I was recently asked by a friend of mine who runs Ocean Walk Pet Sitting to shoot a few candid shots of one of his clients dogs so that he can present them as a gift to the client. Since this was, one, for a good friend, and two, another excuse to be outside in the sunshine on the beach with a camera, how could I say no? It’s not the first time I’ve done pet photography as I've shot some of his client’s pets in the past, so I knew a bit of what to expect, and I was able to draw on what I had learned the last time and apply them to this session. Here are 8 pet photography takeaway tips from those sessions that I wish I knew right away:
1. Don’t Start Shooting Right Away. Get to know the pet first. Play with them, feed them, give them a treat, play fetch with them, get comfortable with the pet so the pet gets comfortable with you.
2. Approach The Pet Gently. Don’t startle them. You won’t get the shot. Trust me. Sand in your lens? Yes, you’ll get that. The shot? Nope.
3. Get Low. Try Low Angles. It’s always fun to lay down and have the camera at ground or grass or sand level and let the curious animal come towards the lens on it’s own. Then start snapping. This way, when something is below the level of the pet, especially dogs, they feel more in control and are more apt to be comfortable with the situation.
4. Be Patient. You can’t tell a pet how to pose and which way to turn and where to stand and where to look. This can get frustrating when you’re trying to get a shot that you have in your head, but let this play to your creative advantage. It’ll force you to think outside your box and, once you get over it, have fun with it. Unlike humans, most pets don’t really need to be anywhere at any particular time…take advantage of that!!
5. Experiment. Play with focal lengths. You don’t have to get the entire pet in every shot. Don’t be afraid to just get detail shots of the face. Just like with people, the important thing is to make sure the eyes are in focus. A great 18-200mm can be super helpful due to it's flexibility, but closeup portraits can make for very flattering and adorable pet images. Heck, you might even want to try using a macro lens as a portrait lens if you have that option. They’re very good at preserving incredibly sharp detail.
6. It's All In The Eyes. Unless the pet you’re working with is an iguana or a turtle or something that doesn’t move all that much, this wouldn’t be the time to use a wide open aperture with a rail-thin depth of field, especially on a full-frame camera if that’s what you’re using. It won’t be easy to keep a dog or a cat still to get that eyeball in focus! You’ll want a shutter speed that’s quick, for sure, but if need be, increase the ISO rather than drop the aperture. If you’re outdoors or in a place with ample light, f5.6 should be plenty to get an attractive bokeh while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed to catch the wiley buggers!
7. Take The Lead. If it’s dogs you’re working with, get ahead of the dogs, perhaps 10-15 yards away and face the dogs. Open your aperture to about f5.6 or smaller. Be steady, use the low angle again. If you have it, use a zoom lens so that you can still be about 20 feet from the dogs as they fill up the frame. Set your drive to shoot as many frames per second as your camera can handle. Have the handler begin to walk them towards you. As they start to approach, just as they begin to fill out the frame, hold your finger down on the shutter to snap rapid-fire. The first few might be throwaways, but the sound will usually grab their attention to look right into the lens and they’ll begin to come towards it. And what’s cuter than a schnauzer’s sniffer all up in your glass?
8. Play Ball. An effective method for dogs if you have someone with you, is to have them hold up a ball or a dog toy so the dog looks up at it in anticipation. Crouch right next to handler on the side of the arm they’re holding up and get super close to them, aiming your camera at the dogs from about hip level. Make sure to have your settings set to employ a fast shutter speed. When ready, cue the handler move the ball to right above your head. You’ll have a few split seconds to snap away at an excited dog who’s appearing to look up into the camera. This method also works great for profile shots when you're off to the side, perpendicular to the dogs, as the handler holds the ball above his head.
And with that, I bid you fare-woof! (Yup…I did…)