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:

The Fujifilm Finepix F70EXR and the Sony Cybershot DSC TX-1.

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.


21 thoughts on “Foodosophy – My Search for the Perfect Food Blogging Camera

  1. Real interesting commentary gastro, thanks for taking us through your personal food-fueled camera journey. Its somewhat amusing that I seem to be digressing lately to your earlier state – that being photographing mainly with a Blackberry. Must say, you are indeed the foodosophy master at taking closeup pictures using utensils. 🙂

  2. We recently picked up the Sony DSC-TX7 for our trip to Italy. I was absolutely amazed at some of the low light shots the camera can take. Hopefully I’ll get around to writing up a few highlights of the trip.

    • Looking forward to some of those pics prefectionist…

      The TX7 is like mine (TX1) on steroids. It has the same sensor (Exmor) and a lot of new and upgraded features. Looks like a real winner.

  3. Yes, camera does not matter that much, as long as you feel comfortable using it. It is what YOU think is a good picture!

    I often wonder where this whole scene is heading…video? 3D? Smell-o-vision?

    You forgot to mention HDR but, regardless of these “features”, sorry, IMO, all of these are overrated features that detract from what you should be doing…

    As for my camera, a Nikon D40. Am I happy? The fact I bought this one again, after giving away the first one should be an indicator! (And that is despite I knew it was about to be discontinued, not to mention it does not have more modern features).

    • I’ve played with HDR with my wife’s Nikon and some HDR software (Photomatix). It’s a cool technology that I suspect will soon be built-in to consumer cameras.

      Both the Sony and the Fuji have shooting modes where the camera takes a sequence of multiple shots in rapid succession then combines them internally into a single image with a built-in image processing chip. Right now, they use this method to take low-light and depth-of-field focus…but I can see that they can use a similar technique to do HDR right in the camera.

    • I’m not sold on HDR from a food photography perspective, unless say for things that are outrageously colored and bold – like a huge, creatively decorated cake with crayon-like tones. Exaggerated lights and shadows works for some things, but for food, I don’t think it applies.

  4. Very interesting indeed Gastro! For other bloggers looking for a non-dSLR camera, i would add a couple of suggestions for things that I also look for in a food camera:

    Lower aperature number (bigger aperature) is important for low light shots, and for depth of field. There are point and shoots with f2.0 now. Definitely a big plus.

    Wide angle lens (on a 35mm equivalent measurement). Sometimes, it’s hard to get everything in. The wide angle lens (28 mm is nice, 24mm is better), on a P&S helps you shoot close, while capturing all the details.

    These are two really key things i look for as well. But I have to concur with Shokutsu – you have chopsticks down cold!

    • That’s an excellent point about wide lenses and bigger aperture.

      One interesting technology to watch out for is the Micro Four Thirds camera which has the benefits of large sensors (almost the same size as DSLR sensors), pro-level lenses, and thinner bodies (compared to DSLR). The currently available models are still too big for me, but in a couple of years, I’m hoping that I can buy P&S versions. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying my little Sony. I’m sure I’ll have to upgrade soon enough given my clumsiness.

  5. Interesting topic! With my photos being the worst of the group, its clear that I don’t use anything other than my iphone camera. I recently picked up a Nikon D5000 with a collection of lenses, but prefer to be more discreet when food blogging.
    Unfortunately my P&S is a PoS in low light. Canon Exilim Z-1000

    A friend has a Nokia phone with a 5MP camera builtin. The LED illuminator was an interesting feature, which made me ponder the use of a keychain LED flashlight in conjunction with my iphone?

  6. Thanks for the journey. It took a lot of consideration when I purchased my most recent camera (D90). I know it’s clunky, but with a 35mm lens I try and be as discreet as possible. Plus I haven’t branched into the world of I’m not totally throwing a red flag in the restaurant! 🙂

    • Just two years ago, you really had to be discrete when taking photos in restaurants. These days it seems that everyone is doing it. I don’t feel so strange anymore.

  7. I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 and it’s smarter than I am at taking photos, although perhaps not in low light conditions. It also comes with a DVD which I haven’t watched yet, but intend to this weekend to learn more about the manual settings. In most situations it takes amazing photos.

  8. what would suggest to be a couple of other models to consider for small P&S cam besides the sony T series…
    i am like you and will prob be needing to replace mine(sony T900) sooner rather than later. wish i waited a few months and got the TX7. of course they never tell you that a new model is coming out.

    i think ur close up chopstick pics are always amazing!

    guess i should pay a visit to the camera store soon and ask what other models they suggest beside the fuji and sony. imho, i found the lumix pic quality the best. but the form factor made me get rid of the my last one. far better camera than the sony’s.

    thinking maybe getting this one which is better in low light:

    • Have a look at the Panasonic Lumix series too. If you are looking at Canons, have a look at the next gen models like the SD4000 (the S90 is in a previous generation of their line – the SD4000 is like a new version of the S90, I guess).

      For low light (which is high in my priority list), the Sony and the Fujifilm cameras are currently on top. In regular light, the images they capture are very good – but not excellent.

      If image quality is the sole priority (and not form-factor, ergonomics, or low-light) then I would probably get the Panasonic GF-1 series (it’s a Micro Four Thirds format camera). It is a bit big to be a true point and shoot, but it is much smaller than a DSLR (and yet has similar image quality). I test drove this camera and it takes great photos. (I might still get this one or a subsequent model later for a particular project.)

      My suggestion is to buy it from a source with a no-questions-asked return policy – then use it for a week (in the most demanding situations) to see if it is the right model for you.

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