This tutorial is going be covering a lot more of the technical aspects of taking photos of dogs and pets in general. I’m going to be focusing on the camera gear and optimizing your settings to get the best photos you can with it. I’m not going to be going over tips on how to actually pose and plan your shoot because I made a whole other tutorial on that topic. I am going to be split up the information into mainly two parts the first half is going to be focusing on the camera and lens choice and then the second half is going to be focusing on your settings.
When it comes to choosing a camera this is going to be a rather controversial topic because I think every photographer is going to give you a different opinion on what camera is best, and a lot of the time it’s going to be the camera that they have. Unsurprisingly the cameras that I recommend are conveniently the cameras I also use, which are newer Sony cameras, but I’ll explain my reasoning for this.
Realistically any camera is going to be able to function for pet photography, but there is one feature that is becoming available on modern cameras that make the process of getting the photos much easier, which is intelligent autofocus systems that can identify pets faces. The idea of this is very simple and that is the camera is going to be able to autofocus much more effectively on your pet if it’s focusing on their eyes because unlike human faces, dogs have much longer noses, meaning that with traditional DSLRs or older autofocus systems they will often catch the end of nose or the ears and miss the eyes which effectively can ruin the image if you having a shot with a shallow depth of field. Almost all the new mirrorless cameras from Canon, Nikon, and Sony have animal eye autofocus as a setting within them, however the most affordable option out there is going to be the new Sony cameras, like the a 6100 or a7c. Again this feature isn’t ‘a must have’, but if you’re a professional photographer it’s a game changer and a fantastic new tool to use.
When it comes to choosing a lens it becomes much more dependent on your personal preference for the photo, however all the concepts that would apply to human portraits carry over quite nicely to pet photography. Generally speaking if you’re looking to get a more portrait like photo, using a longer focal length is going to be advantageous, something like an 85mm or longer for full frame or 50mm for crop sensor cameras will get you a flattering level of compression and subject isolation.
Where things get a little bit different than humans though is that pets tend to move a lot, and depending on the energy you’re going for in the shoot and the nature of the dog you will have to choose lens to match their vibes. If the dog is very energetic there’s kind of two directions you can go in in my experience, either using a fast wide angle prime lens or a telephoto zoom lens.
Wide Angle Lenses
If the dog is very personable and likes being close to you or you want to get some more dynamic shots of the dog looking rather large in frame, getting close to it and using a wide angle lens will provide an interesting perspective giving the pet kind of larger than life appearance that can be fun and exciting, and because it’s a wide angle lens it is much easier to keep up with the movements of the pet just because with a wide angle lens it’s harder to miss your subject. Though it is important to be mindful there can be some distortion introduced to the photo and it can make the dogs nose looks longer than it actually is or if there’s a human in frame it can make them look kind of lanky which is often undesirable.
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
On the complete flip side of that is using a telephoto zoom lens, this is ideal for pets who are a little bit more standoffish or are retrievers and like to run a lot. The versatility in the distance you get from using a long lens can give you the opportunity to get more dynamic shots of their movements with a very classic look. The things to keep in mind when choosing a telephoto lens is that it will limit you on the close end so you’ll need to be in a large open space in order to make it work, as well as that tracking and focusing on an animal that is moving fast is hard. You are going to be reliant on a couple factors such as the autofocus speed of the lens and purely your familiarity with using the focal length.
Normally when discussing portraits I often recommend using your own light in order to control the exposure however with animals unless they’re very docile or you’re in a studio setting you’re not going to have any success using artificial light just because is going to be too distracting for the pet most of the time and by the time you set up a scene they will have already moved. I’m not saying it’s not doable and certainly for more professional photos it’s certainly going to be beneficial to shape the light, however from a beginner standpoint I would not all recommend starting off with it.
As I emphasized earlier, a lot of it will come down to focusing, and there’s a few settings you can tweak here to help increase your hit rate for photos. I almost always utilized back button AF, if you’re not familiar with the concept it’s basically that you have a button on the back of your camera programmed to trigger your autofocus rather than using the shutter button for that, and then you pair that with using continuous autofocus so that you essentially can trigger autofocus to continually track your subject regardless of if your finger is on the shutter, and if you are using a camera that has animal eye autofocus as a feature you certainly should turn that on.
The next setting I recommend switching is to shoot in at burst mode or a relatively fast continuous mode so that you can take consecutive photos. This is again in an effort to increase your hit rate for in focus photos, so using simple logic would dictate that more photos=more good photos, but it’s a double edged sword. It certainly is beneficial to have more photos but in unintentional consequence of this is that you will end up having many more photos to simply go through at the end of the shoot. Also keep in mind depending on the camera that you’re using you can fill your buffer up relatively quickly, meaning that even though you may capture one good photo in a set while those photos are being saved you could be missing out on others so you don’t want to get too trigger happy. I do recommend still shooting in burst mode but don’t get carried away because you still want to be intentional with your photography and keep your mind set on taking photos that are well composed and are quality, because though you certainly will get many photos with aggressive bursts, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss better photos if you’re being careless and I’ve certainly fallen victim to this as well.
The most important actual setting while you’re taking the photos though is going to be your shutter speed, and depending on the focal length, lens and camera you are using the shutter speed you should be using is going to be different. In general though you will want to be using a faster shutter speed because unlike people animals will be moving a lot and the last thing you want is all your photos to end up being blurry so I recommend starting off with the shutter speed above 1/100 if not above 1/250 if you’re using a wide to mid range lens and if you’re going to use a telephoto you will wanna consider using shutter speeds up above 1/500th or even 1/1000th of a second. This will be a matter of trial and error and it’s very important to review your photos if you’re not confident in what shutter speed to use because that will be your best guidance too figuring out the ideal shutter speed for your lighting you’re working at, conveniently though often if you are in an outdoor environment during the day you’ll have plenty of available light to work with.
The last topic I’m gonna touch upon is gonna be the least straightforward and that is the appropriate aperture to use. This is going to end up coming down to being a personal choice again because your depth of field is a matter of taste but in general more shallow depth of field is often associated with professional photography as it’s often the most visually obvious difference between your cellphone camera and a camera with a larger sensor. for this reason it’s going to be naturally appealing to use lower apertures in order to get shallower depth the fields, and to be honest I often end up using my minimum aperture with the lens just because I like the look.
You just have to keep in mind a few things if you’re going to use a wide aperture. The first of which is when you are using a shallower depth of field it means less is in focus, and if your camera isn’t one that has the fastest autofocus out there it’s going to be much more difficult to get your subject in focus, and it ultimately will decrease how many photos you get better usable, so even though it might look nice, it might not be the best choice for fast dogs.
The other consideration to keep in mind is that dogs faces are much longer than humans again and it can look sometimes off if their eyes are in focus but their ears and nose are both super blurry, and if you are close to your subject or using a lens with a lot of compression this can lead to rather unappealing photos. so it’s not always the best choice to stop shoot wide open because you may and with a photo that isn’t as visually appealing as you thought it would be.
So that’s all of it! The key takeaways are that you want to make sure you are prepared for the shoot. this involves talking to your client or just being familiar with your own dog and choosing the right setup in settings for their personality, and if you are going for a photo with a very shallow depth of field or a very specific look be prepared to have a lower hit rate than you would have expected normally because it’s going to come down to how the animal behaves which is almost random, but there are strategies you can take to be best prepared for the shoot which I covered in my other tutorial for tips on dog photography which I highly encourage you checking out if you have some time and are interested.