Tips for better animal photos
It is no longer unusual to see beautifully done photos of the family pet or pets along with the family portraits hung on the wall. After all, Dogs, Cats, and Horses are part of the family too, and deserve a place on the wall and in our private albums in recognition of the love they bring into our lives. And as our pets grow into old age, it is natural to think about preserving their memory with a nice photographic portrait.
But how do you get good pictures, worthy of framing, of your furry (hairy) friends? Frequently, people find that their black dogs come out as black blobs with eyes, their white dogs are completely washed out, and that incredibly cute shot they got comes back from the film processor lacking that “quality” feel of a truly good photo. As a pet photographer, I’m asked all kinds of questions about making pet pictures better, so here are some pointers on turning so-so pictures into good ones, and turning good photos into fantastic one-in-a-million shots that will be framed and proudly displayed in your home and on your web page.
First, some technical aspects
This ruins otherwise good people-pictures, too, but is more pronounced in our furry friends--turning friendly Spot into Devil Dog and cute little Fluffy into Evil Attack Cat. The problem can be prevented in several ways, the best of which is to shoot without a flash. If you must use a flash, use an off-camera flash and hold it off to the side so the light doesn't reflect straight back from your pet’s eyes into the camera lens. If your camera has a hot-shoe or PC outlet, you can buy a cable in most camera stores that will let you use your flash unit off-camera.
It is common to see photos of black dogs that look more like black blobs, and white dogs that have washed-out features. With black animals especially, it is important to give them lots of light from all sides to bring out their features and detail. Ideally, take the pictures outside in a shady spot on a sunny day or rent some sophisticated lighting equipment that will give you lots of light indoors. Avoid using fluorescent or tungsten light as they will distort the colors.
Don’t look down on your subject
Pets tend to be much smaller than their owners (unless it’s a horse, of course), and we are used to looking down at them. But have you ever seen a nice, formal portrait of a person straining their neck to look up at the camera? It’s not flattering for the subject, so come down to their level. Sit on the floor or lie on your belly to get a good angle. I place dogs on a short bench (not so high they would get hurt if they jumped off) and mount my camera on a tripod adjusted to their eye level.
Now some of the more intangible aspects
I frequently tell people this is the number one job requirement of a pet photographer. Sure, pets don’t always cooperate as well as we think they should or even could, but getting angry and using intimidation will only lead to a photo of an unhappy, uncooperative animal. I find most animals are well motivated by a patient sit-stay training session right on the spot (with lots of treats!) Squeaky toys and dangling feathers will get their attention when the camera is ready.
Getting that special look
Did I mention patience?! It may take some time for your pet to calm down, so just wait him/her out. Eventually they will relax (as soon as you step away from the camera) and do something cute. I hold the squeaky toy in the place where I want the animal to look. Where the animal looks is critical to the feel of the final photograph. A favorite word or sound the animal likes will provoke a twist of the head, perk the ears up, or otherwise create that special look we want. In sitting poses, watch out for bad posture. A slouching, tired look will be magnified and unattractive.
Composition is tricky, because we see with depth perception in real life but a photo can only capture two dimensions, rendering a very different look on paper than what we remember seeing when we made the picture. To help visualize what the final print will look like, view your composition through the viewfinder and pretend it’s a picture. Notice the edges of the picture, items in the background and foreground, and the way the colors mix. With portraits of loved ones, we want to focus on the face, the eyes, and the overall facial expression. Keep the composition simple; a solid background and colors that contrast nicely will let the character of your subject stand out.
Perhaps the easiest and most effective way for people to improve their pictures is simply to get closer. Try doing just a head shot and fill the viewfinder with it. Close-ups not only eliminate distracting clutter around the subject but let us see the subject more clearly.
Break the rules
Don’t be confined by what you have seen before. Experiment with color, props, settings, and camera angles. And soon enough you’ll be turning your photos into works of art!