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At-Home Pet Photography Tips

At-home portrait of a pet cat

At Home Tips for Photographing Your Pet

By: Michael Joseph

December 15, 2016

Earlier this year, Canon published my two-part series of articles geared toward photographers that are either working pros or aspiring to eventually make a living in photography,  “Photographing People & Pets for the Advanced Amateur or Aspiring Pet Photographer” and “MJ's List of Top 10 Professional Tips on Photographing People and Their Pets.”

This article is geared to help an even larger segment of the population… sharing some practical tips with anyone that would love to do a better job at photographing their four-legged members of the family!

Dog

EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM at 80mm, 1/60s, f/6.3, ISO 1600

Let's say you have a camera or two and you obviously love your pets just as if they were members of the family.  And try though you may, you have the toughest time getting the results you would ultimately like to have. You try and try and your patience runs short… so, you throw in the towel and just give up. Or, maybe you haven't completely given up but you would admit that you are not totally satisfied with your results and realize that there is plenty of room for improvement. If you fall into either one of these two categories or even somewhere in between, please read on and you just might eventually find yourself doing a much better job at photographing your four-legged members of the family... and creating better images without having to accumulate a bundle of equipment, attend classes or apprentice with an expert!  Sort of a no fuss-no muss, approach… here we go!  

A Quick Thought on Cameras

No matter your starting point with whatever cameras you might have right now, a DSLR  is usually the best choice for overall performance in terms of low light shooting capability, stop action sequences, build quality, and low shutter lag.  Shutter lag is the worst of conditions to suffer through. It is the added time it takes for the exposure to actually take place and is a common trait among point and shoot style cameras.  You push your finger on the shutter release and the image is taken a fraction of a second later.  For many types of shooting, a bit of lag is not the end of the world, but when photographing animals… the expression will be gone… and you’ll potentially lose your patience much sooner than you had hoped!  I have found that if you had this problem and you were photographing a friend’s pet, you would most likely have a bit more patience before giving up. But, photographing one’s own pet can be challenging enough for a list of reasons let alone adding shutter lag into the mix.  

Dog

EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM at 150mm, 1/60s, f/6.3, ISO 1600

You do not need to spend a fortune for a DSLR. Recommendations? I’ve tested and enjoyed several relatively low cost DSLRs from Canon. The Rebel SL1 and the Rebel T6i or T6s are excellent performers. And, for a little more investment and added features and performance, the Canon EOS 80D is an awesome, economical DSLR! Another new favorite of mine… the Canon PowerShot G5 X. Although not a DSLR, is a compact, lightweight little performer! It has a low-light capable lens with built-in image stabilization, as well as a built-in electronic viewfinder, a hot shoe to add an additional flash if desired and a three-inch vary–angle touchscreen LCD.

Assistant?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with going it alone when photographing members of your four-legged family!  You can certainly create an atmosphere of fun… almost a sort of a playtime opportunity. And, the more familiar you are with your camera in hand, the less difficult it might be to proceed. But please consider having a friend or family member lend you a hand, because having assistance can be a fabulous thing!   Try having one of you operate the camera while the other works at getting the pet’s attention. The occasional use of a squeaky toy or a slight knock on the wall to simulate a door or the delicate crinkling of a bag of treats can all be done by the second individual.  It's like the responsibilities of a quarterback and receiver and how they connect. In just a few minutes of coordinated effort, you will see a rapid improvement in getting the pet’s attention and capturing the moment or desired expression or look.  Try to never have more than one individual working on the same objective in getting the attention of a pet.  It just causes confusion for the pet and weakens the chances of success.  Don't forget, many pets also do very well with key questions that relate to their world of understanding. "Where's  grandma," or "where's the squirrel," or "do you wanna"... these questions can really do the trick!  

EOS 70D, EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, 1/50s, f/5.6, ISO 3200 (left images @55mm, top right @38mm, bottom right @22mm)

 

Always Mix It Up

To spruce up your photography and improve your results immediately, mix it up!  There are more than a handful of areas I'm talking about. You don't have to try all of these in one session and you will find your favorites, but mixing it up will bring increased variety and life to your images!

Vary the Height of the Camera - Learn to get down to their level. Doing so will immediately draw the viewer’s attention.  It’s often the most overlooked element to pet photography. But, just when you've begun to master this technique, don't forget to try the higher angle as well.  A beautiful shot can be made of a pet against a hardwood floor while at a high angle. This technique eliminates everything from the image except for your main subject and the floor itself. It's a beautiful change of pace. Another change of pace would be to actually put your pet in a position where you're down even lower than they are. This can create a very powerful look with the animal in a dominant position. I always include one or two shots like this with cats.  After all, they are related to the king of the jungle!  

Cats

EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 80mm, 1/60s, f/6.3, ISO 2000

Change the Lens' Angle of View - I always think of shooting portraits with a telephoto focal length.  Longer focal lengths tend to make any foreground and background areas fall out of focus faster. This helps to single out the subject matter. But, that doesn't mean that everything we take has to be at the longer focal lengths. Some beautiful images can be made while at  normal or medium focal lengths, and yes, even wide-angle perspectives can add dramatic results to your work. Wide-angle images taken at close range will add distortion to your subject, but sometimes can produce really cool results that can add exaggeration or humor to your images.

Framing the Shot - By framing, I mean how tight or loose the image might be. You know, are we going full length or half length or are we coming in close or even dramatically tight?  This is probably one of the most important types of variety that needs to be in each little session you attempt.

Capturing All the Emotions - This is an area that is near and dear to my heart.  To help capture the essence of these incredible creatures, you have to consider all of the emotions that they are capable of expressing.  The happy and educated look, or the willing and obedient look, and yes, even the sad, home alone look. Again, you may not capture all of these looks in one session but put them on your image checklist... you will not regret it.

Still Shots vs. Action Shots - Perhaps the majority of what you intend to create might be the still image photo. I know it's the majority of what I create, but now and again it's an awesome challenge to catch them in the action of running, jumping or shaking water off their coat!  Performing their tricks or even catching them in a yawn are rewarding images to catch as well!  Most cameras have some kind of a sequence or action setting with a higher frame rate to help you take rapid sequences. Test it out... give it a try.  You just might find yourself doing this kind of stuff more often!

 

A Few Bonus Thoughts

If you are attempting to take photos in the daytime and you are indoors, try some window light techniques.  You'll find this quality of light to be soft and flattering and will get you away from using the flash. After all, it is the flash on camera, going directly in your pet’s eyes that will cause the dreadful "redeye" effect, which none of us wants to see!

Have some small treats on hand that are soft and will go down after just a few chews!  Hold back on the treats and keep them tucked away in your pocket. Sometimes if your pet is too aware of the presence of treats, it could end up being the only thing that they will concentrate on. It's worth the risk to have them but try not to start out making it all about the treats. You could reserve the treats for an intermittent or occasional reward during the session.

dogs

EOS 70D, EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, 1/50s, f/5.6, ISO 3200 (top @28mm, bottom @55mm)

The main thing is to have fun and practice, practice, practice!

In the long run, you'll be happy that you spent some quality time with your pets, and as a bonus, you'll end up with images that are far more interesting with much more variety than you ever imagined!