Gift Guide: For the Aspiring Food Photographer
Whether you know someone who wants to get into food photography or you want to help someone upgrade their equipment, we've got plenty of recommendations including point-and-shoot cameras, DSLRs, lighting equipment, books, and more. (As you can tell, most of us at the Serious Eats office are Canon users, which is not to say that other brands don't make competitive cameras in the same price points and with similar features!)
A Good Point and Shoot
For the highest quality images, you'll want a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera with its larger sensors and more customizable lenses that let in more light. But they have their downsides: they're bulky, and they're expensive. Sometimes, a good point-and-shoot at your side is all you need. Here are our recommendations.
For true portability, I carry around a Canon S-series Powershot. The newest, the Canon S120, is the ultimate walkaround shooter. It fits in your pocket, has a fully manual mode with dual rings for rapid adjustments, has macro settings, and works great in low light for when you're in a dark restaurant (remember, don't use a flash in the restaurant!), and get this—Wi-Fi capabilities, which lets you instantly share or upload your photos. I use a Belt-Mountable Deluxe Leather Case to keep it with me at all times—you never know when something delicious is going to pop up!
Want to take professional quality photos but not quite ready to spring for an SLR yet? The Canon G16 is one of the most powerful point-and-shoot cameras on the market, with all the customization and manual settings of an SLR, including a hot shoe mount, several control wheels, and a fantastic built-in lens. Wi-Fi support lets you upload pictures anywhere.
A Digital SLR Camera
If you really want to take your game to the next level and aren't afraid to pull out a big fat piece of equipment in the middle of a restaurant or street fair, a Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera is the standard for professional photographers around the world. What makes it different from a point-and-shoot?
First and foremost, better glass. Point-and-shoots invariably have small lenses. Small lenses mean less light enters the camera, and less light means less detail and less control over the various qualities of your image. SLR cameras have interchangeable lenses that let you choose the right lens for the specific job at hand. Bigger lenses mean sharper images, better control over depth of field (that thing that makes the background of your photos go all pretty and fuzzy while that single slice of pepperoni sticks out in the forefront), and on average, better operation in low-light conditions.
Most SLR cameras also have larger sensors than point-and-shoots, which again translates to clearer images. Faster on-board processors mean you can shoot photos in bursts, selecting the best ones when you get back home to the computer.
The downside? Even the most inexpensive SLRs are not cheap, and once you start buying high-quality lenses (arguably even more important than a fancy camera body), the prices can really start adding up. Here's what we use around the office and at home.
A Great Starter
The Canon Rebel T3i has plenty of features, including a high resolution display, a flip out screen for getting those strange-angle shots (or shooting movies!), and decent low-light solutions. It's not the fastest camera on the market and only has a single scroll wheel with which to set your manual functions, but for the aspiring pro-sumer, it's a good step up from the high end point-and-shoots. Its biggest liability? Lack of weather-protection and a plastic casing that feels sturdy, but is not the most robust kid on the block. We wouldn't take this guy rock climbing or on safari (but how robust does it need to be for shooting in restaurants?).
A Step Up
The Canon 7D is the one Robyn carries around with her. With two scroll wheels, it makes on-the-fly manual adjustments a snap. All-metal construction gives it a sturdy, well-constructed feel, with a weather-resistant casing. 19-point autofocus, a movie mode including slow-motion capabilities, and the ability to shoot photos at 8 frames-per-second mean that you won't miss that one perfect shot.
The Canon 5D Mark II is what I use at home for all of my Food Lab photoshoots. It's the most inexpensive of Canon's full-frame sensor cameras. What does that mean? Well most inexpensive Canon SLR cameras use what is called an "APS-C" sensor to capture your images. An APS-C sensor is about 60 percent the size of the full-frame sensor you'll find in the 5D Mark II (or more expensive Canons like the 1D series). In terms of photo quality, less sensor space means a lowered ability to capture detail, which can lead to fuzzier, noisier images.
Truth be told, for standard blogging, where your image is going to appear at most a few hundred pixels wide, this difference is negligible—just look at all the beautiful shots Robyn takes using a camera with a cropped APS-C sensor! But if the photographer in your life is the kind who might want to someday print out large format versions of their photos, or collect them all in a book, a full-frame sensor camera might be worth the upgrade.
Digital SLR Lenses
Any photographer will tell you that no matter how great your camera body is, the quality of your photos is really defined by the quality of your lens. Think of the body as the chassis of a car, and the lens as the engine. Shooting on a Canon 1Dx with a bottom-of-the-barrel third party lens is like driving a Porsche fitted with the engine of a Honda Civic. If you only have the money to get one gift, make it a lens, not a body.
Here's what we like to shoot on:
Inexpensive, Good For Low-Light
Robyn has been using the same lens for five years: the Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 macro lens, which she had bought used for under $350. It's obviously not the highest quality lens, but considering the low price, it's great for providing a large aperture across a wide range of focal lengths, and the large aperture plus macro is great for food photography in dark environments. ...Unfortunately, the lens has been discontinued. Sigma's current lenses with the closest specs seems to be their 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC macro OS HSM lens and the 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM lens.
Slow And Noisy, But Pretty Pictures
The Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 compact macro lens is a noisy beast of a lens first introduced back in 1987, but it remains one of Canon's best-value lenses. Easily better optically than their popular 50mm f/1.4 macro lens, it is super sharp at all f-stops, and shows very little distortion. It can open up all the way to f/2.5 and focus on objects as close as nine inches, making it perfect for shooting tight shots of food in restaurants. Its biggest drawback is relatively slow focusing (especially compared to modern lenses with ultrasonic motors), lack of built-in stabilizer, and an extremely noisy action. Do NOT use this lens during a concert or speech. People will stare at you.
Perfect For Home Food Photographers
The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens is the ideal relatively inexpensive lens for home photographers who want to take great photos of styled food using a tripod. It boasts a beautiful bokeh (that's the Japanese term for the way an image blurs in the background), calling sharp attention to the details is picks up within its focal range. An ultrasonic motor makes for extremely fast, silent, and precise autofocus, while a minimum focal distance of 1 foot gives you true 1:1 macro shots (that is, objects are projected onto the camera's sensor in full life-size detail). It's a specialty lens, for sure, not suitable for in-restaurant shots or everyday walkaround shoots, but for the food stylist (or latent insect photographer?), nothing can beat it for the price.
The Best Walkaround Lens That's Also Good For Food
Take a look at my camera no matter where he is, and 90 percent of the time you'll se the same lens on it. That's because the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM zoom lens is ideal for both taking everyday snapshots, and for taking great action shots of food being cooked or plated dishes. Canon's L-series lenses represent the best glass and the toughest construction, delivering vivid color and super-sharp images in a variety of shooting situations. Image Stabilizer (IS) technology makes it good for low light restaurant settings, while its zoom range makes it great for shooting both photos and video inside the kitchen.
The Lowepro Passport Sling Camera Bag slings across your back for easy biking or running around town and is perfect for the active photographer. If you plan on traveling in inclement weather and need something a little more protective, the Lowepro Toploader Zoom has storage for a body and a lens, a few cards and spare batteries, and features a collapsible weatherproof fly to protect your gear from the elements. The Lowepro Rezo 180 AW Camera Bag gets you the same features, but with a few extra pockets and dividers for your spare lenses.
You know that the very best light is natural, right? But what about you home cooks and bloggers who want to make the most of a low-light apartment or shoot your creations at night? You'll need a decent lighting kit for that.
Portable Lighting Solutions
The simplest, most portable solution is a Canon Speedlite 430 EX II, which is plenty powerful for relatively close-up food shots. If you plan on shooting in large rooms or want a flash that's more versatile for shooting in many different situations, you might opt for the more powerful, more customizable Speedlite 580 EXII.
Inexpensive Studio Flashes
If your photographer plans on taking all of their shots in the kitchen or dining room, you might consider getting them an inexpensive studio lighting kit. The Cowboy Studio 220 Photo Studio Kit is what I use for all of my Food Lab posts, and what Robyn uses to shoot photographs in-house at Serious Eats World Headquarters. To sync it up with your camera, you'll also need a set of remote triggers. The best for the money are the Yongnuo RF-602 Wireless Remote Flash Trigger.
A Reflector and Tripod Mount
A reflector is a good tool for filling in any shadows or dark spots in your food when you have only one light source. You like the way the indirect sunlight reflects off the top of your burger, but don't like that the front face is left in a shadow? A reflector can help you fill that in, especially one with several different colored surfaces to choose from for hard, golden sunlight, to soft white ambient light. You'll also need a stand to keep the reflector in place, unless you have a willing assistant. Get both with this Interfit INT273 5 in 1 Reflector Kit with Arm and Stand.
A Good Tripod
A tripod will help make the most of even the worst lighting situation. At the office, we use the Manfrotto Aluminum Tripod Kit with Ball Head and Quick Release. It's the same one I use at home, with a single knob for tightening the ball had, making one hand operation simple, and a quick-release mount that lets you grab the camera and go.
Photography Software and Books
Having the right equipment is only half the battles. You also need to know how to use it properly, and how to deal with your photos after you've taken them.
To learn more about digital food photography and styling whether or not you're a beginner, Alice Gao recommends Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling by Helene Dujardin (author of food blog Tartlette). You might also consider Food Photography for Bloggers by Matt Armendariz (author of food blog Matt Bites), part of the Focus On series.
While you can do plenty of simple manipulating using built-in photo editors like iPhoto or Preview, those who want to get the most out of their images out to consider upgrading to a full manipulation suite like any one of the industry-standard Adobe Photoshop products. We use them every single day.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.