Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Food Blogger's Guide To Camera Lenses

 Food Photographer's Guide To Camera Lenses Part 1

Understanding the in's and out's of a camera lens can be a daunting task.  There are so many technical terms, numbers, and specifications that it makes the job down right intimidating!  But understanding your camera's lens will really help elevate your photographs from amateur to professional, which is why I've created this series of posts specifically on lenses.

Choosing the right lens for the job can make or break a photograph and I've found that this subject can be one of the most intimidating subjects for new food photographers. Now, for all you camera geeks out there, this isn't going to be a highly detailed explanation of the physics and mechanics of lenses.  If you're looking for that type of information, this post is not for you.  If you're looking for technical mumbo-jumbo, this post isn't for you either.  This post is a highly simplified version of JUST the essential information needed to understand lenses.  No more, no less.

Types of Lenses

In this first part I'm going to concentrate on explaining the different types of lenses. Gaining an understanding on the TYPE of lens is one of the most important aspects of mastering lenses. Each type of lens has advantages and drawbacks, so I will also try to explain those.

Zoom Lenses

Zoom lenses, also known as "varying focal length", are lenses in which the amount of "magnification" can be changed. Most camera's come with a zoom lens, which is sometime referred to as the "kit lens" confusing, right?!

Ok, so the main thing to understand about a zoom lens is that you can get a variety of shots because the amount of magnification can be changed. So you can get a wide shot of your food that includes the table and setting...or you can "zoom-in" and just get the plate.

The advantage of this lens is it's variety. Zoom lenses also tend to be less expensive, although this is not an absolute.

Drawbacks for this type of lens is that the aperture sizes are on the smaller side, which means less light enters the lens. This usually isn't a big deal but for food photography this can have a major drawback....more on that in the second part though!

Prime Lenses - Fixed Focal Lens

A prime lens is the opposite of a zoom lens, in that it's magnification is "fixed"...meaning it can't be changed. For instance, if you are shooting with a prime lens and your shot only includes the plate of food but you decide that you also want to include the table around it, you would have to physically walk away from the table in order to include it. If you had a zoom all you would need to do is zoom out on the lens. Capish?

The drawback is obvious, less variety in magnification right? But the benefits are huge! The benefits of a prime lens is that they tend to have larger aperture openings which let more light in than a zoom lens. Also, prime lenses tend to be of better quality which also makes them generally more expensive.

Macro Lens

Lastly we have the macro lens. Both prime and zoom lenses limit how close you can get to your subject before you are unable to focus. Usually the distance is anywhere between 2 to 4 feet! What if you want to get into the gooey drippy details of that lasagna?! That's when a macro lens comes into place.

A macro lens allows you to focus right up to your subject, without any distance in-between. Macro lenses are specialty lenses that can cost a pretty penny, but they are well worth the money.

So there you have it. These three types of lenses are the most common lenses you are likely to encounter. In the second part of this guide I'll delve into more details regarding lenses so stay tuned!


  1. I thought I was happy with my canon nifty fifty (a 1.8 prime lens)until I got a macro lens for Christmas. For food photography it is perfect, well worth the investment.

  2. I'm planning on purchasing my first DSLR in the next month, so I'm just beginning to understand the difference between lenses (I only use a P&S currently).

    I just want to make sure I understand... you said the prime lenses tend to be more expensive than zoom lenses? I'm looking on Amazon right now, and the Nikkor kit lens, an 18-105 mm f/3.5-5.6 runs about $375, whereas a 50mm f/1.8 lens runs about $125.

    Is this right? I might just throw in a prime lens when I buy if they're only about $150... heck, I'm already dropping a lot of money anyways...

  3. Hi Carter,

    Generally speaking the "faster" the lens the more expensive it will prime lenses tend to be faster which GENERALLY make them more expensive...this isn't always the lenses are also simpler to construct so sometimes they are less expensive than zooms...there is no exact rule here, just a generalization. $150 for a 1.8 prime is a great deal...if you're going to get two lenses though why not get the kit lens and a macro? just a thought

  4. @Danny - I definitely want to get a macro lens for sure. The macro lens I saw online were upwards of $600, though, so I would have to save up a little bit longer for that. Is $600 what a macro will usually run you? I *love* the macro lens shots.

    What are your thoughts on general lenses for everyday photography? i.e. pictures of friends, landscape when you're out hiking, etc.? I don't want to just take pictures of food with my nifty new big-girl camera haha, I'd like to document the rest of my life, too... so I want to make sure what I'm buying will be good (although it doesn't have to be perfect) for everyday shots, too.

  5. No question about it. The best investment you can make in a lens for food photography is a 50mm prime. Canon has one for +- $100 and Nikon for just a little more. The quality images that you will get with either will astound you if you have only used a DSLR kit lens previously. These lenses create sharp photos. Don't be deceived by their low costs. Highly recommended. 95% of the food photos on my blog are taken with the "nifty fifty". Check them out and judge for yourself.

  6. So... you avoided the all important actual lens recommendations, ie, the answer to: "What's the best lens for my Rebel 123, Nikon D789"? All of the above can be deciphered from.. o say.. GOOGLING "What is zoom lens".

  7. Kamstutz..totally agree..a 50mm prime is crucial..but it must be a fast 50mm in order for it to really be of benefit for food photography..IMHO

  8. Thanks I mentioned this is a MULTI part post and I will save my recommendations for the last post once everyone is familiar with the terminology. Making recommendations now, when people are unfamiliar with the terms, doesn't really help anyone who is trying to learn about lenses.

  9. I have a 50mm f1.8 because it was the cheapest lens with great results. I am hoping to get a macro lens next. Thanks for the great info. I'm looking forward to the next post.

  10. Thank you for this! It's nice to find camera help in terms that are easy for new SLR owners to understand.

    I have had my Canon Rebel XSi for a couple of months now. This is my first digital camera. I also opted to purchase the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens instead of the kit lens as so many folks had suggested it. I'm curious about purchasing an quality, but affordable macro lens in the near future. I know that with my old point and shoot camera I could focus right up against an object when shooting in macro mode. I thought this wasn't possible with a digital SLR (even with a macro lens). Though I believe you stated that focusing right in front of an object is possible with a macro lens. Is this right? If so, I'm extremely excited to hear this! I'm still learning my way around my digital SLR so it's a bit difficult for me to understand and imagine what results I would get with different lenses. Do you have any suggestions for affordable (under $300 if possible) macro lenses that are Canon compatible? THANKS!

  11. Hi Amy, yes, with a few exceptions Macro lenses will allow you to focus right up to the subject...depending on the lens of course...I'm more of a Nikon guy so I don't have a specific Canon lens to recommend but in the third part of this series I will recommend a much cheaper alternative to a Macro lens..don't want to give to much away just yet... so stay tuned!