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Portrait of kids and their pets

Portrait of kids and their pets

Ten Tips on Photographing People and their Pets

By: Michael Joseph

September 16, 2016

This article is the second of a two-part series on People & Pet Photography. You can read part one here.

The following info is a list of tools and techniques that might be difficult to find elsewhere.  In the nearly 30 years of specializing in photographing people and their pets, I’ve not seen a printed list or series of videos that cover this particular material.  And even if you could find some of this information as it pertains to photographing animals, it wouldn’t be a matter of who’s right or wrong, but whether or not you consider using the following tools to develop the suggested techniques. If you do, you’ll be well on your way to creating not only sellable images, but images of style and distinction you can be proud of... and images your clients will treasure for a lifetime!

Three kids and two dogs

1. Studio Stand

I use a 6’ stand on wheels with counterweight for home studio and have another loaded in the trailer for the traveling “road trip” studio as well.  This piece of equipment allows for the necessary speed to get through long sessions or long consecutive days of shooting. Throughout the years, I’ve found this piece of gear to be an absolute must.  I couldn’t do what I do without this marvelous tool.  After focusing and composing the image, I can move from out of the camera viewfinder and become free to do what’s needed to create the shot.  For outdoor location work and indoor client situations, I use a tripod that provides the same service as the studio stand.  The secret is to find a tripod that works best for you.  Find one that gives you the easiest and fastest handling possible.  It’s all about speed when working with our four legged friends!


2. Ball Heads

In theory, the larger in diameter the better! Using this type of larger ball head allows me to set the adjustment knobs to a position that is tight enough hold the weight of the camera and lens but loose enough that no adjustments are required between shots. If I had to loosen and tighten the head throughout each session, all day, every day... I’d not only lose speed, buy my career would have been over a long time ago!


3. Two Separate Radio Trigger Systems

One set of slaves helps me fire the camera remotely and the other set is for having the camera fire all strobes or flashes desired.  Here’s the breakdown:

  1. To fire the shutter, I use a radio slave set to “transmitter mode” located on my belt and another radio slave set to “receiver mode” that’s mounted to the camera stand or tripod, using the correct cord plugged into the camera’s shutter release socket.
  2. To fire any and all strobes desired, I have a radio slave on the camera’s hot shoe set in “transmitter mode,” which sends a signal to any and all radio slaves set to “receiver mode” that might be connected to strobes around the studio location.

Important Note: Both systems need to be on entirely different frequencies!


4. Back Button Focus

This technique is totally necessary to my craft!  In the film days, and before autofocus, a photographer focused the camera and then composed the image from the camera stand or tripod.  When the shutter was released the image was taken...end of story.  But in the autofocus age, when working from a studio stand or tripod, I need the shutter release button to not refocus the image.  If I was to focus the image, compose or frame the shot, and then release the shutter without having set up the back button focus technique... the camera would most likely refocus on an unintended spot and there would also be the strong possibility of additional lag time before the camera takes the shot because it’s rethinking focus!  For portrait work, when working from a camera stand or tripod, the following camera settings must be made as follows:

  • Set the Auto Focus Mode to “ONE SHOT.”
  • Set the Drive Mode to your preferred setting... for me, it’s the SILENT SINGLE setting.
  • AF mode Drive mode

  • Set the Auto Focus Point Selection to your preferred setting for portraits... for me, it’s the CENTER POINT setting.
  • Press the MENU button and navigate to C.Fn2 (orange page 2 on a 5D Mark III - might be different location on various models), then go to Custom Controls.  The first on the list is the “Shutter Button Half-Press” menu.  Hit “set” and adjust the setting to the middle choice, “Metering Start,” hit set again.  Make sure the second on the list under Custom Controls, which is the AF-On Button setting, is set to the first setting, “AF.”  It’s probably already selected, but it’s great to double check.  Now you’re all ready for true, one shot AF, silent single shooting, single center point, back button focus!  What you also now have is a shutter button that is totally disassociated from focusing and a wonderful technique for portrait work.
  • Custom controls Select the function to assign screen

  • Aim your center AF point at the intended point of focus, press the AF-ON button on the back of the camera with your thumb.  Press it just once, until you see your center point light up and you hear a beep (if you have the beep turned on - the beep is optional). Then reposition or compose your image.
  • Custom controls

  • Then, when you create the precise moment the image should be taken, you can press the shutter on the camera or press the transmitter button on your hip, as explained above... and you’ve got the shot!  The camera does not rethink focus or accidentally focus on an unintended area of the composition!
  • With just a little practice, you can really get fast and comfortable with this technique!


5. 135mm at f/13

That’s my secret to just the right amount of depth-of-field for my studio work.  I use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM for all my portrait work... but I make believe it’s a 135mm... it’s always set there unless I have to “cheat” the zoom.  I always get the camera to the correct distance for the composition of the shot... not standing in one place and using the zoom to frame the shot.  But, if I run out of backup room, then I have the ability to come off the 135mm and go wider to 100mm, for example.  Conversely, if I’m getting great images of a cat alone in a chair and he’s really responding to me, I can use the zoom to get a close up... if I were to move the studio stand or tripod, the moment might be lost.  Actually, f/13 sounds like a lot of depth-of-field, but if you check it out, you’d find that at f/13 from five feet away from the subject, it’s only 4” of in focus depth!  And, only 8” from seven feet.  At 10 feet, just 16” of depth!  On a solo portrait of a pet for instance, I want the nose and eyes to be tack sharp but everything else to gradually fall out of focus.


6. Lens and Camera Rotators

Here is another key component of keeping up the speed necessary for this type of work.  More than a handful of Canon EF lenses come with a rotating tripod collar and several others have a space for adding an official Canon rotating tripod collar as an additional “add-on” option.  This type of rotating action is the very best way to quickly switch your camera from either the horizontal or vertical camera position and back again!  It’s simply the best because your camera is rotating on the lens’ axis and as an added bonus, there is no wiggle or play to its mechanism.  When you need to use a lens that does not have the lens collar option, you’ll need to use a third party camera rotator.  There are many to choose from and really good ones at that, but it’s still a challenge to find one with the least amount of wiggle or play... particularly as the camera sits in the vertical position.

Women with four dogs


7. The Sounds

Making the necessary sound to command an animal’s attention is paramount.  Prior to tripping the shutter, something has to be done in order to create the moment and capture the intended expression.  You might be embarrassed at first, but practice the following sounds before you “go public!”

  1. Develop a barking sound that might come from a very small dog and a larger dog as well.  Also learn to produce a couple of volume levels for each sized dog!  I’m not joking... having developed these various sound and volume levels give me the variety necessary to work with different temperaments and helps avoid the boredom that might occur with the short attention spans that some of our four legged clients sometimes carry.
  2. Learn how to make hawk and vulture sounds.  Both moderately-soft and comfortably-loud.  Breathe in as you attempt and see if you can produce the sound.  I know you think I’m crazy, but this stuff works and adds to your arsenal of sounds that spark their interest!  Squeaky toys work... for usually one shot, two, if you’re lucky!
  3. Learn to create soft, high pitched, puppy-like crying and whimpering sounds.  They really work.
  4. Only you should be making these sounds... one person from one direction.
  5. Find out if the pet has favorite key words.  Squirrel, beach, walk, treat, who’s there, do-you-wanna?  You get the idea... many pets love communication and will respond accordingly as they give the look you’re after.
  6. I always set up in such a way that there is a wall just beyond and behind me, which provides the opportunity to create a “knock on the door” sound.  They might dash towards you and ruin the shot, but it’s worth the try!
  7. The cotton kerchief (bandanna) routine. I always have one hanging outside my pocket and one hanging from my camera stand or tripod.  Throwing the kerchief with an arching motion above your head, with a slight “snap,” can create an incredible response from the time you let go of the kerchief until it hits the ground.  The key is to release the shutter at just the right moment... with their nose or snoot in a position that is not too high or too low.
  8. Switch it up quickly.  Learn to move or transition from one sound attempt to another in order to create the moment... don’t stay with just one sound.


8. The Pet Table

I use one that’s 4 feet wide, 3.5 feet deep and 18 inches high.  It is permanently covered with a commercial grade carpet that provides traction and grip... then covered with various throws according to the background and overall tone of each session.  This is a fabulous way to create a safe but controlled area for the pet(s).  It also helps your assistant from being too low to the ground all the time!  And finally, it assists you in creating height differences needed between family members as well as the pets themselves.  The table can be moved, rotated and adjusted, and if used correctly, is hardly ever seen in actuality.


9. Ace Assistant

Hand-picked, patient, pet friendly and pet knowledgeable... not one session or one shot is created without that key person located only inches outside the frame of my composition.  It’s so important to have this key person as a teammate who shares the same artistic goals.  It’s about as close to a quarterback and receiver combination as it gets.  This team attitude makes for an extremely high success rate from session to session.  Don’t go it alone... you’ll bring potential longevity and prolonged enjoyment to this type of photography.

Two girls holding a dog


10. Learn to Analyze

The quick evaluation of people’s body types, facial features, size relationship to their pets, the numbers involved or combinations within each session must be considered.  Although this might be a subjective topic because of differences in artistic expression, the practice of lightning quick evaluation, as you attempt to set up your images, is critical.  Just like a professional pool player who sees the entire table just after the initial break can see the next four or five shots in their mind’s eye as they pre-visualize a progression of shots, an effective and proficient camera artist develops the necessary decisiveness as subjects and situations change.  Your clients will notice your expertise and you’ll be rewarded accordingly!  Through practice and experience, you will create a list of poses in your head... poses for animals alone and poses for people and their pets.  According to size differences and body types, learn to throw out poses that don’t make sense.  Concentrate on what will most likely work and be willing to switch gears or modify your thoughts on the fly.

And as you photograph animals alone, set out to capture the various emotions they’re capable of showing.  I always work through a progression of poses, and with each one, I’m looking to bring out those emotions by causing them to produce expressions that suggest the emotions we’re familiar with... the emotions we see in animals as well as within ourselves as people.  After all, that’s how we identify with animals and why we relate to them the way to do!


  1. Headshot Studies that show...
    1. the alert, “I’m educated” look
    2. the obedient, “I’m willing to obey” look
    3. the happy, “I’m wanting a treat” look
  2. Lying Down Studies that show...
    1. the relaxed, “I’m comfortable” look
    2. the graceful, “I’m elegant” look
  3. Head Down Studies that show...
    1. the sad, “I’m home alone” look
    2. the tired, “I’m about to take a nap” look

Final Thought:  I’ve been able to have an career because I love the challenge of creating something enduringly beautiful, even when someone might look at the set up and say, “How’s he possibly going to get this shot?”  What would you do if the next session walked in and you saw a Rottweiler, two Dobermans, two Labs, and a Lab pup, along with a family of four and a toddler included?  Increase your knowledge and experience.... and then you’ll be able to “just go for it!”