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My girlfriend and I are planning to shoot some products she's produced as a designer for her portfolio, and we're currently researching lenses that would be optimal for this sort of photography.

I've currently got a 550D/T2i (Kit Lens + 50mm 1.8) but I'm thinking of selling it on and upgrading to the 7D. We're going to invest in some softboxes, and an off-camera flash, as we'd like to shoot in a purely "controlled lighting" environment. So I was wondering what lens would go a long way to help photographing these products. I think we might only be able to afford one lens for now, and our budget is around £600/$900 for the lens (we've already budgeted for the 7D).

To give an idea, most of the products on these shoots will be styled (coloured backdrops, props etc.). It would be a bonus if the lens is capable of taking macro shots too, focusing on detail like embossing or foil treatment. At the same time, I'd love if we could take full shots of the products too (without zoom).

I've attached some images of the type of photos we're going for.

Any advice would be much appreciated as we tip toe into these treacherous waters.

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    Can you explain the motivation behind selling the 550D for the 7D? – null Sep 8 '15 at 22:42
  • You probably don't need a new lens — the ones you have will be more than fine for the samples you show. – mattdm Sep 8 '15 at 22:47
  • @null So I did some test shots with a friends 5D the other day and I got a built spoilt with the added functionality and button layout. Can't afford the 5D but settled on the 7D as a cheaper alternative. Why do you ask? Do you think I can get by using the 550D with a new lens perhaps? – realph Sep 8 '15 at 23:29
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    I'm saying that you can do this with both the lenses and camera you already have. The softboxes, off-camera flash, and some practice are all you need. – mattdm Sep 8 '15 at 23:31
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    I think the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro may be just the thing for what you wish to do. – Michael C Sep 9 '15 at 0:58
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This question really raises several issues:

  • Which is more important to product photography - Camera or lens?
  • What are the advantages of a camera like the Canon 7D compared to the Canon Rebel T2i?
  • What type of lens is most suitable for product photography?
  • Is there a single type of lens suitable for both detail shots and wider views? That isn't a zoom lens?

The answer to the first is: neither. In terms of gear, lighting is by far the most important element for product photography. Lenses are next, and what type of camera you use is a very distant third.

As for the second, please see this answer to another question. The 7D is faster handling and more durable. But with product photography you're probably going to shoot more methodically and use magnified Live View to focus manually, so a lot of that faster handling speed doesn't necessarily apply to product photography.

There really is no specific answer to the third question. It all depends on what kind of products you are photographing, how large and/or small they are, how much room you have in your studio, etc. In general, prime lenses give more affordable performance in terms of optical quality than zoom lenses. The best and most expensive zoom lenses deliver about the same optical quality as primes often costing one-fifth as much or even less. Then there are the expensive primes...

And lastly, it depends. If you have enough space you could use something like an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro. The 60mm focal length provides the same field of view on an APS-C body that a 100mm lens provides on a full frame camera. You would use the macro capabilities to get in close for those detail shots. Note that using a macro lens requires a lot of good, soft light coming from multiple directions to avoid creating shadows with the camera/lens in so close. And any macro lens will increase the effective aperture for the same f-number setting when using high magnification ratios.

You could then shoot your wider views from further back. At more regular focus distances macro lenses don't loose effective aperture the way they do at high magnification levels. If you don't have enough space to back up that far or don't prefer the compressed look that you will get shooting your full product shots from a longer distance, you would then need a wider angle lens that would allow you to get the perspective of shooting from closer to the products. Your existing kit lens would be suitable for the full product shots in that case.

  • Thanks so much for taking the time out to answer. The reason why I'm looking for a prime than zoom lens is, if I'm not mistaken, there's less lens distortion with a prime than a zoom, which saves me a little time when it comes to post - the 60mm/2.8 looks really good. In terms of lighting, I've been looking at Interfit's EXD200 kit: bit.ly/1K7c99V. I think it'd be good enough for what we want to do but do you have any thoughts on it or alternatives? Thanks again. – realph Sep 9 '15 at 10:32
  • I think the 60mm is a fine suggestion, but I want to repeat that I don't think it's necessary for any of the examples. None of those required significant magnification. – mattdm Sep 9 '15 at 21:27
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A dedicated macro lens is your best bet for the close ups. I also think that the EF-S 60mm macro is a good choice, especially if you are looking for something a little wider to capture more content. I use a 100mm macro lens, which is great for small macro work but wouldn't be my choice for the kind of product photography you are doing.

The best thing to do is to rent the lens and give it a try. Talk to your camera shop, maybe you can get a deal. I once rented a lens and the shop then offered the lens for sale reduced by the renting fee.

I'd like to also address a few other things, which aren't exactly answers to your question about a suitable lens.

550D vs 7D vs 5D

spoilt with the added functionality and button layout.

It's great to be able to express preferences. The problem is that during product photography, the buttons of your camera are likely to collect dust. When doing product photography, I do these things the most often:

  • add/remove/rearrange product(s) and/or props

  • add/remove/rearrange lights and/or modifiers

  • reposition the camera

Changing camera settings doesn't happen very often. And even then, the most often used "camera" feature is the focusing ring of the lens (if focussing manually) The ergonomics of the camera are not very important.

By all means, shoot tethered. It frees you from looking through the viewfinder and eliminates the need of guessing how closely the display on the back of the camera is to the "real thing". The additional benefit is that you do not have to place the camera in a place that you can conveniently reach. For example, placing the camera above the products shooting way down is an interesting option, which is a lot easier to achieve if you shoot tethered. You have more freedom to position the camera.

The 7D is 18MP and 14bit, just like the 550D. No big advantage there.

flash (?)

we'd like to shoot in a purely "controlled lighting" environment.

Are you sure a flash is the best option then? Especially if there are many objects in the frame, it can become hard to estimate where shadows are falling, if some highlight blows out, etc.

Consider if constant light isn't the better option here. Your subject(s) are stationary, just like your camera (on a tripod). You can use longer shutter speeds to compensate the reduction in light output of constant light sources. The benefit is that "what you see is what you get". Some strobes have modelling lights for that, but again, I don't see the point in the property of a flash to produce high output in a short time for your situation.

Speaking of controlled lighting:

enter image description here

How well can you control these? Can you tilt them over the products? The heads are big, which is undesirable when setting up the product if they are getting in the way. The modifiers are also big, which makes adjusting them and getting them closer to the products hard.

Let me put it this way: I'd rather have some bog standard light bulb as light source that I can freely position any way I want than the fanciest pro photo/broncolor/whatever that money can buy. I'm exaggerating here, but you get the idea.

A semi-DIY solution with constant light sources and some diffusion material gives you a lot more flexibility for a lot less money. More smaller light sources also provide more possibilities fewer big ones.

tripod

A regular tripod probably doesn't cut it. That's because it's made to hold the camera still. You cannot choose arbitrary positions and orientations for the camera. The legs are getting in the way if you want to get close to the table. Handholding the camera is not a solution, because you want consistent reproducible results. Something like a magic arm is ideal. (Manfrotto makes the expensive ones, but there are alternatives) It provides a lot more freedom when positioning the camera, which allows you to take pictures with more creative composition.

  • Thanks for your comprehensive answer null. I definitely take your point on the tripod, and have been looking at tripods with horizontal columns/magic arm as there will be quite a few birds eye view shots we'd need to take of books/products. We're going to drop the 7D as you're all right about it being a bit nonsensical when the 550D is already enough for what we need. On the lighting: I'd like to have at least one flash as we'd like harder shadows with some of the shots. I have been debating on flash vs continuous however, and will look into DIY setups. Thanks again for answering! – realph Sep 10 '15 at 10:29
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Using a Canon APS-C format camera, product shots and other such still lifes (e.g. cooking) in a home, I have some experience to share.

Room!

To get the camera in a room in the house with the tabletop tableu, the lens can't be too long of a focal length. So don't use a long lens. But you don't want perspective distortion either, so use the longest you can handle. I have prime lenses in 50mm and 85mm, and the 85 is difficult to use in the house but handy if you are shooting something tiny like a ring.

Cost, features needed

Given that you'll use a tripod, you don't need to pay for optical image stabilization. Since you can compose the image carefully you can use most of the sensor area and not crop down extensively or put up with having the interesting thing in the corner. So the lens doesn't have to be that great.

Furthermore, you don't need super "fast" performance either, since a still life can use a long exposure with a tripod and large apertures lose depth of field. You'll shoot at your sweet spot and control the lights, or tighten down the aperture to improve DOF.

Beyond the "good enough" lens performance, you should spend money on better lighting next.

Conclusion

Get a low-cost "Nifty Fifty". The image clarity is as good as a much more expensive zoom, and it has a fast aperture too (much better than an affordable zoom). I have an original from the first month of production of EOS lenses in 1987, and it's what I'll reach for first.

A prime (not a zoom) will be better and far cheaper, so for $130 you'll have no worry about image quality. 50mm is a very mature design and cheaper than other sizes. One size down (35mm) is too wide and you'll not get the flat no-perspective look (well, just barely OK to my eye, on a APS-C), and one size up (85mm) will put you down the hall into the next room. You do get a fast aperture (for other uses). You do without image stabilization (for other uses; it's disabled automatically on a tripod anyway).

There is a Macro version available that's not too expensive, too, if you will need super close ups and don't have a (good) longer lens also.

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