Are you feeling a little underwhelmed as you look at your photos of Fido and Tabby? Do your pet photos lack flair and fail to grab the attention of the viewer? Perhaps you don't even have (shudder) ANY photos of your pet(s)! Taking better photos of your pet can be done with some thoughtful planning and by using some of the helpful tips below. In most cases it won't matter if you have a "point & shoot" camera or a high end DSLR, applying some sound compositional techniques can improve your photos dramatically. Why do I say "In most cases...?" One example is that a DSLR is generally better at handling low light situations but don't let that throw you if you don't own one.
To help illustrate the photography tips below I have included some photos of my favorite photo subject: my 5 year old Cocker Spaniel named Lizzie. My wife and I have had Lizzie since she was 3 months old and she loves to pose. And no worries, Lizzie signed a model release to let me use her images for this article!
OK, so let's talk about some things you can do to improve your pet photography.
1. Get down to their level
The angle at which you take your photos plays an important role in whether your final image becomes the typical awkward snapshot or a stunning portrait. Just look at any pet photo contest and you will see tons of photos of pets where the owner has taken the picture while standing over their pet. While there may be a few exceptions, photos taken in this way generally do not flatter the poor animal. Photos taken from a lower vantage point will go far in making your pet look more natural. Below is a photo of Lizzie in the yard on a nice warm summer afternoon. I laid down in the grass on my stomach and called her name, and when she turned to look at me, I captured the shot.
Lizzie in the yard on the 4th of July
2. Capture their Character
Just like us humans, pets come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. If you see a pet photo that makes you smile, laugh or say, "Awww," then chances are the photographer captured the true personality of their subject. Think about your pet and the kind of personality it has. Is he/she outgoing and energetic or shy and reserved? Does your pet have any special quirks or habits that you find to be funny or endearing? The first hurdle to overcome is to have your camera with you when these moments occur. It can be a pain or inconvenience to keep a camera with you all the time but the reward of capturing a phenomenal picture of your pet's character will be well worth the trouble.
A few ideas: While watching TV with your dog, snap a pic of the pet while he rests his head on another family member's lap. Capture your cat while he looks out the window at the birds on the feeder. Get a photo of your pet playing with a toy. Below is a photo when Lizzie was a puppy and she was on the porch of our house. At this point in her life she was too small to go down the steps so she just remained on the top floor and looked down from above. To me this photo captures the innocent curiosity that small puppies have.
3. Focus on the Eyes
This tip is well known and followed religiously by wildlife photographers. The aperture setting on your camera will determine how much of your photo will be in focus. The lower settings such as 1.4, 2.8, 3.5 will blur the background while higher numbers such as 8, 11,16 will help make more of your image sharp. Regardless of the aperture used, the important thing to do is to make sure your camera's focus point(s) are trained on one of your pet's eyes. You will see the focus points illuminate in your viewfinder, just make sure that one of the eyes is being used to determine where the camera should focus.
Below is a photo I took of Lizzie at Christmas time a couple of years ago. Since I've been photographing her since she was 3 months old, Lizzie is well behaved when it comes to posing. For this shot, my camera was on a tripod and triggered by a wireless shutter release. I ensured that the focus points in the viewfinder focused on her eyes.
4. Avoid Flash - Use Natural Light
When utilized properly, flash can be used with great results, but it will require some extra effort. You want to stay away from using the bare built-in flash on your camera because it can introduce a host of negative effects including red eye, harsh shadows and lower contrast. (Red eye occurs with humans while for animals the effect is usually green or yellowish). This is because the light is very strong and coming from one direction. Also keep in mind that some animals can be frightened by the startling light of a flash. In order to get pleasing results, your pet needs to be lit with diffused light.
You can pay for diffused light by buying softboxes, umbrellas, flash diffusers or other gadgets but what if you aren't in the position to obtain these things? Cloudy overcast days are your best friend when you want diffused light. The clouds will act as a veil over the sunlight and shadows will appear much softer. You best bet indoors is to situate your pet next to the diffused light coming in through a window.
Below is a photo of Lizzie outside in front of our house. Because it was a cloudy overcast day, you can see that there are no shadows at all in the photo. In capturing this image, I did not use a flash at all, just the diffused light that was available at the time.
You can fuel your creativity by using props or costumes while photographing your pet. Retail pet stores are loaded with costumes for pets during holiday periods and toys are never in short supply. With a little thought and patience, the props can help you achieve that "Awww" factor that you may be seeking in your photos. Props and costumes alone though aren't the magic bullet that will guarantee a great photo. You must make sure the photo is properly exposed, nicely composed and in focus.
Below are a few shots of Lizzie with various props and costumes.
Lizzie chilln' on the deck
Lizzie - Christmas 2012
Lizzie - Cruising around town
Lizzie - "Helping?" with the Laundry
6. Capture the Action
If you have a pet that is very active, a photo of them running, jumping or playing fetch will really show off their character! Two or more pets playing together can open up even more photo opportunities. To capture exciting action shots, you'll need fast shutter speeds in a well lit area to freeze your pet's movement. Aim for shutter speeds of 1/500 of a sec at the minimum. If the light is fading due to the sun setting, raise your camera's ISO setting to a higher number in order to increase the light sensitivity of your camera.
Another helpful tip is to set your camera to burst mode so you will be able to take many photos quickly while your finger holds down the shutter button. Not all cameras have this feature while some expensive models can shoot as many as 14 frames a second. While reviewing a series of photos taken in burst mode, you may find that one gem of a photo that captured your pet at that perfect moment.
Below are a couple of shots of Lizzie running through the yard.
"Hooray, Daddy's home!"
"Did I hear the dinner bell?"
7. Think outside the box
Set some goals to create some images that are unique, different and not your typical snapshot. Really let your creative juices flow and try some crazy ideas. You are free to experiment as much as you'd like because in this digital age, you won't have to worry about the cost of normal photographic film. Take as many shots as you want! With the help of various image editing software programs, you can bring your wildest ideas to life.
Below is a photo of Lizzie....and Lizzie.....and Lizzie on our back deck. The idea for this photo came to me in a flash. While I was sitting on the deck, Lizzie came out and sat down in front of the flowers. I thought it would be cool if "two more Lizzies" were added on the chairs next to her.
"Say Hello to my Little Friends!"
8. Include people in the photo
An image of a pet with their owner will show the love and strong bond that exists between the two of them. The pet will generally be more relaxed during this time as well and these photos will of course be cherished for many years to come. Pay attention to the many ways your pet interacts with members of your family or strangers and have your camera ready. Below is a photo of myself with Lizzie on the very day my wife and I brought her home at 3 months old. Yup, Lizzie has looked down the barrel of my camera lens since day one!
9. Read your camera manual
Yeah I know, I'm stating the obvious but you'd be surprised at how many people just grab their new camera out of the box and immediately go out and start taking pictures. Then after looking at the results they wonder why the photos are dark or bright, not focused, blurry or some other hideous effect. You don't need to know every minute feature and function that your camera offers to take good pictures but you should know the basic settings that will affect proper exposure and focusing. At minimum, you should become comfortable with the following settings of your camera and how each will impact your final image:
I hope after reading that you haven't run for the hills but instead decided that you will look for your dusty camera manual and get more familiar with your camera. There are also tons of photography books that can teach the basic principles of photography regardless of camera brand, make or model. Your local library is a great resource if you'd rather not purchase a book.
Pet photography can be challenging and difficult but it can also be fun as well. It goes without saying that pets are truly members of the family. The joy we receive from our pets and what it means to us can not be underestimated. Armed with the photo tips outlined above, I hope you will take the time to snap some great photos of your special furry friend. If this article helped you to take better photos of your pet, feel free to enter a comment or share a link to some of your pictures. I would love to see them as I'm sure readers of this article would as well. I wish you much success!
When you do finally capture that prized photo, just remember that you are the photographer and your pet is the model so therefore you each did half of the work. Reward your pet with a treat...
More photos of Lizzie can be seen in her photo gallery HERE.