There are 1000’s of digital cameras now. It’s completely overwhelming when you are trying to figure out what is the best camera to buy for food photography when you are on a budget. This post is about 35mm DSLR cameras only. This does not include any of the mirrorless cameras, simply due to price, and lenses available.
The good news is that there are tons of excellent cameras to choose from in different price ranges, and if you’re starting out, any new DSLR will be great. It really just comes down to features and budget.
Each time I do this update I get some flack from the mirrorless camera lovers out there. There are some awesome mirrorless cameras now, in fact way too many to mention in this post. The problem I have with many of them is the lack of the lenses I want for food photos and the ability to shoot tethered with Lightroom or Capture One Pro. Mirrorless cameras needs to be its own post. This is for 35mm DSLR’s only.
At the end of this post you can download my free Camera Buying Guide to help you with this decision.
First of all, welcome to the black sheep of the photography family! The food shooters. Most camera stores have no idea what we need, or what would be useful for us.
Now, if you go to a camera store and ask the guy (or gal) behind the counter, “Which camera is best for food photos?”, they are generally going to sell you the ones that are on special that month, the ones that pay higher commissions that month, or the ones they have too many in stock and have to get rid of.
99% of the time, they have no idea what would be best for food photos, because the majority of people going into their camera stores are not buying gear for food photography, and the sales person themselves have never shot food either. They know about gear to photograph people, sports (their kids in sports), or landscapes.
Ok, I know I am generalizing about the camera stores, but they try to do this to me when I go in there to buy something specific, and I call them out on it every time. I could write an entire blog post about this because it really pisses me off.
Keep in mind, I’ve been buying cameras for more than 30 years, seriously. Oh, and I worked for Cutler Camera in Newark Delaware when I was 16. So please beware of the camera stores, unless you get a great recommendation from a good friend for a store you can trust.
Moving on. We first need to talk about the main options to consider when buying a camera for food photography. The good news is, we DON’T need the cameras that specialize in shooting fast things (sports). So that actually does save us some money here.
Shooting incredibly fast, or photographing incredibly fast things is very difficult, and takes special gear to do this. We need none of that when starting out in food photography. Now, to be fair – if you want to do splashing, and action shots, that’s going to involve equipment for high speed photography and high speed lighting.
What To Consider When Buying Any Camera For Food Photos
Here are some basic settings and features that you need to look for, and compare to, when deciding on the camera you want.
1. Does the Camera have a Cropped Sensor? THIS IS CRUCIAL TO LEARN!
Black Frame = Full Frame 24mm x 35mm sensor (Canon & Nikon +)
Purple Frame = 1.3x Crop Factor (Canon)
Blue Frame = 1.5x Crop Factor (Nikon)
Green Frame = 1.6x Crop Factor (Canon)
This is the most important thing to understand about your cameras! You have to understand what kind of sensor you are buying.
Every camera has a sensor. For 35mm cameras, we have two choices – cropped or full frame sensors. The sensor is what makes the actual picture in your camera. A cropped sensor is less expensive to make, but can still yield a nice image. The problem with the cropped sensor is that your lenses will create images differently from a full frame sensor camera.
A cropped sensor is a sensor that is not the standard size sensor that matches 35mm film standards. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad sensor, or the quality is bad. It means that the size is not the same standard that most lenses are made for.
A full frame sensor is 24mm x 35mm. Why? Well, that was the size of 35mm film. Now that we aren’t using film, manufacturers can change the sensor size. However, when they do, it affects what our final images look like when we use lenses made for full frame sensor cameras.
What Is The Crop Factor?
Every cropped sensor camera has a crop factor. This is the number used to describe how much the sensor is cropping in on your image, or, the factor used when comparing it to the film standard size of a full frame 35mm camera. So with the Canon Rebel cameras, they have a cropped sensor with a crop factor of 1.6 (green frame above). What this means is that when you are using any lens, you need to take that crop factor number, 1.6 in this case, and multiply it by the focal length of the lens.
Take the 50mm lens for example. Multiply 50 x 1.6 (crop factor of the Canon Rebel) and you get 80. That means the 50mm lens will take pictures as if it’s an 80mm lens. In the image above with the green frame, the 50mm lens would take a shot that looked like the crop of the green frame. That’s a huge difference!
If you wanted to get the entire scene, you would have to raise your camera way up on the tripod to capture that. Doing overhead shots is where you’ll really feel the difference using a a cropped sensor camera.
That’s fine if you get used to it, and you like that. Then, what if you want to upgrade your camera body to full frame sensor camera? Now your 50mm lens will look like a 50mm lens, and you will see a huge difference with your food photos and will have to adjust for that. Usually that means buying a longer lens to get the same look.
I know this seems abstract but it’s really an important thing to consider when buying photo gear, and to keep in mind with your lenses.
This is something a lot of popular food bloggers don’t talk about when they tell you about the “nifty fifty” they are using for their food photos. So, when they tell you to get a certain lens, they don’t realize they like it because they are using a cropped sensor camera. Just keep this in mind when you are reading popular food blogs and they are telling you to use a specific lens – find out what camera they are putting that on – a cropped sensor, or a full frame sensor camera.
2. What is the Largest File Size of the Camera?
These days, most cameras have really great file sizes so this isn’t a huge issue any more. When looking at the largest file size of a camera you need to ask yourself if you will ever need to print your images in the future. Printing a file needs the most amount of data possible, so the bigger the file size, the better.
Do you want to do a cookbook down the road that is printed? Get the biggest file size camera you can afford.
3. What is the ISO Range?
If you are not using a tripod, then this is important for you. You need a camera that can be set to a high ISO to accommodate you not using a tripod. For more info on that, see this post: What IS ISO? A camera’s ability to use a high ISO comes with a higher price tag. Using a high ISO really does degrade your image quality (so get a tripod!).
4. How Many Focus Points Does the Camera Have?
Focusing points are a huge issue for me. When I was younger, not so much. Now that I am a little older, I can’t see details as well as I used to. Also, with digital lenses, you need to know that they are geared very differently from days of film lenses. This means they are extremely hard to focus manually because turning that focusing ring a couple millimeters could take the focus through your shot several inches, making it very difficult to put the focus where you want it.
In the image above, you only see 9 focusing points. This is the menu from the Canon 5D Mark II. The Mark III has 65 focus points, which I love, but again, comes with a higher price tag.
5. Does the Camera Shoot RAW Files?
The last main option to consider is if the camera will shoot RAW files. Most cameras do these days. But if you are buying an older used camera, just make sure it can shoot RAW. RAW files are much easier to edit after you shoot. This is something to consider when you start learning food photography more and more, and grow into editing RAW files. I just need to bring this up as this option will also increase the price of some cameras. If photographing food is only a hobby for you, then the ability of shooting RAW files might not be an issue for you.
Here is a post with more details on RAW files.
6. What is Your Camera Budget?
Alright, now let’s talk about your budget. Many times, you just want to spend a certain amount, and that’s it. So you need to look at all the features I mentioned above when considering how much money you want to spend.
I’m going to break this down into three different budgets to give you a sense of what you would get for your money.
Best Camera When Your Budget is $450 or less
Let’s say you have less than $475 total. That means camera and lens. You will have to get a “Kit Camera”. This means that the camera and lens come together for one price which would be a little bit cheaper than buying them separately. Almost every brand has kit cameras.
Kit sets have very cheap lenses. These lenses are the lowest in quality, but will give you an inexpensive way to try out this whole food photography thing to see if you like it.
I can’t list all the great cameras here – there’s just too many of them. Here are just a few to get you started with your research.
(Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means we will earn a commission if you make a purchase. This commission comes at no additional cost to you. Contact me if you have any questions.)
Prices change daily on Amazon for some reason, so what you see here could change day by day.
This camera has a crop factor of 1.6, so that means the zoom lens would give you pictures as if you used a lens that was a 28mm-88mm lens. So for food photos, you would be zooming all the way in to the 55mm setting.
The other items that comes with it – the wide angle “lens”, the telephoto “lens” (they are just attachments, not lenses), the tripod, the flash – just remember, you get what you pay for, so these items will not be very good in quality. But again, for starting out with images for the web, this will do a good job.
When buying any gear, make sure they have a 30 day return policy at least, and some kind of warranty.
Camera specs – Cropped sensor, file size: 24mp, ISO goes up to 12,800, 9 focus points, shoots JPEGS and RAW files, built-in wireless enabled, you can pair it with your phone for remote shooting.
Nikon designates their cropped sensor cameras with a DX. This is the Nikon D3500. For some reason, Nikon gear is more money than Canon gear. I’ve had both and they are both excellent brands. Some people will fight to their death claiming that one is better than the other, but for food photography, they are both excellent systems to shoot with. This comes with the standard zoom kit lens 18-55mm.
You can have this camera talk to your phone through an app called Snapbridge, which is kinda fun.
Camera Specs: cropped sensor, file size: 24mp, ISO goes up to 25600, bluetooth enabled, only 11 focus points
Your Budget is $800+
The next step up in budget, you can get the Canon T7i. Yep, the tiny little “i” in the title give you several more features for more money. A tilt screen (great for video) and a touch screen to start, which can be very handy. It also has auto focus in video – that’s important.
Camera Specs: cropped sensor, file size: 24mp, ISO goes up to 25,600, no built-in wifi, 45 focus points! This is huge and awesome – hence the price jump.
The Nikon D5600 is a great little camera too. This kit comes with the standard 18-55 zoom lens and a telephoto lens that you won’t use much for food. The telephoto lens if for photographing things very far away from you so if you travel a lot, you could use this for landscapes. Same disclaimer as above with all the bits that come with this – you get what you pay for so the quality of all the extras will not be very good but great for someone starting out.
Camera Specs: cropped sensor, file size: 24mp, ISO goes up to 25,600, built-in wifi that you can use the SnapBridge app with, 39 focus points! This is awesome – hence the price jump but totally worth it to me.
If you want the cheapest Full Frame camera – $1000-$1500
This camera is extremely popular because it’s the cheapest Full Frame camera that Canon currently makes. This is without a lens! Many of my Food Photography Club members have this camera and love it.
Camera specs: Full Frame, file size 20mp, ISO goes up to 102400, built-in wireless, 11 focus points (this is why it’s a lot less than the other full frame cameras – it only has 11 focusing points).
Camera Specs: Full Frame, 24.3mp, ISO goes up to 25,800, tilt screen, 39 focus points! No wifi built in but it does have 2 card slots so you could put in a wifi enabled card into one of those slots.
Full Frame, Low End (price), Professional Cameras $2500-$3100
Now for a bit of a jump in the budget. If you know you are ready to move up in features and budget, then the next step up would be the Canon 5D Mark IV for $2500 for the body only, or get the camera with the 24-105 zoom lens for around $3400. The camera that was extremely popular was the 5D Mark III but Canon stopped making it 2016. You can look for this used, but keep in mind it’s an older camera, so you need to consider the wear and tear.
I know this is a huge jump in price, but I had to mention a couple of the low level pro cameras here. Keep in mind, the high end 35mm cameras are $5500 – $6500.
Camera Specs: Full Frame, 30.3mp (this is a nice large sensor!), ISO goes up to 102,400, 61 focus points!, with wifi built, has two card slots.
This camera would be awesome to shoot smaller jobs with because of the sensor size.
This is Nikon’s mid level pro camera. It’s replacing the previous D800 with a lot of improvements. It has a huge 47.7mp sensor. That’s a nice size jump there. It has 153 focus points! That is awesome. I would love that. ISO can go up to 102,400, it also has two card storage slots, is wifi enabled, and can shoot 4K video. This camera has won a ton of awards too. You could actually use this camera for pro ad jobs.
If this seems crazy to spend this kind of money, just keep in mind that there is a camera for every budget. You just have to do the research for the perfect one for you.
The cameras I use for commercial jobs are medium format and start at $20,000 and go way up from there to about $60,000 – hopefully that give you some perspective here. Photography is a very expensive profession my friends.
You Could Buy Used Equipment
One way to get great equipment for a lower price tag is to buy it used from a reputable place. I do use Ebay a lot for gear. I’ve used ebay since it first started. Now, there are many reputable ebay sellers of used photo equipment.
Here is what you have to look for when buying used gear from any store on ebay.
- The most important qualification is the Positive Feedback, along with a lot of transactions. So if a seller has had 29,850 transactions and their feedback is 99.7 – that’s a great seller, and they probably have a “Top Rated Seller” badge.
- For some reason, many of the low priced new equipment sellers are in New Jersey. Seriously, I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. What they will do is sell new equipment without the manufacturer warranty, but include their own warranty for 1 year. What this means is that if anything goes wrong, Canon won’t fix it, but the ebay seller will. I bought my Canon 5D Mark III this way and it worked out fine.
- Make sure you have a 30 day money back guarantee, whether it’s new, or used equipment.
- I tend to not buy equipment from an individual unless they have a lot of transactions, and a 100% positive feedback.
- I never buy from anyone, or any store that has less than 150 transactions, even with excellent feedback.
- Read the feedback reviews on the sellers just to make sure they are all consistent with great reviews.
- Make sure the seller isn’t shipping from somewhere that is going to cost a lot of money for you, and double check the shipping rates.
- There’s a lot of ebay sellers from China that are selling knockoffs. They have lots of transactions but their feedback isn’t near 90 percent positive.
- Read the entire ebay listing – look to see if they say, “image shown may not be actual item up for auction”. This means that they are showing you a camera image from the manufacturer, but the actual camera they are selling you might have some scratches or scuffs on it. I avoid those. I want to see the image of exactly what I am getting – unless they claim it’s brand new – then it should be in pristine condition, and then, it’s ok for them to show the manufacturer’s photo.
One thing that needs to be mentioned. In the US, you will want to buy a camera that has a US warranty.
You can find a brand new camera for a lot less money but most likely this is a Gray or Black market camera. That means it’s from another country. It could be new and it could be in great condition, but it won’t have a manufacturer warranty, so it’s less money.
Many of the New Jersey and Brooklyn stores sell these, and then have their own warranty on them. I just make sure I can call them, and that they respond to questions. If the store has no way of contacting them, that’s a bad sign. So I have bought gray market cameras and they’ve worked out just fine BECAUSE of the store that I buy them from.
My last piece of advice for buying equipment is to do your research. Here is a great website I always end up going to when looking up camera gear. Ken Rockwell’s Reviews. It is not pretty, but it’s very easy to find camera specs on any camera you are considering.
So, there you have it! Hopefully this helps to shed some light on how to buy your first camera. If you are still confused, please ask me your questions in the comments below.
Please use my free Camera Buying Guide to help you make your decision. Take your time, print out the guide, write down your options and compare the cameras you are considering.