Foodosophy – My Search for the Perfect Food Blogging Camera
I was bitten by the photographic food blogging bug when I was given a Blackberry by my former employers about two years ago. It had a crappy built-in camera which took equally crappy pictures – but the Blackberry was enough to get the ball rolling. (The Blackberry has a lo-fi aesthetic that I really like, actually. The images are grainy and washed out, yet there is something very “immediate” about them:)
It’s quite funny looking back how I never really considered taking photos of food until that time. In my travels through Asia many years ago, I carried an inexpensive pre-digital Point and Shoot camera and the only real pictures I had of food were of food stalls and markets. I took hundreds of shots…and the photos were mostly of the typical “tourist” shot. (I have since been back through Asia a few times for business, but my photography was limited due to my obligations).
Since that Blackberry, I had upgraded to my first real digital camera – an inexpensive blue Fujifilm Finepix Z10fd. It looks more like a girl’s lipstick case than a camera. I was fairly happy with my choice – though I never really thought about what would make a good food blogger’s camera when I purchased it. It was the right price (ie “cheap”). I have since become used to the ergonomics imposed by this little camera. (Note that my wife, who is a professional photographer and photography instructor has a nice Nikon DSLR so I do have access to a much “better” device than this Fuji).
I particularly liked that it quite comfortably fits in my pocket. It is so small and light, that I could bring it with me anywhere. It is also designed for the novice photographer, so it is quite easy to use. The camera settings are simplistic and easy to change. I had also managed to develop a few techniques that I now use each time I take photographs of food. Perhaps my favourite technique is this first-person point-of-view close up:
To make this shot, I hold the camera with one hand on a Macro setting and position my finger so I can press the button without too much movement. The camera’s auto-focus does the fine work after that. I have tried this shot with a DSLR, but I found it quite difficult. The DLSR we have is designed for a right-handed person…I can only hold chopsticks with my right hand so this type of shot is nearly impossible for me to achieve.
I also have an iPhone which has a built-in camera. Once in a while I do forget to bring my Fuji and I am forced to take a photo with my iPhone. Sometimes depending on circumstances , I would choose to use the iPhone because of its more discrete form. The results are mixed. The cheap optics and poor electronics make for often blurry shots…especially in the dark. With the right lighting conditions, it can take some surprisingly decent, albeit soft and unremarkable shots. It does have its own aesthetic – almost painterly:
Both these cameras have always had a problem in the dark. Shooting in the dark is the bane of a food blogger. My favourite photos are taken at lunchtime sitting next to a bright window. The first thing I do when I enter a restaurant is scope out the brightest table to ensure the most light:
At night, I look for a table with perhaps a spotlight or even candles:
But more often than not, I rely on the law of averages to get a decent shot at night. Most night shots, in reality, look more like this:
Despite my dissatisfaction, I didn’t bother upgrading my camera as I had other priorities. One day, I accidentally dropped my beloved Fuji on a cement sidewalk. It was slightly damaged, and now all my shots were slightly blurry and my closeup shots were nearly unusable. My trusty Fuji (according to my iPhoto software) has taken over 15,000 shots – most them were of food. Now it was damaged beyond repair. It was time to retire it.
By now, I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted in a food-blogging camera.
- It needs to be small, light and portable. Small enough to fit in my pants pocket. (Thus, DSLR’s or Micro Four Thirds cameras are too big.)
- It needs to be easy to use. The ergonomics of the camera controls (physical buttons and virtual on-screen controls) need to be designed to make it quick to set up the shot.
- It needs to have good Low-Light capabilities. Most food photography happens in the evening…often in dark restaurants.
- It needs to be have a decent Close-up (Macro) capabilities.
- It needs to be nondescript. Ideally, it looks like a cellphone for stealth.
- It needs to be quick – especially in terms of auto-focus, lag time after pressing the shutter button (“shutter lag”) and lag time between each shot (“cycle time”).
- It needs to have decent image quality. (I don’t need it to have “excellent” image quality…but subjectively good enough to my eyes).
Upon doing a bit of research, I realized that the “low-light” requirement is being addressed by a number of companies in their Point and Shoot range. Namely Fuji (my personal front-runner) and Sony. My shortlist came down to:
At the time, the Sony cost over $100 more than the Fuji…and after pondering it briefly I purchased the Fuji. I had it for a couple of weeks. It was a fine camera…arguably a more well rounded camera than the Sony and it designed for a more advanced user that the Sony’s target user. The Fuji F70EXR was certainly highly rated by all the sales guys I chatted with. It had a more capable zoom, far more customization and expert-level settings than the Sony, and perhaps better image quality overall. After the first few days, I was quite happy with my purchase. This camera manages to capture some interesting images:
After about a week…I was starting to experience buyer’s remorse. I could not get used to the telescoping zoom lens. My old Fuji z10fd’s zooming mechanism was entirely inside the body of the camera. In this new camera, the lens extended and contracted as you zoomed. It’s effect on the ergonomics was to make it harder for me to shoot certain shots – especially the close-ups. I didn’t think I could get used to it.
Also, I found that I struggled with the more robust controls on the new camera. Being a bit of a geek, I thought that I would enjoy manually setting Aperture, Shutter Speed, and all of that. In practice, I actually hated it. I just wanted to take a shot and sheer number of settings just became an unproductive distraction. I also found that couldn’t get an image I was happy with. So after using it for a couple of weeks, I returned it an purchased the Sony DSC TX-1 instead. (Thus: buy your camera from a store with a good return policy.)
I love this thing. It’s physical form is closer to my old Fuji z10fd – slim, has a sliding cover, internal zoom, “novice” controls, etc. It has a very similar feature set to the Fuji F70EXR, but I found it easier to access them – especially with the Sony’s touchscreen. I was able to take shots that I was happy with. If I leave it on “Anti-blur” mode, I am able to take virtually blur free shots in any lighting condition. Though I had never carried a tripod, this effective anti-blur feature now further obviates them.
It also has a nifty panorama feature that is much easier to use than the Fuji F70EXR’s. I don’t use the panorama feature much, but a comparison between the designs of Sony’s panorama user-interface compared the Fuji’s illustrates the difference in approach in ergonomics and ease-of-use between these two cameras. (Test drive them yourself to see what I mean). In terms of ease of use, I felt that the Sony was better designed. Subjectively, the image quality is just great (to me) and very usable. I can certainly see that my wife’s Nikon DSLR creates far superior images, so I am in no delusion about the Sony’s capabilities. And indeed the Fuji F70EXR’s image quality may be better than the Sony’s.
Perhaps I never gave the Fuji F70EXR are fair shake. It is designed for the advanced user – something I thought I was, but really wasn’t. I could have become accustomed to the more sophisticated controls and physical form with time, I suppose. But I have no remorse, I’m still happy with the Sony and would recommend it to anyone. Despite this blog post’s title, the Sony DSC TX-1 isn’t a “Perfect Food Blogging Camera”…but it is close enough (…for me).
I wrote this article not really to recommend any particular camera – I wrote to illustrate my personal decision making process. I thought it might help someone who is currently shopping for a camera – specifically for food blogging. I avoided talking about the technical details and I tried to focus on understanding my requirements….many of them subjective and intangible in nature. Ultimately, I chose a camera based on mainly these subjective criteria.
I see some astounding amateur food photography here these days. It is such an active and obsessive but generous and collaborative community. I often wonder where this whole scene is heading…video? 3D? Smell-o-vision?
What do you use for food photography? Are you happy with your camera?
Postscript – Fuji is new selling new iteration of their novice Finepix “Z” line. The Fuji Z700EXR has a similar form factor and feature set to the Sony DSC TX-1 and for about $100 cheaper. If this was available back then, I would have probably purchased that instead. It looks pretty nice. Test drive it first.