I don’t use props very often, and my focus is always on the face and expressions of the animals I photograph. I am sharing the tricks below to help you achieve similar effect. Some of them might not apply to you or the animal you are photographing, but I hope most of them will empower you to take great photos of your furry friends.
The most important tip when photographing pets is to get their attention. And if you can gain their trust before starting to photograph, it will be easier. Depending on the animal you are photographing, tricks vary. Dogs respond very well to noises and/or treats. I only use treats in the last resort, and one tiny bit at a time. Make the dog work for its treat! As for noises, I don’t personally use toys, I prefer making noises with my mouth – that way the dog looks at my lens, not my hand.
Sometimes, less is more. I find that whispers work extremely well with most dogs. But a well-placed “pig squeal” often gets you the money shot (tilt of the head with ears up). But make sure to never overdo it with noises or treats – it gets very overwhelming for your model. As for cats, feathers and Mardi Gras beads are the definite winners! Treats can also help you get the cat’s interest. Rabbits will hang out for some hay, as will most rodents. The key words are: patience and kindness. Bond with the animal you are photographing and the results will be amazing.
People often underestimate the importance of the background. Remember that a pet in a sad/filthy environment will look sad and filthy. If you are photographing outside, place the dog in front of a nice colored wall, a bush of flowers, and check for trash bins and other unpleasant elements. Make sure your cat is not sitting in front of its litter box, unless that’s the story you are going for – I once photographed puppies on the pile of trash they were found in, because it told their story as stray dogs.
Also remember to do a quick clean-up of the pet (or full grooming if required): for example tears can ruin a good portrait and are hard to remove in post-processing. A bit of brushing before a shoot might transform the quality of your images. It is always better and easier to fix these things before, rather than having to sit cloning hair for hours in post-processing.
If you are photographing someone else’s pet, take a moment to let the pet calm down, sniff around and work out its excitement or anxiety. It will make your work so much easier. At this stage, handing out a treat or two might be a good idea – to gain trust. Once the pet is calm, your background clear, start getting their attention and be ready to shoot. It is also not a bad idea to take breaks during the shoot. Let the dog off the set, let the cat play for a couple of minutes. Remember that your energy will transfer onto the animal. Be calm and assertive.
Drop down and photograph from the pet’s eye level. When working with smaller dogs and cats, I like to place them on a table – with the owner’s agreement. It makes everyone’s job easier. But if I do that, I have the owner stand next to the table to make sure the animals won’t jump and hurt themselves. When shooting on the floor, some dogs love coming over to check out the photographer. I let them do it once-in-a-while, as a reward, give them kisses and belly rubs, but the rest of the time, I never hesitate to say a firm “No. Stay.”. Show them you are kind, but that you are also the master of the set.
Embrace your materials and make the best of what you have available. You may not have the best photo gear or the ideal environment, but that shouldn’t stop you from making your pet shine. I believe that limitations are creativity’s best friends.
Depending on your comfort level with it, do not hesitate to use some flash. It really makes the fur shine and the eyes pop. I often use several flashes on my set. Some pets don’t react well to direct flash, so beware of that and bounce the light instead. If the pet is fearful of the flash or the noise it makes, distract it by sweet-talking to it, petting it, etc.
G: Go for it
Try many different angles and don’t hesitate to overshoot. It’s better to have too many photos than too few, especially now that everything is digital. A photographer’s most important task is to select the right image to use. Editing is everything. What makes my work unique is not necessarily the material I gather, it is the photos I decide to keep. When shooting, know what you are looking for: a headshot or a body shot? If it’s a body shot, make sure all limbs are in the shot. When editing your photos, select the ones that speak to you the most. It might be the one where the pet is looking away, or has its eyes closed. If it speaks to you, it will most likely speak to someone else.
Get someone to help you during the photo shoot. I usually put the owner to work. It’s a fun way to do it for both the animal and the owner. Warning: it’s also a lot of work for everyone! The owner or assistant can wave beads at the cat, help to get the dog’s attention, bring the pet back on set. When I am unsuccessful at grabbing the dog’s interest, I sometimes ask the owner to pretend they are leaving the room, look for something in their purse, or tell their dog “You want to go home?”, and that usually gets me the shot!
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