Choosing The Best Lens For Pet Photography
As you can imagine, I am inundated with questions pertaining to all aspects of pet photography and I love to help where I can. The questions that I’m asked most often relate to lenses, and, more specifically “what is the best lens to use for pet photography?”
" . . . the answer really depends on you . . ."
It’s a somewhat loaded question however and the answer really depends on you, what you’re trying to achieve, your style, your budget, whether you’re a hobbyist versus professional, whether you’re a generalist or targeting one type of pet etc etc.
For instance, 90% of my work is focused on dogs, predominantly in outdoor on-location situations and with two Canon full frame camera bodies, which has inevitably influenced my choice of lenses.
I would love to be able to give you a catchall solution to this question, nevertheless it’s only right that I concentrate on providing you with details about what works for me and trust that you’re able to take away some useful information that you find helpful and constructive.
So, here’s an overview of what I tend to use on most of my dog photo sessions. As a heads-up I’ve avoided the technicalities of each lens and instead focused on top-line summaries. For more in-depth reviews on each lens, please check out Brian Carnathan’s excellent reviews at The Digital Picture.
Clients hire me based on my style and my approach to dog photography and that’s awesome because I’ve always liked to get up close and personal, often at, or below, the dog’s level to afford me a dog’s eye view of the world.
" . . . a gallery of images jam-packed with diversity . . ."
Now, although I have a certain style, when it comes to a commissioned shoot, my focus and my duty, is to offer my clients a gallery of images jam-packed with diversity and one surefire way to achieve this is through the use of several different lenses, and in this post I’m going to concentrate on the four that I use the most.
I like to ease myself into most photo sessions to ensure the client’s dog is relaxed right from the offset, so I tend to stand back a bit (or lay down in most cases!) and start with the 70-200mm f2.8. This zoom lens (although quite heavy for its size – over 3lbs) is a real workhorse with a very handy focal range, outstanding autofocus and excellent image quality, and, because I always work hand-held, often in varying light conditions, its 3-stop image stabilisation (IS) is a godsend.
If I need a bit more focal length I will pair the 70-200mm with a 1.4x extender. There is the inevitable small drop in image quality, which can be more noticeable in older versions of the extender, but if it’s this versus no shot at all, then it’s a no-brainer.
The 70-200mm f2.8 is an extremely versatile lens that allows me to capture a variety of shots from playtime, scenic, group, portrait and more. It’s a lens that’s always with me on my photo sessions.
For situations that call for stunning background blur, I reach for my 85mm f1.2 (non IS). I absolutely love this prime lens for its light gathering properties and superb image quality. Again, for it’s size, it’s heavy. That is to be expected though as there’s an awful lot of glass in there. In fact, there’s so much heavy glass that it does affect the autofocus speed. I therefore use this lens primarily when I know I’m going to have subjects that can remain fairly still, even if it’s just for a few seconds. And, I hardly ever shoot at f1.2. The plane of focus is so narrow that you can often see a difference in sharpness between a dog’s eyes. A dog that is facing me! It's that narrow. I find f2-f4 is the sweet spot range.
If I were only allowed to use one lens on a dog photo session it would be the 24-70mm f2.8. This lens, which offers my most-used range of focal lengths, is often described as “the best performing Canon full-frame compatible general purpose zoom lens available”. And breathe! And, I have to agree. The 24-70mm is super sharp, super fast and super accurate, so I can forgive Canon for this lens’s lack of image stabilisation. They [Canon] sacrificed IS to ensure this lens would retain ultimate image quality and I can live with that.
The amount of flexibility and control the 24-70mm lens affords me means that, on average, over 65% of the images I present in my clients’ galleries have been taken with this lens.
Finally, the lens I most like using is the 16-35mm f4. It’s an extremely sharp ultra-wide angle zoom that’s full-frame compatible, very fast, very quiet and extremely accurate and the image quality is excellent. This is the lens that allows me to truly have some fun with my subjects. If I’m working with a dog that’s unfazed by having a lens unusually close to them, then I can truly come away with some magical shots.
" . . . discover for yourself what works for you."
As you can see, it’s horses-for-courses and in my case has taken quite a few years to get to this point. The crucial take-out is that you need to discover for yourself what works for you. The best advice I was given was to get out there and shoot. The more dogs I photographed the more I was able to hone in on what lenses worked for me.
And, don’t be afraid to invest in pro-quality lenses, especially if you're a working professional. You owe it to your clients to be using pro-level gear. And, these lenses really hold their value and can be resold or part-exchanged if they don’t quite work out for you. If it’s a toss up between several lenses, consider hiring. It’s an effective way of helping you narrow down the many choices available.
Good luck out there!
If you're interested in the actual detail, below is my gear list. Please bear in mind though that I don't take all of this gear to every shoot. I pick and choose appropriately depending on the client's brief, the subject, the location and quite often, the distance I may have to walk from my vehicle!
Camera bodies . . .
- Canon EOS 1DX
- Canon EOS 5D3
Zoom lenses . . .
- Canon 70-200mm f2.8L II IS USM
- Canon 24-105mm f4L IS USM
- Canon 24-70mm f2.8L II USM
- Canon 16-35mm f4L IS USM