When you’re doing product photography, there are a lot of variables that can affect the quality and appearance of your photo. One variable is the focal length of your lens.
Every branch of photography needs appropriate lenses, which vary in the quality of their structure, the maximum aperture they can reach, and their focal lengths. Product photography requires lenses that can focus sharply at an aperture between f/8 and f/11 and the relevant focal length for each subject.
The best focal length for product photography is between 50-100mm on a full-frame camera or a 35-60mm lens on a cropped-sensor camera. Both capture the most enhancing angles better than other focal lengths. With these lenses, you don’t need to stand too far away from the subject.
Read on for the nitty-gritty on focal lengths for product photography.
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What Is Focal Length?
Focal length is the distance between the image sensor and lens when an object is in focus. This defines the angle or field of view (which section of the scene is captured) and the magnification (the size of each component in the image). The longer the focal length, the nearer the subject appears.
Importance of Focal Length
It is a vital element in product photography because it changes the way your subject appears in an image. For example:
- It affects the depth of field (background blur). The longer the focal length, the hazier the background. Product photographers want their subjects in focus throughout.
- It affects how much of a scene you can capture through the lens and fit in a frame.
- It affects perspective. Wide-angle lenses, for example, distort shapes. Foreground items appear bigger than background objects.
- It enables you to make subjects appear bigger inside a frame.
- It dictates the minimum distance between the subject and the photographer.
In short, the focal length allows you to modify the size, context, and visual properties of your subject.
Focal Lengths Used in Product Photography
Master photographer Adrian Harrison says there’s no strict rule for choosing focal lengths for product photography. However, he prefers using a 50-100mm lens on a full-frame camera (35-60mm lens on a cropped-sensor camera) because it renders a natural look. Also, he doesn’t need to distance himself too far from the product.
Other suitable focal lengths include:
A wide-angle lens with these parameters is used to produce a hero shot, an image that helps potential customers envision what it would be like to experience the benefits of a product or service. (A hero shot is internet marketing terminology for a photograph meant to entice the client to buy a product or use a service.)
This focal length allows you to see an object’s surface reflection when shooting from below—for example, a mirror image on the water of a tree by the lakeside.
A 35mm lens, like the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4, gives a wide 54.4-degree angle of view. It lets you squeeze more of a scene into a frame, making it suitable for landscape, architecture, and travel photography.
“Normal” 50mm Lenses
A 50mm prime lens has an angle of view of under 40 degrees. It shows more accurately how we see objects in the real world and more accurately represents what your product looks like. It also isolates the main subject from its background, making it suited for portraiture and product photography. Its shallow depth of field renders a fantasy look with soft, hazy portions, and its wide aperture is helpful in low-light conditions.
An example of a 50mm lens is Nikon’s NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S, available on Amazon. It has accurate sharpness and veritable zero distortion.
70–100mm Macro Lenses
Product photographers use macro lenses—with a magnification factor of 1x or 1:1—to minimize distortion and to take detailed, life-size, ultra-sharp close-ups of subjects. They normally use macros to shoot products, portraits, still life, and closely cropped compositions. Many food photographers take close-ups with 85mm lenses as well.
Examples of macro lenses are Sony’s FE 90mm f/2.8 (available on Amazon with its Nano AR coating) and Canon’s EF 100mm f/2.8 (available on Amazon with a three-group floating system for brilliant close-up performance).
This focal length is typically used in portrait photography because it has an extremely shallow depth-of-field and high compression useful in creating images with dreamlike bokeh. But one has to pay close attention if an image has many foreground elements because they may end up too compressed and unrecognizable. An example is Canon’s EF 200mm f/2.8 telephoto fixed lens (available on Amazon with dual UD-glass elements and rear focusing to counter aberrations).
The Zoom Compromise
If your funds restrict you to only one type of lens, get a 24-105mm zoom. Zoom lenses may not give the sharpest images but make up for their versatility in their focal length range and macro capability. As long as you shoot in f/8-f/11, you’ll be fine.
- Sigma’s 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM
- Canon’s EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
- Nikon’s AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
The Best Focal Lengths For Product Photography
Some cameras, like point-and-shoots, don’t allow you to switch out lenses. Fortunately, most point-and-shoots and fixed-lens cameras have zoom lenses allowing you to at least change focal lengths.
Expert Photography’s Rachel Korinek, an Australian pro food photographer living in Vancouver, claims that a narrow lens is excellent for product photography because it is closest to the normal one. Both narrow and normal lenses are great for creating professional-looking pictures because they reduce perspective distortion, allowing clients to view the product as they appear in real life.
Perspective distortion occurs when images are deformed by the camera’s position from the subject or the subject’s position inside the image frame.
A lens with a standard focal length is 50mm, while one with a narrow length is a 100mm macro. Narrower lenses capture the most enhancing angles of products better, typically at 45 degrees.
How to Choose Lenses for Product Photography
If you choose the wrong lens for product photography, it could miss some of the best angles on the object. You may take a photograph that makes the object look not like how it would in real life or distort the view of the object.
While it is best to use a lens that best captures the product, some photographers will switch out lenses with their camera. This may be because they’re shooting in a tight space or have different types of products and want to accommodate for them all.
When selecting a lens for product photography, you should consider the following:
- Focal length. Commonly used are 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.
- Aperture. The norm is between f/8 and f/11.
- Price. Depending on the type of camera, a lens can cost as little as $200.
- Lens type. Macro lenses are best for detailed close-ups.
Types of Lenses
- Wide-angle. They have short focal lengths from 8mm to 35mm and a wider than normal angle of view. They are typically used in real estate, landscape, and architectural photography.
- Normal. The human eye’s focal length, compared to the length of a 35mm camera lens, is 50mm long. Normal lenses are fast ones that produce a natural look. You can use them in lower light or varied ISO settings.
- Long. Also known as telephoto lenses, they are used in sports and wildlife photography. They have a narrower viewing angle and higher image magnification, allowing photographers to take close-ups of their subjects without physically being near them.
- Short. They are used in architecture and landscape photography because they have a broader viewing angle and lower magnification, allowing more of the subject to fit into the frame.
- Zoom. The zoom lens in a point-and-shoot camera lets you access a range of focal lengths from 85mm to 100mm.
- All-in-one. It is a single type of zoom lens with a wide focal length range: 24-200mm or 35-300mm in full-frame cameras and 18-300mm in cropped-sensor digital cameras. This versatility has a trade-off: the images are not as sharp because the aperture is not wide enough.
Before choosing lenses, though, check if your camera has a cropped sensor or a full-framed one. The answer will determine which lenses will work best for product photography. All digital cameras are categorized according to sensor size, the most popular of which are cropped and full-framed. Lenses are classified into prime and zoom.
Cropped vs Full-Frame Sensor
“Full-frame” or “cropped” refers to the camera sensor size. Full-frame sensors and the standard 35mm film frame have the same dimensions. Cropped sensors are smaller than 35mm film. Cheaper entry-level digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) usually have cropped sensors.
Photographers use the crop factor (aka format factor or focal length multiplier) to compare the image quality and field of view of different cameras with the same lens.
For example, a 50mm lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor behaves like a 50mm, whereas the same lens on a cropped-sensor camera behaves like its focal length times the crop factor of the camera. So if your cropped-sensor camera has a crop factor of 1.6x, its 50mm lens operates like an 80mm (50 x 1.6).
A 60mm macro lens on a cropped-sensor camera acts like a 90mm, allowing a shallow depth-of-field and tight crops, which enhance small objects better.
Prime vs Zoom Lens
A prime lens is more appropriate for shooting products or food because they produce sharper images. Unlike zoom lenses, they don’t have moving parts.
Zoom lenses’ moving parts cause lens diffraction, a phenomenon in optical physics that happens when light waves interact and cause interference. An example of lens diffraction is when light hits morning dew on a leaf.
Diffraction also occurs in camera sensors and lenses. Wide apertures (from f/1.4 to f/8) bring in lots of light into the camera sensor. A stop down to f/22 causes light to bounce off the aperture blade’s edge and hit the subject inaccurately, resulting in a not-so-sharp image. Fine details get blurred at apertures beyond f/16.
Prime lenses produce sharper images, though some premium zoom lenses also give decent results. An example is Canon’s 24-70mm L-series (available on Amazon), which rivals a prime 100mm macro lens.
Prime lenses lack the versatility of zoom lenses because they have a fixed focal length. But they perform really well in low-light situations because they have a shallower depth of field and very fast f-stops. These features enable them to produce the ultra-high image quality that product photography requires.
As prime lenses have fewer optical elements and moving parts, they are much lighter than zoom lenses. This makes them more portable and appropriate for location shoots.
Despite the above recommendations for product photography-appropriate focal lengths, it is up to you, the photographer, who will decide which one best complements your style and what your clients are looking for.
Ultimately, it’s not the camera and lenses that make a fab photo. It’s the person behind the equipment that makes all the difference.