Updated: Apr 25, 2020
“Happiness starts with a wet nose and ends with a tail.” If you own a pet or have ever interacted with any dog or cat, you know just how true this saying is. And what better way to celebrate this happiness than sharing it with the world? This is why pet photography is so incredibly popular. If you have any pets, the chances are their pictures account for most of your phone memory and part of your social profiles. If not, you have probably found yourself browsing dog and cat pictures online more than a couple of times.
While their inherent cuteness definitely plays a big role in the popularity of pet photography, there is so much work behind each photo. From how to prepare for the session to everything you should take into account during it, here are some tips to improve your pet photography skills and capture beautiful images:
1. Be Patient
Patience is the key to paradise… and to amazing cat and dog pictures. Unlike human models, who understand what you are trying to do and how they can help, pets can’t follow specific instructions. How do you tell your dog to smile? How do you make your cat look pensive? The answer is: you don’t. You’ll just need to be patient enough until the desired expression finally happens.
2. Practice, practice, practice
It’s no secret that successful results require a lot of practice. The more animals you photograph, the better you’ll understand how to work with them. You should also practice your non-photographic skills – that is, simply spending time with them. Without a camera in front of your face, it will be much easier to read their body language and learn what each movement means. Understanding the difference between a dog’s and a cat’s tail wag will definitely come in handy during your photo shoots.
3. Mind your timing
You might already be used to picking a shooting session time and location based on the light you need. However, pet photography demands a whole new level of time planning. In addition to taking light into account, you will need to take the needs of each subject into account. Think about how their mood changes during the day and how that affects the pictures you want to capture. For example, dogs “smile” when they are tired so you might want to take them for a long walk before. If you want to get adorable sleeping cat pictures, feed them right before you start shooting.
4. Plan the shots
Take some time to create a general guideline of the photo shoot beforehand. Focus on the emotions you want to evoke rather than on specific compositions. This will allow you to think about the expressions and mood you need to recreate without getting frustrated about not getting the exact image you pictured beforehand. Keep in mind that pet photography can be unpredictable and your model might not feel like giving you the shot you’re looking for. If that happens, allow yourself to move on and look for a different approach.
5. Pick the right lens
Unlike astrophotography, there isn’t a “best lens for pet photography”. Just like everything else, your gear will be determined by the unique needs of each photo shoot. Each type of lens will come in handy in different situations. For indoor photos, a “nifty fifty” or 50mm lens is probably your best option as they are fast and give beautiful bokeh results. A telephoto lens is great for outdoor and action shots, as it allows you to take amazing action dog pictures without interfering. Last, but not least, using a wide angle lens results in interesting perspectives that can give extra character to your photos.
6. Beware of the light/ flash
Photography is light, literally. Ideally, you want your pet pictures to be shot in natural light – either outside or next to a large window indoors. Unlike human portraits, where you can easily make up for the lack of natural light with a good lighting setup, pet photography is a bit trickier. First off, you should avoid using flash. Flashes of light usually startle animals enough to ruin the shot, and can even hurt their vision if they are too young. If you need to use artificial light, stick to steady lighting setups.
7. Nail the focus
Eyes are the window to the soul and the key to a great photo. Also, there’s nothing cuter than puppy eyes. Having the eyes in focus is a must for any portrait, but like everything else, it becomes a bit more complicated with pet photography. The main reason is, of course, your pet will probably not stay still enough for you to comfortably find the ideal focus. Those adorably long snouts will also give you some trouble, as low apertures will leave either the nose or the eyes out of focus. Unless you’re purposely looking for this result, use a smaller aperture or shoot from the side to get both of them in focus.
8. Master the exposure
Getting the right exposure is also extremely important, as you might have only one chance to nail that exact composition. Shooting in RAW can help you save some imperfect shots in post-processing, but you should not rely on it. Practice and technical skills are key to get the right exposure. Learn to doubt your camera’s meter, as it can be easily tricked by your pet’s coat color. White animals tend to appear dull as the camera thinks the scene is too white, and black ones appear gray as the meter detects a darker composition. Use exposure compensation to make up for these metering flaws.
9. Pay attention to the background
It can be easy to ignore a background scene when you have a lovely puppy playing in front of your camera. However, it will become very obvious once you’re looking at a still image. Before you start taking pictures, look out for elements you definitely want to keep away from your compositions. Examine your surroundings rather than a specific part of them, as your pet will likely move around during the photo shoot. The same applies to indoor shootings, as there is nothing more annoying than having the perfect cat picture ruined by a dirty litter box in the background. Additionally, try to find colorful backgrounds that contrast with the color of your pet’s coat to avoid bland results.
10. Ask a friend for help
Sometimes we all need a helping hand. Pet photography is one of those times. Having someone to help you during the photo shoot will make it much easier, safer and a lot more fun for everyone involved. When shooting outdoors, you will need a friend to look over your pet and make sure they don’t run away or get into dangerous situations. No matter how careful you are, it’s hard to pay attention to these things with a camera blocking most of your vision. Another huge benefit of involving someone else is that they can play with the model and entertain them to help you get the expressions you’re looking for.
11. Get rid of distractions
It takes very little to distract a cat or a dog. While you probably cannot eliminate all distractions, you should keep them to an absolute minimum. Find a secluded location away from the crowd, or remove every unnecessary element from the room. In fact, even you and your camera count as a distraction. Unless you actually want them to look at you, try to move as slowly as you can to avoid drawing attention.
12. Capture their character
Just like humans, every animal has their own unique personality. If you’re photographing someone else’s pet, make sure to ask about their character and spend some time with them beforehand to see it for yourself. Focusing on what makes each one of them special will result in more natural and unique images. For example, don’t try to take action dog pictures with an old, lazy pup. The same applies to cat pictures: aiming for a still portrait of an energetic kitten will likely end with blurry shots and a lot of frustration.
13. Make sure they are comfortable
One of the main essentials of pet photography is making sure that the animal is comfortable. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is only good for people. Animals are creatures of habit and can get really anxious when their routine is altered. And, of course, a nervous animal does not make a good model. If you’re taking pictures of your pet, introduce them to your gear beforehand. Let them smell, touch, and hear your camera and any other equipment you will be using. If you’re working with someone else’s pet, you’ll also need to make sure they get to know you well enough before you start taking pictures.
14. Get on their level
Images shot from an eye-to-eye perspective are usually more attractive to viewers and also induce empathy. This is especially important when working with subjects that are much smaller than you. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all of your cat and dog pictures should be taken from the same perspective. However, you should keep your natural, standing-up viewpoint for a few, selected shots.
15. Catch their attention
All pet photographers will tell you that squeaky toys and strings are your best friends. Sudden sounds are a great way to surprise them and capture an alert posture. Strings and other toys will help you get their attention in a more relaxed manner. If you want them to look directly at the camera, you can buy toy squeakers and make the sound directly with your mouth. To make them look somewhere else, go back to step ten.
16. Take advantage of their curiosity
Ever heard that curiosity killed the cat? That inquisitive nature can also be found in dogs, and can be a great asset for your compositions. Let them be and simply wait for the next new thing that will catch their attention. Unlike actively trying to direct their focus, this will result in more spontaneous and natural expressions. A wide-angle lens paired with a subject curious about photography can lead to some very interesting close-up portraits.
17. Be quiet
Remember: animals do not speak your language. You might be tempted to give a lot of directions, or even repeat the same one over and over. Sadly, that will only end up confusing them. There are two results this can lead to. One: your people-pleasing pup ends up looking scared and sad because they don’t understand what they are doing wrong. Two: your self-sufficient kitty walks away and you don’t see them again until your gear is safely stored. Avoid both scenarios by sticking to short commands they know and simply letting them be if they are not following them.
18. Pay your model
No species likes to work for free. Luckily, working with some of the most beautiful pets out there will only cost you a bag of treats and maybe a bone. Use food to get pets to feel comfortable and also to reward good behavior. This will make them like you more and also encourage them to let you take pictures for a bit longer when they start getting tired.
19. Use props
It’s hard to ignore how adorable pictures with props can be. A dog with a bow, a kitten in a box, literally any animal with a hat. But on top of the cuteness factor, the right props can also help your pet feel safer and more comfortable with the whole photo shoot. Leave their favorite toy or bed in the area, or offer them a place to hide if they get uncomfortable. Needless to say, don’t try to force props on them if you don’t want to end up injured and with an unfinished photo shoot.
20. Interact with them
Your pet has no clue what you’re doing with that thing in front of your face. Focusing too much on the photos and ignoring your furry friend will just make them confused and frustrated. Make sure you spend enough time petting them and playing, even if that means you miss a few picture opportunities. This applies even more so when photographing other people’s pets, as you need to gain and maintain their trust over the session.
Animals are in constant movement. They blink, turn their ears, twitch their whiskers, and look away at the most inopportune moments. These moves are sometimes so fast that they can go unnoticed during the shooting. However, there isn’t a worse feeling than going home after a session and realizing that most shots are blurry. To avoid this, set your camera to burst mode and take numerous pictures of the same scene. This might add some workload, but you’ll be happy to have that safety net when you see how many images it saved.
22. Play with angles and perspectives
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Look for close-ups and rule-breaking compositions. Focus on details rather than on the eyes. Seek textures and contrasts. Use different lenses and see how they affect each composition. Diversifying your shots will keep you engaged in the session and can lead to some fun, creative results.
23. Take breaks
Photo shoots can be exhausting for both the photographer and the model. This magnifies in pet photography, as one of the parties involved has no clue they are involved in something. Because of this, you should keep your sessions to no more than two hours and allow for some breaks in between. That means complete breaks for both of you, where the camera is put away for a few minutes and you’re just enjoying each other’s presence.
24. Be ready at all times
Cuteness can happen when you least expect it to. For the entirety of the session, except during designated breaks, make sure to have the camera ready at all times. You don’t want to miss out on the perfect photo because you were busy checking previous shots on the back screen. This also means you should be ready to quickly adapt your camera settings to light changes or sudden bursts of energy.
25. Have fun
Animals are emotional sponges. If you are not having fun, neither will they. Of course, this is easier said than done. Pet photography requires a level of patience and perseverance you might not be used to. Whenever you feel like it’s becoming too much, it might be time for one of those breaks we mentioned before. On the bright side, their energy and wonder are contagious and you will never get bored taking pictures of them.