Many of the photographers I know are gadget hounds. They love their toys. They love to talk about them, read about them, argue about them and drool over the ones they can’t afford. I’m not so much of a gadget hound. I have my share of gear, and it will occasionally (ok, regularly) spill out of the equipment room and into the rest of the house, but I’ve made a point to try and keep things simple in my business, and in my work. For those looking to get started in food photography I’ve compiled a list of equipment that I would recommend getting, in order.
1. Any Canon or Nikon DSLR.
I don’t care how many megapixels, or if it shoots video, or whether its full frame or dx sized. Just so you like it and you’re comfortable using it. I know Sony, Fuji, Pentax and others make perfectly good dslrs, but Canon and Nikon have the largest user base and accessory range, and that will be important to you some day. Also, when it’s time to upgrade, Canon and Nikon usually have a better resale value. My primary camera is a Canon 5D.
2. A Macro Lens
Manufacturer branded lenses are best, and of course most expensive. Most of the major aftermarket brands are fine (Sigma, Tamron) but do your research on those first and I’ve heard of some quality issues from time to time with aftermarket gear. I would not recommend the close up filters that screw into the front of a lens and allow you to focus closer. They’re terrible in terms of sharpness and flatness of field. My primary lens, Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro.
3. A Good Tripod
Since food photography is all about slowly building the image from test shot to test shot, a sturdy tripod is a must. One commonly overlooked spec on tripods is the minimum height when in use. I have several tripods but the one I use the most often is a Bogen/Manfrotton 3001 with a 3035 head. It’s a relatively light tripod and a heavy head, but I shoot in a lot of restaurants. Standard table height is 30 inches and sometimes I want to be right at that height. My larger, more sturdy tripods won’t allow me to get that low.
4. Homemade Reflectors
A trip to the art store will set this up for you. A couple half sheets of fomecore, some silver boards, a utility knife, some funtak and a couple of artists manikins and you’ve got yourself all that you need for making reflector cards and a means to keep them in place.
5. A Computer Workstation Capable of Shooting Tethered
Specifying a computer workstation setup is a whole other can of worms, but chances are you’re already working with one so the big thing to notice here is the ability to shoot tethered. I shoot Canon and EOS capture came with my camera. I don’t know if Nikon includes their Capture program or not but it’s worth getting if need be. Again, shooting food requires you to shoot, look, repeat. It’s a whole lot easier to evaluate your shots on a laptop screen than on that little lcd viewer on the back of your camera.
6. A Color Checker
Something like the Expodisc or a Macbeth color checker is crucial. I ALWAYS shoot a color chart on every shoot. This is even more crucial when using available light since available light rarely matches those preset white balances on your camera. Nothing looks less appetizing than a green banana.
7. Studio Strobes or Monolights
These can be fairly expensive, or relatively cheap. It all depends on how much you shoot and how hard you are on your gear. One key factor to keep in mind is the availability and diversity of light modifiers for your particular system. A typical studio setup for me contains 2 or 3 lights with fairly focused light modifiers like grid spots or snoots and 1 soft fill light, usually a softbox overhead or slightly behind.
You’ll notice that the strobes are at the bottom. It’s entirely possible to do some great shots with just available light and some basic gear. If you have the first three I think you’ve got all you need to do some top notch work. Sure, if you’re going to hang a shingle and start selling yourself as a pro, you’ll need more. But if you want to get started and learn your way around food photography this will get you moving. I think a lot of photographers use their lack of funds to buy really cool gear as a crutch – don’t.
From the Editor (Darren Rowse): Thanks to Stephen for this post. Of course his point on Canon/Nikon cameras is probably going to cause some debate (going on past experience). I’m more than happy for this debate to happen below – just please be civilized.
For the record – DPS loves great images – not any particular brand of camera. If you can take a great shot with a Sony, Pentax, Sigma or even a Kodak… that’s fantastic! Use what your finances, preferences and situation leads you to and keep shooting!