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. Photographing your pet, or any animals really, come with a unique set of challenges, however. As you snap mementos of your fur-kids, undoubtedly you will find yourself facing scenarios that put your skills and your gear to the test. Trial and error will take you a long way, but you pay for it with your time.

Here’s a fast track to help you avoid some of the most common mistakes photographers make when photographing pets.

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.

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 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.

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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.

Too-Shallow Depth Of Field

How much nose blur you accept in your pet portraits is up to you, but I’d say this one is bordering on too out-of-focus.

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.”

TTL Blinks

Some animals have very light-sensitive eyes and fast reflexes. If you try to photograph them with 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.

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.

This photo shows the effect of a longer shutter speed combined with a strobe. Motion blur is evident on the subject’s camera-left side. Also note the blue tint in the fur on the shadow side of the face.

Flashes are great to freeze action, but to do their job 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.

Even with a fast flash duration, a longer shutter speed or a lot of ambient light in the scene can foil your best efforts to freeze motion. If you aren’t using high-speed sync, you will be forced to use a shutter speed of about 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, but it means that a swift movement from your subject could cause streaks in the photo where the ambient light is dominant.

For example, If 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!