While last time I explained the terminology and numbers on the lenses, this time I’ll try to help guide you to discover your best lens for food photography and/or still life photography for your particular situation and budget.
Last time I explained to you some of the terminology that I thought was important to know when deciding what lens(es) would be best for you based on your situation.
I already hinted that I don’t think that there is any one lens that is the best lens for food photography and still life photography, but rather each person will have to decide based on what is most important to them: quality, versatility, or price.
Every once in awhile, I’ll be a part of a blogger discussion about which lenses are the best lenses to buy for blogging. I find it very interesting to see everybody’s point of view, and most of the time everybody has very valid points. Sometimes, though, I think that some people are so biased towards their lens being the best lens (probably because for them and their situation it is!) that they aren’t fully evaluating the situation and needs of the person looking for help.
With that in mind, let’s talk about standard lenses…
The other day a friend of mine was looking to branch out from the lens kit that came with her camera. She was looking for a good lens to start with.
As I explained last time, the standard (50mm) lens is a great place to start for most food bloggers and DIY bloggers because not only does it take the most natural pictures (closest to what we see with our eyes), but in the range of standard lenses you can find relatively versatile lenses that are probably the best value money-wise when you compare them to similar telephoto or wide angle lenses.
Don’t have a lot of money to spend?
I’ll start with what I think is probably the best beginner lens for somebody who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. I’ll talk about Canon lenses here because that’s what I work with, but you can find similar lenses with different camera systems. For Canon, the basic 50mm f/1.8 is only around $100-$125. I own this lens, and while it’s my most inexpensive lens, it’s also the one I use the most for my blogging needs. Even when I’m not blogging, though, it’s also a great lens for portraits and just general photography around the house. If you only have the money for one inexpensive lens, I’d suggest choosing this lens!
If you have a Canon camera, and are looking to buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens, you may notice that two different models show up. The older model has a “II” after the numbers and the newer model has an “STM” (Stepping Motor Lens- which refers to the newer, faster focusing system).
You might be able to save yourself a few bucks by buying the older model, but in this case I’d suggest that you didn’t. At the very most, you’d probably save yourself around $25, which isn’t a lot in the general scheme of things. The newer STM model is more solid and made of metal as compared to the older version with a plastic housing and a not-so-great focusing mechanism. (In my case that plastic focusing mechanism broke and there are times when I have serious focusing issues because of it.) The only advantage I see to the II model us that you mechanically focus the lens yourself, so you can make your focusing adjustments even when the camera is off. I don’t really need to take advantage of that, though, so I much prefer the newer model.
Better quality standard lenses
When my friend was looking to choose her lens, it was pointed out that the 50mm f/1.8 wasn’t really the “best” 50mm lens. So…
An article was referenced that chose the 50mm f/1.4 as being one of the best lenses for food photography. Is the f/1.4 a “better” lens?
To be honest, I have still yet to read a review that convinces me that the f/1.4 is really worth the price difference between them. In fact, while the f/1.8 is often referred to as the “nifty fifty” because it’s such a great deal for its price, I’ve also seen the f/1.4 referred to as the “shifty fifty” because at wider apertures it is actually less sharp and has less pretty bokeh than the cheaper f/1.8!
Before the new STM f/1.8 came out, I was excited about the 1.4 having a metal housing as compared to my f/1.8’s plastic one, but now that the STM model has a metal housing, even that isn’t really one if its advantages anymore. The main advantage of the f/1.4 is the obvious, having a wider aperture means it’s a faster lens, but it also costs around $350, almost 3 times as much as the f/1.8!
I honestly think that most food bloggers are going to be using middle of the road aperture settings most of the time (f/3- f/4) anyway, so I’m not sure it’s really worth their while to spend so much more for a lens that isn’t obviously that much better for them. Yes, there are fans of the f/1.4, but I think that for every f/1.4 fan out there, there seem to be at least two people who don’t think that buying the f/1.4 over the f/1.8 is worth it.
I think it’s obvious why I didn’t choose the f/1.4 myself, but what about…
It was suggested by some of the best photographers in the group that my friend choose the 50mm f/1.2 lens because it is the “best” standard prime lens.
Is it a better lens? In this case probably yes, but you have to also consider that you will likely shell out at least $1,350 on it! Yep, you could buy ten f/1.8 lenses for that, and you’d still have enough money left over for a couple of memory cards. (Of course, I’d rather buy a variety of lenses and a good tripod instead, but you get what I’m saying, right?)
So why didn’t I choose the f/1.2?
I guess it’s pretty obvious.
When I was first beginning with photography, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on my new hobby. (I think that’s true of most people who are just starting out.) I ended up buying a used camera, a used Canon 20d, as my first DSLR. At the time it only cost me a couple hundred Euros, and it was perfect for practicing and improving my photography. (If you are just starting out and don’t have a lot of money to spend, I highly suggest taking a look at some used or refurbished cameras. Photographers are constantly looking to upgrade and try new things, and they tend to take very good care of their equipment. You can help them renew their equipment and get a great deal on yours. I think it’s a win-win all around!)
Having already spent a couple of hundred dollars on the camera, I didn’t have a lot more to be spending on lenses, so I chose the 50mm f/1.8 and I’m so very happy I did. It’s a great lens for the price. From what I have read online, the f/1.2 is a better lens which takes sharper pictures with a beautiful bokeh (the pretty blurred areas), but keep in mind that the biggest differences in quality are at those lower (wider) aperture settings. When shot at the middle settings (where I shoot most of the time), those differences are probably almost negligible.
Also keep in mind that if you start with a cheaper lens and decide that you have more money to invest later on, you can always upgrade and sell your beginner lenses. Yes, you will lose a little money in the process, but most lenses tend to retain most of their value even when used. If you think about what it would cost you to rent a lens, buying and then reselling is really a great deal.
Will there come a point when that price difference is worth it?
For some people, of course!
It once again depends what you are trying to achieve.
With food photography, you probably don’t need to be using that f/1.2 setting very often because you can enlist the help of a tripod when light levels are low. A wedding photographer, on the other hand, might actually need that extra little help to get great pictures in low light without a tripod.
Even for bloggers, once you’ve been taking pictures for awhile, you might get good enough to do some freelancing, and/or to publish a printed cookbook. Or maybe you have earned back money from your photography at that point because your blog is bringing in a profit, and you are ready to re-invest it back into new lenses. Great!
By that point, I think you have probably reached the level you need in photography to be able to appreciate the better quality and the advantages of one lens over the other. By that point you can always sell your f/1.8, if you bought that one first, and apply that money to your newer, “better” lens (and look to upgrade to a full frame camera, too, if you started on a compact DSLR as most people do.) Or you could just choose to keep it as a great backup lens.
Do I think that the average blogger, especially a beginning blogger or hobby photographer, should feel like they need to buy the f/1.2?
Unless you have plenty of money to spend, then probably not.
In most cases I think a beginner’s money would be much better spent on a book or course that helps teach how to use the equipment, and how to get the best photos for whatever equipment you have.
I find it crazy that people think that spending under $30 is too much of an investment for a book like The Food Photography Book by Nagi Maehashi, but are willing to spend $200 more on the f/1.4 vs. the f/1.8 without really being able to appreciate the differences between them.
Let’s face it: unless you know how to style your food, understand what lighting is best for certain types of food and what positions are best to show off the textures of those different types of food, the person with that understanding is going to be taking better pictures than you are even with a lesser quality lens than yours.
People have this idea that the camera and the lens are what makes the photographer/photographs, but truth be told, more will be accomplished with studying and practicing vs. buying the most expensive lens available. I’d suggest you take your time and “grow into” better cameras and lenses.
Getting back to the subject, though, we are talking about lenses today, so let me move on to some other great options for food and still life photography…
Choosing a telephoto lens
Telephoto lenses are what most sports photographers use. Sports photographers tend to have to be positioned far away from their subjects, so they need a lens that will magnify their subject and get that subject to better fill the viewfinder.
In the case of sports photographers, they’re probably usually using lenses in the 200mm-400mm range (or even higher). Their lenses tend to be big, bulky, and expensive!
When doing food blogging or wanting to take still life photos of small objects like you would do when craft blogging or taking photos of things to sell on the internet, though, there is usually not a huge distance between you and the subjects of your photos.
That doesn’t mean that a telephoto lens won’t ever come in handy.
For most food photography, it’s likely that the only telephoto lens you’ll ever need is something up to the 100mm range.
Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro
The 100mm lenses are a great choice for moving in and getting the details of your food. With the 100mm lens, more of the food will be filling up the viewfinder as compared to the 50mm, so unless you want to move far away from your food to try to get it all in view, this lens is best served for closeups and details.
I do have to mention that I’m writing this mostly geared at people with crop sensor cameras because most people use them, and I’m sort of (perhaps unfairly) assuming that somebody using a full frame camera already knows most of this information.
If you’re using a cropped sensor camera (or APS-C as most of us are) you may be wondering why am I even mentioning that?
Well, to try to explain it in a non-confusing way, the more professional, high end cameras tend to have what is called a full frame sensor which allows for more of the scene in the viewfinder when compared to a cropped sensor camera at the same distance from the subject. So for somebody with a full frame camera, they will be able to get in more of the scene with the 100mm than somebody with a cropped sensor camera who would have to back up quite a bit to get a similar view.
It’s important to understand that point when researching lenses because I really wanted a 100mm macro after having read some food photographers saying that it was the lens that they used most for food photography. What I failed to notice was that they were using full frame cameras. The 100mm lens on their camera was behaving closer to how the 50mm behaves on my camera when it comes to filling up the frame from the same distance from the subject (a 50mm lens actually behaves like a 80mm lens on a cropped sensor camera), which means that it makes a lot of sense that somebody with a full frame camera is going to get a lot more use of the telephoto lens than I do with my Canon 70D.
I didn’t actually end up getting either of the canon 100m f/2.8 lenses (they come with or without image stabilization), but instead got a comparable Tamron 90mm zoom lens with vibration compensation (the Tamron equivalent of image stabilization). I chose the Tamron for two reasons, mainly. One factor was again the price difference, but this time I actually also chose the Tamron because it was a 90mm vs. the 100mm Canon. After doing a lot of research, I decided that the Tamron was a very high quality lens and the one that I preferred for my situation. Even with the 90mm, though, I still don’t use it as much as I thought I would for food photography. The rooms in my house are small, and I tend to be too close to my food in most situations to be able to use the 90mm effectively and show as much of the scene as I tend to like to show, so I reserve it for getting up-close shots of details in the food that I want to showcase.
Am I disappointed in having bought it? (Or, I should say, asking for it as a Christmas present?)
No. It’s still a great overall lens that takes gorgeous pictures in low light settings, even from really far away. I brought it to the Three Kings Parade last year, days after having received it as a Christmas present, and think it did a spectacular job of getting sharp photos of the Kings at night even though they were far away from us. I also got some great photos of my son’s friends who were on the other side of the street in the dark!
So, while it isn’t my “go to” lens for food photography, I still do use it at times for food photography, and also find it versatile enough to use in other settings.
What about the wide angle lenses?
Wide angle lenses are the preferred lenses of architectural photographers or those who are trying to capture wide landscapes in their entirety.
So, when would a food photographer use a wide angle lens?
By now, you can probably guess that a wide angle lens is used when you want to show more of the scene when taking your pictures.
For food photographers that usually means that you want to get in a full table scene or you want to take a photo from above, but just can’t get high enough above your food to be able to get everything in your photo with the standard lens.
Is it the lens that you will be using most of the time?
With the wide angle lenses, I think that the 35mm is probably the best wide angle option for food photographers. I don’t think that most food photographers are going to be using much wider angles than that very often, so let’s take a look at a 35mm prime lens.
When you also take into consideration that the cheapest Canon 35mm lens will run you around $550, you start to realize why most people probably want to start with the 50mm f/1.8 lens. 😉
Did I buy the 35mm?
In the end, no. At least not yet, so I can’t really comment a lot about it.
What I can say is that with the 35mm lenses, Nikon users have it much easier. A Nikon 35mm f/1.8 lens will run you around $200. For that price I can understand why it was suggested to me by a Nikon user to most definitely buy the 35mm prime over a wide angle zoom lens which is what I was considering getting this summer instead.
I had to weigh in the price factor, the versatility, and the quality I thought I would need, and in the end chose a zoom lens over the prime here.
Why did I choose the zoom over the prime?
Last time I explained to you that a zoom lens allows for multiple focal lengths all in the same lens. That, of course, makes zoom lenses very versatile, but that versatility comes at a price. To fit in the needed mechanisms to make zoom lenses work, they tend to become heavier lenses that are also slower and less sharp comparably to their prime counterparts. So, why did I choose one?
I decided that I would rarely use the wide angle lens for food photography anyway, but that it might be nice to have one on hand occasionally.
What I was really lacking in my collection, though, was a versatile lens that I could take with me and get fun pics of my son running around, without me needing to run around after him. I needed a better quality zoom than the one that comes in most camera kits, and after a bit of investigation found that the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS was suggested to be a great quality, multiuse, verastile lens that I figured I could use for both blogging when my 50mm doesn’t let in enough of the scene, but also for getting good pictures of my son, dogs, and hens. 😉
In the end, I didn’t even actually buy that lens, though, and instead opted for the equivalent Sigma lens, the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8. In this case I would have chosen the Canon if money hadn’t been an issue, but there was a huge price difference in my local options between those lenses, and from my research I didn’t think that the quality difference was enough to justify the huge price gap. At under $500, you can see that I have a nice versatile wide angle lens that is cheaper than the cheapest Canon 35mm prime.
Would the 35mm prime give me sharper pictures at 35mm? Probably, but for me the lens I chose was the best lens for my particular situation at the time that I bought it.
Would I buy the same lens now knowing what I do now? Probably, yes.
You can see, then, that the question of which lens is best for food photography or still life photography isn’t as simple as it may seem.
So much depends on you!
What are you willing to spend? Do you have room for multiple (prime) lenses, or do you prefer a zoom even if it means having a heavier lens that will probably be slower and less sharp comparably? Do you have room where you shoot to move away from your subject, or do you have little room to move around? Do you have a full frame or crop frame camera? Do you take more shots of table scenes or prefer close ups?…
I may not have been able to tell you which lens is the very best for food photography, but hopefully I gave you enough information to at least help guide you to find the type of lens that you need; your “best” lens for your particular situation. For most food photographers, lenses within the 35-100mm focal length ranges are going to be the best for most food photography needs.
I think I also probably made it pretty clear that I think that the 50mm f/1.8 lens is a great starting point. 😉
Not everybody is going to agree with everything I wrote, and that is OK. I’d actually like to hear other people’s opinions on the matter. Through dialogue we can better ourselves and learn from each other’s experiences and mistakes. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, by sharing my experiences and what I have learned researching to buy my lenses so far, I hope it has helped you. 🙂
Happy picture taking!
Katrina S. Willey
This guideline is helpful.