“Happiness starts with a wet nose and ends with a tail.” If you have a pet or have ever interacted with any dog, cat, guinea pig or ferret, you know just how true this saying is. And so it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that pet photography is one of the fastest growing genres, with thousands of dedicated photography websites created every year.
While animals’ inherent cuteness definitely plays a big role in the popularity of pet photography, there is so much work behind each photo. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to prepare for an animal photo session in order to capture beautiful pet images that truly reflect your furry friend’s character.
25 best pet photography tips:
Mind your timing
Practice, practice, practice
Plan the shots
Pick the right lens
Take advantage of their curiosity
Get on their level
Nail the focus
Beware of the light
Master the exposure
Play with angles and perspectives
Pay attention to the background
Get rid of distractions
Capture their character
Make sure they are comfortable
Ask a friend for help
Catch their attention
Interact with them
Pay your model
Be ready at all times
01. Mind your timing
You might be used to choosing a shooting session’s time and location based on light conditions or weather forecast. However, pet photography demands a whole new level of planning. In addition to taking light, weather and other regular factors into account, you will need to consider the needs and routines of each subject.
Think about how their mood changes during the day and how that affects the pictures you want to capture. For example, dogs “smile” when they are tired so you might want to take them for a long walk before. If you want to get adorable sleeping cat pictures, feed them right before you start shooting.
02. Be patient
Patience is the key to paradise… and to amazing cat and dog photography. Unlike human models, who understand what you are trying to do and how they can help, pets can’t follow specific instructions.
How do you tell your dog to smile? How do you make your cat look pensive? The answer is: you don’t. You’ll just need to be patient enough until the desired expression finally happens.
03. Practice, practice, practice
It’s no secret that successful results require a lot of practice. The more animals you photograph, the better you’ll understand how to work with them. You should also practice your non-photographic skills – that is, simply spending time with them.
Without a camera in front of your face, it will be much easier to read their body language and learn what each movement means. Understanding the difference between a dog’s and a cat’s tail wag will definitely come in handy during your photo shoots.
04. Plan the shots
Take some time to create a general guideline of the photo shoot beforehand. Focus on the emotions you want to evoke rather than on specific compositions. This will allow you to think about the expressions and mood you need to recreate without getting frustrated about not getting the exact image you pictured beforehand.
Keep in mind that pet photography can be unpredictable, as your model might simply not feel like giving you the shot you’re looking for. If that happens, allow yourself to move on and look for a different approach.
05. Pick the right lens
Unlike astrophotography, there isn’t a “best lens for pet photography.” Just like everything else, your gear will be determined by the unique needs of each photo shoot. Each type of camera lens will come in handy in different situations.
For indoor photos, a “nifty fifty” or 50mm lens is probably your best option as they are fast and give beautiful bokeh results. A telephoto lens is great for outdoor and action shots, as it allows you to take amazing pictures of your pet in movement. Last but not least, using a wide angle lens results in interesting perspectives that can give extra character to your photos.
06. Take advantage of their curiosity
Ever heard that curiosity killed the cat? That inquisitive nature can also be found in dogs, and can be a great asset for your compositions. Let them be and simply wait for the next new thing that will catch their attention.
Unlike actively trying to direct their focus to the camera, this will result in more spontaneous and natural expressions. For example, a wide-angle lens paired with a subject curious about photography can lead to some very interesting close-up portraits.
07. Get on their level
Images shot from eye level are usually more attractive to viewers and also induce empathy. This is especially important when working with subjects that are much smaller than you, such as the ones you’ll be working with during pet photography sessions.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that every single one of your pet pictures should be taken from the same perspective. Simply keep your natural, standing-up viewpoint for a few, selected shots.
08. Nail the focus
Eyes are the window to the soul - and the key to a great photo. There’s also nothing cuter than puppy eyes. Having the eyes in focus is a must for any type of portrait, but like everything else, it becomes a bit more complicated with pet photography. The main reason behind this is, of course, that your pet will probably not stay still long enough for you to comfortably find the ideal focus.
Furthermore, those adorably long snouts will also give you some trouble, as low apertures will leave either the nose or the eyes out of focus. Unless you’re purposely looking for this result, use a smaller aperture or shoot from the side to get both of them in focus.
09. Beware of the light
Photography is light, literally. Ideally, you want your pet pictures to be shot in natural light – either outside or next to a large window if you’re shooting indoors. Unlike human portraits, where you can easily make up for the lack of natural light with a good lighting setup, pet photography is a bit trickier.
First off, you should avoid using flash. Flashes of light usually startle animals enough to ruin the shot, and can even hurt the vision of younger animals. If you need to use artificial light, stick to steady lighting setups and use camera accessories, such as reflectors, to soften it.
10. Master the exposure
Getting the right exposure is also extremely important, as you might have only one chance to nail that exact composition. Shooting in RAW can help you save some imperfect shots in post-processing, but you should not rely on it.
Learn to doubt your camera’s meter, as it can be easily tricked by your pet’s coat color. White animals tend to appear dull as the camera thinks the scene is too white, while black ones appear gray as the meter detects a darker composition. Use exposure compensation to make up for these metering flaws.
11. Play with angles and perspectives
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Look for close-ups and explore how you can break photography composition rules. Focus on specific details rather than on the eyes. Seek textures and contrasts. Use different lenses and see how they affect each composition. Diversifying your shots will keep you engaged in the session and can lead to some fun, creative results that you can develop into your unique photography style.
12. Pay attention to the background
It can be easy to ignore a background scene when you have a lovely puppy playing in front of your camera. However, the background will stand out once you’re looking at a still image. Before you start taking pictures of pets, look out for elements you definitely want to keep away from your compositions. Examine your full surroundings rather than a specific area, as your pet will likely move around during the photo shoot.
The same concept applies to indoor shootings, as there is nothing more annoying than having the perfect cat portrait ruined by a dirty litter box in the background. Additionally, try to find colorful backgrounds that contrast with the color of your pet’s coat to avoid bland results.
13. Get rid of distractions
It takes very little to distract an animal. While you probably cannot eliminate all distractions, you should keep them to an absolute minimum. Find a secluded location away from the crowd, or remove every unnecessary element from the room. In fact, even you and your camera count as a distraction. Unless you actually want them to look at you, try to move as slowly as you can to avoid drawing attention.
14. Use props
It’s hard to ignore how adorable pictures of pets with props can be. A dog with a bow, a kitten in a box, literally any animal with a hat. But on top of the cuteness factor, the right props can also help your pet feel safer and more comfortable with the whole photo shoot.
Leave their favorite toy or bed in the area, or offer them a place to hide if they get uncomfortable. Needless to say, don’t try to force props on them, as this can end up injuring them and also leave you with an unfinished photo shoot..
15. Be quiet
Remember: animals do not speak your language. You might be tempted to give a lot of directions, or even repeat the same one over and over. Sadly, that will only end up confusing them. There are two results this can lead to:
Your people-pleasing pup ends up looking scared and sad because they don’t understand what they are doing wrong.
Your self-sufficient kitty walks away and you don’t see them again until your gear is safely stored.
Avoid both scenarios by sticking to short commands that they know and by simply letting them be if they are not following your requests.
16. Capture their character
Just like humans, every animal has its own unique personality. If you’re photographing someone else’s pet, make sure to ask about their character and spend some time with them beforehand to see it for yourself.
Focusing on what makes each one of them special will result in more natural and unique images. For example, don’t try to take action dog photography with an old, lazy pup. The same applies to cat photography: aiming for a still portrait of an energetic kitten will likely end with blurry shots and a lot of frustration.
17. Make sure they are comfortable
One of the most essential pet photography tips is making sure that the animal is comfortable. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is only beneficial for humans. Animals are creatures of habit and can get really anxious when their routine is altered. And, needless to say, a nervous animal does not make a good model.
If you’re taking pictures of your pet, introduce them to your gear beforehand. Let them smell, touch, and hear your camera and any other equipment you will be using. If you’re working with someone else’s four-legged companion, you’ll need to make sure they get to know you well enough before you start taking photos.
18. Ask a friend for help
We all need a helping hand sometimes. Pet photography is definitely one of those times. Having someone to help you during the photo shoot will make it much easier, safer and a lot more fun for everyone involved.
When shooting outdoors, you will need a friend to look over your pet and make sure they don’t run away or get into dangerous situations. No matter how careful you are, it’s hard to pay attention to these things with a camera blocking most of your vision. Another huge benefit of involving someone else is that they can play with the model and entertain them to help you get the expressions you’re looking for.
19. Catch their attention
All pet photographers will tell you that squeaky toys and strings are their best friends. Sudden sounds are a great way to surprise them and capture an alert posture, while strings and other toys will help you get the animals’ attention in a more relaxed manner.
If you want your subject to look directly at the camera, you can buy toy squeakers and make the sound directly with your mouth. To make them look somewhere else, see the previous tip.
20. Interact with them
Your pet has no clue what you’re doing with that big, weird thing in front of your face. Focusing too much on the photos and ignoring your little friend will just make them confused and frustrated.
Make sure you spend enough time petting them and playing, even if that means you miss a few picture opportunities. This pet photography tip is even more valuable when photographing other people’s pets, as you’ll need to gain and maintain their trust throughout the session.
21. Pay your model
No species likes to work for free. Luckily, working with some of the most beautiful pets out there will only cost you a bag of treats and maybe a squeaky ball.
Use food to get pets to feel comfortable and toys to reward good behavior. This will make them like you more and also encourage them to let you take photos for a bit longer when they start getting tired.
Animals are in constant movement. They blink, turn their ears, twitch their whiskers, and look away at the most inopportune moments. These moves are sometimes so fast that they can go unnoticed during the shooting. However, there isn’t a worse feeling than going home after a session and realizing that most shots are not good enough.
To avoid this, set your camera to burst mode and capture numerous shots of the same scene. This might mean you’ll need to spend more time on your photo editing software, but you’ll be happy to have that safety net once you see how many cute pet pictures it saved.
23. Take breaks
Photoshoots can be exhausting for both the photographer and the model. This magnifies in pet photography, as one of the parties involved has no clue they are involved in something.
Because of this, you should keep your sessions to no more than two hours and allow for breaks in between. That means complete breaks for both of you, where the camera is put away for a few minutes and you’re just enjoying each other’s presence.
24. Be ready at all times
Cuteness can happen when you least expect it to. For the entirety of the session, except during designated breaks, make sure to have the camera ready at all times. You don’t want to miss out on the perfect photo because you were busy checking previous shots on the back screen.
This also means you should be ready to quickly adapt your camera settings to light changes or sudden bursts of energy.
25. Have fun
Animals are emotional sponges. If you are not having fun, neither will they. Of course, this is easier said than done as pet photography requires a much higher level of patience and perseverance than most other types of photography.
Whenever you feel like it’s becoming too much, it might be time for one of those breaks we mentioned before. On the bright side, their energy and wonder are contagious and you will never get bored taking pictures of them.