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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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: