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

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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.

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 because it will take too much time. I would like to concentrate on how to sell your food photos. As you might now, there are many stock photography websites/companies out there. 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 good enough in regards to quality, artistic aspect and most of all profitability. Once you pass this test, you can start selling.

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 one 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 that specialize in selling and promoting only food photography stock. 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 general stock sites 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 have a minimum technical requirements. Generally speaking, you want to start with a decent 8-10 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 or Adobe Lightroom will be more than enough.

Investment
As you progress, you will find yourself searching for better cameras and lenses, lighting gear and other photo equipment. 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 unaware of the total cost and up 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 an expense 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, it could be quite expensive.

To be honest, it could take a couple of years before you recoup all of your investments and start turning the profit. This might sound discouraging but on the long run it could be rewarding.  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 a 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 share with you. 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 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.

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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.

Food Styling for Food Photographers

As a food photographer, you can almost count on being in situation where you got to improvise, prepare and do things food stylists do. I got to say it can be quite tricky styling the food in front of the customer … not to mention time is going to be your biggest enemy.  I would highly recommend you get yourself familiar with some basic styling skills … it will be beneficial and helpful on the long run.  I’m not saying food photographers can outperform food styling professionals but sometimes knowing few tricks could save you a lot of time and money.

Use paper
Most of the food you will be photographing will be placed on a plate and believe it or not, only top portion of that will be the actual subject. Lining plates with parchment or baking paper helps to add a fulfillment effect.

Less is more
While it may seem “full to the top” plate is the best way to go, an overcrowded dish can look less appetizing than a small portion. This could be an ideal opportunity to showcase a beautiful dishware and appealing surrounding elements.

Let it look natural
Capturing that perfect look sometimes means getting a bit messy. Instead of having everything perfectly symmetrical and clean it really helps to add movement and life to your photographs. If your baked chicken is a bit burned and the dish is not looking brand new … let it be. Most of the time food photos will look much better when presented in their real light.

Basic tools

  • Q tips – ideal for cleaning rims and insides of plates/bowls
  • Small scissors
  • Set of basic plastic handled paint brushes (with wood handled brushes, the paint on the handles tends to chip off which can happen in your food)
  • Tweezers (for poking and pulling – think of them as skinnier fingers)
  • Clear oil like vegetable or canola for making food glisten
  • Small squeeze bottles for applying sauce or drizzles

Fake ice cubes

Fake ice cubes are highly demanded in photography and even in film production, because real ice melts quickly and is difficult to work with. Some production companies sell fake ice cubes but they are not cheap, often costing up to 30$ for a single cube. Fake ice is very handy to use and it doesn’t melt under the hot photography lights, so by using it you can really simplify your work.

Glycerin
Photographers utilize glycerin to decorate their food subject with beautiful details and to make these details more outstanding, prominent and natural. In general, glycerin is sprayed using small bottles and you can find all these at your local pharmacy store. I tend to use it for photographing fruits and drinks because glycerin is a great tool for achieving “droplets effect”.

Building your online portfolio

As a young photographer, my main selling tool was a photo book, hand full of references and large amount of hope. The “online” presence was a new thing and not so many of us had a website … sounds crazy but that’s the truth. A lot of things changed since mid 90’s. On today’s market, consider it as a necessity … you got to have an online portfolio. Many colleagues of mine run their own websites, business blogs, Facebook pages and whatnot. The cyber presence is one of the most commonly used sales tool and it looks like it will stay like that for a while. If you’re new in photography business, I would recommend something simple and inexpensive. Before you choose where to host and how to build your website, I would suggest you follow some basic steps:

1) Keep it simple
Make your food photos a main star of the show. Don’t get caught adding unnecessary features and elements people generally don’t like to see on the website. In my opinion, choosing the content over the design is always a right choice and that’s why your visitors will come back for more.

2) Design matters
Your website should look clean, easy to navigate and free of any advertising elements. You got to make sure all links are working properly, navigation is intuitive and easy to follow.

3) Showcase only your best work
The saying “your portfolio is only as good as your worst image” is quite true. Take your time and pick the best shots … don’t forget people will judge you based on what you have decided to present. When comes down to number of photos you’re exhibiting, I prefer staying in the range of 20-30 photos per section. Less than this could leave a visitor with “I was expecting a bit more” feeling. On the other hand, don’t overwhelm your audience with tons of photos that could take a long time to browse through … find a middle ground.

4) Little note about yourself
Well, this is quite important. As a part of any online portfolio you got to include a few words about yourself and what you do. Don’t get caught in boring cliché about what kind of equipment you use, how amazing your work is and how you can accommodate every single requirement. The potential client already saw tons of these so be yourself and try to make as interesting as possible. You might include some testimonials but don’t go overboard with this either. Customer feedback (if you have it) should be short and right to the point … after all no one wants to spend 10 minutes reading what other people say about you.

5) Pick the right hosting
This in fact shouldn’t be a big problem. There are so many hosting providers out there, picking the one that will fit your need and the budget isn’t going to be an issue. As far as I tell, there are many providers out there that offer turnkey solution. You can host the site with someone who provides not only design option but also some sort of advertising incentives, email hosting and whatnot. Some of the sites I would consider for hosting my online portfolio are:

Carbonmade (Free)

Photoshelter

Livebooks

Pixpa

Zenfolio

Smugmug

How much do food photographers get paid?

I don’t think I can give you a straight answer on this one and I believe no one can. What I can do is to tell you what goes into price “build-up” and how different project aspects can drive the cost/charge up or down. Before you commit to anything, you got to determine the scope of work with your client. This is the key point and I would suggest you don’t skip it because it might bite you badly at the end. Understanding what your customer want, need and expects is the most important thing. You got to understand these requirements and build a solution around it.

I always prefer meeting with the client days maybe weeks before the actual photo-shoot. This is the time when I discuss all details surrounding my future engagement. In many cases clients are not aware of complexity that goes into the “final product” therefore you have to explain this process to them. There are areas you need to explore with your client so the good thing will be to check if you need to provide any of these:

  • Food Stylist
  • Prop Stylist
  • Photo Assistant

Based on the requirements, you might need help from food/prop stylist or a second shooter (assistant). Their rates could vary so make sure you know what you dealing with (hourly or daily rates). Just a reminder, client is paying you and you have to include their “cut” in the final quote. Now, when comes down to rates, I tend to charge by the day or half day. You might choose to go with hourly rate and nothing is wrong with that … when I was new in this role I was doing the same thing. It really depends how many items you need to shoot and how complex the gig really is. You could be working on a project where vast majority of time will be spent on preparation, food styling and other details. You part might only take 3 hours out of entire day in the studio.

Never less, if you’re new on the market your rates should reflect the level of expertise and knowledge you bring to the table. Don’t be reluctant to charge a fair and reasonable rate as long as you provide a service that client wants and they’re happy with. I have one piece of advice for novices … be careful when quoting jobs because you have to know what the outgoing (hourly) rate is for a food photographer in your area. Quoting too much can be a turn off as much as low balling. To put things in perspective, when I started, the average hourly rate food photographers in my city was between $120 to $250. Shooting without assistant or food/prop stylist, I was on the lower end of that range but aware that next project could be easily go 10% – 20% higher. In today’s economy, you got to adjust  to market demand and always create a lot maneuvering space.

Unfortunately, there is no formula you can use to calculate your rate. Make sure you include all your costs and expenses first (plus profitable margin) before submitting an offer. Anyway, adjustment is always an option therefore it might take some time to balance things out.