Just like a chef needs a great pair of knives, a food photographer needs a solid camera and a good lens (or two). But here’s the thing: while spending $6,000 on the Nikon D5 or Canon 1D Mark II will get you great food photos, you can also get great food photos with an entry level camera with the right lens. Here’s why the best cameras and lenses for food photography aren’t necessarily the best cameras and lenses on the market—and what you need to look for instead.
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Food photography is still life photography—and you really don’t need 10 fps to shoot a still subject. You can save a big chunk of change if you consider what really matters in food photography (at least in terms of camera specs): resolution, depth of field and color.
The first two are largely dependent on the sensor size. A full frame sensor, like the one on the Nikon D750, offers more resolution than a crop sensor like the entry-level D3300. That crop or APS-C sensor is larger than a micro four thirds mirrorless sensor, which is larger than a compact camera. Professional food photographers are better off with a full frame camera, so they can print large with no problem. For enthusiasts and food bloggers though, the APS-C or even Micro Four Thirds sensor is usually plenty of resolution to work with.
Bu the sensor isn’t just about resolution—it also plays a role in the depth of field (or how much of the image is in focus). It’s easier to get that out-of-focus background with a larger sensor. An entry level DSLR or mirrorless camera, when paired with the right lens, will still get that soft background—but you’ll get more with a full frame sensor.
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While sensor size is easy to determine by a quick look at the tech specs, other aspects that play a role in food photography aren’t as easy to pinpoint. Color, dynamic range and noise reduction are all big factors, but something that’s hard to see in a spec sheet (though DXO Mark does put a number to these factors). The camera you choose will play a role in creating your own photography style (or how much editing you have to do to reach that style), so take a look at some sample images from the camera you are considering before you buy.
Most interchangeable lens cameras will do well with food photography. While you’ll get more resolution and depth of field with a full frame camera, entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can hold their own too, especially when you skip the kit lens and pair them with a solid prime lens (more on that next). Here’s a few different options at multiple price points:
<span”>There are a lot of interchangeable lens cameras that will do well with food photography—especially when you pair that body with a great lens. But while kit lenses are affordable ways to get started, they don’t offer the best quality.
Why aren’t kit lenses so great? Most kit lenses are zoom lenses, which cover a range of focal points. Zoom lenses are great for their flexibility, but once you start throwing in all those moving parts, you sacrifice a bit of sharpness. And just like the the motionless aspect of food photography means you don’t need the most expensive camera, it also means you don’t really need zoom. Even on a budget, you can often get a solid prime lens for less than the cost of a kit lens.
Prime lenses are also great for food photography because they are have much wider apertures, allowing for that out-of-focus background. An f/1.8 aperture is tough to find in a zoom lens, but that’s not the case for a prime. No matter what camera body you decided to go with, here are the best lenses for food photography.
<span=>Getting in close to your dish is a good way to tempt the senses by showing detail and texture, which is why a macro lens is such a good choice for food photography. But why the 100mm and not, say, a 40mm? The reason is simple—the longer the focal length is, the more of that creamy background you’ll get. With a 100mm f/2.8, you’ll have the flexibility to show detail in the entire image, or blur out all but one small area.
Canon: 100mm f/2.8 IS USM Macro
Fujifilm: Fujinon XF 60mm f2.4 R Macro
Olympus: Olympus MSC ED M. 60mm f/2.8
Sony (mirrorless): Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS
While a 100mm macro is considered the “workhorse” of food photographers, the popular niffy fifty certainly has its place. The 50mm lens on a full frame sensor is considered the closest to what the human eye can see, and by zooming with your feet, you can get a variety of different shots from this single zoom lens. The only downfall (at least for food photography) is that you can’t get in as close as with a macro lens. But when several brands offer a wide 50mm for under $200, it’s an excellent affordable option instead of that kit lens.
Canon: EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
Nikon: AF-S FX Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G
Fujifilm: Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R
Olympus: 25mm f/1.8
Sony (mirrorless): Sony 50mm f/1.8 E Mount
While getting in close helps show texture and detail, sometimes it’s the whole spread that makes the dish. For getting shots of an entire table, a 35mm is a good way to add variety to your food photography. Pay close attention to the crop factor here—while getting a 50 or 100mm on a crop sensor isn’t a big deal unless you are shooting in a cramped space, you won’t get a full table shot if you miss the conversion factor here. If you have an APS-C camera like the Nikon D3300 or Fujifilm X-T10, look for a 14mm lens instead of a 35mm for the extra wide shots.
Fujifilm: Fujinon XF 35mm F2 R WR
Olympus: M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8
Sony (mirrorless): Sony 35mm f/1.8
With any still life subject like food, you can save quite a bit of cash without a big difference in the photos by choosing a camera with good resolution but without that best-in-class speed. And while you’ll need to shoot before that steam tappers off or before the ice cream melts, there’s usually plenty of time to switch lenses or zoom with your feet to get a variety of shots. Besides the affordability of fixed zoom lenses, they’re also usually sharper and wider than their zoom equivalents.