Our pets are our best friends. Their love is unconditional, and they never judge us for what we are. After a hard days work, they are the perfect companion to spend some time with, the truest of friends one could have.
If you are reading this, you are probably one of those lucky pet owners who also happens to be a passionate photographer. There is something else in common. You are looking to make better pet images.
I had a dog when I was in high school, and it died three days after my marriage. It was a milky white cocker spaniel. I was not hooked into photography at that stage of my life. Certainly not as much as I am today. Thus, there are only average photos of that wonderful animal which stayed with us his entire life and gave us plenty of joy. Now, there are times when I wish I had more images of him to cherish.
Our pets are our constant companion. Thus, it is natural that a photographer would want to make images of his / her pet. Unfortunately, however, pets are not as patient when it comes to making portrait pictures of them.
Your dog or your cat will not understand why you want it to sit quietly at a place for several minutes. The younger they are, the more fidgety they will be. So, you will have to employ a variety of innovative methods to get better pet images. This tutorial aims at discussing a few of those methods.
The Right Way to Photograph Pets
Let’ clear one thing straight away. There is no single right or wrong way to make better pet images. There is no single composition either that works and no single camera settings that would give you crisp pictures in all situations. You have to continually adapt yourself to the situation and then use your imagination to set-up the shot.
A fast shutter speed and a low ISO are probably two things that you can always bank on to get sharp images of your pet in most situations. It is unlikely that your pet will be standing still at a place. They will be moving out and about, and that means your window of opportunity is going to be small.
Though I have kind of forbade the use of high ISO, these days cameras with excellent performance even at high ISO are available. Thus, it is possible to shoot at ISO 1600 and up and still get usable captures. The best approach would be to know the limitations of your gear and accordingly choose the right settings.
Shoot From Below the Eye Level
In many ways, you need to follow the same approach for photographing pets as you would do for photographing kids. Pets have a much lower perspective towards their immediate environment, just like kids do. As such you need to stoop down and shoot from a much lower level than you usually shoot.
Each time you shoot from your eye level your shot would appear as if taken from a position of power or authority. The audience appears to be looking down on the pet. Make a few images from that level and then compare these images with those taken from a lower angle. You will immediately realize that the lower angle appears much more attractive. This results in more natural, more attractive and better pet images.
Depth of Field
The cutest and the often used trick is to use the shallow depth of field using the widest aperture possible on your lens. While it does create those beautiful images with soft mushy bokeh (background blur), it is not the only trick in the book.
I tend to use the background blur when there is nothing interesting going or when I need to separate the animal from the background. The bokeh is all about creating a dreamy soft image. On the other hand, when I have an interesting background I would often shoot with a smaller aperture and therefore incorporate the background in the image.
Use the Soft Light of an Overcast Day
I am a natural light photographer, and I unashamedly admit that every time there is a congregation of photographers. Natural light, for me, gives me all the light I need to make good portrait images; and that goes for animal pictures as well. I love shooting on overcast days when the light is soft and steady, and there are no harsh shadows.
Use Interaction with the owner or other pets
Pets have a special relationship with their owners. Sometimes, in a rush to make good images of the pet, we forget to capture that emotional relationship between a pet and its owner. This loving relationship brings out the best in both and gives you opportunities to make better pet images.
Pets are Sucker for Posing
Pets, especially the babies are a sucker for posing. You cannot expect them to sit quietly for any amount of time. No amount of direction will make them sit in a spot and stare at the camera for long. With babies, you will end up spending more time struggling to get them into a position rather than making images.
Having said when you do get them to pose, or at least look in the general direction you want them to look at, you will end up capturing great images. The straight attentive look, sometimes combined with straight up ears is cute.
The slightly tilted head look, especially for baby dogs is very cute too. I have also found poses where the pet is looking off-camera to be very beautiful. Such portraits tend to bring out the character of the animal.
The best pet photos, for me, happen when the animal is in its elements. A closed environment like a studio can be stressful for the animal. I prefer the open outdoors, engage the animal in something that it likes doing and then take it from there. Sure you cannot control everything in an open environment, but you will probably get much better lighting and much livelier looking images.
Capture their Attention
If you want to capture better pet images, where it appears that you have the pet’s undivided attention, use something that the pet is interested in. Treats are best for this. Alternatively, you can use the pet’s favorite toy. The toy works in getting those interesting off-camera looks as well. Pets and kids are like the same. They are patient till their patience runs out. And that can happen quickly.
Some people might want to do this professionally; I mean photograph pets for a living. For them, it is pertinent to mention that if you cannot keep your models engaged for long you will lose their attention and it will all be uphill from there on. It certainly helps if you are an animal person. Being able to connect with your subject and to get some semblance of acceptance can go a long way.
You can select any focusing setting as long as the focusing point coincides with the animal’s eye that is closest to you. Photographers often make the mistake of shooting with focus lock.
This might work when you are shooting silhouettes and or when the animal is a bit further away, and you are only going to get a small image of the animal.
Having said that, if the animal closer to you or you are going to get a close-up ensure that the eye closest to you is in sharp focus. Without the eye in sharp focus, you cannot get an image that will look anything like the one above.
I prefer shooting in AF-S mode with my Nikon. This mode allows me to focus and then recompose the image as needed. With continuous focusing the technique of focus and recompose is impossible to manage. Also, I use back-button focusing which ensures that I don’t have to engage the shutter button up until the point I am ready to make the exposure.