This post was updated April 13th, 2017
I get asked, “What lens should you use to shoot food”, all the time. These beautiful little purple carrots are perfect for doing a lens test to show you some different lenses to help you pick your perfect lens.
Does your camera have a cropped sensor? I have to mention something about cameras here. This is extremely important. I’ve learned that most bloggers do not know if they are using a camera with a cropped sensor. This mean that any lens you put on that camera will act like a much longer lens. For example, if you put a 50mm lens on a canon Rebel T5i camera, that lens will act like it’s an 80mm lens. This is a huge difference! So keep in mind when reading this article, you need to google your camera to find out what the crop factor is of your camera.
If your camera has a crop factor of 1.6 then, take the focal length of your lens and multiply it by 1.6. That is how your lens will look when taking pictures. For example, the ever popular 50mm lens will give you an image as if you took the picture with an 80mm lens.
If you don’t have a pro level camera, chances are it has a cropped sensor as they are less expensive to produce.
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Alright, I’m going to compare a zoom lens set at 35mm, 50mm, 100mm and a 100mm macro lens on my full frame sensor camera. I chose these three focal lengths because most bloggers use either a 35mm lens , a 50mm lens OR a zoom equivalent, like an 18mm-55 zoom, because that’s what came with their camera. I prefer the 100mm macro lens over all three of these. The 100mm macro is not an option for a kit camera when purchasing one because of the price. Kit cameras usually come with the least expensive lenses. This lens when sold as a used lens is about $450. I buy used gear all the time – just make sure it’s from a reputable store with good feedback and allows returns. The zoom lens I’m using to do this is a canon Canon 24-105mm, used price $540 – new price $1149.
This test is all about showing you the lens perspective at different focal lengths. See how much background you see in the 35mm shot VS the 100mm macro?
For all the shots above – I used a Canon Canon 5D Mark II with the same exact exposure of: ISO 100, F-Stop 4.5, and a shutter speed of ⅓ second (natural light). This camera is a full frame camera, sensor is not cropped.
35mm Lens (I hardly use this one)
Please look at the perspective of each shot. The shot with the 35mm I had to crop into the shot in order to show the same amount of the carrots. Here, it looks like most of the carrots are in focus, which is what happens with wider angle lenses, its harder to get shallow depth of field. Now depending on your lens you could use a wider F-Stop if your lens can do that to show more depth of field (more things out of focus). This shot, to me does not have much dimension. I would only use a 35mm lens to photograph an entire table of food where I would want more things in focus and I don’t have much room to get all things into my frame that I need to.
50mm Lens (most common lens food bloggers use) – not my favorite
So I noticed that most food bloggers use the 50mm lens. I think it started from a food blogger a while back that had a kit camera (a less expensive camera like the Canon Rebel series that comes with a lens) and they used it well (meaning their photos looked nice) and other bloggers followed suit. In class, when I see a student with this lens and I ask them why they use that lens they either say, a blogger they admire uses it, OR it came with the camera (kit lens).
Many bloggers are using this lens on a camera that is not full frame. This means the image is being cropped a little bit. What this means for our lenses is that a 50mm lens would really be like shooting with a 75mm lens on a Canon Rebel. So, yes, many bloggers think they are using a 50mm lens, as that’s what it’s called, but the image the camera is taking with that lens is more like a 75mm lens, a longer lens.
The other issue I have with the 50mm lens is in order to get a photo that has nice depth of field you have to be fairly close to the food/set each time, so what happens is that all the shots end up looking the same. The 50mm is still considered a wider (angle) lens so you can’t back away from your set very much, or you start showing edges of your set that you don’t want to see, like the edge of table. So you are limited in how close you need to be to your set. Now, there are some 50mm lenses that are macros – so you can get closer to your food but there IS such a thing as being too close.
Both the 35mm and the 50mm can be useful for overhead shots where shallow depth of field is not needed. The more lenses you have, the more flexibility you have for making creative food photos. I think it would be ideal for you to have a 50mm lens and also a 100mm macro or equivalent.
For cropped sensor cameras, consider the 60mm macro lens
A great combination for any cropped sensor camera would be a lens that when you calculate the crop factor of your camera with your lens, you get near 100mm. Let’s take the 60mm macro lens by Canon and use it on the Canon Rebel with a crop factor of 1.6. That will give you an image that will look very similar to using the 100mm macro lens on the Canon 5D Mark II or III because when you calculate the crop factor of the 60mm x 1.6 you get 96mm. See what I mean there?
24-105mm Zoom Lens (one of my favorites)
I think a great lens for bloggers would be one in the range of 24-105mm. With zoom lenses it’s very important to find out what is the widest F-stop before you buy a lens. They call this the “speed” of the lens – I know, makes no sense. They call lenses with really wide open F-Stops a “fast” lens. This means the lens can shoot better in low light situations. The wider your f-stop is the more your background will be out of focus, which is ideal for a lot of food shooting scenarios. Lenses with wider F-stops cost more than those that don’t.
Zoom Lens Set To 100mm VS 100mm Macro Lens (my favorite)
So this is interesting. The zoom lens on the left is a pro grade zoom lens and the 100mm is the consumer grade prime lens. A prime lens means that it is not a zoom and is only that one focal length, in this case a 100mm macro.
Consumer grade means the less expensive quality type of lenses. All manufacturers of lenses make consumer and pro grades. Consumer grades are cheaper and pro lenses are a lot more money. I was surprised at how different the focal lengths were between these two lenses. The 100mm zoom lens on the left looks much wider than the prime 100mm on the right. Very strange.
Please know that zoom lenses will never be as sharp (in focus) as a prime (fixed) lens. Even with pro level zoom lenses, in my opinion, they are still not as sharp as a prime lens.
You Get What You Pay For In a Lens
So in order to match the look of the zoom lens on the left, I had to back up the camera and raise it a bit. Then, when I zoomed in at 100% of the file size, I was shocked at how bad the image quality was on the zoom lens while the consumer grade fixed lens looked really clean and very sharp where it was supposed to be. I am constantly disappointed with my zoom lens. It was not cheap and it’s just not as sharp as a fixed lens.
Here’s the zoom on the left – not nearly as sharp as the lens on the right. I did not alter these in any way. Now, you might look at these and not think this is a big difference because we are looking at it on the web at 72 dpi. When you go to print these at high resolution, that’s when this quality difference will be a huge problem. So if you’re a food blogger and think you don’t need to worry about this – I hope you never have to do a printed cook book. Just some food for thought.
When shooting with the 100mm macro lens – unless you’re doing macro work, you will be a little bit farther away from your set than you would be with the 50mm lens and certainly much farther away from the set compared to the 35mm lens.
Side Note: Styling the Carrots
Even a simple shot like this takes time to prep the food. These were organic carrots. Not sure why but it seems like “organic” means that there’s going to be a lot more dirt on them. I buy a lot of organics and I find this to be the case with most veggies. These little purple guys were no exception. I spent a good 20 minutes just cleaning the dirt off of these. Notice in the main shot above how they are a deep rich glistening color? That’s because I put a mixture of water and glycerin on them. The mixture is a 50% ratio – half water to half glycerin. Then when I’m done shooting I just give them another rinse to get the glycerin off of them. Water will work but it evaporates too quickly.
You can see my purple bottle labeled with my glycerin mixture.
To summarize all this in six points:
- 35mm lens is considered a wide angle lens and it’s difficult to get shallow depth of field with it
- 50mm lens is not as wide but you have to get pretty close to your food to get shallow depth of field and this can make this lens limiting
- The 35mm and the 50mm can be useful for overhead shots as they are wide angle and depth of field is not an issue here
- 100mm macro lens give you the most flexibility with your shots on a full frame sensor camera
- If you have a kit camera like a Canon Rebel or equivalent and you want to upgrade your gear, get a better lens first. If you upgrade to a pro body your kit lenses WILL NOT work on your pro Canon body – Nikon kit lenses will work on pro bodies, but they will still crop into the image because the lens quality can not handle a full frame image.
- Consider the 60mm macro lens for your cropped sensor camera.
- Ideally, you want a wider lens (like a 50) for wide shots, then a longer lens for your hero, up-close, food shots
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