Thursday, August 16, 2012

Food Photography- Chapter 4- Equipment


"The term accessories has come to include a host of photographic gadgets of questionable value..." Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams had a good point. Photographic equipment can get quite pricey and the camera bag can easily become a black hole that sucks in money at an alarming rate. Worse yet, you don’t really need most of the stuff you buy.

Once upon a time you went to a camera store and spoke to a knowledgeable salesman, generally one who was passionate about photography and maybe even a pro. Unfortunately most of the good smaller camera shops are gone now. If you are in a major city there are a few left, and there are some huge ones in New York. Now you’ll find cameras at larger electronics stores and if you’re lucky you can find someone working there who is quite knowledgeable. I found a man in the Best Buy in Downingtown, Pennsylvania who knows his stuff and he’s a very good photographer too.


DSLR or point and shoot?

Back in the days of film I was manager of a small, but high volume camera store and everyday people would come in wanting a camera that would do this or that. I told them that any camera in the shop would do the job; all they had to do was shot a few hundred rolls of film to get the hang of it. A few of them understood what I meant, and a few made a face and still wanted the best camera I had in the store. I was happy to sell it to them of course.

I had this theory that a simple point and shoot camera, in the hands of the right person, could do as well in most circumstances as a top of the line camera. So I bought a little Olympus and gave it a go. It worked, but I found that it took more time trying to make it do what I wanted than if I’d shot full manual with an SLR. If you know what you’re doing a simple camera works better.

Compact/Point and Shoot- I’ll start with the point and shoot camera, henceforth referred to as P&S. Actually the term point and shoot isn’t totally correct since they all have a certain amount of control and adjustments and a true point and shoot is more like a disposable camera with no settings.

The biggest advantage of the small camera is the size. You can carry it with you all of the time and you’ll always be ready to take a picture. I carry a small Nikon in my camera bag and I slip it into my pocket when we just go shopping or for a drive just in case we stop to get something to eat.

You can pick up a good camera from about a hundred bucks to four hundred. If you’re looking at the high end, I’d recommend you look at a low end DSLR.

Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses, and its own little quirks.

The biggest problem with a P&S camera is the lack of control. The DSLR gives you total control; unfortunately most people fail to exercise it.

Digital Single Lens Reflex or DSLR-

Here’s where you can rack up a serious bill on your credit card. Starting at five hundred bucks for a basic kit (camera and lens) all the way up to eight grand for the top of the line body only. Add a few lenses and flash to that and you can get a compact car for the same price.

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. Essentially you are looking directly through the lens when you focus and compose so what you see is what you get, for the most part anyway. The real advantage is that you can change the lens and put on a macro, a telephoto or a wide angle to suit your needs. 

Another huge advantage, to me at least, is having a regular eyepiece to look through. I find a view screen bothersome in bright light.  

So what camera is the best? All of them, it just depends on your budget and how many bells and whistles you want. Notice that I said want, not need. You really don’t need most of the features they put in a camera.

There are a few formats in DSLR cameras.

FX format- Also called full frame, the sensor is 24mm by 36mm, the size of a 35mm negative. This is the professional format and is similar in quality to what medium format is in film. Expect to pay well over a thousand dollars for a body only camera.

DX format (also called APS-C format)- The sensor is 24mm by 16mm, or 2/3 of full frame. Prices start at five hundred dollars for camera and zoom lens and go to fifteen hundred or so.

Four Thirds System by Olympus has a camera with a sensor of 17mm x 13mm.

The Nikon 1 has a sensor of 13mm x 9mm.

The smaller sensors allow for smaller cameras and lenses, however there is a drawback. The smaller sensors use smaller pixels and that means you get less sharpness and more noise. The plus side is that a medium telephoto on a smaller sensor gives higher magnification.

There’s also the issue of weight. My DSLR weighs about a pound, body only, and a top of the line camera checks in at two and a half pounds. Add a lens and flash and that’s a strain on your neck and wrists by the end of the day. So unless you are looking to do some serious professional work you might want to think small. The Nikon N1 is about a half of a pound, body only. My little pocket camera weighs under six ounces.

Lenses- The lens is the eye of your camera. This is where the DSLR shines because you can change the lens and customize your camera.

Zoom Lens- The standard lens that comes with a camera now. There are two ranges, regular and telephoto.

Prime lens- This is a fixed focal length lens, one without zoom. They come in all sizes from wide angle to telephoto and the main advantage is that they come with a faster aperture. One type of prime lens is what’s called a normal lens. For a 35mm film camera, as well as a full frame DSLR, this would be a 50mm lens. For an APS camera this is a 35 mm lens. The advantage to the normal lens is that it gives about the same perspective as the human eye, well roughly anyway.

Macro- Macro comes from the Greek work macros which means large. In photography a macro lens takes close up pictures and makes the image life size on the frame, and larger than life when enlarged. Often this is called a Close-up lens.  

Perspective Control-PC Lens- Sometimes called a tilt/shift lens. At about two grand this is an expensive, but really cool tool, or toy. What it does is allow you to control the plane of focus. I don’t own one so I won’t be showing you any examples.


Most cameras come with a built in flash and that built in flash is just a step above worthless, especially with a zoom lens. One of the biggest problems is that when you take a close up photo the lens blocks part of the flash giving a dark crescent shape. Since we’re talking food photography, that’s going to be a problem. 

Tripod- Buy a good one. Figure about a hundred bucks or so to get a stable platform.

Remote camera release- Handy to have, especially when you mount the camera on a tripod. Instead of pushing the shutter, and making the camera shake, you use the remote. For about twenty bucks this is a worthwhile investment. This also allows you to hold a piece of foam core board for a reflector.

Reflectors- These are generally white pop-out things used to reflect light onto the subject filling in light. I make cheap reflectors using white foam board and use water glasses to prop them up.

My recommendation is to get a moderate DSLR, like the Nikon D3100 or D5100, in a kit with a zoom lens. Next pick up a 35 f/1.8 prime lens and a small auxiliary flash plus a good tripod and a remote release.

Now that you know how it all works, and what equipment to have, let’s go over some simple techniques and tricks. 

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