Photography is probably the most expensive and confusing corner of the consumer tech world.

If you’re just starting to set up your camera kit, you face a baffling array of choices: fixed-lens or interchangeable? DSLR or mirrorless? Nikon, Canon, Olympus, or Sony?

Most people don’t need to buy expensive equipment, since smartphone cameras have gotten pretty damn good. It’s probably more beneficial to spend your time learning about lighting and composition than worrying about the differences between APS-C and FX.

However, if you’re ready to get serious and invest in some solid gear for shooting weddings, portraits, or just your family vacations, the real magic is in the lenses.

Buying a fancy DSLR or mirrorless camera and outfitting it with a cheap zoom lens is a mistake — the differences between cameras are incremental, and most working full frame DSLRs sold on eBay will do perfectly well as you’re getting started. However, a solid arsenal of prime (non-zooming) lenses will not only give you the best quality images, they’ll also force you to develop better habits and be more creative in your image-making.

After cycling through a number of primes in the last five years, I’ve landed on two that I’m convinced are the only ones any serious photographer needs: The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM “Art Lenses.”

It’s easy to make an argument for Sigma lenses in general: They’re cheap compared to lenses from better known manufacturers, yet boast similar or better quality.

The 35mm runs about $900 right now, and the 85mm $1,200 — compared to $1,700 and $1,600 respectively for the Nikon equivalents.

But this recommendation isn’t really about Sigma itself — the company just happens to offer the best value on high-quality lenses at those specs right now.

My biggest recommendation is simply to seek out two specific focal lengths: 85mm and 35mm.

Carry one lens of each with you on a shoot, and you can feel confident you’ll have the gear you need.

I learned to do this from my friend Christian Wilson, a wedding and art photographer based in Chicago. He makes his living chasing brides and grooms, taking photos that have to look good the first time — that ring is only going on that finger once.

Wilson dual-wields two Nikon D750 cameras (the best DSLR on offer, if you can afford it), one that sports a Sigma 35mm lens and the other with an equivalent Nikon 85mm. He rarely, if ever, switches to any other lens. 

I’ve shot a few weddings with Christian in the last year, and followed his setup on my aging Nikon D800 and D700 cameras. Once you’ve shot this way, any other gear arrangement feels like a poor substitute.

There’s really only two things you want your lenses to do when you’re shooting documentary style: capture a scene in context, and cover distance to shoot a particular detail.

A 35mm lens is pretty wide — about as wide as a full-frame lens can get before you’ll start to notice fish-eye-like distortion. Even in a tight space, it can capture a big scene. 

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