This guide will focus on professional photography using DSLR (or mirrorless) cameras. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus and Panasonic to name just a few, all provide an amazing range of cameras. They are all incredibly capable systems and most of the tips in this guide will apply to any DSLR I am aware of. From time to time I will specifically reference settings for the Canon 5D Mark III as that is what I use most of the time but there will almost always be an equivalent way to do this with your camera of choice.
The DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or mirrorless cameras from all of the big name suppliers are the best choices for incredible animal photography. There is a huge range to suit almost any budget and the jump in quality from phones and compacts can be astounding. The cheapest DSLR with a kit lens (the lenses they come with are often called 'kit lenses' and are usually of a higher quality than they are given credit for) will be able to provide professional quality images with little effort beyond understanding a few settings and some good technique.
Interchangeable lenses mean you can start to see scenes in more creative ways and choose the right lens to capture the mood you need. As the price increases into full frame sensor cameras with fast lenses (more about these later) the range of photography options and moments you can confidently capture increases – high speed action shots, long distance photography, stylised framing with ultra wide lenses, High dynamic range imagery and many more types of photography you would associate with the glossy images in magazines or on billboards become available to you.
Do you need a top of the range DSLR with huge expensive lenses to get great pictures of your pets? Of course not! Today's smartphones and compact cameras are amazing devices. There is little point in spending hundreds (or thousands!) on cameras and lenses if the only thing you want to do is capture your own memories to treasure. You probably already have everything you need hanging around somewhere!
The phone in your pocket is a very capable camera with a great sensor, high quality lenses and the ability to capture high resolution images suitable for large vibrant prints of your pictures.
It is a great place to start and something I often use when out and about. I love to take pictures of sleeping cats and lazy dogs on hot summer walks around the town and country.
When I don't want to lug around my professional camera it is a more than acceptable way to get some great pictures which then lead to useful ideas I can use when I do have my 5D.
A shot which works on a phone will work on a DSLR with all of the extra benefits professional cameras offer. Plan your shots out with your smartphone camera and see some great ideas presenting themselves to you.
I regularly use an app called Cadrage Director's Viewfinder when initially researching my shots as it simulates the focal lengths of almost all lenses on almost all camera bodies allowing me to plan my shots and equipment in advance without having to carry around a large DSLR and a selection of heavy lenses.
A more dedicated solution with the benefits of a small size and easy use is a compact camera. Small cameras with lenses capable of optical zoom and sensor stabilisers to reduce camera shake in low light situations, available from any high street. They offer better lenses than smartphones and a faster way to capture great images. Fairly simple settings to cover a wide range of situations from bright sunlight, low light/night-time shots, action and portrait photography make the compact camera a great way to build a great collection of images.
To start with, I will give you a list of my most used equipment. This is what I consider a good set of equipment as a professional photographer allowing me to deal with almost any situation I regularly encounter.
Canon 5D mark III body
A full-frame 22.3 MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 6fps continuous shooting (superceded by the Mark IV but I don't have one!)
A great camera with a huge selection of lenses and accessories for any kind of photography and certainly allows me to capture any animal photography I have attempted so far!
The autofocus system is excellent with good coverage on the main areas within the viewfinder for animal photography. It has a fairly discreet silent mode usefull for photographing sleeping and resting animals without disturbing them.
The 6fp continuous shooting, while not as impressive as some DSLR's is still pretty nippy and the advantage over the 1DX for example is that this camera is much lighter. A huge consideration when running around after speedy dogs for 2 hours.
Canon 750D body
It is enormously useful to have a crop frame sensor camera as part of your kit. the increased focal length you will enjoy using your standard lenses will really help when a distant shot is your only option.
The 750D has A 24.2-MP APS-C CMOS sensor.
More of an entry level DSLR from Canon but one which I use all the time in order that I don't have to change lenses so often in bad weather conditions.
The crop frame sensor means that I get an effective focal length of 112 - 320mm using a 70-200mm lens so shots across a pond or just at a great distance when working with very fast animals can be very useful.
Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM
As with all of Canon's L series lenses, the EF 70-200 II is an incredibly robust lens. Weather sealed for animal shoots in (almost!) any conditions and easily the lens I use the most.
The amazing in lens stabilisation with several options for the type of motion means when I am balancing on a rock with one arm hanging over a pond, the lens will do a great job of compensating for the unavoidable camera shake I cause because of my lack of stability.
It is very fast to achieve focus with the option to ignore closer distances (under 1.2m) to speed things up even further.
It suffers very little distortion and the glass used means that the pictures are sharp every time.
It is a heavy lens weighing in at around 1.5KG and this can get tiring to handle after a while but it is beyond doubt one of the best lenses you can own for any kind of photography.
It excels at animal photography.
Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8 II USM
Another great lens but not one I find myself using very often with animal photography.
More suited to landscapes and wider shots as the strange perspective foreshortening at the very wide end of the lens (16mm) is not an effect I personally like.
This lens can be useful in very small rooms or for large groups and if this is a requirement this lens is perfect for producing very high quality shots throughout the focal range.
I find that generally the proximity required to the animal you are photographing is too close and you become the animals focus. The best shots you are likely to get are with the animal sniffing around your camera wondering what you are up to. Just not my style.
Other animal photographers do use it and I have seen some great shots with very long noses stretching back to the eyes of a dog. If I do use it, it is to place an animal or an animal and their owner in a dramatic scene. Particularly if the clouds are interesting.
Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 II USM
One of Canon's best generalist lenses offering a very useful focal range for natural looking shots.
More useful day to day than the 16-35mm but still not one I use very often unless space is particularly limited. If I have freedom of movement around a smallish area I would generally opt for the 50mm f1.2 and re position myself accordingly.
Again this lens is great for group shots but most of my animal photography is focused on one animal.
Canon EF 50mm f1.2 USM
This is a great lens for animal photography. Even with very small dogs the f1.2 aperture can create incredibly shallow of field and beautiful bokeh. You can really capture the personality in a cat or dogs eyes with this lens.
I often use it at the end of a shoot when a dog is tired from lots of running around. Its mouth will likely be open, tongue panting but the animal is relatively still - sitting or lying down. By this point they will be comfortable enough with me that the camera is no longer a novelty to be investigated. A portrait shot is often more interesting with the animal focusing on something to the side of the camera and a distance of 10-20 meters away.
You are going to get very close to the animal at this focal length and the resulting portraits will be very intimate. When the animal does look into the camera they will be calm enough to look relaxed and natural.
In very low light this lens can be used for action shots too although focus at f1.2 with a moving animal almost filling the frame is a matter of luck!
There are also versions of this lens at f1.4 and the incredibly good value f1.8. Both are excellent choices for animal photography providing enough speed to keep camera settings in a very workable range and provide clean crisp shots.
If you are starting out with animal photography then any of the 50mm lenses are an essential purchase. Get the f1.8 you won't regret it!
A waterproof camera bag with good accessibility to all of your things. I use a Lowepro Runner 300 AW.
Unfortunately Lowepro don't make these anymore So when I replace it I will go for something like the Lowepro Flipside 400 AW.
The camera strap which comes with your camera is of very limited use when shooting animals. Even if it is slung over your shoulder you will find your movement very limited and the camera will often be in a vulnerable position without quick access when on the move.
The best solution I have found is the Black Rapid RS -Sport strap. I attach it directly to the 70-200mm Lens (using the tripod attachment) which offers perfect balance when on the move.
A lightweight tripod which converts easily to a monopod. Not something I use often but I would'nt like to go out without the facility to stabilise the camera.
A Variable Neutral density filter for the f1.2 50mm lens often comes in handy to keep the bokeh and shallow depth of field when shooting in very high intensity light.
I do have neutral density filters for my other lenses but I very rarely find I need to use them.
2x Sandisk Extreme Pro 64GB (160mb/s) CF cards - the faster your cards are the less time you will lose after a long burst of high speed continuous shots while the camera write the images to the cards
Equipment to process photographs
If you are using your smartphone to take your pictures you already have everything you need to edit, store and share your pictures. Mountains of apps (often free) are available for every flavour of phone which make getting involved in the world of photography an easy job. Sharing photographs with friends and family on instagram or one of the many image hosting social media networks is a real joy when you know you have a great moment to share.
If you want a little more control over your images then a Mac or PC is a great investment. Almost any computer will do just fine for all but the most demanding professional jobs. Install some image processing software and change the whole nature of your photographs to suit your mood.
If you find you are taking lots of photographs and you know what you want to do with them (this guide will help you with that!) you can think about better hardware suited to heavy image processing. Powerful computers with large graphics cards, high quality calibrated monitors, graphics tablets for precise image manipulation, fast SSD drives and high speed broadband connections all become essential tools when you want to take your photography to the next level.
You are going to need a fairly powerful PC or Mac (The differences are really just down to the operating system you are most comfortable using! ) with a good screen. The choice is enormous but the important specifications of my machine are:
Intel i7-5820K based PC with Windows 10 - A fast, well cooled CPU is invaluable when processing photographs. Many of todays software solutions (photoshop, Lightroom, DxO and many others) are moving towards GPU acceleration for many tasks but a solid CPU base makes life significantly easier.
32GB RAM - The more RAM you have, the more flexible your workflow will be. Working on problematic images can mean switching between many pieces of software. The ability to have many images with multiple layers open in each of these is a real benefit in photography.
1070p Gfx card - You will be working in software which directly acceses the power of the GPU to processes (often thousands) of images quickly. NVidias pascal based GPU's are a solid choice for photography work with the 1070p offering (in my opinion!) the best performance to cost ratio.
30inch Dell u3014 Monitior - A 30 inch monitor with a resolution of 2560x1600 is an enormously useful part of your system.
A resolution high enough to work on your photographs at pixel level without losing too much of the surrounding detail and allowing you to orient yourself quickly within your photograph is an important part of a quick workflow which can be lost at lower resolutions.
Because you will normally be working with a large graphics tablet (Wacom) and a keyboard between you and the screen, the 30inch monitor provides an optimal size for working at this resolution. Another often used monitor size/resolution combo is 4K but I have found that text and interface sizes can be very small.
Operating systems are getting better at interpreting interfaces at these resolutions but some software can still be difficult to change in order that all buttons and text are readable/usable. Whatever monitor you choose It is advisable to seek out the increasingly rare aspect ration of 16:10.
Most monitors these days are (for a variety of mostly hardware manufacturing industry cost reduction factors) 16:9 which are much less suitable for photo editing. The extra screen real estate provided by 16:10 is worth getting.
An additional 24 Inch HP monitor. - A second monitor used to view photographs directly and to help with the organisation of files is, if not an essential, a great benefit to fast workflow. Again this monitor is 16:10 aspect ratio but with a resolution of 1920x1200. Both of my monitors are calibrated using either x-rite i1 display pro or Spyder5Elite calibration tools to ensure the best colour reproduction I can get.
Some other usefull equipment
Wacom Tablet and Pen. - I consider this the greatest benefit to speedy and accurate manipulation of photographs. I have the entirety of the tablet mapped to just the 30 inch monitor (using the correct aspect ratio of course!) giving me very precise control of my main editing windows. Access to the second monitor is only available using the mouse.
USB 3 Card reader. Transferring images from your cards to your drives can be a time consuming process using the often USB2 based interfaces provided on most machines at the moment. An external USB3 Card reader improves this significantly.
27TB Raid 0 storage - I keep an archive of every Raw photograph I ave ever taken. This quickly amounts to a huge library of photographs which needs to be stored. I I have three 9TB raid 0 drives. Two of them are dedicated to storing just raw images - Their contents are identical for safety. The third drive contains archives of projects from the various software I use.
950 pro SSD drive - This is my boot drive, the location of the installed software I use and the place I keep all work in progress including projects, Raw Files and working Jpegs and Tiffs. This is a fast drive which makes working fairly painless.
You can certainly get equivalent photographs with less expensive equipment but this set means I have more options in tricky situations which is often a lifesaver!
All of the photographs you will see in this guide were taken with this equipment. Throughout this guide I will offer as many tips as I can remember that I rely on regularly.
This is in no way the definitive way to photograph animals. There are many better photographers out there than me but I have found a way to make it work which both myself and my clients enjoy! There are certainly other ways to do many of the things I describe and you should pick and choose any which might work for you.
If you look at the work of many photographers you will, through an understanding of their way of seeing the world, become a better photographer yourself. I regularly visit many photographers websites and galleries and I like to think I learn something new with every visit!
It has always been my opinion that the best animal photography is in wide open spaces with natural light where your pets feel most comfortable and look most natural.
A photograph of your dog playing in the park, your rabbit wandering out of its hutch or your cat sleeping in a window box is often the best way to capture them with great light.
If the shots need to be indoors or the weather is just not suitable outside then it is always good to throw some artificial light onto the things you want to capture. The camera is not nearly as good at interpreting the light in a room as your eyes are. Just turning on the house lights may be enough or using the light on your smartphone (you should very rarely use the flash on your camera – more about this later.)
If you want to create better portraits you may want to invest in some photographic lights. They needn't cost the earth and with a little knowledge about placement and how the light effects your camera settings your images will be even better. More stylised shots can be achieved with large soft boxes and a bewildering selection of studio lights and reflectors. High-key and low-key backgrounds will allow you to isolate your pets in a scene and show them at their very best.
I will, in another guide, describe indoor and studio photography in more depth. I won't offer any description of artificial lighting here but it is an important area as a professional animal photographer so I will certainly cover it in a future guide.
Photoshop or the incredible GIMP (open source software so no payment required!) are a great place to start. With a million easy to follow tutorials available on YouTube, this type of software is used almost universally in both the casual and professional photography world.
Moving up to more dedicated workflows, you may consider some of the professional offerings like Lightroom, DxO optics pro, Capture One Pro, and several other open source options for the processing of RAW images, allowing you to create astounding imagery worthy of any gallery!
In this guide I will describe my basic use of Lightroom and DxO Optics pro.
Next: Camera Settings