5 Affordable Canon Lenses For Photographing Babies And Newborns

It can be daunting trying to decide which lenses to buy for photographing babies and newborns, especially when you’re on a budget.




Award-winning family photographer Louise Downham shares her straightforward advice on which affordable lenses are best, as well as which lenses to consider upgrading to when your budget allows:

Assuming you have a full-frame sensor, the key lenses you’ll likely want in your camera bag for photographing babies are: an 85mm lens, a 50mm and an extension tube (a macro attachment). A 35mm or a wide angle lens will also prove itself to be very useful for setting the scene when photographing families, but is by no means essential. Believe it or not, with just these few lenses, you can take a great variety of baby photographs.

So, let’s have a look at these lenses one by one so you can see if they’re right for you.

50mm

The ‘nifty fifty’ is a useful lens for photographing babies and newborns. It pretty much replicates what your eye can see – it’s not the most poetic of lenses, but it’s a very practical one. It allows you to take family group shots in most environments, as well as showing the full-length of a newborn baby and close-up portraits of babies’ faces.

Image: 50mm f2.2 1-250 ISO 200.jpg


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Credit Louise Downham

 

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Credit Louise Downham

 

Image: 50mm f4.0 1/250 ISO 3200


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Credit Louise Downham

 

I started out with a Canon 50mm f/1.8, and it was fine – it was a great workhorse for several years. When I finally upgraded to the Canon 50mm f/1.2 though, the difference in quality was quite noticeable: it focuses faster, and the image is both sharper and creamier.

The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens is another affordable option to consider – lots of photographers have found it to be as sharp as any of the high-end 50mm lenses available.

As an affordable option, I’d suggest starting with either a Canon 50mm f/1.8 or a Sigma 50mm f/1.4. There are definitely those who say the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens is on a par with the Canon 50mm f/1.2, but in the world where clients know their camera brands, I still feel that at a certain level some clients would judge a professional photographer for not using a Canon lens!

Upgrades: when you can, upgrade your more affordable 50mm lens to a Canon 50mm f/1.2.

Image: 50mm f3.2 1-250 ISO 1250.jpg


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Credit Louise Downham

 

Extension tubes

For taking close-up, macro details of babies and newborns – like delicate eyelashes and little toes – using an extension tube with your 50mm lens is a great place to start.

You simply screw the attachment to the back of your lens, so it fits between your camera and the lens.

Canon make two extension tubes: the EF12 II and the EF25 II. The EF12 doesn’t allow you to magnify as much, but it lets in more light and creates a brighter photograph.

With home portrait sessions where natural light can be in short supply, I’d suggest using the EF12 II. If you want to go really close in, though, use the EF25 II and just move the baby as close to a window as possible.

As a side note, wait until a baby’s asleep before photographing macro details – it’s much easier when they’re not wriggling and squiggling around!

Upgrades: when your budget allows, upgrade to the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro lens. This is a stunning lens – the photographs it takes can be truly breath taking. I can’t imagine photographing newborns without one anymore!

Despite the macro name, the 100mm focal length is also great for portraits – but it is slow to focus so other than for macro photography, it’s best kept for adults and sleeping newborns, rather than active and faster moving babies.

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Credit Louise Downham

 

Image: 100mm f3.2 1/250 ISO 640


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Credit Louise Downham

 

85mm lenses

I love 85mm lenses, pure and simple. If I could only keep one lens, it’d be a 85mm.

There’s a reason they’re the most popular focal length for portraiture – they enable you to photograph a face close-up without distortion, and to isolate their face from a background.

85mm lenses enable you to photograph adults full-length, waist-up and close in on their faces. The same is true of photographing babies – although in a home environment, you’re unlikely to have enough space to use it for full-length photographs.

For photographing babies and newborns at home, a 85mm lens is great for photographing individual close-up portraits, and also to photograph a parent holding the baby. If it’s a large room, you may also have enough space to photograph both parents holding the baby.

Image: 85mm f3.5 1-250 ISO 1000.jpg


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Credit Louise Downham

 

There’s a great secret with the Canon 85mm lenses – for photographing babies, the f/1.8 is a better bet than the much more expensive L lenses: the f/1.4 or the f/1.2. Babies can move quite erratically, and surprisingly quickly – the L lenses in the 85mm focal range take beautiful photographs but they’re quite slow to focus, and you may miss quite a few shots.

The f/1.8 lens is a wonderful lens, and it’s more adaptable for different age ranges – with even faster moving toddlers, you won’t want a lens that focuses more slowly than the f/1.8.

Upgrades: In terms of future upgrade options, if you find you’re gravitating towards more static subjects e.g. adults, you might like to later upgrade to the f/1.4mm lens. If you’re mainly photographing babies and newborns, great news – stick with the f/1.8mm!

See also more about the 100mm Macro lens, above – I now use this lens instead of an 85mm lens for photographing very young babies and newborns, It’s an expensive lens though, and if I could only afford an 85mm, I’d be perfectly happy using that!

 

35mm or wide angle

A 35mm lens or a wide angle lens helps you to set the scene, incorporating environmental details that give a sense of a family’s home and can also show the scale of the baby.

Bear in mind that the wider the angle, the more distortion there’ll be – it’s not a lens to use for a close-up portrait or you’ll have bodies looking enormous and faces with weirdly stretched noses.

The good news is that if you’re using the 35mm to set the scene, you’re unlikely to be using a very wide aperture. This means the slower lenses are perfectly adequate.

The Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM Wide-Angle lens is a great place to start, and you may find you never need to upgrade from this.

Upgrades: If you find you’re leaning more towards documentary photography, you may find the 35mm is your go-to focal length. In this case, the L lens is your obvious choice – Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens. It’s not cheap though, so you’d want a good reason to upgrade for baby photography!

Image: 35mm f3.5 1/200 ISO 2500


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Credit Louise Downham

 

Why prime lenses and not zoom lenses?

Most photographers find they prefer photographing babies and newborns at particular distances – once you know whether you’re naturally more of a 50mm or 85mm shooter, you’d be best to invest in a really great lens at that focal length.

Zoom lenses give you flexibility but are more limiting with apertures, and for a really stunning baby portrait you’ll want to be able to shoot at around f/2.0.

Plus, zoom lenses tend to focus more slowly – and as mentioned already, babies are fast movers! Give yourself the best chances of nailing the focus with a prime (fixed) lens rather than a zoom lens.

The one zoom lens I do use sometimes when photographing babies is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Standard Zoom Lens – I love showing the full width of a double bed to show how tiny a baby is, which doesn’t always fit with a 35mm lens. As it turns out, I rarely use this lens narrower than 35mm, so really I’d have been perfectly fine (and with much more money left in my pocket!) with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM ultra wide angle lens. Ah well, you live and learn!

So the affordable option would be a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM ultra wide angle lens.

Image: “23mm f2.8 1-250 ISO 1000.jpg”


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Credit Louise Downham

 

Upgrading: lenses vs. camera bodies

I’m a firm believer in getting the best lenses you can, and upgrading your camera body later on.

Unless you’re working in really low level light, you’re unlikely to need the higher ISO sensitivities of the top cameras; and although the focus options of the newest cameras are sensational, if you’re using a mediocre lens you’ll never get the real wow factor in your photographs.

I found it was a better strategy to upgrade my lenses as soon as I could afford to, and I upgraded my cameras last of all.

It’s easy enough to hire a camera body, so if you have a one-off scenario where your camera body might not be up to scratch (like an evening event, if your camera struggles at high ISO), you could just hire a camera for the night.

Get shopping! Order in which to buy each lens:

  1. Start with a 50mm lens and an extension tube, as this allows you to take full-length photographs of the baby as well as close-up details with the macro attachment. The 50mm lens allows you to take a family group shot, as well as to include some environmental details like the family’s home. For me, I found 50mm slightly lacking in elegance – I needed to add an 85mm lens to my kit pretty quickly to get the soft feel I wanted.

  2. The 85mm would be the next lens to buy, as it gives you that beautiful portrait feel to the photographs that will be lacking a bit from the 50mm photographs.

  3. If your priority now is to improve your close-up details, you’ll want to invest in a 100mm – the extension tube is fine for a while, but the 100mm is really where it’s at.

  4. If you find you’re leaning more towards documentary photography, the next lens choice would be a 35mm lens.

  5. Other lenses that I sometimes use when photographing babies are a 135mm lens – you need a lot of space to use this so it’s generally a case of using it outdoors. You need a lot of experience in keeping a baby’s attention taking a photograph from this far back, so it can be more useful for natural shots of the family interacting with their baby.

Rent or borrow

It’s easy to read reviews of lenses and think they sound right for you, but then when you try it, find that for one reason or another, it’s just not for you.

Renting lenses can save you from making some expensive mistakes – or better yet, if you know a friendly photographer, borrow one for the weekend!


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The resale value of a second-hand lens is pretty poor, so you don’t want to invest in a lens only to find you’re not really using it a few months later – you may get very little money for it when you try to sell it.

I did a lot of research on lenses in the early days of my career, and felt the 70-200mm lens would be a great option for me as it covered both the portraiture distance I wanted at 85mm, as well as the long distance at around 135mm that I wanted for outdoor family portraits, and would give me lots of flexibility when out on location. I hired one for photographing an event, and to my surprise, I really didn’t like it at all! It’s a personal thing, but I found the lens incredibly obtrusive where I prefer to be discreet – and man alive, it’s heavy! Renting the lens was a great experiment for me – it let me use the lens on the job, and see if it worked for me.

If you rent a lens from a reputable store, it should be in good working order – but if your camera tends to back-focus or forward-focus, you may need to calibrate your camera to the rented lens. This is quite time-consuming and tedious, so if you find you’re renting a lens often and having to calibrate each time, I’d suggest saving up and buying it as soon as you can!

 

Buying second-hand

It can be really tempting to buy lenses second-hand. Be wary though, as if a lens has had a knock it may not focus as well as it used to.


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Personally, I’d only buy a second-hand lens from a camera shop where the lens has been checked over and comes with a guarantee.

The range of lenses available can be overwhelming, but by thinking through the specific scenarios you might photograph you can edit down the choices to a manageable set of options.

For photographing babies and newborns, you really can’t go wrong with a 50mm and an 85mm lens – and it’s possible to take wonderful photographs on very affordable versions of these lenses.

Set money aside each month for upgrading your equipment, and add to your lenses as and when you can.

It’s a glorious moment when you’ve finally bought all the lenses on your wish-list! But then, of course, you think of another lens that might be interesting to try.. And so it goes on!

Click the link to learn about storytelling newborn photography.

 

 

 



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