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Yes Please

One common pet photography nightmare is having to handle rowdy, difficult pets who run around when they should sit.

But don’t worry! While animals may not always be interested in making your life easier, we definitely are.

That’s why we’ve put together this article on 7 tips and tricks to tackle difficult pet photography without actually getting tackled by them.

Playful pet portrait of a black and white dog standing upright - working with difficult pets

1. How to Identify the Real Problem

Dogs, cats, and other animals often misbehave due to some underlying issue. Figuring out what that is can help remedy the behavior in a productive and timely manner that saves your shoot.

You don’t have to be a certified trainer or behaviorist to be able to decipher why the dog in your studio is bouncing off the walls either.

These are some of the most common reasons a pet may become difficult at your session:

  • Overstimulation and excitement. This is especially true for young pets. Sometimes a dog goes haywire because they are way over excited about something new in their environment. This could be due to pent up energy, a need to play, or certain foods that illicit a hyperactive response.
  • Fear. A very common reason for difficulty during photo sessions is fear. You have to view life from the eyes of the subject you are photographing, and a camera, lights, lenses, clicking noises can be really scary! As is a stranger in one’s space. A good tip here is to allow the animal to sniff and get to know you and all of the equipment you are bringing forth. 
  • Anxiety and uncertainty. Fear and excitement can cause anxiety which leads to a pet that won’t listen or cooperate. For fearful animals, the uncertainty of
    what’s happening can result in fight or flight responses, so do be mindful of the body language you observe. 
  • Lack of control. Animals are smart, they know who they can take advantage of. Read up on some great training books for ideas on how to regain control of your photo sessions with animals.
  • Medical issues or the pet feels unwell. I have unfortunately experienced situations where owners force their sick pets to perform for sessions when the better idea is to give them a break or reschedule. If this is the case, use your better judgement. Send the client home if you need to.

Cute pet portrait of a brown dog standing on a wall

2. How to Make an Animal Lose Interest in You

I’ve found that the key to calming an animal down is to appear as uninteresting and unthreatening as humanly possible.

With the above reasons for misbehavior in mind, it is safe to say that unruly animal behavior can often be linked to excitement, overstimulation, or anxiety about something new in the pet’s home or immediate location.

Animals communicate with body language and conduct. Because pets cannot speak words to us, their method of expressing emotions is very physical.

Photographers must find a way to dull the reaction our own presence causes. Allowing pets to become familiar with us is a good way to do so. Let a dog sniff you and your equipment, or have a cat circle around and check you out.

Letting owners interact with the photographer as they would any new person can also help the animal become more familiar.

Most importantly, keep your own excitement in check when you meet a new animal. This is a great way to help the pet feel more at ease, like your being in their space is completely normal and mundane.

Playful pet portrait of a little black and white dog standing upright - working with difficult pets

3. How to Predict the Pet’s Behaviour

Ensuring that you are always ready to capture the perfect moment whenever it may occur is key. A good way of knowing when to raise the camera and click the shutter is to predict the animal’s behavior.

Much of this does come from experience and exposure to various kinds of pets, but you can often use common sense to figure out what your subject is going to do next.

For example, a boisterous puppy that has a fixation on a toy is likely going to grab that toy and swing it around, a perfect opportunity for some playful shots!

A cat perching on the ledge of a shelf is probably going to leap, so get your action game ready!

A good tip is to always have your focus mode set to Continuous Focus Mode (AI Servo for Canon users or AF-C for Nikon users). This allows your camera to lock onto your subject and follow it around, without you constantly needing to refocus.

This is especially useful (and a bit of a lifesaver) with unpredictable pets.

Pet portrait of a dog standing on grass - working with difficult pets

4. Why You Should Ask Your Client to Tire Out Their Pet Before the Shoot

How likely are you to protest or cause a ruckus when you’re tired? Probably less chance than if you were hyped up with energy! Animals are the same way (especially baby pets- such as puppies and kittens).

Be prepared to get your subject physically and mentally tired before proceeding with the remainder of the photo session.

Playing, running, and stimulating the dog, cat, or even parrot before a session will keep them mellower when it comes time to take the photographs.

Depending on how you run your photo sessions, you will either suggest this for your client or proceed to take on the responsibility of doing it yourself.

If your client is the one to do this, ensure that they time the play effectively so that their furry family member isn’t so stimulated that the presence of a photographer causes stress or anxiety.

The key is to get the animal to the level of tired that they no longer care about what is happening around them. 

Cute pet portrait of a dog running on grass

Do keep in mind that it certainly depends on the age of the animal you are working with in regards to how long they remain tired or how long one should play.

Puppies and kittens tend to tire out very easily, while an adult dog and cat take a longer amount of time.

Baby or young animals may also remain tired for less time than an adult counterpart, as their energy comes in bursts.

Pet portrait of two dogs standing outside an industrial type building

5. Try a Telephoto Lens and Sit Back

If you’re boring, you’re less likely to be the center of attention for your client’s dog.

Sometimes the key to working with difficult animals is to stop trying to control the situation (such as making them pose) and begin just watching their behavior and snapping beautiful candid moments.

Many of the most iconic pet photography shots are those in which you play no involvement and sit back as an observant photographer rather than one who dictates the session.

It is often to your benefit to sit further back with a telephoto or zoom lens and not interfere with what proceeds to occur.

This does depend on what your client wants from the photo shoot, what you expect, or what the animal you are working with is like – but certainly consider it as a possibility.

Pet portrait of a dog running and playing on the beach - working with difficult pets

6. Try a New Perspective or Composition 

Instead of stressing or having anxiety over uncontrollable situations, find new, fun, and imaginative ways of working with the situation at hand.

Being a great photographer is knowing how to work with the cards you’re dealt.

This also makes the experience more pleasurable for your subject and client, as you won’t be radiating an uncomfortable energy.

Cute pet portrait of a small dog sitting in grass - working with difficult pets

Whether it’s using a different lens or changing your perspective and composition, doing something new based on what’s happening is a great way to work with animals.

Of course, all animals are different. Your reaction should be based on the individual animal’s personality, reaction, and needs.

7. Find The Key to an Animal’s Heart: Toys and Treats!

Cute close up pet portrait of a black dog with a ball in his mouth

Finally, as much as toys and treats can cause overstimulation, they can equally be the bribing tools to get you what you want.

Depending on the pet you’re photographing, toys and treats can become your best purchase. You may even be able to teach a dog to sit during your photo session or keep a cat looking at you as you take pictures, depending on how you are with animals.

The key with treats is to use high-value treats, a common term used among dog trainers. High-value treats are goodies that the pet finds irresistible, and that becomes a big motivator for them to do what you want.

Certain types of toys can be the same. Toys and noises are also a great way to get alert ears and a happier facial expression.

Pet portrait of a wolf like dog shaking water from his fur - working with difficult pets

Conclusion

With these aforementioned tips in the bag, you should have no trouble with any difficult pets that come your way.

Any pet owner that claims they cannot book a photoshoot with you because their puppy doesn’t sit still no longer has to worry about such things!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

CLICK HERE if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.

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You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos!

Thanks again for reading our articles!

Anabel DFlux

Anabel DFlux is a published photographer in Los Angeles, California. Having started her photography business at the age of 15, Anabel has dedicated her life to her photographic passion. From canine sports to exotic animals, to some of the biggest musicians in the world - Anabel's work doesn't fall into any specific niche. She believes there are no limits to what you can create, and to photograph everything that gives you that spark of inspiration.

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