The best DSLR lens for food photography – Part III

All-round primes

When comes to one particular food photography lens that shines quite bright and is used probably more often than any other, there is no doubt 50mm primes are on top of that list.  These “small” performers are in fact the lens of choice of many food photographers.

They come in all different flavors. In fact, this focal length is the most mass-produced lens since mid-60’s. Majority of lens manufacturists, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma and others, produce at least 2 sometimes even 3 different models so choices are almost endless. As a food photographer, no matter how limited or large your budget is or what’s the brand of your choice, you will be able to find one that fits your needs. As I mentioned before, 50mm lens also sells the most in terms of “volume”, making it as one of the cheapest lens around and more importantly offers superb optical performance.

I won’t go back in time and talk about all 50mm primes ever produced. The idea is to cover the present DSLR lens lineup from Canon, Nikon and Zeiss.

Canon

lens (2)

Canon today offers three different versions of this lens. The EF 50mm f/1.8, EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and EF 50mm f/1.2L USM are in fact the same focal length but there are some differences in regards to build quality, performance and price. I can tell you that all of them are stellar performers. When comes to food photography, you won’t make a mistake picking any of them.
The most inexpensive EF 50mm f/1.8 offers great DOF, very balanced color rendering and adequate sharpness (resolution). The price tag of $175 can’t be beat. It is simply the most inexpensive Canon prime lens therefore I would highly recommend it for a beginner in food photography.

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The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is EF 50mm f/1.8 older brother. In my opinion if you’re a food photographer this is a must to have lens. The combination of large aperture (f/1.4), built quality, great bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus blur) and the price makes this lens very valuable. It is priced a bit higher than 1.8 version but you’ll notice some difference between these two. The 1.4 version looks and feels much more robust and in terms of performance it is a two stops faster. I found that some Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM I owned in the past aren’t that much superior to EF 50mm f/1.8 but this could be related to “bad” copies I had. Never less, it offers probably the best compromise between quality and price. The average cost of Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is around $400 CAD.

lensCanon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a top contender in this class. This is a professional L grade lens and it comes with an exceptional build quality and exceptional price tag of $1600 CAD. EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is an ultra-large aperture lens which gives you great performance especially in low light conditions (shooting food with natural light). Using this lens at f/1.2 produces extremely shallow DOF (depth of field) which in many cases is unusable for food photography. The “sweet” aperture range could be found between f/1.8 and f/5.6. Considering all factors, I wouldn’t really recommend it simply because it is an overkill. The line between price and performance is quite fine with this lens. Justifying the high expense for the lens that is slightly better than Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM could be pretty tough.

Nikon

lens (3)Same as Canon, Nikon offers different versions of 50mm prime lens. From the present Nikon lineup I would recommend two … Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G (FX) and Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4 D (FX). I tested both with my Nikon D3 camera and in terms of performance they are in par with their Canon counterparts.

Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G (FX) is a great lens. With a price tag of only $200 CAD, this can be a great investment for your food photography venture. The build quality is decent thanks to an outer barrel being made out of high quality plastics. In my opinion a bit better than Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. Again, Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G could be a perfect lens for someone who’s just stepping into food photography. Like other 50mm primes, this lens could be used for many other occasions … portraiture, day-to-day shooting etc. The center resolution is very good wide open but it reaches best results between f/2.8 and f/5.6. Unfortunately, after f/11 I noticed quite a drop in sharpness and contrast. For the entry level lens, bokeh is not bad but there is a lot to be desired. Overall, I will match this lens with Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 … great bang for a buck!

lens (4)Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4 D (FX) is a step above AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G not only from performance perspective but cost too. This lens won’t break your budget either because it’s priced well below $400 CAD. Again, Nikon use a high quality plastic for this lens which makes it quite strong. The center resolution is very good wide open, and I think one of the sharpest in this class. Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4 D is sharp at f/1.4 but in my opinion it delivers awesome results from f/2.0 all the way to f/8. Bokeh is silky smooth and considering the price you can’t expect more than that.

This being said, Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4 D (FX) it’s not without flaws. Wide open, it lacks contrast and vignetting is very noticeable. Over all I would rate it high because you won’t be able to find more affordable lens without compromising the performance.

The best DSLR lens for food photography – Part II

Macro Lenses

I already covered this topic in one of my previous posts but I have decided to supplement it with some additional info. As mentioned before, the choice of photo lens strictly reflects your style of shooting. I believe that every food photographer has his/her own preference and most of the time the choice is based on many different aspects.

Cost, versatility, focal length, minimum focusing distance, built quality are just few things that we take in consideration when picking up a new lens. I talked about this before. Right now I would like to cover actual products that most of food photographers use today.

First, I want to mention that my experience with DSLR lenses is strictly allied with Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras. Although I used some other equipment in the past (large format cameras and lenses) I would like to concentrate on these two major consumers brands.

My style of shooting could be quite versatile but over the years I found that 70% photos I produced consists of close-ups or photos where food subject is presented in a “macro” mode. This is the reason I want to cover some of the macro lenses I had a chance to work with. There are four technical features that are very important to me therefore I will rate each lens based on sharpness (resolution), quality of bokeh (smoothness of the out of focus area), vignetting and the cost.

Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro

This is the great macro lens from Canon. Although it was introduced back in march 2000 it doesn’t falls into outdated lens category by any mean. Canon offers right now the newer model EF 100mm f/2.8 USM L IS, but I can’t really comment on it because I haven’t had a chance to use it. Based on the way we shoot food (use of tripods) I honestly think this might be an overkill.

I bought my copy back in 2002. Over the last 10 years used this Canon lens a lot. I took thousands of pictures with it and I can say it served me very well. I haven’t experienced any technical issues with it. Unfortunately, due to overlapping with other lenses that I recently purchased, I decided to sell it.

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Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro

Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM is pretty sharp lens. I found that center sharpness is great even at f/2.8 but its peak performance can be found between f/4 and f/7. The lens remains perfectly usable till about f/16. The bokeh is quite smooth but in my opinion it could be a bit better …. considering the cost you would expect a little bit more. Vignetting on the end is well controlled and it should cause any trouble at all. I purchased Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM from the local Toronto reseller for approximately $700 CAD. I think is priced OK considering that its counterparts could cost you much more. On the scale from 1 to 10, I would rate Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM:

  1. Sharpness (resolution) – 8
  2. Bokeh – 7
  3. Vignetting – 9
  4. Cost – 8

 

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF MICRO-NIKKOR

Not to be confused here … when Nikon says Micro they actually mean Macro. I bought used copy of Nikon 105mm micro lens back in 2008 … almost at the same time when I got my first Nikon DSLR camera Nikon D3. Nikon 105mm f/2.8 was replaced in 2006 with the newer VR version, but this will fall into the same category as the new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM L IS. I really see no reason at all for building VR or IS version for any macro lens although it could be helpful for shooting insects or some wild life.

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Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF MICRO-NIKKOR

Anyway, first thing I noticed while using Nikon 105mm Micro was impressive build quality and overall performance. Same as Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro, this lens is center sharp right at the highest aperture range, from f/2.8 to f/5.6. I found a small drop in sharpness around f/11 but it is still very usable right up to f/16. The focusing is quite fast and accurate. Compared to Canon macro, Nikon 105mm produces smoother and silkier bokeh but on the flip side of the coin, Canon is much better in controlling vignetting and chromatic aberration.

For taking food photos, this could be your perfect macro lens. If you’re Nikon shooter you can definitely consider either this or the newer AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED version. I got to say that Nikon lenses are usually priced a bit higher than their Canon or Sigma equals …. I still haven’t figured out why. The brand new AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED will cost you around $900 CAD and I found this price a little bit too steep. And when comes to rating …

  1. Sharpness (resolution) – 8
  2. Bokeh – 8
  3. Vignetting – 8
  4. Cost – 9

Sigma AF 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro

I didn’t think much about the Sigma lenses before. I have to say my decision to buy was solely driven by its reviews and feedback I received from other photographers. In fact, I never owned a Sigma lens before … this was the first. I believe Sigma AF 105mm f/2.8 EX DG is the most underrated macro DSLR lens you’ll find around.

If I’m not wrong, it comes in 4 different mounts … Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Pentax. I was using Canon version, mounted on Canon 5D and Canon 5D Mark II. Like most macro lenses, Sigma AF 105mm f/2.8 EX DG performs exceptionally well. The lens is tack sharp both in the center and corners. Compared to Canon and Nikon, Sigma offers best results from f/2.8 all the way to f/8. These two are pretty much flat out bad with aperture lower than f/16 while Sigma pushes this boundary all the way to f/22! This is something to consider when shooting advertising material.

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Sigma AF 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro

One thing I noticed right away was color rendering. I can describe it as more natural looking and for sure quite warmer than colors produced by Canon and Nikon lenses. This can definitely help you in post processing work … from my experience I didn’t really bother fixing colors that come out of this gem. Focusing is smooth but I got to say a little bit slower than Canon and Nikon lenses. This shouldn’t bother you at all simply because we have plenty of time to spare when shooting food.  The minimum focusing distance is 31cm which provides a great working distance of 122mm from the end of the lens to your food plate. Chromatic aberration is very well controlled, vignetting is minimal and distortion is quite negligible … overall great performer.

The best part about Sigma AF 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro was the price. You could picked one for as low as $550 CAD and used ones today go for anywhere between $300 and $400 CAD. In my opinion this is a bargain.

The bad news is Sigma doesn’t make them anymore. The lens was replaced with the new 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro (again with Image Stabilizer) which is pretty much in the same price range as latest Canon and Nikon macro lenses. I haven’t tested the new one but I’m sure it wouldn’t disappoint. My ratings are:

  1. Sharpness (resolution) – 9
  2. Bokeh – 9
  3. Vignetting – 8
  4. Cost – 10

The best DSLR  lens for food photography – Part III is coming soon …

Interview with Marianne Wren – Food Stylist

Marianne Wren
Marianne Wren – Food Stylist

Tell us about yourself? How did you start your food styling career?

I have always been a “foodie”. After graduating from culinary school I opened my own catering company. . While I enjoyed working with food every day and developing the perfect menu for my client’s events, I was searching for something a bit more creative.  My sister, an art director, suggested that I might be well suited to food styling,  It’s been over 16 years that I have been working as a food stylist and recipe developer, I suppose it’s time to tell her she  was absolutely right!

What makes a great food photo?

I believe a great food photo makes your mouth water.  If a person is inspired to try a new recipe because of a photo I have styled I would consider that a job well done.

What are the basic skills that every food stylist needs to have?

A good working knowledge of food and how it performs is an asset to any stylist.  While there are tricks of the trade that are necessary on set, nothing beats good old fashioned culinary training.

Advertising vs. Editorial work … what is your preference?

Variety is what keeps things interesting so I love to have a mix of both editorial and advertising clients.  Each provides a different way to express your creativity.

Where do you find your inspiration?

It sounds like a cliché but inspiration can come from anywhere.  It could be colour, a beautiful or interesting prop or even the food itself. Something just catches my eye and that will spark something in my brain.   When I’m developing a recipe, a single ingredient could be the inspiration for an entire recipe.

Do you have any tips for aspiring food stylist?  

There are some great books and classes offered to help you get started.  Check out Delores Custer’s book “Food Styling” or your local culinary school.   Assisting is a great way to learn valuable skills so introduce yourself to food stylists in your area.

Marianne Wren

Website: http://www.foodstylist.org

Twitter: @MarianneWren

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MarianneWrenFoodStylist

Making money with food photography stock

I’ve been asked so many times if selling food photography as a stock material makes any sense. In today’s economy I see no reason why you shouldn’t explore this possibility … after all who doesn’t want to make a little extra cash these days? In fact, I started my photography career as a stock photographer.  I have been selling royalty-free stock photographs for a while and will share my thoughts, ideas and concepts with you, along with some suggestions for getting started.

004I’m not going to cover the whole idea and concept of royalty-free stock photography because it will take too much time. I would like to concentrate just on this niche photography segment and how to sell your food photography online. As many of you might now, there are many stock photography websites/companies out there that you can use to sell your work. The process of opening your contributor’s account is pretty straight forward. In many cases you will be required to submit at least 10 photos as a part of the initial inspection. Based on results, stock agency will determine if your work is sufficient enough in regards to quality, artistic aspect and most of all profitability. Once you pass this test, you can start selling your photos.

As I mentioned before, food photography stock is a very specific and niche market segment. Not so many contributors are ready to explore these waters simply because food photography requires knowledge, investment, experience and time. And this is totally normal. I haven’t met a food photographer that specializes in all aspects of photography. Someone once said “Jack of all trades – master of none” … I can’t agree more.

There are two types of stock agencies out there. Websites such as IStockphoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime sell pretty much anything and everything … from lifestyle and concept to people and landscape photography … everything goes. As a food photographer, you’ll find a little bit less competition on these sites, simply because you’re looking at huge volumes and wide variety of material. On the other hand, there are agencies out there that specialize in selling and promoting only food photography. Some of the most popular are Stockfood, Foodphotolibrary, Fotofood etc. If you are new to this whole stock concept, I would suggest get your feet wet on those general stock websites and then move on to something more specific.

Now, there are some suggestions and recommendations I would like to give you before you dip into stock market.

Photo quality
Many online stock sites now have minimum requirements for files they will accept. Generally speaking, the baseline where you want to start is a 10 megapixel camera. A digital SLR camera, one that you can change lenses on, is much more desirable as they produce better quality images.

Post processing
Photographs can often be improved by making adjustments to them, such as:

  • Cropping
  • Color
  • Density
  • Shadow detail
  • Sharpening

In food photography this is really important because very few shots you’ll take won’t require post processing. As a rule of thumb, 99% of your photographs need some sort of touch-ups and fine tuning. For this reason you’ll need a basic photo-editing program. I would recommend Adobe Photoshop but Photoshop Elements will be sufficient enough.

Investment
As you progress, you will find yourself needing better cameras and lenses, more gear such as studio lights, tripods and whatnot. One thing that will differentiate you as a food photographer from the rest of the pack is the actual production cost. When I started selling food stock I was totally unaware of this and let me tell you, I was there for a big surprise. My operating cost was really high. So high that I started questioning my entire business concept and overall ROI (Return on Investment).

I realized much later there is a cost associated with pretty much everything that goes into food photography production. Stuff like props (plates, glasses, table cloths, utensils etc.), accessories (brushes, burners, glycerin, fake ice etc.) and photo equipment will definitely take a toll on you wallet. Oh, and food … don’t forget the cost of food. This could be quite expensive.

To be honest, it could take a couple of years before you recoup all of your investment costs and actually start making money. This might sound discouraging but on the long run it could be well worth it.  Like any other business startup, the fruits of success always grow on the tree of hard work and investment.

What should I sell?

I’ve been hearing this question all the time. Generally, you can sell all sort of food stock but naturally some subjects will always sell better than others. The best way to determine what’s really profitable and what kind of food photos sells the best, is to do a research. Go and visit some of the major stock websites and search their food portfolio. This will give you a pretty good idea what sells exceptionally well, which food photos are mid-pack contenders and of course what doesn’t sell very well. From my experience, photographs of prepared food are on top of the list and generally sell quite well. Raw food subjects are easy to shoot (white background setups) but you won’t get rich selling those …. there are just too many of them out there.

0069When you start your royalty-free stock career, I would suggest you submit your best work, regardless what it is. Subjects you feel the most comfortable shooting will end up being your best. There is always room for improvements but this comes with time and experience.

A long time ago, someone gave me an advice and I will do the same here. When selling your work online, you always need to put yourself in buyer’s shoes. No matter how happy and proud you are with that steak photo you took, you got to compare it with some of the best work you’ll find online. Don’t forget one thing … anyone who spends money wants the best bang for a buck and naturally the professional looking food photographs sell the best. Believe it or not, but I found so many of my royalty-free stock in leading food and lifestyle magazines … this could give you an idea who could end up buying your work.

Food stock photography agency resources:

My ultimate food photography macro lens

In this profession, every now and then you’ll come across a unique and special piece of photography equipment that stands out of the crowd and shines a bit brighter than competition. Throughout my career I used many different camera bodies and lenses.  I had a chance to shoot with good old film SLR cameras and manual lenses. For the past 12 years, I am using digital SLR cameras and wide variety of lenses … anything from Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Hasselblad.

zeiss-50Although I used Zeiss lenses in the past, last summer I had an opportunity to work with the entire lineup of Carl Zeiss SLR lenses. I tried all of them, starting from wide angle to macro and semi telephoto optics. I can say that I was really blown away with their performance, durability and quality. Considering the fact we are food photographers, I had to pick one lens out of the entire Zeiss arsenal for my day to day work, one lens that will be the most useful and versatile.

First thing you need to know is that all Zeiss SLR lenses for Canon bodies are manual and Makro-Planar T* 2/50 is no exception. For all of you who never worked with manual lens before, this could bring some challenges.  The main difference between this lens and let’s say Canon 50mm f/1.2L is that Canon offers automatic focusing function while with Zeiss, this is done manually. No matter how complicated this might sound, it’s really not that difficult. From my experience, once you start working with it, it won’t take too long before you get fully proficient.

I got to say that Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 2/50 is one of the best macro SLR lenses I’ve ever worked with. For testing purposes I picked ZE (Canon mount) and I mounted it on my Canon 5D Mark II camera.

First thing you’ll notice is the lens produces an amazing color rendering. Many photographers say that Zeiss colors are exceptionally vivid and natural looking … I have to agree. This macro lens provides a normal perspective and allows for close focusing down to 1: 2. The Makro-Planar T* 2/50 uses a new lens design which incorporates floating elements to ensure high performance across a wide focusing range. As a result, the lens can be used not only for food photography but also for non-macro applications and becomes a versatile ‘standard’ lens on a full frame cameras. If you are using a DSLR with a 1.5 crop factor, the lens becomes a 75mm focal length.

First thing that caught my eye is that Makro-Planar T* 2/50 is stunningly sharp, even wide open. As mentioned before, the lens renders colors in a very painterly manner compared to all of my Canon lenses. The contrast is amazing and photos produced with this lens needs very minimum post processing. The focusing ring is extremely smooth which allows you to be really precise, but the tradeoff is that it might take you a couple seconds to get from macro focus to infinity focus. So much is written and said about the “Zeiss look”. This refers to 3D feel and look that Zeiss lenses produce. It’s a combination of smooth bokeh and awesome contrast that makes your subject “pop out”.

planarThe minimum focusing distance of 0.24m gives you an ideal close-up to the subject. You can get near or move away from your subject without compromising anything. As any other macro lens, Zeiss 50mm f/2 offers wide aperture range. This one in particular goes between f/2.0 – f/22 (1/2 steps). Most likely you won’t be taking food photos wide open at f/2, but again this is matter of personal preferences. My favorite range is anywhere between f/3.5 to f/7 with distance of approximately 0.6m to 1m.

At the end I have to say that Zeiss Makro-Planar 50mm f/2 is not a mainstream lens for two reasons. First, the lack of AF could be a dealbreaker for many photographers. Secondly, the price tag is comparatively high at around $1300 CAD but if you decide to buy one you will be getting superb optics and exceptional build quality in return. In my opinion, this is one of those lenses that you buy and never part with.

 

Food photography in tough economic times

Starting a food photography business is hard enough but in a tough economy, it can be even harder. The main reason for this is because when markets are tight there are very few opportunities and a lot of competition. This is why it’s crucial for photographers to sharpen their business skills and definitely look ahead.

Imagesalad

In order to stand a chance in today’s market, you need to work your cash and business projections and know your bottom line down to the penny – how much money you need to put into the business, how much you will need to charge to meet your operating costs and, hopefully, what you need to do to realize a profit.

Market research

Starting a new food photography business when the economy is on the downturn takes vision and imagination. Marketing is super important in getting ahead of the game and your competitors. First you need to decide what you are going to sell (stock, advertising material, editorial work), who are your targeted customers, how will you price your photography services, and what is your plan for promoting your business?

As a new kid on a block, you must stay local for a while and operate within small geographical area (town, city). Don’t try selling and advertising nationwide. First, it’s not doable, secondly it will cost you a fortune and on top of that no one will take you seriously. You stand a better chance of succeeding by thinking what can you do locally. Slice and dice your potential customer base to come up with smaller segments to market more strategically, like bakeries and restaurants. For example, if you offer a food photography services geared toward restaurants, you could narrow it to target recently established businesses within a specific area of the city.

Stay competitive

Not to be too sneaky but like in every business you have to keep a close eye on the competition. Learn what other photographers are doing and what marketing techniques they’re using to promote their business. Are they tweaking the service or adding any additional offers? Lowering the price? Maybe you should consider adjusting your pricing structure to match the market demand. As a new business owner in tough economic times, you need to price your services according to ongoing rates and in some cases go a bit lower than your competitors … just enough to differentiate yourself and gain market share.

Network yourself

When economy is not doing so well, you need to connect with other people in your community who can refer customers and help build your business. Don’t know where to start? Find a local business networking group or contact your chamber of commerce. Look into joining a professional association – either a local one where you can meet people in person or even an online group – to tap into others’ ideas. Use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to promote your services … we all know today this is in fact the norm for any new business.

Lower your operating cost

A gloomy economy can actually disguise some great ways to save money. You should follow some rules to lower your start-up costs:

  • Renting vs. buying photography equipment should be the first item on your list. Try to rent lenses for the fraction of the cost you’ll face when buying them brand new. Sometimes you will need a specialty tool like tilt-shift lens. Instead of buying it brand new for $1100 you can rent it for as low as $30 a day.
  • Buying supplies from businesses that are closing or need to reduce inventory, particularly for big-ticket items like lighting equipment, stands & tripods , lenses etc.
  • Bartering with other business owners. Look for business alliance possibilities and suggest offsetting costs by trading products or services.

Little video snapshot

A few months ago, I made this short video and I totally forgot about. Anyway, this is really a cool way to advertise and promote your work. It’s pretty inexpensive and it does make a long lasting impression. I used Photodex Proshow Producer which is super easy to use and packed with awesome features and options (I’m not affiliated with the company in any shape or form :) ).