Still Life With's 2011 Guide to Food Photography Gear
29 Mar 2011

I can't believe how long it has been since I've posted about what equipment I'm using these days. In fact, I've started this post on more than one occasion, and left it idly sitting by, unfinished. And, there is a fair reason for that: my equipment hasn't changed much in the past few years. That's the beauty of great camera gear. A high quality lens can last you forever. My workhorse lenses, while a bit spendy when I bought them, still work beautifully and keep me from "ooo, shiney new lens" envy (at least most of the time). Anyway, there are a few new pieces that have worked their way into my regular gear, so it seems time for a recap.

Let's start with the basic gear: body & lenses. I'm still using and loving my Canon 5D MII. There are some rumors out there that a 5D Mark III may be coming later this year (typically 6 months after the 1Ds replacement comes out, which folks are hoping to hear about in April).

I commented the other day on Twitter that you can make a great photo with any lens, but it might not be the photo you wanted to make. Lenses do make a difference; you aren't going to get the same shot with a 50mm lens as a 100mm lens, and images with a 5.6 aperture aren't the same as those with a 2.8. When you make a big investment in camera gear, it really should be in the lenses before the body. Save up, and get the best lenses you can for the type of work you want to do.


Taken with the Canon 100mm 2.8 macro with natural light via northern window

I've had the same 100mm 2.8 macro for over 6 or 7 years, and while the new "L" version is definitely tempting (shiny new lens!), I'm just not convinced that the difference is worth the $1700 when I still love the quality of images with the original. I use this lens on over 1/2 of the photos I take. When I do get around to a new lens purchase, however, it will probably be this upgrade.


Taken with the Canon 90mm 2.8 t/s with natural light via southwest window

The next lens I use often is the 90mm 2.8 tilt-shift. Again, this is a lens I've had for quite sometime. There was a period when I used it for almost every tabletop shot I took, but I've backed off from that some this year. The tilt-shift effect for food photography (not the Photoshop tilt-shift "miniturizing" effect you see all over the web) is incredibly useful for changing the plane of focus, so, for example, you can get the whole surface of the soup in focus while still keeping the image soft. This lens is a really huge investment though, and unless you are shooting for a lot of commercial applications, is beyond the needs of most photographers. Still, there are shots that you simply cannot capture without the tilt...

Taken with the 24-70mm 2.8 Sigma, natural light through northern windows

The newest lens I've gotten, and one that quickly made its way into my regular rotation, is the 24-70mm 2.8. I love this lens. I've had the 24-105 4.0 L for years, but that hasn't really seen the light of day since I picked up the 24-70. It's a great lens to take to the market or to use in the studio. The short minimal focal distance let's you get right into the shot when you need a tight one, while it's a fantastic wide angle for full tabletop shots. Did I mention I love this lens? I got the Sigma brand of this lens (all my other lenses are Canon). The Canon version is great, and maybe a touch sharper, but I've had no problem with the Sigma and the price difference is significant.

I still have a few other lenses that I use on the rare occasion. The 50mm 1.4 and the 80mm 1.8 still make it into my bag. And on a rare occasion, I pull out my 45mm 2.8 tilt-shift. But it's really unusual when those get used these days.

Oh, and speaking of bags, I have a broad selection of bags to choose from, but I almost always grab my emera bag. Love this bag. Mine is in grey.

What has changed a lot is the lighting gear I'm using. Several years ago, I moved from the Tota lights to a set of speed lights (small, portable strobes). These little strobes are easy to throw into a bag, along with a stand and umbrella, and give you great, soft light that is easy to set up and bring with you on any shoot. And they don't require a power source, something that can definitely pose a challenge on location.


Shot with two speedlights with umbrellas

Of course, shortly after I got rid of my continuous Tota lights, I started shooting some short videos with my dSLR, and once again needed continuous lights. Since these just live in the studio, I went for a pair of large continuous light soft boxes, which work great.

Most recently, I picked up a pair of Alien Bees SB800s for a bit of flash in the studio, when the day calls for it. These are fantastic studio strobes; not crazy expensive but plenty of power for any tabletop shot. Typically, when I use strobe, I use a single strobe diffused with a large softbox. The Alien Bees softboxes are super easy to setup (much quicker than the softboxes that are on the continuous lights I have) as they have a frame that collapses and opens sort of like an umbrella. No crazy straining to stick rod A into slot B. But, at least with the gigantic soft box, it is very easy to knock over (or fall over on of its own accord) even if you have the whole shebang on one of the heavy duty light stands. So, most of the time, I'm finding myself doing a simpler diffusion technique of just bouncing the light off the wall, shooting it through a muslin drape or even taping on a sheet of vellum over the front surface.


Shot with 1 diffused Alien Bees SB800s

While I do love using natural light, and still use it most of the time due to cable aversion, there is definitely something to be said for being able get just the right light just where you want it. Don't trust anyone who says natural light is the only way.

For accessories, I'm still using the same old Manfrotto legs and Really Right Stuff ball head. These will last for years and years. I really can't imagine getting another tripod; if I ever find I need more than this one, I'll be stepping up to a studio camera stand (ooo...shiny studio camera stand!)

In the studio, I have 2 large C stands to hold up whatever needs holding. Some days, it's curtains (or more likely a tablecloth hung up as a curtain) for a soft backdrop; some days it's a large piece of foamboard bouncing light or blocking it off. Somedays it is football cards meticulously glue-gunned to crepe paper that sadly just never really made sense in the shot.

Software-wise, since making the switch to Lightroom a few years back, I couldn't be happier. The latest version is even better, allowing you to make some quick and dirty pixel edits (like crumb removal) before exporting those raw files. I still do a round of deeper edits in Photoshop, but luckily, each image only takes about 5 or 10 minutes of fine detailed editing now. I'm using Photoshop CS4, but I've really stopped recommending full on Photoshop for editing unless you do a lot of serious graphic design. Lightroom + Photoshop Elements is all you really need and will save you a bundle.

By the way, Lightroom added the ability to shoot tethered directly, but they are still missing a critical piece for me... the ability to change the camera settings on the fly. So, I'm still using the Canon software to do the actual tethered shooting with the auto-import hack in Lightroom to import the images. It's a little annoying to have to switch back and forth, but until Lightroom gets a real tethered shooting UI, it's a better option.

Oh - while I'm thinking of it, I also picked up both of the new food styling books from the last year. If food styling is your thing, it's worth grabbing both of them. My friends Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannagan wrote The Food Stylists Handbook which is packed with beautiful photos and practical tips whether you are starting a food styling business or just want to know more about the world of food styling. You'll definitely pick up a few useful tips.

Delores Custer's Food Styling is really the bible of food styling. While most of it covers very commercial techniques, there is plenty of useful information for those who don't want to use shortening and powdered sugar in place of ice cream. The cover price is pretty hefty though, so it's a better fit for those who really want to make food styling their career... in which case, I'd say it is a must have. If nothing else, you'll learn a neat way to cut citrus fruits!

And, have I mentioned that I have a book coming out later this year? Oh yeah, I don't think I have. Well, I do. And it's on food photography and styling. I can't share too many details yet, but the manuscript draft is in, photos are being uploaded as I type, and I'm sure I'll be able to tell you more about it soon!

(In case you were wondering, I am an Amazon affiliate, and purchases from links in this post to Amazon may earn me a nickel or two... so thanks!).

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