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.

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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 …