Cameras and Lenses for Pet and Wildlife Photography | My Kitbag
Photography Equipment is partly Personal and mostly Technical
I’m often asked about the cameras and lenses I’ve chosen for my pet and wildlife photography. It’s easy enough to talk about my own equipment, but it’s really important to make it clear that what’s right for me may not be right for the next person. That’s because different photographers simply have different preferences and different types of subjects. More importantly different photographers have very different photography styles. For that reason it can be difficult to offer specific recommendations.
It’s important to make a distinction between pet photography and wildlife photography. They really are very different when it comes to equipment, especially lens choices. Pet photography is mostly about creating portraits. Those portraits might be static (if we’re lucky) or they might be very dynamic. In the latter case the animals may move beyond our normal working distances, but they’re not going to be as far away as a small bird, a deer, or most wild animals. For that reason my pet photography lens lineup is broadly the same as that for human portraits. My wildlife lenses however will need to offer much longer reach.
Key for me (thanks to joint issues which can be limiting at times) is size and weight. My equipment is based around minimizing physical strain. My wildlife setup of a micro four thirds camera and the Leica 100-400 is notable in that respect. This arrangement gives me a whopping 200-800mm ‘equivalent’ field of view which would be hugely heavy and expensive in full frame or even APS-C terms. For portraits I’ll often use a Sony mirrorless camera with the Sony 70-200 e-mount G lens. By choosing the f4 version of that lens I’m saving a bit of weight (and expense). The same argument will apply is you’re opting for one of the newer ‘micro-DSLRs’ and a similar lens such as the Canon 70-200 f4.
The Importance of Fast Autofocus for Pet and Wildlife Photography
Because animals (both pets and wildlife) often move about quickly we need to choose cameras with fast and accurate autofocus. Autofocus speed and accuracy is also partly dependent on the lens - some lenses will focus faster than others. Micro 4/3 cameras and lenses are a fantastic choice because the performance is blazingly quick. At this point you might feel an urge to query the continuous autofocus performance of most mirrorless cameras, which in general still falls behind that of the top specified DSLR cameras. The best question to ask yourself is ‘do I need accurate continuous autofocus and if so how often?’
Continuous autofocus isn’t a magic bullet nor is it necessarily the right choice in many situations. I tend to use it when I’m photographing subjects which are moving in a predictable way. That might be horseracing, motor racing, catwalk fashion photography, cycling and so forth. An erratically moving animal isn’t a particularly good contender for continuous autofocus or focus tracking. Even the best camera and lens combination will struggle in those conditions. Therefore you may be better off using zone focus, or even single shot autofocus.
I’m often photographing pets indoors in less than ideal light, so fast and accurate autofocus is a must. I have to be able to grab my shots in an instant, before the animal moves. This is where my Micro 4/3 cameras shine – I can’t think of any instances where my Panasonic GX8 has missed focus. Obviously this assumes good technique on the photographer’s part. In these situations I normally have the Leica 25mm f1.4 Summilux on board.
Aside from autofocus – wildlife photography involves being outdoors, often for long periods of time. It makes sense to choose cameras and lenses with some degree of weather sealing, to help guard against moisture and dust ingress. This doesn’t apply quite so stringently to pet photography, since pets and their owners aren’t always amenable to a rainy photo shoot.
Lens Focal Lengths for Pet and Wildlife Photography
As a general rule wildlife photography demands long focal lengths. For near wildlife focal lengths of around 300 mm (in FX/35mm terms) would be the shortest I would recommend. For small birds we’ll be hankering after at least a 600 mm field of view. This is partly why cameras with a ‘crop sensor’ are popular with wildlife photographers. A smaller sensor format will increase the apparent reach of the lens. An ideal example would be the camera and lens I grab the most in my wildlife photography. That’s my Panasonic GX8 teamed with the Leica 100-400mm lens. Because a 4/3 sensor has a x2 crop factor, I’m able to gain magnification equivalent to 200-800mm when I use that particular optic. To achieve the same field of view using a full frame camera the lens would be absolutely huge and extremely heavy. The same stands for most APS-C lenses.
I know pet photographers who undertake most of their shoots using just two prime lenses. These will probably be a 50mm f1.8 lens and an 85mm f1.8 lens, on a full frame camera. This amounts to a close working style as well as a preference for wider scenes. Alternatively a 24-70mm f2.8 zoom lens could be one lens solution (albeit without the more creative wider apertures). Other photographers who work exclusively outdoors will often be able to conduct the entire session with a classic portrait zoom lens such as a 70-200 f2.8 or f4 lens on a full frame camera.
The Importance of Backups and ‘the Quick Swap’
I photograph a huge range of animals. I also work in all sorts of environments such as my subject’s home, garden, or large outdoor spaces. For that reason I tend to take three cameras to a shoot. This means I can swap between different focal lengths in an instant. It also means I’ve always got two levels of backup. Because I favour small mirrorless cameras and lenses I can carry several items comfortably without being weighed down. In general I’ll work between two bodies, each with a very different lens. For indoors in an average sized room I can do virtually everything with a 50mm field of view. Outside (depending on the animal) I’ll opt for either an 85mm FOV or I’ll use my 70-200 f4 lens on an APS-C body, so I can leverage the x1.5 crop factor. The latter is useful for lively pets running around in a park or wood. If I know the pet owner is looking for a particularly large print I’ll probably take my Sony full frame camera (42MP).
Lighting for Pet and Animal Photography
Because I like to shoot a range of scenes on location I’m not in the habit of rigging up studio lights. My work is dynamic so I’m normally moving around a great deal. The light isn’t always particularly good in England in the colder months, meaning that if I’m working indoors the light can be dismal. In line with my policy of carrying low weight equipment, I’ll use speed lights whenever I need to lift the room light a notch. When used in this way the lights aren’t pointed directly at the animal - instead I’ll bounce them in the opposite direction into a light-coloured wall (sometimes with a snoot if I want the light to be more directional). That way the animal doesn’t even see the flash.
My Pet Portrait Photography Kit
Panasonic GX8 camera
Sony a6300 camera
Sony A7Rii camera
Metz 44 AF-2 speedlight
Godox TT350S speedlight
Leica 25mm f1.4 Summilux (micro 4/3) lens
Sony E mount 85mm f1.8 lens
Sony E mount 70-200 f4 lens
Sony A7Rii ….
A mirrorless Sony camera with the Sony 70-200 f4 G lens is a classic combination for portraits of people and pets. Switching the A7Rii into ‘super-35’ mode conveniently turns it into an APS-C camera with extra reach and a more manageable 18MP output
Kelly Moore bag ….
When I want to look extra-smart (or if I want to travel incognito) a bag like this is ideal. It’s a fully fledged camera bag where you can remove the inner padding to convert it into a normal handbag for everyday use
My Wildlife Photography Kit
Panasonic GX8 camera
Canon 200D camera
Sony a6300 camera
Leica 100-400 f4-6.3 Lens (for distant subjects)
Canon 55-250 f4-5.6 STM lens (backup, or for intermediate subjects)
Sony E mount 70-200 f4 lens (for near subjects)
GX8 + Leica 100-400 ….
In my view this is the ultimate combination for distant wildlife photography. An equivalent FOV of 200-800 mm is ideal for birding, as well as being great fun. The manageable size and weight is what makes this setup so special
Manfrotto Woodland Bag ….
I have this bag in the small and medium sizes. It’s super lightweight and the small size perfectly accommodates my GX8 and Leica 100-400 lens combo on its side. It isn’t waterproof though - for damp days I reach for my Billingham f2.8
Equipment to Consider if you’re Starting out in Pet and Wildlife Photography
I’m often asked what would be a good starter kit for somebody wanting to have a go at wildlife and nature photography. This largely depends on how much weight you’re prepared to carry and how much you want to spend. But assuming the person asking the question doesn’t want to be weighed down either financially or physically (very sensible when you’re starting out) there are some great options.
In my view the best balance of performance, outlay, and weight lies with either a micro 4/3 system or a Canon micro-DSLR setup. Any of the Panasonic or Olympus Micro 4/3 bodies can be teamed with the excellent Olympus 40-150R lens. This lens is small, very lightweight, cheap to buy, and it’s very sharp. It will afford you an equivalent field of view of 80-300mm. Alternatively if you want to stick with a DSLR then the Canon 200D and the Canon 55-250 STM lens is a good choice (offering up a FOV of 88-400). If you were to ask me which of those two suggestions I would personally lean with, it would be micro 4/3 in a heartbeat. That’s because the affordable micro 4/3 lenses are fantastic quality, the u43 sensor IQ is about the same as the current latest generation of Canon APS-C sensors, and the overall size and weight is smaller. The Micro 4/3 cameras (although more expensive than the Canon 200D are packed with an amazing array of features, which will help the photographer grow into their hobby).
For closer pet portraits and low light work add in the affordable and excellent Olympus 45mm f1.8 prime lens or the Canon ‘nifty fifty’ 50mm f1.8 STM.