As you probably know, professional photographers use an assortment of lenses. Having a variety of product photography lenses on hand makes their work that much easier. But do you know why they change their lenses? And what exactly is a lens anyway?
In the simplest terms, a camera is like an eye. Your eye has a lens which focuses light onto a sensor, the retina. A camera, on the other hand, has a lens that focuses light onto a digital sensor which then converts the information into data that can be stored as an image.
What are Focal Lengths?
Have you ever wondered what the “mm” stands for on a lens? Well, it’s the distance from the center of the lens to the image focal point [where the sensor is]. This is what’s known as the focal length, and it’s expressed in millimeter (mm) units. The focal length of a lens is important because it effects the field of view, which is the amount of a scene that is visible.
The field of view is the “area the lens sees.” Take the human eye, for instance, which is capable of seeing about the same area as a 50mm lens. A lens with a shorter focal length, say 20mm, will be able to take in more of the surrounding area, while a longer lens, like an 80mm, will not be able to pick up as much but will have a magnified view of the area it does see.
Because lenses can offer different fields of view, they are useful for different types of photography. For example, a landscape photographer would use lenses with shorter focal lengths, known as wide angle lenses, to capture more of the landscape. You, too, can take advantage of different types of lenses. Let’s take a look at a few options that could benefit your product photography.
Photographing Small Objects
Place your hand about half a meter in front of you. Now move it toward your face until it’s almost touching your nose. Do you notice how your hand is now blurry? It’s fuzzy because you’ve passed the minimum distance in which your eyes can focus.
Lenses have a minimum focusing distance, too, so if you’re photographing small objects, you also need to get up close, where a standard lens might not be able to focus.
Enter the macro lens! A macro lens is a special type of lens that focuses really close, enabling you to photograph small objects, such as jewelry.
Which Macro Lens?
If you’re interested in macro lenses but don’t want to spend a fortune, then consider the Sigma 50mm f2.8 EX DG. It’s a good starting point, and at around $350, it is fairly inexpensive for the great
image quality it provides. It’s also available in a variety of different mounts for different camera brands.
One step up you’ll find the Canon EF 100mm 2.8 USM Macro and the Nikon AF-S DX 85mm 3.5 Micro. They each cost around $550-600 and offer great image quality. The longer focal length, more effective than the 50mm macro, zooms in more on objects, making them appear larger, without you having to move physically closer.
Coming in at around $1,000 are the Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro and the Nikon AF-S Micro 105mm 2.8G. These are two of the most expensive macro options, but they also contain image stabilization, which can help steady your shots should you prefer the handheld option, rather than a tripod.
Tilt and Shift Lenses
When you’re taking pictures that contain straight lines, a normal lens will distort these lines to some degree. This effect can be seen dramatically in images of buildings, taken at a wide angle:
In real life, the church is perfectly straight, but it doesn’t look that way in the image. Distortions like this can appear in product photography, too, especially if you’re photographing objects with straight lines. Although this distortion can be corrected with editing software such as Photoshop, it is better to use the correct lens type in the first place, one that can sort the problem out before the image is taken.
This is called a tilt+shift lens. A detailed explanation of how these lenses work can be found here, but first let’s look at how they can help with your product photography:
Notice how the lines on this box are not straight? A tilt shift lens can fix this issue.
Which Tilt Shift Lens To Buy?
A focal length of around 90mm is advised as this will help you get closer to smaller objects. Plus you can still tackle larger objects by moving your camera back a bit if the object is filling the frame. The Canon TS-E 90mm and the Nikon PC-E 85mm are both good options; however, at around $1,500 they are very expensive for the majority of people.
Best Lens for Most Products
If you photograph a wide range of products of differing sizes and are looking for an “all in one solution” lens, then a decent zoom lens would be a nice fit, enabling you to adjust focal lengths to suit your various settings. You could even try a macro zoom lens like this one. This lens will be able to focus slightly closer than a standard zoom, but don’t expect razor sharp images.
Tilt shift lenses are used on the highest quality product photography, but they are expensive and can be difficult to use, so only you can decide whether they are worth it. We would, however, definitely recommend purchasing a macro lens if you photograph small objects on a regular basis.
For a more detailed and technical explanation of lenses, please see our iPad app Bokeh: A Book About Cameras.