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 Although it was introduced back in march 2000 it doesn’t falls into outdated lens category by any mean.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.

100macro
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.

105nikon
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.

sigma105
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 …

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:

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.

Food Photography Tips – Episode II

Be careful with white balance
Different lights have different temperatures. Make sure your camera white balance is set properly (AUTO or whatever light you’re using). This is especially important if you’re shooting in JPEG mode.

Morning coffee from Senicphoto on Vimeo.

Tripod
When shooting in low light conditions (limited natural light) the tripod is almost a must to have. If you have a remote shutter this can further ease your workflow.

Using flash or strobes
This is commonly used lighting method. When utilizing one light source the subject might appear too dark on its opposite side. In this case use either second source or light bouncers. To avoid hard shadows, it’s always a good idea to diffuse it with either greaseproof paper or purpose made diffuser. Don’t forget, hard shadows are the enemy of the food photographer.

Different angles
Try to shoot same subject from at least 2 or 3 different angles. This will give you an idea how subject can be presented to your audience. You can try at least two main angles … shoot on a level with the food and looking down on it. Later on in post processing, you can “spice things up” further by cropping and rotating the subject.

Use white plates
White plates are ideal for food photography. It will give you a nice transition but at the same time food will stand out as the main focus.

Steak from Senicphoto on Vimeo.

Remove unnecessary items
Fewer items you incorporate in a shot, easier will be to showcase your main subject … food. I always prefer simple compositions over overcrowded dining table. Try stirring viewers to focus on food.

Use fresh herbs to add a color and complexity
Food is not always super vibrant and contrasty. A splash color can really make an image come alive. This is the time I use fresh herbs like mint, cilantro, rosemary etc.

Cropping
Make your food plate a main focal point. Crop it and rotate it as much as you want as long as 70% of image is actually reserved for food.

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.