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How to Choose the Best Lens for Pet Photography? (Plus Top Picks for Beginners!)

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Pet photography is a fun photography niche to explore. But, one of the biggest factors that stifle ambitious photographers is what lens to use. Your choice may differ for dogs, cats, feathered critters, and other animals.

The lens you put at the front of your camera impacts the final outcome tremendously. Even seasoned photographers can find this overwhelming at times! Here is our guide to picking the best lens for pet photography.

Two cute dogs in a field
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The Basics: Focal Length, Depth of Field, Aperture

All lenses have different focal lengths and f-numbers. 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-number, also known as the aperture, tells you how wide the diaphragm can open. A wider aperture (a smaller number) lets in more light and creates a shallower depth of field.

Depth of field is a combination of a few important aspects. The focal length and aperture join with the camera’s distance from the subject. It also includes the subject’s distance from the background. In simple terms, the depth of field defines how much of the image is in focus.

Shallow depth of field means a blurred background. This technique helps separate the subject from the backdrop. In most cases, this is the desired look when it comes to pet portraits.

A cute white dog on a tree stump

The focal length and the aperture will contribute to your style and your technique. They’ll also help you adjust to your photoshoot conditions. Thus, the lens(es) you choose will help you develop and mould your photography style.

Think of these questions when determining your pet photography style:

  • Are you a photographer who prefers shallow depth of field?
  • Do you like tight portraits of a dog’s head?
  • Do you prefer a cat in a very wide frame with a deep depth of field?

Focusing on Pet Photography: Manual or Automatic?

Apart from the factors mentioned above, focusing is also an important feature. Manual lenses, as the name implies, requires you to rotate the focus ring. Often, you’ll also need to manipulate the aperture ring by hand. In contrast, automatic lenses find the focus for you.

For pet photography, I recommend an AF lens. Animals are fast movers with sometimes spontaneous and erratic behaviour. Capturing action manually can be difficult. So, having fast autofocus is crucial if you’re aiming for pet action photos.

It’s also possible to switch between AF/MF modes. The faster the lens allows you to switch, the more flexibility you have during the photoshoot. Some lenses don’t have a switch button. Instead, they switch to manual focus by themselves when you start adjusting the manual focus.

Image Stabilisation

Some lenses also offer image stabilisation, which is a system inside of lenses. You can shoot in darker environments without motion blur. It also accounts for your handshaking if you’re not using a tripod.

Image Quality: What you Need to Know

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 isn’t as sharp and has a dull appearance. High-end glass (prime/luxury glass) will make images sharp, vibrant, and rich. Higher-end glass is more expensive but can save you a lot of time in the editing room.

Examples of a higher-end glass are aspherical lenses. These lenses prevent spherical aberration, thus create a more natural look. Yet, the more glasses a lens contains, the more expensive it is.

A fluffy grey cat outdoors

There are a few accessories that you can buy for lenses. One of the best is different types of filters. Filters are extra panes of glass that you put on the front of your lens. The most common way to use a filter is to protect the glass of the lens. You’d much rather have a $10 filter 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. As a bonus, filters make it easy to clean lenses after a rambunctious puppy photo shoot. But, some filters like polarising filters and neutral density filters serve a purpose.

Choose the Right Focal Length for Pet Photography

As said above, pet photography is a unique niche. It also needs specific lenses, which can depend on what you’re trying to capture. Pet portraits will need a different lens than an action shot, for example. Let’s explore the best focal length and lenses for pet photography.

Standard Lenses: 35-70mm

Also known as normal lenses, standard lenses produce an image that is closest to 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.

These lenses are some of the easiest to use because you don’t have to factor in distortion. Many pet photographers go for the standard lens for its ease of use.

Standard lenses also tend to have wide-open apertures. This makes them great for low light and shallow depth of field.

A black dog lying on hay

Wide Angle Lenses: 16-35mm

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 perspective changes.

Wid angle lenses distort perspective, which makes for a cool effect. You can see wide-angle lenses used often on large dog breeds, such as the Great Dane, or horses. You can focus on a larger size or show off long legs.

Yet, wide-angle lenses can be more difficult to use because of the amount of distortion. Curved or rounded glass is what captures such a wide view. This creates an unusual look when the subject is not at the correct angle.

This look doesn’t fit every type of photo. You can somewhat correct this distortion during post-processing.

Remember, wide-angles have a short focal length. So, they don’t provide as much of a background blur as standard and telephoto lenses. So, they’re not the best choice for a smooth, dreamy pet photo.

Cute photo of a dog with a towel on its head

Telephoto Lenses: 70-300mm

Telephoto lenses have a long focal length, so it’s easier to photograph distant subjects. 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 useful for pet action photography. You can better fill the frame with a distant subject at events. Examples of these events include dog shows or agility competitions.

Telephoto lenses range from a fixed to a zoom focal length. The fixed focal length is often sharper than the zoom.

Cute photo of a dog running

Prime vs Zoom Lenses For Pet Photography

Pet photographers should look for versatility when choosing a lens. There isn’t much time during a photoshoot to switch lenses. This is especially true when taking candid photos and capturing important moments.

If you’re going to buy only one lens, choose a telephoto one that covers a bigger range of focal lengths. A great example of a budget telephoto lens is the 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3. If you are looking for something more advanced, I would suggest the 70-200mm 2.8.

A yellow bird in a cage

Prime lenses have many advantages over zooms. They have better optical quality, a wider aperture, and faster autofocus. They’re also not as pricey as the wide aperture telephoto lenses. Yet, one prime lens doesn’t cover every situation. You’ll need a range of different focal lengths instead of one telephoto lens.

Specialty Lenses for Pet Photography

Alongside your day-to-day lenses are the specialty lenses. These can create remarkable effects.

The Lensbaby brand is famous for adding creative effects to your images. The Lensbaby Burnside, for example, swirls the background. Fisheyes have a super curved pane of glass, which warps everything.

Another specialty lens is tilt-shift. You can tilt 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.

You can also try a macro lens to boost creativity. A macro lens works well 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 of macro lenses is 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!

For vintage looks, try classic analogue lenses. They will add a unique character to your images, which can help you create a personal style. You can get adapters that attach analogue lenses to your digital camera.
A white dog sitting between purple flowers that are blurry

What is the Best Beginner Lens for Pet Photography?

For a beginner pet photographer, I would recommend the following lenses. They won’t break the bank, yet they are a quality addition to your photography equipment.

A 35mm wide-angle alternative: Nikon | Canon | Sony 

A nifty-fifty 50mm 1.8 prime lens: Nikon | Canon | Sony

An 18-135mm travel zoom as an all-arounder: Nikon | Canon | Sony 

A 70-300mm zoom telephoto lens: Nikon | Canon | Sony

These lenses make it easier to work with animals and capture interesting perspectives. Plus, you’re going to have a range of glasses suitable for every scenario.

A brown horse in a field

Conclusion

A great lens is an important component of photography equipment. The most essential factors in choosing the best lens for pet photography are wide aperture, fast autofocus, and a focal length that fits your desired style.

We hope that this article helps you find the lens that suits your pet photography needs!

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