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.
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.
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.