Taking photos of your pets is a weird combination of frustration and fun.
They make great subjects, because they behave naturally around cameras, but you have to work hard to capture the moment. They’re not going to stand still while you adjust your focal length or repeat a behaviour just because you wanted to take a picture, but weren’t quite ready.
Watching a dog try to chew a large piece of toffee is a pastime fit for gods.
When it comes to pet portraits, there are some golden rules which you needn’t necessarily follow slavishly, but are nice to know...
It doesn’t matter whether you’re taking a photo of a corgi, a camel or a kakapo, don’t just stand up and take the picture.
Try to get your camera to be on the same level as your the pet’s eyes. Most of the time, this means you need to get the camera down much lower than you were expecting.
Flash is uncomfortable for all animals (including humans) and, except in studio conditions, should be considered rude. Photographers, especially enthusiastic amateurs, often seem to forget that photography, especially with a flash, can be quite invasive from the subject’s point of view. They tend to worry more about the shot than their subject’s feelings… this might be (just about) acceptable at a wedding; but honestly, your cat isn’t going to give a motherflippin’ flip about your photos and at the first sign of flash, is going to flip, the flip off.
The pet equivalent of red-eye, is green-eye, and it’s mostly caused by using flash.
Basically what happens is, when the external light enters the animal’s eye some of it is reflected back out through the lens and this reflection is captured on the image.
The way to avoid green-eye in pets, is the same as the way to avoid red-eye in humans,
- Don’t use flash
- Don’t point the camera straight at your subject. Either take the picture when your subject is looking (slightly) away from the camera or step to the side.
- Ensure that the subject’s eyes have had time to adjust to the level of light, you’ll be using in the shot.
Actually, ignore that. It's rubbish. You can have too much ambient light. But in practice, unless you live in a lighthouse, having too much light won't be nearly as much of a problem as not having enough.
Not having flash to rely on, means you have to think more about lighting your shot… and because most pets (like Scottish men of certain age) tend to have furry faces, low level lighting tends not to work very well. The detail of hair/fur requires really good focus, which you’ll struggle to obtain without strong light sources.
Ideally, artificial light sources should be diffused and placed at a low enough level to prevent any unwanted shadows.
As you won’t be using flash, you’re probably going to be using a reasonably long exposure. To get good focus with a long exposure, you need to make sure that the camera is as steady as possible. Ideally, this means you’d use a tripod.
However, if you’re out and about and don’t fancy lugging a studio tripod around, you can use a small portable tripod or, at a push, brace the camera against a wall or tree or a log or something else that doesn’t wobble around.
Before you try to take photos of your pet, make sure that all of their basic needs have been met. Your goal should be for them to be calm and relaxed before you start and throughout. That isn’t going to happen, if they need food, exercise or a loo break.
- If you’ve got a dog, take it for a long walk.
- If you’ve got a cat, use the (often quite short) time between feeding and sleeping, as then they’ll be reasonably likely to stand still for more than 26 milliseconds and they often do that cute paw licking, wash behind the ears thing.
- If you’ve got a honey badger, put on your armoured pants.
but, please, don't feed them toffee... Mr Pratchett was havin' a laff, not offering nutritional advice.
Every dog/cat/honey badger owner in the world thinks their dog/cat/honey badger is objectively the world’s most beautiful dog/cat/honey badger… and, of course, they are right… but sometimes (all of the time) it’s a good idea to make sure your dog/cat/honey badger is looking their best before you take a picture of them.
Things to watch out for include:
- weepy eye gunk,
- runny noses,
- unpleasant stuff on their fur/in their mouths and
- manky looking/badly positioned collars and tags.
You can forget the hairspray and clippers; you don’t want your photos to look like a taxidermy special, but a little bit of TLC beforehand, can save a lot of photoshop later.
For indoor portraits, plain backgrounds are really important/beneficial.
Complicated or patterned backgrounds usually detract from an image. This is especially true for pet portraits. Using a plain background, allows you as photographer and you as viewer of the photograph to concentrate your attention on the portrait, itself. Plain backgrounds also tend to enhance the clarity of the shot, because it creates a clear delineation between the “fuzzy” fur/hair of the animal and the background.
Don’t worry, if you don’t happen to have dedicated photo studio at your disposal, you can always make your own. Basically, all you need is a clean sheet and an angle poise lamp or two.
If your pet is black or white, you're probably better off to go with a similar (rather than contrasting) coloured background, e.g. for a white cat, use a white background and high key and for a black dog, use a black background and low key. If you go for the contrasting coloured background e.g. black dog, white background, the resulting image often has a clinical, unfriendly feel to it… and you’ll find it hard to get enough light on the subject without “blowing” the background.
The purpose of any portrait is to capture something of the subject’s personality… and this holds true for pet portraits.
However, as pet owners, we tend to anthropomorphise our pets, perhaps no more so than when trying to capture their personalities. But, (and without getting too freudian about it) if we’re honest, most of the time, we are ascribing “personalities” to our pets which we want them to have, because they are like our own. As a photographer you should, guard against this.
If your cat is a grumpy, manipulative, cold-hearted killing machine… no amount of cutesy fabrics, teddy bears and pixie dust in the background of the shot is going to change that… and any attempt to make it so, is doomed to failure (unless you’re intentionally going for comedic irony… in which case, you’re way past needing help from us).
Similarly, if your dog is a bit derpy, skip the gangsta rap poses and the studded collars.
Aspire to capture a truth, if you can; if not settle for a honest moment.
Animals don’t stay still for any length of time. Even, armed with marvellous bits of roast chicken and a well trained mutt, you’re not going to get them to stay still for very long.
So, you should pretty much forget about using treats or waving new and interesting toys at them as a way of keeping their interest. Instead, be patient. Let them just be and focus your attention on waiting for “the look”. Then, when it happens you’ll be ready to seize the moment and take lots of pictures.
Capturing “the look” is much easier/more likely, if your camera is set up to automatically take a lot of photos in quick succession. Your camera (and probably nowadays your phone) can almost certainly do this. Look it up in the manual, if you don’t know how. Its probably called auto, burst, multi-shot or something else like that, mode.
Shoot a lot. For pets, a 20 to 1 hit ratio, i.e. 20 duff photos for every good one, would be a pretty good return!
How do you get to Carniege Hall? A. Take a flight to NYC and then get in a taxi with GPS. Its on the corner of West 57th Street and 7th Avenue. 2 Blocks south from Central Park.
How do you take good photos? A. Practice.