What is the best lens for food photography?
If you are thinking about dabbling in this photography specialty, I’m sure you’re asking yourself a lot of these kinds of questions. And it’s a good one. In my opinion, glass (or your lenses) is an investment and can really elevate your photography. As long as you get the fundamentals, know how to use the equipment, and aren’t afraid of a little trial and error.
My feedback here will be based on prime lenses I personally use. See, the beauty of photography is that every photographer can come up with a different camera body and lens combo combined with their own recommended settings and it can all lead to a beautiful photo.
What is prime? A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, like 50mm. This means that if you need to get closer to an object, you will need to physically move the camera closer to the object. A zoom lens is a lens with a variable focal length, like 15-30mm. You can turn the zoom ring and achieve a different angle of view.
Why prime? Well, let’s take a couple steps back first. When you buy your DSLR or Mirrorless camera body, the salesperson (or listing on Amazon) will likely recommend a zoom kit lens. It’s often a fairly economic option that allows you to walk away with a brand new camera and a lens. I want to caution you from going this route. Yes, as you are learning, a kit lens can be really helpful. You can get great photos using one. But, you will outgrow it fairly quickly. Especially if this is something you want to do as more than just a hobby. Learn on the glass you want to use.
So, again, why prime? Zoom lenses are great. I use them for specific purposes. I have a Tamron 15-30 wide angle that is my go to for landscape. I absolutely love that lens. I have a Sigma 150-600 that is my favorite wildlife lens. A 70-200mm f/2.8G that is my go to for sports photography. That being said, what I mentioned are all very specialized lenses for specific purposes. The general problem with zoom lenses is that in order to allow for that change in focal point (while still remaining affordable), there are often compromises that must be made. This is especially true of the cheaper, more entry-level zoom lenses.
So, what camera brand? It’s hard to chat glass without also chatting camera brands. And, for the most part, this is just a very personal choice. Like PC or Mac. iOS or Android. Most camera bodies out there will have the features and functionality you need. You’ll hear many pros talk about the Canon vs. Nikon debate. Don’t just stop there, though. There are many other manufacturers making impressive camera bodies. Whatever you choose, remember that it’s an investment (and a long term one). Glass is not universally compatible, meaning it’s not interchangeable. If you get a bunch of lenses for your Nikon and then decide you want to shoot Canon, that will be a huge investment.
So, why Nikon? I chose Nikon because of the fit and feel in my hand. This is a decision I made over 20 years ago. Since then I’ve tried other bodies. Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, etc. I still prefer Nikon. I truly believe I can get solid photos with comparable Canon bodies, but I just don’t like the UI (or user interface) and feel in my hand when it comes to Canon. I highly recommend that you get your hands on the camera before buying it and make sure you like how it feels, where the buttons and wheels are located, etc.
So, crop sensor or full frame? It’s really important to understand if your camera is a crop sensor or full frame body because that will factor into what lenses you should be using. I’m basing my feedback mainly on using a full frame camera. For reference, full frame means that the camera will take a 35mm photo. A crop sensor is smaller than 35mm, so the edges of the image will be cropped. Which body you choose isn’t as simple as one is better than the other. For instance, my wildlife photography using my 600mm telephoto is done on a crop sensor, because I can get even closer to my subject. My macro food photography is done on a full frame, so I can go tight and still as wide as possible.
So, should I buy all Nikon glass? You’ll notice that my top lenses here are all Sigma. I have other brands of glass – Nikkor, Tamron, Rokinon, etc. In this instance, I feel my Sigma lenses offer me the best end result. I think you can get excellent photos using other brands of glass. Again, this is my preference. You might determine you have a different one, but you can’t do that until you take these lenses out for a spin. Renting equipment is definitely a great option when you are starting out and want to gauge if you have a strong preference one way or another.
And now back to the original question, what is the best lens for food photography?
The best lens for food photography will depend on what you’re shooting and how you’re shooting. Are you on a set? At a restaurant? Is this a staged photo? Are you a foodie who grabs photos on-the-go? Natural light? Studio lighting? The below recommendations are my preferred lenses based on different shooting scenarios.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
“ambiance and interiors”
I like to photograph food at restaurants. Part of that experience is capturing the ambience. For me, that means getting interior shots of not just the food but the table or other key interior shots that help me tell the best food story.
I also like using my 35mm to take wider portrait shots of diners and their food. Perhaps hands holding the best taco in Austin with beautiful bokeh all around them?
Keep in mind that this is not a lens to get really tight shots of the food with because the 35mm is a wide angle lens. If you get too close to your subject, you’ll get perspective distortion. What’s perspective distortion? Basically, due to the lens you’re using and the proximity of the subject, there is warping that occurs. The object would look stretched or the aspect ratio would be off-kilter. This is not the fault of the lens, but definitely the fault of the proximity of the photographer to the subject.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art
“what your eyes see”
My 50mm is my workhorse lens because it’s so versatile. I can use it for food photos, portraits, travel photography, street photography and feel confident that if I can only bring one lens, this one should be my go to. It also can allow me to take photos of food at multiple angles (45 degree, straight on, overhead) without experiencing too much perspective distortion.
My favorite photos to take with my 50mm? Studio flat lays from an overhead perspective and straight on images of food at restaurants. This lens works really well with overheads. It’s not too wide or too tight. Same with straight on images. I can get fairly close to my subject without much perspective distortion. In addition, it’ll give you enough room to crop if you want a tighter shot in post.
Keep in mind that there are limitations to this being your one and only when it comes to food photography. You may not be able to get as close to your food as you’d like. Remember that perspective distortion we discussed? The 50mm also has an ideal distance you want to keep from your subject, as well. Because of that, it can sometimes feel like it’s taking in a bit too much of the scene when I really want a tighter crop. Obviously you can handle this in post but there is something to be said about SOOC (straight out of camera).
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art
“food portraits and people portraits”
85mm is a beloved focal length for portraits, so it might seem like an odd choice to include on a list of my favorite food photography lenses. The 85mm is in the short telephoto range, meaning you have to stand further away from the subject in order to get those beautiful bokeh shots we know you love. So why use an 85mm for food photography? Because you can totally take portraits of food, too. This lens allows you to do just that. You can tell an amazing food story using the 85mm. Also, it’s a great people portrait lens, as well, so if you’re taking any people and food lifestyle photos, this lens will do a spectacular job.
We mentioned that beautiful bokeh created due to the shallow depth of field for the 85mm. This is because it has a larger aperture of 1.4 to 1.8 generally. Larger or wider aperture means shallow depth of field, as well as more light reaching the sensor. More light means this lens is also a strong performer in lower light situations.
Keep in mind that due to how tight this lens shoots, you will have a minimum focusing distance of 2.8 ft. That’s pretty far away for food photography. And if you can’t put that amount of distance between you, it means you won’t be able to properly focus on your subject.
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro
“up close and personal”
If you are going to pursue food photography, you’ll definitely want a macro lens. Something in the 100 to 105mm range. This lens in the king of that 45 degree angle food shot you so often see in cookbooks, in magazines, and on food blogs. Remember when we discussed shallow depth of field and aperture, as well as minimum focusing distance? This 105mm macro lens has an aperture of f/2.8 when shot wide open, but even at lower apertures, like f/8, it’s still considered fairly shallow. The bonus, though, is that this lens has a smaller minimum focusing distance, so you can get really close to something and still focus on the subject.
I mentioned this lens being the king of the 45 degree angle food shot. And really, for me, that’s where it shines. I mentioned perspective distortion earlier and the smaller minimum focusing distance, right? Well, that more narrow distance allows for you to shoot really close up and not suffer the same perspective distortion you might see in another lens, like the 35mm wide angle. And, of course, while the subject is the tack sharp focus of your photo, you get that creamy bokeh in the background. Perfect for the food story you’re creating.
Keep in mind that you will need the space to operate your 105mm. Additionally, this is likely a physically bigger lens than your other food photography lenses, so that should be a factor, as well. One of my biggest considerations, though, is shooting style. You’ll often see folks say that you’d be best using a tripod with your 105mm macro food shots. I love this Sigma because it still takes stunning macro photos handheld.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite lens for food photography?