Choosing the best lens for pet photography

Lens choice consists of so much more then the distance to your subject, it can drastically affect the entire look and feel of your image. First, lets go over the common lens focal lengths….. Fisheye or Ultra-Wide Angle: 8-15mm. These lenses have a 180-degree view and they drastically distort the environment by bending buildings, trees, […]

Written By Nicole Begley

On November 11, 2014

Lens choice consists of so much more then the distance to your subject, it can drastically affect the entire look and feel of your image.

First, lets go over the common lens focal lengths…..

Fisheye or Ultra-Wide Angle: 8-15mm.

These lenses have a 180-degree view and they drastically distort the environment by bending buildings, trees, or the earth itself. These lenses are challenging to shoot with as they will pull and distort any part of the subject that is near the edge of the frame.  (I rarely shoot in sessions with this lens, but it is fun to play with at the beach…..hence, an image of my daughter instead of a furry four-legger.)

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One notable exception to the fish-eye effect is the Canon 11-24 f/4 lens.  This is an ultra-wide angle lens but it doesn't have the crazy distortion of the fish-eye.

Wide-Angle: 24-35mm

Distortion is still present in these lenses, but not to the cartoonish effect of the fisheye lens. It pays to always be aware of where your subjects are in the frame if using a wide-angle lens. Distorted dog…funny. Distorted owner…not so much. This is a great lens for capturing environmental portraits or for getting up-close to your four-legged subject to create a bobble-head effect.

Normal Lens: 50mm

A 50mm lens is called a “normal” lens because it most closely mimics how the human eye sees the world. This lens is good for shooting portraits in limited spaces when you can’t have a longer focal length and the lenses with a large aperture opening of 1.8, 1.4, or 1.2 are good for low light or indoor photography. Your depth of field will be pretty small at those apertures though so it’s important to pay attention to that and is beneficial to work with additional lighting if needed.


Telephoto Lens: 70-200mm+

I have become addicted to my 70-200 f/2.8 lens, absolutely addicted and I can guarantee that it is used in EVERY session I shoot unless I am in a literal shoebox. The reason for choosing this lens so often is not that I need to be further away from my subject. In fact, often times I would prefer to be a little closer, but the compression, isolation, and separation this lens provides make it so worth it to back up and shoot at 200mm.  In addition, the longer lenses provide very little distortion making them provide a more true representation of the dog, horse, or person you are photographing.

It's also great for action:

Are you shooting in a busy urban environment and you want it to look like you are in the fields?

Easy. Find a patch of grasses or landscaping and pull out the longest lens you have. Slap that puppy (your 70-200 lens…not the actual puppy) on your camera and shoot at 200mm and fairly wide open around 2.8 or 3.2. Check to make sure the nose to ears of the dog are in focus and adjust your aperture accordingly. By using a long telephoto lens the field of view is just a little sliver of what you would see with a wide-angle lens. For instance, if the field of view is 180 degrees at 8mm, then it would be around 8 degrees at 200 mm. (**I couldn’t find the exact stats on those numbers so they are estimations used for illustrating this concept.) This is a key that allows you to take the most mundane and random environments and make them lovely portrait locations.

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The image above was shot at the location below with my 70-200 at 200mm 2.8.  The image below was shot at 24 mm, also 2.8.  The difference is incredible.


Do you want a more bokeh-licous background?

Again, pick up the longest lens that you have. It compresses the background, and throws the background out of focus, and gives you incredible separation between your subject and your background.

There are three tools responsible for creating lovely bokeh with shallow depths of field and they all have a place in the photographer’s toolbox.

  1. The aperture of your lens. This is the most obvious. Choose a lens with a low f-stop number or wide opening aperture. The wider the aperture the shallower the depth of field.
  2. Get closer to your subject. The closer your lens is to your subject, the more shallow your depth of field.
  3. Use a longer lens. A 200 mm lens at 2.8 has a much shallower plane of focus than a 24 mm at 2.8.
  4. The distance between the subject and your background. The further your background is from your subject, the further outside the plane of focus it will be and the more bokeh you will have.

I feel that it’s important to stress that a teeny tiny plane of focus should not be the end goal of all of our images. Many photographers, myself included, start out thinking that it’s totally fine for every image to have the eyes in focus but not the dog’s nose. While I think that one or two images with a very strong selective focus like that can be fun, an entire gallery of out of focus noses is not something that I want to deliver to my clients. Since every situation is different and there are so many factors that go into your depth of field the best way to improve is to get out there and practice.

If you would like to take a peek inside my camera bag, as well as see what cameras and bodies I recommend for pet photography – check out my gear, tools that I take to sessions, and my favorite books!

Nicole Begley

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  1. Wendy

    I’ve done entire sessions with my 70-200.

  2. Wendy

    I’ve done entire sessions with my 70-200.

  3. Amy

    I love the look of photos made with a 70-200 lens, but I’m afraid it’s going to be to heavy for me to track dogs on the beach (where I do most of my lifestyle pet photo sessions) and get a clear photo. Is there a lighter lens you recommend or do you find the weight not to be an issue? Thanks!

    • Nicole

      Hi Amy, I would rent it and see. You can go for the f/4 – but it’s not the 2.8. I think the extra weight is well worth it, but some people prefer the lighter f/4.

  4. olga

    what about Nikon equivalent for this lenses?

    • Nicole

      Nikon lenses are great too!! They have the same lens for pretty much all of these, except the 11-24 I believe. 🙂

  5. Susan

    There are now three versions of the Canon 70-200 f/2.8.
    Is there a lot of difference? Is it well worth it to spend so much more to get the iii version vs. the ii?

    • Nicole Begley

      The lenses do have a fairly significant improvement with each version – so if you can afford the iii – that’s what I would get. However, if you are on a budget, the ii is still great! Definitely don’t get the i though!


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