How to Photograph Pets: Dogs and Cats
Pet photography: Our pets…They’re handsome. They’re beautiful. They’re scruffy. They’re comical and so much fun to watch when they don’t realize we’re looking. Our pets add both joy and frustration to our lives on a regular basis, and we can’t live without them. But how well can you capture the furry face you love with your camera? It is surprising how many people have difficulty getting good pictures of their four legged friends.
Here are 8 tips how to photograph pets, my favorite subject! I’m going to focus mostly on dogs, but much of it is applicable to cats too.
1. Turn off the flash while doing pet photography – Many people complain that their animals hate the camera and often put on their most miserable expressions. For years when I only had a point and shoot, my cat Tim would shut his eyes and look away, anticipating a harsh flash. The reality is flashing lights are very unpleasant to anyone and you can’t explain to an animal that they have to keep their eyes open for the picture. Or sometimes your pet will keep their eyes open and will get “laser eyes” as a result of the reflection from the retina. Not to mention that a flash tends to bring out very harsh tones, and a lot of flash photography is just not nearly aesthetically pleasing as a photo shot in natural light. Now you can make it work if you have a flash that can be bounced off a wall or a ceiling, or somehow muted, and generally not directed at the animal. But built-in flash and especially the horror that is P&S flash should be avoided in most cases. And of course nothing compares to natural sunlight in bringing out the best in your pets’ expressions, colors and coat textures.
2. Teach the “stay” command to photograph pets. Another common complaint is that an animal moves too fast to photograph. Cats can be a little tricky to convince to stay (more on that later) but unless your dog is a very young puppy, there is no excuse for not training the “stay” command. First of all it is part of basic obedience and can be very utilitarian in just about any situation, not just when photographing them. Second, trying to take pictures a moving target becomes frustrating very fast when you want a still shot, and a particular position.
3. Keep treats in your pocket when photographing pets. Its one thing to put your dog in a sit/stay, it’s another to get a dog to look at you and your camera. Another ordeal altogether is to get them to pick up their ears and look lively. Expression can make a huge difference in a portrait. Not every photo needs a bright and alert expression of course, but know how to get it when you need it. Whenever you bring your camera and your dog somewhere, have bait in your pocket. Keep it to tiny pieces so that its portable and something that won’t fill your dog up fast (you don’t want them to lose interest). Some dogs will give great expression for a toy, but don’t get them so excited that they jump for the toy and ruin the shot. If you don’t have any bait on hand, use a word that gets your dog’s attention. Cats are more difficult convince to stay in one spot when they don’t want to. Sometimes treats work. Sometimes you have to get creative and dangle a string or make a funny noise. Laser pointers can be very helpful – my cat Anton will freeze and stare when I have the pointer in my hand, even if it isn’t on. Always be careful with a laser pointer, never shine it in your pet’s eyes. And one more thing – never punish or yell at your dog or cat while you’re trying to get them to pose for you, because that will guarantee that they shut down and look miserable the next time you bring your camera out.
4. Get on the same level as your dog or cat. Perspective is very important when taking a good photo of your dog (or cat – but cats like to sit in high places often enough). So get down on your knees or even on the floor with your dog. Taking a picture of your dog on the ground while standing up will make their legs appear short, heads large, and bodies sausage-like – not flattering! Standing up is okay when shooting at a distance, and can be done creatively (usually keeping the only pet’s face in focus). But be aware of your body positioning while photographing your pet.
5. Plan action shots when taking pictures of animals. If you want good pictures of your dog in action, grab a fast lens and make sure you have good light. Keep your eye in the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter so that you can focus and shoot quickly. If you want your dog going over a certain jump or running to catch a toy, an assistant is also a good idea so that they can give you dog cues, or throw toys while you shoot.
6. Catch them doing what they do naturally. Sometimes candid shots are the most fun. Its great watching multiple dogs (and cats) interact, and the camera can catch the funniest expressions. If your dog keeps looking at you, you can try to look away until they go back to their own business. Cats will usually do what they want whether you’re there or not
7. Groom your pet before the photo session. Sometimes you just have to grab your camera and shoot what’s happening right then and there, regardless of how your dog’s hair looks (sometimes its fun to document the amount of mud/sticks/snow their hair can pick up). Spontaneous shots are great. But usually you want your dog looking their best for a photo, especially a portrait. Shorthaired dogs and those with scruffy wiry hair can go au naturale. But dogs with silky long coats should at least be combed out before taking (planned) pictures. Topknots should be put up and the hair in front of the eyes should be trimmed or parted if necessary so that they can see. If necessary, you can use a little bit of hairspray or gel to keep fur in place (make sure not to get any near the eyes, nose or mouth of course, and do remember to rinse it out later). Better yet, keep your dog or cat groomed on a regular basis so that you’re always ready for pictures
8. Go outside. Animals often look incredibly more natural when they’re outside. More impressive, happier, livelier. I would not recommend taking indoor-only cats outside, as they can spook easily and run. But definitely take your camera along when you go out with your dog. Do you know a field, forest or beach where your dog can romp? Take advantage. If your dog is not reliable off leash, you can put a long line on them (15 or 20 feet) so that you can manage a good distance to get the shots you want. Leashes can usually be edited out of photos, if necessary.
Hopefully you will find these tips helpful in capturing the best side of your four-legged pals!
Tatyana Vergel is a hobbyist photographer from New York City who loves to photograph pets. She shares her household with two Italian Greyhounds, Perry and Marco, and her two cats Tim and Anton.