Photographing your pet

20:32, Jul 19 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.

  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.


  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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

7. 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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