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How to Pick the Right Lens for Pet Photography

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Pet photography is an incredibly fun photography type to get into! However, one of the biggest factors that stifle ambitious photographers is what lens to use to photograph dogs, cats, even feathered critters.
The glass you put at the front of your camera impacts the final outcome tremendously, and this can be overwhelming sometimes. Here is our guide to picking the best lens for pet photography!
A puppy sitting on a road in front of blurred houses
The lens is arguably the most important aspect of photography. Time and time again, the debate of whether or not to upgrade the camera body or the camera lens results in a new lens.
This is because the camera lens determines most of the quality and ease-of-shooting: way more than the camera. The lens also influences the final product significantly more. Although they can be very expensive, you also have the option of buying used lenses.

Part 1: The Parts of a Lens

All lenses have different focal lengths and f/stops. The focal length is the distance between the lens and its focus. It affects the perspective (for example, a focal length for a 16mm lens will show a much wider frame than a 200mm lens).
The f/stop, also known as the aperture, tells you how wide the lens can open. The wider the aperture (which means the number is smaller), the more light it lets in and the shallower the depth of field. The smaller the aperture (the larger the number), the less light it lets in and the deeper the depth of field.
A dog jumping over an obstacle
The focal length and the aperture will contribute significantly to your style, your technique, and your photo shoot condition(s).
The lens(es) you choose will help you develop and mould your photography style. Are you a photographer that likes shallow depth of field? Do you like tight portraits of a dog’s head? Or do you prefer a cat in a very wide frame with a deep depth of field?
All of these take effect based on your lens of choice. The focal length and how much light the lens lets in will greatly impact how you take the picture. A zoom lens might have you stand in the far background taking pictures that won’t disturb the energetic puppy, while a short lens will likely have you right in the horse’s face!
Your shooting conditions are the location, time of day, and size of the shooting space that you determine based on the capability of your gear.
Lenses are categorised in several ways:

  • can the focal length be adjusted (zoom lenses v. fixed lenses)?
  • is the focus manual or automatic?
  • what type of lens is it (standard, wide angle, telephoto, etc.)
  • can the lens create some form of special effect?

Other distinctions include whether or not the lens has a built-in stabilisation system, an ultrasonic motor, luxury glass, or any other additional benefit.
Two dogs sitting side by side on a road in front of blurred houses
Lenses that can zoom and fixed lenses both have their positives and negatives. The pros of a zoom lens is its adaptability. You can go from a wide shot to a tighter shot in seconds. However, the downside is that depending on the lens, your sharpness might be effected when you zoom in.
A fixed lens is known known to be much sharper and generally higher quality than a zoom lens. However, fixed lenses have limitations as well. Their focal length cannot be adjusted. You constantly have to change your physical position to adhere to your desired composition.
Manual lenses, as the name implies, requires you to rotate the focus ring by hand. Automatic lenses focus for you. Nowadays, most lenses are automatic. But many artistic and effect lenses are manual, due to the produced effect.
For pet photography, I prefer an automatic focus lens and would strongly recommend it. Animals move so quickly, spontaneously, and erratically, capturing action manually can be extremely difficult.
A white wolf-like dog sitting on rocks howling
Additional features, such as image stabilisation and quiet motors, affect the ease-of-shooting and capability of the lens. Image stabilisation systems inside of lenses allow you to shoot in darker conditions without motion blur.
They also account for your hand shaking if you are not using a tripod. The motors impact how quickly your camera focuses and determines how loud your lens is.
The glass in a lens is what influences the final look of an image. There are different types of glass, revolving around the quality. Lower end glass tends to not be very sharp and have a dull appearance. High end glass (prime / luxury glass) will make images sharp, vibrant, and rich.
Higher end glass is significantly more expensive, but can save you a lot of time in the editing room.
A border collie with a smaller dog sitting next to it on a road in front of blurred trees
Lenses also have their share of accessories that you can purchase, the best of which are filters. Filters are additional panes of glass that you screw or attach on to the front of your lens. The most common way to use a filter is to protect the glass of the lens, for you’d much rather a $10 filter be cracked than a $1,000 lens!
This is especially true for pet photography, where dog noses and cat claws might find the front of your lens. A bonus to filters is that they also makes cleaning lenses easier right after a rambunctious puppy photo shoot. However, there are also filters with purposes, such as polarising filters and neutral density filters.
Polarising filters reduce glare from reflected surfaces. They work by being made up of specially adapted glass that when turned at an angle to a light source will reduce glare. This is very useful in animal photography when you’re working with many reflective surfaces or when the sun is low in the sky.
Two smaller sized dogs sitting and one laying in front of a labrador in a forest road
Neutral density filters are filters that can modify the amount of light that enters your camera. This allows you to shoot at your desired aperture without worrying about it being too bright outside.
ND filters make life a thousand times easier if you have to photograph a white or light coloured pet outside in bright sunlight! Or to be able to shoot with a very low aperture number during the noon sun.
The reason for this detailed breakdown of the lens is because all of the aforementioned will factor into choosing the right type of gear for your pet photography. Keeping all of this in mind, here are the different types of lenses and what they are best used for!
A wet dog standing in a river in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

Part 2: Types of Lenses

Standard Lenses

Also known as normal lenses, standard lenses are ones which produce an image that roughly matches what the human eye sees. The image looks natural to the viewer.
Standard lenses have an angle of view of around 50 to 55 degrees diagonally. They are some of the easiest lenses to use, because you do not have to factor in any form of distortion. When you can take a picture of something exactly as your eye sees it, composition becomes easier as well.
Many pet photographers go for the standard lens for its ease of use. Not to mention that many pet owners love having their furry one captured in the perspective that they see, without risking the pet’s proportions.
Standard lenses also tend to have wide open apertures, making them great for low light and shallow depth of field. An awesome standard lens focal length is the 50mm.
A smaller dog standing on a tree trunk in a forest with its fur blowing in the wind

Wide Angle Lenses

Wide angle lenses, as the name implies, have a much wider view than normal lenses. You can get super creative and play with angles and compositions.
Wind angle lenses distort perspective significantly, which makes for a cool effect. You can see wide angle lenses used often on large dog breeds such as the Great Dane to accentuate the dog’s massive size, and on horses to show off their long legs.
However, wide angle lenses can be more difficult to use because of the amount of distortion. In order to capture such a wide view, the glass of the lens is curved or rounded. This creates an unusual look when the subject is not at the correct angle. Common wide angle lens focal length is the 16 -35mm.
A wet dog standing on a tree trunk in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

Telephoto Lenses

With telephoto lenses, or long lenses, you can photograph distant subjects easily. This is due to how long their focal length is. These have become an absolute go-to for pet photographers!
The photographer can sit far back and not disturb the pet while taking pictures. Telephoto lenses are also extremely useful for action photography. They are also popular in portrait and macro photography as they produce a natural perspective free from the distortion caused by using a wide angle lens.
Telephoto lenses can range from a fixed to a zoom focal length, with the fixed generally being sharper than the zoom. An absolute favourite among animal photographers is the 70 – 200mm.
A medium-sized dog holding a wooden stick in his mouth while walking on wet ground

Macro Lenses

A macro lens is designed for photographing small subjects at very close distances. As a pet photographer, you can capture lots of detail in ultra-sharp focus.
A big benefit to the macro lens is the fact that their focusing limit is very close to the glass. You can capture those fun shots of the dog or cat coming right up to the glass of your lens!
A puppy laying in grass encompassed in light

Speciality Lenses

Alongside your day-to-day lenses are the speciality lenses. These can either create an effect or do something unusually remarkable.
The Lensbaby brand is famous for having speciality lenses that do weird and creative things to your images. The Lensbaby Burnside, for example, swirls the background like a Petzval objective.
The fisheye, an extremely wide angle lens that has a super curved pane of glass, heavily warps everything. A very fish-bowl effect.
Another speciality lens is the tilt-shift. You can tilt and/or shift the optics of this lens in relation to the image sensor. You can tilt up and down and shift side to side individually.
The cool thing about a tilt shift is that it allows you full control over the perspective. You can fix the perspective with a tilt shift or alter it to be even more imaginative. Make big objects small and small objects big, fix crooked walls, and so much more. Many architectural photographers love a good tilt shift for this reason.
A white dog sitting between purple flowers that are blurry
So get on out there, pick up your favourite lenses, grab your dog or a friend’s cat, and start shooting!

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