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If you have a pet, it may stand to reason that you already point your camera at it a fair amount. Why not? Pets, whether they are cats, dogs, or even chinchillas, tend to be photogenic. Beyond that, as a photographer, your pet is a subject you already share a strong emotional bond with, so it’s only natural to take a few snapshots along the way.
As a photographic genre, pet photography can go well beyond that of the simple snapshot. If you start to dissect the various disciplines it requires, you may notice that it involves a broader spectrum of skill sets than many other kinds of photography. From lighting, to camera control, to managing a difficult subject, photographing your pets can help you learn, and reinforce a great deal of camera craft that can be transferred across many other genres.
The important factor here is that your subject, your pet, is generally far more accessible to practice with than other subjects, such as people.
Even if you think pet photography isn’t something you’re ultimately interested in, this article is intended to demonstrate the skills and disciplines you can hone on pets, and then transfer effortlessly to other genres.
If you’re new to photography, this is the most important point. Things like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all need relentless practice and reinforcement when you’re learning your way around the camera. Sure, you could just use an apple on a table, but having a moving subject will force you to act quicker, and make decisions on the fly. This kind of mastery over your camera will allow you to react faster to any changes in your subject, and will allow you to catch many images you may otherwise have missed while fiddling with the dials.
One of the most given pieces of advice to photographers is to always have your camera with you. It’s good advice, but it’s not easy to implement. By dedicating yourself to photographing your pets, you’ll already be taking a step in the right direction. This is especially true if you have a dog that you walk regularly. Just make sure the camera goes with you on your walks, and you’ll be ready for any opportunity that presents itself, including ones that don’t involve your pet.
As a bonus, dog walking is an excellent excuse to be out during golden hour every day.
Photographing pets is hard. This difficulty has nothing at all to do with any technical skills with the camera. Animals tend to be impatient, disinterested, distractible, and sometimes skittish. With the exception of reasonably well-trained dogs, you will probably have a hard time getting most other animals to do what you need. Just imagine trying to give an iguana commands.
The key here is patience. Often you will have to wait frustratingly long periods of time before a shot presents itself. By understanding this, you can focus your energy on the shot when it does appear, rather than the time leading up to it. It is also usually better to wait for something natural to happen, than to force something artificial.
This kind of patience can take a while to develop, but it is a high value skill that transfers well across the photographic disciplines. Your wildlife photography, portraits (especially child portraits), street photography, and sports photography would all benefit from this trait.
Animals are unpredictable. This is great news if you’re trying to hone your skills. Leveraging that unpredictability as a learning tool will allow you to react to different situations much faster. This could be as simple as pumping up the ISO without thinking about it, or even swapping lenses in seconds without a thought.
The best part is that it’s this unpredictability that often leads to the most interesting photos, or at least the funniest.
Whether it’s natural or artificial, lighting is probably the most complex and multifaceted of the photographic skill sets. While not difficult, there is a lot to it, and it takes a significant amount of time to learn, and then master.
With a pet, you have constant access to a test subject for any new lighting technique you want to try. If something isn’t right, you can take your time and alter things as you need, without having to worry about taking up someone else’s time.
Individual lighting techniques tend to work as well with animals as they do with people. Once you have a setup the way you want it, often all you will need to do to switch to a human subject, is raise the lights up. If you’re using natural light, you wouldn’t even need to do that.
There is a lot of contention out there about whether or not photographers should share photos of their pets. That’s up to you, nobody else. Share them or not, as long as you’re putting the hours in and getting the experience, that’s all that matters.
Hopefully you can see how dedicating time to photographing your pets can help you to improve a broad set of skills simultaneously. By removing accessibility issues and keeping costs minimal (a bag of treats is a cost, right?) you can ramp up the time you spend practicing, and reach the top of the learning curve in no time.
If nothing else, can spending some extra time with your pet be a bad thing?