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The Dummy's Guide to Pet Photography
Pet photography is one of those things. It seems like most pet owners have one good shot of their pet no matter how long that pet is in the family. Why? Is it because animals aren't photogenic? Of course not! Animals are one of the most satisfying subjects to capture when it comes out right. Its more a combination of the fact the average person can sometimes be too familiar with an animal (try getting a good shot while they're head butting the camera and it's not going to work) and perhaps they don't set aside time just to do this one activity. In this article I hope to give a few tips and tricks to get the perfect shot.
You'll probably come across a lot of articles saying you'll need a big fancy and outrageously expensive camera to do animal photography but really that's not true at all. Unless this is something you want to get into professionally even a common cell phone can do a pretty spectacular job. I took this shot of a rat with one of the first digital cameras to come out onto the market. It was probably only one or two megapixels, had no fancy options, and yet this image has lived on the internet for over a decade after this animal's death because it's not about the numbers - it's about what the shot has captured.
Picking the Right Location
When you are taking animal photos sometimes you don't have much of a choice on where the shots are going to be taken but if you do you should put a little thought into it. Are you looking for a photo of a single animal? Should they be isolated from other animals and distractions? Are they something that needs to be contained so they don't run off? If you're just starting I will note the smaller the area the easier it will be to keep the animal in question in your frame. I also will say having a small area is a great place to start. It's level one, great practice for when circumstances aren't perfect. Many pet photographers do posed portraits where they take the dog or cat and put them in an area they can't really move from in front of the perfect background. If this is the sort of photo you want then you'll have to be a little creative - either finding the right spot for your pet and hoping they stay still or finding an area they're completely unfamiliar with and hoping they behave! I will say that starting with small animals is easiest. If you happen to have a small animal - a hamster, a rabbit, a rat, a ferret then these can be perfect. You can take beautiful headshots by merely opening the cage, keeping the camera at the level of the door, and waiting for them to come check it out. Another great trick for small animals (which includes cats and small dogs) is to put them on a table. You can surround the table with foam board or towels to make for a pretty background and just let them roam. A chair may also work for a dog or a cat especially if they are the sort of animal that will stay where you put them. This can be great for active animals who otherwise like to only give you blurry butt shots as they're zipping by. Whatever location you pick make sure you have adequate lighting. Some cameras are fussy, others aren't, but ideally you want a well lit area. In small animals this can sometimes be achieved by maneuvering a lamp and pointing it the table.
Creating the Right Environment
Pets of course have no idea what you're doing hen you drag the camera out so they are frequently not the most cooperative of subjects. You want to be able to control the situation as much as possible. This means keeping them content in the area you've chosen and keeping calm. Don't get frustrated if things don't go perfect right away, this may take a few attempts and if they know you're losing your patience they will act worse! Sometimes it's better to be alone with the animals, other times it's good to have someone else on hand to corral them back when they try to run away or to keep them distracted with toys or treats. Personally I try to keep as few people in the area as possible as they usually do the exact opposite of control the situation - they unwittingly add a distraction and at that point you have to try and take photos without the human in it! Personally I found it much easier to take photos of other people's pets when I started off because they were unfamiliar with me most kept more of a distance than they would with someone they knew, allowing me to get good shots without them coming directly up to me. I don't use treats myself but others may and if it works for you then it works for you! Always bring a calm demeanor and if there are multiple animals, especially in a large area, or animals you don't know, take some time to just sit with them being calm, quiet, and hopefully uninteresting. Let them start to act like themselves as if you weren't there - that's when they're at their most expressive!
Tips & Tricks
Pay attention to angle and perspective. Most people when they are given something to photograph will walk up to it and take a photo of what they're seeing - they'll hold the camera at eye level and snap a shot that will ultimately be uninteresting because that's what you can normally see! If the animals are small get down to their level - sit on the floor or the ground, let them come up an inspect you if they want, and you may be able to get a few curious shots. Don't be shy to take weird angled shots. If they insist on trying to crawl in your lap hold the camera out like you're taking a selfie, point it towards the pet, and hope for a good shot. Most times this won't work but sometimes you'll be surprised! Even in larger animals this can sometimes be fun. This shot of a horse sniffing my camera on the ground still amuses me.
Let the animals be themselves. Let them act however it is they want to act. In time you might be good enough to take action shots - the most difficult - of a running dog or horse but for now keep satisfied with these calmer photos. Also use a digital camera because you will be taking A LOT of photos. Do not feel bad if only one in twenty shots is kind of OK - that's normal!
Another great bit of advise I wish I had was to never use the zoom button. The reason is simple, if an animal is moving around it's hard to keep it in the frame, far harder if you've zoomed right into them. Most cameras these days allow for the opportunity to take photos that still look just as great when you crop them. This is a far better option!
Try taking photos without any filters - if you want to add different filters later it's far easier to do so after the photo is taken then trying to make a filtered shot look normal after the fact which is usually impossible. Besides this a normal shot can then be put through many filters if that's what you chose.
Make sure you have the time. This is important because this isn't something that can be rushed. Make sure you have at least an hour because that's usually what this will take when you're first starting out. Over time you will become better, you'll start be able to read when you can take the best photos, and you'll be able to incorporate this eye into photography you take on the fly with your pets at home whenever they are doing something cute. It takes time and practice!
And finally if you fail don't give up. This is something that is a learned skill just like everything else. With time you will become better at this and if you become really good at it who knows, you might want to sink some time and actual money into it and go farther with it!