I am one of the worst photographers on the planet. But where I lack artistic merit, I compensate with volume. Fortunately, I also have a little backup this year. Three professional pet photographers generously offered tips on capturing the perfect picture — just in time for the holidays.
Patience is key
Avoid staging photos and simply give pets time to unleash a bit of their personality. Photographer Parker Smith typically schedules about 90 minutes for sessions at his Atlanta studio, which was among the first to offer pet portraits in 2005.
“Every dog is different and has a different rhythm,” he says. “They are just like people. That awareness and concentration allows you to really tune in to who they are and take a beautiful photograph.”
Professional photographer Nina Parker also spends the first few moments of each session allowing four-legged clients to observe her and her equipment before snapping shots.
“At first, they are extremely wound up,” says Parker, who started her Atlanta photography business two years ago. “Eventually they get over it and start doing what they normally do — going and laying on their favorite chair, laying on the bed, the dogs simply being themselves. Those are the [photos] that the owners like the best.”
Patience also is essential when photographing kids and pets together. Make sure kids understand the rules about safe interaction with pets (don’t stare or grab ears). Give everyone time to get comfortable, step back and prepare for the unexpected, Smith says. That’s when the magic happens. Parker also recommends giving kids and pets time to get acclimated.
Dealing with kids or puppies? Try props
Rather than chasing kids and pets around the backyard, Smith recommends photographing subjects on a comfy sofa or chair. Wigglers have a harder time getting away, and you will get a more intimate shot. That approach helped Smith capture one of his favorite photos of a high-energy pit mix named Liz (right).
“She started flipping around and just moving in all different directions — but she stayed on the chair,” he said. “She jumped and stuck her butt up in the air, flipped one ear up and gave me this beautiful face.”
Most people notice their pets doing something cute, whip out the camera phone and start snapping photos. To get a better snapshot of extreme cuteness in action, Parker says take a step closer and get on your pet’s level. That simple change in perspective can lead to a great picture. Smith particularly favors close-up images, which tend to convey more drama.
“It’s really a process of deciding what you want to achieve,” he says. “I do a lot of very beautiful close-up portraits of animals because I really love the details of the whiskers and the eyes.”
If your pet is treat motivated, Teh says use that to your advantage. Just like kids, pets have no problem letting you know when they are no longer in the mood for camera time. Don’t force the issue, even with their favorite peanut butter-flavor treat. Instead, focus on making sure the pet is having fun.
Keep the background simple
Avoid heavily patterned or colorful backgrounds that may compete with a pet’s simple lines and coloring. Look at the frame on your camera before shooting, Parker says. If you see a lot of rooms, a lot of yard, a lot background, the pet is going to get lost.
Use caution when photographing pets outside
From dachshunds chilling on the front porch to a terrier running full speed ahead, Teh manages to capture the quirky exuberance in each of her subjects. But she warns budding photographers to use caution when working outdoors.
“No picture is worth taking them off leash if there is a road nearby and you don’t have them on recall,” she warns. “Go where there aren’t too many distractions.”
Use light to your advantage
All three photographers agree that good lighting can make or break a photo. Conduct a scouting mission to find well-lit areas in your home, particularly during dawn or dusk, Smith says.
“Most people call that the ‘golden hour,’ the first hour of sunlight in the day and last hour of sunlight in the evening,” he says. “That can be very, very beautiful. It’s got some direction and some contrast, but also is not so harsh that people start squinting.”
The same rule applies to outdoor shots, says Parker, who advises against shooting during the middle of the day.
“Everybody has seen those pictures where someone is sitting there with eyes squinting because it’s noon or they have raccoon eyes because of the way the sun hits,” she says. Photos shot at dawn or dusk, when the sun is really close to the horizon, deliver a different quality. “It’s warm and glowing and pleasing to the eye.”
Cats will be cats
All three photographers have interesting stories to tell about capturing felines on film. The moral to each tale: Cats will be cats. Sit back, watch and wait for the moment to arrive.
“Cats are the perfect thing to photograph at home,” Smith says. “If they have a favorite chair or something they like to sit on, move it close to a big window perhaps so you get a nice broad, soft white light. Shadows can be too dark, so use white fabric or white poster board to prop on the shadow side of the picture and that will bounce light.”
Test drive those camera phone apps
While all three photographers work with heavy-duty professional equipment, Smith and Parker encourage pet owners to experiment with camera phones. Practice makes perfect. Unlike the old days, Parker notes that you don’t have to pay for the bad photos. Simply press the “Delete” button, which clearly is my motto.
“There are so many different ways to make photographs,” says Smith, who enjoys taking pictures of his Italian greyhounds Gracie and Puccini. “I still shoot a lot of film, but also love to play with [the Instagram app] and capture these tiny little memories.”
Smith says that you can manage a good photo with standard, point-and-shoot cameras. Start by taking photos in portrait mode, which creates a very shallow depth of field and a tighter focus on the subject rather than the background. He also recommends working in bright but indirect sunlight, which limits the amount of harsh shadows. Adjusting the custom light balancing option also makes a big difference.
“Dig into the manual or take an ordinary sheet of paper and photograph it, then set custom light,” he says. “Do this in light you are photographing in. You will immediately see great improvement in color and clarity throughout your pictures.”
Seize the moment
Grab that camera — or camera phone — and take advantage of quality time with your pet. After years of chronicling friends, pets, relatives, weddings and other special events, Parker’s favorite photograph features Lucas, her family’s black Lab, shortly before he passed at the age of 17. (See photo below).
“You just have to be thankful for the time you have,” she says.
Click for photo credits
Dog in chair: Parker Smith
Black-and-white cat: Nina Parker
Gray tabby cat: Leesia Teh
Black dog: Nina Parker
MNN tease photo: Shutterstock