The Best Lens for Dog Photography

How to choose the right lens for your dog portraits

“What is the best lens for dog photography?” It’s one of the recurring questions when I speak at photographic associations meetings or conferences.

Both professional photographers and amateurs alike have a nirvana of the perfect lens, let’s help you find yours!

Photography godfather Ansel Adams coined the term, you don’t take photographs, you make them.

I think this is sometimes the point missed by photographers when focussing solely on equipment.

The first part of the quest for the best lens for dog photography has to start with knowing the type of picture we want to create, and how our equipment will react to different conditions.

When I started my photography journey, I met Grand Master Damian McGillicuddy at a Societies Roadshow in Gravesend, Kent.

Always keen to get advice from those that had walked the path, I asked Damian’s advice on getting started. Like most amateur photographers, I’d literally bought all the kit I could find on eBay and now I needed to make some money from it.

Take a photograph with every lens you own, at every aperture and learn how your equipment can change your photo.

Like a painter selects his paints and brushes with the final picture in mind, so too the photographer selects his lens and lighting to create his final picture.

How a lens works

The first important lesson to learn, is how a camera lens works.

Back to our school science lessons, remember being 11 years old and playing with prisms and light? Understanding lenses means we need a basic understanding of the refraction of light.

I could explain all of this here for you, but even with my engineering background, sometimes pictures and diagrams are more helpful. Take a couple of minutes to review this video from Canon. It’ll help, trust me.

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” — Yousuf Karsh

When it comes to camera lenses, what are our options?

Back in the 90’s, I started out with film photography the body of the camera was predominately just a mechanical box. Upgrading the camera was mainly to have a built in light meter, or a motorized wind on/rewind function.

The focus was always on the quality of the lenses (or glass) that you purchased.

There are five main families of lens around today, each can add a totally different effect to our dog photography.

Fixed Lenses (also known as prime lenses)

The full range of Nikon primes cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm and an old 135mm prime lens. These lenses give you a fixed focal length, so if you need to zoom in, you’ll have to move your feet to get closer.

Prime lenses are great for the pet photographer as there are less glass elements to the lens, allowing more light to pass into the camera. Less glass inside the lens means that the lenses aren’t as heavy and the images are crisp and sharp.

Lighter, creamier Bohkeh is on the cards with a prime lens.

Prime lenses will come in wider apertures, often as low as f1.2 or f1.8. You’ll hear the term fast glass when referring to primes.

One of the crispest, most beautiful lenses’ I’ve had the pleasure of using is the Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95mm. At close to £8500, you won’t find it in my camera bag anytime soon.

The downside of primes – you’ll need a bag full of lenses when on holiday or working to capture a variety of scenes.

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Small and lightweight, the 35mm Prime Lens is still a firm favourite amongst family and wedding photographers.

Wide Angle Lenses (and fisheye lenses)

This range of lenses is an awesome addition to the dog photographers’ toolkit.

Fisheye lenses (or ultra-wide angle lenses) have a huge glass element at the front that helps create amazing distortion in our images.

The fisheye lens started it’s life as a lens used for meteorology. Coined ‘the whole sky’ lens it’s uses included studying cloud formations, but for us, these lenses are perfect for fun shots of dog’s close-up.

Nikon have a range of Fisheye’s – from a 10mm for crop sensor cameras, to a 16mm f2.8 Nikkor. There’s even an 8-15mm Nikon fish eye.

Wide-angle lenses are used to describe anything smaller than a traditional 35mm film lens. You can use them for photographing architectural subjects, interiors and landscapes.

A great use of wide angle lenses is to exaggerate the difference in size between things in the foreground and the background of an image.

Objects close to the camera appear very large, and objects at a moderate distance seem to be small and far away. Crazy effects like Great Danes as tall as their owner can be produced with these lenses.

The Irix range of 11mm and 15mm wide angle lenses are affordable at around £500 new, whilst a Nikon 16-35mm will set you back around £1100. As you build up your kit, you’ll want to include these.

Photo by O. Zante from Pexels

This is a great example of using distortion with a wide angle lens to photograph dogs.

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Photo by sergio souza from Pexels. 

This is a great example of the circular distortion to be expected from an ultra-wide angled lens.

Telephoto or Zoom Lenses

When you’ve a job to do, the benefits of Telefocus or zoom lenses come into their own.

If you are tracking a moving object, like photographing a dog, then a zoom lens allows you to adjust your scene in camera, rather than having to move back as the dog comes towards you.

Two very popular lenses for dog photography are the 24-70mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f2.8. Both are exceptionally versatile lenses that you will find in my kit bag.

You’ll find that the telephoto lenses are larger and heavier addition to your kit. Carrying the 70-200mm for a day of dog portraits will definitely toughen up the muscles.

Most larger telephoto lenses, like the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Contemporary come with tripod or monopod mounts, which make them perfect for wildlife photography.

telephoto best lens for dog photography

Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels

Macro Lenses

Macro lenses are designed to capture immense detail often of tiny objects very close to the camera.

If you’ve seen detailed photos of insects, spiders, ants, etc. then they have almost certainly been taken using a Macro lens.

Just to help, Nikon describes its range of lenses as Micro. This is a historic reference back to when these lenses were used for making Microform – miniature detailed reproductions of documents and books. Remember microfiche?

Macro lenses come in a range of focal lengths and here is how you might use some of them:

  • 45-65mm. A great range of lenses for product photography or images where we need some background in the picture for reference. An example of how we use these, is photographing the detail of workmanship on dog beds around a fire place, or on a dog collar when we need some of the animal for reference in the image.
  • 95-105mm. Perfect for insects, flowers and small objects from a comfortable distance. Often used for photographing lips, eyes and finger nails in newborn photography, we can do the same with dogs. They also make great lenses for photographing a dog a few feet from us and blurring the background, ie. a busy park.
  • 150-200mm. You’ll be using this lens for close in detail of insects and items where you need to work from slightly further away.

Macro photography can also use tubes and bellows to extend the distance of the lens from the camera sensor or film. This allows you to focus on items closer to the lens.

There’s quite an art and science to Macro photography, but we can use these quality lenses for a number of areas in dog photography, recording all the little details, paws, noses, eyes, etc.

macro lens - best lens for dog photography

Tilt Shift Lenses

Tilt shift lenses are an expensive, highly specialized lens. They feature mechanical tilt adjuster, which allow us to correct distortion, by tilting the lens when photographing cityscapes and architectural scenes.

Tilt shift lenses are prime lenses with the additional mechanical movements. They offer high quality crisp clear images with wide apertures, giving a shallow depth of field.

Another great effect dog photographers can get from the tilt shift is the miniature effect

The Nikon range covers 19mm, 24mm, 45mm and 85mm focal distances.

With the Nikon PC Nikkor 19mm F4E ED coming in around £3500 they aren’t for the faint hearted.

Your guide to Lenses

It’s time to recap and cement our knowledge of lenses, so we can start to work on our own style of dog photography.

If you are just starting out on a limited budget then researching the lenses to invest in, is so important.

This video takes you deeper into the range of lens on the market and how they can work for you.

How to identify a lens

It’s really important if buying a lens secondhand, or new, that we can identify it correctly.

This bit of knowledge can help save you hours on the internet searching.

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On the front of the lens, and on the top, we will find some markings to help us identify the lens. All manufacturers – Nikon, Sony, Canon, Fuji and Olympus all follow the same industry standard.

Our lens featured above features a window that is an important tool for dog photographers.

This window displays our minimum focus distance, at the settings we have on the lens.

Using the settings on the lens as it is in the picture, our dog would have to be at least half a meter from our camera, for the lens and body to be able to focus on the dog correctly. This telephoto lens simply struggles to focus on anything closer than 0.37m from the lens as it’s not designed for that purpose. It’s not a macro lens.

Next we have our identifying marks.

The focal range is listed: 24-70mm.

The maximum aperture is listed as 1:2.8. So we know f2.8 is the widest this lens can achieve. It also helps identify that f2.8 can be achieved at every focal length of the lens. If the lens stated 1:3.5-1:5.6 for example, this would indicate that the more we zoom, the smaller the aperture becomes. At 24mm for example we would achieve F3.5, but at full zoom of 70mm we would only achieve F5.6. This is important to dog photographers because cheaper zoom lenses won’t give us the same creativity with Bohkeh at all focal lengths.

The DG is a trade term, used by Sigma in this case, to identify a lens optimised for digital cameras.

Then we have a ø82. This indicates the thread circumference of the lens in millimetres, for screw in circular lens filters, like Lee Circular Polarising Filters. In this case it would be 82mm.

Camera Lens Mounts

There are a number of different lens mounts on the market today. Here are just a few.

E Mount – Canon Mount

F Mount – Nikon Mount

M Mount – Micro four thirds – Fujifilm, Olympus, Sony

L Mount – Leica

There a huge number of lens mounts for different manufacturers and different generation of lens. It’s always best to get some help when buying a lens.

Places like Wex Photographic and The Flash Centre have trained staff onhand to help get the right thing for you.

Using lenses to create your style

We’ve introduced you to the range of lenses available for professional and semi-professional DSLR camera’s.

Kinda like showing you the range of paints and brushes we discussed before.

Now it’s down to you to choose the style of image you wish to create, and then select the best lens for dog photography.

It comes down to an individual choice.

Here are two great examples of how a lense can change the style of our photograph dependent upon the picture we wish to paint.

Harry has been photographed here with a Nikon 85mm F1.8 lens, at around F2.

The shallow depth of field allows the focus to remain tight on Harry’s face, soaking up all of the light in Harry’s eyes to give us a gorgeous colouring.

His body falls swiftly out of focus and the background has a beautiful soft blur as the Bohkeh is created by the lens.

In this picture, Harry and I have been captured with a 70-200 lens at around 150mm.

The result is less of a 3D effect to the image. The compression caused by the elements of the lens has created a much flatter image.

There’s still a soft bohkeh to the image, but we were likely photographed around F5.6 to get us both in focus in the image.

The image is grainy due to the ISO levels in the image and theres little light direction here as the snow is acting as a massive reflector, making me look younger 😀

Whats in my camera bag?

We’ve introduced you to the range of lenses available for professional and semi-professional DSLR camera’s.

Kinda like showing you the range of paints and brushes we discussed before.

Now it’s down to you to choose the style of image you wish to create, and then select the best lens for dog photography.

It comes down to an individual choice.

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