Pets are members of the family — squirmy, energetic, over-eager members of the family that often can’t sit still and turn into a massive blur on camera. Pets make some of the most stunning family photos, but, frankly, the same nuances that allow them to wiggle their way into our hearts also makes them difficult to photograph. Pet photography is a mix of portrait photography, sports photography and child photography all rolled into one — but you don’t have to become an expert on each one to learn how to take better images of pets with a few pet photography tips.
As a portrait photographer (and mom to one dog, one cat and three fish), the toughest family photo shoots I’ve shot involve both a dog and a toddler in the same photo because getting both to sit still at the same exact time borders on impossible. But after having both (toddler and pets) of my own, I’ve found a few different ways to make those shots happen. Here are a few pet photography tips to capture more fur and less blur.
Pets don’t understand posing instructions. A few treats and favorite toys can go a long way in getting pets to stay put or look in a certain direction. A dog that’s been trained to sit and stay, in particular, will be much easier to work with when he’s eager to listen for that treat. Food bribes can work with other critters too, since even untrained pets will often look towards the smell of that treat. (If you’re shooting images of a pet that you don’t own, always ask the owner for permission before offering any food).
Pets don’t have to be sitting still to get great shots, however — and that’s where a favorite toy comes in. Using some of the same camera settings you’d use for sports photography (more on that coming up), you can freeze a game of fetch or the attack on that stuffed mouse.
Just like when photographing toddlers or newborns, sometimes, waiting until that cute but cranky subject is in a better mood can go a long way. When photographing your own pet, it often pays off to just keep the camera ready and wait. Don’t try to force your pet to sit still if you’ve just walked in the door and he’s eager to see you, or if she just woke up and is ready to stretch her legs. Wait for a calmer moment.
Professionals photographing a family that brought a pet along for a scheduled session might not have that same luxury — but there’s still a few things you can do. Most pets are energetic or nervous when first arriving for the shoot. Have an assistant walk the animal to get some of that energy out while you get started with the family. No assistant? Ask the family ahead of time to bring along a friend that can help with the animal. Besides walking some energy out, this helper can also hold the leash when the dog isn’t in the photos.
When taking a portrait, knowing who you are photographing goes a long way — and the same idea applies for pet portraits. What will make him sit still? What makes her look your way? What unusual quirks could you capture on camera? If you’re photographing a pet that’s not your own, talk with the owner ahead of time to get an understanding of that critter’s temperament and plan accordingly. Don’t, for example, schedule a family photo shoot in front of the lake with a Labrador Retriever that loves swimming if you don’t want a wet dog in the photos. Find out what treats and toys to bring ahead of time as well.
Unless you’re already familiar with portrait studio lighting, the best images are often right outside the door — or window. Natural light is the easiest to work with for newbies to pet photography. When heading outside, look for a spot of full shade to prevent awkward shadows. (On a cloudy day, this soft, shady light is everywhere).
Not heading outside? Find a window instead. A large window that’s not directly facing the sun will work best. Window light creates softer light and has a tendency to bring out the sparkle in that pet’s eye much better than artificial overhead lights can.
Here’s where the sports photography comes in. Since many pets have a hard time sitting still, use a fast shutter speed. Set your camera to shutter priority mode or manual mode and use a shutter speed of at least 1/250 if possible, and even faster for action shots of a game of fetch. Turning the burst mode on will take a sequence of fast shots to up the odds of getting a perfectly-timed shot. Prevent soft images by using continuous autofocus mode, not single.
Portraits are all about the eyes — even when that portrait subject isn’t a person. While there are a few exceptions, getting down on the animal’s eye level will create more personal pet portraits. If you shoot from your eye level, the pet will look smaller and it will be harder to look into Fido’s eyes in the shot.
To really make those puppy dog eyes pop, make sure the camera focuses on the eyes by using single point autofocus area and moving the focal point over one of the pet’s eyes. Using natural light like a window also tends to make the eyes sparkle without risking red eye.
If Fido never sits still, why try photographing him that way every time? While still pet portraits have their place, mix it up by capturing the animal at play. Capture a dog playing fetch, digging, rolling, playing — or giving a family member kisses. Try photographing a cat watching raindrops out the window, playing with a toy, or trying to fit in that too-small box.
Pets are one of the most difficult family members to get in pictures — but borrowing a few tricks from sports and portraits photographers allows for sharp pet photos full of personality. With camera settings designed for moving subjects, the right light, some treats and a few other pet photography tips, capturing pets on camera becomes less challenging — and more fun.