1. Be Patient
The first rule of animal photography, much like photographing babies and young children, is to be patient. Animals move around – A LOT. Unless you have spent a lot of time training them to sit still, having to be still for a photograph is a foreign concept. You need to be prepared to have many out of focus or slightly off shots, especially in the beginning. When your dog moves out of focus or “messes up” a shot, remember that they are just being their doggy self, and not trying to frustrate you. Also, while you may want to devote some time to getting that magic shot, watch for signs of agitation in your pet. If you think they’ve had enough, give them a break or end for the day. You always want it to be a pleasurable (or at the very least tolerable) situation for your pet.
2. Pack Lots of Treats and Praise Often
Dogs learn through praise, food, and play. If you make your photography sessions fun for them, they will begin to see the camera as something happy, rather than something to be feared. When Charlie sees me pick up a camera, he starts wagging his tail and jumping around because he associates the camera with hikes, attention, and milkbones. Through treats and praise, you not only make the experience fun, but can also get your pet listening to you.
If your pet is fearful of the camera, think about working on a program of systematic desensitization with them until they no longer see the camera as something to be feared.
3. Natural Light is Best
I find that it is often best to photograph animals outside, in natural light or inside by a window. It’s best to photograph in a soft light, not in direct sunlight. Watch for shadows and direction of the light source, and make sure they add to your picture, rather than distract. I try not to use flash (unless it is off camera flash), as it can be off putting to pets. I mean, how do you like getting a bright light in your face? Particularly in point-and-shoot cameras, it’s best to turn the flash off all together.
4. Move Around
My style of photography involves a lot of movement. I like to try out as many angles as possible. In photographing pets, I find it’s often best to get on their “level.” It’s best to wear clothing that you are prepared to get dirty, as moving around may mean getting on your knees to shoot eye level or even laying flat on the ground for a mouse-eye view.
5. Make sure that Eyes are in Focus and Sharp
As with other portrait photography, it’s always important that you check to make sure that your subjects eyes are in focus and sharp. I can not tell you how many times I though I got a good shot (especially when I was starting out photographing animals), only to find on closer inspection that my focus was slightly off. The best thing about today’s DSLRs is that you can immediately check the focus on your screen after. I find that zooming in on the screen to double check my focus allows me to reshoot if I find that my focus wasn’t so perfect.
6. Photograph the Details and Character of Your Pet
When photographing your mutt/pet, spend a moment reflecting on what makes them unique. Do they have a unique color in their coat? Do they have a kindness in their eyes you want to bring out? Is there a certain look or mannerism you want to capture?
Charlie is a very willful and smart dog, with a lot of personality. When I photograph him, I try to capture the looks he gives me – the what-are-you-waiting-for-look, the happy dog look, the sleepy dog look, and, of course, the thinker.
Think about what is special about your pet, and then figure out what will bring that about.
7. Examine Your Environment
This rings true for all photography. When people ask why I always take “good” pictures, often it’s because I’ve learned to slow down, scan the environment, and plan. Our world is full of clutter and chaos. Photography, in many ways, is about isolating or emphasizing something. It’s about simplifying, bringing clarity and order, and choosing where you want people’s eyes to go when they look at your image. When you photograph your pet, think about their environment they are in. Is there something distracting in the frame? Is there an odd shadow that takes away? Does your pet have eye boogers or a hair out of place that is distracting? Is there anything brightly colored or oddly shaped in the background that takes your focus off your pet (i.e. poles or trees seemingly coming out of your pet’s head)? Think about the image you want to create. While you need to be prepared to change your plan according to the situation and your pet’s mood, it’s important that you give thought to what you are trying to achieve, rather than just snapping away.
8. Grooming and Props
While I am not very big on props, sometimes they can add to a picture. I do love a brightly colored bow or bandana from time to time. I also try to take care that the animal I am photographing is well groomed. It’s a pain to photograph out a dirty spot after the fact. Unless it adds to the image, it’s best to have a clean pet. Also, watch for drool.
9. Keep Your Pup’s Attention
Sometimes I’ve also found, particularly with distractible dogs (and horses – an animal I also photograph a lot), it’s best to bring a distraction prop. Having a pompom, a toy that makes strange noises, or something flashy/glittery that moves (i.e. cat toys) can help regain your pet’s focus if they aren’t looking where you want them too. Distraction props can also help create some interesting facial expressions –such as surprise, shock, attention, play face, etc.
10. Practice Often, Have Fun, and Experiment
Above all else, it’s best to have fun and experiment. Do not expect to get perfection your first time out with your pet. Also, if it isn’t fun for you or your pet, then what’s the point?