You don’t need to have a large range of lenses to take great pictures of food, or to spend a lot of money on lenses up front. Especially if you’re new to photography.
That being said, lenses are where you should spend the most significant part of your budget. You should look at them as a long-term investment in your craft.
Here’s our rundown of the best lenses on the market and how to pick one.
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The Crop Factor
A cropped sensor is cheaper for a camera manufacturer to make. This makes decent digital cameras available to a wide variety of consumers.
In a crop frame camera, the sensor crops out the edges of the frame, which increases the focal length.
Crop factor describes the difference between the size of your camera’s sensor and a traditional 35mm film frame.
It is used to calculate effective focal lengths and compare lenses between DSLRs.
The Canon Rebel series is a good example of a popular DSLR with a cropped sensor. And it’s popular among food bloggers.
But the focal length of your lenses will be different on a cropped sensor camera than they will on a full-frame.
On a full-frame camera, a 50mm will behave like a 50mm. Put that same lens on a camera with a cropped sensor, it will behave more like an 80mm. Your shots will be nowhere near as wide.
If you think you will upgrade from a cropped sensor to a full-frame one day, then you should take this into consideration when shopping for lenses.
Also note that some lenses that work for a crop frame will not work on a full-frame camera. You can’t use the Rebel’s 18-55 kit lens on a full-frame DSLR.
Prime or Fixed Lenses?
Your most pressing concern when shopping for a lens is the sharpness.
This means using prime lenses when shooting food or still life photography. These are sharper than zoom lenses.
Zoom lenses have more moving parts to enable the zoom function. This tends to result in lower image quality and sharpness.
You can also get barrel and pin-cushion distortions at wide angles. And an increase in chromatic aberration and vignetting. Vignetting is especially apparent at wider apertures.
Prime lenses are usually ‘faster’. They have a larger maximum aperture, which enables quicker shutter speeds.
They give you a much tighter depth of field. It enabling you to isolate your subject and get that really nice blurred background.
The 50mm Prime Lens
The 50mm can also be a useful lens, especially if you don’t have a zoom. This lens is good for overhead shots and tablescapes.
The 50mm f1.8 is often referred to as the “nifty-fifty” because it gives you decent results for a very low price. If you’re just starting out and your budget is tight, get this.
For food and still life photography, 50mm is actually considered a wide angle lens. If you’re shooting only an item or two straight-on or at a 3/4 angle, you will likely have too much of the background and surface in your frame.
You will need to have large backgrounds if you use the lens this way.
Compare the images of the shaved broccoli salad below.
The one on the left is at 50mm. You can see the background doesn’t take over the whole frame, and you can also see the edge of the surface. The food is too far away to really see into the dish.
I took the shot on the right at 60mm. I didn’t move the camera or tripod. You can see that the extra 10mm makes a big difference.
If you get a 24-70mm, then you can shoot your overhead shots by setting it at 50mm.
The 24-70mm Zoom Lens
Although primes are ideal, it is very useful to have one zoom lens, such as a 24-70mm f/2.8 or a 24-105mm f/4.0
I have both in Canon’s L-Series and find the 24-70mm much sharper than the 24-105mm. The 24-105mm is the kit lens when you buy a Canon 5D.
Yes, the 24-70mm is a zoom lens, but I find it very sharp in comparison to most zoom lenses. Many food photographers consider this a staple in their kit.
There is no denying that zoom lenses are very versatile. This is why it’s good to have a high quality one, especially if you’re travelling with your DSLR.
60mm Macro Lens
If you’re shooting with a cropped sensor, then a 60mm macro is an excellent choice.
On a cropped sensor, it’s more like having a 100mm. If you upgrade to full-frame, you can use it like you would a 50mm.
On a cropped sensor, this lens will allow you to get 3/4-angle view shots of your subject with a nice bokeh.
You also won’t get the distortion at this angle that you would when shooting with a wider focal length, like a 50mm.
The 100/110mm Macro
An excellent lens to have in your kit is a 100mm macro lens.
This lens is not only for macro or close up shots, although it’s great at these, too.
By pulling further away from your set, you can get very nice portrait-style shots as well. The focal length will give you a great blurred background.
I have the consumer grade 100mm F2.8 and it’s razor sharp.
In fact, I have read reviews where the photographer preferred the consumer grade to the 100mm macro in the L-Series! And it’s half the cost.
If you go for the 100mm/105mm macro lens on a cropped sensor you will be shooting at a focal length of 150mm.
This will be a very tight crop. Especially if space is an issue, or if you have several props or a storytelling aspect to your images.
80mm Prime Lens
This likely will not be one of the main lenses for your kit. But if you already have a couple of lenses for your full-frame, like a 100mm macro and a 50mm or 24-70mm, consider the 80mm prime lens.
This is a good lens for food portraiture and shooting wider scenes, but not as wide as you might do with a 50mm.
I shoot a lot of food portraiture myself. And I sometimes find that shooting at 70mm is not quite close enough. But the 100mm gets me too close.
Also, when you shoot wide open, say at 70mm on a 24-70mm lens, you risk more distortion. Zoom lenses usually function at their best somewhere in the middle of their available focal lengths.
The 85mm/90mm Tilt Shift
The price is prohibitive for a lot of shooters. But I would be remiss not to mention a zoom tilt-shift lens for your food photography. You can always rent one.
This is a lens used by food photographers in the advertising world.
A tilt shift lens allows you to control the plane of focus very precisely. You can shift the lens up or down, left or right, to minimize distortion.
The tilt functions allow you to keep different elements in focus on different focal planes.
You can get the subject sharply in focus with a background that is very blurred out.
When you focus on a certain angle, everything on that angle will be in focus.
With this lens you are able to shoot the food at the best angle. You also control how many of the props or how much of the wider story appears within the frame. All without changing the camera angle or distance.
It’s a fantastic lens and once you have worked with one, you will be amazed.
I use the 24-70mm zoom lens and the 100mm macro for most of my food photography. I find that I often shoot at a focal point of around 60-80mm.
Every photographer has their most preferred lenses to work with. It depends on how you like to shoot. If you like to do food portraits like I do, you will need a focal length of 50mm-80mm most of the time.
If you prefer to shoot closer most of the time, you might want to go for the 100mm right off the bat.
Before you splash out for an expensive lens, you should try renting a couple.
Check the sharpness and focal length. See how you like working with a particular lens before you invest your money in it.
You will also be able to figure out the focal lengths that best match your photography style.