7 Tips For Learning Pet Photography

Photo by Eric Ward

Pet photography has become a popular medium for those who can’t seem to get enough of their furry friends. From capturing your pet as a part of family photographs to even creating a social media account dedicated to your most loyal companion – pet photography has truly carved out its own unique spot in the industry. Whether you find yourself working exclusively with pets or want to create some images for memory – there are a few essential tips to remember when photographing animals.

The booming business of pet photography has significantly grown over the last several years, with photographers focusing in on this niche to create images that humanize and celebrate the role our animals play within our lives. Pet photography has truly become a genre of photography that can be seen as engaging, creative and enjoyable for those pet image makers. In contrast with other subsectors of photography, pet photography can be created by anyone with a true and dedicated interested in working with animals. A simple way to frame pet photography is to aim to infuse the process of animal and wildlife photography with the carefree personality of family portraits.

Although pet photography is a far more relaxed form of photography, there are still some elements that can prove to be challenging and stressful during a session. Unlike humans, pets will require a particular type of direction that may prove challenging to instill. In such cases where the pet is less than agreeable, or you can’t get them to sit still – you will have to remember that a patient and flexible attitude is a pillar of a good pet photographer. As we will further discuss in the article, every pet photographer should have a handy bag of tricks and techniques, perfect for working with animals – including treats, toys, and willingness to be playful.

Once you have mastered the basics of pet photography, built a portfolio and decided to market yourself within your community –  you can begin to book sessions and work extensively with clients who are seeking creative and fun-filled images of their pet. With an idea and vision in mind – you can easily start capturing quality images of your client’s pet or even your own cuddly creature in little to no time. Here are our 7 tips for capturing your most captivating array of pet photography.

  1.  Get to Know Your Pet

As with any subject, you are photographing, getting to know them is an essential aspect of developing a relationship and connection. This same principle and practice can and should be applied to your pet photography. Since you are limited in your communication methods, a good way to get to know the pet is by establishing a small bond during the first meeting. This can be done in simple ways, such as playing with the pet, giving it a favorite treat or even engaging in interactions with their toys such as throwing a ball to the dog to ignite a game of fetch.  

Pets, whether they be dogs, cats, turtles or even fish, are subjects that evoke strong emotional ties for their owners. If you are hired to take pictures of someone’s pet, you will have to understand that developing even the smallest connection will go far when it comes time to create the images. Pets are usually intuitive by nature, so they will be able to read and process your overall demeanor and body language.

If you can instill and outwardly express feelings of security and trust, the pet will feel more inclined to act positively and may even take a liking to you. You can also develop a sense of trust, by having the owner showcase their approval of you in front of their animal. As pets are usually protective of their families, showing that you are an accepted person can lessen the chance of the pet showing resistance and opposition to you.

  1.  Use Treats and Toys

You may be wondering what the trick is to capturing optimal pet photographs. In any case of having a subject with a short attention span, you will have to integrate creative ideas to keep them focused. As for pets, they are one subject in which overflowing and indulging them with treats and toys is the key to unlocking their full photographic potential. Before beginning to shoot your images, you will want to make sure you have their favorite toy and several treats on hand.

Treats and toys can be used to regain the attention of your pet, for the moments when they become distracted or uninterested, and can also be used as a way to positively reaffirm their good behavior. For example, if you are photographing a dog and you have them sit and stay to pose – you would reward the pet with a treat for having listened to you. Pet photography is parallel to training in various ways, for you have to be able to give direction effectively to the pet for them to process and act accordingly. Hopefully, you will be working with pets who have been previously trained by their owner, so that they will behave properly for you. Yet, in any case, it is always good to be prepared for the unexpected during a shoot.

  1.  Interact with the Pet During the Shoot

Another way to ensure that the pet is acting in good behavior and is attentive during your session is to interact with the pet while shooting. Interacting with the pet can be done in several ways including playing a game, stopping to pet the animal and show positive reinforcement or even lowering yourself to their eye level to instill companionship and confidence.

The act of interacting and playing with the pet during the shoot will not only result in an overall better experience but will aid you in creating some creative and interesting images. Pets are not like human subjects in the sense that having them continually pose and be placed into specific situations will feel unnatural and a poor representation of the pet’s personality and demeanor. Instead, when creating pet photography aim for less perfection and more lifelike, realistic imagery. When interacting with the pet, have them engage in acts such as sitting, jumping, rolling over or even laying down.

A great example of pet imagery that can result from interacting with the pet are photographs where the animal may be jumping in mid hair, running through the water or even posing with their favorite toy. Being aware that pet photography is one of the most interactive forms of photography will allow you to create visually dynamic imagery. Don’t be afraid to get down on the ground and play with the pet – you’ll be surprised by how some organic interaction and bonding can greatly transform your images.

  1.  Remember to Have Patience

Photo by Krista Mangulsone

The main point to remember about pet photography is that you will have to practice patience. Photographing pets is a far more complicated process than you may assume, as pets are animals with personalities that greatly exceed and redefine what you may be used to while working with human subjects. Since pet photography is a newer form of creating that has grown and evolved over the last several years, many photographers may write off the process as “simple and easy.”

Yet, it is wrong to assume that pet photography is easier than other forms of image creating. This being due to the main factor of communication. Communication is essentially void in pet photography because you cannot give your subject any type of verbal direction. You will have to make sure that any type of verbal cues you use during your shoot are ones that the pet is already familiar with. For example, let’s say that you are photographing a dog. The owner will be with you during the shoot, so it would be best to ask what words their pet is familiar with. Do they know the commands for sit, stay, lie down, jump?

Consulting the pet’s owner prior to the shooting is the best way for you to develop a comprehensive idea of how the pet behaves, which type of affirmation and directions are effective or even what possible factors may result in irritated or unruly behavior. Although patience is important in guiding the pet to act in a certain manner, you must also remember that patience is key when things start to go awry during a shoot.

Pets are fickle creatures that can easily change their behavior in a split second. It is best never to assume that the session will go completely smooth and without issue – instead prepare ahead of time for things to run a bit off course. In this instance, carve out the appropriate amount of time that you feel you can create quality images in consideration with the potential of issues that may arise. Express to the owner, your client, that you will try your best to capture their pet in the most time efficient way. Don’t worry about the client being dissatisfied or unhappy if the behavior of their pet changes during the shoot, clients will understand the complexity and moving parts that come to work with animals, recognizing that they know their pet’s behavior better than you do.

In all, patience is the key element of being a pet photographer. Pet photography can be truly creative and unique when executed properly. Forecasting the potential of roadblocks and issues that may arise during your shoot, will help you be better prepared for working with all times of four-legged friends. Practice patience, be flexible and enjoy the process in whichever way it plays out.

  1.  Use the Ideal Camera Settings

Due to the unpredictable nature of pets, you will want to ensure that your camera settings are ideal for any photographic situation. In most cases, pets are fast moving creatures – so you will have little to no time to waste when capturing their photograph. In this case, you will want to set your camera for fast shutter speed, a continuous focus mode, a sharp aperture and even consider adjusting your camera to capture several images at once.

The shutter speed should be fast to help with the movement and action of your pet, a good base would be to start at 1/250 – 1/400 of a second, yet adjusting this value depending on the type of lighting you are shooting in. As for aperture, you will want to make sure this is set to a stop that will result in sharp, focused images. It would be best to bump up the f-stop to a range of f/2.2 and above – avoid anything that is too portrait-esque. If you want to create more portrait styled images of the pet, it may be best to do this only in situations where the pet has been posed and is in a stationary position, otherwise adding any action to the frame could result in soft or out of focus photographs.

Additionally, if your camera can be set to a continual focus mode, you should consider using this feature during your session. This will allow the camera to focus each image automatically, without you having to set your focal points within the camera manually. Although techniques such as back button focus can be effective in quickly focusing your image, you will want to make sure that you have set the most optimal tool available with your camera – making sure that you never miss the perfect shot.

Lastly, it would help if you remembered that the gear is not the most important aspect to pet photography. In fact, the technical aspect of these types of sessions is rather obsolete. Instead of worrying too much about what camera or lens you should use, think more about the overall essence and direction of images you will want to create.

Do you want to show the pet in a candid, active manner? Then consider using a zoom lens to be able to adjust your position with flexibility and ease. Do you want to capture pet portraits, that give the animal a human-like essence? Then use a lens with a larger focal length such as 50 or 85 mm. Or do you envision capturing the images in an indoor setting? Consider adding an external flash or speedlight to light your work effectively. As with all forms of photography, gear and technical jargon should never weigh you down. Use what you have, be creative and you’ll be sure to create captivating work.

  1.  Don’t be Afraid to Try Different Angles

Considering that pets come in all shapes and sizes, no two animals that you photograph will truly be alike. In this case, you will always need to consider adjusting your angle and perspective to align yourself with the pet properly. Unless you are photographing a Saint Bernard, you will most likely have the higher viewpoint in comparison to the pet. In this case, avoid creating all of your images in which you shoot down toward the subject. This composition can work for a few shots, but if you employ this method for the entirety of your session, you will create lackluster and unappealing images.

Instead of shooting in only one manner, create images with varied and complex composition. Don’t be afraid to lower your center of gravity and shoot at the eye level of the pet. Lay on the ground, place yourself next to the pet and even shoot from a low vantage point upward to create a more intriguing perspective. It is also vital to note that with every image you create, you will want to always focus on the eyes of the pet. As we do this in portrait photography with human subjects, it is key to continue and enforce this technique in your pet images. When you focus on the eyes, you are guaranteed to be able to create a crisp, clear and focused image of the pet’s features.

By being a bit animal-like yourself, lowering your perspective and creating images at eye level, you will be able to create various compositions for your images. It’s pretty impossible to improperly photograph a pet, as the very nature of pet photography is to capture the animal in a candid, active and lifelike manner. With this, aim to be creative and try any kind of angle or perspective that comes to mind.

  1.  Shoot Outside

Photo by Samuel Thompson

The final tip to creating pet photography is to shoot outside when possible. Although there may be times when shooting outside may be difficult due to issues such as weather, it is recommended that you try your best to place your pet photography sessions in locations with natural light and open space. Animals were made to be active, to run around and engage with their environment. By holding your session in an interior space, you are limiting the opportunity to create true and realistic captures of the pet.

In outdoor settings, choose places that have ample space and are within nature such as in an open field, by a lake or even at the beach. If you choose to shoot near water, you may want first to consult the owner of the pet to make sure that the animal is not afraid of the water or such an enthusiastic swimmer that any sign of H2O will result in them taking their afternoon bath.

Capturing the pet in open spaces allows you to create images with action and movement, such as having the pet jump, chase after a ball or even roll around in the bounty of grass. In this case, it would best to bring toys and props with you that can be used to engage and interact with the pet. For example, if you are photographing a puppy, bring a frisbee or rubber ball to have the owner throw into the field. As the action occurs, begin to snap away to catch the dog mid-air or running back to you with their prize in the mouth.

The other reason that you should aim to photograph your pet images outdoors is for the use of natural light. As we previously mentioned above, you can photograph the pet indoors with the aid of an external flash or speedlight. Yet, using soft and natural lighting found outside, is truly the most optimal option for creating flattering and visually appealing images. Time of day is less of a factor with pet photography because you will be capturing fewer portraits and more at the moment, candid shots. Yet, as a good rule of thumb – try to avoid the harshness of mid daylight that can create far too much exposure and contrast.

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As the photography world continues to evolve and expand, unique genres such as pet photography will become increasingly more popular and normalized. The very essence of pet photography is rooted in the concept of creating memories. As we capture significant parts of our lives such as the birth of children, marriage and family gatherings – pet photography is used to acknowledge and fully celebrate the role, and importance pets play in our every day lives.

Whether you are carving out a room in the genre to start your own pet photography business, looking to improve your skills or even just need some guidelines for capturing pictures of your own pets – this type of photography can effectively be done by implementing our top 7 skills. Remembering to be patient, adjust your camera settings accordingly, use treats and toys to focus attention, shoot outside and interact with your animal subject, will help you to create your best and most creative pet photography images.

Are you a pet photographer or looking to start working within this niche of the photographic industry? Did you find these tips to be helpful in your own work? Feel free to give us any insight you may have in our comments below.

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