Tips for taking better pet pictures

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Photographing pets can be delightful, and I treat any creature as if a human subject. This means working to make natural photographs that are intimate with emotional impact. It does not serve anyone’s interest to make pet photographs without any graphic quality or visual depth, that look more like social media snapshots, or are just “cute.” Cute does not equate quality.

For more than a year I have been photographing reader’s pets for the Collared column and Unleashed blog. A proud pet owner myself (three West Highland Terriers, three cats and whatever vermin mistakenly ventures in for a short stay) I consider photographing pets a normal extension of my more serious work. This makes stalking a shy cat through the halls and behind the furniture of an owner’s home much easier.

The latest digital camera technology makes it possible to photograph pets in a natural style that would have been harder with film and almost impossible if limited by the number of exposures on a roll or poor low-light quality.

But a variety of challenges arise trying to get Fluffy or Jax to cooperate. As I crawl on carpet with canines or stalk skittish kitties around furniture, these are some of the aspects I keep in mind for successful pet photographs that have impact and capture an animal’s character.

Tips for Photographing pets:

1. Patience

    • It takes time for the subject to accept a new presence and the noisy cameras. Collared subjects are usually rescues or adopted, which means they tend to be skittish, so it takes time to get good photographs.
    • The best photographs that capture the animal’s character do not happen immediately. Most Collared photo sessions take 15 to 45 minutes, largely dependent upon the pet’s cooperation as I work into the animal’s circle of trust, simultaneously finding the right light and angle.
    • Shooting for more than one photograph which means trying to create variety by using different lenses and angles while capturing different poses and looks. This also takes time.

2. Get close

    • “Tight is Right” is a mantra to live by. Pets are usually smaller than humans requiring a proximity closer than the family snapshots.
    • The Nikon AF Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D is the lens I use the most for pet photographs. It is fast enough to use in most low-light situations and allows me to get insanely close, adding drama to the image and eliminating background distractions.

3. Get low

    • The general population does not see from a pet’s point of view; lower yourself, and the camera, to the level of the subject. The angle can surprise the viewer and create interesting juxtapositions.
    • Crawling on the floor or in the grass is accepted as part of getting low. Thus I try not to wear my nicest clothes for Collared sessions.

4. Clean backgrounds

    • Making effective photographs means considering the entire composition, including the background, which many amateur photographers do not “see” behind the subject. When said subject is small, furry and dark this becomes even more important to the success of the images.
    • Shallow depth-of-field settings draw the viewer to the subject, keeping the subject from getting lost in busy backgrounds and fighting visual distractions.

5. Use the light

    • A photographer has to pay attention to the light and how it reacts with the subject. Do not be afraid of backlight situations, as this makes for an interesting halo around the subject in the right situation.
    • Moving quickly and being able to react instantly are priorities, and additive lighting makes that difficult.
    • Additive lighting can inhibit movement, slow down the process and make the situation more difficult. Turn on lamps, overhead lights and open window shades to let in the light.

6. Treats and toys

    • Save treats or toys as a last resort if all else fails to get the pet to cooperate.
    • Treats can be a helpful tools if the pet is either uncooperative or in hiding. But the animal can get too distracted by, or preoccupied with, treats and the natural photographs are lost.

By looking beyond the obvious, and trying to see your pet in a different way, you too can make great, natural photographs that make anyone proud. Equipment helps, but more importantly it is the effort and creativity brought by the photographer to the subject that makes photographs successful.