Take better pet photos

While I’m testing out the best angles on my camera view screen, something catches the eye of my four-legged subject and she trots right out of the picture. Let’s face it: we love our pets, but it isn’t always easy to capture their unique personalities and adorable faces on film. They’re part of the family, and deserving of their place in the photo album and on the wall. (If they’ll cooperate, that is.)

Whether you want the perfect pet portrait or some cute candid shots, we’ve got some tips to help out:

Motivate with rewards. If your pets are less than cooperative, try providing a little incentive. Whether it’s praise, a favourite toy or a treat, find out what will please your pet and reward good behaviour (or an attempt at it, at least). If your pet already knows some basic obedience commands — like “sit”, “stay” and “wait” — use these prompts to help your pet understand what you want him or her to do. Rewards will help your pets associate the camera with something good, and you’ll both enjoy the experience more.

Try a new perspective. You’ve done the traditional head-on or looking-down shots. Now it’s time to try something else. Test out some new points of view, such as getting down on the floor with your pets. Go for a “long shot” or get up close-and-personal. Your pets don’t have to be in the centre, or lined up with the edges of the picture. In fact, if the legs aren’t parallel to the sides or bottom of the field, you’ll create a more dynamic shot.

Review the elements (and principles). Look at a few fashion magazines and what do you see: dynamic compositions, flattering colours and playful textures. Take a moment to review what artists refer to as the elements and principles of design and think about ways you can use them to get an interesting shot. (Click here for a quick art lesson).

Colour and texture are a natural fit for animals. Show off the markings of your pets’ fur and play up any interesting patterns and colours. Borrow some strategies from colour theory: an orange cat will stand out from a blue background, and a green bird will “pop” against a red backdrop. Look for colours that work with the colouring and personality of the animal.

Consider the “big picture.” Many people get so focussed on their pets that the background is practically invisible — but it won’t look that way in the photo. The setting can enhance the mood and effect, or it can add distracting clutter like a bird feeder growing out of the top of your dog’s head.

If you’re going for a portrait, take some lessons from all those years sitting for school pictures. Stick to a simple and complimentary backdrop and make sure there’s plenty of light that comes from the sides at an angle. Try natural light from a window, or something as simple as a coloured blanket or sheet.

Keep it real. Formal portraits have their place, but photographs should also capture our pets’ personalities. Look for poses that seem natural, like the way they always sit or how they sleep with their legs sprawled in every direction. Try photographing activities they do everyday like playing and walking.

Nap time is also a great time for a photo shoot. Pets are oh-so-adorable when they sleep — especially if it’s in a sunbeam or on the furniture. Dozy pets that aren’t quite awake yet, or tired pets about to curl up for a snooze, are also more likely to stay put. You can even sneak in a favourite toy or blanket as props.

Hold on tight. Another good reason to have an assistant. If you’ve got a particularly squirmy or active pet, put a human in the photo. After all, everyone loves a picture of a human holding or hugging their favourite furry companion — and you’ve got someone to keep the pet still while you capture the moment.

Experiment with settings. Point-and-click will only take you so far: It’s time to get out that manual and get to know your camera. Read up on what settings and modes are best for what conditions and give them a try. For example, the “macro” setting is great for close-up shots and will capture the details of the fur. “Portrait mode” will give a soft focus to the background so your pet takes centre stage. Settings that allow you to take a series of shots one right after the other (think rapid-fire) can help capture actions like jumping and pouncing.

If you’re more ambitious and have the right software, try shooting a short video clip and then select some stills.

Skip the flash. In addition to the dreaded red-eye or glowing eyes that can turn our furry friends into devilish fiends, the flash can cause your pictures to be over-exposed and may wash-out shadows that add contour and shape. Try natural light instead, or adjust your camera’s settings to compensate for low-light (such as using a tripod and a longer exposure time if your pets allow).

Balance value. By value, I mean the lightness or darkness of your pets’ fur, skin or feathers. All black or all white animals can be tricky to photograph, and chances are you don’t want to fill your photo album with “black cat silhouettes” and “white fluff-balls with eyes”. The problem is many automatic cameras don’t always compensate for high contrast the way we want. To get around this issue, you can: 1) control the scene by avoid setting darks against lights; or 2) use the setting on your camera that allows you to “zero in” on your pet as the reference point for determining exposure. Alternatively, you can try a manual camera, tripod and a light metre to determine the proper settings for the shot — if your pet will stay still that long.

Compose on your computer, not just on your camera. An interesting composition makes for an interesting photo, but the view screen isn’t the only place to “work it”. Pets aren’t like still life or landscapes — if you take too long to find the perfect shot, they might just get bored or distracted and you’ll have to start over. Take the shot and play with the composition later when you have more time. The trick is to use a setting that will provide you with enough digital “information” so you can crop without compromising quality. (Consult your manual for more details).

Note: always work on a copy of the photo and save the untouched original.

Burn, baby, burn! Get to know your photo editing software and you’ll find many useful features that emulate the techniques traditionally used in darkrooms. For example, use the “burn” tool to add more depth and detail to light fur, and the “dodge” tool to lighten certain areas. Try the “cloning tool” or “eraser” to get rid of unwanted details and imperfections. If you’ve got a shot with lots of value (e.g. a variety of lights and darks), you can even convert it to black and white or sepia for an old-fashioned look.

If you’re not sure where to start, look for online tutorials or manuals for your program.

Get inspired. Creative people don’t exist in a vacuum. Just as writers should read, photographers should look at photos for ideas and inspiration. The internet makes it easy to share photos, whether it’s through specialty social networking sites “for pets” like Fuzzster.com or animal photo blogs like Cuteoverload and The Daily Puppy. After the appropriate amount of “oohing and ahhhing”, look at how the photographer sets up the composition, and plays with other technical aspects like lighting.

The best advice of all is to practice, practice, practice. What you don’t see in picture frames, glossy magazines or web publications is all of the photos that didn’t make the cut. Photography is a process, and learning what works and what doesn’t is part of the fun. Sometimes an experiment you don’t think will work can turn out an amazing shot.

Photo ©Barry Rogers

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