Lenses for Food Photography on the Road
Whether you’re doing some food photography purely for your own delicious pleasure, for your food blog, or you’re aiming to pitch a story to a lifestyle, travel or food magazine, shooting mouthwatering food photos is a must.
I’m not talking about setting up restaurant shoots or shooting a studio cookbook or commercial photography here. This is just about shooting the food you’re about to eat or photographing raw or prepared food in restaurants, the markets, or on the streets, which is a very different way of working.
Here are my tips on the use of lenses for food photography on the road.
Tips on Lenses for Food Photography
There are generally three focal lengths that I always try to cover when photographing food; 35mm, 55mm or 60mm, 100mm or 105mm.
The 35mm lens is great for a spread of food, such as plates of noodles, herbs, and condiments at a market stall, an array of fruit or vegetables on a stand, or the classic spread of dishes that you get when you join a Khmer family for a meal.
It’s my choice lens for street photography and for market visits as it’s wide enough to capture the atmosphere, but it also allows you to shoot food such as curries lined up in pots. It’s also great for full-length portraits of stall holders or chefs.
The 55mm lens I use is a ‘micro’ lens, as Nikon calls it, which really just means it can focus very close to the food. It’s a very old manual focus lens and the modern equivalent of it is the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G ED Auto Focus-S Micro-Nikkor, which is autofocus.
This focal length is my go-to when I’m actually sitting down to a meal as the 35mm is too wide and the 105mm will produce a shot that’s too tightly cropped — unless you want to sit at the next table to shoot!
I find the 55mm is the first lens I reach for when doing a food shoot as it’s perfect for photographing sections of plates and bringing the key ingredient in focus.
If I’m dining at a table I might put on the 35mm lens and do a discrete overhead photo of the dish (such as the one above, photographed during lunch).
The 105mm length macro lens (this is for Nikon, the Canon go-to is the 100mm macro lens) is great for focussing on one plate, particularly when there is a table full of food that can be out of focus in the background.
This lens length is the go-to for professional food photographers as it reproduces what we’re photographing at a 1:1 ratio, which means that the size of the subject and its image on the sensor are the same.
Another lens that professionals love is the Canon EF 90mm F2.8 TSE, the TS standing for Tilt-Shift, which essentially allows you to tilt the lens to create an even more shallow depth of field (read more about depth of field and food photography here) that you can achieve with a conventional lens.
As this lens is manual focus and tricky for the average photographer to operate, it’s usual habitat is in a commercial photography studio, not in a street market.
You can use a zoom lens or two that cover that range of focal lengths (the Canon 24-70mm or the Nikon 24-70mm are good choices), but they will lack the extreme close-up capabilities.
If you’re starting to build a kit of lenses to start of food photography, make your first lens either a 55mm or 100mm (Nikon) or 105mm (Canon), but note that the longer Nikon and Canon lenses are also great as portrait lenses.
Also see my post on natural light food photography on the road and food photography, depth of field, aperture and f-stops.
You’ll find more photography tips in my series Monday Memories, where I reflect on moments from my work as a professional photographer.
Pictured above: A beautiful risotto dish at Catalan chef Paco Pérez’s two Michelin-starred restaurant Enoteca at the Hotel Arts, Barcelona, photographed with my inexpensive 35mm F2.0 Nikkor lens during lunch. We’ll be posting more stories from our Barcelona trip late last year after they’ve been published in print.