Still Life With's 2007 Guide to Food Photography Gear

Yashica
Fun camera… but not what I actually do my work with…

Wow. It seems like I just posted my Guide to Food Photography gear… but it’s been almost a year, and I have realized a good chunk of my equipment has changed during that time. Since the number one question I get from readers is what gear do you use, I thought I’d give you a new peak into the studio & camera bags.

Camera

This year, I upgraded to a Canon 5D. Up until the first time I had it in my hands, I was a bit skeptical about upgrading to this body… torn between just squeezing every last little day out of my 20D to save up for a medium format camera, or holding out for a Canon 1Ds III. Well, in June, that changed. I needed a full frame sensor for a shoot, so I rented one locally for the weekend. I placed an order with Adorama as soon as I got back into town… that’s how much I loved it. Yes, the 1Ds III will be better… and one of these days, I really am going to get a digital medium format something or other. But, the 5D is a fantastic camera and it’s going to keep me happy for quite a while.

That said, initially, the 5D has caused me some pain. Because it’s a full frame sensor, the lenses I knew and loved all became wider… and not just a little bit. The wideness is nice, but it often makes you feel like you need to get in closer… which means I’m constantly hitting the minimal focus distance on my lenses. My goto lens for a good chunk of this year has been the 45mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift, but with the 5D, it just can’t get close enough for a lot of my shots. I started falling back almost exclusively to the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. But, I missed my tilting and shifting so much, that finally I broke down and bought the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift Lens. Great lens. Great great lens. I love this lens. If you are shooting full frame, and shooting food, it’s definitely worth getting one.

Of course I’m still shooting quite often with my 50mm f1.4, but I also added the 85mm f/1.8. The drawback of the 85 is a pretty far minimal focal distance.. but it is such a great portrait lens, it’s worth ignoring that part. I love this lens for taking action shots of people and food in the kitchen.

I also still use the 24-105mm f/4L, primarily for a monthly shoot that I do for Seattle Magazine called Chef Test. Each month, I do a portrait of a chef taste testing ingredients, and this lens is just perfect for this (on a tripod, with sufficient light btw). Also in my lens bag are the 200mm f/2.8L and the 17-40mm f/4L, neither of which I use for food photography but both of which are nice lenses for travel.

Remember the Canon EP-EX15 Eyepiece Extender I talked about last year? I still love this… but I must warn you, if you use it, you will likely end up buying many more eye piece cups. They tend to slide off very easily. I’ve gone through about 5 cups now. But, it still nicer than a smudgy display.

I also love my Remote Switch, which lets me take photos on slow shutter speed without having to mess around with the timer. I picked up a little wireless remote a few weeks ago. It was great fun. For one afternoon. Then the battery died. Maybe it was a bad one, so I’ll see how it goes once I replace it.

STW In the Kitchen Light Setup
This shot was taken in my old kitchen, but I still have those same lights.

Lighting

My lighting really hasn’t changed much this year. I still use natural light… south and west facing windows, covered with frosted vellum when it is really sunny out. And, of course, my favorite free thing in the world: a few big sheets of styrofoam board to act as a bounce.

I’m still using the Lowel Tota system, which is a reasonably priced start into studio lighting. The Tota-Pak includes a 750W tungsten halogen lamp with bulb, a stand and an umbrella is regularly $280. The V-Light Pak, which is 500W is on sale as well for about $5 less. The Tota-frame and Assorted Lighting Gel Set for the Tota-lamps are nice too, although I don’t use them all that much.

Maybe it was because I was reading a bit too much Strobist, but I did venture into some off camera flash this year, and picked up the Canon Speedlite 580EX Flash which I can use to create some nice off camera flash when used as a master with my old 430EX Speedlite. When I use the flash, I always soften it with some sort of diffuser.

I picked up the Lowel EGO Tabletop Fluorescent Light for an additional small table top lamp, as well as the Lowel EGO Sweep Table-top Background Support Stand. This is a nice inexpensive setup for tabletop photography.

I also have a very small fresnel light by Mole-Richardson that I use only for special cases that I need just a little bit of extra light in one spot. It’s fairly dramatic lighting, esp with all the accessories you can put on it.

the new studio in chaos
My studio, on day 1 of my move. That whole shelf is full now, as is the closet (below). Those windows, btw, are my main light source.

Props & Accessories

My tripod is a set of Manfrotto legs and a Really Right Stuff ball head. This is a heavy duty studio tripod… the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to throw into a backpack and take with you, but excellent in the studio. I also have a great arm that clamps onto my tripod for holding onto miscellaneous gear like reflective discs.

a place for the props
Look at all that room! Not so much a mere 3 months later…

My prop closet has grown. It’s really not a single closet anymore. It’s at least 2, although one of the shelving units isn’t actually in a closet. It’s scary. We need to get earthquake insurance. I’d try to describe what I have, but it’s really too big at this point. If I could have it, I probably do. And, I’m always picking up new things here and there as I find bargains. The one thing I don’t have is pewter… must get going on that.

STW Small is the new Big
White is always a great choice for props.

If you are just starting out, make sure you have a good variety of white plates and bowls, and some simple flatware. Trays (like wooden breakfast trays) are really nice to have too. Forks appear most frequently in my shots, quickly followed by spoons. I tend to use the smaller flatware more frequently, but I also have a couple of interesting serving tools, like a copper ladle and coffee scoop. Ebay, thrift stores, CB2, Cost Plus, Pier One are all good places to go to find inexpensive props. Also, ask at the store if they have a rental program. Many places, like Crate & Barrel do, and you can just rent things for 20% of their cost as long as you bring them back with the tags on and in new condition. This is particularly good if you need something like a table for a shot, but don’t want to pony up the money for a full table or maybe, like me, don’t really have the space for one.

For backdrops, head to your local fabric store. You can get some good deals on cloth paying by the yard. Who cares if the edges aren’t finished when they don’t show up in the photo. Also, hand-made paper found at arts supply stores or card stores makes for some really nice backdrops, esp when you have a working sweep.

For a more finished look, I also have a fairly wide selection of towels and linen napkins that can be folded and placed under or around dishes. I prefer simple patterns and solids, in fairly light colors for these… but I do have the occasional piece that is quite bright and playful. I find most of my linens in the sales racks.

For styling your food, a good set of tools to have on hand are a pair of chopsticks (for pushing, poking or picking things up), tweezers, toothpicks, a pair of manicure scissors, some cotton swabs, a spray bottle (with water) and plenty of paper towels. Joe Glo wipes are also really good for little clean-ups. Also, my new favorite quick clean stuff are the Method wipes.

Computers & Software

In my last post, I talked about software, but didn’t talk about my computer at all. If you’ve been reading the blog and comments, you might have seen a Mac vs PC debate going on. You won’t get me going too much on that kind of debate. I know people have personal preferences that make them very passionate about what OS they use. I’m fine with that. If you have something you love, great!

As for what I use, I have a MacBook Pro. I like it. It’s pretty. It goes pretty fast. It has all the apps that I need. It annoys me sometimes too. But, that is true of any computer. My next computer will be a desktop Mac with one of those gorgeous Apple Flat-Panel Displays, which will be color calibrated all the time and more storage space than I can pronounce. Hopefully, this will be soon.

For image editing, I’ve upgraded to Adobe Creative Suite CS3 Design Premium. It’s really, really expensive (I had a bit of a discount through a friend), but it has Photoshop CS3 along with web design, illustration and print design tools. If you don’t need advanced editing, just go with Photoshop Elements. If you outgrow it, Adobe is generally pretty good with giving upgrade discounts. Or, if you are really just getting started, you can always go with iPhoto on the Mac or Picasa on the PC without any outlay of cash.

That said, I almost exclusively use Phase One’s Capture One Pro now, and only go into Photoshop if I need to do something like clean up a wrinkle or a crumb (or, ack, sensor dust!). Capture One is a raw workflow tool that lets me shoot tethered to my Mac. I have a long USB cable that connects my camera to my Mac, and as soon as I take the photo, it’s on my laptop and I can see it full res to make sure that I’m getting what I wanted. It’s completely changed the way that I shoot and edit, and I couldn’t be happier about it. But, it was a serious expense. Unless you are going pro, there is no reason to pay that kind of money.

I also still just use Adobe Bridge for my “organization.” It’s fine. It’s kind of lame. This is an area I really need to improve on, so expect a post on that sometime in the next several months… or sometime after the new Mac gets bought and installed.

For other software, my blogs are powered by WordPress. I use a client editor called Ecto. I’m currently using Firefox for browsing, in support of their recent announcement to start respecting image colorspace info (Ya-hoo!) I also use an app called FileChute, in conjunction with my .Mac account, to help me get files to my clients. It’s kind of nice because you just drag the files on, it zips them up for you, posts them, and gives you a URL. Then, you just email the URL to your client and they can download the photos. You can even password it if you want. Neat.

So, that’s it! Well, I’m surely forgetting something… but that probably means I don’t use it all that much.

If you have a favorite gadget or must-have piece of gear, please feel free to leave it in the comments!

  • http://www.msadventuresinitaly.com/blog Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy

    Excellent! I am thinking about taking some next steps in my photography (especially with the lenses) so this will be great when I’m getting ready to purchase!

  • http://www.bradwenner.com brad

    Have you tried Lightroom? It has totally changed the way I work. It’s like Capture One and Bridge combined into one very powerful app.

  • http://cakeandicing.blogspot.com/ Shea

    This is wonderful. Thanks so much. Very helpful, accessible and detail oriented. It’s nice of you to share your knowledge and expertise. Thank you!

  • http://nami-nami.blogspot.com Pille

    Thank you so much for this, Lara! I’ve just taken couple of photography classes, and am about to ‘upgrade’ my camera and studio lighting, so this was all very helpful.

  • http://stilllifewith.com L

    Hi Brad – I did try Lightroom back when it was in Beta. You are right it is nice for organization, but I didn’t care for it’s Raw tools very much. That could have just been a Beta bug, but I found that I’d get things looking good in Lightroom, and then open them in Photoshop and all the colors were mucked up. Also, there was no way (at least at the time) to shoot tethered to Lightroom, so I’d have to use Capture One anyway. I can see it might be worth a new look… but I know that Capture One has some interesting new upgrades coming, and I think they may end up solving most of my problems. Either that, or I may give IViewMedia Pro a shot for organization. I’ve used it in the past and found it to be quick.

  • http://silvasdesign.com Seve

    Don’t give up on the wireless remotes! I’ve had mine for almost 2 years and still haven’t replaced the battery… and I use the crap out of that thing sometimes.

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us! Just an amazing resource!

    Glad to hear that the 5D is a good choice. It’s time for me to upgrade, as well.

  • http://www.ramblemagazine.com Christina

    I don’t think I’ve commented on your site before, but this is such a great list of equipment I have to. Shooting tethered is one thing on my list of goals — I just need to get a laptop so I can use it for the reasons I want. A very time-saving way of shooting.

    I, too, have spent a lot of time reading Strobist and it really changed my way of thinking. It so easy to get stuck in heavy equipment, big things used for big shoots, when it really isn’t necessary all the time.

    Thanks for a great site!

  • http://www.steamykitchen.com/blog Steamy Kitchen

    oh I need to win the lotto bad!!!
    I want one of each lens!

    xoxo, jaden

  • http://www.splatterfish.com Patrick Austin

    I used to use C1 Pro, tried the Lightroom Beta, HATED it, came back and tried Lightroom 1.1 and just fell in love. It matured _so_ much in that year or so and once you break old C1 Pro habits you realize how much faster it is. The only problem for you would be the lack of tethered shooting. You can do a kludgey thing and have lightroom automatically import off the CF card via the USB cable while it’s still in the camera, but it’s not the same as good tethered shooting. Not a problem for non-studio folks, but still a shortcoming of Lightroom.

    I _definitely_ get better quality out of Lightroom than C1 now, and the Lightroom->Photoshop process is seamless, though I rarely even feel the need to hit photoshop these days Lightroom’s color adjustment is so powerful.

    I just went through the the upgrade 20D to 5D vs. 40D and wound up with a 40D because I really love some of my digital only lenses (Sigma 30mm f1.4, 10-20mm, etc). You’re going to _love_ a newer 1-series or whatever the 5D replacement is. The live view mode really lets you get focus completely perfect.

  • Layla

    Hi Lara,

    Thanks for all your great help! I’m working with the Canon EOS 400D and have the 50mm f1.8 lens. Would it be worth getting the 50mm f1.4 or going for a macro?

    Tilt shift is on the wish list for now!!

    Thanks

  • http://stilllifewith.com L

    Patrick – good to know, although I know that I would be VERY sad to give up on shooting tethered.

    Layla – If you already have a 1.8 50mm, then I’d say go for a macro. The 1.4 is better, but won’t give you the range of adding a macro into the mix. My recommendation would be the 100mm 2.8 macro. The 60mm macro is good too, but since you have a 50mm, the 100 will be a better choice.

    Cheers!
    -L

  • http://www.vanillaandhoney.blogspot.com Erin

    I’m so glad I happened upon this today. I’m about to finish my stint at culinary school, and that combined with influence from my photographer brother has made me wonder about food photography.

    Thank you.

  • Maaike

    I’m going to buy the EOS 400D (crop 1,6). And I want to buy 1 lens for food photography. If you had too choose between 50mm, 60mm or 100mm which one is the best to buy? I really have no idea any more, because everbody gives a different advice.
    But I really like your photos so it seems I good idea to ask you.

    Thanks!

  • http://mangopowergirl.blogspot.com MPG

    Your work is SO inspiring, I love seeing it locally everywhere. Thanks for all the tips you share (I really enjoyed learning more on Digicamhelp, too.) I can’t wait to see what you come up with in the next year :) I hope you do a class or workshop in Seattle some time.

    Have a very happy New Year!

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/food-photography-club/ Thorsten

    Thank you for sharing that detailed information and the wonderful description. I envy you for that new studio AND for having the tilt-shift lens. That is something I really would like to have, but still too expensive for me. And as you I’m looking for a pewter, but I guess you already have it.

  • Dee

    Hi Lara, This is such an informative post , I have a small food blog and use a Canon EOS , Xti , I use a EF 18-55mm a basic lens which i got with the cam, can u suggest a better lens which is compatible to shoot both food and would be useful as a travel gear ? Your inputs would be much appreciated! . Thanks!!

  • natalie

    Have you tried Lensbabie 3G?
    I canĀ“t aford a tilt shift at this moment, could lensababies in some little way replace them???
    Love your post

  • http://stilllifewith.com L

    Hi Natalie,

    Yes, a Lensbabie will give you some of effects of a tilt-shift… just with a ton less control and unfortunately, with inferior glass. Your image won’t be nearly as sharp with a lensbaby. That said, you can get some really fun effects with one. There is even more flexibility than with a tilt shift lens, since you can move the lens to any angle. I have one, although, even after a few years, I haven’t really used it much. I found it quite tricky to focus, and changing apertures with the little discs is a bit clumsy.

    -L

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/w2photos Suhadi

    Hi L,

    really nice share of your gear. I want to ask, have you use mirror as a reflector? what do you think with mirror as a reflector? I tried using styrofoam but I can’t get enough lit on the object (eq. to bring out the food texture).
    Recently I had assignment to shot brownies…. wow it’s really hard to get the texture (if you don’t mind, please tell me what do you think of my brownies shot on my flickr page)

    thanks again L,

    Suhadi

  • http://www.arossphoto.com/ arossphoto

    I just discovered your site Laura, and it really is great! Very inspirational and informative. I was wondering about the “frosted vellum” that you refer to in this post. Is that the same as drafting vellum made by Clearprint?

    Cheers,

    Andrew

  • http://zoranvogrincic.wordpress.com Zoki

    A little tip about sliping eyecups… If you don’t plan on taking it off offten, just put a drop of superglue betwen extender and body. It is still posible to get it off, but with much more force.

  • http://www.photosel.co.uk PhotoSEL – Studio Lighting

    Thanks for such a nice tutorial. I would prefer using a studio flash, as the continuous lights you use may be too hot, not good for food photography.

  • http://www.photographyclasseshub.com/ Photography Classes

    Wow. What a great step by step tutorial to food photography! Thanks!

  • http://www.photographyclasseshub.com/ Photography Classes

    Wow. What a great step by step tutorial to food photography! Thanks!