What are the best lenses for food photography?
This is THE question I get asked every time I teach a workshop. It’s a hot topic for anyone that has struggled with food photography and I often think it stems from the hope that buying a fancy lens is going to make everything look good!
Lenses actually often can be a make or break component of great food photography, so understanding your options is key.
Usually, when you purchase your first SLR, a salesperson (or online store) will convince you of the greatness of their offer by including a lens or two at a ‘package’ price. What they don’t tell you is that those ‘package’ or kit lenses are usually very cheaply manufactured and generally of basic quality. While you are likely to enjoy using them at the very beginning, it won’t be long before you outgrow these kinds of lenses. You might be better off waiting a bit longer if necessary and saving enough to afford even one really good lens than succumbing to ‘included’ kit lenses.
While this story is about lenses, I need to give camera bodies a bit of attention first. In recent times, most people are interested in producing images for online and/or social media purposes. As a result, the majority of currently available camera bodies, even on the lowest end of the scale, have resolution and functionalities that are more than adequate for a new photographer.
Let’s talk brands. (please note: I am not affiliated with or sponsored by any brands).
I have come to the conclusion that the debate between Canon versus Nikon is a bit like the debate between Apple versus PC computers and the reality is that they are all good, but there are specific features or ergonomics of each that appeal to different people.
I have been a Canon shooter since my first SLR (which was a film-based camera). I can’t remember what cemented my decision between Canon or Nikon, but I do remember visiting the same salesman in San Francisco on my first trip to America, 3 times over 3 days before deciding. He must have been driven crazy with all my questions. (And yes, I did buy two kit lenses as part of the deal - and I enjoyed shooting with them for the first few months)
There are of course many other manufacturers of SLR cameras including Olympus, Pentax and Sony. The thing is I haven’t yet met another professional that owns one of these brands, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not good cameras, I just don’t have first-hand experience to be able to share an informed opinion. Regardless Canon and Nikon are still holding their ground as the top choice of professionals and I think this is possibly with good reason.
The most important consideration is that once you buy your camera body, every lens you buy is only compatible with that camera body brand, and over the years — particularly when you start buying more expensive lenses — to change your brand of camera body means investing significantly in new lenses also. So my advice is to be sure that you love the body before you buy, because you are likely to be unwittingly making a lifelong decision.
There can be significant differences in the feel, size and weight of camera bodies, and you might find that one brand fits your hand size and shape better than another. As a result I would definitely recommend holding different camera bodies in your hands before making your final decision.
The other very important factor to consider when purchasing your camera body is the sensor, which is the imaging area of the camera. Theoretically, an SLR sensor is of equivalent size to the 35mm frame of a film camera. If you have to buy a camera from the top end of the range you are likely to have a ‘full frame’ sensor which means that the camera is capable of imaging on the full range of a 35mm frame.
However, on lower priced camera bodies compromises have been made to make them more affordable, resulting in ‘cropped’ sensors. This means that camera isn’t capable of imaging the full area of a 35mm sensor, so instead it ‘blows up’ the image to reach 35mm format. The result of this is that with a 50mm lens (for example) on a cropped sensor camera you need to multiply the focal length by a factor of around x1.6 (this factor varies depending on each cameras sensor), which in this case would give you a result equivalent to an 80mm lens. If you’re a wildlife photographer this could be a useful feature, but as a food photographer, unless you have a very large room to work in, it might be a bit irritating, to say the least. As a result, it’s very important to know what kind of sensor your camera has before purchasing a lens.
You also need to be aware that some lenses are made purely for cropped sensor cameras and therefore won’t work on a full frame camera in the future if you upgrade. In the canon range, a white dot rather than a red dot (which signifies full-frame sensor compatible lenses) at the point of contact between the lens and camera body, is the giveaway indicator. You will also find some lenses with both white and red dots. This signifies a lens that is compatible with both cropped and full frame sensors.
Prime versus Zoom lenses
A zoom lens offers a closer or broader view of a subject with a quick turn of a dial. A prime lens only offers one view — if you want to get closer you have to physically move yourself to achieve that. “Why wouldn’t I just buy a zoom lens then” I hear you ask? The problem with zoom lenses is that in order to achieve the ability to zoom and retain affordability, often compromises have to be made, particularly with cheaper zoom lenses.
What features might I be missing on a cheap kit lens?
The ability for the lens to offer larger apertures (smaller numbers) and the corresponding shallow depth of field. Shallow depth of field describes the lovely blurred background effects that isolates the subject from the background and is a key feature of many beautiful images. You ideally want your lens to be able to open to at least f4 and preferably f2.8 or beyond.
High-quality glass which can affect the clarity and light transmission.
- Sturdy casing that can take a knock or two.
- Image stabilisation. Some lenses offer a built-in function that compensates for our natural micro movements and makes it possible to shoot at slower shutter speeds than usual without a tripod.
- Quiet lens motor.
- Ultra sharp focus.
- Less aesthetically appealing bokeh (bokeh is the way a lens renders out of focus areas and it varies depending on the quality of the lens).
- Less ability to capture subtleties in the lightest and darkest tonal areas.
- I’m sure there are several other things I’ve forgotten also! (comments welcome)
If you’re a beginner on a budget and can only buy one lens what should you buy?
In my opinion, if you can’t imagine living without a zoom get a 24-70mm f 2.8 lens, or 24-105 f4 lens.
If you don’t have enough money to go that far straight away and you don’t mind physically moving to reframe your shot, buy a 50mm prime lens, with either f1.2, f1.4, f1.8 or f2.8 maximum aperture capability. These will be the most affordable high-quality lenses you will find.
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What brand of lens should you buy?
Canon and Nikon create a great range of lenses for their respective cameras. The price point of quality lenses can often be quite out of reach for the new photographer though. Tamron and Sigma are two great alternative brands that produce lenses with mounts available for both Canon and Nikon and their prices can sometimes be as much as half. As far as quality goes, if you are producing images purely for online use and you compared results side by side, you might be hard-pressed to notice the difference. One of my favourite lenses of all time is actually a Tamron.
What about if I’m cashed up and want to get a full pro-kit of lenses straight away?
The key lenses that nearly all food photographers have are:
A 50mm prime lens, with a maximum aperture of either f1.2, f1.4, f1.8 or f.2.8 AND/OR a 35mm f1.4 or f1.8 if you have a cropped sensor camera (which will give you the equivalent result of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera.
- An 80mm/85mm/90mm or 100mm f2.8 prime lens OR if you have a cropped sensor camera a 60mm f2.8
- A zoom 24 – 70mm f2.8 or 24 – 105mm f4
- A least one of the above lenses with a macro function built-in.
An additional lens on many food photographers wish/hire lists;
A tilt-shift lens
What is a macro function?
Every lens has a minimum focus distance. Usually the longer the focal length the further the minimum focus distance. A macro function allows for a much lower minimum focus distance than would be offered as standard on a lens of that focal length. Since food photography generally involves quite a bit of closeup work, I suggest purchasing lenses with a macro function wherever possible.
What do you use each of the lenses for:
50mm prime lens – is a ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ lens – i.e. if you put your hands infront of your face and make a frame with them, this is pretty much what you are going to get with a 50mm lens (unless you’ve got a cropped sensor). It is suitable for multi-purpose use but it’s unlikely this will be your only lens. It is particularly useful for overhead shots, and when you want to get several items into the frame. There are still some professional photographers that only have a 50mm lens in their kit, but they tend to be in the minority these days. With so many other fantastic lenses to choose from it can feel limiting. Having said that, a 50mm will serve you very well indefinitely.
80/85/90/100mm prime lenses – Lenses in this focal length range have multiple uses. Not only are they excellent for food photography, they are also useful for portraits and general photography. (Note: a 50mm lens isn’t always ideal for portraits because you’ll often have to position yourself too close to the subject for comfort if you want a closeup shot). For food photography, the extra focal length helps to create the kind of shots that have lovely blurred out areas. This is because distance has a significant effect on depth-of-field (ie. the area of the shot in focus). The further you are from the subject, and the further the subject is from the background, the greater the area of blur. (Aperture also significantly affects depth-of-field also of course). If you choose a prime lens with this kind of focal length, I suggest it’s worthwhile to select one with a macro function, so that when you want to create an extreme closeup you can get close enough to your subject and still use auto-focus.
Zooms lenses – Zoom lenses are great because they allow you to reframe your image in an instant. If you are going to buy a zoom lens, save your money for a quality one. While ‘kit’ lenses bundled with a first camera can be useful for a complete beginner, most people want higher quality lenses pretty quickly. You might even be better off waiting until you have enough budget to buy a decent one. As mentioned previously, for food photography I recommend either a 24 – 70mm f2.8 or a 24 – 105mm f4, however, there are many zoom lenses that function very successfully for food photography. It’s just that these two are my favourites, and also the kind of lenses I see other food photographers mention all the time. Of course with this range of zoom, they are also multi-purpose — ie. great for portraits, travel and general imagery.
Tilt-Shift Lens – this is a very specialist (and expensive) lens. It is used primarily by food photographers and architectural photographers. Food photographers love it because it allows you to very selectively choose the focus area, in a way that other lenses can’t. Architects love it because it helps to overcome the warping of straight vertical lines that are caused by circular lens.
Finally, I’m sure other food photographers might come up with a different list of their favourite lenses for food photography. Herein lies the beauty of photography, the same camera in two sets of hands will produce completely different images. It is an inherently creative medium, and everyone can interpret that medium however they like and produce their own look and style, using whatever equipment that they enjoy the best.
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Hi I'm Fran, a professional photographer and designer based on the Gold Coast in Australia. I’m a lifelong creative, passionate about producing drool-worthy images that provoke emotion and communicate deliciousness. My obsession is teaching others how to achieve the satisfaction of realising their creative vision too. I also love to produce high quality visual books (especially cook books) for my clients.