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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Food Photography Class: Learning About a Lens

There’s this guy, Matt, who write this blog named Wrightfood which I like to read (and am subscribed to). Besides writing really great posts about food he also takes amazing photos! He also seems like a very nice guy who shares from his experience in food photography on his blog (click here and here). So when I felt overwhelmed in my research about buying a new camera and the equipment that goes with it, like a lens, I thought: “hmmm, maybe I can e-mail Matt and ask, and maybe he’ll be kind and reply to my e-mail with a short explanation to my question”. But I surely did not expect him to be as helpful as he was and answer in such lengthy and detailed educational replies.

I have already taken Matt’s advice and purchased a 500 watt lamp and see a major difference like with this photo that I took at night.

More than being happy about getting some help, I feel happier getting to “know” other bloggers and find out how people can be so nice to total strangers, like this lady, Sophie, who writes Mostly Eating blog that I found only yesterday.

Matt’s helpful tips are too good not to be shared with others, so here is our e-mail exchange below. I hope you’ll find it helpful if you are new to the amazing world of (food) photography like me.

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Dear Matt,

I read that you have a 50mm 1.4F prime lens. I’m only starting to learn about this new world of photography. It’s still like Chinese, or Spanish, or Uzbekistani to me. There is a photo shop here in Bellevue. They have a “deal” on a Canon Rebel XS camera with a Promaster 28-200 lens.
I still need to verify the “deal” cost wise. But what do you think about the lens?
Many thanks!


Hi Nurit

Stay away from Promaster. I haven't heard anything good about them at all.
Some stuff to know about lenses:
"Prime" lenses (those at a fixed size, so no zoom) give the sharpest images, and a generally able to shoot in much lower light conditions. If you are just getting a lens for food photography, the Canon 50mm 1.4F is really great, and the cheaper 50mm 1.8F is still very good.
With zoom lenses, the longer the zoom (biggest distance between low and high zoom - 20-500 is longer than 20-80, if that makes sense) the harder it is to have really good optics - so you are going to get softer images.

A half decent "walk about" lens would be a 20-80mm - a reasonably short zoom, but covers most bases. 18-55 would be even better. You aren't going to be doing long distance shots at the zoo though!
The one thing to remember, that most people forget, is that it really isn't down to the quality of the camera; it is down to the quality of the lens. The XS is Canon's entry level digital camera - and is still a
Higher spec than the camera I have been using for all photography on my site.
Just make sure you spend some cash on the lens - that is where the big difference in quality lies.
Hope that helps!



Every bit of information is helpful. I'm a totally new beginner. Even when I started blogging I did not think photography will become a hobby. But I've got so much to learn.
What's the difference between 1.4F and 1.8 F? What does the "F", in this case, stands for anyway????
I think I'm in a similar position as you - living here in a gray area light, shooting food, no long distance shots, mostly at night (or on cold gray days). I got a 500 Watt light last night (following your advice but I bought it in a store for more $$. Alas). I can already see a huge difference together with the other 250 watt I have.
When you write: "zoom lenses, the longer the zoom ... the harder... it is to have really good optics - so you are going to get softer images", you mean "softer" as in more blurry?
I like about your photos that they look sharp and crisp. I'm looking for a similar affect too. The food just pops out. So which lens is best for that?

Can I just go shopping with you? ;-)
Thanks a million for your tips/help!

Hi Nurit

First the techy mumbo-jumbo on the F number. It is the "aperature size". Two things control the exposure of a shot. Firstly, how long the camera shutter is open. If the shutter is open for a long time, then more light gets into the camera (sensor/film etc), so the more the image will be exposed (best way to look at this - if you look at the sun too long, everything is going to end up white).

Second is the size of the aperature. Imagine the aperature to be the size of the hole in the lens that light can pass through. If the hole is really big, more light can pass through. If the hole is really small, less light can pass through.

So - light comes into the lens. If the aperature hole in the lens is really big, more light can get into the camera. That means that the shutter on the camera can be open for less time - since more light is coming in. This means you have less chance of camera shake/blurry images.

If the aperature is really tiny, then the shutter has to be open for longer to get enough light in to expose the image - this means that there is more chance of camera shake/blur when taken hand held.

So - the F number is the size of the aperature. Just to make things really annoying, the smaller the F number, the more "open" the aperature is.

So - what this means - the lower the F number, the bigger the hole, which in turn means you can shoot in lower light without the risk of camera shake hand held (since you will have a faster shutter speed).

The aperature size (F number) also controls the Depth of Field (how much is in focus). The larger the aperature (smaller the F number), the shorter the DoF (depth of field), which means less stuff is in focus. This can be desired or not... depends what you are after.

Blimey, I hope all that makes sense.

So what does it really mean to you? Well, the F1.4 lens will allow you take better pictures hand-held in low light. This fact alone might not be that great for shooting food photography. Typically you will have ample light (even with a light setup), and you will be using a tripod..

Which gets me onto my next thing - always use a tripod... and a good quality one at that (a stable one).

The F1.4 lens has other stuff going for it over the 1.8 too. It is built of metal (coated in plastic), the 1.8 is mostly plastic - so it is more durable.

Getting into technical stuff too - the out of focus effects (Boekeh) are nicer on the F1.4 than the F1.8. The blurry bits look better.

If you are strapped for cash, go for the 1.8. It is still a great lens. My brother, who is a nature photographer, uses it, and gets great photos when he does.

If you can, get the 1.4. It is going to last you a lifetime. Camera bodies might age faster than god knows what, but a good quality lens will never go out of date.

As regards the zoom lenses - yep - by softer I mean less sharp on the focus. You might also see blurring in the corners of an image with a really cheap zoom lens. Typically, if you are going to buy a zoom, and you want a really long zoom distance, you need to spend some serious cash to get good pictures.

As regards crispness - that is really mostly down to the lens, and a few other things. When you get your camera and lens, give me a shout, and I will talk you through some stuff.

All of my food shots I take with the 50mm F1.4, and just love it.



Wow, Matt, I really did not expect that you will give me such a lengthy explanation of these things.
Thank you very much!!!!!!
I will need to read it a couple of times for the information to sink into my brain.
I read and read it over and over and every time I giggle because this is so new and my brain is doing the loop-de-loop trying to figure out and visualize this stuff.

So let's say that 1 1.4 lens it is. So which model/series? You said you did not hear good things about the Promaster?
And, as the camera body/technology changes (and one might want to buy a new one), the lens still fit the newer cameras?

And another question - I've started posting about my learning in food photography. Would you mind if I post our e-mail exchange in a post on my blog?
You might be risking getting more e-mails from people though... :) or would you prefer to be "anonymous"?

Thanks again a million!!!!


Hi Nurit

I was exactly the same way when I started getting into photography - the whole aperature and shutter speed thing was just dead confusing. All I can say is that one day it clicks.. It really helps to have a camera in front of you to play with too, as you adjust settings you can see what is happening.

You know what, here is my thing with lenses. When I got my first decent camera, I bought a cheap Sigma wide angle lens. At the time I did architecture photography a lot. It was cheap. The results from the lens were "OK" at best. At the time I thought it was great, until I tried a decent quality lens (not even AMAZING quality).

So, my recommendation is to go with the Canon 50mm 1.4F, if you can afford it. This is going to sound really odd, but the lens is actually a complete steal for the price. Good quality lenses normally run into the thousands of dollars range. The 50mm F1.4 goes for about $320 online, from a good reseller.

If that is too much, the Canon 50mm F1.8 is a really great choice too - and much cheaper - just shy of $100.

A decent lens, from a good manufacturer will last you a LONG time. The lens mount (the interface between the lens and the camera) is going to stay the same for a long time. Pro photographers invest most of their cash in lenses (a pro photographer could easily have $100k in lenses) - if the "mount" changed, then all that would be worthless. You will find some technologies change - lenses get Image Stabilization and so forth, which is good for a telephoto (300mm) lens, but not much point on a short 50mm.

I have no problem you posting this email exchange! I would ask that you remove my email address from it though - a link to my site is more than welcome however!



Vered - MomGrind said...

A 500 watt-lamp sounds like a great first step for me too! I don't have a food blog, but I do post the occasional recipe.

Kevin said...

Great post about photography. I am currently using a lowel ego lamp.

Maggie said...

Thanks for sharing this! I'd really like to move up from the stock lens I purchased with my camera but still don't feel confident that I know enough, especially about all the different types of lenses.