So you’re a talented photographer and you love animals, and you want to take the next step and become a pet photographer. As a pet photographer myself, I can tell you how rewarding of an experience it is. In this field of photography, you will not only get the opportunity to meet a number of truly extraordinary people who happen to be pet owners but also get to play with a great variety of wonderful pets.
All this aside, there are number of things that make pet photography different from other types of photography. Most obviously, pets are not able to take direction. So you’ll have to be creative when posing them and getting them to interact in a way that makes the photos work. Also, even more so than people, pets are impatient, and won’t stay in one place for long intervals. However, if you’re clever, you can use this to your advantage.
Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Don’t start shooting right away
You only booked an hour session, so your first inclination is to start snapping photos as soon as you arrive. Resist the urge. I mean it. The quickest way to scare an animal away from the camera is to put a large, unusual object in their face. Very few animals will be curious at first; they’ll be wary.
So, after you arrive, take the first few moments to greet the animal and familiarize yourself with them. While you’re doing this, and this incredibly important, talk to the owner.
Assuming this is the first time you’ve met the animal, you need to use these first few minutes to find out the animal’s character. What do they like to do, what’s their favorite toy, how were they adopted, and so on. Ask questions, and absorb everything that is said. By doing this, you’re getting the pet and the owner more comfortable with you, and you’re able to plan the mood of the shoot.
Next, show your camera to the pet. Don’t take any pictures just yet, just hold it up to them and let them see it. They’ll be wary at first, but since it’s attached to you, and you’ve been friendly, they will be more open to it.
This is not negotiable. If you want a pet to like you and keep liking you, and maybe actually look at the camera, you’ll have to bribe them. I keep a plastic baggie of dry food and treats with me during sessions, and if ever I feel a pet is losing interest, I hold up the bag next to the camera, and they’ll look my way. If you occasionally give them one, they’ll believe you’ll continue giving them more, and they will become much more interested in you, your camera, and what you are doing.
The younger the animal is the shorter their attention span, and having treats is a surefire way to keep them on your side long enough to produce quality photographs.
Also, when working with cats, I often attach a brightly colored feather to my lens, which does a fairly good job of grabbing their attention. Since they are looking in the direction of the lens, it opens up chances to take much better photos.
Have the owner stand behind you
Odds are, since you just met your subject, they’re not going to be completely sure of you just yet. Throughout the session, they will be looking to their owner for reassurance. If the owner is off to the side, you can guarantee that the pet’s eyes will be off to the side as well.
The trick? Put the owner behind you and squat down low. The pet will look up to their owner, and you’ll get a beautiful photograph of their upturned face.
Now, not every shot should be composed this way, but the images where the subject is looking at the camera are often the more meaningful ones.
You would be surprised how many things you can schedule into an hour session. If you have more than an hour, all the better. Pets, like children, don’t like continuously enduring a camera. Schedule breaks that give your subject a chance to play. Once they’ve worn themselves out a bit, you’ll be ready to get some sweeter “introspective” shots.
Shoot in natural light
Unless you have a studio, there is no substitute for natural light when it comes to pet photography. If at all possible, schedule the shoot for the outdoors. This reduced the chance of underexposed or harshly lit pictures. Also, because of their fur and varying biology, flash does not work well for animals. This will give them red or unusually discolored eyes, and will distort the natural tones of their fur.
If you are dealing with an indoor-only pet, find a large window and position your subject so that they are surrounded by it. This lighting will soften them and enhance their natural features as opposed to altering them in an unflattering way.
Eyes are the embodiment of character, and if you want your pet portraits to stand out, then you’re going to want to have the pet’s eyes as sharp as possible. Most of the time, unless you’re lucky, a pet isn’t going to snuggle up next to you while you point a camera at their face. So if you want to get a close up, do the clever thing, use a zoom lens!
This will put a comfortable distance between you and the animal, and you’ll have more opportunity to catch a natural expression, and be able to quickly focus in on their eyes.
Everybody sees an animal from one perspective, which is usually from above. It’s your job as the photographer to provide them with something they haven’t yet seen. Squat down, get low, lie on your belly if you have to. Sure, you may look like you’re crazy doing it, but no one will care, especially once you give them their photos.
The important thing is to be intentional with poses. There are creative ways to shoot animals from above, but don’t just do it because it’s easy, do it because you’ve planned it.
Increase your shutter speed
If you don’t know this already, a German Shepherd chasing a ball can move extremely fast. To avoid a potentially good shot from becoming an unusable blur, increase your shutter speed. The recommended minimum shutter speed is 1/125 for pet portraits, but you’ll have to experiment to see what works right for you. Most of the time, you will need to go much higher.
The image above was shot at 1/640, if that gives you any idea.
Introduce a prop
There are hundreds of thousands of pet photographs in circulation, and the photographs you take can easily just become one of many. A way to broaden your portfolio and establish yourself as a creative pet photographer is to introduce a prop. It could be anything—a book, a flower, a basket—it doesn’t matter really.
People like seeing their pets surrounded by cute or interesting things. You can put a kitten in a shoe or give a dog an enormous bone. Whatever you do, it’ll make the photo stand out, and, in turn, make you stand out as good at what you do.
You’re a creative individual with original ideas—put them to use. As in every other type of photography, there are no conventional rules for pet photography, just many of tips that can point you in the right direction.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that all pets are the same, and, if you think that, maybe pet photography isn’t right for you, because they all have distinct personalities. Talk to the owners, gain insight into what each animal is like, and use that insight as your foundation for building incredible photographs.