I often get asked about what camera / lens I use, so I thought I’d put all of my gear, thoughts and advice on photography on one page for easy reference.
First, let me say that I firmly believe a camera and lenses are just tools. The photographer’s vision and skill are far more important to making a photograph than the equipment they use.
That said, if you have solid photography skills and a good eye, the right camera can definitely help you achieve the photograph you have in your mind. That’s where having the right equipment comes in handy.
Read on for my thoughts and preferences in camera gear, but please keep a few things in mind as you read:
- I’ve been into photography for 7+ years. I did not buy all of this equipment overnight and I do not recommend that you do either.
- Food photography is not my main focus when I buy my equipment. I consider myself a nature photographer first, a food photographer second. Your needs may vary.
- Most of my advice will apply to dSLRs (digital Single Lens Reflex cameras) because that’s what I shoot with and I feel like that’s what most people are interested in. There is a bit about point-and-shoot type cameras in the ‘Camera Alternatives’ section, though.
- I am not an all-knowing camera expert. I only know what I use and what I have experience with. I can tell you why I bought my gear, but I can’t tell you if the latest and greatest Sony or Pentax are better because I haven’t used them myself.
- I shoot with Canon gear. Nikons may be awesome and amazing and magical (or not), but that’s not what I have so I can’t say anything about them.
- I’m writing this with the assumption that you want to invest in your photography as a long term hobby / endeavor. If you think you may just have fun with photography for a year or two before moving on to something else, feel free to ignore my advice.
My typical set-up for food photography
No, don’t scroll back up. You didn’t miss the Camera(s) section. It’s below the Lenses section for a reason.
If you only listen to one piece of advice I give, let it be this one:
Buy the best glass (lenses) you can afford.
Today’s dSLRs are all high quality. Even the most introductory, basic dSLRs are high resolution cameras capable of taking great photos straight out of the box. So my advice to you, especially if you are on a budget, is to spend your money on getting great lenses while buying the least expensive camera that will suit your needs. Lenses stay the same for many years while camera bodies are constantly improving. Personally, I find it makes more sense to invest in good glass up front, then upgrade my camera body as time and budget allows.
That said, these are the two lenses I use most often to shoot food photography:
This is my favorite all-purpose lens. I’ve used it for just about every kind of photography, from portraits and weddings to landscapes and food photography. At 24mm, it’s wide enough to shoot a tablesetting or overhead shot, and at 70mm stopped down to f2.8 there’s an eye-pleasing amount of bokeh for close-ups.
Weight: 2.1 pounds
Canon 7D with 24-70mm lens at 25mm
Both photos: Canon 5D, 24-70mm lens at 70mm f2.8
Macro lenses enable you to focus on closer objects than standard lenses will. They’re great for close-ups, but they don’t have to only be used for close-ups. Because of the 100mm focal length, this lens is very good at creating eye-pleasing background bokeh for food photography (and portraits as well). You might also like that it has built in image stabilization, which can aid in getting sharp photos hand-held in low-light situations.
Weight: 1.3 pounds
Canon 7D, 100mm at f2.8
Canon 7D, 100mm at f3.5
As I stated before, I shoot with Canon gear so I have Canon cameras.
Currently, my main camera is a Canon 7D. It’s a powerful camera for the price point and it’s packed with features like a built in level and HD video. It performs admirably in low light situations and at 18MP creates sharp, extremely high resolution photos.
Weight: 1.8 pounds
Do you need a Canon 7D to take great food photos? Frankly, no. If you’re just starting out and you only use your camera for food photography, the 7D is probably overkill. I’d suggest starting out with one of the Canon Rebels, which are equally feature packed but also much cheaper than the 7D. Remember: I buy my gear with primarily nature photography in mind which has different needs than food photography, so don’t feel obligated to buy what I have just because it’s what I use.
Prior to 2011, most of my photos on this site were taken with a Canon 5D (the original, not the fancy new mk II and mk III versions.) I purchased it at a steep discount in 2008, just before it was discontinued. While no longer available for purchase, 4 years later I still love my 5D and use it all the time. My point is this – you don’t need the latest and greatest to take good photos. When new camera models are announced, it’s often a good opportunity to buy the outgoing model for a fraction of the cost.
I’m not a professional and I don’t shoot in a studio. Even with the best equipment, my photos don’t always come straight out of the camera the best they could be. For that, I use the editing software Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is a powerful and amazing piece of software, but it’s also expensive and it can be complicated.
Again, Photoshop is likely to be overkill if you only shoot food photography and you’re not a professional. I’ve been using Photoshop since version 4 in the ’90s for my day job. It’s what I use because it’s what I know and I don’t have the patience to learn other software. There are plenty of more affordable options out there that you may be more comfortable with, such as Lightroom, Aperture, or Photoshop Elements. Look for software that will allow you to adjust white balance to remove color casts, adjust curves and/or levels to set highlights and shadows, and adjust contrast.
dSLR Alternatives – iPhone photos
If you’re not ready to go all-in with a dSLR (and I don’t blame you, it’s quite an investment!) there are a ton of options out there for smaller, lighter and cheaper point-and-shoot type cameras. I can’t give you advice on which ones to buy, but I do have a Canon Powershot s90 (newest model is the s95) that is pretty incredible and feature-packed for a camera no bigger than my cell phone.
And speaking of cell phones, you may have a really nice camera sitting in your pocket right now. The iPhone 4 and 4s have powerful cameras for cell phones, and there are a ton of camera apps to help you get just the right look. You can even take photos with your iPhone and transfer them to your computer for editing with your software of choice! Most of the photos I share on Twitter and Facebook, and even in a few photos in my posts, have come from my iPhone.
My favorite iPhone camera apps are:
This is my go-to camera app on my iPhone. It’s like the camera app that comes with your phone but with a lot more features. I love that the dual touch focus and exposure gives me more control over my photos. This app also has a variety of shooting modes, including ‘stabilizer’ that won’t snap the photo until you’re holding still. If that weren’t enough, you can also crop your photo and play around with a large selection of included filters and borders. Beware of knock-offs in the iTunes store!
Mattebox works nothing like the other camera apps on my phone, but that’s kind of why I like it. Designed to emulate an easy-to-use point and shoot, it’s a fairly simple app. The main reason I love it is for the one-touch White Balance button. It works great for getting rid of yellow or blue casts on food when shooting under indoor lighting.
Snapseed isn’t a camera app, but rather an editing app. You open a photo with Snapseed and then can adjust it with a variety of editing tools, some of which you can place precisely on specific areas of the photo. Snapseed comes with some included filters for vintage or dramatic looks, but I mostly use it to correct brightness, white balance and contrast in my photos.
This is practically Photoshop for your iPhone / iPad. It has it all – layers, curves, levels, filters and more. I find it gives me even more fine control over white balance correction, which I love. However, if you’re not familiar with Photoshop there’s a chance you’ll find this app overwhelming and complicated.
Other Equipment You Might Need
Food photography is kind of unique in that the subject doesn’t (usually) move. Since you don’t need to use a high shutter speed to ‘freeze’ action in your typical food photo, you can compensate for low light with really slow shutter speeds. However, slow shutter speeds often lead to camera shake – you can only hold so still! – which is where a tripod comes in handy.
Tripods are really useful in the winter when natural light is extremely limited. Also, you may have noticed that I mentioned the weight of the items I listed above. With a Canon 7D and a 24-70mm lens, you’re holding 4 pounds of camera! If you’re shooting for a long time or hunched over in strange positions, it can be difficult to hold 4 pounds steady, especially with slow shutter speeds. A tripod will solve that problem for you.
(Confession: sometimes I’m too lazy to use a tripod and my photos turn out not very sharp. Don’t be like me. Use a tripod.)
I don’t want to recommend the specific tripods I have because they were purchased with nature photography in mind and are not what I would buy if I were just shooting food. However, if you’re looking for good brands I will recommend the Manfrotto and Induro brands as I’ve been happy with their tripods. Whatever you buy, you want to look for one rated for holding at least the weight of your camera + your heaviest lens.
Canon 5D, 24-70mm L, 15 second exposure with a tripod
To further eliminate camera shake in low light, a remote shutter release is a handy thing to have. Types and models will vary depending on which camera you have, but they’re generally fairly inexpensive.
I often get asked about lighting. I don’t really have any I recommend. My personal preference is to stick to natural light. Like I mentioned, this can be a challenge in the winter months when daylight is limited, but using a tripod and shutter release will allow you to shoot for some time after the sun goes down. The photo above was shot using a tripod with a shutter speed of 15 seconds!
Where To Buy
If you have a camera store nearby, by all means pay them a visit. You’ll get to see / touch the items you’re planning to purchase and most offer competitive pricing.
If you’re like me and you don’t have a camera store nearby (or you just like to comparison shop), I buy my gear from Amazon.com or B&H Photo in NY. B&H in particular has great customer service and will buy back used equipment for fair prices when you’re ready to upgrade. Note: The B&H owner and many employees are Hasidic Jews; therefore the website and store close for all Jewish holidays that prohibit work, including Shabbat (sunset Friday through Saturday night).
A word of caution: Beware of deals online that seem too good to be true! They usually are. There are many websites and “companies” online who sell dSLR packages for outrageously low prices, only to scam you into spending even more once they’ve got you on the hook. Stick to retailers you know and trust.
I think it’s fair to say most of us aren’t born knowing how to be food photographers. It’s a learning process, one I’m still very much in myself. Fortunately there are a lot of resources out there to help us along!
Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling is an extremely informative, easy to read book by incredibly talented photographer and blogger Helene Dujardin of Tartelette. It covers everything from camera settings to props. I can’t recommend it enough.
There are a lot of other very helpful bloggers out there too. Here are a few posts from fellow bloggers that I find useful:
So that’s about it! Hopefully I’ve answered all of your burning questions, but if there’s anything else you’d like to know please ask below and I’ll do my best to get you an answer. And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photography, please visit my photography site T. Sullivan Photography.