If you do still-life or product photography, certain lenses will suit your work better than others.
Here is more about what you need to keep in mind when looking for the best lens for product photography.
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Cropped or Full-Frame Sensor?
Before you choose a lens, you need to know whether your camera has a cropped or full-frame sensor. Your lenses will work differently, depending on which you have.
A lens on a crop sensor camera will act like its focal length multiplied by the crop factor of the camera. If your crop sensor camera has a crop factor of 1.6x, then a 50mm lens will behave more like an 80mm lens. A 50mm lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor will act like a 50mm.
Cameras with cropped sensors are cheaper and often entry-level DSLRs.
When I started in DSLR photography, I used a 60mm macro for my still-life photography on my Canon Rebel, which has a crop sensor. This acted like a 90mm. It allowed me to get a tight crop and shallow depth-of-field.
When it comes to small objects, a tighter crop often creates a more visually pleasing image.
Prime Lens Versus Zoom Lens
The first thing you should consider when shopping for a lens for still life photography is prime versus zoom.
When it comes to shooting still life genres like product or food, a prime lens is preferable. They tend to be sharper. They don’t have the moving parts that zoom lenses require to change the focal length.
These moving parts cause lens diffraction. Lens diffraction is a phenomenon of optical physics. Diffraction occurs when light interacts with an object.
We see examples of diffraction in our daily life. For example, when we see light hit a spider web or water droplets.
Diffraction also occurs in our lens and on our camera sensor. When the aperture is wide, anywhere from f/1.4 to f/8, there is a lot of light hitting the camera sensor directly.
When you stop down to apertures such as f/22, the light hits and bounces off the edge of the aperture blade. This causes the light to hit the subject less precisely. The image is a bit muddy and less sharp.
It doesn’t matter how good your lens is, your images will grow less sharp at apertures over f/16. As you stop down, the fine details in your image will begin to blur out.
A prime lens will naturally give you sharper images. Some premium zoom lenses can give you excellent results too. I use Canon’s 24-70mm L-series lens and find it very sharp. It’s comparable to my prime 100mm macro lens.
Best Prime and Zoom Lenses for Product Photography
- Canon 85mm f1.8
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
- Canon 24-70 f2.8
- Sigma 24-105 f.4 Art
- Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Lens
When we talk about lens speed, we’re really just describing the maximum aperture of the lens, which is described in F-stops. The smaller this number, the more light that can get in at a time.
This means that the shutter speed can be quicker and the lens is ‘faster’.
A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 will allow you to take shots in a dark place better than a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4. As a still-life photographer, you’ll likely be working in a studio with artificial lighting.
Faster lenses also allow for a shallower depth of field. This means that the background will be blurrier when you’re focusing upon a subject in the foreground. This can be great for some types of still life photography like food.
My recommendation is to choose a lens with a speed of f/4 or below.
A macro lens is used for taking super-sharp, detailed images very close up to your subject.
A macro lens has a magnification factor of 1x or 1:1. This allows it to reproduce a life-sized image of your subject on the camera’s sensor.
This means you can get very close to your subject and it will still be in focus.
You’ll sometimes see lenses that have a magnification ratio of 1:2 labeled as “macro”. A true macro lens has a magnification ratio of 1:1.
A macro lens will give you a lot of versatility in your product and still life photography. It’s a great choice to have in your kit.
Best Macro Lenses
Focal Length and Minimum Focus Distance
The focal length of the lens is the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the subject is in focus. This is stated in millimeters (i.e. 28mm, 50mm, 100 mm, etc.).
The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view and the greater the area you are able to capture.
It’s important to know the focal length of a lens. This will tell you how much it will magnify your subject when you take a picture.
The minimum focus distance of a lens determines how close you can be to your subject with it still in focus.
The longer the focal length, the farther away you must be from your subject to be able to focus on it.
The Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM has a minimum focus distance of 91cm. The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM has a minimum focus distance of 31cm.
If you were shooting with the 100mm f/2, you would need to be at least 91cm away from your subject to be able to focus on it.
With the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, you could be anywhere from 31cm away and create a tack sharp photo.
It’s useful to know the minimum focus distance if you’re going to be doing macro or close-up photography. You’ll need to be able to get very close.
Long lenses are not common in still life photography. You’re usually looking for tighter crops.
This is a specialty lens that can be a great lens to have in your still life photography arsenal. It comes with a high price tag. It can be worth renting for certain types of jobs.
So what is a tilt-shift lens? It’s a lens that can be tilted or shifted in a wide range of directions, relative to the image sensor.
This allows you to control the convergence of parallel lines and the plane-of-focus. You can shoot two subjects at two different distances.
- In a regular lens, the plane-of-focus is parallel to the sensor in the camera. When you focus on your subject, everything at that particular distance will also be in focus.
- Use the tilt function to change the plane-of-focus to no longer be parallel to the sensor. You can create an angled plane of focus. When you focus on an object, everything at that angle can be made in focus.
- The shift function adjusts the position of the subject within the image without your having to move the camera. By shifting the lens up or down, or from side to side, you can get the best angle for the shot. You’ll capture elements that would otherwise lie outside of the frame.
Being able to control the plane-of-focus allows for sharp focus in the foreground, while background objects remain out of focus.
You can also shoot your subject at its most flattering angle with a tilt-shift lens. You’ll control how much of the story around the frame is included without changing the camera angle or distance.
This is really helpful when shooting product or packaging images.
Using a tilt-shift lens is a great way to correct the depth-of-field limitations of most lenses. These lenses also give you a lot of depth without the need to use smaller apertures, ideal for studio photography.
Best Tilt-Shift Lenses for Still-Life Photography
Some photographers believe that only premium lenses are suitable for professional work. Or that they are always better than their consumer counterparts. This is not necessarily true.
The lens and build quality tend to be better in premium lines, such as Canon’s L-series. But don’t be fooled into thinking that a lens is better just because it has a red line around it.
As mentioned above, a consumer-grade prime lens may be sharper than a premium zoom lens.
Check out online reviews. Visit forums and read several reviews before you decide on which lens you’ll buy. The lens that is most appropriate for the genre you’re shooting is the most important factor.
You can have the best wide-angle lens on the market, but it’s not going to be very useful for product photography.
In other words, the best lens is the one that is best for the job.
Read our guide on using a pancake lens, and try it out for your next project!