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.  We’ll break this guide down into 3 sections:

  1. Camera Gear for Pet Photography
  2. Tips for Better Pet Photography
  3. Common Mistakes in Pet Photography

Camera Gear for Better Pet Photography

Cameras for 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.  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.  If you have the budget, you can’t go wrong with any of these best mirrorless cameras.

Lenses for Pet Photography

Look for a medium zoom lens, such as the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II,  that is sharp and focuses quickly.  You’ll need the versatile focal range for working with pets who can sometimes change their position in the frame swiftly and unpredictably. For shooting on a seamless white backdrop, 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.

Lighting for Pet Photography

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 4Interfit Honey Badger, and Phottix Indra500.

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.

Light Modifiers for Pet Photography

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

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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.

I like to think of patience in pet photography as a three step process.

  1.  Calmly wait until your pet subject does what you want
  2.  Take a burst of images to get “the shot”
  3. If you miss the right moment, go back to step 1 and repeat

Tip #2: Make It Fun

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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

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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.

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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

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Basic studio setup for pet portraits

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.

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ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/125

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.

Tip #7: Time It Right

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Photo courtesy of Alex Cearns

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.

pet photography tips for color correction in post

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.

#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.

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.

#3. Too-Shallow Depth Of Field

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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.”

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.

#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.

pet photography tips with dog portrait
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.

What are your most significant challenges in pet photography? Will these tips solve some of your issues? Let us know in the comments!