With the current accessibility and affordability of digital cameras (including SLRs), pet owners are finding it easier to photograph their pets. Getting good images has its challenges and does take some practice. Here are some tips anyone can use to help get better pet photos.
Photograph them in their element. Being an on-location photographer, I can say that taking pictures of pets where they are most comfortable helps immensely in capturing their true personality. Maybe there is a favorite park, beach, or hiking trail where you might notice that your pet is especially happy. If your pet is more of a homebody, take note of his or her favorite place to sleep, play, or cuddle and try to get some shots in this area. For example, my boxer has taken a special liking to an old, fold-up camping chair and has an almost humanlike quality in the way he sits upright in this chair and observes the world. I can always form this exact image in my head, and that makes for a great photograph.
Turn off the flash. We all know what happens when you blast your pet with the flash—demon eyes!! Camera capabilities are now getting to a place where some of the higher-end cameras can literally shoot bright images in the dark. A point-and-shoot camera might not have that capability, but it probably does a decent job in low-light situations. Be mindful of where the light is coming from in your home and photograph your pet with that light to your back. If you have a nice big window in your home somewhere, get in front of the window with your back to it and shoot away. Most photographers spend oodles of money trying to reproduce natural light. It is the best light money can’t buy! One final note: try to avoid shooting while facing the window. You are more likely to end up with a silhouette of your pet (which in some cases might be what you’re looking for) than a well-lit photograph.
Turn on the flash. I love natural light and try to avoid using flash when I can, but sometimes it’s just needed. If you are a bit more advanced in your photography skills, you can purchase an external flash unit to help with your photos. How do you avoid the dreaded demon eyes? Simply aim the flash at the ceiling or the wall next to you. This bounces the flash off that surface, creating a larger source of light that will light your pet and avoid giving him or her those scary red eyes. Most flashes have an automatic mode that will talk to your camera to get the proper exposure.
Get down on their level. Some of my favorite pet photos were taken at eye level of the subject. I am constantly sitting, laying, and rolling around on the ground when photographing pets because it gives such a fun perspective of the animal from that level. I will sometimes take shots while not even looking though my camera’s viewfinder just because I wouldn’t be able to get my eye there. I’ll just guess where to aim the camera, autofocus, and shoot away. Of course, not all of these shots will be good or even in focus, but the ones that turn out are magical!
Use treats. Most people are probably thinking that this is a no-brainer, and it is. It often helps, though, to have someone assist in doing this. I will usually ask the owner to get the pet’s attention with a treat and I’ll try to shoot over the owner’s shoulder or have them move the treat closer to my camera. This way, the pet’s eyes follow the treat, allowing for all kinds of fun poses.
Take a LOT of photos. One my favorite advantages of digital over film is the ability to take as many photos as you want without it costing anything! This is one of the key aspects to getting good pet photos because pets are typically on the move most of the time and don’t want to sit in one place. The more photos you take, the greater the likelihood of getting a good shot increases. If you’re lucky enough to have a DSLR with a continuous shooting mode, all you have to do is hold down the shutter button while the camera repeatedly captures images. I thought I took a lot of photos until I started going to photo workshops and watching other professionals in action! Digital has forever changed the game.
Manual camera settings. If you are feeling adventurous, most cameras let you take over the controls by switching to a manual setting. Now, I’ll admit, the first time you try this you will probably get horrible images. We all do. However, you aren’t wasting any money on film, so who cares? Manual settings give you the most control over what the final photograph will look like. The reason I mention this is that even in good lighting situations, people still can’t get their pets to not be blurry. This is because most pets are constantly moving—to freeze their motion, the camera has to be shooting at a high enough shutter speed to stop motion. If I want to freeze the action, I will typically shoot at a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second or higher if possible. One of the only ways to make sure the camera is doing this every time you press the shutter button is to use manual mode. In automatic mode, the camera may once in a while decide all conditions are correct to have the shutter speed that high, but it might only keep that setting for the next three pictures until you move the camera into another position and it thinks the settings need to change. The point is, manual mode is a good thing, but it takes a bit of practice. Learn it and take a shot!