Choosing the best lens for food photography and still life photography can be very confusing, especially if you aren’t sure about the terminology and numbers on the lenses. In this first part of a series, I’ll help explain those numbers, and will later help you use that knowledge to make the best choices for your needs and budget.
(To skip ahead to my choices, click here.)
When it was time for my birthday this year, I knew exactly what it was that I wanted as a present from my husband. OK, maybe not exactly.
I knew that I wanted to add a new lens to my collection, but I wasn’t quite sure which one.
What I did know was that I wanted a lens that would be good for food and still life photography because that is what I use most for my blog.
You see, since I have started my blog, it has given me the opportunity to dabble in the world of photography, a world that I have always loved. In fact, one of the reasons I ended up staying in undergrad an extra year, apart from the fact that I wanted my degree in two majors rather than just one, was that I wanted a little extra room in my schedule for a sculpture and a photography class.
Things have changed quite a bit since I took that basic photography class. As much as I loved hanging out there, we no longer have to spend countless hours in the darkroom to get our images to look like we want, but instead invest those hours tweaking pictures in Lightroom and Photoshop. Most of the basic terminology of photography and lenses, though, has remained the same.
When I was going to choose my lens, I consulted with a group of food blogger friends to see what they thought about certain lenses, and I realized in the process that a lot of people are confused about the terminology and had no idea about what all of the numbers mean on the camera lenses. They couldn’t contribute to the conversation because they just didn’t understand those things, and many people are afraid to admit it.
Another thing I noticed is that a lot of people want you to tell them what the best lens is going to be for food and still life photography, or whatever photography they do, and just take other people’s word about which lenses are best. The truth is, though, that even when talking about a specific type of photography, there isn’t really one best lens. The best lens or lenses for each person really depends on each person’s specific needs and budget.
Because each person’s “best lens” is going to be different, I think it’s important to understand the terminology and function of each lens and their components to better understand what it is that you really want and need.
Telephoto, Standard, and Wide Angle Lenses:
Last week I went to a birthday party with my dSLR and found that even amongst people with dSLRs, there is a lot of confusion about the terminology used with objective lenses. I had meant to bring my new zoom lens, but had instead brought a 90mm prime, and I was explaining that I had to distance myself from the pictures to get what I wanted into my viewfinder. The girl next to me responded that it was because my lens had too much “zoom.” While I really wanted to explain that that wasn’t right, I just wasn’t prepared to explain it at that moment, especially not in Spanish, so I just let it go. I think it’s time for me to clear up what a zoom lens really is…
When shopping for lenses, you’ll notice lots of numbers and letters on the lens. The first number(s), given in mm, have to do with the focal length, and will tell you if the lens is a standard, telephoto, or wide angle lens. It will also tell you if the lens is a prime lens or a zoom lens.
A 50mm lens is normally considered a standard lens, and the other lenses are compared against the standard. Standard lenses have the most natural look to them because they have a similar angle of view as our eyes do.
I think everybody should have a good 50mm lens, but we can get more into that later on.
Telephoto lenses have a longer focal length than the standard lenses.
For practical purposes, you can think of telephoto lenses as being the lenses with numbers higher than 50mm. While they magnify what you are looking at in the viewfinder, when seen from the same distance, they aren’t necessarily “zoom” lenses. You can find both prime and zoom telephoto lenses, as well as zoom lenses that cross the 50mm barrier. (I’ll explain those terms better in a moment).
They are great for being able to take pictures of something far away which is why sports photographers tend to have big telephoto lenses with high numbers. They also help give a good magnified image, which makes them helpful for taking closeups in food and still life photography, but as a trade off they have a narrower field of view.
Telephoto lenses also cause some distortion in that they make spaces between objects appear smaller than they really are. When used for portraits, they can also make someone look wider than they really are. (See example 2 below to understand what I mean.)
Wide Angle Lenses:
Wide angle lenses have a focal length that is shorter than the standard lens, and are the ones with the numbers below 50mm. As the number gets lower, you can see more of the scene in your viewfinder when compared to using the standard lens from the same distance. As with telephoto lenses, there are both prime and zoom wide angle lenses.
Wide angle lenses are great for getting in entire landscapes, or more of big structures in architectural photography, but they can also be great for food and still life photography when you need to get in an entire table setting and can’t back up far enough with a standard lens. (No more getting on your tip toes on top of a high bar stool trying to get that great overhead shot!)
Like with the telephotos, the added field of view comes at a price of distorting the distance between near and far objects, but in the case of wide angles lenses, they actually look further away than they really are. When used in portraits, they can make someone look narrower than they are.
Example 1: field of view using telephoto vs. wide angle lenses
These photos were all taken using the same camera mounted on the same tripod in the same exact spot. You can see how the telephoto lens magnifies the ball in comparison to the picture taken with the standard lens. On the other hand the wide angle lenses let you see more of the scene without having to back up.
Example 2: Distortion in telephoto vs. wide angle lenses
Some distortion does take place with telephoto and wide angle lenses. In the example above, I had taken all of the pictures from the same exact spot, but in this example, I moved in or out to try to get the ball to fill up the viewfinder to compare how the ball looks with different lenses.
With the 17mm wide angle lens, I had to move in very close to the ball to get it to fill my viewfinder. Being up so close to it, parts of the ball aren’t captured and the ball looks like it’s narrower and a bit squeezed.
With the 90mm telephoto lens, I had to step back quite a distance to be able to fit the ball into my viewfinder. Taking the photo from so far away allows me to see more of the ball, but the ball looks fatter and flatter than in real life or with a standard lens.
You could also argue that the dog looks closer to the ball in the photo on the right taken with the telephoto lens. This isn’t a great example for showing it, but it is true that the distances between objects also appear to change. The telephoto lens almost appears to flatten the entire image, making everything appear to be closer together, while the wide angle lens seems to have the opposite effect.
Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses
Prime lenses have a set focal length. You can tell a prime lens because they will have one number in mm as the first number rather than a range of numbers. Unlike with zoom lenses where you can zoom in and out, if you want to get closer or further away from your object with a prime lens, you are going to have to be the one who is going to have to move.
Sometimes, though, you may not have the luxury of being able to move closer or further away from your subject to get the right shot, or you may not have the budget for buying several primes. That’s when zoom lenses become very helpful…
A zoom lens is a lens with variable focal points. It’s almost like having several primes all incorporated into one. Rather than having to move or switch lenses to get your subject in the viewfinder, with a zoom lens you can just zoom in or out with the twist of the lens.
So, it may seem that the zoom lenses are the obvious best choice because of their versatility. Right?
The choice between them isn’t exactly that clear cut, though.
The versatility of the zoom lens comes at a price. To add in the extra mechanisms for the zooming capability, zoom lenses end up being heavier, bulkier lenses that are arguably more delicate than the primes. They also tend to let in less light, making them a bit slower lenses, and they don’t have the same sharpness and resolution of a prime lens.
Are prime lenses sharper than zoom lenses?
While it is true that prime lenses tend to be sharper than zoom lenses, the variation in sharpness is debatable and is more noticeable in cheaper zoom lenses like the ones that come in camera kits. Some people only shoot with primes so as not to lose any sharpness at all, but the amount of sharpness lost might be a bit overstated. I heard a photographer say the other day that while primes are sharper, when showing the same photo taken with a prime vs. a zoom lens of similar quality, only a few trained eyes would be able to tell the difference. (That, again, also depends upon which prime and which zoom one is using.)
Let’s be honest, nobody is going to have the very “best” lens for every given situation, it’s about having the best lens for your situation and where you will be shooting most.
My zoom vs. prime lens experiment
I decided to compare my 50mm f/1.8 prime lens to my 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom lens (Pictured to the right) at its 50mm setting using an f/2.8 aperture setting for both. I was looking to compare sharpness, but was also surprised by a difference in the field of view. You would think that the pictures should look exactly the same, having been taken at exactly the same settings, but the zoom lens at the 50mm setting appears to have a wider angle view than the 50mm prime. That, of course, makes it harder to compare the sharpness fairly, but I’m going to continue anyway.
I have to admit that I can read the words more easily on the photo taken with the prime lens on the left, but, to be fair, that might also be because it appears to be magnified when compared to the photo taken with the zoom. I could magnify the photo taken with with the zoom lens, but again, that wouldn’t exactly be fair either.
Despite the fact that comparing them at the same size isn’t completely fair, I decided to do it anyway. Here is the picture taken with the 50mm f/1.8 prime lens at 100% size (left) next to the picture taken with my zoom lens at the 50mm setting which has been blown up to 120% to show the ball at similar sizes.
It’s true that the picture on the left does appear sharper than the picture on the right. That said, it’s not really fair to claim that all primes are going to be obviously sharper than all zooms just based on my silly experiment, especially when you consider that the picture on the right has been blown up to 120% its original size. You also have to consider that there are other differences in these lenses that come into play, including a difference in brands; the one on the left is a Canon lens and the one on the right is a Sigma lens. The lens on the right is also more expensive than the lens on the left.
My point is that this is really just a silly experiment that proves nothing really, but it does allow you to compare what you can expect from a prime lens and a zoom lens set to a similar focal length. Because of the additions needed to make a zoom lens be more versatile and allow for multiple focal lengths, other compromises have to be made.
The zoom vs. prime lenses question may not even be all about sharpness. Some people think that photos taken with prime lenses are more magical and inviting. Maybe they are, but I think magical photos can be taken with both. Here we are looking very critically at both photos, but the average person reading a blog post and looking at the pictures isn’t going to be that critical, nor are they going to have anything to compare to.
In the end, when choosing what lens you want, you’re going to need to weigh out the pros and cons of each lens when looking at price, quality, and versatility. No lens is going to be the best of all three.
Another number you’ll see on lenses, after the focal length number(s) and behind an “f/” or a “1:”, is an aperture number.
The aperture refers to the size of the opening in the lens that allows light to enter. You’ll often see that lenses that open to a wider aperture are called faster lenses because when more light enters into the camera, the sensor doesn’t need to be open for as long to get a good picture. Because of that, you’ll notice that when you are taking photos at night or in low light that it is more difficult to keep things from blurring with movement and that it takes longer for you to be able to take your picture. That is also why it is more important to be using a tripod when you are in lower light situations.
The f/ numbers are based on a ratio of focal length and the diameter of the opening, but it’s not really something you need to worry about. What you need to know is that with a smaller f/ number, the the aperture is bigger, and more light will be able to enter the lens.
When looking at a lens, the f/ number written on the lens refers to the maximum size aperture for that particular lens. That is why lenses with a smaller f/ number tend to be more expensive. They allow for a wider opening that allows for more light to enter and for faster photos.
Changing the aperture does more than just make for a faster photo with less chance of motion blur. Photos taken at a wider aperture setting will also have a narrower depth of field, which means that they will have a narrower in-focus zone.
That may sound frustrating if you think that you want every part of the photo to be in focus, but really it can be used to your advantage to blur out distracting backgrounds allowing your in focus area to really take center stage. I love blurring out the background somewhat and think it makes for beautiful photos. In fact, you can play with the bokeh, the beautiful out of focus areas, and can even make fun bokeh shapes that can make for beautiful photography effects.
The following pictures were all taken with a 50mm prime lens from the same spot using a tripod; the only thing I changed was the aperture setting (in aperture priority mode so that the shutter speed would adjust accordingly).
A lot of people when first starting out want to use the fully automatic setting on their cameras because they’re afraid to touch any of the settings, but I suggest that you at least try out the semi-automatic priority aperture setting. The priority aperture setting (Av) allows you to choose the aperture that you want for the photo, and the camera will determine the shutter speed for you based on the aperture you’ve chosen and the amount of light that enters the camera. By choosing the aperture, you determine the amount of blurred background you’ll get, and can very easily experiment with various effects without having to understand much more than what I’ve told you about apertures.
Note that it may be impossible to get a good picture at all aperture settings in all light settings. For example, you will end up getting a blown out white picture when trying to take pictures at the widest apertures outside on a bright day. On the other hand, you’ll likely need a tripod to be able to take photos in low light with a narrow aperture as the shutter may have to remain open for a very long time to get the shot.
Hopefully that helps explain a little bit about the settings you need to understand when choosing a lens. Next time I’ll try to help you use this information to choose the best lens(es) for you for food and still life photography.