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 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.
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.
Canon 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.
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!
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.