Pet Photography: Tips for Taking an Informal Pet Portrait

Jasper, LIlah and Tucker smile for the camera

Jasper, LIlah and Tucker smile for the camera

Last week, we hired someone to help us paint our deck, and one of the first steps was to sand the wood down. For one day — before the paint stain was applied — the deck featured an interesting pattern. I thought it would make a great background for the dogs, and held an informal pet photography session. One of my favorite pictures from our quick portrait sessions is this photo of Jasper, Lilah and Tucker.

Pictures like this don’t just happen, but anyone with a camera and a pet can take a few simple steps to make pictures that POP. I like to break them down into three stages: Preparation, Opportunity, Post-production (POP!).

Preparation

This step doesn’t involve a camera and can be done at any time. Using positive training techniques like clicker training or rewarding desired behaviors, teach your dogs commands that you may want to use during a typical dog photography session. Here’s a list of typical commands that can come in handy:

Sit: Practice getting your dog to hold a Sit for several minutes at a time and when you’re not in a direct line of sight, so she doesn’t jump up the minute you grab a camera or turn your back.

Down: Use this when you want your dog to lie down in a photo; you’ll also want to teach him to hold a Down as well.

Stay: You’ll want to be able to walk away from your dog to take the picture, without her following you — or chasing that squirrel that just scampered up the nearby oak.

Watch (Or Look at Me): For some dogs, this is easy; you just want them to look you in the eyes and hold your gaze. For others, it takes a lot of training, as a stare can feel threatening to a pup. Using positive training techniques, your dog can learn to look at you — or you with a camera in front of your face — for extended periods of time.

Tucker Jasper and Lilah with their new friend, a snow dog

Snow Dog learned the Watch command quite quickly.

Wait: Use this command when you want a dog to stay in a certain area, and not follow you. This doesn’t require a Sit or a Down, but it comes in handy to have a dog remain in a photogenic place while you put some distance between you to frame your picture.

Here: I use this, along with the name of one of my dogs and a pointed finger to show each one where I want them. Sometimes I only want one dog in the picture, and since all three of my pups know there are may be treats involved when I put the camera to my face, they all want in. I’ll position the ones I don’t want in the photo out of the shot, but they’ll still be rewarded for a Wait, Sit or Down somewhere else.

Opportunity

When the goal is to take a more informal, spur-of-the-moment picture of your dog (or dogs), you most likely won’t have control of the environment. But you can look for opportunities that can improve environmental elements:

Lighting: I love cloudy days for outdoor pet photography. The lighting is soft and diffuse; there are no harsh shadows, and less contrast between light and dark areas. Cameras struggle to capture huge contrast; they aren’t able to take in light and dark areas they way our eyes do. Taking pictures of my black dog Lilah when she’s in snow can be particularly difficult, so I tend to photograph her on cloudy days.

Lilah Tucker Jasper leaves square logo 100

This photo was taken on a foggy fall day, with beautiful diffuse lighting.

Background: Sometimes you want a backdrop for your pets — a garden, a scenic landscape, a group of humans. Other times you want the focus to be on the dogs themselves. When I saw what my deck looked like — with soft browns and tans running in a diagonal — I knew it would make a great background for my dogs.

Visual Distractions: As you focus your camera on your dogs, take a moment to look at what else is in the frame. Your neighbor’s trash can. Aunt Edna’s hat. The bottom of a hanging basket that looks a UFO hovering over Fido. Often, it’s easy enough to position your pets so they block out the distraction or you can move so it isn’t in the frame. I wanted to block out the deck railings, so, as a vertically challenged human, I had to stand on a chair to gain the height that would enable me to fill the frame with just the deck floor.

Doggy Distractions: This is important because dogs are, well, dogs. They’re distractible. A bird, a squirrel, the UPS truck: these are all reasons to look — or scamper — away during a photo session. You can’t control all doggy distractions (“Hey squirrel, do you mind not throwing nuts on my dogs while I take a picture?”), but you can try to lessen the number or impact. For example, try taking pictures of your pets in the early morning when less people are out and about. Wait until after the mail arrives. Find a less crowded area of the park.

Outtake from a portrait session: Tucker, Lilah & Jasper distracted

I call this “There was a noise.”

Post-production

Filmmakers joke that any time there’s a problem, “We’ll fix it in Post.” They mean “post-production,” which is any time after the film is shot. While you can adjust many things after you’ve taken a picture, it’s always easier to try to take care of it during the photo session. That said, there are so many photo editing applications and software packages available, there still is a lot you can fix in Post. Personally,  I don’t spend a lot of time adjusting a photo, but there are some very easy things you can do that can vastly improve the quality of your pet pictures.

Crop: This is the simplest thing you can do, and also the most dramatic. Crop out distractions. I like to think of cropping the way diamond cutters think about gems: a jewel can be made more beautiful and valuable by cutting out the imperfections. My favorite example of this is a photo I took of Calvin in our bathroom; after cropping, the end result looked like an abstract painting by the artist Rene Magritte.

Surrealist Cat

Calvin, Surrealist Cat. I also used an app to make this photo look more like a painting. (See the original photo, before cropping.)

Lighting: Many photo editing apps offer the ability to lighten shadows or darken highlights. When used sparingly, this can help soften contrast issues.

Color correcting: Some pictures have a color cast to them — too much yellow or blue or red — and photo software can help you adjust these for more realistic colors. More sophisticated cameras can adjust for these while you’re taking the picture, but it can also be fixed in Post.

Photo editing: This is sometimes called photoshopping, because the most popular photo editing software — Photoshop — made this technique accessible to anyone with a computer and the application. I use this only when I need to remove a small imperfection or visual distraction — like an ill-placed electrical outlet. There are a ton of things you can do to edit your photos; you are limited only by your imagination and skills with photo editing software. And my skills are still quite basic.

What are your favorite tips for taking pictures of your pets?

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Today, we’re participating in the Wordless Wednesday blog hop. While my post is a bit wordy, feel free to just look at the picture — and stop by some of the other great blogs below.

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31 Comments on "Pet Photography: Tips for Taking an Informal Pet Portrait"

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  1. Great tips — now if only I could get the cats to post like that! They just need more training…

  2. Great advice – I need all the help I can get with little Jax. He
    s a handful when it comes to taking photos.

  3. Love the photo of them not looking. I always end up with so many blurry or photos were Kilo isn’t paying attention all the time. But sometimes the bloopers are the best!

  4. Emma says:

    We do pretty well, and so does cat bro Bert, but kitty sis Sophie refuses to pose nicely for photos.

  5. Earl Lover says:

    Beautiful photos, and amazing tips. These are so useful thanks, I sometime struggle to get group photos of Earl and Ethel sat nicely together. But when they come out successfully, boy do they come out successfully!!!

    sumskersandearlskers13.blogspot.com

  6. Robin says:

    Great tips! I wish that cats would respond to commands like dogs do. MOL My best tip for photographing cats is to find natural ways to involve them. Using treats or their favorite toy to catch them in action and doing something that is natural to them.

  7. Great advice. Mum still has a lot to learn about that topic ! Purrs

  8. meowmeowmans says:

    Those are some wonderful tips! With the cats at the shelter, we find that it’s important to photograph them on their level. If that means lying on the floor, so be it. :)

  9. Those are some good tips. Of course, we do our best not to cooperate with photo shoots. :)

  10. Great tips, thanks. I definitely made some notes.

    P.S.: We just joined Pinterest and will follow you now.

  11. MyDogLikes says:

    Great tips! We have learned a lot by trial and error!

  12. Get a dog who likes posing? That’s probably the easiest way! I reward photo taking pretty heavily and Mr. N enjoys it. He’ll even run up to other people with cameras and pose.

  13. Ann Staub says:

    Wonderful tips! I struggle on the commands with Shiner while I am trying to take photos of her. She’s knows the commands, but is so darn stubborn sometimes. Most difficult is getting her to lay down and stay laying down. I think she just like to do things her way lol… interesting suggestion about taking photos on cloudy days. I sometimes avoid that because I just never really thought it would be a good day for it. Will have to give it a try sometime!

  14. HA. “fix it in post”? Those editors can be kind of testy, you know….

    Seriously, the one I worked with when I first started in the industry was a “take no prisoners” kinda guy who was totally unimpressed with a new, young, 20-something director.

    He took it as a Mandate from God that he was to train “fix it in post” OUT of all newcomers to the profession. LOL….hey, it worked!

    Maybe it’s because I’m in film, and that means you must manipulate the raw footage to create your finished piece. For whatever reason, I’m so used to seeing content as something in its “raw form” that I always post-produce even my photos, even if it’s just normalizing the color and cropping.

    I have to admit, though, that the sensors on the newer DSLRs are becoming increasingly more color accurate. I just upgraded, and for the first time, I’m opening up an image in Photoshop and thinking, “wow, that really doesn’t need any correction!”

    Great tips! I wish cats would obey commands, but…yeah, that’s not going to happen. :-)

    • I debated about writing “fix it in post,” as my daughter majored in film, and I knew from her that it was a dangerous thing to say. In the end, I decided to use it, as so many people don’t realize how just a little tweak here or there “in post” can have a dramatic effect on a photo.

  15. Wow that was the most detailed and informative post on dog photography advice I have ever read. Much appreciated…I learn through community learning. Awesome tips to be noted!

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