March 2, 2011

Food Photography Basics #2 : Which Camera? What Lenses?


This is the second post in the series I’m writing on food photography. The first post was a discussion on whether to upgrade to a DSLR or not. If you do decide to get a DSLR don’t desert your P&S because it has advantages the DSLR doesn’t. A P&S has the advantage of small size, easy portability and doesn’t call attention to itself the way a DSLR does.

If your choice was to buy or upgrade to a more advanced P&S then there are some pretty good cameras out there, depending on your budget and the features you would like in your camera. Do remember that some of the upper end P&Ss cost as much as an entry level DSLR. Also remember that a DSLR eventually means more expenses with accessories like lenses, filters, hoods, etc. Digital Photography School readers chose these as their top 10 P&S favourites.



Which Camera???


Unless you have an unlimited camera expense account, the camera (and lens) you choose would depend on how much can you spend! I have only one piece of advice to offer here, and that is to buy the best camera (in terms of features) you can afford to. Don’t forget that when you budget for your camera, you also need to budget for a starter set of lenses (or lens), a camera bag which keep you gear safe and easy to lug around, and a tripod for your camera.

Given that there are so brands and models out there, which one is the best and what features should you look for?
Oddly enough, one of the most serious arguments out there that first time DSLR buyers seem to get into is the “Canon or Nikon” one. There are other good DSLR cameras available but perhaps these have not been as popular because they’re not as well marketed, easily available or even affordable. However, Canon and Nikon do have an excellent and wide range of cameras, lenses and accessories which makes them very popular.

A good camera is necessary for photography but beyond that it is you (your vision, creativity and skill) that decides how good your photography is. As Ansel Adams said "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it."

All DSLRs come with a minimum level of features like auto, pre-set and manual modes, aperture and shutter speed priorities, and ISO ranges. I am assuming you will use your camera and lenses for shooting more than just food so you need to consider this when making your camera/ lens decisions.

There is plenty of information including reviews, on the internet so read up as much as you can before you make a decision. If you don’t understand some of the technical terms, ask someone to explain them to you. There are plenty of photography forums on the net, including Flickr where you can find discussions on just about every aspect of photography including gear.
Here is a slightly dated article but is a good place to start on what features to look for in a DSLR camera.

I repeat what I said before, that buy the best camera body you can afford within your budget. If it means that there’s a model that’s got the features you need (or want, as the case may be) but is a little more expensive that what you can afford right now, I’d say “Wait a little longer to buy what you’ve set your heart on”. Camera manufacturers are in the business to make money and will keep coming up with newer models every year. Unless you want a particular feature that’s not in the DSLR you have, frequently upgrading to a newer model is not practical. It would be more advisable to invest in good quality lenses to suit your needs.



My Camera And My Lenses!


Before I go further let me tell you what camera and lenses I use. I used to shoot with a Canon EOS 450D/ Rebel XSi (no more in production) and now use a Canon EOS 60D . All but one of my lenses are Canon lenses and I have the 50mm f/1.8 II lens, EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens, the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS lens and the EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. Of these I mostly use the 50mm and the 100mm for food photography, though I have taken many food photographs with my other two zoom lenses. My knowledge is limited to Canon and the camera and lenses I own, so that’s what I’d recommend and be writing about.
I also use a Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB tripod with a ball head.



What Are The Best Lenses For Food Photography???


Most vendors offer pretty good deals on DSLR cameras plus kit lens packages. A lot of people will advise you to buy only the camera body and the “kit lens”, which is the lens that usually comes bundled up with your DSLR. Kit lenses are not considered “good” lenses as they offer you a range of some wide angle through zoom capability.

Now this is excellent advice, but based on two assumptions. The first is that you know exactly which lens you want so you don’t want/ need the kit lens. The second assumption is that you have the money to spend on that particular lens that you know you want. Some of the so called “good” lenses cost twice what your camera body does!

So I agree that “a little bit of everything in one” type of kit lens may not be the best, but they certainly don’t qualify as “bad” lenses. Kit lenses don’t cost all that much more than your camera when you buy both as a package deal. The extra money you would spend on the kit lens would be nowhere close to affording you another lens if you were to buy it separately.



Canon EF-S 18 - 55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens


When I bought my 450D, I was really stretching my budget and didn’t have money to spare for anything except the kit lens (the Canon EF-S 18 - 55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens). You can try using the 18-55mm kit lens for food and I have seen some good photographs taken with that lens, but it has a lot of limitations if you’re trying to get very close-up photographs and will not give you that “blurriness” in the background you’re looking for. What I also did was to buy a Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens, which is a pretty good yet inexpensive lens, for food photography. Most of my food photographs have been shot with this lens.



Red Lentils using the 18 - 55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (kit lens)
(Aperture 5.6; Shutter speed 1/80)
Here the aperture (how wide the lens opens) is f/ 5.6 which means the depth of field (DOF) is very narrow. You can see the background (and part of the foreground) is reasonably sharp when you look at the back edge of the bowl and the lentils there.


The photographs of red lentils (masoor dal) used in this post have been taken with the 3 lenses (18-55mm, 50mm and the 100mm Macro) I have under the same light conditions. They have all been shot on manual, at ISO 200 and at the widest aperture possible for that particular lens. This means that the shutter speed is different in each case. I only took these photographs so that one can see that all the lenses do take somewhat similar pictures.



Red Lentils using the 50mm f/ 1.8 II lens
(Aperture 1.8; Shutter speed 1/1000)
Here the aperture (how wide the lens opens) is f/ 1.8 which means the depth of field (DOF) is very shallow (blurry). You can see the background (and part of the foreground) is blurred/ not sharp when you look at the back edge of the bowl and the lentils there.


Getting back to the main subject of the post, I would recommend that a kit lens and the 50mm lens is a good place to start if you are new to photography. With use and practise, you will eventually see the limitations of the lenses you have with respect to your requirements, and decide which other lens you need.



Red Lentils using the 100mm f/ 2.8 Macro USM lens
(Aperture 2.8; Shutter speed 1/250)
Here the aperture (how wide the lens opens) is f/ 2.8 which means the depth of field (DOF) is quite shallow (blurry), but not as much as with the 50mm f/1.8 lens. You can see the background (and part of the foreground) is quite blurred when you look at the back edge of the bowl and the lentils there.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “best” lens for food photography (I know many people will disagree here, but this is my opinion). I am not a professional or an expert on the subject but here is what I know. Your choice of lens for food photography would depend on the type of food photographs you want to take.

Do want to take up close-up shots of the food focussing on it?
Would you prefer to style your food and then take pictures of that?
Perhaps you would like to shoot food on a table set for breakfast/ lunch/ dinner and include some of the background as well.
Would you like the focus to be on one part of your composition with rest of it looking “blurry” or with a shallow depth of field (DOF)? Just how much of DOF do you want in your photographs?
Do you have to shoot in low light conditions?

Since food photography is mostly of the close-up kind, lenses which produce as sharp images as possible and at wider apertures or lower f-stops (we’ll discuss this later in detail) would be more suitable. Such lenses would include prime (or standard) lenses and “macro” lenses if you can afford them. So if you’re on that limited budget I mentioned earlier, a Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens is the starting point for food photography.



Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens


Opening to the widest aperture of 1.8, this is a moderately fast lens and so good in low light conditions and also produces a shallow DOF. And should you want to use it for something beyond food, 50mm f/1.8 lens is good for portraits and street photography provided you are willing to be the “zoom”.

A lens of which I have no experience, but many food photographers swear by, is the 50mm f/1.4 lens. This is different from the 50mm f/1.8 lens in the aperture which at the widest is 1.4. This means it is a good lens for low light conditions and produces an even shallower DOF. This is a much better lens and naturally much more expensive.



Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM


Some other lenses which are good to use for food photography are the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM, EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM and the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Standard Zoom Lens. All these lenses are a bit expensive especially the Canon “L” series professional lenses. I know many food photographers use these lenses, but I don’t have any experience with these lenses, except the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM which I got recently.

Each of these lenses I have mentioned has its own particular set of features and it is for you to research a particular lens suits your purpose and budget before you buy it. Please note that I have talking about Canon lenses all along and the Nikon has similar or corresponding lenses to these. Also note that Canon has EF-S lenses which can be used only on its cropped frame cameras while the EF lenses which can be used on both cropped frame and full frame cameras.

Canon and Nikon lenses tend to be on the expensive side and there are “third party” lenses (and other accessories) for both brands. These are lenses made by other companies (such as Sigma, Tamron, Tokina) specifically for use with either Canon or Nikon cameras. They are usually more affordable, and while some of them do not quite come up to the Canon/ Nikon lens quality in terms of engineering and optics, many of them are pretty good. While I don’t own any of them I know friends who swear by some of them and have seen innumerable reviews that claim they almost as good as the real lenses.

These are two good articles (and there are many more, if you look for them) which talk about choosing lenses for your DSLR.

Factors to Consider When Shopping for a DSLR Lens

How to Choose Lenses for Food Photography


In my next post I’ll talk about what it takes to be a good photographer. If there is something you would like me to clarify about this post, or you would like me touch on in this series of posts please leave a comment. I would also love to hear from any other recommendations regarding lenses suitable for food photography.



In This Series So Far:


Food Photography Basics #1 : Do I Need A DSLR To Get Good Photographs?


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