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3 Lenses to Start Food Photography

2024-04-26
1
468

From getting closer to delectable textures, to taking cleaner handheld shots in dim restaurants, to creating soft fluffy background blur (“bokeh”) that makes a main dish pop, changing your lens unlocks new possibilities in food photography. With so many options, what lens(es) should you choose? Here’s what to consider along with our recommendations.

In this article:

 

Prime lenses: Fast, sharp, and versatile

The first lens that most food photographers will buy for food photography is a prime lens for the reasons below:

- Wide maximum aperture
Prime lenses are generally “faster” (=have a wider maximum aperture) than most zoom lenses—especially the kit lens that came with your camera. This is useful in dim lighting: you can use a lower ISO speed and/or faster shutter speed and achieve clean and sharp shots even if you don’t use a flash.

- Beautiful bokeh (shallower depth of field)
The wide maximum aperture also makes it easier to create a nice, blurry background that simplifies surrounding context and draws attention to the food. This makes it easier to ensure that props don’t distract.

- Small and easy to manoeuvre
You might find prime lenses easier to hold, stabilise, and move to find the best angle. If your camera-lens combination is light enough for you to shoot with one hand, you could even do your own pouring shots or be your own hand model without setting up a tripod!

- Sharpness
It’s easier to optimise optical quality for one focal length, so pictures from your prime lens will be sharper than those shot on your entry/kit zoom lens! Nothing like having fine details rendered delicately to make your food pictures look even more delicious.

 

In addition, the simpler optical design of prime lenses makes it possible to incorporate more features. One useful feature you will find on many Canon prime lenses is macro functionality. Almost all the prime lenses we recommend here are capable of at least 0.5x macro shooting. You'll be able to fill more of the frame with smaller food items and take close-ups of delectable textures and details!

 

What to consider when picking a prime lens?

When deciding which prime lens to buy, the first thing to consider is the focal length. Choose one with a focal length that you can easily work with (or complements an existing lens) and captures a perspective that you like.

  Wider focal lengths Narrower focal lengths
Field of view Larger Smaller
Depth of field Deeper Shallower
Working distance
(required to achieve the same framing)
Smaller Larger
Close-ups that fill the frame Harder Easier
Distortion More Less

Here are some classic focal lengths that professional food photographers use, along with lens recommendations for both full-frame and APS-C camera users.

 

1. The 35mm lens: Great for flat lays and travel food shots

Photo by Kim/@niesukma_
EOS R6 Mark II + RF35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM @ f/3.5, 1/100 sec, ISO 1000

A 35mm lens is convenient for shooting flat lays and overhead shots: you don’t have to hold the camera very high to get more in the frame. It’s a huge plus especially if you’re petite! It also lets you capture more details of the ambience when you’re shooting at restaurants, cafes, or events. If the lens has a macro function like the RF35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM (approx. 0.5x maximum magnification), it can focus closer to the subject, making it possible to fill more of the frame with details and textures.

As it’s so easy to frame images at 35mm both indoors and outdoors, a 35mm lens also makes an excellent fast everyday or travel lens. You’ll certainly find yourself using it to take more than just food photos!

Pro tip: Does distortion matter to you?
Don’t be surprised if circular objects look slightly oval. As a wide-angle focal length, 35mm results in perspective distortion. This becomes more obvious at the edges of the frame, in close-ups, and when the camera is tilted—such as diagonal angle shots. It can be used for creative results, but if that’s not the effect you (or your clients) want, avoid these angles and be careful of what you place at the edges of the frame. Also consider using a longer focal length, ideally 50mm or above.

 

Recommended for full-frame cameras: RF35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM

Lightweight and portable, this is one of Canon’s most versatile prime lenses. It has a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and up to 5 stops’ built-in image stabilisation, useful for handheld shots in low light. Its 0.5x macro capabilities let you shoot close-ups with the subject just mere centimetres away from the lens tip. Food is just one of the subjects that it can handle easily!


Recommended for APS-C cameras: RF24mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM

On an APS-C camera
Equivalent focal length: 38.4mm
Effective maximum magnification: approx. 0.8x

If you are looking for a prime lens for your APS-C camera, remember to factor in the 1.6x crop factor. The RF24mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM will give you a field of view that resembles the RF35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM on a full-frame camera. It is also around the same size.

 

2. The 50mm lens: Versatile focal length

Photo by Kim/@niesukma_
EOS R6 Mark II + RF50mm f/1.8 STM @ f/4, 1/125 sec, ISO 100

Many photographers prefer taking 45° or diagonal-angle shots at 50mm or longer because there is almost no visible distortion compared to 35mm. In fact, 50mm lenses are very versatile because they offer a natural perspective regardless of how near or far away you shoot! Some photographers might also prefer the slightly tighter field of view, which makes it easier to fill the frame with smaller subjects.

Of course, it can also capture wider scenes such as flat lays and table shots. However, you will have to move the camera as much as around 30 to 40cm further away to get the same composition as a 35mm lens.


Pro tip: Shooting in low light? Use focus bracketing

If you have to use the maximum aperture while shooting and realise that you can’t get the subject fully in focus, hold the camera as still as possible and use focus bracketing. This takes multiple shots with different focus positions, which can be combined to create a sharper image.  Most EOS R series cameras have a Focus Bracketing function that takes focus-bracketed shots for you, and newer cameras like the EOS R6 Mark II and EOS R8 also have Depth Composition, which combines the bracketed images in-camera.

Also see:
How to Increase Depth-of-Field While Shooting Wide Open?
Focus Stacking: A Pro Technique Made Simpler with Focus Bracketing

 

Recommended for full-frame cameras: RF50mm f/1.8 STM

This “nifty fifty” is so popular as a second lens or first prime lens because it is inexpensive, small, and light. The compact body lens makes it easy to stabilise, but using it with a camera with In-Body IS such as the EOS R6 Mark II unlocks more image stabilisation benefits.


Recommended for APS-C cameras: RF35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM

On an APS-C camera
Equivalent focal length: 56mm
Effective maximum magnification: approx. 0.8x

APS-C users using this enjoy benefits such as up to 5 stops’ built-in image stabilisation and approximately 0.8x macro capabilities.

 

3. The 85mm lens:  Professional perspectives

Photo by Tan Jiajun/@jsquaress
EOS R5 + RF85mm f/2 Macro IS STM @ f/4, 1/200 sec, ISO 200

An 85mm lens is considered a medium (sometimes described as “short”) telephoto lens. Such lenses are a favourite among commercial food photographers because of their beautiful natural perspective, slight compression, and shallow depth of field. These work together to create an immersive shot that draws you into the frame and keeps your eyes on the main subject: it’s also why 85mm is a classic focal length for portraiture.

The tighter crop makes it easy to take minimalistic shots of smaller subjects such as candy and berries without too much empty space. You will need to stand further away from the subject if you want to include props or secondary subjects in the frame. For the image above, the photographer was around 1 metre away.


Recommended for full-frame cameras: RF85mm f/2 Macro IS STM

Canon’s first 85mm lens with macro shooting capabilities weighs just around 500g, which makes it very easy to handle. It also comes with 5 stops’ built-in image stabilisation, which increases to up to 8 stops on cameras with In-Body IS. You can focus on subjects around 21cm away from the lens tip—just far enough to avoid casting a shadow. A highly cost-efficient choice for a first telephoto macro lens.


Recommended for APS-C cameras: RF50mm f/1.8 STM

On an APS-C camera
Equivalent focal length: 80mm
Effective maximum magnification: approx. 0.4x

On an APS-C camera, the classic “nifty-fifty” transforms into a medium telephoto lens with a field of view close to 85mm. While it doesn’t have “Macro” in its name, it can focus on subjects as close as around 24cm away from the lens tip. The 1.6x APS-C crop lets it magnify subjects almost as much as the RF85mm f/2 Macro IS STM.

 

Important function: Getting close to details

Photo by Tan Jiajun/ @jsquaress
EOS R5 + RF85mm f/2 Macro IS STM @ f/4, 1/200 sec, ISO 200

Lenses with semi-macro shooting capabilities like the RF85mm f/2 Macro IS STM and RF35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM can focus quite close to the subject, allowing you to get close-ups of details like in the image above. This makes them a great complement to a kit zoom lens, which can’t focus as close. Using an APS-C camera or the 1.6x mode on your full-frame camera, lets you fill even more of the frame—up to the equivalent of 0.8x magnification.

About the Author

Nie Sukma (Kim)

Based in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, Nie Sukma (whom most people also call “Kim”) entered the world of food photography with an EOS M3 in 2019, and has been a Canon Indonesia EOS Creator Indonesia since 2021. She specialises in a simple, natural style that aims to bring out the authentic appeal of food without using many props. Besides her work shooting for small and medium businesses, brands, and restaurants, she also works with Canon Indonesia to teach food photography workshops all over the country.

Instagram: @niesukma_

Tan Jiajun

Jiajun started learning photography and food styling when, as a student, he interned at a company that did food photography. That sparked a passion that soon led to him winning photography competitions, including first prize at the Canon PhotoMarathon Singapore, and being featured in the History Channel's Photo FaceOff. After serving his mandatory National Service in Singapore, he continued to hone his photography skills as the founder of Sparkstudio SG, briefly dabbling in events and wedding photography. Since then, he has decided to focus on his first passion: creating images that bring out the appeal of food.
Beyond making food look good, he aims to tell stories and create emotions that resonate through his food photography and videography.

Instagram: @jsquaress, @sparkstudiofood
 

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