasted in my bag but a great little lens to have if the situation arises!
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro
I have had this lens for quite some years now and as I said earlier it was my first ever dive into the world of the 50mm! I am not sure if this lens can still be bought, maybe on E-bay. I think it has been replaced by the 60mm version. This is a great little lens for doing all my details at weddings. It is quite a noisy lens if you are wanting to use it in quiet places , i.e.: church! So you may look at manually focusing it for use in these situations. As a cheap alternative to the 1.2 version it handles itself quite well and would be a great starting point if you are looking to increase your collection of lenses.
At the end of the day this is just my opinion on how I use these lenses & body every day of my life. If it feels good in my hands then I use it! That was why I started to use Canon products nearly 20 years ago now! If the piece of equipment is allowing you to fulfill what you know you can do then use it. It is only when a piece of equipment is hindering you that you have to change it. This equipment is an extension of my eye, how I see my every day & the social world within which I work.
Please join me on FB, Twitter ( @brettharkness ) follow me on Instagram & Flikr.Also take a look at our wonderful training site, a host of information to watch , read & download.
Please note that the opinions represented in this article are that of Brett Harkness only.