I get a lot of questions about the gear I use in my food and still life photography, particularly from those just starting out in these genres. Buying the wrong equipment can be an expensive mistake. This is a list of the best camera gear I have found to work for me and a lot of the still life photographers that I know.
First, you need to decide if you will use a camera with a cropped sensor or a full-frame camera. This will likely be determined by your budget.
A cropped sensor is cheaper for a camera manufacturer to make, which makes decent digital cameras available to a wide variety of consumers. Keep in mind that the focal length of your lenses will be different on a cropped sensor camera. For example, on a full-frame camera, a 50mm will behave like a 50mm. Put that same lens on a camera with a cropped sensor, it will behave more like an 80mm. Your shots will be nowhere near as wide.
Also, make sure that the camera you choose can shoot RAW images–not just JPEGs. If you intend to shoot professionally, file size matters. If your work is going to be printed, you need at least a 12-megapixel camera.
As a food or still life photographer, you’ll find that you won’t need most of the bells and whistles that the modern digital cameras on the market offer. Look for the detail the camera will provide, especially if you’re shooting professionally. The camera should have several focus points and handle noise relatively well. It should also have a tethering feature. If you can afford a full-frame camera, I would invest in one right off the bat.
Every camera manufacturer has a series of lenses for the amateur and another for the pro photographer. However, if you are a pro shooter, this doesn’t mean that you should only stick to a pro series, such as the Canon L-Series, for example. There are some good options without the hefty price tag that a pro series brings. That being said, lenses are where you should spend the majority of your budget and you should look at them as a long-term investment in your craft.
Your most pressing concerns when shopping for a lens is the sharpness, so your focus should be on prime lenses. Prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses.
An excellent lens to have in your kit is a 100mm macro lens. This lens is not just for macro or close up shots, although obviously, it’s great at this. By pulling further away from your set, you can get very nice portrait-style shots as well. The focal length will give you that lovely blurred background that is so coveted in food photography.
I have the consumer grade 100mm f/2.8 from Canon and it’s razor sharp. If you can only get one lens, this is the one I’d recommend.
I also recommend a zoom lens, such as a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 24-105mm f/4. I have both in Canon’s L-Series and find the 24-70mm much sharper than the 24-105mm. The 24-105mm is the kit lens when you buy a Canon 5D.
Although the 24-70mm is a zoom lens, I find it very sharp.
The 50mm can also be a useful lens, especially if you don’t have a zoom. This lens is good for overhead shots and tablescapes. For food and still life photography, 50mm is considered a wide angle lens. If you’re shooting only an item or two straight-on or at 45 degrees, you will likely have too much of the background and surface in your frame.
You will need to have large backgrounds if you use the lens this way. If you get a 24-70mm, then you can shoot your overhead shots by setting it at 50mm.
If you’re not sure which lenses you should get, try renting a couple. Check the sharpness and focal length before spending a large sum of money. Photographers have their own style and thus tend to shoot within a preferred range of focal lengths. For example, I am usually between 60-80mm on my full frame camera.
Studio Lighting and Modifiers
If you want to shoot food or still life professionally, you’ll need to master studio lighting. You can rent studio lights or buy your own. Even if don’t have your own studio, you will benefit from having your own lights if you can afford them. Many studio rental places don’t open early enough to allow you to transport and set up your camera gear before the arrival time of your client.
If you’re a blogger venturing into the world of artificial lighting, you may want to start with a continuous light, like an LED. I recommend that you do not get a set of those Lowel EGO lights that so many bloggers are crazy about. They are too bright and at the same time, don’t have enough spread.
You need to be able to work with strobes if you want to shoot professionally for clients. These are expensive lights, so try to make a good choice initially with these. Make sure they have at least 400 to 500Ws (stands for Watt-seconds, is a measurement of flash output) power and that you are able to modify the light with grids and softboxes.
Great lights at a medium price are the Hensel Integra Pro plus 500, or my personal favorite, the Elinchrom ELC HD Pro 500w set. The Elinchrom monolights have clean and consistent light from shot to shot, and they fire fast enough to freeze motion or liquid splashes, a feature found in the high-end and pricey lighting systems.
For a cheaper system that is great to start with, check out the Bowens Gemini 500. The big benefit of using Bowens is that its S-mount is a common modifier mount, which allows you to use a variety of inexpensive modifiers with your strobes. In terms of modifiers, get at least one softbox in the largest size you can find and afford. The larger the softbox, the softer the light.
When shooting food and still life, you will also need a large diffuser to soften the light as it hits your subjects. I use a 59×79-inch diffusor placed right up against my set. This creates a large, soft light source and prevents any unwanted light from spilling onto the set.
A tripod is necessary when shooting food, product, or still life images because the objective is very sharp photos. This often means shooting at lower shutter speeds, which can introduce camera shake into your images if you are hand-holding and working in natural light.
Shooting in these genres is about creating a scene, which is a process of building and assessing. You’ll find yourself constantly adjusting your set-ups, adding items or taking them away, or otherwise moving them around to get the perfect shot. This type of photography is not about catching a decisive moment, but about deliberately creating a visual story through the placement of objects. You need to compose to the camera.
Working with a tripod is also important if you are doing a series of shots and need consistency in your set-ups, or if you’re focus stacking or using scripts in Photoshop.
You will need a professional grade image editing software program to get the most out of your food or still life pictures. Adobe’s Lightroom can give you most of the tools you need to create awesome images at a relatively low price. It’s a powerful program that is intuitive and user-friendly. Not only does it have great editing capabilities, it also acts as an archive for all the image files you have on your hard disk.
Lightroom functions best as a global editor. It helps you make adjustments globally to the whole image. In contrast, Photoshop is a pixel editor. It helps you work with the actual pixels in a given image. There is a lot you can do in Photoshop that you can’t do in Lightroom, such as compositing (combining multiple images into one).
As a professional photographer, I do most of my editing in Lightroom. Then I take my images over to Photoshop to do what Lightroom cannot, or doesn’t do as well. Photoshop has the powerful tools that I need to give me the refined look I’m seeking.
Read my other article: How to Edit Food Photography Images Using Lightroom
If you’re just starting out, Lightroom will deliver everything you need to make great pictures.
If you’re working on professional packaging design, Capture One Pro is mandatory. With this program, you can upload an overlay of the packaging artwork to determine where the elements in the image should sit on the packaging. It will make the shooting process go a lot faster and a creative director will likely expect you to work this way.
If you’re serious about food photography, you’ll need to shoot tethered.
Tethering is when you connect your camera to a computer via a USB cable so you’re able to view a larger rendition of your image in software such as Lightroom or Capture One Pro. Being able to see your images on the computer as you shoot them is hugely advantageous.
Photographing food and still lifes is a detail-oriented process. A misplaced sprig of basil can ruin your image or create hours of work for you in Photoshop. Such errors can easily be avoided when you can see your work brought to life on a much larger screen than your camera LCD can provide.
If you’re working with clients, they’ll expect you to be shooting tethered. Shooting food, in particular, is a collaborative process that often involves a creative director and a food stylist, who both play a role in the final composition of an image.
To tether to your computer, I recommend a gold-tipped USB cable called a High-Speed USB cable Type A to Mini B. The gold tips prevent them from corroding. Make sure that the cable is no more than 10-15 feet long. The longer ones tend to have problems transferring data. Always have at least a couple of them in your kit so you don’t get stuck, as things don’t always last as long as you’d hope.
Other Miscellaneous Items
Besides extra memory cards and batteries, there are a few other items you will need to invest in if you’re serious about food and still life photography. Here are the basics:
- Shutter Release – This is a device that you connect to your camera to depress the shutter. Even if you’re working on a tripod, pressing the shutter can cause a small vibration that can introduce camera shake that will make your images less than sharp.
- Backup Drives – Always back up your work to an external drive. Preferably more than one. Hard drives fail all the time, so you need at least two if not three copies of your files, kept in separate places. You should also be backing up while you work.
- Backgrounds – Food and still life photography require backgrounds and surfaces to enhance the subject. These can be purchased expensively online, or you can make your own. One of my favorite style of backgrounds that I use repeatedly in my work is painted canvas. You can buy a large canvas painters drop cloth at a hardware store and cut it into pieces, which you can then paint to suit your needs. You can buy paint samples at the hardware store too. These painted pieces of canvas make inexpensive backgrounds that can be rolled up and put away without taking up a lot of space.
- A Level – Another purchase from the hardware store is a small level, the kind you use in construction or when hanging pictures. A level placed on your camera once it’s set up will show you if your camera is straight. This is very important when taking overhead shots (like the one below).
It’s easy to go crazy with equipment. Don’t fall into the trap that you need tons of the best camera gear to shoot properly. At the same time, don’t buy the cheapest version of what you need.
Quality is important and will take you a long way in getting the best shots you can. Start out with the bare necessities and invest as your budget allows.