Animals are like little emotional sponges, and if you are stressed and anxious, they will sense it and become stressed and anxious too. A stressed animal will give you ‘ears flattened’, ‘concerned eyes’ looks, which don’t translate well ‘on film’. Take a deep breath and remember to have fun with it!
The eyes are the most expressive part of an animal’s face, so if you want to create really engaging portraits, focus on the eyes and facial expressions. A well-timed puppy whine (from you) can reel in focus in a puppy or curious dog, and have them staring straight at the camera faster than you can say “woof”.
Before you even pull your camera out of your bag, take a look around at your shooting location and get rid of clutter and distracting objects first. Do you really want to see that empty Starbucks cup on your coffee table in the photos of your cat? Is the garden hose snaking through the grass where you are photographing your dog, adding an aesthetically-pleasing element to your photos? If an element in your background doesn’t serve to enhance your images in some way, either remove it first or move to a different location. An uncluttered environment produces more aesthetically pleasing images, and reduces post-processing work. Nobody needs to see photos of your puppy with an overflowing garbage can in the background.
While a few shots looking down at your pet, while you are standing can be cute – to create the really engaging portraits the pros make, shoot down at their level, ‘in their world’. For a Great Dane their world may be the height of your hips; for a Chihuahua it may be all the way down at the level of your ankles. For a cat lounging on a cat tree, you may need to pull out a step stool to get on their level. Practice ‘shooting from the hip’ to place the camera in their world without having to crouch or kneel if they are on the ground.
If you have ever watched a professional pet photographer in action, you will notice that they bend and twist and turn and crouch and crawl – whatever it takes to get the shot. Be prepared to get those muscles working in order to get the perfect composition. Sometimes all it takes for a dog to break their sit-stay is for you to go from sitting to standing, and it’s better to reach and lean, than make a large movement that will cause the pet to move from their perfect pose.
Good light is everything in photography, especially in pet photography, where it’s critical to be able to see the catchlights in the pet’s eyes (the white reflective parts). Avoid photographing in dark rooms or under heavily overcast days. Bright yet diffused light is the easiest to create flattering pet portraits under, so before you even start shooting, take a look around your subject’s environment and determine where the best bright, yet diffused light is; then move to that location.
Every animal needs to have some sort of motivation to pay attention to you during the shoot; otherwise they will wander off and become disinterested. Determine what they are motivated by (i.e. their ‘payment’), and provide it to them throughout your shoot. For dogs it may be treats or toys, or simply getting love and affection. For cats it may be a feather toy, a paper bag, tuna fish, catnip or even their favourite blanket. For horses it may be their favourite food such as carrots or apples. The biggest ‘trick’ in pet photography is to fool the animal into thinking that they are making the decisions, when it’s really you that is motivating them to do what you want, without telling them so outright . The ‘getting them to do what you want’ comes in the model payment. Get creative when it comes to ‘rewarding’ your models, and they will reward you with great shots and be more cooperative too. Plus the shoot will be more fun, and pet photography is supposed to be fun!
The most engaging animal imagery shows them in context. It may be a cat looking up at an owner opening a bag of food in the kitchen (concept: desire), a dog looking longingly through a front door waiting for his or her buddy to come home (longing), a horse owner with her arms wrapped around her equine’s neck (connection). If you can say something with your images, they will speak to your viewers on a deeper emotional level.
There is no quicker way to confuse a dog, or freak out a cat than to bark commands at them repeatedly. Cats will disengage or even leave the room, and dogs will become confused and concerned. Try communicating with the pets the way they do each other- nonverbally. Use hand signals or point to invite them ‘over here’. Use the sit hand signal for dogs that understand it. If you do need to say ’sit’, say it quietly and calmly, only once or twice. Avoid saying the pet’s name, because the more times they hear it during a photo shoot, the more inclined they are to tune out. In my opinion, there’s nothing worse than a photographer (and an owner), hovering over a little dog and saying “sit Charlie,… no- SIT. I said Charlie sit. Sit. Down! Sit Charlie. Charlie- sit. Siiiit. SIT”. Poor Charlie! No wonder he’s confused. The less talking and ‘commanding’ you do, the better the shoot will be, and the more little Charlie will pay attention and ‘listen’.