With all the different lenses and information out there, how are you EVER supposed to decide on the right food photography lenses? A camera lens isn’t a cheap purchase, so you want to make sure you’re making the right investment that’s going to last you.
Well my friend, this two-part series will break it down simply for you. It might be pretty technical term heavy, but don’t be afraid of technical terms. You are absolutely capable of understanding all of this stuff, and you’ll become a better photographer because of it.
By the end of this series you’ll understand how different lenses behave on different cameras, what impact this will have on your food photography, and ultimately what lens (or lenses) you need to achieve the result you want.
Remember, the trick to deciding on the perfect lens (or lenses) for your food photography is to understand what you’re trying to achieve in your photos, and knowing what kind of lens will help you achieve that.
We’re not going to look at particular brands or models, because whatever your budget, there will be something that’s right for you.
If you missed Part 1 (Understanding Focal Length) – go read that first, then hop back here!
What should I be looking for to decide on my food photography lenses?
As we saw in part 1 of this series, focal length is the KEY feature of a lens that will affect the kind of food photography you can really take. To choose your perfect food photography lenses, you really need to understand what the focal length will mean for your photography. That said, there are four other main features that you should consider:
- Is it a prime lens or a zoom lens? And what difference does it make?
- What is the maximum aperture?
- Is it a macro lens?
- What’s the optical quality like?
We’re going to take a look at some examples of food photos taken with different kinds of lenses, to really help you decide on the kind of lens (or lenses) that you need. But before we do that, let’s take a deeper look at these features of a lens, and how they affect your food photography.
The main features of a lens
Prime vs Zoom
A prime lens has a fixed focal length, so if you buy a 50mm lens, it’s a 50mm lens all the time.
A zoom lens has a range of focal lengths, for example 18-55mm, so you can change the focal length to suit the situation you’re in.
Typically, for food photography, prime lenses outperform zoom lenses, and here’s why:
Aperture: Because the makeup of a prime lens is simpler, and involves less glass, prime lenses normally have wider aperture capability (a lower F-stop number), allowing you to great greater depth of field in your images.
Being able to create that soft, creamy bokeh on your food photo may just be the thing that takes it from meh to THE SHABAAM (thanks for that phrase, Tommy 😀 )
Sharpness: Nearly always, a prime lense is sharper than a zoom lens. This is because a prime lens has a less complicated structure, and therefore it can focus on being a great lens at one focal length, rather than a good lens at lots of different focal lengths.
Tack sharp photos will always elevate your food photography from good to great.
So if you’re looking at a prime lens and a zoom lens that both cost roughly the same, the prime is probably the better lens.
However, if you think you’ll need more than one focal length to capture the styles of food photography you want, but you don’t have the budget to buy multiple prime lenses for your food photography, don’t stress about it.
Prime lenses MAY have the edge on zoom lenses, but is your food photography going to be awful because of using a zoom lens? No. Find what works for you (in lens and budget) and go take photos!
The maximum aperture of the lens
When we’re talking about how “fast” a lens is, we’re talking about how wide open the aperture can be. The lower the F-stop number, the wider your aperture, and the more bokeh (that nice background blur) your image will have.
Each lens will have a maximum aperture, which is the “f/x” number that’s part of the lens description. So a “50mm f/2.2” lens, has a maximum aperture of f/2.2.
In food photography, I normally shoot between f/2 – f/5.6, but occasionally I’ll use a higher F-stop number (a smaller aperture opening) if I really want everything in the frame to look sharp. I very rarely shoot at f/1.4 (the widest available aperture on my 35mm lens!).
Most zoom lenses have a smaller maximum aperture opening (meaning a higher F-stop), particularly when extended to their longest focal length. This means you may find yourself limited in some situations if you only have a zoom lens.
Macro (or Micro) lenses
A macro lens has a magnification factor of 1.0x or 1:1, which allows it to reproduce a life sized image of your subject on the camera’s sensor. This means you can get really really close to something and it will still be in focus.
Most food photography typically doesn’t need macro to look awesome, so we’re not going to look at this too much today.
The optical quality really depends on the specific makeup of each lens. It isn’t something that you’ll usually find in the lens description, so you’ll need to do a bit of your own research.
A lens with a better optical quality will usually take sharper images with fewer optical issues, such as distortion and chromatic aberration.
You can often save money (and improve quality) by buying a camera body on it’s own, and buying a better lens separately, rather than buying your camera with the kit lens.
BONUS TIP: If you’re considering buying a lens and want to know the quality of the photos it produces, The Digital Picture is my go-to to see examples and compare the quality of different lenses. I’ve used it every time I’ve bought a new lens.
Food photography with different kinds of lenses
Let’s take a look at how different kinds of lenses can be used to achieve the style you want.
The Wide Angle (anything from 10mm – 50mm)
Top down shots where you have a lot to get in the frame, e.g. a large table setting where you want to display a lot of dishes.
Wide angle lenses have issues with perspective distortion when they’re used too close to the subject. Basically, they make the areas at the back of the photo look smaller than they really are, so they aren’t ideal for straight on, or close up shots in food photography.
My 18-135mm zoom lens acts as my “wide angle” lens, more info on zoom lenses below.
50mm “nifty fifty”
You have probably heard nearly everyone mention the “nifty 50” right? Well, the reason why, is that a 50mm focal length makes a pretty good all round lens in food photography.
Straight-on or angled shots where you want to capture an image and leave some negative space around the food. Also great for flat-lay, top down food shots of table settings.
You still might get SOME perspective distortion with a 50mm focal length, where lines of perspective in the photo are a bit too dramatic. If you’re also using this primarily for top down shots, you may struggle to get high enough above your table to capture everything in the frame.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM A (its equivalent focal length is 56mm when I’m using it on my crop frame Canon 80D). I absolutely LOVE this lens. It’s a bit on the pricy side, but totally worth it in my opinion. It’s extremely sharp, and the wide maximum aperture allows me to get beautiful, creamy bokeh shots.
The Long-Focus (or Telephoto) Lens (60mm upwards)
25°-75° angle shots and straight on shots. It lets the subject of your food photo really stand out and look more realistic in these kinds of shots. Reduces issues of perspective distortion.
Can’t really be used for top down shots, as you won’t be able to get high enough to get everything in the frame. A huge consideration for this kind of lens is how much space you have to shoot your food in.
I shoot most of my food photography at home. I have a small “studio” (a table by a window) set up where I shoot all my pictures. I only have a limited amount of space from that window to the wall, then I can’t physically move back any more, so when I was choosing my lenses, I made sure that I would be able to capture my whole scene with my lens.
The tighter your lens (the higher the focal length), the further away from your subject you need to be to get the same amount in the frame.
So while that 120mm lens might look excellent on paper, it might not work for you in your space.
Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM (equivalent focal length of 96mm on my Canon 80D). This is another lens that I reach for ALL the time in my food photography. It’s my go-to lens for all my 25°-75° angle shots, as well as straight on shots.
Zoom lenses are a super useful lens to have on hand in most types of photography because of the flexibility they provide. Food photography is somewhat of an exception, because your subject is static and you know what distance away from it you will be. That said, they can still be a great addition to your kit.
Performing the function of multiple kinds of lenses (from wide-angle to long-focus).
While you can save money getting a zoom lens instead of multiple different primes, you may find you’re not always able to get your food looking as sharp and vibrant because of a slightly lower optical quality. The maximum aperture is often more limited too.
Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. Whilst my 35mm and 60mm lenses were my go-to lenses at first after upgrading my camera, I was finding I had some limitations when it came to taking more wide angle shots.
A zoom lens is a great addition to your food photography kit, to cover those focal lengths you don’t use often enough to justify buying another prime lens for. I just personally wouldn’t have it as the only lens in my kit as a replacement for my prime lenses, but this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be the best choice for you.
Bonus Lens: The Tilt Shift
A luxury for food photographers.
Perhaps this can be called the “magic” lens. A tilt shift lens allows you to control the plane of focus, as well as the angle and position of the subject – swoon.
I don’t have a tilt shift lens in my kit yet, it’s on my list for (much) later.
I won’t go into all the technical details of a tilt shift lens now, but once I’ve got one and can shoot some food pictures and show you exactly how it works, I’ll do a post on it.
Deciding on your perfect lens
Now you know all the key features to look out for when deciding on your food photography lenses, it’s time to put all that awesome knowledge to good use and decide on the lens, or lenses, you want!
And to make it even easier, here’s the exact process I’ve gone through to choose my food photography lenses:
- Decide on the style of food photography that you want to take
- Work out the focal length you’ll need to take these photos (being aware of whether you have a crop frame or full frame DSLR)
- Think about the other features that you’ll need from the lens, e.g. maximum aperture, how much space you have to shoot in, etc.
- Do some googling to find lenses for your camera that have these features and are within your budget
- Check out some reliable camera review sites, such as The Digital Picture, to see if the lens comes up to scratch!
There you have it! My end-to-end process to choose the right lens for YOUR food photography.
- Lenses are not one size fits all. Figure out what you want to achieve in your food photography, and go from there.
- Prime lenses are typically better than zoom lenses for food photography.
- A zoom lens can be a great option for flexibility if you don’t have the budget to buy several prime lenses.
- Consider the maximum aperture of a lens and the look you want your photos to have.
- Wide angle lenses are good for top down shots, long-focus lenses are good for straight on and 25°-75° angle shots.
- Consider the space you have to shoot in when choosing your maximum focal length.
Let me know in the comments what lenses you use, what you love, and any questions you have about food photography lenses!