At the recent Food Allergy Bloggers Conference, I had the opportunity to talk about food photography. Unfortunately, we had little time for Q&A, but the question I was asked the most after the session was a version of:
“I want to upgrade from a point and shoot camera. I am on a limited budget. What should I buy?”
I will preface my answer by saying that I “speak Canon,” but similar solutions exist for all of the major DSLR vendors. (I like my Canon equipment and cameras – a lot – but I am not sponsored or paid by Canon, and I have not done any testing on other equipment.)
If you are planning to go the DSLR route, there are separate purchase decisions to make – the camera body, and the lens (or lenses).
Camera body – most DSLRs will perform quite well, regardless of whether they cost a few hundred dollars or thousands, but there are some things to consider:
Megapixels – The higher the number of megapixels, the better the photo quality. Even the new entry-level DSLRs are at about 18 megapixels. If you are looking at used equipment, I’d suggest that you should look for at least 16 megapixels. The more you crop, the more megapixels you need.
Full frame versus crop frame – This terminology refers to the “frame” that the camera sees. Full frame cameras will “see” more of the scene than crop frame cameras (with the same lens). A lot more. Here’s an example with the full frame on the top and the crop frame below, with an identical setup:
Full frame cameras also give you more potential depth of field. That said, full frame cameras are considerably more expensive (because the technology is more complex). Keep in mind that you can compensate by using a wider-angle lens and reducing the f-stop. For most bloggers, a crop frame camera will be more than sufficient. On the other hand, if you are considering professional photography and want something that will grow with you, the full frame camera could be the way to go.
Video – many DSLRs now have video capability, but not all. If this is something you want, look for a camera body that has that capability. (My crop frame camera has video capability, but my full frame camera does not.)
Lenses – the lens or lenses you choose are arguably more important than the camera body. A crappy lens on either an entry level or a high-end body will produce a lousy photo. Conversely, a fabulous lens will perform beautifully on both. This is true regardless of whether you choose a crop frame or full frame camera. It’s also true that the best lenses are not always the most expensive – but there is a general correlation.
Most camera bodies will be packaged with a “kit” lens – usually a medium telephoto that is positioned to be “all-purpose.” (All-purpose usually means pretty good at a lot, but not great at anything.) However, it’s often possible to negotiate with a camera vendor to package a different lens with the camera. In fact, I highly recommend doing this; once you have decided which lens you want (if it’s not listed with that configuration), call the online camera shop you would buy from and ask if you can get the lens you want instead. It might cost a bit more, but it will be cheaper in the long run and you won’t have a “throw-away” lens collecting dust.
There is a difference between fixed focal length lenses (e.g., 35mm, 50mm, etc.) and telephoto lenses (e.g., 17-55mm). The latter allows you to get in closer or farther away from the subject without moving the camera (which, of course, should be on a tripod). Fixed focal length lenses will nearly always give you a better result, with less distortion, less bleeding, and less noise. However, a variable length lens can be very useful; it will likely be what you take with you on vacation; it also allows you to vary the shot without moving the camera (e.g., for a full table shot and then a close-up). I now use fixed focal length lenses almost exclusively for food photography, but I’d feel naked if I didn’t at least have an option for a telephoto lens.
The plot thickens…
The other characteristic to consider with lenses is whether they fit just a crop frame camera, or can work on either a crop frame or full frame. Canon calls their crop frame lenses “EOS” lenses, and one of my favorite lenses is an EOS lens – but it doesn’t work on my full frame camera.
And, if it wasn’t already complicated enough, for whatever length lens you choose, the wider the aperture capability, the better the lens will be (and more expensive). I am referring to the “f” numbers that appear next to the lens in the description. The lower the number, the better. An f/4 lens is okay, but an f/2.8 lens is better (and more expensive). Variable length lenses will often have a range (e.g. f/4.5-5.6), which denotes the lowest f-stop depending on the focal length you choose. I usually prefer food photos that are shot in the f/3.2-5.6 range, but for how-to shots I will choose a narrower aperture (e.g. f/8) to keep the entire photo in crisp focus.
Keep in mind that (in terms of depth of field results) an f/4.5 on a full frame camera is roughly equivalent to an f/3.2 on a camera frame camera.
And then there’s image stabilization. If you’re walking around you will want image stabilization. But you’re using a tripod, right? And while on the tripod you don’t need IS.
So, what do you need?
For most food photography, I would suggest a wide angle lens (the lower the mm, the wider the angle) and a macro lens. This combo will allow you a wide angle for top down shots, and the ability to get in really close for ¾ shots.
When I took the photos for Learning to Bake Allergen-Free I used a Canon EOS 7D with a 60mm EOS macro lens and a 17-55mm EOS lens (usually set at the widest angle – 17mm).
Since that time I have purchased a full frame camera with a couple of additional lenses. For my new book, I am shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II equipped with a Sigma 35mm lens and the 7D with the 60mm macro.
Even though I have a 100mm macro for my 5D, I really love the results with the 60mm macro. And my Sigma 35mm lens is dreamy.
My best advice on what to buy is to consider your budget and what type of photos you most want to take. Then research, read the reviews, strike a bargain, and enjoy!