by Alex W.
As you might have noticed after a quick scroll through Instagram, you certainly don’t need a wide ranging plethora of cameras and lenses to shoot nice food photography.
Indeed, most people shoot it on their smartphones. That’s fine for Instagram, but it’s not going to cut it in the world of professional food photography.
You’re going to need some extra gear, but fortunately even a professional grade setup isn’t too costly to acquire.
Lenses are the most important part of your setup, and the majority of your food photography budget should be spent on them. Having a number of flattering focal lengths to choose from opens up many doors for your food photography, so we’ve rounded up the five best food photography lenses below:
If you’ve been reading Click and Learn Photography for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the 50mm prime lens. In fact, I’ve even published an entire article on it.
Why? Because it’s cost effective, versatile, lightweight, and often fantastic quality.
Because of it’s cheapness and versatility, I’d recommend buying this as your first food photography lens.
The 50mm focal length offers a similar field of view to the human eye, and the camera industry’s long history of manufacturing these lenses means that they offer the best bang for your buck when it comes to image quality. Hands down.
Above you’ll find the budget friendly Nikon 50mm f/1.8G and the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM options. If your pockets are a bit deeper, the Sigma f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens has a DXOMARK score of 41, making it the 5th best lens they’ve ever tested!
When I’m shooting food, the 50mm is usually my first port of call when I’m framing overhead shots or shooting in low light (because of the wide maximum aperture).
Despite being a ‘normal’ focal length, 50mm is actually on the wide end of the scale in food photography. This makes it perfect for loosely framed shots, which are important for things such as magazine covers and text overlays.
Close-ups are an important part of food photography, and to capture all those details you’ll need the close focusing power of a macro lens.
Ideally, as you’ll see below, you should have two different macro lenses in your arsenal. However, if you can only afford one I’d highly recommend opting for the shorter focal length of the 60mm.
The Tamron 60mm f/2.0 Di II LD lens above is a great choice. It’s excellent quality (although the Nikon AF-S 60mm f/2.8G ED Micro outperforms it slightly), and it’s available in a range of different lens mounts.
Can’t afford a macro lens? Try one of our 5 hacks to make macro photography budget friendly.
Obviously the focal length is very similar to that of the 50mm, but you’d be surprised by just how much of a difference that 10mm makes. That means it’s perfectly capable of performing well when you want slightly tighter framing than the 50mm can offer.
However, the main selling point is obviously the macro capabilities. The close focusing distance makes those intricate detail shots possible, while the 60mm focal length is wide enough to retain some of the surrounding environment, adding context to the image.
It’s also great for overhead shots and flat lays, and try shooting at an angle between 24 and 45 degrees to maximize the elements within the frame.
You might think that one macro lens is enough, but having that extra focal length in your locker is pretty nice too.
We already know the benefits of macro capability, but the increase in focal length opens up a world of opportunities too. You can easily eliminate any distracting elements from your scene and focus solely on your chosen subject.
The Nikon AF-S VR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Micro is considered as one of the best 105mm macro lenses around, but in all honesty the cheaper Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro isn’t far behind at all. I’ve included the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM here, but it’s more expensive than the competition and not actually as good, so I’d recommend giving that a miss.
The increased working range provided by the longer focal length can help to eliminate distortion while also retaining a close crop on your subject. This is especially true when shooting at ~45 degree angle, where wider angle lenses can introduce some noticeable distortion.
Obviously there’s the detail shots at a slightly different perspective than the 60mm Macro to consider as well.
Apart from that, I’d recommend always using a tripod with the 105mm lenses, and close down your aperture to retain some depth of field. The longer focal length and close focusing can result in razor thin depth of field.
Unsure about apertures? Check out our handy F-Stop Chart Infographic here!
If you have deep pockets and aspirations of professional food photography, buying a tilt-shift lens is a serious consideration you should look in to.
For those who don’t know, tilt-shift lenses allow the photographer to move the lens around in relation to the image sensor. The result of this is the ability to correct for distortion and accurately control the plane of focus.
They are mainly used for things like architectural photography and landscape photography, but this added functionality can be very useful in food photography.
There are a few options out there, but unfortunately all of them are pretty damn expensive. The Nikon PC-E 85mm f/2.8D Micro and the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro also double as macro lenses which is useful, while the Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 offers a wider field of view.
As we touched upon above, the main draw of a tilt-shift lens is the ability to eliminate distortion and precisely control which parts of your image are in focus.
When it comes to food photography, this means we can set up framing the dish from the best angle before adding in other elements, playing with the focus plane and minimizing distortion all without ever changing the camera angle.
You can use the tilt function to get every part of a scene in sharp focus, or you can use it to focus on the main dish alone and throw everything else out of focus.
Basically, a tilt-shift lens offers another level of control over your images and opens up some really creative avenues for your food photography. They are very expensive though.
The one and only zoom lens on our list of best lenses for food photography.
It’s true, zoom lenses in general offer less bang for your buck when it comes to image quality. However, having that flexibility in your camera bag makes up for this drawback.
Some food photographers do shoot solely with prime lenses, but the majority of us have a 24-70mm stashed away for those times when we need that extra versatility. One perfect example is when you’re working in confined spaces, which make moving backwards and forwards to find that perfect prime lens framing a non-viable option.
The 24-70mm is the perfect choice for food photography because of it’s ‘standard’ focal range. You can shoot anything from wide angle scenes that take in the broader context to the more detailed close ups of the dish.
Pretty much every camera manufacturer out there makes their own very good version of the 24-70mm lens, but my favorite is the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2. It’s cheaper than it’s Canon and Nikon equivalents yet still delivers excellent image and build quality.
Using a zoom lens is more of a compromise than a first choice. The prime lenses listed here should all outperform the zooms in terms of absolute image quality, but if you’re short on time or space then don’t feel any shame in mounting that 24-70mm on your camera!
That being said, the wider end of the focal range does open up some new opportunities, allowing you to include the wider environment in your shots and potentially tell a more cohesive story through your food photography.
Focal length is a key consideration in food photography, and it’s important for you to know that these recommendations are based on a full-frame sensor rather than a cropped sensor camera.
For those who don’t know, a cropped sensor camera employs a smaller sensor to the traditional 35mm format, and as such the effective focal length increases. For most DSLRs, the increase is around 1.5x, so a 50mm prime lens becomes an effective 75mm prime lens.
You can see how this changes depending on sensor size below.
Why is this important?
Well, it could very well change your lens selection. For example, the 50mm may be on the wide end of the spectrum for food photography, but the effective 75mm focal length when it’s mounted on an APS-C camera is significantly tighter.
It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s definitely something worth considering.
About Alex W.
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.