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Pet Photography: 9 Tips for Taking Better Photos of Your Cats and Dogs

17th March 2016

If you’re a budding photographer, there’s a good chance that your pets and those of your friends and family have become a source of inspiration and the subjects of countless experimental photo shoots.

But since animals are notoriously unpredictable and can’t be directed in the same way human models can, getting great snapshots of your loyal companions is often easier said than done. So we talked to professional pet photographer Jasper Stenger to get his tips on moving past the stereotypical dog or cat pictures and getting photos you really love.

1. Be patient

An important quality you’ll need to develop when photographing cats or dogs is patience, because like children, animals tend to have short attention spans and are easily distracted.

“I often see people getting impatient when photographing their pets,” says Stenger. “But shouting commands or forcibly trying to move an animal into place will only stress it out and ruin any chance you had of getting good photos.”

With this in mind, he emphasises the importance of familiarising the cat or dog with the camera and environment you’ll be shooting in beforehand.

“Give the animal all the time they need to walk around and get used to where they are, and get them acquainted with the camera before you start shooting,” he says. “If you’re using flash, try a few test flashes beforehand to get them used to that too.”

2. Put the animal at ease

Whether you want your dog to jump through a hoop or dress your cat in an adorable little suit and tie, keep in mind that unless the animal is comfortable, your photos aren’t going to be very flattering.

“I tend to avoid props and go as natural as possible to get the dog looking comfortable and relaxed,” says Stenger. “If you try to force anything, the animal is going to feel stressed and look stressed on the photo. If you have any ideas for props, by all means try them out, but if the animal isn’t comfortable with it, consider moving on to something else.”

Other tricks that can help animals relax include shooting outdoors, which is generally a more natural environment for them, and lightly exercising dogs beforehand so they’re not too nervous, but still have plenty of energy.

3. Get the animal’s attention

A few shots of your dog or cat staring off into the distance can be nice, but having your pet’s full attention will make for a more striking photograph. Once the animal is relaxed and comfortable, treats or toys can be a great way to capture its attention.

“I usually have my photography assistant nearby to get the animal into position with treats or toys,” explains Stenger. He also notes that having someone, such as the pet’s owner or other familiar person, stand behind you as you take the pictures can help attract the dog’s attention and encourage it to look straight into the camera.

 “It’s really about being flexible and seeing what works with each different animal,” he adds. “One thing that works well with dogs who are scared of the camera is to just start handing out treats whenever they’re near the camera so they realise it’s not a threat.”

4. Lighting is everything

As with any other type of photography, lighting is extremely important in pet photography. Natural lighting is the easiest and cheapest to start with, but when shooting outdoors, Stenger stresses that the time of day will make a huge difference.

“If you go out with your pet at mid day when the sun is at its highest, the light is going to be very harsh and cast some unpleasant shadows,” he says.

Instead, he suggests going out earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the light is softer. If you absolutely need to shoot at midday, however, you could try heading into the woods or a park where there are lots of trees to filter the light.

For indoor pet photography, large windows or glass doors can be useful, but keep in mind that if you're shooting near a window in strong sunlight, the contrast between shadow and light can be quite strong. If this is the case, using a cheap collapsible reflector can help throw some extra light on the shadows without it looking unnatural. 

5. Pay attention to the background 

Newer photographers often fail to pay sufficient attention to their surroundings and focus only on the thing they’re trying to photograph, but this can be a big mistake.

“It’s extremely important to pay attention to your background, especially if you’re indoors,” says Stenger. “If you’re not shooting with a plain white or black studio background you always need to check and make sure there is nothing like shoes or mess that will detract from the photo.” 

6. Choose the right camera settings

While the camera settings you choose will depend on the situation and type of photo you’re trying to create, when you’re going for action shots or photographing animals that are moving around a lot, a high shutter speed is important.

If you’re not comfortable shooting in manual mode, shutter priority mode (TV or S) will you allow you to try out different shutter speeds without having to adjust the aperture each time.

“Some modern cameras have an auto ISO feature too,” says Stenger.  “This allows you to shoot in shutter priority and if the aperture goes too low for the lens you’ve got, the ISO will automatically increase, giving you one less thing to worry about.”

7. Get down to their level

If you’re not used to photographing animals, it can be tempting to take photos while standing up and looking down at them, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, Stenger points out that getting down to the animal’s level will give you a different perspective,  

“Taking photos from the same perspective that everyone else will be seeing from means your photos will end up looking like every other animal picture out there,” he says. “Getting down and up close to the dog or cat will make it a lot more personal.”

“Also, try to focus on the eyes whenever possible,” he adds. “The eyes really are the window to the soul.”

8. Choose your equipment wisely

While it’s possible to get great photos of your dog or cat with just about any lens, some may be more suitable than others. So what lenses are the pros using?

“I switch between a few lenses, but my favourite is an 8 mm fisheye, which I use to get in extremely close to the animals,” says Stenger. “It produces really goofy-looking and fun pictures, but it’s not recommended if you are working with animals that are afraid of the camera, as you do need to get within 20 to 25 cm of their head.”

“Both Canon and Nikon also make an excellent 50mm f/1.8 which can give you a nice out of focus background at wider apertures and are relatively cheap, but even the kit lens that often ships with new cameras (18-55mm) is a good place to start,” he says.

Before investing in new equipment, he suggests learning to use what you already have. This way, once you figure out what you want to do that your current lens doesn't allow; you’ll know what to look for in a new lens, rather than buying a new lens and then figuring out what you can do with it. 

9. Develop some basic post processing skills

“Post processing is almost as important as the photo shoot itself,” says Stenger. “For instance, sometimes if a dog is a bit nervous or keeps running off, I’ll have my assistant stand next to the dog and hold it on a leash. Both the leash and the person can later be edited out in Photoshop.”

“To do this, I keep the camera in position after taking a photo and have the assistant and dog leave the frame. Then I take another picture with the same settings. This makes it easy to copy the background over the assistant or any other unwanted distractions later on.”

If you can, of course, it’s always better to get everything right in camera, as this will save you a lot of work later on. “If a photo doesn’t need a huge amount of processing, I usually do things like adjusting the contrast or sharpening in Lightroom,” he says. “But for any actual processing like removing branches from places they shouldn’t be or moving leashes, I use Photoshop.”