One of the things I love about photographing food is all the amazing equipment we have to choose from to get that perfect shot. This however, can lead to a lot of confusion for people when they are deciding which camera to buy for food photography.
First let me say, if you are considering buying a new camera system, you can hardly go wrong with any of the brands. The newer camera systems have so many great features. Just pick your budget, then narrow down your choices from there.
I’m a little different from a lot of photographers, in that I feel the right camera for you is what you can afford, and has the features you need for photographing your subject – not necessarily a specific brand. Check out this post about the best camera for a budget for more info on that.
Some photographers insist on one brand being superior to all the others for photographing all disciplines, and I don’t agree with that.
As I am a fan of many photography brands, I am currently testing several of the newer systems before I upgrade what I am currently using as a 35mm camera. I’m heavily looking into getting a mirrorless system.
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Mirrorless Camera Systems – The DSLR Replacement
Mirrorless camera systems are the newest generation of cameras in our photography world, and they have come a very long way over the years. Eventually, they will totally replace the classic DSLR.
It’s taken the manufactures some time to come up with the proper lenses that we use regularly for food photography however, and now us food shooters finally have several mirrorless camera & lens options to choose from.
I was invited to test some equipment for B&H Photo Video in New York. They aren’t paying me for this blog post and want me to give my honest opinion about the gear I am testing.
This post does contain affiliate links to the gear I am mentioning, so if you purchase any of that gear through my link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you.
The Sony A7RIII
Sony produced the first full frame mirrorless camera in 2013. I knew it was only a matter of time before this would be a viable option for commercial food photography.
I chose this specific model because of the price point and the features I wanted. More details about that below. I also never run out and buy the newest camera system out there – ever. I want all the other photogs to do that, let them find what’s wrong with the new stuff so that the issues can get fixed by the time I’m willing to buy it.
Today, I’ll be talking about the Sony A7Riii (ILCE-7RM3A) – this is the newest version of this camera model at the time of writing this post. I also used the Sony 90mm macro lens for the food images you see here as well.
Real quick, the older version of this camera, has the same name, Sony A7Riii but the model number is ILCD-7RM3 – it’s missing the “A” at the end. The main difference is the LCD on the camera. The newer version has a lot more resolution on the camera LCD, so for that, I would get the newer version camera.
My Camera Requirements For Commercial Food and Product Photography
Here are my requirements for the new camera system that I am looking for:
- File Size – I need the largest file size I can get my hands on for my commercial and editorial clients that will be taking my images to print. These days, our clients want options. They want to crop into our shot whether we want them to or not, so I want to make sure the images are very large to start with. This way, the images will still be nice and sharp when cropped.
- Flip Screen – we are often doing overhead shots as food photographers – so I really want a flip screen to make this easy
- Full Frame Sensor – I want my lenses to perform at their true focal length. For more info about the difference between a cropped sensor and a full frame sensor check out this post.
- Price – mirrorless and DSLR cameras are considered small format cameras compared to medium and large format cameras, so for my small system, I really am not comfortable paying more than $3000 for just the camera body. If I am going to spend that kind of money, I would look at a medium format system instead.
- Focusing Points – any newer camera system has a lot of focusing points on it these days, which makes it easy to set focus anywhere you want, so the more focusing points, the better.
- Ability to easily do focus stacking (see below for this one)
- Eye Follow Focus – super helpful for photographing chefs. You simply set your camera to do “Eye Follow Focus” and it finds the eyes of your subjects, and moves with them. It’s great.
- Ability to shoot 4K video – again, higher resolution gives us more options down the road with editing.
- High ISO capabilities – the newer cameras are getting better at producing cleaner images (less digital noise) at a high ISO, so that’s always a nice bonus if shooting hand held.
Why Did I pIck This Particular Sony?
I picked this particular Sony because it has a very large, full frame sensor at 42.4mp, has a flip screen, the price is moderate at $2500 compared to the Canon R5 45mp at $1000 more.
Sony has an even larger sensor than this model, and it’s more money. I’m trying to stay in a price range under $3000 for the body because I know that a lot of you reading this blog are not doing major commercial jobs yet.
It also has 425 focusing points, which is great for shooting food and it has Eye Follow Focus as well, for my Chef shots.
When testing the camera at high ISO, it was the same as my older Canon 5D Mark III, so I didn’t see much improvement there, but I’m almost always on a tripod, so that’s the least important feature for me, and why that is last on my list.
Food Photography Often INvolves Macro Photography
As food photographers, many times we are actually doing macro photography because we have to get very close to our food and show fine details.
This has its own set of requirements with the lenses we use. Sony came out with its 90mm macro lens E-mount (for mirrorless cameras) in 2015, so they were ahead of the game for us food shooters.
With macro photography, focus is absolutely critical. If you miss the mark of your focus in your shot, it’s really obvious, so our cameras must be extremely accurate with the auto focus.
As I’m testing newer camera systems, I’m learning that accurate macro focus is indeed a challenge for some systems. Most of the newer mirrorless cameras have ways of zooming into your focus before you take the picture to enlarge an area in the image that you are focusing on to make sure it’s sharp. This is very helpful.
The “focus zoom” is a great new feature with a lot of cameras, and with the Sony, it was extremely accurate. Wherever I put my single focus point, the Sony nailed it every time. The Sony 90mm macro lens is extremely sharp as well.
There are a lot of menu options for the focus on this camera, so you must do some testing for your situation to set up the camera’s focusing menu for what will work for you.
The Sony 90mm Macro Lens
This lens is beautifully sharp. It was very responsive as well. I was very happy with the food images I was able to do with this lens.
The problem for me was, I was not able to do focus stacking with this lens in manual mode on this camera body without additional gear. Other Sony camera bodies have a built in menu feature for focus stacking, this one does not.
Focus stacking is where you take several images, all at varying focal points in your frame, then, with software you put all those images together to get an image that has more focus throughout the image than what you can get from just one frame.
I tested a Sigma 105 macro lens on the same camera and it worked fine in manual mode for focus stacking. I was able to do a 30 image focus stack just fine. So the problem was not with the camera, the focus stacking limitation was with the Sony lens. I’ll be doing another detailed post about my lens tests later.
The images below are from a fun food fine art series I’m working on called Mini Food Scapes. I always need to do a focus stack with these images because those little figures are only about 3/4 of an inch tall and I get extremely close to them so even at a high fstop I can’t get enough in focus with a macro lens.
Apparently, the focus stacking ability is an issue with many Sony bodies with Sony lenses. These electronic lenses are so sophisticated that some of them actually can’t go into 100% manual focus mode anymore. I was shocked to figure this out. I spent hours trying to do a focus stack of about 30 images, and could not do it with the Sony 90mm macro on the Sony A7Riii camera by moving the focus through the image with the lens.
As I was turning the focusing collar on the lens in very small increments, the lens did not change its focus at all, even though the camera and lens were both set to manual focus mode. It’s as if I hadn’t turned the focus collar at all. If I made a large movement on the focusing collar, the lens would wake up and refocus. Very tiny focus adjustments in manual mode was not recognized.
This is an issue that Sony doesn’t acknowledge. What I mean by that, is when I called Sony to ask them what the issue was, I assumed that I was doing something wrong (that’s always my first thought) and they said they’ve never heard of this focus stacking problem before.
They even have a post on their website that shows “focus stacking” a flower with their gear. The problem with that post, is that it only involves 3 images total in the focus stack. For anyone who does this kind of work, I’ve never pulled off a full focus image stack in 3 frames for the kind of images I am photographing.
How Can You Focus Stack With The Sony A7R III & 90mm Macro Lens?
Don’t get me wrong – you can focus stack with this camera and lens, you just need some third party tools, and/or software to do so, and this will be an additional $100-$400 depending on what you use. That was the surprise for me. Again, I’ll be covering this in another post about focus stacking.
The easiest way to focus stack with this Sony, and all the other cameras/lenses out there that have the same issues, is to simply use a macro focusing rail on your tripod.
What the focusing rail enables you to do is to move your whole camera and lens together down the focusing rail in order to get all your images for your focus stack. You are not touching the lens, you are moving the camera through your focusing area in your image.
There are several focusing rails available. This is a link to the image above from B&H Photo Video. https://bhpho.to/3Fjyw2a
You can also purchase software and remote controller units to do focus stacking, that costs more than the focusing rail, I’ll be covering this in the post about focus stacking, but I didn’t want to leave you hanging.
Eye Follow Focus
The last thing I tested was the Eye Follow Focus with the Sony camera and Sony 90mm macro and that worked great. I tested it with Scott moving around very quickly in the frame and the camera and lens had no problem tracking his eye (even through glasses) and all shots were sharp.
So, with all that being said, for traditional food photography where you are only using 1 frame at a time for your food photos at a time – instead of a multi shot, focus stack, this system will work really well for you. I was very happy with how the system worked for a single food image.
For more advanced commercial work and product photography, where everything has to be in focus, you’ll just need to use a third party device and software (another $100-$400) to do focus stacking. So, not a deal breaker, and in due time, I’m pretty sure all cameras in the future will have some sort of image focus stacking feature.
Would I buy this camera? Yes, because even with the extra gear and software to do focus stacking, it’s less than the Canon equivalent, the R5 and still a great camera with a lot of features. The focus stacking issue might be able to be fixed with a camera/lens firmware update down the road.
I hope you found this post helpful, and let me know in the comments below if you are considering upgrading your camera system to a mirrorless one, and what you are thinking of getting.