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Pet Photography

Updated on September 15, 2011

The photograph of a cat or a dog is not merely a representation of an animal; it is a picture of an individual. Every domestic pet as its distinct personality and, unless this is made clear, the photograph is a failure. The photographer must be prepared to study his subject and then set out to capture the attitude and expression that will convey its character in unmistakable terms. This sort of photography involves an appreciable amount of patience, understanding... and luck.

The Camera

Stand cameras are unsuitable; an animal cannot be expected to wait patiently in one place whilst all the necessary adjustments are made.

Many photographers who specialize in this field prefer a reflex camera, as the subject can be watched and focused on the screen right up till the moment of exposure. The reflex camera also has the advantage that it lends itself to use at a low viewpoint.

Others favor the miniature camera, because of its great depth of field and interchangeable lenses of large aperture.

There is something to be said for both, but no matter what camera is chosen, it should be equipped with a large aperture lens or lenses, so that it can be operated at reasonably fast shutter speeds. All controls should be easy to work and the camera generally should be handled without any apparent hurry or fuss that might disturb or excite the subject.

The Lens

A long-focus lens has the advantage of giving a large image of the subject from a relatively distant viewpoint and it helps to cut out distracting background objects. At the same time, it lacks the depth of field of the normal angle lens and calls for a lot of fidgeting with the focus if the subject is moving about.


Photographing Birds in Cages

If the cage has a glass-edged base or internal hanging-mirror, these should be removed in case they catch the light and reflect back into the lens. It is best to stand or hang the cage in the garden. Backgrounds must be plain; dark-toned for light birds and vice versa. Watch out for the sun rays striking the plating on bars and fitments. Side or oblique backlighting is effective. A supplementary lens is needed if a long-focus lens is not available—this means shallow depth of field. A sky background is very suitable if it is well-filtered, i.e., by a 3 x yellow, green or orange filter.

Photographing in a cage indoors in the window is possible but more difficult. If the camera is pointed directly out of the window, the bird and cage will become silhouettes against an over-light background. Arranging the cage at the side against curtaining, with the viewpoint from the other side is more effective. Direct sunlight will make snapshot speeds quite practicable with fast film.

Shutter speeds of not less than 1/100 second are recommended, although at times the bird may be sharply rendered at 1/50 second. Medium-speed film (panchromatic) is best, allowing for greater enlargement without coarse grain.


Photographing Rabbits

No attempt should ever be made to photograph a rabbit in its hutch. The closed-in top and sides prevent effective lighting for modeling and texture. Its coat must look like fur; this means side-lighting and accurate focusing. A garden table and a suitably plain cloth held to form a background is better than working on the ground, unless the rabbit is white and will therefore stand out against it. Closely-cut grass also makes quite a suitable setting, but a sky background is unnatural. The shutter speed should not be slower than 1/50 second, and the camera should be at the same level as the rabbit if possible. No filter is needed.


Photographing Mice

Tame mice are best photographed out of their cage. Outdoor lighting allows faster shutter speeds to be used. The camera must be as close as possible, and a supplementary lens is necessary to get an image of reasonable size.

The mice should be kept off the ground. Posing them on coat sleeves, the shoulder of a child, etc., gives size contrast and scale. Clothing must contrast in coloring and not be strikingly patterned. If the mouse is friendly with another household pet, particularly a cat, placing the two together on a box or table will give effective pictures. One or more helpers are needed for this.

Frontal or overhead lighting should be avoided. Shutter speeds of not less than 1/100 second are advised, and a ready trigger-finger to capture any fleeting action.

Photographing Goldfish

Photographing goldfish and similar species presents two major problems: focusing on the fish and coping with movement. The usual dodge is to lower a sheet of glass into the tank, 3 or 4 inches away from the front, thus confining the fish to a narrow space within a pre-focused depth of field and also restricting rapid movement. Flash is best; the lighting should come from above the water and 45° to the camera axis.

A dark background is recommended and a shutter speed not less than 1/50 second if hi sunshine or Photoflood lighting; synchronized flash will give opportunities to increase this speed.


Photographing Tortoises

The somewhat drab coloring of the tortoise needs careful choice of lighting and setting to convey its true character. Flat, sunless lighting is unsuitable; low-angle sunshine from the side is best. The camera should be at the same level as the tortoise if possible, but avoid long grass or camouflaging earthy settings. Rough toweling makes a good background and base if out of focus and not creased or folded. If the shell is wetted it will catch highlights and its ribbed markings will be emphasized.

Three-quarters-on or profile are easiest positions for successful pictures. No filter is needed; the shutter speed should be at least 1/50 second.

Although a tortoise moves very slowly, at the close distances necessary for photographing, such movement is equal to quite fast action farther away.

What about photographing cats and dogs?

I have published separate (quite detailed) articles on both Photographing Dogs and Puppies and Photographing Cats and Kittens if you want to find out more about photographing those two types of popular pets.


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    • Justin Muir profile image

      Justin Muir 

      6 years ago from New York

      Just what I was looking for...Thanks Destrier!

    • amynichter profile image


      7 years ago from Canton, Ohio

      Great information! I am looking forward to putting it into practice!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Great advice, Destrier! You're a real pro at this!


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