The furry and the feathered, the scaled and the fuzzed. Pets are and have been humans’ greatest companions and comrades throughout time. It’s no wonder pet photography is everywhere!
It could be a smartphone photo of your cat or a professional photo shoot at a dog show. Regardless, animal photography is one of the most popular (and profitable) photography areas.
However, it’s not as simple as we’d like. The difficulty with photographing animals comes from our inability to communicate with them, and their often unpredictable nature.
Here are our ten animal photography tips so you can always capture your furry friend’s best side.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to what tools you use to capture your images.
Your camera, lenses, and technique.
These dictate both the kinds of images you take and how effective you are at taking them.
Your camera body will be either low-light or speed oriented. This depends on the type of pet photography you do.
Common cameras used in pet photography include the Canon 5D Mark series, the Canon 7D series, and the Canon 1Dx series.
If you do a lot of indoor or studio pet photography, look for camera bodies with great low light abilities. Indoor sessions are likely to result in darker images than outdoor ones. This is regardless of whether you use artificial lighting or just natural.
It happens because you have to crank up your shutter speed for animal photography. This results in a high ISO to compensate for the darker images produced by higher shutter speeds.
Some of the most common lenses for animal photography are the 50mm lens, the 24-70mm lens, the 85mm lens, and the 70-200mm lens.
Also known as the “nifty fifty”, the 50mm is famous for its very low aperture numbers. These cause a creamy and beautiful depth of field. The most common apertures for the 50mm are f/1.2, f/1.8, and f/2.0.
This fixed lens is short, so you will be very close to your subject. You can really focus on interacting with the pet you’re photographing.
Another plus is that fixed lenses tend to be sharper than variable ones.
The 24-70mm lens is good for everything from wide captures to close-up portraits. It gives you the option to interact with your subject or shoot from farther away.
The 85mm lens has the same shallow depth of field as the 50mm lens. But it allows you to sit far back and not interfere with your subject.
This is particularly useful when you don’t want to be noticed. The downside of a fixed millimeter is that you will have to physically move your position to adjust the composition.
If you want telephoto lens, the 70-200mm is for you. When it comes to pet photography, sometimes the best shots are those in which you play no involvement.
It is often to your benefit to sit farther back with a telephoto or zoom lens and not interfere with the playful animals in front of you.
Animal noses love to go where they don’t belong – like the very front of your lens!
Having a filter on your lens ensures the glass remains safe from curious critters. Often, just a simple glass filter is excellent.
If your client insists on shooting outdoors in the bright noon sun, get a neutral density filter. This can help you shoot wide open even in the bright sun.
Taking knee pads with me took years to become a habit, but you will thank me for it! I cannot begin to say how many times my knees have ended up bruised from getting low to capture that perfect angle.
Be Fast with Your Camera
Burst Mode and Continuous Focus
I’ve found that switching the camera to burst mode and continuous focus works best for pet photography. The burst setting is a must when animals get excited and start running or playing. Or when a pet unexpectedly does something picture-worthy.
Continuous focus has different names depending on the camera brand (AI Servo for Canon users or AF-C for Nikon users). It allows your camera to follow your subject around as it moves.
Animals blink, turn their heads, and move around at the most inopportune moment. You can ensure you get the right shot by setting your camera to burst mode. This allows you to take multiple photographs in a row while pressing down on the shutter.
As well as this, you never know what moment you might capture in front of your lens. Being fast and ready is the key to success.
If you want to capture those amazing running shots of dogs, be prepared to practice the art of panning.
Panning is moving your camera horizontally with the subject’s movement. You synchronize your camera movement with that of the subject moving parallel to you.
This takes practice, but the results are worth it.
Continuous Lighting is Best
This is very much up for debate, so this is my personal opinion from my own experience. I believe that continuous lighting is better for animal photography than flashes and strobes for a variety of reasons.
Some animals have very sensitive eyes, and bright flashes can cause a lot of distress. Continuous lights are softer and give the animal’s eyes an opportunity to adjust. You also have the option to dim the lights.
And you don’t have to spend time testing strobes to make sure they are firing properly, angled correctly, or of the right brightness. You can see the entire image right off the bat with continuous lights. Time is of the essence when photographing pets.
The sound of strobes can be very frightening to a timid pet. Continuous lights are silent and allow the dog or cat to become more familiar with the equipment.
The best continuous lights that I enjoy for pet photography feature either a rectangular or octagonal soft box which spreads the light out significantly.
I believe that composition is in the eye of the beholder. As a photographer, you’ll develop a natural sensitivity to proper placement in images the more you shoot.
That said, there are two important compositional elements for pet photography.
Photograph From the Pet’s Eye Level
Viewers are more empathetic and attracted to images from the same perspective as the subject’s.
For pet photography, this means seeing life from the viewpoint of a dog or a cat or a horse. This is intriguing to us humans and appeals to viewers.
Use Negative Space to Your Advantage
Although a photograph is frozen, the viewer can still imagine the next subject’s next step. Leaving enough negative space in the direction you expect your subject to continue moving in, will make it seem like it’s bouncing off of the photograph.
If the photograph is cropped in such a way that there is little negative space, the image will feel claustrophobic and caged.
Focus on the Eyes
A good way to make sure the eyes are in focus is to use the focus points on your camera. I personally like to set them straight in the middle.
Then I focus on the eyes, keep holding the shutter down half way to lock the focus, and proceed to move my camera to my ideal composition.
Setting the aperture a few stops higher can also take some of the difficulty out of focusing on the eyes.
Make Sure the Animal is Comfortable With Your Set-Up
Ensuring your critter friend is comfortable should be at the forefront of any photographer’s mind. No shot is worth stressing or scaring the poor pet.
A good way to help a timid or excited animal is to let them sniff and become more familiar with your equipment. This is where having filters and protective casing on the camera and lens is important!
Of course, always pay attention. If you see a dog’s fangs or a cat’s claws coming into play, remove your equipment from harm’s way.
Another way to ensure that the pet is comfortable if your set-up is to make yourself out to be incredibly boring. Easily excitable dogs, anxious cats, or overstimulated puppies tend to make difficult subjects.
Try ignoring an excited dog, or letting a timid pup sniff your hand. Take advantage of the owner’s presence. Their casual and relaxed attitude can encourage a sense of calm in their pet.
A key trick in working with pets is to get them worn out. This makes it more likely they’ll sit still and not display boisterous behaviour.
Playing, running, and exercising the canine, feline, or even parrot before a photo shoot is ideal. It will keep them mellower when it comes time to take the photos.
You can either do this yourself or ask the owner/your client to do it. Make sure they know to time the play session accurately. The key is to get the dog, cat, horse, etc. to the level of tired where they pay little heed to what is occurring around them.
Also, keep in mind that baby animals and adult animals have different stimulation needs. Be mindful and careful with all pets you photograph.
Toys, Treats, and Noises are Your Best Friend
How do pet photographers get those alert facial expressions and upright ears? Toys, treats, and noises!
Keeping a pet’s attention is just as important as not overstimulating them. Try using a pet’s favourite toy or run through an arsenal of funny noises and see what works best to get those alert ears.
The key with treats is to use high-value treats. These are goodies that the pet finds irresistible, and a big motivator for them to do what you want.
Adaptability Is Key
The real secret to pet photography is understanding animal behaviour and being one step ahead of your subject at all times.
From observing animal body language, a photographer can predict the pet’s next move.
Knowing how to adapt to any situation makes a great photographer. An animal that isn’t behaving or has changed their behaviour is just another photography challenge to overcome.
If a dog is rather flamboyant and energetic, positioning yourself farther away is ideal. And if midway through a shoot a cat decides it isn’t stoked on your presence, hide yourself away and photograph from a distance.
Like much of photography, patience is an important part of taking a great picture of a pet or animal. It is definitely worth waiting for the right moment rather than rushing through the entire process.
Like I said before, the pet’s comfort is of the utmost importance. If you see the animal showing distress or anxiety signs, take a break. Ask the owner to remove them from the situation, cuddle with them, give them some water, etc.
Or try a change of scenery. If a dog is having issues in the studio, move to a local park. Or vice versa.
Half an hour is usually an excellent span of time for a break.
Sometimes the problems stem from the pet owner. Animals are very sensitive to emotions in others. If the owner is anxious or frustrated, the pet will respond to that. If your client is irritated with their pet, try to calm them down.
Pets are not professional models. You can definitely tell when a pet isn’t having a great time in photographs.
The animal photography niche is overly saturated. Doing something that causes you to stand out is the key to being successful.
Finding new and unique ways to capture a creature’s personality is really important. Whether this means using a different lens or changing your perspective and composition, it’s worth trying.
It’ll you teach you to be adaptive in your photography and lead to some great pictures.
Black and White Pets
Light and dark fur is one of the most technically frustrating colour combinations on an animal.
It is difficult to expose them. You can easily underexpose the black or overexpose the white. My advice is to shoot in the shadows or under an overcast day where the lighting is very even. Then, you should underexpose by about two stops!
It’s easier to bring details out from black than white in post-processing. Overexposed white has no details to bring forth as the information is missing.
Now that your photography tool belt is full of these tips, go photograph your favourite pets and bring out their best sides!
For even more fun animal pictures, check out our widlife photography article or our article on photography animals in motion.