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What would be the most appropriate lens to use with a Canon Rebel T3i for taking product images of pottery vases and plates about 8" to 20" high? Images of single products are for web use, while group pictures are for printed catalog.

I currently own a 50 mm f1.8, but I'm looking for something better because images are not sharp! Friends have given me different suggestions.

  • Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
  • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

I wonder if the problem may be the "home made" lighting rig. I have a corner in my office dedicated as photo studio lighted by 5000K LED panel lights. I always shoot from about 6-8 feet, and all I care about is having sharp product images. I don't need blurry backgrounds as we edit the images for pure white background.

setup 1 setup 2

Here are pictures of a Biscotti Jar before and after editing. They were taken with an EF 24-70/2.8L, ISO 100 + F11, borrowed from a friend.

biscotti before biscotti after

Here are some more pictures, taken before editing. They were also taken with the EF 24-70/2.8L.

before 1 before 2

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    Could you upload some samples of your actual product images, along with what you think is wrong with them? – Philip Kendall May 28 at 22:40
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    How will the results be displayed? On a website? In a print catalog? Somewhere else? How large will they be? – mattdm May 28 at 22:47
  • There is a big chance your images can be better with a diferent light and setup, that is why Philip Kendall comment is very important. Post an actual photo of your results. – Rafael May 29 at 4:15
  • Possible duplicate of Lens Advice for Product Photography – scottbb May 29 at 19:50
  • Question from an ignorant... Let's assume that I am willing to invest in a EF 24-70/2.8L that I can also use for family photos etc. if using the EF 24-70/2.8L in the studio for product as shown and I set the lens to 50 mm or 60mm will that be the same (get the same results) like having a fixed focus 50mm or 60mm? – Marco Margaritelli May 29 at 22:33
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Virtually any lens around "normal" can be used. For crop sensor, "normal" is 28-35mm. Your setup looks reasonable. The lighting in your sample images looks fine.

  • Your current 50/1.8 should work fine. "Nifty Fifties" are typically very sharp. You may not be stopping down enough (DOF is too thin), or stopping down too much (causing diffraction). Most lenses are sharpest around F5.6-8.

  • You would likely not get any better results with a 50/1.4. They tend to be softer than 50/1.8 when used wide open. Stopped down, they often perform about the same.

  • EF 24-70/2.8L is an expensive general-purpose lens. I wouldn't get it to use only for this purpose. However, if you plan to also use it for general photography, it would be a good lens to get. Your sample images indicate that this lens would likely serve your needs if you are willing to spend extra for it.

  • A Macro lens is unnecessary because you are not photographing items that need a 1:1 reproduction ratio.

  • A 100mm lens may not suit your needs. Longer lenses will tend to have less depth of field, more background blur, and a longer perspective. You're likely looking for a sweet spot where the product is sharp and perspective appears "normal". Since you are currently testing a 24-70/2.8, try out different focal lengths to see what works best. If you are not frequently hitting 70mm and wishing for longer, you shouldn't bother with a longer prime.

  • Solid advice! I'll add... "normal" focal length for any camera is one where the focal length of the lens matches the diagonal measure the imaging sensor. For the Canon APS-C series bodies (such as the EOS Rebel T3i) that's about 27mm. – Tim Campbell May 30 at 23:42
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A 60 mm macro lens would be very appropriate for a DSLR (sensor size) for one dish at that distance. Width of four dishes wouldn't need macro (but the macro lens still does it well).

But move your subjects further from the background wall. As close as you've shown, they surely cause shadows on the wall. You would need more floor space for the foreground paper then, but even 12 inches (30 cm) distance from background will eliminate that wall shadow (assuming you're using a close large light, such as an umbrella or softbox). The greater distance will also allow a greater paper bend radius at the bottom corner, much wider curve there, much less visible then (the greater radius is called seamless).

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Your question is about "what to look for" (a good way to phrase a question since no lens is ever "best" and that becomes a subjective question where you'll find a wide variety of opinions.)

I'll try to describe a few ideas and I'd like to start with what it means to have a "macro" lens (how are they different than a non-macro lens).

  • The ability to bring a subject to focus at extremely close distance. While definitions of "macro" vary, you'll find a school of thought wherein the lens should be capable of producing a 1:1 scale image. This means the image projected into the camera sensor is as large as the subject in real life. Your sensor is roughly 15mm tall by about 22.5mm wide. Think of a coins such as a US penny... about 19mm diameter. It would barely fit on the sensor in the "wide" dimension and you'd have to crop off a few millimeters in the narrow dimension. Clearly your pottery is much larger and doesn't require a lens with true "macro" capability.

  • We tend to think of the plane of focus as being a "flat" field. But it's actually moderately curved. This means if you capture of a photo of a subject which is actually flat (think of a painting), the edges and corners of the image may be a tiny bit soft even though the center of the image may be tack-sharp. This is useful for flat subjects (such as painting, drawings, etc.) but your pottery isn't "flat" ... so this isn't really a situation where this attribute would benefit your work.

  • True macro lenses usually DO go out of their way to have better resolving power than a typical lens. This is an area that may be useful for your work.

Canon does make an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM. This lens is not too expensive, it is a true macro (capable of 1:1 scale close-up images -- not that you'll need it for your work) and it is particularly sharp (arguably one of the sharpest in the EF-S series ... if not the sharpest in the EF-S series. I previously owned one of these lenses but donated it to a nephew since my camera bodies need full frame lenses (EF-S lenses only work with camera bodies that have APS-C size sensors.)

I also own the EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro. This is an impressive lens ... roughly 3x the price of the 60mm macro. While I do appreciate the 100mm macro, the 60mm macro will easily compete with the 100mm macro with respect to its ability to resolve fine detail. For your particular application, I do not feel the 100mm offers any advantage over the 60mm (unless you plan to upgrade to a full-frame sensor camera body someday.)

A 100mm focal length lens will require moving the camera a bit farther from your work. This is fine if you have the space.

I should add that you can find zoom lenses that will manage to work "macro" somewhere into the name. These lenses allow closer focusing but never true 1:1 scale (often 1:4 or perhaps 1:3 scale) and they do not usually share the attributes of their true macro siblings.

Other lenses can do amazing work but you will want a solid platform. I did notice that one of your images exhibited symptoms of vibration (the image was blurred only in the horizontal direction). This indicates that possibly the camera was shaking after having pressed the shutter button. The solution for this is to either use a remote shutter release or use the camera's timer to delay the shot so that the camera has a few seconds to stop shaking after you press the shutter.

I should add a "generalization". I am cautious to add this information since, while it is generally true of many lenses, it is not always true. Please consider this as I offer this information: Lenses are generally not sharpest at extremes. The lowest possible focal ratio the lens offers will usually not produce the sharpest results. Often stopping the aperture down about 2 f-stops will noticeably improve sharpness. E.g. if you have an f/2.8 lens... consider shooting at f/5.6. If you have an f/4 lens... consider shooting at f/8. You really would need to carefully test the lens to find the best results.

I think most lenses with a moderate focal length (50mm would be good) will produce a fantastic image. Stop down the aperture (f-stop) to produce a generous depth-of-field. Make sure the camera is on a solid platform and wont shake.

Your lighting should be fine... but you might consider a few tweaks (if you're up for it). One of your plates had a strong reflection in the center. Simply adjusting the angle of the light (imaging the plate is a 'mirror' ... would the mirror reflect the light source?) This is something we always have to consider when photographing shiny surfaces. A circular polarizer can help you reduce reflections (also... you can attach polarizing film to the light source. Although it looks like you have a rather large light source).

Sometimes reflections can help provide an accent ... revealing the shine on the glossy surface of your art. An accent light off to one side to provide a reflection that you can control (control the location and limit the size) can be a benefit here. The book Light Science & Magic (by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver & Paul Fuqua) is a often recommended for help in understanding the lighting concepts.

To sum up

  • Even Canon's 50mm f/1.8 is optically very sharp.
  • The EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM is particularly sharp.
  • The EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM (there is also the "L" series with IS) is also extremely sharp but will require more working distance between lens and subject. You need a solid mounting platform for the camera to avoid vibrations ... use the self-timer or a remote shutter release.
  • Stop-down the f-stop moderately... consider 2-stops from wide-open as a good starting point and evaluate the image quality to find out what works best for your specific lens.
  • A few improvements to lighting will be helpful (the only reflections on your art should be the reflections you deliberately want to show in order to reveal the shine/glossy nature of your subject.)
  • Tim, OMG what a comprehensive answer. I learn a lot today! :) THANK YOU!!! P.S. Just purchased the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM! – Marco Margaritelli Jun 1 at 14:01
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I recommend the Canon 60mm macro for most work of this type.

With a 100mm, you may need to be farther than you want to be for large objects. I only have a 100mm, and this is a common problem for me when shooting still-lifes. Although for nature, it is great.

A zoom can have pincushion or barrel distortion. This can cause straight lines to not be straight. It seems that most of what you will be shooting doesn't have straight lines, so this probably isn't a big factor. A zoom also won't focus as close, so if you ever have something really small to shoot, you won't be able to fill the frame.

But, before you buy anything, as others have said, what are the limitations of your existing lenses? If you are just shooting for a webpage, you don't need high-resolution, and you can accommodate small objects by cropping.

How many are you shooting per day? If it is hundreds, a zoom will save you time, less time wasted re-positioning the camera.

  • Mattman944 and WayneF: since both of you suggest 60mm Macro I want you to know that I currently own a 50 mm f-1.8 theferore do you think that will be worth the investment for a 60mm Macro? – Marco Margaritelli May 29 at 22:29
  • If the 50 f1.8 can handle your smallest item, keep using it. It is a great lens for the price, some people call it the "plastic fantastic". It is a little fragile, be gentle with it. – Mattman944 May 29 at 23:25
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I am a bit worried about several things.

  1. One image is clearly shaky and that is not the lens fault. You need to use a tripod.

  2. Your camera is 18Mpx and you are only posting cropped images. Move the camera closer and fill the frame a bit more, so you have extra data and you get bigger images.

  3. You say that you have a 50mm 1.8 lens but you are showing photos taken with another lens. We can not see what went wrong with your original lens. Post an image of that and we will see. We do not know if the image is shaky, out of focus, what aperture did you use or if it is about the noise. A 50mm 1.8 lens is a solid lens, so the problem can be somewhere else.

  4. You can improve a bit your lights arrangement instead of being obsessed with a new lens.

  5. You can apply a bit of sharpening on Post-production.


So, What should you look for?

Avoid any variables that can make your image not sharp. Then look for a prime lens, which you already have. :o)

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