Creating Lasting Images of Our Furry Friends

Out in the Pasture

The idea of a custom portrait of a pet elicits a mixed reaction from many because non-pet owners don’t understand that pets are part of the family and just as deserving of having their picture taken as the rest of us. Moving beyond a simple snapshot, many parents of pets want keepsakes both to pamper their companion and to remember them when they’re gone. If there is anything that my experiences behind a lens have taught me, it’s that creating lasting images of our furry friends can be a challenge.

Dogs and cats don’t always sit still and sometimes never stop moving. Some of them are afraid of cameras while others are curious enough that hair or slobber winds up on the lens. Sessions are nearly impossible to plan as what happens is usually unexpected. Lighting changes, animals play, and just as you see a shot about to come together, the pet smells or hears something and you have to recompose for another idea. In the end, capturing that elusive moment becomes more worthwhile because of it and here are a few tips on where to begin.

Patience is a Virtue

Animals aren’t operating on your schedule, so give a session and those special moments time to unfold. Start off each session with some time to get to know the pet, introduce them to the camera and let them get to know you as well. Once they get comfortable, they’ll relax and the images will look more natural. It also helps to let them be themselves. Don’t try to pose them and maybe spend a few minutes following them as they explore where they are. You never know what will happen. I once had a cat repeatedly check to make sure I was tagging along. He led me to his favorite spot in the lawn.

Get Down to Their Level

Perspective matters. Looking down isn’t usually the best angle or even an appealing one at that. Crouch down, sit, lay, crawl, kneel or otherwise do whatever it takes to get down level with a pet and really see things from their point of view. If you work down in their world, you might get a little dirty, but the images will be more compelling.

Focus on the Eyes

As with any portrait, the eyes are key to revealing the soul of the subject. No matter what, the eyes need to be sharp and in focus. Focus on the nearest eye either manually or with spot focus and then compose your shot. Thomas, as seen below, had amazing blue eyes that become the focal point of the image.

Try Spot Metering

Anyone familiar with exposure should remember that solid black or solid white objects requires some special attention to get right. When left up to the camera, black cats and white dogs would come out gray. Add in variable lighting conditions and pet photography becomes a prime time to switch to spot metering and brush up on using exposure compensation. Meter off of the eyes or the face to get a good reading and if necessary, dial in a stop or two of compensation to make the black cat black or the white dog white again.

On-Camera Flash is a Bad Idea

In photography, lighting is everything. Soft, natural light can make for wonderful photographs as can directional light in the morning and early evening. Indoors as well as midday, lighting can become an issue. Dreary interiors don’t typically produce a stunning photo, but this can be remedied with artificial lighting or by finding a large north-facing window. Using the on-camera flash will result in red-eye or any number of undesired results, but by moving the flash away from the camera, these effects will be negated. A softbox or umbrella will diffuse and soften the light, although a burst of flash may scare unwary pets. Dude, as seen below, was lit with a softbox as well as ambient light.

Use A Fast Lens

Lenses in the realm of f/2.8 or larger will allow faster shutter speeds as well as a more shallow depth of field allowing you to blur the background. Faster shutter speeds enable you to capture action as well as hand hold the lens in a wider range of lighting conditions.

Use a Simple Background

If the focal point of the portrait is the pet, why detract from the image by having a cluttered background that distracts the eye? Keep it simple with solid colors and minimize the unnecessary objects either by removing them before taking the shot, composing so that nothing distracting intrudes, or by choosing a large aperture to blur the background and thus eliminate clutter.

Get Their Attention

Unless you’re shooting candids, you need the pet to pay attention, even if only for a second. Using toys or treats can help with this and an occasional noise or whistle might perk up their ears and eyes. Sometimes an image of an alert pet doesn’t seem natural though, so be weary of the type of photo you’re trying to capture.

Tire Them Out

Many times, an energetic pet won’t let you shoot the images you want because it won’t sit still. Change up your game for a minute and play! If you tire them out, they’ll be more inclined to sit for their portrait and you’ll wind up with a wider variety of images in the end (assuming you shot some action photos during playtime). Also consider time of day, as some pets are more active in the morning or early evening. Other pets, like Finnigan seen below, are mellow all day long.

Happy Shooting!

Katie Moody, Marie Rabinowitz liked this post

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