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8 Tips for Better Pet Photography

Pets have always been a big part of my life, and are important members of many of the families I photograph. I encourage my clients to include pets in their photo sessions wherever possible. Animals bring a whole new dynamic to a family photo shoot, providing a focus for the children, and a great icebreaker for all parties.

My interest in pet photography widened when a colleague invited me to join a group called Photographers for Animal Rescue. It is a group of professional photographers who, outside of their paid work, provide pro bono photographs to animal shelters. The theory behind it is that a good photograph greatly improves an animal’s chance of being re-homed, but few shelters have the budget for professional photography.

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During my time with this group, I have been lucky enough to photograph dogs, cats, rabbits, and even pet rats. All of these animals have different characteristics and behaviour, and each needs to be approached differently by the photographer.

Tip #1: A word on safety

All pets, no matter how docile, have the capacity to bite or scratch. This is especially true of rescue pets, who may have experienced abuse by humans in the past, and can be mistrusting and unpredictable.

When photographing an animal for the first time, spend time getting to know each other. Allow the animal to sniff you, your clothing, and the camera. Offer treats, and gentle petting if the animal will allow you. Sudden movements or loud noises may startle a timid animal and cause it to retreat or attack.

Image ETip #2: Dogs

Humankind’s best friend is the most cooperative of all pets. Generally, dogs respond to verbal commands and treats, and can be physically positioned to take advantage of lighting and optimal shooting angles.

There is an entire article here on dPS devoted to photographing running dogs, so here I will share some tips for capturing other endearing expressions and moments.

Tip #3: My best friend

Dogs are very much part of the human families to which they belong. The most treasured photographs are often the ones in which dogs are interacting with family members. Consider when those moments of connection might occur, so that you can be ready to capture them. It may be in the moments when your child arrives home from school to a joyful canine greeting, or when your mother sits in her favourite chair with her dog on her lap.

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As with human portraits, setting and lighting help to convey mood and emotion. The photo above, shot with an 85mm lens, illustrates the bond between my youngest daughter and a family dog. Light reflected off the pavement below them, and shallow depth-of-field achieved with an aperture of f/1.8, creates a soft dreamy image that evokes quiet trust and friendship.

This photo of a boy and his dog was part of a family photo shoot for a client, who lives by the beach. I wanted to capture the beach environment, but the afternoon sun was too harsh to shoot. I found shade behind a beach bathing-box, and positioned my subjects to use light reflected off the surrounding sand. Boy and dog are on different focal planes, so I selected an aperture of f/5.0, which allowed me to keep both in focus while softening the background.

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Tip #4: The doggy smile

Dogs often smile during, or after, vigorous exercise. If you don’t want to photograph the dog in motion, you can throw a ball, or run around with him for a few minutes, before coaxing him into position. The image below shows our dog smiling as he cools off in the shade, following a manic ball-throwing session. The shade provides even lighting on the dog, and f/2.2 turns the leafy background into lovely bokeh.

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Tip #5: The tilted head

Have the dog sitting on the ground, so that you are shooting at a slight downward angle. Make whining sounds or cat noises – any sound that will pique the dog’s curiosity. Most dogs will cock their head to one side and look at you.

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Tip #6: Cats

Cats, with their striking eyes and long whiskers, make rewarding photographic subjects. Unlike dogs, they won’t sit where they’re told, and will only favour you with eye contact when it suits them. Photographing cats requires patience and stealth!

Cats are natural predators, and even adults usually respond to a pom-pom, or toy dangled from a thread. Play peek-a-boo with the toy around corners, or furniture, to coax the cat into the position you want. If possible, confine the cat to a room where you can close the door.

Use your fingernails to make scratching sounds on carpet, walls, or even your camera body, and the cat will look in the direction of the sound.

The photos of the kittens below were shot in a small room, with one window. The cats were on a multi-level climbing post, which I pulled close to the window. I stood between the window and the climbing post, and coaxed the cats to look towards the window so that I could get catch-lights in their eyes. These images were shot using ISO 2000, at f/4.0 with a 35mm lens – my go-to lens when working in tight spaces.

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Backlighting can also be effective in highlighting fur, which creates a halo effect and frames the cat’s face.

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Tip #7: Rabbits

There are few things cuter than a rabbit washing its face. Rabbits love to be clean, and if you wait long enough, most will wash themselves without prompting. You can speed up this process by holding and petting the rabbit. When you put it down, it will usually be in a hurry to wash away the people smells you have left behind, so get down low and have your camera ready.

The photos below show Latte and Zeus, two rescue rabbits, photographed first in their default sitting position, and then washing their faces. Both are shot at f/4.0 using a 35mm lens.

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Often when placed in a new environment (e.g. taken from inside the house, to an outside enclosure) rabbits will stand on their hind legs and check out their new surroundings. Be ready to start shooting as soon as you place the rabbit in the new area. In the photo below, Latte looks like he is begging to be taken home.

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Tip #8: Small critters: mice, rats and hamsters

Even some of the most dedicated animal-lovers are squeamish about rodents. I love them! Most appealing are their long whiskers, and the way they hold food in their paws while they’re eating.

Small creatures move fast. The easiest way photograph these animals is to have someone hold them. Not only does a human hand keep the animal in place, it also conveys scale. Use a macro lens if you have one.

The photographs below show off the rat’s beautiful long whiskers. They also show how small and vulnerable they are, and that they are comfortable being handled.

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Like the kitten photos, these photos of pet rats were shot using only window light. It was a dull day and the light was poor, so we brought the rats as close as possible to the window, and used a very high ISO of 8000 to 10,000. Since the images were only going to be used online, the graininess (noise) was not a problem in this instance.

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Give the animal a treat, and she will sit still as she holds it in her paws to nibble.

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I hope these tips have given you some ideas for photographing the pets in your life. Please share any other tips and your pet photos in the comments below.

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Karen Quist
Karen Quist

Karen Quist (Holmgren) is a food blogger and photographer. In 2021 she abandoned her portraiture career to pursue her love of cooking and food photography. Originally from South Africa, she now lives in Melbourne with her partner who shares her love of food. Together they created Our Kitchen Romance, a blog and Instagram account dedicated to home cooking. You can visit their website (Our Kitchen Romance ) or connect with them on Instagram. (linked below)

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