Perfecting Pet and Animal Portraits

Move over humans, it’s time to get our furry friends ready for their close-up.

We love our pets. In fact for most people they are more than mere pets and become more like family members, the recipients of love, affection and lavish attention. It is likely then that their owners, at some point, are going to want photographs of their furry friends (or scaly, feathery or otherwise). I have a dog, and the number of photos that include him specifically outnumber those of all my other family members put together.

However, pet photography presents its own special problems. Animals, as we all know, can be unpredictable, lazy, aggressive, hyperactive and downright cute. If you’re thinking of trying pet photography, here are a few pointers to get you started.

Pet Personality Profile

You don’t need to sit the pet in question on a psychiatrist’s couch and ask it to tell you about its mother, but before you start snapping away, find out about your subject’s personality and habits. Where does it snooze if the sun is out? What is its favourite toy? Is it lazy, sleepy, or does it like to perch on a garden fence or hide in the grass?

Take time to chat with the owner and observe your subject to gain some insight. It’s also worth spending a little time getting to know the animal yourself. Cats, dogs, horses, they all have personality, and you need to ensure they are comfortable being around you, and you around them. Scaring a pet right at the outset is not going to make for a particularly happy or productive photo shoot.

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Close Quarters

Think about getting in close to your subject. If the pet is comfortable with you, and if it isn’t too skittish, fill the frame with the pet’s face. Get the eyes nice and sharp. Just like humans, this is a natural point of focus, although focusing on the snout of a dog or cat can also make for an interesting image in its own right. A good portrait focuses on the subject and not the background.

Yes, there are times when shooting wide can create a great environmental portrait, but make sure you get a good selection of close-ups. A macro lens is perfect for capturing details of the pet, and shooting with a wide aperture keeps any background distractions out of focus. Obviously if the animal is not content to keep still for more than a second, this can be a challenge.

Keep snapping away; try using your camera’s continuous autofocus to track the animal as it moves. If it’s proving too difficult, let the animal play a while, and try again. Pets have very short attention spans, so keep it fun, break it up a bit if you have to and always reward and fuss them when they do well.

On the Level

Your average dog is a couple of feet tall, cats even smaller. The average adult human is about 5’ 7”. If you photograph a pet while you’re standing up, all you’re going to see is the top of their head and their backs, not what you want for a portrait. Get down to their eye level, and see the world from their perspective. If you are able, get lower still.

Try pre-focusing your camera and just holding it at ground level so you can look up at the pet. It’s worth a try just for a new angle on things.

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Lighting

When meeting a new animal, bring a flash and, with the owner’s permission, while greeting or playing with the pet, fire a couple of test flashes away from them to see their reaction. In daylight particularly, they never seem to mind the flash at all. If they do mind, then stick with natural light and use a white or silver reflector if you need to fill in any shadow areas. Indoors, a bright continuous light may be preferable.

I have a photoflood light that, rather than using old tungsten bulbs, uses three daylight-balanced energy saving bulbs. They are housed in a 22” reflector that I can cover with a diffuser to soften the light if need be. You can also try placing your subject near a window to use the natural light. If I am using flash with a willing subject then I invariably use cross-lighting, avoiding shooting a flash directly at them.

Be Patient and Carry On!

As they say, “memory is cheap, but memories are priceless”. Pets are challenging subjects so you’re just going to have to stay sharp and keep shooting. The more you shoot, the greater your chances of hitting that perfect shot!

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Mark Frost

Mark started work as a commercial artist during the good old days of Letraset, spray mount and having to process your photos at a local chemist. Having discovered his passion for photography, Photoshop and the wonders of digital image manipulation, he has not looked back. He is well on his way to owning more cameras than he’s had hot dinners.

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