Pet photography 101.
Pet owners love their furry and feathered friends. And that love fuels the exciting, and potentially lucrative, pet photography business. Whether it’s a group shot of family members with their cat or an animal portrait of a beloved dog, owners want pet photos that go beyond smartphone snaps. But taking great portrait photography has plenty of challenges, including how to get a pet to sit still and look at the camera. The short answer is practice, patience, and creativity — and an abiding love of animals doesn’t hurt. With those skills, and some advice from professional pet photographers in your back pocket, you’ll be a few steps closer to photo sessions that lead to your best pet shots yet.
How to work successfully with furry friends.
Find ways to gain experience with animals.
“When I’m working with trainers, they don’t have to worry that I’m going to freak out the animals,” explains Carli Davidson, the author of the dog photography book Shake and Shake Puppies, about her years working in zoos. “Having that background set me up to be a stronger animal photographer because I know how to direct my models in a way that many people don’t.” Acquiring years of zoo experience might not be viable for every aspiring pet photographer, but building rapport with the animals being photographed is a process you can practice on your own pets or by politely asking dog owners at your local coffee shop.
Get to know your subjects.
Be ready to adapt during a photo shoot.
Animals react to stimuli, but each cat or dog is unique. Certain subjects will respond to things that others won’t, and none of them will respond the same way every time. “You can make a type of sound only once or twice,” Arouty says. “Whether it’s a noise from your mouth, your throat, or it’s coming from a squeaky toy, by the third time that noise is going to become extinct.” Davidson expands on how noise helps with animals: “Learn how to make really weird noises and don’t be shy — you usually get only a few reactions per sound.” It’s all about facilitating interaction and getting the animal’s attention. “I tell clients to give the dogs only half their breakfast before bringing them,” Davidson says, “so they’re a little more food motivated.”
Create a comfortable atmosphere for cat photography.
As with human subjects, the more at ease an animal feels, the better your chances are at getting a great shot. Dog photography might be a little easier to achieve, for example, because “they’ve jumped in a car with you and not ended up at the vet before.” Davidson explains. “Cats live in our houses and go in the car only when someone is going to jab them with needles. So they tend to be way more distrustful — which is logical. Getting cats comfortable on a shoot is a much longer protocol.” Practice patience and give your subject time. You should be able to get some quality cat photos, but don’t push it. Not all animals respond well to the experience and stressing out a cat (or dog) won’t ingratiate you to your subject or its owners.
More technical pet photography tips.
Use a fast shutter speed.
Understand your lighting.
Don’t use flash.
An additional great pet photography tip is to try to avoid using flash — especially with kittens. It could actually scare them to the point of running away and might even damage their delicate eyes. With young cat photography, you can get the lighting you need and avoid using flash by opening the aperture. You can also lower the shutter speed and increase the ISO value to increase light sensitivity without bothering momma or her kittens.
Adjust pet photography in post-processing.
Editing your work can help you pop different elements of your pet photos — especially in instances where you are getting shots of a person with light skin next to a dog with dark fur. Using a process akin to whitening teeth in photos, you can create adjustment layers that will allow you to, for example, brighten a dog’s eyes against black fur. You can also edit to remove unwanted elements from a photo, like drool or fur left on a chair. “One of the biggest things that we use Photoshop for is to remove leashes,” Arouty explains. “We need to keep the dog in one place and they need to know it’s not playtime. So we use a slip lead and Photoshop it out — or my assistant’s hand holding a treat in front of the lens.”
Cat and dog photography — well if we’re being truthful, pet photography in general — requires you to adapt to all kinds of conditions. From learning animal behavior to tackling new lighting challenges, mastering the circumstances and subjects of pet portraits takes time. Practice patience and put in the work and you’ll be on your way to high-quality animal images. Next, you might be ready to try your hand at capturing shots of animals outside the studio — explore these tips for photographing animals in the wild and other nature photography.