Remember that old commercial for hair replacement, where the guy said: “I’m not just the president of Hair Club For Men, I’m also a client”? If not, then perhaps you’re just not as old as me. My point is that when it comes to Pet Photography…well, I’m not just a photographer, I’m also a Veterinary Technician with over 20 years in the Animal Care field. I know a thing or two about photography, but I know a lot more things about animal handling and behaviour, not to mention handling animal owners (first tip, don’t refer to them as owners, “families” sounds much more respectful of the human-animal bond). There are a lot of things to consider when photographing pets, and keeping everyone comfortable, safe and happy can be challenging before you even get to the taking awesome photos part. That’s not to say that you should be deterred – the pet care industry is an enormous market and it’s not going away anytime soon. More and more, people are considering pets to be valued members of the family and having beautiful portraits to remember them by can be invaluable, especially since most of us will outlive our beloved furry friends.
Be Prepared – Get Informed
Before you head out to a pet portrait session, there are a few things you should find out. First, make sure you commit the pet’s name and gender to memory, pet parents won’t be impressed when you refer to their little darlings as “it”.
Next, where does the family want the session to take place? If it’s in their home, you need to know if any dogs are friendly with strangers entering their space or if they need some time to get used to the idea. It can be a good idea to have their people keep them leashed or confined while you bring your equipment in and set up. Some dogs may be reactive to strange items like light stands and softboxes. When the dog does enter the room, sometimes the best bet is just to ignore them, let them sniff around and explore all of the unfamiliar stuff you’ve brought into their house for at least a few minutes. Does the cat hide when visitors come over? You’ll want to ask the families to make sure that the cat has been confined to an area that it can be easily retrieved from when you arrive and to try to arrange an area in the house where you can have your session without the cat having a lot of places to hide or things to get under.
If the session is to be outside and off the owner’s property (I’m working on the assumption that the subject will be a dog in this scenario because if you get a client who wants a cat session outdoors, I wish you all the luck in the world but you’re on your own) then there are a few extra factors in play. Is the pet spayed or neutered? That can have a big effect on how they will interact with other dogs you might run into. Does the owner want the dog’s collar removed later in photoshop? Make sure to use a light slip lead or fairly thin collar for the session and not a harness or thick martingale style collar – those are a nightmare to remove. Does the owner want photos of the dog running off leash? Hmmmm…how are the dog’s recall and doggy social skills because this definitely isn’t the time for a first trip to the leash free park to find out. Does the dog have any special needs? These can be obvious, like a senior dog that can’t walk very far but may also include conditions that you can’t easily see or might not think of. Brachycephalic (squishy faced, short nosed) breeds like Pugs, English bulldogs and Pekinese can really struggle in the heat, so make sure you’re not asking too much of them. I had a session in a park recently with an adorable Brussels Griffon. The owner was taking public transit and the spot I had scouted was about a 10-minute walk into the park. I didn’t really think anything of it, but when the day arrived it was over 30 degrees C outside (86 F) AND the owner got lost and did a lot of extra walking, including a very steep hill. By the time we met up, the dog was panting and really just wanted to lie in the cool grass. Fortunately, the owner had brought plenty of water for the dog and was not fussy about getting photos with the dog’s tongue in, but I really should have been more thoughtful and planned better for the dog’s limitations. As a little side note, brachycephalic breeds are awesome to photograph because you can use a really wide aperture with super shallow depth of field and still get their eyes and the tip of their nose both in focus. Can’t do that with a German Shepherd.
The last piece of information that I like to get ahead of time is whether or not the pet is food motivated and if so, is there a favourite treat and are there any dietary restrictions. Someone with an overweight pet on a diet may be willing to let them splurge a bit for the sake of the photo session, but there can also be much more serious restrictions like in cases of food allergies, sensitivities, diabetes, kidney disease, pancreatitis, etc. The owner will not thank you for walking into the house and slipping their dog with chronic allergic dermatitis a biscuit without asking first. If treats are ok, I recommend using really tasty, smelly, high-value foods such as freeze dried liver treats or cheese. Remember that the dog only needs a tiny taste, so I will break these treats up into tiny pieces, often only the size of my baby fingernail. This way, I can keep giving lots of treats throughout the session to keep the pet interested but at the end of the day, they won’t have had enough to give them an upset stomach (because post-session diarrhea is another thing the family will not thank you for).
Speaking of treats, the pet’s portrait session should be fun for everyone and is a time for lots of positive reinforcement. This is not the situation to try out those dog training techniques you saw on TV. For some reason, people who would never dream of disciplining someone else’s child forget those manners when an unruly dog is jumping on them, but patience is absolutely essential in working with animals and if being jumped on, shed on, peed on and sometimes worse is outside of the range of your tolerance, then pet photography is not for you. Positive reinforcement can come from treats, but it can also be something the animal really loves, like fetching or belly rubs or playing tug with a special toy for a few moments between shots. For nervous dogs, I will start the session with some conditioning to get them used to the camera and lights (if I’m using off camera flash). I will hold the camera and a treat out towards them and click the shutter as they take the treat. Sometimes, I even put the treat right inside the end of the lens hood (with the lens cap on) and let them get it out. After repeating that a few times, the dog will have formed positive associations with that big black box, the sound of the shutter and the flashing of the lights and will be less likely to be frightened when I raise the camera up to my face and point it towards them. Be prepared to spend some time at the beginning of the session making the animal comfortable, it will pay off in the long run and implementing a more relaxed, non-hurried approach to the session will help to put the family members at ease as well as the pet.
Ok, so now we’re ready to talk about the photography part. What will you need? A good, fast zoom lens. Can you take pet portraits with a prime lens? Of course, but you’ll want to be down at the pet’s level, which means sitting, kneeling, crouching or even lying down a lot of the time and every time the animal moves towards you or away from you, you will have to get up and move. It will be a really great workout, but also an exercise in frustration unless the pet is very well behaved. A faster lens will be better for capturing action shots, but a kit zoom can be perfectly sufficient for less dynamic shots since you will usually need to stop down to around f/4 anyway, just to have enough depth of field to get both the eyes and the nose in focus. Indoors, I use my Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 on a full frame body almost exclusively, ideally with an off camera Speedlight or two and softboxes or umbrellas as modifiers. As with the need for a zoom lens, sometimes a large umbrella is better than a softbox because it is lighting up a larger, less specific area and you can still get decent shots as the animal is moving around the space. Outdoors, I use the 24-70 in tight spaces, like small backyards but if I have the room for it, nothing beats my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 for getting the highest percentage of tack sharp, usable shots and that beautiful, creamy, blurry bokeh in the background. Don’t forget your lens hood, especially with rambunctious, larger dogs who may come bounding up, straight into your lens. I had one heart-stopping moment when an excitable young Shepherd grabbed my 70-200 and tried to play tug with it. Less scary, but more inconvenient, many dogs will come right up and press their wet noses against the lens or even lick it. Ever tried to get all the streaks from dog saliva and mucus off of the front element of your lens? Just use a lens hood. Maybe even a UV filter, so you can just take it off and carry on.
What Else Will You Need?
An assistant can make a big difference. You can bring your own, as long as the animal is friendly with strangers. Friends, partners, children, nieces and nephews…it’s usually not too hard to convince somebody to come along and help you take cute puppy photos. Failing that, it’s nice if there are at least two family members present for dog photos for the simple reason that one person can hold the dog’s leash while the other goes and stands over the photographer’s shoulder to get the dog to look in the direction of the camera. Having the dog leashed, even indoors can help avoid the situation of the dog rushing up and crashing into the photographer and will also keep the dog from simply leaving if it becomes bored or frightened. A handler is just as important for cats because it is rarely as easy to buy their attention with treats as it is with a dog. Cats are not especially interested in noises and are much more visually stimulated, so a selection of feather toys and furry mice may be more enticing to them. The stick with a feather on a string is irresistible for many cats – even if they are afraid and hiding, that toy can often be used to lure them out. Squeaky toys, kazoos, your voice and various other noisemakers can be used to get a dog’s attention, BUT, a few warnings:
- Avoid using the dog’s name, because the dog will be sitting pretty and you’ll want it to look your way, so you’ll say “Hey Fido” and the dog will come running over to you because, duh, you just called it. This sounds really simple, but it is actually pretty hard to remember and I do it probably half a dozen times a session.
- Any sound will only work a few times, so don’t waste it, only use the sounds when everything is perfect and ready and you are all set to press the shutter during the split second the dog looks your way.
- You will have to constantly remind the family members of 1 and 2 because they will be squeaking toys while you are adjusting your settings, or calling the dog’s name at the most inopportune moments.
Many pet stores sell refill squeakers because dogs like to pull them out of toys and I guess some folks are handy and willing to sew a new squeaker in. These squeakers are cheap and useful, because you can just palm them against the camera and press when you want the noise. There are a couple of iPhone apps that have some good noises, too. Bark Cam and Dog Sounds are two of them, but once again, you will need an assistant or family member to make the noises when directed, unless you have more hands than I do.
Photographing Multiple Pets
Clients may want photos of multiple pets, in the frame together. This can be very easy with a couple of well-trained dogs or very difficult with, say an unruly dog and a skittish cat. A tripod can be your friend in this situation so that you can photograph the two animals separately and then composite the two together. Even with two dogs sitting side by side, you will often find yourself head swapping to some degree because if one is posing perfectly, you can bet the other one will have its eyes closed, or be yawning, or have its ears flat back, or just be doing something weird and unsightly. They are not unlike children, in that respect.
Some Compositional Elements To Keep In Mind
Just as with human portraits, try not to cut off limbs in weird places and keep track of that tail. A tongue sticking out, as in light, calm panting can make the dog look happy and relaxed but the tongue sticking way out in full on, overheated, stressed out or choking at the end of the leash panting is not an attractive look. Some owners don’t like photos with the tongue out at all and you will need to give the dog lots of time to relax and maybe a tiny bit of peanut butter on the roof of the mouth to achieve that. As a general rule, dogs look most alert and happy when their ears are pricked up a bit, and noises can help with that. Dogs with long, dangling ears can be an exception, but what you really don’t want in any dog (or cat) is for the ears to be back, causing them to look stressed and possibly angry. I often find that the ears come forward and look more alert and relaxed as the session progresses, even if I didn’t consciously notice that the dog looked unhappy at the beginning. The owner will know, though. I remember photographing a cute little Yorkie in a Halloween costume at a fundraiser and being excited for the owner to see the photos because she was an acquaintance and I thought the dog looked adorable. Her crushing (but educational) response? “Oh, doesn’t he look miserable in that costume”. The dog looked cute to me, but the owner knew he did not look happy.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but there are a few shots that I am going to try to get with most of the pets that I photograph.
- A close up head shot, full body sitting and full body standing, all from down at the pet’s level
- A wide angle shot, looking straight down at the pet, with the pet looking straight up always has a huge cuteness factor. This can be extra fun if you have an ultra wide or fisheye lens.
- With a longer telephoto, get down VERY low (like, lying down) and photograph the pet jumping in the air or running towards you. Jumps will look super high and you’ll luck out with an occasional “hover cat” type running shot.
- Try shooting through flowers or fall foliage with a wide open aperture (f/1.2-2.8) and a fairly long focal length (100mm+) to get that beautiful look of layered bokeh in front and in back of the dog.
Want Some Practice?
Many shelters and rescue groups need photos of their adoptable animals to post online. Just like with real estate photography, or product photography, having great photos can really make an immeasurable difference and at some shelters, the difference between whether anyone is coming to look at the animal or not can quite literally be the difference between life and death. Please don’t say you’d never take photos at a “kill shelter”, either because those animals are there through no fault of their own and they are the ones who need the promotional boost from your professional photos the most. You’ll be likely to find the most grateful staff and volunteers at those shelters, as well because I assure you, they are dreading the outcome if no one comes in to adopt that beautiful pet in the corner and they will take any help they can get in making sure that the maximum possible number of pets make it out the front door. If you are having trouble getting your foot in the door with a rescue group or don’t think you have the stomach for it, you may try getting involved with HeARTsSpeak – Artists Helping Animals. They are a group that provides grants for artists who donate their time and work to help animals and they run a program that donates cameras and lights and arranges basic training for shelter staff so that they can take better adoption photos and save more lives. Many rescues also have fundraising auctions and you could donate a pet photo session for people to bid on, or they may need photos for a fundraising calendar or for their website and that will be another way that you can help.