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a little bit about lenses and equipment ~ UPDATED ~ {Ontario pet photographer}

I am routinely inundated with questions about the business … easily a dozen every week.   In fact, if I took the time to respond to all inquiries via facebook, email, flickr and the blog, I seriously would never have the opportunity to pick up a camera again.  Questions range from equipment to starting a pet photography business, website design to marketing, working with pets at a shoot to mentoring, you name it.  It’s pretty endless the range of questions, many of which I could and would happily answer if I didn’t have a photography business to run.  And, obviously, I didn’t start this business to become a consultant.  I do this for the love of dogs (and yes, cats too!), a love of capturing their spirit through images, and turning that into what I hope is viewed as artwork.

Lately, the resounding question seems to be about lenses.  “What is your favorite lens for dog photography?” “What is the best lens for shooting dogs?”

When faced with these questions, my best suggestion to the inquirer is that they get out and shoot more … a lot more … not just their own dog, but many other dogs, cats too, if they truly want to become a pet photographer.   Because the question shouldn’t be: “Which lens is the best for shooting dogs?”, but rather: Which lens works best for you … for your method of shooting, your style of images, and your energy as you work with your 4-legged subjects.  Because what works for me isn’t necessarily what will work for you, your style, and the energy that you bring to a session.

Also be aware that whether or not you’re shooting a full-frame body will make a big difference in how different lenses work and the resulting appearance of those images.

camera gear-3

The current scruffy dog gear lineup includes two Canon 1DX bodies and the lenses listed in the text below. Also, included in every shoot is a Nikon D750.

camera gear-2

It should go without saying that there is no one lens that is “best for dog photography”, or any type of photography for that matter.  Often what is required is a small arsenal of lenses.  Each lens offers its own abilities (speed, low light, zoom, wide angle, etc.) and its own ‘flavor’ and feel in the captured image.  I will choose a particular lens based on the type of shooting I’m doing — action vs. portrait vs. macro — and I will also choose different lenses based on light … not just wider aperture for low light, but how a particular lens will work in a particular setting and react with the available light, and how quickly it is capable of focusing.  I swap out lenses during a shoot based on focal length, since I do shoot with some prime lenses, and because each lens does result in a different ‘feel’ to the image and different compression.  My goal with every client is to offer them a gallery filled with variety … and one way to achieve this is through lenses.

Since I don’t want to field questions later, as mentioned, the gear you see pictured above is the following:

For my Canon gear I am working with two Canon 1DX‘s, and lenses include:


Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II

Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II

Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L II


Canon 35mm f/1.4 L

Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM

Current Nikon gearNikon D750 and:

AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED

AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VRII


For Nikon gear – before I retired it – I was shooting a Nikon D4SNikon D4 and D3S and the following lenses:


Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED  ~ replaced with the 14-24mm f/2.8

Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR  ~ replaced with the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII

Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 ED – an occasional lens


Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

Nikkor Micro 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR


But in no way do I believe one should rush out and buy this laundry list of lenses!  This is the collection that works for me.  It has taken years to figure out the best combination of lenses for what i do — which is pets, and only pets.  Please take the time to figure out what works for you, for your style, your shooting, your typical client, and your energy (if you’re working with dogs).

And be warned: I firmly believe that it’s better to be a master of a few lenses than carry a whole truckload and spend too much of your shoot with your back to your subject madly swapping out lenses.  I don’t carry all of these lenses to every shoot; and I’m generally utilizing 3 lenses.  I’ve also been known to shoot an entire session with just one lens, if it is a dog requiring me to stay close in order to affect and control his energy and there is no running involved (i.e. our Honor Sessions™).

Of course, it should go without saying that if you’re shooting professionally, you should be shooting with professional equipment — you owe that to your clients who are paying you for professional images.   Also, for my purposes, it does help to be working with two bodies, since you will then be swapping out lenses only half as often.

Never be afraid to invest in lenses … in “good glass” as some want to call it.   A quality lens holds its value and can be resold if you find, down the road, that you aren’t using it as much as you had anticipated.  Also, in a lot of cases you can rent certain lenses for a short period to try out before forking out the big dollars to invest.  And before any of that, do your research.  Read reviews online: Digital Photography Review is a great source.  Plug the lens into a Google search and see what you find.  Whatever you do, don’t email a bunch of photographers to ask whether they like their blankety-blank lens, because what works for them might not work for you.  Cruise around on flickr and see what kinds of images the lens you’re interested in is producing by doing a quick search.

Be aware of your collection and invest wisely.  Invest in what works for you.  Invest in variety.

Here’s an example of what goes into choosing a lens…  Several years ago, I had a difficult choice between Nikon’s newest prime lenses, since I’ve never been fond of the 50mm for my shooting style,:

the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G,

the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G,

and the AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.

The 85mm is a glorious portrait lens and can be wonderful for any kind of photography, but for my purposes, the focal length isn’t right.  It puts me too far away from the dog.

A lot of pet photographers may have gone for the 50mm (G or D) … the 50mm has been and still is a mainstay in a lot of photographer’s bags.  But given that I’ve already worked extensively with a 50mm f/1.4 and felt even this was too much distance in most instances, I wanted something closer still.

So it was between the 35mm and the 24mm.  those who follow scruffy dog on facebook know the somewhat extensive shooting I went through with the 24mm and the 35mm, testing out both lenses, and those who know me and my work well, know the struggle this was for me since the 24mm really is “my” lens … or should be.  But, I wasn’t buying a lens for me.  I was purchasing a lens for scruffy dog photography, not personal use, and needed to bear in mind the existing scruffy dog collection.

And this is where energy comes into play, and how what works for me may not work for you.  With the larger percentage of client dogs I shoot (cats are a different story), I find I have to work close to them.  There are, of course, some dogs who need distance.  But for a lot of them, it’s my energy that keeps them either in place or animated or focused.  And often that energy needs to be close to them.  For that, then, the 24mm seems the obvious choice since it allows me to be the closest of those lenses.  However, on full-frame bodies, the 24mm is pretty darn wide angle, and I have to bear in mind that some clients don’t care for the distortion that can sometimes occur with the wide angle when not handled properly.  Also, of equal importance, I already had a wide-angle lens.  The AF-S Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8  is very wide on the full-frames (later replaced with the 14-24mm), and since I already tend to shoot predominantly at the 17-22mm end, I really did have that wide end covered.  It truly would have been repetitive to go with a 24mm prime, even though its wider apertures would make the images even dreamier and smoother than the 17-35mm’s 2.8.

In the end, I settled on the 35mm in order to capture a focal length that — to me — seems the most natural of all of them, very film-like, while still allowing me the closeness I need.  But again, this decision answered my needs, based on my current collection, my shooting style, my energy working with dogs, my years of experience shooting hundreds upon hundreds of different dogs.

When it comes to lenses and equipment, it’s as much about your main subject as it is your shooting style, and in the case of pets, the energy you bring to a shoot.

I hope this blog entry has made you think and consider more when it comes to lens choices.  It should never be: “What lens did you use to capture that?” since I will work differently than others … but rather: “What lens do I need to capture the images I want, based on the typical client I shoot?”

Happy shooting!

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  • Sport Dog Photographygreat article. I totally agree. My first priorities in building my “tool box” have been the lenses. I shoot a lot of action, so I have to consider the equipment that is right for what I do.ReplyCancel

  • Shannon Clare SteeleIMMENSELY Helpful! Thank you so much, I’m so inspired by your work!ReplyCancel

  • KrystinaHi!

    I appreciate your knowledge on these lenses, and that you wrote down what lenses you have and how you decided on which lenses. I’ve recently started putting money into the prime lenses as I can tell a difference in them from just my kit lens. But, I’m not here to ask about lens choice. I’m actually here to ask about the strap on your camera. It looks like it has a clip of some sort. Do you like not having the strap and how does this work for you. I do rescue shelter photography and find that my strap gets in the way and since I never have my camera around my neck anyway, I’m looking for an alternative. If you have time to offer a few recommendations I’d really appreciate it.ReplyCancel

    • illonagreat question, Krystina! for one, i can’t stand neck straps … i have a really bad neck and simply can’t wear them without inducing a migraine. even when out hiking with my own dogs, my camera balances in my hand like it belongs there … unless it’s the monster 70-200 with teleconverter, i don’t feel the weight … but on my neck, ohmydog!

      mostly though, i don’t want some strap putting my equipment in jeopardy. i’m always surprised when i see fellow pet photographers shooting with straps on their cameras … long loops dangling … just BEGGING for some dog to go running through it and take the gear with them. not to mention that if you’re shooting overhead the strap will often swing into the frame.

      sure, i’ve seen some wrap the strap around their forearm, but since i shoot with two bodies, i don’t see the sense in having a body basically tied to my forearm … it doesn’t make for quick changes of equipment. to each their own, i suppose.

      others use cross-the-body holsters or hip holsters … but again, these aren’t the least bit conducive to my style of shooting. i’m up and down, rolling on the ground … and i’m supposed to have a second body holstered to my hip?? or dangling from around my chest/shoulder? not to mention that they’re once again begging for a dog to run into them.

      what you see on my bodies is the tabs that click into a neck strap … i haven’t used the actual neck straps in years, but the tabs are very handy … not only for quick grabs out of the bag, but they act as great for enticing cats to look down at the camera as the tabs scrape on the floor … and the ones on my 3S actually squeak very quietly if they’re moving … which has many dogs looking right at the camera.

      i’ve just purchased a second D3S body and will probably invest in yet another neck strap that i won’t use … just to get those tabs. 🙂

      there are a few straps made with quick-release tabs like this … not sure what brand mine are since i never use the strap. 🙂 good luck with your search!ReplyCancel

  • LoganHello, I have recently discovered this website a couple weeks back.. This page had pretty much everything I really wanted to know.
    I am getting into photography with my own dog. I currently have a Lumix GF3 with kit lens 14-42mm… If I get enough money for something more expensive I have always wanted a Nikon D3200, or some other Nikon by then. I would also get a few lenses to go with it!
    But anyway your equipment looks really nice. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • AndreaThank you for this great post! I have just discovered your blog-today-and can’t wait to look at it and read through your blog.
    Three Sisters Photography
    Auburn, ALReplyCancel

  • JoniWonderful article! Do you have any others like this posted on your blog? Could you are the Links here? Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • MelissaThis is an old entry but I have to say it’s very nice. I discovered your blog awhile back and fell in love. I live in the States and have been working on getting my photography completely specialized in animals. Seeing your work always gets me all revved up and inspired to go try new things with clients and even different angles.
    I’m a Canon shooter and have gained quite a collection of lenses, it’s always interesting to see that what works for people photos completely fails at pets.
    Thank you for being so amazingly inspiring.ReplyCancel

  • KatjaThank you Ilona!ReplyCancel

  • KatjaHi, your website and log are just wonderfull, I’m very interested in dogphotografy so I’m just thrilled that I found your website, it is also nice that you share us your gear 🙂
    Do you also use filters on your lenzes?
    Wish you good continuation and I follow your blog daily 🙂
    Thank you!!!!!!ReplyCancel

    • illonahi, Katja. because the light during a shoot is constantly changing around every corner of the trail or ever turn of the dog in action, i don’t use filters. i use high-quality, clear filters on all my lenses to protect them, but that’s it.ReplyCancel

  • illonathanks, everyone, for your interest and feedback on this blog entry. i continue to receive countless inquiries about gear, and — unfortunately — the scruffy dog schedule doesn’t allow me to respond to all of them.

    Angelo, i’ll use flash only indoors, when i absolutely have to. almost always auto focus, but i’m always adjusting the method by which my cameras gain that focus. as for sharpening, i always sharpen for final output — i.e. web or print or canvas. it’s important to sharpen for final output, and impossible to answer “how much”. happy shooting.ReplyCancel

  • Angelo ContarinHi Illona,

    love your work, it is so inspiring. I especially love the sharpness and the catchlights in the eyes. This is something I am having a hard time with, are you using a strobe? . Auto focus or manual focus?
    and finally how much sharpening on your post process.

    Thanks for your time.ReplyCancel

  • SandraThanks so much for sharing all this information Illona. I have to bookmark it so I don’t lose it. I’m sure I’ll be back to read it again.ReplyCancel

  • BrennanIllona, your photographs are STUNNING. Beautiful composition, tonality, and most important of all … heart and soul!

    I’m new to Guelph, and my partner Ashley and I are biologists. We love photography, and have a couple nice Nikons (D80 & D300s), so we started up a little hobby business to help pay the bills (conservation biology (read: saving turtles) doesn’t pay big money!) – we aspire to make photographs like yours.

    This little “gear” article was totally informative – THANK YOU for writing it. I always wonder what other photographers are using, and it’s awesome that you shared it. We hope to upgrade to a full frame sensor soon!

    And for anyone interested in learning the basics of photography (read: getting your camera off the automatic setting) we are offering informative one-day workshops at our home office. Check out if you’re interested.

    Thanks again, Illona!ReplyCancel

  • LainerIlliona, Thanks for sharing this. I kind of figured these are the lenses that you used. A Nikon D700 and a few lenses would be a great set-up for me. I will eventually get them, but for now, the D90 suffices. Once I get clients though, I’m getting the D700 just for full frame and better low ISO. If Nikon comes out with an update. I will wait for Thom Hogan’s review and get that too, as a second body or keep the D90 for a second body. I love it when people talk shop, as it is quite helpful and interesting to see the gear. I know it isn’t about the gear in taking better pictures, well, it is in a way. But it’s about getting the job done with the gear that’s right for me.ReplyCancel

  • EmilyThank you Illona! I always crave to hear this from photographers I admire, and I did indeed learn the hard way that the same equipment does not work the same for everybody. I do love my 24-70mm I purchased after convincing myself it was the perfect lens, but I remain unconvinced it was worth the chunk of change.
    Great advice on choosing the lenses!ReplyCancel

  • madaboutgreysGreat article, thanks for sharing. For dog photography, I swear by my 85mm f1.4 and my 70-200 f2.8. I used to love my 24-70 for landscape work but having been encouraged by you and others to look into the 17-35, I took the plunge and I LOVE it. Wouldn’t use it for dogs though.ReplyCancel

  • BrittaniThis blog post came at the perfect time and helped validate my decision. I am finally starting to be able to extend my lens family (currently have a Nikkor 50mm 1.8 and Tamron 28-75mm 2.8) but was stuck between the 35mm and 85mm for my next (and final, for a while) purchase. I shoot kids too, so I’d heard amazing things about the 85mm for portraits, but once I got it, I knew the focal length putting me so far back was just not going to fit with my shooting style…I like to work close to both my four and two legged subjects. I returned it yesterday morning and the 35mm should be in any day now and I feel so much more confident that it will fit my shooting habits better. You are right, it truly is a trial and error thing…no one lens will be universally right. Thanks for giving us a sneak peek into what you use and why! Your work continues to be one of my absolute favorites!ReplyCancel

  • DanAs a fellow nikon user and pet photographer I found this article great. I love your lens choices, I find the 24-70 is also a great lens with alot of scope for some great shots. You will love the 105 macro, lovely lens and sharp as!
    Glad i found your blog will be a regular from now on.

  • illonathanks, everyone, for your feedback and appreciation.

    Christina, love the race car analogy. i need to come up with a good one of my own. 🙂 yes, doctors and scalpels, for sure. 😉

    Jeff, if you’re getting hit with the same questions, it’s time to do a write up on your site … create a place to send them to. 🙂

    ironically, i had another email come into my box only a few hours after i posted this entry asking about what equipment i use. from now on, i can simply link to this entry. of course, it doesn’t matter that i do talk about equipment on another page at the bottom of the blog (the scruffy dog gear). sigh …

    Simon, for sure the Sigma 50 is on my radar. it’s actually been there for a while. if i do end up replacing the 50 D down the road (although i’m not in a rush), i’ll be testing both the Nikon and the Sigma. i’ve heard pretty good things about Nikon’s new 50G, but not enough to convince that it’s a “must have” … and the D version is a great little lens, just not wide open. thanks.ReplyCancel

  • SimonGreat, I’ve often wondered what you were using. PLEASE take a look at the Sigma 50mm f1.4 before you buy a 50G! It’s head and shoulders better apart from size and weight, nobody believes me until they see the difference…I am a loyal Nikon lens fan normally, but this is the exception to the rule. It just kills in FX format, so sharp wide open with amazing bokeh. The AFS is just as good as the Nikon. Their new 85mm f1.4 looks just as nice, too.ReplyCancel

  • ChristinaIllona, I can’t tell you how many people have this idea that owning the gear will automatically result in great photos. I go through this routinely with clients who assure me they don’t need to hire a photographer and that so-and-so in their office owns a nice Canon Rebel so they’ll take the pictures themselves. I don’t need to tell you how those photos turn out! I draw the analogy that just because you own a fast car doesn’t make you a race car driver. Owning the gear doesn’t ensure professional results, experience does.

    It’s been wonderful to watch your transition from writing to photography. You’re kicking butt at this Illona. Keep up the incredibly creative work.ReplyCancel

  • Jeffa very informative equipment article indeed. I agree totally with your points (I have given this same advice over and over again and it does get tiring). quality glass, shoot a lot, and learn at least the basics of exposure and light. now, answer the endless questions about your post-processing 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Holly Garner-JacksonWell done my friend!ReplyCancel

  • JeanGreat setup and display of lenses Illona!!! Thanks for the write up.ReplyCancel

  • DharmeshMy take away from your post was the way you went about choosing your lenses. I learned something. Thanks for sharing.ReplyCancel

    • illonaexactly, Lauren. everyone needs to find their own style, figure out what works for them. it’s taken me years to get here … and someone outfitted with all the same equipment isn’t going to turn out the same images i do … in fact, they might not even like using the same equipment. so everyone really does need to figure it out for themself.

      Lisa, there are some awesome little p&s’s. the problem with a DSLR is that you do need to then invest in lenses. it’s the lenses that’s the big investment. 🙂

      thank you, Dharmesh. it means a lot that you picked something up out of my rambling about how i went about deciding between the 24mm and the 35mm. it was not an easy decision. even my guy at the camera store was shocked with my decision because the 24mm is very much a lens made for me and my style … but the wise, business-savvy, overall choice was the 35mm, and i’m very happy with the choice. a LOT of thinking and reasoning should go into the addition of each new lens to the collection. and the LAST reason to choose a particular lens is because it’s such-and-such photographer’s favorite lens. 🙂

      … that’s why i never like answering emails asking me which lenses someone should buy. everyone needs to figure it out for themself.ReplyCancel

  • LaurenIt’s nice that you shared what you use and why and it’s a very important reminder that the rest of us need to figure out what works best for us (buying the glass you use doesn’t turn us into awesome illona dog photogs, as much as we’d love it too! ;p)ReplyCancel

  • jennifer metzgerIt’s best I don’t play with lenses anymore, since both times I did, I ended up buying them (your two zooms, in fact). Scary stuff. I’ve decided it’s probably good my photographer friend moved to Texas. 🙂 No more temptation.ReplyCancel

  • Lisa B.I have a less-than-a-year-old digital SLR, the regular stock lens that came with it and a telephoto lens. And a bunch of filters. Ha ha ha, I have barely ever even taken the thing off Fully Automatic yet! I have NO idea what any of this means. Maybe one day I’ll play with it! Or not. I think my first lessons should be how to shoot a greyhound while it’s running (Fully Automatic is NOT the right setting and neither is Sport). And how to get it take a proper crisp picture inside, especially at night. Maybe I really should have just bought a top-of-the-line P&S camera!ReplyCancel

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