Pet Photography Tips You Can Use at Home

By Martha Russell, author of the Adopt an Oregon Dog blog, and Jean Dion, Digital Content Coordinator

Capturing great photos of your pet can be a challenge, but it’s so rewarding. In this post, we’d like to give you some tips that will help you get the shots you are hoping for. While we are not expert photographers by any means, through our experience photographing shelter pets, we have learned some techniques that make pet photography fun and successful.

Equipment

It seems that most people today use their cell phones for taking pictures. With the advances in the camera capabilities of cell phones, you can get some excellent results. The latest advancements include portrait mode which can make a huge improvement in a regular snapshot. Until recent years, such a photo could only be taken with a more expensive, technically challenging camera. Smartphones offer adjustments for exposure and focus which can be very helpful in getting a great photo, also.

Here is a photo WHS trainer Jessi took with her phone in portrait mode. Note the sharp face and blurred background.

If you have a DSLR camera, setting the aperture wide open gives you the same effect of  a sharp subject and blurred background. Or, if you are farther away from your subject, the automatic setting will also give you this effect.

DSLR and some cell phone and compact digital cameras have an option for burst mode. This allows the camera to take a lot of shots very quickly and stops the action, making for dramatic photos of pets on the go.

Lighting

Lighting is a crucial element in taking good pictures, and natural outdoor light is best if you can use it. Try to avoid midday sun, as it creates harsh shadows and too-bright highlights. If you can’t avoid it, then try to shoot in the shade. Black dogs, especially, photograph best in the shade.

The best time to shoot is early morning or late afternoon. Cloudy days are also excellent for taking pictures.

If you photograph inside, and can avoid using a flash, that’s great. If not, do not use the pop-up built-in flash that comes on most cameras. It not only makes ugly shadows and lights up your pet in unnatural ways, but we’ve all seen what it does to pets’ eyes, making them look like aliens. 

An external flash connects to DSLR cameras. With it, you can control the direction and intensity of the flash. Point the flash at a bright, white wall while your lens captures something right in front of you. The light will seem natural and bright. And your subject won’t be blinded by the very first flash. 

Many new smartphones are able to take good indoor pictures in low light without a flash. Smartphones are also much quieter than a traditional camera, even with the flash on. That makes them ideal tools for photographing cats in dark spaces. 

Speaking of cats: Our dark-colored friends need a bit of help from the lighting department. When we work with black cats in the shelter, we follow a few best practices:

  • Choose a pattern or color. Place the cat on an animal-print blanket, a brightly colored towel, or a calico shirt.
  • Keep the background colorful. Black cats in front of white walls look a little like rocks. Use a sheet or pillow as a backdrop, if needed. 
  • Use the flash. Follow our tips, and use an indirect flash bouncing off a white wall. 

Positioning/Filling the Frame

When taking photos of your pet, remember that getting on their level is one of the best ways to capture their personality. We’ve all seen photographs where the subject was far away and we almost had to squint to see what it was. 

There are two approaches to preventing this problem. The first, and the better, option is to get “up close and personal” with the pet, filling the viewfinder with the dog’s image. The second is to take a more distant picture and then use photo-editing software to crop out the background. While both results initially appear similar, the cropping method will disappoint you if you attempt to enlarge the photo a great deal.

Even smartphones have editing tools built in, including cropping. Tap the image on your phone, hit the word “edit,” and play around until your pet fills the whole screen. 

Cats don’t always enjoy cameras thrust into their faces. But stand too far away, and they might get interested in other things and walk outside of the frame. Before you kick off your first photo shoot, introduce your cat to your camera. Let your cat sniff it, touch it, and play with it a bit before you start snapping. 

Attention Getters!

Attention getters can be especially helpful if you are trying to get a certain pose for your pet. For dogs, be supplied with their favorite high-value treat, a favorite toy, and/or a squeaker. Hold the object of interest right next to your camera so that the dog’s eyes are level with it while seemingly looking at you.

This photo was taken with a bit of cheese next to the lens. 

A squeaky toy can give you interesting head tilts. If the dog is ball-motivated, hold a tennis ball to capture their excited anticipation. You have plenty of options!

We’ve had good luck at the shelter with dangling lens caps. One of our photographers has an elastic cord for her lens cap, and she swings it to get attention. This approach works especially well with kittens. Crinkle balls and jingling bells also work well with our feline friends. 

Pets with People

Taking pictures of pets and people together can be a challenge. Often the people attempt to manage the animal, trying to get it to pose. When the dog or cat looks good, the people usually do not.

When taking pictures of people with a dog, ask the people to keep looking at the camera, ready for a shot while ignoring the dog. Then YOU concentrate on the dog. Use cheese, a squeaky toy—anything to get the dog’s attention. The results are usually much better. 

Some of the most touching pictures of your pet are candid ones with family members. Try to catch moments when there is clear communication between person and pet. 

Special note: Ensure that your humans don’t hold the pets too tightly. No one likes to look at animals restrained by overzealous hands. If you have to squeeze your pet to keep it in the frame, take the snap another day. 

There are also pictures that show your pet to be the special dog or cat that it is. You’ll want to have your phone or camera handy for those special shots. 

Take LOTS of Pictures!

One final extremely important hint to get the very best photos: take LOTS of shots! In the old film days, developing costs were expensive. But now with a mere click on “delete,” it is no longer a concern.

The more shots you take, the more chances you have of getting that perfect image that you hope for.

If you’ve taken a truly exceptional photo of an animal you adopted from WHS, we’d love to see it! Send your photo to marketing@whs4pets.org, and tell us a little about your pet and your bond. You could appear on our social media sites or blogs!