Photographing your pet

Last updated 08:32 20/07/2011

Connor looked up at me quizzically. The sunlight caught his coat and eyes brilliantly. I pointed the camera at him and pressed the shutter button. The hi-tech 21st-century technology heaved into action, shedding its sleepy bewilderment, gathering its digital thoughts and coming to the conclusion "a photo is desired". After an eon of, oh, a second, the shutter clicked - but Connor had turned away.

Connor no head, one of many
  Pets keep moving! One of many failed shots of Connor.
Again I tried. Press, pause, (turns head) click. Press, pause, (turns head) click.

I got lots of photos of Connor's neck, but none of the perfectly framed, immaculately lit face that I saw through the viewfinder.

Years ago, in the pre-digital days of wind-on 35mm film and f-stop rings, I was a keen photographer. I got used to choosing the exact instant when I'd take the shot, confident that my chosen fast shutter speed would ensure a good picture.

Ordering prints would take up to two weeks back then. Yet somehow that wait was more bearable than the tiny delay in my digital camera's aperture speed is now. That one-second pause is a territory of teeth-grinding annoyance. But my dear old 35mm camera stopped working, so all my snapping now is with a $200 digital camera that's great in many ways but still gives me that moment of bewilderment before taking the photo.

So in talking about ways of getting good photos of your pets, the first thing I'd advise is to breathe deeply and be super-patient. You're going to miss some shots, but you have to keep clicking.

Connor and Phoebe
  More successful: good light, not too much room for movement.
And clicking and clicking. My second bit of advice is to take heaps of photos. Load your camera with a high-capacity memory card and take photo after photo. When you come to review them, one or two will please you and you won't regret the failures.

Some more professional advice follows in this blog post, but here are a few more lessons I've learnt through my own snapping attempts as well as looking at hundreds of other people's pet photos, successful and not.

* Keep your camera handy so you can grab it easily. Take it with you on dog walks.

* Use a high resolution, so you'll later be able to crop in on the image without making it go fuzzy.

* Vary your photos from the standard human-to-pet point of view, you looking down at them. Get close.

Can you add any other rules of photographer's thumb?

I asked my cousin Tracey, who has a photography business in Canada, to give me some hints on taking things a step further than the kind of opportunistic snapping I've done till now. Here's what she said:

I find treats only encourage craziness so I try to avoid using treats to get animals to stay. If you use treats take this as my warning, your dog/cat might get really wound up and think its a big game. Instead I use praise and at the END of the pose I offer a little treat.

1. As for any photograph, light is the most important element. The most flattering light is soft natural light for your best friend, little kitty or even pet iguana. If you have a large window in your house set up your pet next to the large window, with his face sideways or slightly toward the window (not with their back to the window. Shoot your picture from beside or at a 45-degree angle from the window's edge.

Catch light 22. Light in the eye. Coax your pet to look out the window (not usually a difficult task). When you see the catch light in the eye, take the photo. Catch lights in the eyes are what make all photos of living subjects, souls or windows to the soul. You will have a much more natural photo this way.

Catch light3. Turn OFF the on camera flash, unless of course you enjoy the demon glow eye look. Instead try to get as much light into the room as possible without using a flash. If you are using a speedlight, bounce it up or backwards.

Down low with Mr Kitten4. Get down to their level. Lie on the ground, crouch, whatever. My dog Farley thinks that when you lie on the ground, or crouch, that means it's play snuggle and knock you over time. If I am photographing him I often have to get my partner to hold him on a leash in a sit-stay until he calms down.

Snapped while playing5. Let your animal be, well, your animal. Farley has an almost obsessive love for all his stuffed animals. When we go on walks he has to take one with him; when he greets us at the door he immediately runs and grabs us one to show us. Use these quirky things as your "prop" in the image. Maybe Kitten is crazy about grass and catnip - you can use these items to show your animal's personality.

6. Use contrasting backgrounds, if you're photographing a black dog, a dark calico kitty or even a snake or lizard, set your studio to contrast to their fur or, uh, scales. Use a white-tiled floor or blanket (your bed) to contrast the dark. If your animal has light fur I suggest a darker background - just remember to keep the backgrounds simple, and decluttered. The main focus should be the pet.

Farley in the snow7. Take the session outside to the park or a natural setting, get down low and throw the ball for fetch and have the camera clicking while your pup is retrieving. Go for a walk, practise some sit-stays and take some pictures.

Even if your pet isn't cooperating, keep a positive attitude. Posing for photographs is not a normal animal thing to accomplish. Always give your pet a big hug and thanks at the end of the session.

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Post a comment
Vida   #1   08:43 am Jul 20 2011

Sound advice AND neat photos! Excellent!

Ellie   #2   09:04 am Jul 20 2011

Your cousin has remarkably good taste in animals. :-)

ShortyJ   #3   09:17 am Jul 20 2011

I was trying to take a photo of 3 dogs together a couple of weeks ago. After a few attempts and my cousins holding onto the leads we got there! Kymi even had her ears forward, which is normally the thing that I have most trouble with when photographing her.

I have a few photo's of Kymi's nose - she seems to have a knack of moving just as the shutter goes and investigating the lense :-)

JeM   #4   09:19 am Jul 20 2011

Getting to their level is the best bit of advice. The best photos of my darlings (child included) are when I have got down to their level to take it.

Geoff   #5   09:19 am Jul 20 2011

My advice would be to upgrade your camera to one that doesn't have such a delay. The cheaper the camera, the more delay they tend to have. Digital SLR's don't tend to have the delay. You press the button, it does stuff. Also, you get to look through the lens itself rather than at an LCD image in the "viewfinder" that is also slightly delayed from what the camera is seeing.

But isn't there an old adage of never working with children or animals? Someone has to though. :-)

Emily   #6   09:30 am Jul 20 2011

i have a rather neurotic mini foxy and as soon as I get out the camera he starts going a bit bonkers in anticipation of any flash/light that may come from the camera and all I get photo wise is either crazy eyes or the back of him as he 'attacks' the light *sigh*

Bin Labrador   #7   09:59 am Jul 20 2011

I have the most trouble in trying to get the definition & muscle tone to come through on a black dog & yet the chocolates are not too bad but tend to bleed out in some darker light levels. the tip about natural light & not using the camera flash is a good bit of advice. The delay on digital cameras is very bad & the digital SLR's are the best for animals due to the short delay. They are very expensive though & we are saving for a good one & a wide angle lense. Black & white photos can be fantastic too. When we go away in the camper truck the camera is always at the ready & you have to admit we have a great country & fantastic photos of the animals are easy to get at most of our scenic spots. I am so waiting to get up to the snow with my dogs for some great photos & some funny ones too.

Jo   #8   10:33 am Jul 20 2011

I find it really hard to get good shots of my cat because she is black. Good light is really important, but not always easy. I keep trying though. The photos above are gorgeous.

BEK   #9   12:54 pm Jul 20 2011

So many of our pet photos are fails - like Connor, lots of them turning away the second the camera clicks. My dog was in a calendar when he was about 18mths, and I bribed him with treats to sit still and be good. Hard work! And the resulting photo had biscuit crumbs all over his snout, haha.

jenna   #10   01:46 pm Jul 20 2011

Excellent article. We to have the exact same problem with catching those great doggy moments on film. Half the time it is terrible light so you put the flash on and then his eyes shine with a bright white light which we don't know how to gt rid of. But will keep trying:)

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