Why I Love My 20mm Lens to Shoot Weddings

Why I Love My 20mm Lens to Shoot Weddings

When starting out in wedding photography, one of the most common questions that gets asked is, “What lens is a must have for my first wedding?” The most popular answers to this question are all over the map. They range from 50mm to 85mm to 70-200mm and so on. What you likely never see on the list is something like a 20mm lens, but for me, I will always have one of these lenses in my bag.

Throughout the wedding day, I'll switch between several lenses, but the first time I break out my wide-angle lens is during portraits with the bride and groom. When most people think portraits, they think tight and up close and personal in order to fill the frame. These are great and should always be a part of what you deliver to a client, however sometimes you need to be able to get a sense of the scene for a good environmental portrait. If you are using a lens similar to an 85mm, you have the ability to step back and include your entire scene. The problem with this situation is that it can lead to your subject being too small in the frame.

After taking the photo above I knew I loved the location and the setup, but I wanted there to be more focus on the couple. With a 20mm lens I knew I could make the couple more predominant in the frame while still including the bridges that originally drew me to this location.

This is a great example because the couple is standing in the exact same location as the first image, however both images are significantly different. By changing your focal length and shooting position, you can give a completely different look to an image without moving your subject or lighting. This also gives a good example to how the compression comes into play when dealing with different focal lengths. In the image shot at 20mm the bridges seem more spread out and further away from the couple. For the image taken at 85mm, the bridges are more compressed and seem closer to the couple.  

I also love to take dramatic-style images that include a significant amount of sky. When shooting a wide-angle lens I’m almost always shooting up and my subject is usually in the lower half of the frame. I feel like this gives the viewer a sense of awe, since they are looking up to the couple.

One of the benefits of utilizing a wide-angle lens is that even when shooting wide open you are able to capture basically everything in focus. The below image was taken at f/1.8 (on accident, since there was plenty of light to stop down) but since I was shooting at 20mm the couple and building are all still in focus. Considering my surroundings, I also couldn't back up any further without stepping into traffic, so the 20mm lens was the only way for me to have the entire building in the frame.

That’s not to say you can’t capture a few shallow depth of field effects to help isolate your subject. In this next image, the foreground detail was significantly closer than my subject so I was still able to have that detail become a pleasant out-of-focus blur that draws your eye into the frame where the couple is standing.

When you stop down to around f/5.6, it makes the lens perfect for run-and-gun shooting where it can be difficult to keep up with your subject. In this image below, I was running alongside the couple as they were leaving the church. I could conveniently frame my shot, start shooting, and not have to worry too much about focusing on the couple as they ran toward me. Mind you, this was me shooting and running backward down the stairs, not something I always recommend.

Once we arrive at the reception location, I usually have my 20mm lens glued to one camera body. Shooting wide allows me capture a good overall shot of the venue. Then, from that point I use light to draw the viewer's eye to the subject.

One of my favorite parts of the day is when the traditional first-dances have ended, and the party dancing begins. Originally, when I first started shooting weddings, I would hover around the outside of the dance floor. When I began shooting with the 20mm lens, I found that it required me to get up and in the action. This can be a little awkward at times, but once you jump in there, you tend to receive more interaction from guests and they start to loosen up and show off for you.

Although I try to crop most of my images in-camera, when shooting super wide it can sometimes be hard to get close enough to the action. Other times, you only have a split second to catch a special moment before it's gone, so you don't have time to move closer. In instances like this I have no issue cropping a photo in post to tighten up my frame.

The thing to keep in mind when shooting with a 20mm lens, or any other wide-angle lens, is the effect it can have on people’s faces. The closer your subject is to the edges of the frame and the closer your subject is to the camera, the more this distortion can affect your image. That is why I only use my 20mm lens for full body portraits. For more information about how distortion affects the face, check out this great article on how a lens' focal length shapes the face.

Another distortion to keep in mind is perspective distortion. This can be seen in the image above with the large building. Since I’m fairly close to the building, I have to tilt my camera up to get the entire building in the frame. By utilizing this technique with a wide-angle lens, it can seem that the edges of the building are falling in toward the center of the frame. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be mindful of. This can be fixed in post, to an extent, but when you have subjects in the image, they may end up looking stretched or misshapen if you’re not careful. Because of this, I try to keep my subjects a decent distance away from the camera, as well as in the center of the frame, to help minimize this distortion from affecting them.

What do you think? Do you have a wide-angle lens as part of your kit? How do you like to use your wide-angle lenses?

Jason Vinson's picture

Jason Vinson is a wedding and portrait photographer for Vinson Images based out of Bentonville, Arkansas. Ranked one of the Top 100 Wedding photographers in the World, he has a passion for educating and sharing his craft.

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Although I don't do weddings, a 20mm has been in my arsenal for decades. Superwides are an important part of my shooting. I've been eying the 14mm Samyang as well.

what do you use your super wide lenses for?

All sorts of things, actually. I used to shoot a lot of concerts, and superwides can grab in the entire atmosphere of the moment. Cityscapes and architecture are another. My trusty old 20mm f/4 Ai Nikkor which I've used for over 35 years now is an accurate rectilinear lens, unlike most modern wides which exhibit annoying amounts of barrel distortion. It's great for architecture. I'm in the process of setting a virtual walkthrough for a client's website, and I'll be using the 20mm to create Quicktime VRs. I also have a product shoot coming up (small items) and I may consider the 20 for a shot or two.

With strobes you have to make sure you're getting enough spread if they're going to be the main light source. Do you ever find yourself needing more strobes for a given situation?

Not really... for the dancing type images I usually just have an on camera direct flash and i have it zoomed to about 70mm because I like the spotlight effect and I want to only freeze the action of my subject and let the edges streak as I move my camera. For images with off camera flash I really just need to light the subject so the spread I need is the same for any lens.

Awesome piece. How did you light the bridge shots?

Thank you!! I used an Einstein strobe in a large Octa with the grid. The light is taken out in post for the 85mm shot and the light is out the of the frame for the 20mm shot.

great read. My personal goal for wedding work is to work more with my 24mm for portraits. I tend to lock in on 85 or 135 and not show enough of a scene unless my subjects are far away.

I use a super wide (Tokina 11-16 f2.8) for street photos. I love the angles it gives you. It also allows you to crop pieces of the image after correcting for distortion.

I've been trying to figure out how to take images similar to that last one of the boy playing the air guitar. Not sure what the technique is called. Any help?

its called "dragging the shutter". I use the flash to freeze the motion of the subject and the shutter is open for around 1/10th of a second to let the ambient light burn in. To get the streaks I just move my camera around after the flash pops and while the shutter is still open.

So being that i'm GUESSING you shoot Nikon, since you have a 20mm 1.8 (unless it's a sigma), you should also know about rear curtain sync for shooting images like this....if you shoot rear curtain sync (where the flash pops at the END of the 1/10s exposure, rather than the beginning), your motion trails will be BEHIND the subject, rather than in front....it can help in making motion look more "realistic".....

I mention Nikon b/c with Canon you cant rear curtain sync with off camera flashes, unless you use canon's POS system.....with Nikon, you just tell the camera to do it, and it does.

I shoot with Nikon now but that's a very recent change. All the above images are with a Sony A900. I know what you mean with the rear curtain sync but for my application its pretty irrelevant because I'm moving my camera to cause the streaks and blur and not waiting for my subject to move to cause the blur. In addition, since the flash is whats freezing the motion, it would be too hard to time my shot and have it framed since I'm swinging my camera around. It's better to frame and get my shot, then swing to cause the blur :)

rear curtain sync is pointless for these types of shots and just makes the job alot harder. If someone is facing left with his back to the right and you want his shadow behind him you just move the camera to the left after the flash has fired. Rear sync is for when the camera is mounted on a tripod and the subject is moving.

I disagree Jonas. Rear curtain sync is perfect for these types of shots. With a slow shutter speed, you want your flash to pop and light your subject at the END of the exposure. You don't have to even THINK about which direction your camera is moving.

With people dancing on a dance floor, its to hard to catch the perfect moment when you have to time their actions to line up with the end of your shutter actuation. Its much better to catch the moment as a you see it, right when you click the shutter. And because I am swinging the camera around to create the blur, it doesn't really matter what direction the blur is moving...

I see what you're saying. I use rear curtain all the time in nightclubs when dragging the shutter, so perhaps I'm just set in my ways. Cheers!

I really like the shutter drag you got here of the boy playing the air guitar. Again this is a technique I have tried before, but only a few times with very limited success. I tried the rotating the camera through the exposure and got some OK to really bad results. The one I have posted here was done at 1/10th of a second as well.

It looks like you are just letting in a bit to much ambient light. You need to keep around 1/10 shutterspeed so you either need to lower your ISO or raise your fstop.

Thanks for the tips and I agree there is too much ambient.

I keep my fuji 10-24 glued on one of my xt1's during receptions. I love the wide and crazy distortion it can cause. I also don't mind cropping in Lightroom afterwards. Great article.

The wide angle shots published here are impressive. The problem with wide angle images as I see it is viewing distance.
Are really large prints being sold and displayed ? increasingly, pictures are viewed on electronic devices like the smartphone I used to see them. Even on a computer or IPad screen the images will appear quite small. In recent years my shots have become tighter and more simple for a variety of clients for that reason.

Where do people view large images or large prints ?

Thanks Rex! I try and get at least a couple of these dramatic style images at each shoot. They usually end up as a large print in a living room or a full spread in an album. Totally agree that a small cell phone screen doesn't do these types of images any justice but I think the general point of them still comes across.

I agree with both these comments here. I have the photos I posted below on my cell phone in a portfolio folder, but they do not look very good on such a small screen and often find myself explaining that they are done for large print reasons. The couple that I shot in Cabo san Lucas did their picture of them on the bridge in a large canvas print that is hanging in their living room and I feel that often we should just explain to couples the best way to display the photos we create for them. :)

Thanx Jason for valuable tips , It will help me a lot in my future assignments

glad they were helpful for you!!

Beautiful images, Jason. May I ask what 20mm lens you are using?

I'm using the nikon 20mm f1.8 right now. but all the images above are from when i shot Sony so for the ones above I'm using the Sigma 20mm f1.8

I really liked your article and I agree with you about trying to include the setting in at least one photo with the couple's portraits. I have been looking at a 20mm for sometime now, but I bought the Tokina 12-24mm f/4 a few years back specifically for doing weddings. I often use it when the bride is getting the dress on so I can capture everyone together in a small space, but I use it mainly for doing the couple's photos later in the day. I try to find one spot of the venue where I can put the couple that will showcase them and capture the feel of the setting as well. I uploaded a couple that I have done for fun. The first is at the Riu Palace resort in Cabo san Lucas and the next is at the McMenimans Grand Lodge in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for the article and do you have any recommendations for a 20mm brand? I shoot with a Nikon D610 and D7000

nice shots! Really like the one on the steps! Think it would be cool to have gotten a bit lower on the bridge shot in order to gets some more of that cool reflection in the pool! As for brand, I don't think you can go wrong with either Sigma or Nikon. all the images above are with the Sigma from when i shot with Sony. But just recently I moved to NIkon and the Nikon 20mm is great as well. If i had to pick i would go with the Nikon since it seems to be a bit sharper all around and a bit faster AF.

Thanks for the feedback. The pool cascaded down so I think I was not very high off the ground where I shot this. Although I cannot remember for sure, I just remember I was standing in an "off limits" decorative fountain or something similar at the time. :) Have you or anyone you know used the website "borrowlenses.com"? I may try renting the Nikon 20mm for a few days and see how I like it.

I would go with lensrental.com just since i have never had an issue with them and their customer service has always been stellar to work with! i have no experience with borrowlenses and they may be good, i just dont have any experience with them.

Benjamin will love to know how you lit up the couple in the second pic as I've tried lot of times but was not successful to lit the couple properly.

Both photos are a composite since their is an assistant standing right next to the couple in both of them. I shoot one photo of the couple light up with the assistant all in frame and then take a second photo with everyone out of it so I can have a section to cut and paste. I used a tripod on both to keep the composition the same. Then it is just an issue of cutting and pasting in Photoshop and a little blending of the two photos. The following is a link to a short blog post I did showing some before and after shots.


Thanks Benjamin hav gone through the blog , its very much informative and cleared all the doubts in my mind.

Jason will love to know how you hav lit up the couple in the second pic as I've tried lot of times but was not successful to lit the couple properly.

beautiful shots benjamin! could you tell me how did you lit the couple on the stairs please? thanks a lot!

Thanks Charlie. The couple on the steps is a composite of 5 photos. The first photo has them standing on the steps and my assistant is standing next to them with an Nikon flash in a white shoot-thru umbrella on a light stand. The assistant is standing on the steps below them and to the left of them. The next four photos have the couple out of frame and off partying. My assistant then aims the flash at one of the pillars for each of the four photos. The camera was on a tripod so the pictures would be easy to line up in post production. At that point all I did really was use the lasso tool to cut sections out of a photo and put it all on one mater picture. Then I just did a little blending to get all the different parts to look right. I can put together a behind the scenes photo and write up on my blog if you are interested.

Nice! Having come from a music background before weddings I used to shoot everything with my 10-20mm Sigma, I always enjoyed being right in the thick of the action. I don't so much these days until people start getting wild on the dance floor, then I'm literally in there partying with them, especially good for Fathers of the groom loosing their minds on the dance floor!

Also, while talking about the dance floor and how it can sometimes be intimidating amongst drunken stranger... Do any of you drink on the job? Serious question! I always find having a few beers with guests means they see you as an equal and they let their guard down.... or am I just an alcoholic?

I have a couple beers at every wedding. Its one of the perks of what we do! I try and wait till after the traditional first dances but I'll occasionally have one with dinner if I have the option to sit down and relax for a few.

"or am I just an alcoholic?"

Ha! This made me laugh hard... :D

While I don't shoot weddings (I have, I just don't enjoy it), I totally know what you mean. I think there's a fine, blurry line. This is why I will only shoot friends' weddings... and only as a GUEST. I've captured some real gems that way. Zero expectations. No posing. Just honest moments.

Hello Jason, Your imagery is beautiful! I love using my 14-24 2.8 at weddings too, but this article opened up a new world to me. Your work is so inspiring! thanks for this great article!

Jason can you tell me how did you lit the couple that is standing under the bridge please? amazing and original shots by the way!

thanks Charlie! i used an Einstein Strobe in a large octa with a grid! for the 20mm shot the light is just out of frame to camera right. for the 85mm shot its actually in the fame and i took the light out in post.

Well I got Sigma 35mm 1.4 and 20mm 1.4 for my d810,first they had heavy front focus specially from 1 meter distance and more.After Lens Align system calibration I have very nice sharp images when I focus in a subject which is less than a meter away but more than a meter or 2 is very soft which I expected from a prime lens to be more sharp! I have send my body to Nikon NPS and they checked and said camera is in order and they have checked with Nikon wide angle lenses and focusing is right in body!
I have to check with other friends who has same lens and body or bring it to Sigma to check further!
Any idea or same problem?!