One of the most common questions I receive from new photographers is which lens to use when photographing food. When choosing gear there is never a correct choice; it all boils down to the type and size of the food, your workspace and setup, the style you hope to achieve, along with how you want your final image will look. Each lens will have advantages, and even disadvantages, depending on your setup. Here is a list of a variety of lenses, along with why you might choose each type of lens for food photography.
A macro lens is an obvious choice for photographing food. You can get really close to the food to highlight certain elements, and also easily photograph and fill the frame with small items, like berries or tiny bites of food. Depending on the camera you use, macro lenses come in different ranges of focal lengths.
Keep in mind that a macro lens is not always necessary to photograph food. With full-frame cameras it is sometimes necessary to use a macro-capable lens in order to get close enough and fill the frame. And, in some cases, getting too close to your dish may not be the best way to photograph it. With crop-frame cameras, such as with the FUJIFILM X-T2 used for this photo, a macro lens is not always a requirement. Because of the crop factor there is the perception that the camera is closer to the subject, and so a macro lens is only a real necessity when you want to get really close and fill the frame with small items.
In most cases a wide lens will be best for overhead setups. The space I use to photograph food in my home is too small for a wide-angle lens to be used without including other elements, such as the window or reflectors. Instead I reserve the wider focal lengths for overhead shots.
A mid-range lens, especially one that has a close focusing distance, can be a good option for food in any environment. I like to use this type of lens when I know I will want to photograph my dinner while traveling (for example). It is long enough to compress and blur the background, but narrow enough to not include too wide of an angle of view. I can also still sit quite close to the food; with a longer lens I need to move back a few feet, which can be difficult when sitting at a dinner table.
Medium Telephoto (90–120mm)
The medium telephoto lens, also known as a good range for portraits, is also a great focal length range for food photographs. One of my favorites is the FUJINON XF90mmF2 R LM WR; I can get in close to the subject, and also compress and blur the background quite well.
When you have a lot of space to work in and really want to compress and blur your background, then a telephoto lens might be a good option for you. This type of lens will typically work well with crop-frame cameras, which is great news for Fujifilm users! On full-frame cameras, however, you may find that the focal length will not allow you to get close enough to the subject to get it in focus. However even with this setup (a small item of food) I was unable to get a tight shot of the bruschetta with my FUJIFILM X-T2 because of the limited focusing distance, but with a larger dish this lens might work well.
Day 1: Hey! You remember as a child when your parents explicitly told you not to pet stray dogs? All the CDC warning about rabies? If your first reaction after breaking these basic rules is to sacrifice your trigger finger over your X-T1… there might be a greater issue then the inability to follow directions. The X-T1 was my camera of choice because I needed something as reliable as Imodium, yet flexible enough to condone creativity – all while still resembling the look of film. I mean, come on! When you’re worried about the possibilities of your body failing, health, or basic safety, you don’t have time to second-guess about gear.I’ll spare you the details about the sobering reality of needing to trade my personal snacks for battery space. If you’ve ever encountered the luggage scale of doom in an airport, then you understand the seriousness of airline weight restrictions. Now, imagine restrictions for a 4 or 6 seater plane and the tired muscles of the sweet mules that will inevitably carry the still-too-heavy load.Let me back up a second. Journaling is my way of processing overwhelming amounts of information. Figuring out what works and what does not work, and why. Last September I was lucky enough to join an incredible group of individuals from around the globe to set off on a month-long expedition in the lesser-known mountains of Dolpo, Nepal. The group, called the Nomads Clinic, was created by Joan Halifax and serves some of heartiest, most salt-of-the-earth humans who live in some of the most remote places in the world and are in need of medical aid. There was no set storyline or plan for photographs except to document the journey. It can be challenging to narrow down your focus when everything and everyone is interesting. It’s also tricky to think at high altitude (10-18,000ft) so doing a solid amount of planning and research ahead of time is an integral part of my process. There is a lot to be said about visiting a place and meeting the people before deciding what your story is truly about.
Just as an illustrator uses multiple pens or a chef has his favorite knives, cameras bodies and lenses are no different. Prior to this endeavor I made a list of criteria my gear must meet in order to have the best chance of success. The gear would need to be: lightweight, quiet, have a high ISO range, be durable and weather resistant, have external controls easy to change and most importantly all of these functions needed to come in something small and compact. The camera is a tool, a tool to think with, understand with, initiate conversation with, but it works against you if it’s intimidating or hinders maneuverability. The rotating LCD was also pivotal. Really. Just as the ability to shoot from the hip without it looking like your hip took the shot- fantastic! The X-T1 not only met my basic criteria, but also went beyond and far exceeded expectations.
2 Fujifilm X-T1 Mirrorless Bodies
1 Fujifilm XF10-24mmF4 R OIS WR Lens
1 Fujifilm XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens
1 Fujifilm XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Lens
12x Extra Batteries for X-T1
1 X-T1 Vertical Battery Grip
1 GoPro4, 8 batteries for GoPro
Started with 10, 34GB SD cards and bought more out of anxiety at every airport
Two battery chargers with extra cords for both Fujifilm and GoPro.
Goal Zero Sherpa 100 solar charger w AC converter
Circular Polarizers and UV haze filters
Peak design backpack clip
1 XS pelican case
Things Left at Hotel
2 G tech portable HD’s
Day 17: The clinic is roaring! Mothers carrying infants and men of all ages waiting to be treated. Waiting to be seen. Be heard. Their bodies aged by years of physical labor, scorched, wind-whipped faces with lines as sharp and jagged as the mountains they live in. A baby calf is wailing for it’s mother, the air is starting to smell like rain and dark clouds make the dust start to churn. I tell you this to paint a picture, one that requires all of your senses and mental faculties to pay attention to the life, the art that is happening before your eyes and not a giant pelican case full of electronics.
Day 18: Dolpo, like many other places people explore with cameras is a microcosm of issues and stories waiting to be told. There’s not only climate change but people change. Change in cultural practices, identity, wants and needs. Not everyone believes in climate change and that’s okay; maybe the climate isn’t changing, maybe it’s purely evolving as it has been shifting and morphing for centuries, since the beginning of time. This land is akin to the first camera and now I’m standing in a home with no electricity, no running water or toilet but the father of the dwelling has a smartphone and the children a TV to watch. What allows technology to grow here but not food?Day 19: Development is moving faster then the land can handle. There is no fossil fuel, no waste disposal methods; the first signs of growth came in the form of a handful of motorbikes, cup o noodles, soft drinks, beer and a various assortment of cell phones. There are a few crude health clinics, rarely staffed and stocked with outdated medications. Migration is increasing and thus the population is growing.Traditional annual migrations are being challenged due to severe weather and lack of food. No food for humans, no food for animals. Animals cannot transport goods and become ill. People lose money. People live in close proximity with animals and animals eat trash left by humans. Humans eat the animals. Imported and exported goods are slowed or stopped. Imported foods are primarily packaged increasing waste. New illnesses like typhoid and chicken pox are being introduced because of changes in the climate and migration, which has increased: AIDS, Hepatitis and STD rates. Increased births demand more food and water then the land can yield. Water is not sanitary because that is where waste is thrown and animals bath. Children suffer from blistering lesions caused by lack of hygiene and the spreading of endemic skin diseases. Water scarcity, deforestation, below average snowfall, rainfall, drought, and bad soil, the burning of dried dung, smoke inhalation. A strong alcohol is made locally from barley. Everyone drinks. Muscular skeletal pain is common from hard labor started at a young age and injury, alcohol decreases their pain. Women drink during birth to ease the pain. Women drink during pregnancy causing birth defects. Diets are high in oils and spices and rock salt from Tibet. Stomach issues are common and everyone is dehydrated or has gastritis, hypertension and goiters. They seldom care about their health until it hinders their ability to perform daily functions. Or if they care, is there anything that they can do about it? Anyone to help them? All of these thoughts dance in my head as I try to sleep. 5 am comes all too quickly though and I’m soon reminded of the immense beauty here. The moment you realize you’re finally hydrated can actually have unexpected photographic advantages.Day 20: After a number of intense yak run-ins, I was ready for a little down time. I felt the need to make sure I’d backed up all of my images. Just in case. My incredibly patient and understanding tent mate made the remark that at dusk when batteries are charging and cards are downloading our tent resembled that of a rocket launching station. The launch pad was rarely needed however. Not dust, nor rain, freezing temperatures or scalding heat could interfere with the life of my batteries. They traveled between thick socks, down jacket pockets and sleeping bags. Just as I need my morning coffee to wake up, they would occasionally need a few minutes as well. Then we were off!Day 21: There are people on your right and people on your left, donkeys behind and cliffs in front, you can’t move yet everyone is standing in place photographing, you get this funny sensation… is everyone shooting the same thing? Or, is my gear properly attached? Did I drop something into the dusty abyss? A Peak Design backpack clip was the perfect solution. The X-T1 with my heaviest lens was light enough to attach to my backpack strap without hindering my questionable balancing abilities. In a pinch it could hang from my neck, be carried by hand or clipped to my hip without the feeling of being instantly obese on those skinny cliffs.Before I knew it: I was on a flight back home furiously downloading cards on my computer, backing them up and backing them up a second time, praying they were all there, feeling for my rescue recovery disk in my backpack just in case. Feeling the swelling in my knee caps and how difficult to impossible it would be to ‘re-shoot’ anything and how the moments never exactly happen the same way twice anyway. Dreaming about how the life of my cards would have been so much better if I only had a second card slot. And BOOM, the X-Pro 2 specs! Back at home: When a project starts to take on a life of it’s own… You’re driving to the market, driving to yoga, driving to work, sitting at the doctor’s office, sitting in bed, laying down in savashsna, and you can’t stop thinking about the place, the people, the culture, their needs, their dreams, and you’re mentally exploring various angles that would have better served your subject visually, how to show others everything you felt, everything you heard, how to more eloquently express the issues, tell the stories of the humans behind the faces, the smells of spices cooking. If I did this again would I change my gear setup? Telephoto? Prime? Zoom? One of each? Two of each? Same body? Different bodies? You get where I’m going with this. A project has begun. During the first two weeks I shot 2576 photos. I figure if I edit 5 or so a day you could potentially view them on my website in 2030. Right. Thank you Fujifilm for allowing this journey to begin.P.S. High performance mode makes a wonderful difference. Turn it on.
The time had come. I’d been trying to justify keeping my X100S and X100T for some time but, in reality, since T had arrived, S had been spending increasingly lengthy spells in the cupboard. So, with a heavy heart, I decided to sell. The obvious route was on eBay, so I cleaned the camera up and took a couple of snaps before preparing my listing.
My initial shot (above) was very typical of the sort of image you see on eBay – lit with flash from the front, it hardly shows my lovely X100S in the best light, while the background is distracting. I didn’t think it would appeal to buyers, so I decided to try an alternative tack and headed upstairs into my bathroom…
Admittedly, this isn’t the most obvious room in the house to start taking product pictures but, in reality, it’s got a ready made studio for product shots – the bath. White, with a nice curve, the bath bounces plenty of light around to get even coverage and it has a clean, uncluttered background that won’t distract from the item on sale.
Using an X-T1 with an XF18-55mm lens, I positioned the X100S at the opposite end to the taps, flicked out the X-T1’s rear screen and used the lens cap under the end of the lens to keep everything nice and straight. The X-T1’s screen is perfect for images like this, although fixed screen X-series models will be fine – you might just have to contort yourself into the bath a little! I chose an aperture of f/11, ISO 1600 and used the two second self-timer for hands-free shooting and took a shot.
Not bad. Considering this was under tungsten light in my bathroom, I instantly had a better image than my earlier front-on flash lit effort. There was, however, a slight orange colour cast as I’d left the X-T1 on the Auto white-balance setting. I switched to the Incandescent white-balance option and took another.
Better. The colour cast has now all but gone, but I still thought it could be improved further – the highlight on the lens and on the handgrip were distracting, caused by the main light above and to the left of the camera as you look at it. To overcome this problem, I deployed a diffuser on the bath over the top of the camera. I had a ready-made one, but you could use a large sheet of tracing paper to get a similar effect.
Hey presto, the distracting highlights had disappeared! But I still wasn’t completely happy, so I tried one more option, leaving the diffuser in place and attaching an EF-42 flashgun on to the X-T1. I pointed the flashgun head straight up so the light bounced off the ceiling and switched the white-balance back to Daylight.
The result is below. Good isn’t it? And you’d never know it was taken in a bath. Naturally, you don’t have to use this idea purely for auction site listings, you could be far more creative, but there’s little doubt that this is a great way to boost the look of items you’re selling. I posted the listing and sold the camera for the price I wanted within a couple of days. What did I use the proceeds of the sale for? To buy an X70, of course!