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 Although it was introduced back in march 2000 it doesn’t falls into outdated lens category by any mean.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.
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:
- Sharpness (resolution) – 8
- Bokeh – 7
- Vignetting – 9
- 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.
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 …
- Sharpness (resolution) – 8
- Bokeh – 8
- Vignetting – 8
- 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.
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:
- Sharpness (resolution) – 9
- Bokeh – 9
- Vignetting – 8
- Cost – 10
The best DSLR lens for food photography – Part III is coming soon …