If you're an animal lover, pet portrait photography is a natural area for you to explore. Animals are fun to work with, and each one is beautiful in their own way. Whether your subject has puppy-dog eyes and a wagging tail, fluffy fur, and a charming attitude, feathers, or scales, every creature has an individual character that is fun to capture.
What is Pet Photography?
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that pet photos are simply portraits of animals. But what may surprise many photographers is how much demand there is for this type of family photography. Owners may want their pets included in their family portrait sessions, or they may be looking for stand-alone pet photography pricing. Here are some creative family portrait ideas to capture the perfect shots.
You don't have to be an animal lover to take pet portraits, but much like any other niche in the business, it helps a lot if you have a passion for and a connection to your subjects. Animals connect with people, and they can tell immediately if you're worried or uncertain about their presence.
At its core, capturing pet images is very much like taking portraits of small children. If you don't get along with small children, it's not going to be much fun. And like doing kid portraits, you can't communicate with your subject or expect them to understand that they need to hold that pose or look into the camera. Talking of poses and compositions, you might want to read our Guide to Family photography with tips on how to capture those precious moments.
How to Photograph Pets
Cameras and Lenses
The equipment you choose for pet portrait photography is an odd mix of things that would be appropriate for portraiture and sports photography. Why sports? You need a camera body that will work quickly. A fast burst mode while still capturing RAW format images is important, so that when you lay into the shutter release, the camera captures a selection of images. Animals move unpredictably, so you need to be able to get the rough setup you like and then take as many photos as you can. Older camera bodies might only be able to do half a dozen RAW photos before they need to pause shooting to write the data to the card.
Also like sports images, you want a camera with fast and accurate autofocusing. Again, pets move around. Some are very active, and some shoots will be happening outside while the animal is playing. A continuous drive autofocus lock is an excellent tool to help you keep the focus accurate, and some camera bodies are much better at this than others.
The lenses you choose should be portraiture lenses. But unlike human pictures, having a super bright lens with an extremely shallow depth of field isn't essential. Shooting with low f-stops is sure to blur long snouts and wagging tails too much. It's better to have your lens set at f/5.6 or higher and use the ISO settings to keep the shutter speeds fast. This isn't to say that you can use cheap lenses since you'll still want super-sharp pictures and fast autofocus.
Requiring such fast shutter speeds and wider depth of fields, the first assumption many make is that they must make use of flashes and artificial lighting. In truth, these have their place, especially if you are working in your studio.
But most pet photography pricing and packages include location shoots. This is popular for several reasons. Meeting the animals on their turf increases the chances of a relaxed and happy pet. For most family pets that don't have a lot of obedience training, this is the best option. You can capture their behavior in their natural environment, surrounded by their family. Add in some treats, and it might be the best day of their lives.
But lighting a location shoot is a bigger challenge. Big lights on stands and beauty dishes are going to be hard to deal with, especially if you're trying to pin down a feisty critter. Natural light is almost always best in these circumstances, but you might want to have one or two off-camera speed lights that you can use for fill or effects lighting.
Common Mistakes and How To Avoid Them
Many animals have very sensitive eyes, so you might have trouble with them squinting due to your strobe lights. Some animals might even get startled or agitated by them. Go with natural light when you can. If you need to use a fill, use it as a bounce off of a nearby wall or ceiling. Large diffusers might help too.
Perhaps an even better answer is to up your kit of natural light tools. A reflector dish can help you out in many ways. For one, it gives you a way to control what light you've got and to fill in the shadows. Most reflector sets come with silver, gold, and white colors, so you can pick the quality of light that best matches your subject. They also are useful for creating a catch light in the subject's eyes.
Lighting and Color Problems
Some of the most common problems with shooting pet photos are also the hardest to overcome with natural light. Since animals are low to the ground, their fur often picks up color casts from the ground and environment. It can be very noticeable on black fur, which the camera is already going to have some trouble metering properly. If you shoot in RAW format, these problems should be easy to fix in post-production.
Multicolored animals also spell trouble for the camera's metering profiles. Blown highlights are a problem with dark animals with white patches. Use the peaking tool on your LCD to give you a heads up. Most photos, especially RAW files, will allow you to recover a lot of detail from underexposed areas, but blown highlights are lost for good. When in doubt, err on the side of underexposing the whole thing a bit and recovering it during post-processing.
Assuming you are working with enough light and a fast enough shutter speed to avoid any blur from hand-shake, blur is going to come from two things during an animal shoot. The first results from the natural inclination of the portrait photographer to use shallow depths of fields. When used to capture images of humans with flat faces, the long snout of a furry friend is a bit of a challenge. Avoid any depth of field below f/5.6, and opt for higher when you are able.
As with any portrait, the eyes must be in sharp focus. A little bit of blur on the nose might look okay, but it can quickly get out of hand and look awkward.
The second common problem is shooting with too slow a shutter speed. Animals move quickly, and it might not be that they change their pose so much as just move their head or shift their weight. The constant movement means you want to boost the shutter speed to 1/250th second or higher.
10 Tips and Techniques for Pet Photography
Prepare for the Shoot
Before taking any pictures or getting out your camera gear, the first step is to prepare the location for the shoot. Many photographers prefer to do pet portraits in a location that the animal is comfortable. Preferably somewhere that they can be themselves and do their thing.
The problem with doing them at home is clutter. Even in their backyard, you might find it's too messy to work with. So your first task as the photographer is to pick your spot based on the light and background and then declutter the area as much as possible. Get rid of any distracting objects that do not add to the photo.
Take Your Time
The next thing to remember is that dogs, cats, and all the rest do not work on schedules. So relax and be patient. Make a new friend. Get out your camera, but spend some time just getting to know your subject. Have their human teach you some of their commands. Click your shutter a few times, see how they react, and get them used to you and your camera.
This isn't any different than doing portraits for a person. The only difference is that the pets don't speak a language. You can't talk to them to get to know them and calm them down, and you have to interact with them in a way they understand. For a cat, that might mean just chilling out next to them and petting them. For a dog, it might mean playing some fetch and giving some belly scratches.
It's also important to get to know them so that they will listen to you. What you don't want is for you and the animal's people to be shouting commands across each other. Designate one person to give instructions, be it the owner or you. Whatever the plan, everyone should be relaxed and calm. Don't confuse or yell at the pet.
Get Down on Their Level
Once you've gotten to know your new furry or scaly friend, you've probably got a good idea of where you have to be to join their world. Your photos should do just that. They should show the world from their point of view. So stretch out your muscles and put away the nice clothes, because you need to get dirty. Bend down or sit on the ground, whatever you need to do to shoot at their eye level.
Focus on Their Eyes
Like all portraits, the key is in the eyes. Our article on mastering portrait photography might give you insights into the art of capturing the inherent character of your subject within a photograph. Make sure your camera's spot focusing is locked on the animal's eyes and keeps it locked in. If you've got an assistant to hold a reflector, making a catch light in the subject's eyes can have a powerful effect. It's even more obvious on animals than it is on humans.
Capture Their Character
Your new friend has probably shared some details of their personal life with you by this point. If you got to know them, what were they most interested in? Playing ball? Treats? Cuddles? Whatever their thing is, use it to capture their character.
Animals have their habits, just like humans. Look for any repeated motions or gestures, reactions, or expressions. They probably do it at home too, so their owners will connect with it in the photos. Capture those little touches of individuality, and you will have happy clients.
Toys and Treats
Animal behavior is best controlled via positive reinforcement. When they do something right, something that you like, reward them. So don't come empty-handed!
This is part of getting to know your client. What do they like? Dogs usually aim to please. Maybe it's enough to give an enthusiastic "Good boy!" Most animals, though, are highly food motivated. Keep those treats handy!
Be sure to check with the owner to see what sort of treats Fluffy and Fido like. Some animals have severe food allergies, so those cheap Milk-Bones aren't always a great idea.
When they do something you don't like, the most effective thing to do is ignore it and move on.
Pretend You're a Sports Photographer
That doesn't mean that you need to make your model do acrobatics and athletics. What it means is that you need to be in the frame of mind that the shot might come and go in an instant. If you see a shot you like, take the shot!
Leave your camera on burst mode and continuous focus, like you would at a sporting event. Even if you have to discard 20 photos to get the one photo, that one photo you did get may never be recreated. Unlike a human model, there is no, "Now, hold that pose right there."
Keep Working Fast
You aren't the only one that should be working fast; your camera should be too. Keep the fastest shutter speed possible, because some animals move around a lot. It's not just the running off. It's the wagging tails and sudden grins and face movements. Keep your shutter speed 1/250th of a second or faster, and you should be alright.
If that sounds pretty fast for your standard portrait session, you're right. You're going to need a lot of light, and outside or near windows is best. You might also need to boost your ISO settings a little higher than you're used to. ISO 400 is a good place to start, but don't be afraid to go into 640 or even 800 if your camera can do it without getting too grainy.
Take it to the Next Level
Professional pet photography is everywhere. Look online, and you're sure to find some inspiration. If there's an underlying theme amongst these images, it's that the sky is the limit. Exercise your creative little gray cells and bring a fresh perspective to your pet pictures!
Here are 29 Outstanding Photography Portfolio websites built on Pixpa, for you to get inspiration and ideas. These photographers have made excellent use of Pixpa, an easy to use website builder to showcase their photos. You can draw inspiration from these creative professionals and study their portfolios, to get a clearer idea of how you want to showcase your repertoire of work.
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Some photographers are taking pet photos into the realm of fine art. Look at examples of black and white images, or even the unique underwater pet snaps of Seth Castell. For more inspiration, here is a Complete Guide on Underwater photography, a unique photographic genre that ranges from scenics and wildlife shots to artistic compositions with underwater models. If you want to take your photos to the next level like this, create some concepts and shot lists for your next shoot. Instead of going in blind, think up the story you'd like to tell through your portraits.
Practice Your Art
Before you start a pet photo business, practice your skills by donating time at rescues and shelters, and help those pets get adopted! They always need high-quality photography to help their animals find forever homes. There are pet rescue facilities all over the world, and they'd love to have your help.
Professional pet photography is not without its challenges, but it's one of the most fun and rewarding types of photography. If you love animals, it's a great way to be around them. Their owners will appreciate your efforts immensely, and the pets will too. Just be sure to bring some treats!