Pet Photography Guide | Gear, Tips, and Common Mistakes to Avoid (2021 Update)
We often photograph what we love and what’s in front of us every day. Friends and family are popular muses, and that includes the furry, feathered, and scaled variety. When it comes to pet photography, or photographing any animals really, you can expect to face a unique set of challenges. As you snap mementos of your fur-kids, they’ll put your skills and gear to the test. Trial and error will take you a long way, but you pay for it with your time.
Here’s a pet photography guide to help you capture more keepers and avoid some of the most common mistakes that many pet photographers make.
Section 1: Camera Gear for Pet Photography
Section 2: Tips for Better Pet Photography
- Show Respect and Exercise Patience
- Make It Fun
- Use Bribes
- Capture the Action
- Cover the Angles
- Light like a Pro
- Time It Right
- Use the Same Compositional Techniques that You’d Use in Human Portraits
Section 3: Common Mistakes in Pet Photography
- Color Casts
- Blown Highlights
- Too Shallow Depth of Field
- TTL Blinks
- Too Slow Shutter Speed/Flash Duration
That’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
Camera Gear for Better Pet Photography
Most cameras with a hot shoe mount will do just fine in a studio setting with strobes. It’s not taxing on ISO capabilities, which is one of the more significant concerns with some of the entry-level bodies.
Any time you’re working with animals, you will benefit from the use of a camera with a high-performance autofocus system, but as evinced by these photographs captured with a 5D Mark II, you can also get by with basic autofocus. The camera used for these photos happened to be full-frame, but APS-C is non-problematic as well.
In short, you just need a camera that you can control manually and that can fire an off-camera-flash. Older, cheaper cameras will still be ok, though advanced autofocus will help.
The particular lens used, the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, is very sharp and focuses quickly, and the focal range is versatile for working with pets who can sometimes change their position in the frame swiftly and unpredictably. For shooting on a seamless, you wouldn’t be using the wide end. Typically the range used with this lens in this scenario is 50-70mm.
Lenses are another area where the studio can be forgiving. Flash can coax out a lens’s sharpest performance, and fast apertures aren’t needed, so even kit lenses can shine.
As with the camera body, you want something that can focus fast. For example, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro can double as a sharp portrait lens with beautiful results, but it isn’t known for its autofocus speed and can make capturing in-focus pet portraits unnecessarily challenging. For best results, choose a lens you know has reliable autofocus.
Solid choices include 24-70mm, 24-105mm, 50mm (especially on APS-C,) 85mm, or even an APS-C 18-55mm kit lens.
Profoto is known for their reliability, but they don’t fall within everyone’s budget. My first choice would be a Profoto D1 for its fast recycle time, which is very useful for working with pets as you want to grab moments that can be incredibly fleeting. However, most any strobe can be used in its place. Alternatives include Elinchrom D-Lite 400W/s RX 4, Interfit Honey Badger, and Phottix Indra500.
I also use a Profoto Air Remote because it’s part of the integrated Profoto Air system, but you can use Pocket Wizards or other third-party radio trigger system, or even an old-fashioned flash sync cable if your camera has a flash sync port.
A note on strobe use – some pets don’t enjoy flashes and will work better with continuous or natural light, so it’s good to have a backup plan in mind if you’re using strobes. Also, certain animals, like cats and horses, are sensitive to TTL pre-flash so manual mode will give you fewer squinting shots.
The Savage 65″ Deep Soft White Umbrella is a huge modifier that produces a beautiful, soft light that can still look a little ‘punchy.’ For beginners, it’s a natural choice that’s very forgiving, and its broad light spread is useful for working with animals as they move around your set. It’s an inexpensive solution for a one-light shoot – it can light a background behind a subject and the soft shadows produced are unlikely to be obtrusive on the seamless. A potential downside is that you will need a fair bit of room to use this modifier indoors.
Tips for Better Pet Photography
Tip #1: Show Respect and Exercise Patience
Some pets will be more cooperative than others, and while we can convince them to do things sometimes, in the end, you get what they give and what you’re able to grab. The pet’s comfort is essential. If an animal really doesn’t want to do something, it must be respected – we may embarrass a little, but we don’t torment.
Patience was the first thing I had to learn when I started photographing animals and it’s a crucial factor when taking portraits of dogs. Repeating movements and words calmly and gently creates a chilled atmosphere for the pet.
I like to think of patience in pet photography as a three step process.
- Calmly wait until your pet subject does what you want
- Take a burst of images to get “the shot”
- If you miss the right moment, go back to step 1 and repeat
Tip #2: Make It Fun
This is one of the most important pet photography tips on this list. Nothing is worth doing if it’s not fun. The simple key to relaxed and happy pet pics is to create an environment where they can feel relaxed and happy! Making sure your pet feels safe and at ease is the key to crafting wonderful portraits. A dog’s mood, for example, is reflected in their faces and body language. By making their session a positive and fun experience, they will see their photo session as an adventure, and reward you with big smiles and cheerful energy.
Tip #3: Use Bribes
Treats are common go-to’s for pet photography. However, not all pets are food motivated – some will respond better to toys or human affection. It’s important to decode the pet’s strongest motivators to persuade them into poses. Occasionally you will get to work with an impeccably trained animal, but most will need your expertise to get their best performance. Sometimes, a pet just isn’t on board with whatever you’ve planned, and then you must be flexible and creative to come up with a workable ‘plan b.’
Tip #4: Capture the Action
Just like people, some pets are active in the mornings, while others prefer to be up and about in the afternoons. Choose the pet’s optimum activity time and use it to your photo-taking advantage.
Tip #5: Cover the Angles
Be creative and experiment with different perspectives, angles and vantage points. There aren’t really any hard and fast composition rules with photography – sometimes the most interesting images are off center or a bit quirky. Take a series of images while lying on the ground and shooting from the dog’s point and view, or consider taking photos directly at their eye level while they are sitting up, or shoot from above, pointing the camera straight down at them. You even zoom in for a close-up nose shot or detailed eye image.
Be sure to check your background for objects beside or behind your subject. Chairs, people, rubbish bins, light posts, other dogs (to name but a few), can all ‘photo bomb’ your subjects and are things you need to watch out for.
Tip #6: Light like a Pro
This is an ideal lighting setup for studio style portraits. Position your pet about four feet in front of a seamless backdrop. I donn’t roll the seamless out into a floor, also called a ‘sweep,’ but if you do you will want to make sure there’s a hard surface underneath, or it will quickly be trampled and torn.
The key light, a Profoto D1 in a Savage 65″ Deep Soft White Umbrella is about 45 degrees to camera-left of the subject and is about 4 feet away at a height of about 5 feet.
I tend to position a Westcott 5-in-1 Reflector to the subject’s camera-right side with the white surface facing the pet. A piece of white foam core is laid on the floor in front of the animal to fill shadows.
ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/125. I shot at base ISO for clean images since, when using powerful strobes, there’s no need to crank it up.
The aperture was set to f/6.3 to keep more of the subject’s face in focus while still offering a little background blur to help with a few wrinkles in the seamless.
**For pets, you will often need a narrower aperture for greater depth of field than you do with humans since their noses can be much further from their eyes.
The shutter speed of 1/125 was used somewhat habitually – it’s how I was taught years ago and used to be a common flash sync speed for cameras. To choose your shutter speed remember the following:
- It needs to be slower than or equal to the your camera’s flash sync speed (usually 1/200 or 1/250) unless you are using high-speed sync. If you go too slow and have ambient light in your space, you will start getting motion blur and potentially color contamination if the ambient light is a different color than your flash.
Tip #7: Time It Right
Waiting until that split second moment of a perfect photo opportunity presents itself requires anticipation, and then timing. Once you see the shot, grab it as quickly as you can! This is something you will get faster at the more you practice, and the development of digital cameras means you can take as many shots as you need to in order to get the photo you are after.
Tip #8: Use the Same Compositional Techniques You’d Use in Human Portraits
In many ways, pet portraiture is not that different from people portraiture, yet when trends sweep the human photography realm, pet photographers often don’t think to try these things on their furry models. Photographer, DJ, and YouTuber Phil Harris has delivered a concise video walking through the use of many of these trends – think prisms and fairy lights – with your pet, as well as some standard-issue photography tips, like the use of window light.
Common Mistakes in Pet Photography
Tip #1. Color Casts
There are two main ways that unwanted and unnatural colors can end up altering your pet’s aesthetic. When shooting outdoors with natural light, shadows will often have a blue tint, and fur, especially in darker colors, will adopt the hue.
In addition to the blue dog problem, pets are susceptible to color casts from the ground or floor. They’re much closer to the ground than adult human subjects, and as such are likely to pick up reflections from green grass or colored seamless sweeps. The area under a pet’s chin is usual suspect to take on a colorful tint. If your black lab is looking unnaturally blue or your cat seems to have grown a pink beard, there is help in post-processing, luckily.
In Lightroom or Capture One, you can easily select the unwanted tones and dial them back. Lightroom’s hue/saturation/luminosity sliders will do the job either by sliding the offending color’s saturation slider to the left or using the targeted adjustment to select the color you’d like to change and dragging down. The drawback is that, if parts of the image contain the color of the cast in a place where they actually belong, you’ll have to take the shot into Photoshop and use a hue/saturation layer with a layer mask to selectively remove the color.
Capture One, on the other hand, has a robust color editor tool and the ability to use layers with masks built in so you can make more complex adjustments without leaving the program.
#2. Blown Highlights
Pets come in an incredible array of color combinations and patterns, and sometimes that causes a situation where your camera’s meter can have a tough time determining a correct exposure. For instance, dogs with white masks on their faces will often have their white bits blow out without a little finesse. Pay close attention to the spot meter reading on the lightest parts of a pet, and if you notice that light colored fur is overexposing, adjust your exposure accordingly. Remember, with digital pet photography, you will have greater success recovering a little underexposure than overexposure. If you need to skew one way or the other, darkening your exposure is a safer bet.
[Related Reading: Pet Photography | 3 Quick Tips For Better Dog Photos]
Even the controlled environment of a studio portrait can suffer overexposure issues when the lightest part of the pet is closest to the light, such as the aforementioned white fur on the face. Adding diffusion or feathering the light can help. This reduces the effects of your strobe’s hotspot on the animal’s light-colored fur.
Pet Photography Tip #3. Too-Shallow Depth Of Field
Pet’s faces run a gamut that we humans just don’t have. They encompass a range from brachycephalic pugs and Persians to long-snouted dachshunds and collies (not to mention pets with beaks and scales.) On the short end, you can get away with a very wide aperture if that’s your thing, but when you work with an animal with a longer face, you’ll need to stop down.
Blurring a pet’s snoot into oblivion and creating a blob where there used to be textured nose isn’t a great look. While a little blur isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, a severely out-of-focus nose in a pet portrait looks awkward. Take your subject’s individual face shape into consideration when choosing which aperture to use, and don’t err to shoot at your fast prime’s widest aperture “just because you can.” You can find additional tips and ideas for better dog photos here.
#4. TTL Blinks
Some animals have very light-sensitive eyes and fast reflexes. If you use a TTL flash, you’ll probably wonder why the subject is squinting in every frame. Here’s your answer: TTL metering works by firing a pre-flash to measure the distance of the subject from the flash. You probably won’t notice it the extra flash, but for the pets who are sensitive to this, the pre-flash will result in an unflattering portrait with a half-closed gaze.
To counteract the TTL blinks and squints, just turn it off. Manually adjust your camera and flash settings. If the animal is still having trouble with the flash, consider using available light or a continuous light source.
Pet Photography Tip #5. Too Slow Shutter Speed/Flash Duration
Lazy pets notwithstanding, photographing quick and agile animals can teach you a thing or two about shutter speeds and flash durations. Bouncy, floppy puppies and animals who are excited about a treat or a toy can move fast, so you’ve got to be faster, or you’ll find motion blur in your photos. If you aren’t using a flash, you’ll need a lot of light and/or a camera that can handle high ISOs to let you boost your shutter speed. 1/500 and faster is a good starting place.
Flashes can freeze action, but they’ve got to overpower ambient light and have a fast flash duration. Flash duration is, simply put, how long the flash of light emitted by your strobe lasts. If your flash’s duration is 1/200 of a second, you might see motion blur in your shot. If your flash fires for 1/8000 of a second, you’ll freeze motion easily.
Despite a fast flash duration, a slow shutter speed or excessive ambient light can make it difficult to freeze motion. If you aren’t using HSS, you’ll need a shutter speed of 1/200 or slower with your flash. If the ambient light can compete with the flash at that shutter speed, it will contribute to the exposure. For environmental shots, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; swift movement from your subject, however, could cause streaks in the photo where the ambient light is dominant.
For example, imagine your subject is lit from camera-right with a flash and camera-left is ambient fill. If your subject moves, their camera-right side will be sharp, but their camera-left side can blur.
What are your most significant challenges in pet photography? Will these tips solve some of your issues? Let us know in the comments!