What is the Best Lens for Product Photography

What is the Best Lens for Product Photography
The best lens for product photography is the Canon 50mm F1.8 STM and the Tamron 90mm

Introduction

A camera is only as good as it’s lens.  Make sure to read the Best Camera For Product Photography first before you proceed.  We recommend the Canon 6d Mark II or Canon 6d Mark I as great camera bodies to pair with these 2 amazing product photography lenses.

I live and breath product photography.  For the last 9 years, I’ve been the President of Products On White Photography, an ecommerce catalog photography firm whose goal is to create the highest quality product photograph with the easiest process.   Today, our team of 6 full time product photographers have delivered over 100 product photos a day almost entirely with the equipment that I’m recommending in these articles.  These 2 lenses are our go-to after years of experimenting. 

 

The Best Lens For Product Photography

 

The Canon 50mm F/1.8 STM Lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
Around $125

Tamron 90mm - The best lens for product photography

Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO, Canon Mount (2004)
Around $400

 I want to point out that these are not the best or the fanciest lenses out there.  In my opinion, price should always be a consideration when buying photography gear.  These 2 lenses are the best lenses for product photography, taking cost into consideration.  These are the best bang for your buck.  Since most of our readers are small business owners whom are considering DIY, this is significant since as you spend more on gear, the costs start to eclipse the cost of hiring a professional.  

 

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM – $125

The 50mm prime lens is a special lens in photography.  When paired with a full frame dslr camera body, this lens length is supposed to mimic the human eye’s field of view.  This is why you’ll find it standard as a starter lens when learning.  For product photography, this is a good go-to lens length because the field of view is wide enough to photograph most items larger than 6 inches without getting distortion.   

There are many high quality 50mm lenses on the market, ranging from $50 to $1000.  At a minimum, when shopping for a 50mm, I want a lens that is tack sharp and with low distortion; not a tall order for most 50’s.  In product photography though, I’m looking for a 50mm that will allow me to get as close to the product as possible, so that I can fill the frame while having a large depth of field. Price is also a consideration when buying photography gear as there is seemingly no cap on price, and it does not always equate to quality.  At POW we’ve narrowed it down to 1 lens, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens (which we’ll refer to as the STM 50 lens),  that has become a staple of product photography on every set in our studio.

We’ll go into the details of this lens further on, but you can see based on the chart below that this lens nails every key requirement and its more affordable than all other comparable 50s.  We call that a home-run.

Product Photography Lens RequirementCanon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
Sharpness through the higher f/stops, at least f/11✓ This lens is sharpest through f/11 but acceptable at f/16-22
A high f/stop range, f/16 or higher✓ This lens goes to F/22, a rarity among 50’s
Pass the DxO test on Low distortion, Chromatic Aberration, Sharpness✓ Yes.  Check the DxO Rating
Wide depth of field, even at the near limits✓ A low minimum focus distance so we can get close to the product and fill the frame.
A low minimum focus distance (MFD) so we can get close to the product and fill the frame✓ 13.75” MFD, the lowest of any standard (non-macro or specialty) 50mm lens
Affordable price✓ Only $125

 

The Details

A bare minimum for any lens is sharpness. This is why I like to start my lens comparison shopping by looking at DxO, since they base their ratings on testing data focused on sharpness, distortion and lens quality instead of hype.  You can see a DxO chart below of some of the cheaper Canon 50’s on the Canon 6d Mark 2 and see the ratings.  These numbers are only useful by comparison.  In general, you can see that our STM lens (far right), scores about the same as the others with a 26.  I also wanted to see how it compares against all Canon mount 50’s. Aside from the Sigma, which is in a league of its own, it is pretty much the same.

3 50mm lens for product photography comparison chart

DXO Canon 50mm Comparison Chart

All 50mm lenses tested on the canon 6d for a comparison article for the the best product photography lenses

The next thing we’ll examine is the minimum focus distance (MFD).  This requirement is important to product photography more than most other types of photography and measures how close we can get to the product and maintain focus.  This is helpful because the closer we can get, the more we can fill the frame with smaller items, utilizing more of the camera sensor.  If we pull up the technical lens specs, what it shows is that STM lens has a Minimum focal distance of 13.78 inches.  Most other non-macro 50s are generally at around 17 inches.  In fact, it was hard to find another standard 50 with a lower MFD, especially at this price point.  You can see how important that is in the comparison between the STM lens and the older model II lens and how significant it is at the closer distances.

The effects of a low MFD.  The Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens.

A few things we don’t like about this lens

First, this lens is not made for manual focus.  You have to push the shutter button down a little bit to allow it focus at the ring.  This is super annoying, especially when trying to make very fine tune adjustments.

Second, when paired with the Canon 6d Mark II, the default setting is to retract the lens when powering off.  This means you can setup for a shot, grab lunch and in-between that time the camera will go to sleep to save power.  The next time you go touch the camera, your focus will reset even if you are in manual focus mode.  The solution is in Function Menu III – 3 on the camera settings.  Look for “Retract Lens on power off”.  Simply switch this setting to “Disable,” and it will stop retracting the lens.

Field Test: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

In this test, I pushed our lens to extreme settings by shooting at full MFD and it’s highest f-stop (f/22) to show you how well it performs.  Typically we would shoot at f/16 or below with this lens and pulled back a little to increase the depth of field.

For consistency sake, I photographed this in studio with strobe and very even lighting, with an exposure of  1/125th @ f/22, ISO 100 with a Canon 6d Mark 2 giving us a native file of 6240px x 4160 px.  I started the test by shooting a Macbeth color chart to set the exposure and white balance and use these settings through out.

I had the lens focus racked to it’s nearest limit, to simulate a small product.  We go to the near limit when want to get close to the product to fill the frame but as we get closer to the near limit of the lens, the area of sharp focus shrinks. The near limit on the lens is about 13 inches away from the camera, filling the frame and giving a generous depth of field which is what makes this lens so special. This lens doesn’t have a Depth Of Field Scale on it.

To compensate for a small depth of field, we push the f/stop to its max, which on this lens is f/22.  Typically when we do this on a cheaper lens, the image quality falls apart because the aperture is using a very small part of the lens.  However, as you can see on the example, it’s still tac sharp and you can see printing on the target the third reason why we like this lens.   

The Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO Canon (2004)

This lens is amazing and should be in every product photographers bag.  It consistently creates sharp images throughout the whole range f/stops.  The depth of field is fantastic, even at the near limits.  With an f/32 max f/stop, you can really push the limits.  This is a true 1:1 macro lens, which means that the size of the subject is projected onto the sensor at the exact same size it is in real life.  It’s difficult to find a great 1:1 lens in my experience and at this price point of only $300 – $400!

There are actually 4 models of this lens besides this 2004 lens that we like, which is denoted by the “Di” but missing the “VC USD”.  The original 90 macro was created prior to the 2004 which is unrated and very difficult to find.  We have one and it works great but we like the 2004 version better.   

There are 2 newer model both one from 2012 and one from 2016.  What makes this confusing is that they have the exact same, Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD.  This makes me think that this was more a cosmetic redesign of the brand that seemed to occur across the whole Tamron line around 2016.  We have not used the newest 2016 version and DxO does not have a test for it, so if you’ve had a chance to compare the new version with the old ones, please leave your comments at the end.

We have experience with the  2012 version and of course the 2004 and they both perform similarly, except the autofocus on the newer VC lens is way better.  Just like the 50mm discussion, the autofocus doesn’t really matter in a product photography studio environment where manual focus is king, but if you want something a little more versatile you can get the newer 2012/2016 model.  I will say that I’ve tested this lens in a portrait environment and it does not handle particularly well.   DxO writes a highly detailed technical comparison of the 90 – 100 mm macros that is a must read if you’re in the market. 

Product Photography By POW! | best lens for product photography |  What is the Best Lens for Product Photography | 90mm tamron comparisons |

DxO 90mm Comparison Chart

The only competitor in the same price point range to this lens is the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens ($900), which like the Tamron is a 1:1 and has a handy image stabilization built in.  If you are considering the newer Tamron VC lens then you may also want to test this Canon competitor.  However, if you’re looking to save money, then stick with the older model Tamron 90mm at the $400 price point.

 

Field Test:

The Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO Canon

This lens is useful for small products and detail photos.  As you can see in the example below, it’s ability to go 1:1 macro and still have a decent depth of field is pretty remarkable.  We can go to f/32 and get front to back depth of field in most situations.  It’s a very sharp lens and we prefer it over the 50mm when possible because of this. 

Like in the previous test, I focused all the way to full MFD, which extends the barrel out a good 4 inches. You can see in the setup images above that i’m right up on the target.  The target was in full sun BDE so the exposure was 1/13 @ f/32 with a Canon 6d Mark I giving us a native file of 6240px x 4160px.

What results is this rather boring close-up image of the target above, but this test image reveals how close we can get to the product and also the incredible depth of field we can get from it as well.  This is helpful if the object is smaller than 1 inch like a piece of jewelry.  With this lens we can get close enough to fill the frame with the product utilizing the whole sensor and have enough depth of field to photograph most things.  In practice, we would typically pull back to increase the depth of field and set the f/stop no higher than f/20, with the sweet spot being around f/14 for increased sharpness.

Product Photography By POW! | best lens for product photography |  What is the Best Lens for Product Photography | 50mm vs 90mm |

Many of our readers are non-photographers, so in the image above I want to show the difference between the 50mm and the 90mm lens.  This shows the maximum closeness you can get to the product and how it fills the frame, any closer the area of sharp focus will be beyond the product.  For the image on the closeup on the left, this does not mean you need to be this close up though, it is just the maximum and if you continue to pull your camera back physically, you can eventually match the same framing as the 50mm and still have good/better focus.  The issue becomes that as you pull the camera back further and further you can run out of room in your studio space, in which case you could switch back to the 50mm.

One thing that’s not evident in this test is how little distortion you get from the 90mm lens.  If we were to pull back to match the 50mm framing as discussed above, you notice less spherical distortion around the edges of the frame, however this may just be a trait found by using longer lenses in general.  This is usually easy to correct for in Lightroom, nonetheless, yet another reason to love this lens.

 

Jewelry is the perfect product to demonstrate the power of this macro.  This image was shot at 1/15 @ f/22, ISO 100, maxing out the near limit of focus again and we are tac sharp on this item with no retouching.

As you can see, the pendent looks great… almost too good that you can see the minor scratching in the face and imperfections in the diamonds.  Nonetheless, it give us a great base image to take into retouching.  

This photos was shot with the Canon 6d Mark I and the file has plenty of latitude to take into photoshop and make any adjustments we need to make it look great.

 

Conclusion

If you are getting into product photography, setting up a studio for your business or an established photographer, these 2 lenses are great ways to round out your studio.  They’re super affordable and you can do almost 98% of all product shots at a super high quality.   Pairing them with 6d Mark I or II is a winning combo.  

 If you’ve got other recommendations or just want to shout your support (or discord) please do it in the comments below.  These sorts of conversations are what being a photographer is all about.  

 

Written by Jeff Delacruz

Jeff is president of Products On White Photography. He's worked with 100's of ecommerce and Amazon sellers over the last 10 years. Prior to starting POW! he was a freelance commercial photographer in Chicago. He's an expert on technical photography, digital marketing & sales. He really likes cats.

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