Why a Telephoto Lens Should Be in Every Pet Photographer's Bag

golden retriever sitting on log

Many photographers who are beginning to dabble in pet photography ask about the best lens to use when photographing pets. While there is no right or wrong answer, as a dog photographer who primarily specializes in outdoor sessions, I use a telephoto lens for the majority of photos I take. If I were limited to just a single focal length to use for photographing dogs, I’d go with 200mm, and there are several reasons for this decision.

I recently covered the benefits of using an ultra wide angle lens when photographing pets outdoors. When I venture out for a dog session, I only carry two lenses with me: an ultra wide angle lens, and a telephoto lens. The most significant advantage of shooting at 200mm is that you have to be positioned at a fair distance from the dog in order to get the entire dog in the frame. This separation between you and your canine subject comes in handy for dogs that are difficult to work with, or fear the sight and sound of the camera. For extremely timid dogs, it might even be impossible to get a useable photo of them with a wide angle lens, since they will cower away from you every time you approach them. I often begin a session with a telephoto lens, which gives the dog a chance to get accustomed to me from afar. I begin by having the owner engage with the dog, while I lie on the ground and get ready to squeak a toy or make a sound. As soon as the dog looks in my direction, I’m ready to snap a quick burst of photos.

boston terrier sitting in grass

Photographing dogs with telephoto lenses can simplify the surrounding environment and minimize anything that distracts attention away from the subject.

Long Focal Lengths for Simple Compositions

A 200mm focal length also makes it easy to keep the composition very simple, especially if the location chosen for the session is a little cluttered, or crowded with other people. The narrow field of view when shooting at 200mm makes it easy to keep the owner and other distracting elements out of the frame, though the odd conspicuous hand and foot can be easily removed afterwards in post processing.

By keeping the background as far away from the subject as possible and shooting at a wide aperture, the background elements will be out of focus, to help keep the dog separated from its surroundings. I generally try to look for backgrounds that are darker than the dog, as dogs tend to stand out better when there is more light falling on them than on the background.

Do Yourself a Favor and Switch to Back Button Focus

I don’t know why it took me so long to switch to back button focus. I guess I thought it would take me too long to get comfortable with it, and I thought that I was doing just fine with carefully hovering my index finger on the halfway shutter position whenever I wanted to keep the focus locked. Back button focus will make your life a lot easier when photographing dogs, as their unpredictability means that sometimes you don’t have time to wait for the camera to focus. I pre-focus every photo I take at 200mm, so when I get the expression I want, I can snap the photo without delay.

Time for Action

Some of the most comical expressions you will get when photographing dogs is when they are running at full speed directly toward you. Telephoto lenses also lend themselves well to this type of action photo. Begin by lying on the ground, center your focus point on the dog’s eye, and get the owner to try and throw a soft toy or ball directly over you. You will need to set your autofocus mode to AI-Servo (Canon)/AF-C (Nikon). As the dog runs toward you, burst away, trying to keep the focus point on the dog’s eyes. Typically only a few of these shots are in focus during a single sprint, so I always repeat the process a few times to ensure that I have enough useable images. There is a good chance that at some point, you’ll get hit by the toy. There’s also a good chance that at some point, you’ll get hit by the dog. It comes with the territory.

shih tzu running in field

Dogs can be captured in their true element when running toward you for a toy.

Photographing with a long lens will help to keep your canine subject comfortable, and make it easy to minimize distracting elements in your frame, guaranteeing a successful dog photography session. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time on the ground, and dress accordingly.

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15 Comments

Christian Santiago's picture

Sound Logic, and wonderful photos.

Blake Robertson's picture

As an owner of 2 Golden Retrievers and one mischievous Bengal cat, I'm always keen to snap some photos of their antics. Great article Jordan!

Jordan Pinder's picture

I bet the challenge is getting the three (or even two) of them together. Glad you enjoyed it!

Arun Hegden's picture

"I don’t know why it took me so long to switch to back button focus." Me too..:D

MJ Baeg's picture

Great article with wonderful pictures!

If you don't mind, I have a couple of questions regarding pet photography, which will be great if you could give me some advice on.

1: When using continuous AF mode to track the animals, do you use the center AF point to track the subject's eyes and crop in post, or do you recommend using an off-center AF point to track the eyes?

2: When lying on the ground for low-angle photography, are there any ground sheets that you use or you can recommend?

Thanks!

Phil Wright's picture

My longest focal length is 135mm (Samyang 135/2) as I prefer to be up close and personal. My favourite lens for shooting pets is the Sigma 35/1.4 A lens as it makes the viewer really feel like they're in the picture too. You're right regarding the longer focal length for slightly shy dogs though :)

Jordan Pinder's picture

Ahh yes, I have yet to try out this lens but it's on my wish list for the future. Definitely produces a very unique look and would be great for pets. Just checked out some of your portfolio photos of Bentley - very cool.

Samuel Smith II's picture

Great article. The long focal lengths are good for all portraits. The isolation and compression factors are awesome for cleaning up the backgrounde without distorting the subject. Awesome.

Jordan Pinder's picture

It's definitely my favourite focal length for portraits because of the reasons you mentioned. A bit too tight for group shots though!

Michael Yearout's picture

Great post Jordan.

I've been using my EF - 100mm f/2.8 on a lot of my dog portraits lately for all the reasons you state above plus the 2.8 gives me a semi-shallow depth of field which blurs the background. nicely. Haven't tried anything longer, but after reading this I will.

Jordan Pinder's picture

I've been wanted to try that one out too Michael - great for close-ups. Right now I literally don't have anything from 41 mm to 199 mm. It forces me to learn to use the "extremes" first...but I think it's almost time for something in the middle.

Roger Blackmore's picture

Thanks for the article, the shots look great. I take a lot of pictures of my dog, When using ai servo and continuous drive with back button focus on canon I find only the first shot is in focus, am I missing something here?

Jordan Pinder's picture

Hi Roger, those settings should work just fine. Do you have your focus point set to the centre point? I always do this, and then crop afterward. To test your settings, before you head out to photograph your dog, aim your camera at a few things near and far (like the ground, trees, etc.) to see if the focus is changing as you do this. For a fast-moving dog, the ability of your lens to focus quickly could also affect how many of your photos are in focus.

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