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The Best Cameras for Pet Portrait Photography

environmental portrait taken in White Pocket at the worm

It has never been easier or more affordable to get serious about pet photography. But choosing what gear to get started with can be quite daunting. I this post we’ll walk through the basics of camera body types to help you select the right gear to use during your next photo project.

What are you trying to photograph?

Photographing dogs and other pets can be difficult. It’s important to consider the capabilities of your subject and what it is exactly that you’re trying to capture before deciding on what gear to work with.

Some dogs will sit on demand and hold a stay until released. Other dogs will sit on command but will get up to follow you as soon as you back away. But some dogs are more willful and require a bit more flexibility to work with.

It’s important to consider how you intend to work before settling on exactly what equipment to work with. The distance you are planning on shooting your pet from is an important factor to consider. It is also important to acknowledge where intend on posting or printing your photos. If you’re only intending on posting your photos to social media you’ll require far less resolution than if you’re planning on having your photos published in a magazine or posted on a billboard.

Regardless of what you’re shooting, it’s important to understand the basic types of cameras and lenses before you begin shopping for gear. To help you along your way we’ve put together a basic walk introduction to different camera and lens types, alongside a few example images demonstrating the different tools in use.

Smart Phone Cameras

a portrait of a foxhound taken with an iphone6

Taken with an iPhone 6.

The best camera is the one you’re already holding.

Seriously. You might be surprised to read this coming from a professional pet photographer, but most modern smart phones come with great cameras. In fact, if you look at popular pet accounts on social media, the vast majority of the photos posted by these dog celebrities are photographed with smart phones.

Smartphone cameras have smaller sensor sizes than most other camera types. They also tend to be fairly limited to wider lens sizes. Which makes sense when you think about how they are typically used — mainly for selfies and taking photos of things that are close to the photographer, such as groups of friends, landmarks, and rooms

As most readers will agree, modern smart phone cameras tend to be easier to use and fairly flexible, adapting well to low and shifting light conditions.  And, as smart phones are networked by default, they make uploading photos to social media a fairly simple task.

For those dog owners wishing to take photos of their pet from a close enough range that they can easily interact with their dog, smart phones are often a great option to run with. And to be frank, most newer smart phones, including the last few generations of iPhone have cameras built in that offer higher resolution and crisper image quality than most point and shoot cameras manufactured over a decade ago.

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Great low light functionality
  • Touch based focus
  • Convenient
  • Great for close up pet portraits

Cons:

  • Limited flash support
  • Limited lens selection
  • Limited range
  • Limited exposure control
  • Minimal depth of field
  • No optical zoom
  • Smaller sensor size susceptible to lens aberration

Point & Shoot Cameras

street photography capturing two dogs with a point and shoot camera

Taken with a point and shoot camera.

Point & Shoot cameras were very popular in the late 90’s and early to mid 2000’s, providing a versatile range of camera functionality, durability and image quality for a fairly low price – typically ranging from $100 – $1,000. These digital cameras come in a wide range of body styles and display types, but have lost popularity in recent years due to recent advances in Smart Phone image quality and decreasing DSLR body sizes.

Generally speaking Point & Shoot cameras are not quite as simple to use as a Smart Phone and lack the flexibility of a DSLR’s detachable lens system. That said, Point & Shoot systems still remain as a great choice for travel photographers looking for a more compact, zoom capable, dedicated photography device to travel with.

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Won’t drain phone battery
  • Small footprint
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • Limited flash support
  • Limited lens selection
  • Poor lens quality
  • Limited exposure control
  • Limited optical zoom

Adventure Cameras

DOG POV from Baltimore's Hon Fest

Dog POV captured with a GoPro Hero Session.

Adventure cameras come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are a number of manufacturers making these cameras, but the one most consumers associate with is GoPro.

Adventure cameras are designed to be much smaller and more durable (often both shock resistant and water proof) than traditional camera formats and are intended primarily to capture video in action settings, though many recent models can also capture still photographs. As these cameras are intended for “set it and forget it” shooting environments they are often fixed focus, extreme wide angle and use smaller apertures to maximize focus fields.

The smaller footprint and wide variety of mounting options available to adventure cameras can lend for very creative uses. Allowing photographers and videographers to capture angles and scenes that would be impossible to capture with other camera formats, including nifty dog mounted harnesses that allow photographers to capture a dog’s point of view or POV.

Adventure cameras are one of the more affordable camera options. Most new high end adventure cameras, such as GoPro’s Fusion, are typically priced well below $1,000 (even after accounting for accessories such as SD cards and mounts). But as manufacturers are constantly releasing new models and updates to their product lines, price conscious photographers can often pickup older or refurbished cameras for even less from resellers. For example, Amazon is currently listing refurbished GoPro Hero Sessions (a waterproof camera capable of 1080p HD video) for only $105.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Easy to use
  • Extremely durable
  • Waterproof
  • Slobberproof
  • Shockproof
  • Built in Image Stabilization (IS)
  • Can capture unusual angles
  • Capable of HD video (up to 4k)
  • Long battery life

Cons:

  • Fixed focus
  • Fixed focal length
  • Limited or no exposure control
  • Limited or no optical zoom

Medium & Large Format Camera

Digital medium format cameras and large format cameras are based on the old slide film formats and are intended for commercial use, such as shooting for billboards or magazines. These camera platforms are substantially larger than full frame SLR’s and generally provide much higher resolution and greater depth of field than their DSLR counterparts. They also come with a much higher price tag, with medium format camera bodies costing upwards of $30,000 and lenses costing $15,000 to $25,000 a piece. Which at those rates it should come to no surprise to anyone that medium format and large format cameras are typically reserved for commercial applications and not often used for most pet portrait photography or used by many hobbyists. 

Pros:

  • Superior image quality
  • Super lens quality and selection

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Huge image files

DSLR Cameras

a portrait of a fawn boxer wearing a paper crown taken with a dslr

Taken in studio with a Canon 5D III (a full frame DSLR) synced to a high speed monolight.

DSLR is an acronym that stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex. The name references the mirror that allows light to bounce from the lens to the view finder. When the user pushes the shutter button the reflex mirror lowers and instead allows light to pass to the camera’s sensor.

These are a very popular camera body type and the one you’re most likely to associate with most forms of professional photography, often used by wedding photographers, pet photographers and most forms of consumer oriented portrait photography. The primary reason these cameras are so popular in so many different photography niches is that they offer a great deal of creative control and freedom.

With a DSLR a trained photographer has full control over how their camera functions, being able to quickly swap between multiple programmed exposure modes or manually set their exposure, controlling the exact ISO (the sensor sensitivity), shutter speed and aperture width. DSLR cameras also allow pet photographers the ability to swap lenses and work with a wide range of flashes, strobes, monolights and other forms of triggered or high speed synced light sources.

DSLR’s come in a wide range of prices, starting as low as $500 or under and up to $5,000 just for the base, with lenses ranging from $99 to as high as $15,000 for speciality, cinematic and super telephoto zoom lenses.

The camera I use at the Puptrait Studio is a Canon 5D EOS Mark III. They’re currently on sale for a little less than what I paid for mine new, as Canon has since released a few newer camera bodies and mounts. But it’s still a solid device and for only $2,500 you could do a lot worse when shopping full frame DSLRs.

Pros:

  • More creative control
  • Great image quality
  • Great lens selection
  • Full focus control
  • Full exposure control (including ISO, shutter speed and aperture)
  • Multiple programmed modes
  • Capable of shooting HD video
  • Great flash and strobe support
  • Can be mounted on a tripod
  • Wired and wireless remote support

Cons:

  • Moderate learning curve
  • Larger file size
  • Can be fairly pricey

Full Frame vs Crop Sensors

photo of a great dane puppy taken with a cropped sensor

Taken during an in home portrait session with a Canon t3i (cropped sensor DSLR).

The DSLR camera body type is based off of the 35mm SLR camera body, which functioned very similarly to their digital successors, simply replacing a digital sensor for a film shutter window. A full frame DSLR has a shutter window that is relatively the same size as a 35mm SLR. A cropped sensor DSLR has a shutter window that is slightly smaller than 35mm, the degree of difference is measured by a number called a crop factor.

To be clear – there is nothing wrong with a cropped sensor. A lot of beginner photographers complain about using a cropped sensor, but in all honesty, their sensor size isn’t usually what’s holding the quality of their photos back. The difference in depth of field between a cropped sensor and a full framed sensor is minimal, with most smaller lenses only cropping around 10% around the extreme edge of an image. Earlier in my career I shot both weddings and portraits with a cropped sensor DSLR. They can be a great option for anyone looking for a lot of creative freedom but doesn’t have a lot of spare scratch to spend. 

That said, if you are using a camera with a cropped sensor, it is important to know what your cropped factor is when selecting images, as different lens focal lengths will perform slightly differently at different crop factors or focal length multipliers (FLM).

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are generally regarded as the future of consumer and prosumer photography. The format generally looks very similar to a DSLR, but functionally speaking is a merger of DSLR and Point & Shoot body styles. Mirrorless cameras offer many of the benefits of DSLR’s, including large interchangeable lenses, but are mounted on bodies with a substantially smaller footprint. They also introduce less camera shake and noise when the shutter is released as they effectively have no moving parts. Canon recently announced the release of their new EOS R lens mount and it is turning a lot of heads in the photography community. 

Pros:

  • All the Pros of DSLR
  • Lighter than DSLR
  • Less camera shake than DSLR

Cons:

  • Limited lens selection for newer mounts
  • Moderate learning curve
  • Larger file size
  • Can be fairly pricey
  • Newer, resulting in less used inventory available

Interchangeable Lenses

One of the biggest benefits to using a DLSR or Mirrorless camera is that they are compatible with a wide range of different lens types. Typically mounting systems for these lenses are limited to the camera body manufacture. Though it’s important to note, that conversion mounts and 3rd party lens options exist for most mounting platforms – including Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

Prime vs Zoom

Captured with an 85mm prime lens.

Prime lenses are a fixed focal length. Whereas zoom lenses conveniently cover a range of focal lengths. As a general rule of thumb, prime lenses are more affordable, weigh less and offer wider aperture capabilities than their zoom counterparts of comparable quality.

It’s important to note that it is not uncommon for lower priced and more extreme length zoom lenses to have variable apertures, or in other words, maximum apertures that vary at each end of the zoom range. Whereas fixed aperture zoom lenses offer consistent maximum apertures throughout the zoom range but are typically a tad bit more expensive. Maximum aperture is an important factor to consider when comparing different zoom and prime lenses, as a narrower aperture will require more light to use and provide more limited depth of field.

Normal Lens

Captured with a 50mm prime normal lens.

A normal lens is a lens with a focal length that is equal to the diagonal of the digital sensor or film format. Practically speaking, a normal lens appears to have the same perspective as the human eye, ie capturing what we “normally” see. Lens length is why it’s important to understand why your camera is either full frame or cropped, as your crop factor will help determine what is considered normal for your camera body. Most full frame DSLRs or 35mm film cameras have a normal lens focal length of 50mm.

Wide Angle Lens

a portrait of a large black great dane on a yellow couch photographed with a 20mm lens

Captured with a 20mm prime lens.

Wide angle lenses are exactly what they sound like. They offer a wider viewing angle by having a focal length substantially smaller than the diagonal of the sensor size.  Practically speaking, wide angle lenses magnify distances between foreground and background objects, as well as provide a wider depth of field.

When photographing dogs, I personally tend to lean towards using wide angle lenses whenever possible. Because of their wider depth of field, wide angle lenses tend to be more forgiving when it comes capturing acceptable focal planes when working with less predictable or still subjects (like dogs). More importantly, wide angle lenses allow photographers to get much closer to their subjects, which can be handy when interacting with or feeding a dog.

My personal go to lens for most studio sessions is a Canon 24-70mm L f2.8 II. The lens offers superb image clarity and a consistently wide aperture through the focal lengths I tend to use most often. While not the most affordable lens (it retails around $1.9k) this lens has replaced the 20mm ($500), 35mm (~$550), 50mm ($400), and 85mm ($500) primes I previously kept in my kit.

An important note on wide angle lenses! Make sure that you are using a hood when working with a wider lens. A wider viewing angle will provide more opportunities for light to leak into your frame from peripheral sources.

Pros:

  • Wider viewing angle
  • Wider depth of field
  • Wider acceptable focal range
  • Allows photographers to get closer to subjects
  • Makes rooms and spaces look larger

Cons:

  • No bokeh
  • More susceptible to lens flare
  • Perspective distortion

Fish Eye Lens

A fish eye lens is extreme wide angle lens noted for its extreme distortion of distances, otherwise known as barrel distortion. These lenses typically range from 6mm to 16mm in length. Barrel distortion can be fun to play with, but for the purposes of pet portrait photography, this lens type tends to result in images that are mostly snout. Which can lend for fun, but very distinct images.

For a better explanation of how to effectively use a fish eye lens we recommend watching this helpful video from Home Star Runner.

Telephoto Lens

environmental portrait taken in White Pocket at the worm

Captured with a telephoto zoom lens.

Telephoto lenses are the opposite of wide angle lenses. They offer focal lengths that are significantly longer than the diagonal of the sensor. In turn these lenses narrow the perspective field, compressing distances and depth of field. If you see a photo where the focus falls off quickly on a subject, odds are it was taken with a longer lens with a wide open aperture.

Practically speaking, telephoto lenses require photographers to be further away from their subjects. For this reason we rarely use them when capturing dog portraiture in studio, as they require us to be too far away from our subjects to interact with them properly (or keep them from running to us when called).

That said, we do use them often when working outside shooting environmental portraits. The reason for this is their ability to effectively compress backgrounds. With telephoto lenses, buildings, mountains, statues, trees, and other landmarks will appear larger and closer to our foreground subject.

This may be contrary to traditional photography advice many beginning photographers may have heard. Many reputable photographers believe wide lenses should be used for landscapes (as wider capture more of the scene) and that telephoto lenses are to be used for portraits (as wider lenses tend to distort faces).

While we won’t say that information is necessarily wrong, it is worth pointing out that pet photography isn’t a standard use case. It’s more important to learn why you are using a lens, rather than learn what lens you are supposed to use.

My personal go to lens for most environmental portraits is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8L II. This lens provides similar clarity my wider lens, offers superb bokeh at longer lengths, is relatively light, and at 70mm, picks up directly where my wider lens drops off.

Note, I don’t use a lens with Image Stabilization (IS). IS is a great feature and technology that has come along way since it was first introduced, but as I tend to shoot only from tripods, it adds additional cost and weight that I personally prefer not to incur.

Pros:

  • Narrow depth of field
  • Great bokeh
  • Background and distance compression
  • Can capture subjects at a distance

Cons:

  • Makes it difficult to interact with dogs
  • Requires tight framing of closer subjects
  • More susceptible to camera shake
  • Tend to be heavier
  • More expensive than most wider lenses
  • Longer minimal focal distance

Super Telephoto Lens

A pitbull rescue dog wearing a bowler cap in front of the Bromo Selzter Tower in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore

Example of telephoto lens making a background object (a building) appear closer to a pet portrait subject through the proper application of distance compression.

Super telephoto lenses are just what they sound like, extremely magnified variants of telephoto lenses — ranging in focal lengths from 400mm to 800mm without the need for extenders. Super telephoto lenses are typically reserved for sports and wildlife photography, where it is difficult or impossible to safely get close enough to use other lens types.

Pros:

  • Very narrow depth of field
  • Superior bokeh
  • Extreme background and distance compression
  • Can capture subjects at extreme distances

Cons:

  • Makes it very difficult to interact with dogs
  • Very susceptible to camera shake (IS and tripods are a must!)
  • Very heavy
  • Very expensive

Tilt Shift Lens

Tilt shift lenses are used primarily by architectural photographers and street photographers to compensate for perspective distortion and the orientation of the plane of focus. They work by changing the orientation and / or position of the lens in relation to the sensor. Like fish eye lenses, tilt shift lenses can lend for interesting portraits by presenting an unfamiliar perspective to viewers, but are generally not used by pet portrait photographers.

Macro Lenses

Macro lenses are specifically designed for photographing fine details on close up subjects. Most camera lenses have a minimum focus range, usually varying from 3’ – 6’ in distance from the camera. But macro lenses allow photographers to get much closer to their subjects, anywhere from .5’ – 1’. They’re not typically used for portraits, however they can allow photographers to capture details of pets that may otherwise go unnoticed, such as the blown up texture of fur or the wrinkles unique to your dog’s paw or snout.

Start Taking Better Photos of Your Dog

At the end of the day, if you want to start take better photos of your dog we recommend simply taking more photos using whatever gear you have on hand. Rather than focus on what gear you need, start thinking about what kind of photography would work best with the camera gear that you have. With this mind set achieved not only will the quality of your own pet photography improve but what kind of gear you will need in the future will become more apparent and obvious.

Remember, most cameras and lenses can take good photos of dogs. It is only when you want to take a specific type of photo that you need to consider purchasing a specific type of gear. If you have money for a mid range DSLR and a quality zoom lens, by all means buy it. But if not, don’t fret. It’s possible to start taking great photos with your phone — all you need to do is just keep shooting!

 

J.B. Shepard is a Baltimore based professional pet photographer and founder of the Puptrait Studio. He lives with his wife and two dogs, including a Jack Russell Terrier named Lucky and a Boggle named George. Any recommendations made here are based on first hand experience with gear and were not influenced by compensation. However, it is worth noting that Amazon pays us for any gear purchased through the affiliate links listed above.

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