The best DSLR lens for food photography

This topic has been discussed so many times and I’m pretty sure debate will go on what is the best and ultimate DSLR lens for food photography. For me, there is no such a thing as a perfect lens. Food photographers tend to use lenses that fit their shooting style and of course produce desirable results. There are many aspects you should take in consideration when choosing your lens:

  • Lens speed (maximum and minimum aperture)
  • Focal length (fixed and variable)
  • Minimum focusing distance
  • Versatility
  • Cost

Lens Speed

When shooting food, a lot of photographers prefer relatively shallow DoF or as many will refer as “blurred” approach. The optical isolation or focusing depth is the effect produced with “fast glass”, lenses that have large aperture capabilities. One thing is for sure, the faster the lens is, more options you have when choosing the right look of your food. In general, anything faster than f/4 (aperture < 4.0) will be great but if you can afford lenses with maximum aperture of f/2.8 or better it would be absolutely ideal. On the flip side, many times you will be asked to produce an image where more focus is desired (smaller aperture and greater focal coverage).

Focal length

Basically, DSLR lenses come in two flavors … fixed and variable focal length. It all comes down to personal preference which one will best suit you and your style of shooting. There are many pros and cons associated with both groups. In general, fixed length (primes) come with larger apertures and in many cases this could be a deal breaker. Maybe your style of shooting with natural light requires something quick and sharp therefore Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM (Nikon has very similar lens) might be an ideal candidate. The disadvantage when using primes is the fact you’re dealing with one fixed focal length and most of the time you have to change the entire shooting setup in order to get closer to your food plate. From my experience, every time when I use prime lens, I do a lot of foot focusing (moving with my camera back and forth). On the other hand, zoom lenses are great for food photography. Beside the ability to cover anything from wide angle (24mm) to pretty decent telephoto (105mm), zoom lenses will likely speed up your production process and give you some options primes can’t. Unfortunately, the aperture (speed) is not something zoom lenses are known for. The fastest zoom lens you’ll find today is f/2.8. Although this might sound good enough, many photographers prefer primes with greater aperture capabilities.

Most used primes:

  • Anything from 35mm to 120mm
  • Macro
  • Tilt-shift lenses

Most used zoom lenses:

  • 24-70mm f/2.8 (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Minolta)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
  • Other

Minimum focusing distance

Focusing distance is something you should really consider when choosing your lens. The minimum focusing distance is basically the closest point the camera lens can get to the subject and still be in focus. Some lenses have greater capabilities than others, but in general, the shorter focusing distance more options you’ll have for approaching your subject. Macro lenses usually have great minimum focusing distance (0.25 – 0.3m) although some zoom lenses could “reach” the subject from really close range.

Versatility

Lens versatility is extremely important to me. Throughout my photography career, I always tried to invest money on a product (lens in this case) that can produce equally good results in various different shooting environments. Versatility for me is using a fast zoom lens that gets pretty close to the subject, have decent macro capabilities, it’s sharp and it doesn’t cost me arm and leg. You know what I’m trying to say … finding a versatile lens could be a challenge but it will definitely pay off on the long run. In a nutshell, I love my Canon 24-70L zoom lens. I think all other camera manufacturists including Nikon, Sony and Sigma are offering their own flavor of this focal range therefore I would highly recommend trying it out.

Cost

For many people who are new to food photography, the choice of lens should reflect the experience level and of course aspiration in this particular photography field. Naturally, if someone only wants to get their feet wet, I would recommend something simple and inexpensive.
Spending thousands of dollars on a lens you won’t even use that much is absolutely silly (unless you have a rich sponsor). For any professional, lens is a tool and an investment at the same time. You can start with a reasonably priced prime lens … something like 50mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.4. These lenses are great performers. You can practice, sharpen your skills  and gain valuable experience with affordable lens that won’t brake your wallet.
If food photography is your niche, you’ll know what to buy and how much to spend on a new piece of glass. My advice is go and rent the lens before you buy it. Major camera stores in Canada and US have rental departments … check them out. Rent a lens and shoot with it over the weekend.  If you really like it and you’re sure it will fit your needs buy it. This way you’ll know if your investment is justifiable or not.

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5 thoughts on “The best DSLR lens for food photography

  1. Great post Branislav. The entire blog is quite helpful especially for me. I’m trying to take food pictures and your site is the right place to go and learn basics.

  2. In your versatitily paragraph, what would you suggest for that one lens that can do all the things you mentioned. What are the going rates for food photography?

  3. Hi Jackie,

    I would always go for a decent zoom lens with some macro capabilities. On Canon and Nikon side this would be 24-70 f/2.8. This is not a cheap lens but it can serve you very well. It’s hard to tell you what is the out going rate for food photographers simply because I don’t know:

    – Your experience level
    – Your location
    – Client
    – Scope of work

    Cheers

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