focus on fur
Photographing your pet* should be a happy, bonding experience, a chance to give your critter some extra attention and boost their mojo. We’re aiming to create some smashing artwork and leave our furmodels feeling fabulous!
What you’ll need:
A pet: I'm demonstrating with cats as they're tricky!
A camera: I've kept this guide simple so you can use your phone
Light: The sun, a sheet of tinfoil or white card and for the adventurous, a movable light (angle poise or table lamp)
Treats and toys: For you and the pet
Patience and a hearty sense of adventure
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Photographing pets is much easier with two people ~ one on camera, the other making sure the pet is safe, happy and coaxed into position. This is the perfect job for kids and all positive pet / child interaction is a good thing. For us solo parents, it can be done but expect it to take three times as long and involve many tea and biscuit breaks.
Most important is lighting and using it to get creative. Natural sunlight is always lovely to get a nice even fill on a cloudy day or a pop of colour and contrast on a sunny day. This is where we use our sheets of foil or white card to bounce light onto the subject and make sure we get rid of any unwanted shadows on the eyes (the Skeletor look). White card will give a gentle bounce and is handy to balance shadows on a sunny day, and for gloomy days use the stronger foil to add a pop.
We can use our movable light in a darkened room to create more dramatic looks. Positioning the light slightly higher than the subject’s head creates a shadow under the chin for a nicely defined jaw while creating a catch light higher in the eye implying optimism. Backlighting gives you a silhouette and outline which looks fabulous on pets. Lit from below is very horror movie, and from directly above you’re recreating Bohemian Rhapsody. If you find the light too harsh, try safely covering it with greaseproof paper which will soften the shadows. Remember this is your shoot, so play!
To create a studio, drape your backdrop over a piece of furniture your pet is familiar with like the sofa (remove extra cushions and ensure the back and seat are covered and excess fabric tucked in). Backdrop choice is your personal taste ~ all animals look great against a plain black or white backdrop like a bedsheet, as the focus is fully on their natural beauty. Think about where the photo will be used ~ if it’s to be framed and hung on the wall, why not use a fabric from that same room so your photo matches a throw or blanket. I’d highly recommend going all out once you're confident, try using bold fabrics or recreating a movie scene from cardboard boxes. Please bear in mind safety when building your ‘studio’ as curious paws will clamber.
Practice while they’re asleep. Pets are never not cute and this gives us a chance to look at them while they’re still ~ notice the shapes they make as a whole, and in detail. Remind yourself of why you adore them, bits you find particularly beautiful and unique. Obviously your pet is the most gorgeous animal that ever there was, let’s think about why before we shoot. Your pet will no doubt wake up during this part, this is your chance to let them have a sniff, explore and get familiar with the kit you’re using, make it positive with soothing voice and treats.
When we want to connect with our model, it’s best to get down to their eye level and see the world as they see it, so drop down to the same level, be at one with your pet and make that one on one eye contact. When your pet is ready, keep your camera fully zoomed out and physically move towards your pet. Remember this is a good experience, so lots of high soothing voices, tell them they’re good and amazing and gorgeous. If they do something naturally fabulous, go overboard with praise and let’s hope they repeat so you get a second shot.
Use your ammo! Is your pet treat or toy motivated? Use your weapon of choice to guide your pet onto the backdrop or a nice patch of garden or home, then once in position, to guide their eye line. They don’t have to look straight at the camera, a profile can be stunning, a head tilt looking just off camera. Check their body language ~ we want perky forward facing ears, nice alert and happy eyes. A yawn, grumpy face or the jackpot of a tongue sticking out should also never go unshot.
Once you have your hero shots (a full body image and a gorgeous head and shoulders close up) you can relax and play more, you've got it in the bag (the shot not the pet!) Let’s get super close and fill the whole frame with pet face.
Let’s just have the pads of the paw or the tuft of an ear tip, or the detail of the fur, feathers or scales.
Remember to keep it fun! Your pet will let you know when it’s had enough, so both of you should take a break, you have the luxury of no deadline so keep it organic, wait until they’re doing something fabulous all by themselves and move in, candid shots are as good as posed. There will also be far more terrible photos than great ones, please don’t dwell on the out takes (some of which can be hilarious!) just delete anything utterly awful and move on to your future amazing image.
These are just tips not rules, the fun of a photo shoot is capturing something unexpected. Sometimes getting everything ‘wrong’ can result in a fabulous image that just sums up the character of your pet, these are the shots to be treasured.
And for your next trick...
The Upside Down
If you’re fortunate enough to have a glass topped table, pop your pet up there** and shoot from below. Try and light the pet and not the glass to avoid reflections, and let’s see those paws! (The example images were shot using reinforced Perspex in a studio, but we’re cheating here).
If your furbaby loves to bask in a patch of sunlight, try making a stained glass window effect from any coloured see through plastic you have to hand (eg sweet wrappers) or felt tips on any clear plastic. (The example images used strips of coloured gel taped to an old picture frame).
Best of luck to you, and don't forget to clean the camera when you've won!
*I’m using the term ‘pet’ here as shorthand for companion animal, with no offence intended towards our furry, feathery or scaly equal beings.
**check the weight of your pet vs the weight bearing load of the table first.
Shirlaine is Official Photographer for GCCF, owned by six cats @purrlaine and is available for pet portraits in your home. firstname.lastname@example.org . Behind the scenes video of one of Shirlaine’s pet shoots on youtube.