Tips & Techniques » Successful Pet Portraits
Our pets are beloved members of our family and, although they may be our best friends, they’re not the easiest subjects to photograph. We may humor ourselves into believing they understand our every word, but most times they’re hearing, “blah, blah, blah, Sparky!” So giving posing directions to a pet, other than Lassie or Morris the Cat, will most likely be pretty useless. Face it, photographing pets can be quite challenging.
In my career I’ve photographed many furry and feathered friends that weren’t my own. Not to say mine are any easier. I’ve found several simple tips and tricks that’ll help you through the process without even one scratch, growl, hiss or - heaven forbid - bite!
1. The Right Light: If possible, photograph pets outside or indoors with available light. Avoid using a flash if you can. Even if you bounce it off a wall or ceiling, the flash may be a distraction or even scare the pet. Plus, as many of you might have already discovered, the famous 'red eye' created by the flash may prevail even with a camera set to avoid it. Fixing the red- or sometimes glassy-eyed effect in post-production is not as easy in pets as it is with human eyes. Just remember, less is more when it comes to using equipment with pets.
|The in-home location of this shoot produced great results, this dog is obviously comfortable and confident in his own surroundings. His human-like pose, with his leg on the arm cushion, was an easy catch which also memorialized his laid-back personality.|
2. Location, Location, Location: Shooting on a pet’s own turf is usually best, as they feel most comfortable and safe in familiar surroundings. However, depending on the pet’s personality and adaptability, new locations, such as a Pet Fair, may be easier shoots for the non-owner or professional photographer. Some animals are less likely to jump and romp around if staged by someone they don’t know. The same could go for an owner taking a photo – putting them into a setting they’re not familiar with sometimes works. But this all depends on the animal. A scaredy-cat is best left to his safe zones, while a dog may feel a bit inhibited to jump down from the unfamiliarity of a dining chair. It’s a hit or miss situation. But as a rule of thumb – if you’re the owner and photographer and really know your pet well, with the control you bring as the pack leader, you should be able to take the photo just about anywhere. Just remember - the comfort and security of your pet is key to good results.
|Birds perch, so setting up the flag prop made it instinctive for this dove to do what he does best, which produced a beautiful serene photo.|
3. Pleasurable Props: If you wish to use props in your pet photos, they should be something the pet will be comfortable on or with. When it comes to toys, make sure it’s something that won’t distract them too much. Just use something they like which will get their attention.
Regarding furniture such as cribs, baby carriages, even the sink - don’t perch pets on something they've previously been forbidden from as it gives mixed messages. You’re certainly aware that animals have expressions, and if they’ve been told not to jump on the counter, in the sink or playpen in the past, when posed on those objects they may have a 'guilty' look on their face. That isn’t the image you want to capture - unless it’s a candid shot where you just grab the camera to memorialize that goofy, hangdog (pun intended) look as they’re snuggled in on the new white chintz couch.
|Capturing your pet’s trick produces a great personality photo…and one for the brag books.|
And, if your pet happens to be inspired by a particular toy that’s a catalyst for a trick or two, go for it. With a fast ISO, easily set on a DSLR in the menu’s Custom setting, or the Action setting on a point and shoot, you’ll be able to capture that circus-dog photo you’ve always wanted to put in your brag book.
|Given their inborn curiosity of cameras, even farm animal pets can make eye contact. Cows are famous for that, but this lamb wanted to show off his 'baby blues.'|
4. Eye Contact: The eyes of a pet should be the main center of attention of a portrait - this is where you should focus and expose. A true-to-life expression comes from within. Even without a flash, the catch-lights in an animal’s eyes can reveal an alert, happy, and soulful representation of your pet. There’s nothing more captivating than your pet looking directly at you with the love, loyalty and affection that only a pet can give.
5. Attaining Attention and Alertness: In order to obtain total focus when photographing pets (especially dogs), say or do something to attract their attention. “Wanna cookie?” or “Want to go for a ride?” or other phrases your pet is used to hearing, will spark a knee-jerk reflex alerting them to something pleasurable. Even my cats are aware of certain words or phrases that might evoke an expression, such as “See the birdies?” Repeating a familiar word or phrase or making a weird sound or whistle will enable you to catch a shot with your pet’s head cocked to the side – almost always a desirable pose.
If certain noises produce expressive reactions, use them. My favorite tool in pet photography is the squeaker found inside animal toys. Even if I’m alone and have to squeak it with my teeth, not only is the pet looking directly at me when the noise sounds, but I get an adorable and attentive look. Clickers and bird sounds are also extremely useful for grabbing attention and capturing alertness with many types of animals, such as cats and feathered friends. And, CLICK…you’ve got the shot!
By the way, if you don’t want to disappoint your pet or have that be your last shot, you’d be smart to have the occasional treat in hand as a reward. And speaking of treats – it’s always a treat to have someone standing behind you so your subject is looking directly at you and the camera. DO NOT have anyone standing off in a corner; supposedly hiding while you’re shooting - animals are not stupid. They know they’re there and probably think a game of hide-and-seek is about to begin. It will likely become a distraction.
6. Capturing Character: Every pet has their own persona and that’s what you want to memorialize in a photograph. If your cat is a lazy Garfield-type, try to catch a yawn, a stretch, or even a luxurious nap in the sun. If your feline is a sill-sitter, there’s nothing wrong with taking a great silhouette on the window’s edge back lit by sunlight. The ultimate goal is to obtain a pictorial of the pet reflecting their personality – even if it’s jumping up to catch a Frisbee. (As I said in Tip Three, cameras have easy action settings that can fetch - pun intended - your pets in action.)
7. Multi-Pet Portraits: Many folks have more than one pet and may want them all together in one shot. Good luck. Initially frustrating, it’s an acquired skill. But with trial and error it produces the ultimate triumph in pet photography. Albeit one that may take many tries until you finally develop the knack.
If the pets are used to being together, it makes the job easier…but not simple. Just like human photo shoots – one pet’s eyes are open, the other’s are closed. Or one is looking at you, while the other is yawning. Thank goodness for cheap flashcard memory, that’s all I can say. Just keep on shootin’!
8. Cool, Calm, Collected: An important piece of advice when photographing pets is to remain calm. Don’t get flustered, as animals have that sixth-sense about your inner thoughts and moods. If you find that you’re getting clammy palms, it’s time for a break or even postponement of the shoot for another day. Just remember, you may be a terrific photographer for still life - but pets are rarely still!
Rochelle Riservato is a journalist & photographer who has a degree in marketing and advertising from SUNY Farmingdale. For the past three decades she’s worked for many local and national publications. She was recently the recipient of an Outstanding Journalist/Media Presenter Award from the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers (NYSAFLT). Her photography has been showcased at Gallery 128 in Manhattan, The D&H Canal House Museum, and several Kingston, NY galleries. She photographs weddings, actor portraits, events and family portraitures. Her artistry can be seen at www.photosbyrochelle.com and she can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.