Most Fur Baby pawrents love taking photos of their pets. And they make great subjects for gorgeous wall art portraits - obviously!!! But taking a great pet portrait is a lot more complicated that you might think - if you have ever tried to do it yourself you know what I mean, it’s not as easy as you thought it was going to be!
Capturing the true essence of your dog in camera can be challenging, in fact if you have an active dog, even trying to get a photo that isn’t blurry can seem almost impossible (you need a fast shutter speed). They can be superfast!
To get the perfect shot requires a lot more than just pointing the camera and clicking the button - you need to think about things like lighting, background and most critical - your camera settings. If you only ever have your camera on the Auto (point and shoot) setting, you are not very likely to get the best portraits. So get to know your camera and how the various settings operate to get the most out of it. Even the most basic camera has some ability to adjust the settings. Read the manual, surf Google or do a basic photography course.
Whether you are a budding amateur pet photographer or just a proud Fur Baby parent wanting to take better portraits of your dog - I want to share a few of the most common pet photography mistakes and help you learn to avoid them - knowledge is power!
1. Strange Colours in your Photos (aka Colour Casts)
Your surroundings, the colours of walls, backgrounds, shadows etc can change how the colour of your dog looks in your photograph. These strange colours are referred to by photographers as colour casts. That’s why even basic cameras will have different settings for adjusting your white balance (eg Cloudy, Daylight etc). A good example is when you are shooting outdoors using natural light you will see that shadows can have a bit of a blue tinge to them, chances are if these are falling on your dog its coat will pick up this blue hue and it will look a bit strange to you in the photograph. As your dog is closer to the ground than you they can also pick up colours reflected from the floor or ground such as green from the grass - particularly around and under their chins and necks. A great tip to avoid this is to find an area of Open Shade which puts even lighting on your dog, and to ensure that you select the correct white balance option for your situation. If you are someone who has some post processing software such as Photoshop Elements, Lightroom or Photoshop you can of course adjust things after the fact, but be aware if shooting in JPG, not RAW you will be somewhat limited in what you can adjust. Ideally try to get it right in camera wherever you can.
2. Flash Photography and Pets
I am highly reluctant to use my flash (strobe) for pet portraits as most animals have very light sensitive eyes and highly responsive reflexes to closing them quickly. If you do manage to capture their eyes open you will often end up with red, green or blue reflections back from the retina which makes them look very unattractive (think Cujo!). So I would not really recommend using artificial light (strobe) on an animal as a first option. If there is insufficient natural light and you have to use artificial light try using a continuous light (eg Icelight) but make sure the colour temperature is that of daylight to avoid strange orange or blue colours in your image. That said, if you really want to use a flash use manual setting not TTL. This is because the pre flash from TTL to measure the distance to the subject and calculate the power required to flash will cause them to squint every single time and often also make them blink so you end up with no eyes showing. So use manual flash and keep it to a minimum for only when you really have to.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice and Patience
As with any kind of portrait photography regular practice and analysing your results to figure out what went right and what when wrong is the surest path to raising the skill level of your craft as well as getting more consistency pleasing results. Pet photography is very different to other kind of portrait photography - that’s why it is a specialist genre, so don’t think that just because someone is good at taking people portraits they can take pet portraits just as well or vice versa. I know, because I photograph both genres so I speak with knowledge, experience and truth. One of the biggest mistakes is not being patient enough. You need to allow time, and realise that it’s highly unlikely you are going to get the result you are after within the first few shots, or if you only pick up you camera once in a blue moon (BIG HINT - you really need to know your camera - what the various settings mean and how to change those settings quickly in pet photography). Your dog needs to be totally chilled, relaxed and comfortable and in the right mood to take great photos. This doesn’t mean they have to be couch potatoes, you might want action shots of your energiser bunny! What it does mean is that they are not anxious, fearful or uncomfortable in the situation.
Pet Photographers learn about dog psychology and behaviour and to read the signals of when a dog is ready and when it’s not. I always tell my clients when we put the mood board together for them at their Design Consultation that on the day we will go with the flow and with the comfort and safety level of their dog - that’s what’s important. Trying to force or pressure your dog into a certain position or behaviour when they don’t want to will not result in the photos you want, even if they do comply their body language will show-up in the photos and you can instantly tell they were not comfortable and being themselves. No one wants a photo of their dog looking miserable or frightened. So be patient and learn to read your dog. Advances in digital camera technology mean pixels are free, so take lots and lots and lots of photos and experiment, if you don’t like the result you just hit delete!
So the key things here are:
To really learn how to use your camera properly to get sharp images with the right exposure and composition you want - this is the basis of any photography - know your tools.
Understand light and how it affects things in your photography (natural, continuous and strobe) and for pets try to use natural light wherever possible, continuous if needed and strobe only as a last resort.
Use the correct white balance for your situation, position your subject with the best light and check the background and floor for possible colour casting which might need to be adjusted in post production software - if you do this try to shoot in RAW rather than JPG to give you more options for adjustment.
Practice and experiment and have fun. Realise that to get great pet portraits you have to be patient and ensure that you dog is feeling relaxed and comfortable.