I call it (as do others) the Canon Holy Trinity but it could just as easily be called the Nikon or Sony Holy Trinity. What am I talking about here—religion or photography? Definitely photography, I always get into trouble with politics and religion. Experienced photographers will know what I mean when I talk about the Trinity but for new photographers read on.
The Trinity consists of the three lenses every serious photographer should have in their kit: 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8. The idea is you can cover virtually every photo assignment with one of these three lenses (with the possible exception of professional sports or wildlife shooting where a long lens is required). Do you absolutely need these three lenses? Of course not.
Lens selection, like everything else in photography, is a matter of personal choice: you choose what works best for you and accommodates your shooting style. Do you shoot mostly in a studio or is your style more photojournalistic? Are you a dedicated sports or wildlife photographer? Do you prefer shooting people or landscapes or do you just like shooting everything? These are questions only you can answer.
The needs of a wedding photographer will often be different than the needs of a wildlife or landscape photographer. The Trinity is a good place to start but there are pros and cons. Lets start with the f/2.8 aperture: this aperture shot wide-open lets in lots of light—great for indoor wedding and event photography (not so important for outside photography). The downside is they’re big, heavy and very expensive and sometimes have to be stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6 for improved image quality.
The Trinity is made up of zoom lenses (covering different focal lengths) and not prime lenses that cover a specific focal length. Again, the tradeoff comes in the form of size, weight, cost and sometimes image quality (although most modern zoom lenses shoot tack-sharp). Studio photographers often prefer prime lenses whereas travel photographers need the flexibility of zoom lenses. I am a full-time wildlife, landscape and travel photographer so I find zoom lenses indispensable. I love prime lenses but they take up valuable space in my kit.
If you shoot mostly outside (like I do) you can save considerable money by opting for the f/4 version of these lenses (there’s only a 1-stop difference). The high ISO performance and improved dynamic range in modern digital cameras makes this even more practical. My Canon EOS 5D Mark IV can get usable shots at ISO 12,800 and my EOS 7D Mark II can do the same at ISO 6400 (keep in mind low ISO is always better). However, if you shoot mainly indoors (weddings & events as prime examples) then the wider f/2.8 lenses will be a better choice if you can afford them.
I think any serious photographer should consider having at least one good low-light prime lens in their kit. After much research and consideration my choice was the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF (also available for Nikon shooters). I usually buy Canon L-glass (Pro-level) but this third-party lens is the best 50mm lens available today with the possible exception the Zeiss Otus which sells for $4,000 USD and is a manual focus only lens whereas the Sigma offers autofocus.
So what is in my bag relative to lenses? Remember, I shoot mostly outdoors (wildlife, landscape and travel) with occasional commercial/editorial assignments from newspapers and magazines. I will also accept assignments from individuals or businesses if I find them interesting and profitable. Travelling 365-days a year I need high-quality lenses with robust build quality, stellar image quality and maximum flexibility for various shooting conditions. I have five lenses that center around the Trinity (mostly the f/4 versions):
The point of this article is not to convince you to make the same lens (or camera) choices I made but to ask yourself some really important questions before you buy any photography equipment: what kind of photography do you enjoy, what is your skill level, where do you want to go with your photography, what can your budget handle (and similar questions). Be a discerning buyer. Dustin Abbot on YouTube is a good resource (great professional integrity) as well as my friends Tony & Chelsea Northrup at Northrop Photo. By way of full disclosure I have written photography articles for Northrup Photo and received financial compensation for those articles.