Top 10 Pet Photography Tips and Techniques

Top 10 Pet Photography Tips and Techniques


Fergie bathroom copyright cowbelly pet photography

Top 10 Pet Photography Tips and Techniques

The pros make it look easy, but anyone who has ever tried to photograph an unpredictable creature like a cat or a dog knows it is anything but. Here are some pet photography tips that the pros use to help you ‘get the perfect shot’.

1. Relax

Animals are like little emotional sponges, and if you are stressed and anxious, they will sense it and become stressed and anxious too. A stressed animal will give you ‘ears flattened’, ‘concerned eyes’ looks, which don’t translate well ‘on film’. Take a deep breath and remember to have fun with it!

2. Focus on eyes and expressions

Ozzie copyright jamie pflughoeft

The eyes are the most expressive part of an animal’s face, so if you want to create really engaging portraits, focus on the eyes and facial expressions. A well-timed puppy whine (from you) can reel in focus in a puppy or curious dog, and have them staring straight at the camera faster than you can say “woof”.

3. Get rid of clutter first

Before you even pull your camera out of your bag, take a look around at your shooting location and get rid of clutter and distracting objects first. Do you really want to see that empty Starbucks cup on your coffee table in the photos of your cat? Is the garden hose snaking through the grass where you are photographing your dog, adding an aesthetically-pleasing element to your photos?

If an element in your background doesn’t serve to enhance your images in some way, either remove it first or move to a different location. An uncluttered environment produces more aesthetically pleasing images, and reduces post-processing work. Nobody needs to see photos of your puppy with an overflowing garbage can in the background.

Seamus copyright jamie pflughoeft

4. Shoot in their world

While a few shots looking down at your pet, while you are standing can be cute – to create the really engaging portraits the pros make, shoot down at their level, ‘in their world’. For a Great Dane their world may be the height of your hips; for a Chihuahua it may be all the way down at the level of your ankles. For a cat lounging on a cat tree, you may need to pull out a step stool to get on their level. Practice ‘shooting from the hip’ to place the camera in their world without having to crouch or kneel if they are on the ground.

Miles copyright jamie pflughoeft

5. Be flexible and do some stretching first

If you have ever watched a professional pet photographer in action, you will notice that they bend and twist and turn and crouch and crawl – whatever it takes to get the shot. Be prepared to get those muscles working in order to get the perfect composition. Sometimes all it takes for a dog to break their sit-stay is for you to go from sitting to standing, and it’s better to reach and lean, than make a large movement that will cause the pet to move from their perfect pose.

6. Go where the light is best

Good light is everything in photography, especially in pet photography, where it’s critical to be able to see the catchlights in the pet’s eyes (the white reflective parts). Avoid photographing in dark rooms or under heavily overcast days. Bright yet diffused light is the easiest to create flattering pet portraits under, so before you even start shooting, take a look around your subject’s environment and determine where the best bright, yet diffused light is; then move to that location.

Abbey copyright jamie pflughoeft

7. Pay your model

Every animal needs to have some sort of motivation to pay attention to you during the shoot; otherwise they will wander off and become disinterested. Determine what they are motivated by (i.e. their ‘payment’), and provide it to them throughout your shoot. For dogs it may be treats or toys, or simply getting love and affection. For cats it may be a feather toy, a paper bag, tuna fish, catnip or even their favourite blanket. For horses it may be their favourite food such as carrots or apples.

The biggest ‘trick’ in pet photography is to fool the animal into thinking that they are making the decisions, when it’s really you that is motivating them to do what you want, without telling them so outright . The ‘getting them to do what you want’ comes in the model payment. Get creative when it comes to ‘rewarding’ your models, and they will reward you with great shots and be more cooperative too. Plus the shoot will be more fun, and pet photography is supposed to be fun!

Penny copyright jamie pflughoeft

8. Create a concept and a shot list

The most engaging animal imagery shows them in context. It may be a cat looking up at an owner opening a bag of food in the kitchen (concept: desire), a dog looking longingly through a front door waiting for his or her buddy to come home (longing), a horse owner with her arms wrapped around her equine’s neck (connection). If you can say something with your images, they will speak to your viewers on a deeper emotional level.

Charlie doughnuts copyright jamie pflughoeft

9. Be quiet

There is no quicker way to confuse a dog, or freak out a cat than to bark commands at them repeatedly. Cats will disengage or even leave the room, and dogs will become confused and concerned.

Try communicating with the pets the way they do each other- nonverbally. Use hand signals or point to invite them ‘over here’. Use the sit hand signal for dogs that understand it. If you do need to say ’sit’, say it quietly and calmly, only once or twice. Avoid saying the pet’s name, because the more times they hear it during a photo shoot, the more inclined they are to tune out.

In my opinion, there’s nothing worse than a photographer (and an owner), hovering over a little dog and saying “sit Charlie,… no- SIT. I said Charlie sit. Sit. Down! Sit Charlie. Charlie- sit. Siiiit. SIT”. Poor Charlie! No wonder he’s confused. The less talking and ‘commanding’ you do, the better the shoot will be, and the more little Charlie will pay attention and ‘listen’.

Sid copyright jamie pflughoeft

10. Move slowly

Unless you are adept at documentary, on-the-fly, photography where the animal is moving a lot and you capture the perfect moment of them walking, sniffing, jumping, hunting, etc., learn to move slowly around them while taking their pictures. This is especially important with cats, who are prone to either radically change the expression on their face (and ears) at your slight movements, or split the scene altogether. This is also true of dogs that are in a sit or lay-stay position.

When you shift position they sense you are off on a new adventure and want to follow you. If you need to move, and you don’t want your model to move, do so very slowly without making any eye contact. And remember to reach, bend, and lean. You’ll not only have a comical pet photography session, you’ll get a workout too!

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Jamie Pflughoeft is a full time professional pet photographer, owner of  Cowbelly Pet Photography in Seattle, Washington, and author of the premium Pet Photography Marketing, Pricing & Sales PDF guides, currently 65% off for a limited time. Get more pet photography tips on the Beautiful Beasties blog a resource dedicated to pet photographers of all skill levels and companion to Jamie's book of the same name.

  • Jamie Pflughoeft

    Try again later. Would love to see!

  • Isaac Daniel
  • Quan Vinh

    Congratulations on your work! I really love your photos.

  • Kirsty Wilson

    A laser pointer is great as well for aiming a pet’s head in the direction you need. Also, a very fast lens. I used a 50mm f1.8 for this shot of my cat Jazz, in low light as he was curled up on his cat tree. I got him to focus on the laser pointer to move his head where I needed it. :-).

    This pup was taken in a friend’s backyard of their Porgie when he was waiting for us next to throw his frisbee :-), My friends were more than a little surprised when I stretched out on their lawn to capture shots of their pup :-). The only danger is when the critter is so happy that you are down on their level and playing with them that you will be steamrolled :-). The camera and lens were nearly crushed a few times when the tongue came out to say Hello 🙂

  • joe yazzie

    My GSD Thunder

  • joe yazzie

    My GSD Lightning at sunset time.

  • Guest

    I love to take pictures of my cats. I feel catching them in action is the most difficult part.

  • Cammily

    I love taking pictures of my cats, but catching them in action is the most difficult part for me.

  • Cammily

    Isn’t he a model? 🙂

  • Honest Abilene
  • Patti Bodenhamer

    One of my favorites she is no longer with us though.

  • Gary Robinson

    Our beloved Himilayan, Victoria Lynn. Also known as the Precious.

  • Iris Ullmann

    my late doing, doing what he liked best

  • MMD

    My growing (in size & number) cats

  • MamiW

    Can you recommend a manual mode setting should I start with when taking animal photos?

  • Jamie Pflughoeft

    MamiW- I recommend starting with Aperture Priority, and then setting the aperture you’d like for creative effect. Many pet photographers prefer to shoot wide open (f/2.8-f/4), to allow more light to hit the sensor, which helps increase the shutter speed, which helps prevent blur when working with moving subjects. This is especially helpful indoors where the light can be low. Sometimes you’ll find that even the difference between f/2.8 and f/3.5 can be dramatic.

  • Jamie Pflughoeft

    This is beautiful! 🙂

  • Jamie Pflughoeft

    She is so pretty. 🙂

  • Jamie Pflughoeft

    I love this one! Great angle and lighting.

  • Beth

    I am only an amateur and these are photos requested by a friend when I was taking her daughters senior pictures. The dog was a perfect model!

  • Baughbe

    I love taking pictures of my pets and have been considering doing some freelance pet portrait work. Here are some of my favorites of my babies: Koji (black/brown tabby), Django (blue tabby) and Snickers (basenji x whippet).

  • Natalie King

    An artistic picture I did of my boy, Winslow!

  • My “Berry”, Tealwood’s Strawberry Wine. Yes, she’s as sweet as she looks!

  • Buddy, ears flapping in the pool, ready for the ball!

  • Kelli Wallen

    I love taking pictures of my pets. I use the burst shot. It guarantees at least one or two decent to perfect pictures. The picture I’ve included is of my beagle from years back. It’s my favorite picture of him.

  • Kelli Wallen

    I’ll have to try this tip.

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