The Two Most Useful Lenses a Photojournalist Should Carry

The Two Most Useful Lenses a Photojournalist Should Carry

A photojournalist is often called upon to photograph a scene at a moment’s notice. It can be a car accident one day, a music festival, the next and a protest the day after. With that in mind, there are two useful lenses that every photojournalist should carry in their bag to cover such a diverse range of photographic opportunities.

The 24-70mm f/2.8

There are many variations of this lens, from Canon and Nikon, of course, but also now in more affordable versions with Sigma and Tamron that, like the Nikon, have image stabilization. In fact, it’s only Canon’s offering amongst the major brands that leave that feature out.

That said, the fast 2.8 aperture means it’s not usually necessary. Compared to the variable-aperture zooms you see included with cameras, you get a fast constant aperture that’s decent in low light, and a focal length that can let you get a wide scene-setting shot and then punch-in on the details. There’s no other lens for full-frame bodies that covers such a useful range at this speed.

The fast aperture means that these are often a company’s top-shelf lenses. I’ve often referred to the Canon and Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lenses as “variable primes.” They are that sharp.

Crop shooters aren’t left out of the party either. Fuji makes an excellent 16-55mm f/2.8 lens that is a rough equivalent on the company’s APS-C bodies, and Panasonic and Olympus make their own versions of the lens for Micro 4/3 shooters.

85mm f/1.anything

When journalists need to create a portrait on-location, the 85mm lens does a better job of separating subject and background.

When journalists need to create a portrait on-location, the 85mm lens does a better job of separating subject and background.

The 85mm is a great portrait lens (because an environmental portrait is something journalists are also often called upon to do), but it’s also a great smaller option for low-light work. When the 2.8 lens just won’t cut it (and as fast and expensive as they are, sometimes they won’t) that’s when it’s time to step up to the 85mm f/1.2, 1.4, or 1.8 variants to let in some more light with a wider aperture. Many versions are all available in various Canon, Nikon Sigma, Tamron and other flavors. Most manufacturers offer high-end variants, though you’ll often be just fine with the slightly slower models, which are often much easier on the wallet.

My favorite take on this focal length is Fuji’s 56mm f/1.2 mm lens, which works out to about 84 mm full-frame equivalent. Canon also makes an 85mm f/1.2, but image quality and focus accuracy aren’t anywhere close to the Fuji, owing to the latter’s sensor-based autofocus system in the company’s cameras.

Bonus Lens: 70-200 f/2.8

Of course, there are times you need to get closer than an 85mm lens will get you – and that’s why keeping the old reliable in your trunk or in an extra bag is a good idea. The 70-200mm f/2.8 helps you get that extra reach, though the reason I list it as a bonus lens is that I often look at the situation I’m about to be dumped into before grabbing for it.

I’ll bring it with me if I think I’ll need the reach, but I’ll otherwise sacrifice range for mobility and stealth in a journalistic situation and only carry my 24-70 and 85mm.

Canon and Nikon both make excellent versions of this lens, and there are many third-party options from the likes of Sigma and Tamron on the market. Sony shooters also recently got a new version of this lens (and the fast 24-70) for its line of full-frame cameras as well.

These are just the lenses that I’ve had the most luck with when it comes to photojournalism. Photojournalists, event shooters, and wedding shooters – what’s your weapon of choice when it comes to fast-paced shooting that these jobs require? Sound off in the comments below.

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49 Comments

Ron Pogue's picture

Totally backwards, always the 70-200 to start, then the wide. The 24-70 2.8 from Canon is very poor compared to the 24-105 f4. The 40mm 2.8 is far sharper and faster to focus than the 24-70 2.8, so much lighter too.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

The one I linked to up there? The version II? It's insanely sharp, even wide open.

Pat Black's picture

Not to mention the 24-105 is almost a joke in terms of glass performance, and the 40mm is not much better, thats why its priced at less than 200 dollars brand new.

Yeah the 24-105 is essentially a kit lens for full frame cameras, the extra focal length is wasted with an f4 aperture and there's nothing special about the images. Pointless lens.

I flick between the 2 setups though, sometimes going 24-70 and an 85, sometimes going 35 and 70-200, though I'm doing events rather than journalism so I have a more predictable arena to judge my lens choices

Michael Clark's picture

The older EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L isn't a great PJ lens (compared to what else is out there now) because it is too susceptible to minor bumps to the front of the lens throwing the optical alignment out of whack. It's just a weird design with the barrel fully extended at 24mm and fully recessed at 70mm and the eccentrics for centering at the front of the lens instead of near the rear.

But the "II" version is a totally different design that doesn't share that vulnerability. It's as sharp throughout the focal length and aperture range as any mass produced zoom lens on the market.

The EF 24-105mm isn't optically as good as a properly aligned original 24-70/2.8, much less the replacement, but it can take punishment like nobody's business and keep on shooting with no loss in image quality. It's the kind of lens that you know will be ready when you need to get the shot, no matter how much it has been dropped, rained on, ran over, and bled on. Although the digital distribution of news has changed that somewhat, just getting the shot is the main thing when you're publishing on newsprint or even at typical web sized resolutions. Downsized to 1200x800 and compressed to death it's hard to see a lot of the so-called "huge" differences between a good and a great lens.

Jason Vinson's picture

For me and most photojournalists that I know of, its 35mm prime.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I've seen a couple that prefer that, but by far most newspaper photographers I know swear by the 24-70/70-200 combo.

Mike Bartoszek's picture

Ya that's the combo for me. Primes are nice an all but I hate being locked in to a focal length. That whole "zoom with your feet" thing, doesn't always pan out in that moments notice.

Anonymous's picture

I guess it depends on what you're shooting. I shot with a 24-70 & 70-200 for several years which was necessary when shooting politics. I still have them, but don't use them and these days my two go-to lenses are an 28mm & 50mm.

Don McCullin used to shoot with a 28mm & 135mm.

Michael Clark's picture

Politics today seems to require more length than it did a generation or two ago. At major events the press is often restricted to tightly controlled access areas a lot further from the action than they once were. Even pool photogs aren't always given the same kind of close access they once were.

Anonymous's picture

I agree. I covered the 2016 election and in most cases we were never allowed to be closer than 45 feet from the candidate. Years ago the press would get to be in the "buffer zone", which is the space between the stage and the audience where the Secret Service is, but those days are gone.

In all of the events I covered for the last presidential election, there was only one that didn't restrict our access.

I'm going to have to say best two are 35mm 1.8/1.4 and 85mm 1.8/1.4 they will cover 75% to 90% off all your photo taking needs.

Using a 24mm-70mm 2.8 and 70mm-200mm is a cop out for lack of knowledge on how to shoot photos in with primes or just laziness in your profession.

Now if you just average person or just starting you photo business journey great lenses to learn on. Just that learn on.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

I would not say that using 24-70 and 70-200 = lazy. If you're on an assignment, what you don't want most is keep changing lenses. You seriously don't want to miss a moment.

Prime lenses are great, but it won't do much of the job. Trying to compose an image while a riot is happening (i.e.) just makes your job difficult. You would want to focus more on documenting the event rather than being too artsy with the bokeh and subject isolation.

It's still subjective though, it depends if you know what you're getting in to. But in most cases, I would prefer "flexible" lenses.

Agreed on the "not laziness" point. Having the ability to get even a less-than-perfect shot is exactly 100% better than getting no shot at all because you're not able to get into the right position. Events are not usually held in perfect studio conditions.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Saying that using a 24-70 / 70-200 combo is lazy is quite ridiculous. I shoot high-end events with exactly that combo, and I were shooting news then I would shoot with the combo - and I'm certainly not lazy or suffering from a lack of knowledge.

When confronted with split second moments, we don't have time to walk/run to a better spot to get the right angle or field of view. I'll often shoot something that happens for 3 seconds - which is just enough time to raise a camera, frame, focus and expose. And for that reason I carry two cameras, each with a lens, and a speedlight on at least one of them.

We talk about primes being extra sharp, or the beauty of shooting at f1.4, or how we should be in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time... but all this goes when faced with the unexpected.

And even if we can crop an image, often the beauty of a 200mm shot through foreground is a beautiful aesthetic, and tells the story in a different way. In-your-face 35mm has its place but there is more than one way to skin a cat.

An f1.4 shot that is lost is never going to trump an f2.8 shot that is captured. Even an 85mm doesn't get you in very close, and often the reach is important - without a crop which will destroy the potential optical benefits of compression.

Have a style and favourite lenses to be sure. But one should never make a rookie mistake of accusing people of being lazy or having a lack of knowledge because they shoot differently to you. There's a reason I charge £13,000 and upwards for my events/parties work using almost exclusively the 24-70 / 70-200 combo, and it is not because I'm lazy or unsure of what I'm doing.

Chris Rockstroh's picture

As an event shooter I 100% agree. I love shooting on my primes but your feet can often times physically not move quick enough compared to turning a zoom ring.

Additionally, your compositional skills with a 35/85 is going to mean precisely stuff-all when someone is making a speech or these is something you are limited with where it can be shot from and you just can't get the shot that you would with a 70-200.

Michael Clark's picture

Compression is just another word for describing a particular type of perspective, and perspective is *always* determined by one thing and one thing only: shooting distance. Period. Take the same shot from the same shooting position with a 50mm and a 200mm using the same aperture for both, then crop the 50mm shot to match the FOV of the 200mm shot. Now reduce the size/resolution of the 200mm shot to match the size of the 50mm shot so they are both the same display size and resolution and tell me which one is more compressed? I dare you. In fact, I triple dog dare you!

The only optical benefits you get of using a 200mm lens to start with instead of cropping a 50mm shot is you don't throw away resolution, both in terms of the limits of the lens (if you are enlarging 4X as much you need a lens 4X as sharp to get the same acutance) and the limits of the sensor. You're also giving away signal to noise ratio. But you're definitely NOT giving away compression because compression is strictly a function of shooting distance. The reason we don't notice compression in the deep background of WA shots is because our subject is much closer to the camera than when we're framing the same subject with a longer lens.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

Hmmm... No.

For Canon, 16-35 2.8L, it just gives me this "in the action" feel. I have shot with it 90% of the time in my 5 year career.
For second lens, between 24-70 or 70-200 (I bring what is suitable for my assignment)

Never used Nikon for photojourn, but if I was to choose, that 16-35 f4 VR wouls be fine as the 14-24 is a bit too wide. And same with alternating between 24-70 or 70-200

I never brought all those 3 lenses with me.

Why I don't recommend the 85mm like the OP said, it usually has slow AF. Most prime from Nikon and Canon. But if you have the Sigma, it focuses faster but it has its own quirks.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

You're right about the slow focus on those 85s. Of all of those, the one that works the best for me in terms of focus speed is the Canon 85 mm f/1.8, it's pretty speedy compared to the others.

My Nikon 85 1.8 focuses really fast and almost always nails it. I used it for a toddler's birthday party and out of around 1000 pix, there were maybe three where the eyes weren't tack sharp.

Rex Larsen's picture

A couple comments here caught my attention: "The Canon 24-70 2.8 is very poor", and using the 70-200 and 24-70 is a cop out due to lack of knowledge, and laziness. I have 40 years of experience, work very hard, and find my two zooms to be quite impressive. In the old days before quality 2.8 zooms I had one of every prime in my bag from 20mm to 300mm. I'm happy to ditch the bag and have two cameras on my shoulders that give me choice of 24mm to 200mm without changing lenses. In my opinion, using my feet to move and always trying to use the longest focal length for every picture is discipline that serves me well. It's easy to make the mistake of shooting too wide. That was a problem for even the most experienced pros when the popular 20-35mm lenses first came out years ago. My career is not based on bokeh. I'd love to add a couple super fast primes one day. But 2.8 serves me well all day long. Many times while covering news I had shots others missed because I pulled out my 400 2.8 and converters.
It is possible I am dumb, lazy, and my pictures aren't as sharp as I think they are.

The only thing I learned from this article and the comments is, that trying to get photographers to agree on anything is like pulling teeth.

Craig Tedeton's picture

Amen, brother! 😁

What an absolutely useless article, which is not a surprise coming from a company like "fstoppers" who do nothing other then rewrite advertising tripe.

Sorry wasim, but your lack of knowledge shines supreme here. A 56 mm lens is a 56 mm lens NO MATTER what the format, same for a 16mm-55mm. The perspective is the same, ALWAYS. Yes the crop factor changes, but the focal length never does, nor the perspective. Any intelligent photographer would know that, which is why you obviously don't.

Elan Govan's picture

Hi Paul,

Well written except for one minor detail. None of us are here to qualify someone else intelligent on a particular subject of photography. By all means disagree with the article.

While technically correct, he's wrong for practical purposes. Martin, below, is correct.

Elan Govan's picture

Thank you Sam for differentiating the two. But I was not referring to that. Does not matter now. Time has passed.

Sorry, but perspective is function of how far your camera is from the subject. No gear gonna change it. You need to use different focal length to frame the same picture on crop and FF.

Wim Hendriks's picture

I used the 21 and the 24 zeiss often

I get the article, useful for some....but unless this shot is an on-set shot of an actor in makeup, the image used to grab our attention is an insanely exploitative picture of a guy in a horrible circumstance. I'm never one to shy away from a hard edged street picture but this is one that should never have been taken, and is being used inappropriately to stop people cold so that the article gains attention. No art or photojournalism here, just terrible insensitivity.