Professional pet photographer Paul Walker shows you eight ways to get great images of your pet.
1. Think outside the box
Galleries of pets on websites seem to be overflowing with ‘seen-it-before’ pet photography. Although it is much harder to come up with an original concept, the thought process behind such an image, whether successful or not, can be very valuable in developing your skills as a photographer. The failures and the pictures that almost hit the mark are often worth more for the learning curve than nailing an image at the first attempt. So, whether you’re inside or outside, attempt something different by varying your angles, backgrounds, scene elements and interactions and you are more likely to create something interesting.
2. Who’s the director of the film?
It’s imperative that you take charge of your pet photography session and that any helpers or owners assist you with your attempts, rather than become distractions themselves. In order to achieve this, politely let them know how you photograph and ask them to refrain from calling the pet when you are photographing them (unless you give them that specific direction). With several members of a family accompanying you on a shoot and all of them calling the pet’s name at varying intervals, it’s sure to be a confusing scenario without proper direction.
3. Patience is a virtue
Most of the time we are photographing subjects with selective hearing so don’t be disheartened if your first attempts are not a success. Often I will attempt a particular concept a maximum of three times before moving on and trying something different. It doesn’t mean you can’t revisit a scene, although bear in mind that sometimes a pet will not respond after a period of time, or its body language will exemplify a less-than-happy state. Make sure you’re not in a great rush to bring the camera out and start taking pictures; there are many questions you can ask an owner about a pet before the session begins, such as how obedient it is, what it likes and dislikes and whether it has any favourite things. Such information may provide you with valuable clues for potential pictures or strategies.
4. Treats and play toys
I’ve read so many accounts over the years of pet treats and toys being used as the motivational incentive to gain the attention of a pet, perhaps to bring it into a more compliant state. Treats and toys are usually my last resort for gaining the attention of a pet. So often, a pet will move into obsession mode when this happens. For example, a dog may become fixated at the pocket of its owner where the treats are hidden, or become so excited that it refuses to drop an object or toy with which it has been presented. Although this may give you one or two alternative images, as a general rule I would tend to reserve the use of such items until later in the session, ensuring I had a good variety of images before their use.
5. Those plans
So often photographers seem in a desperate hurry to forgo planning and start a session in the hope that their subject may drift into amazing light with a nice background. Ensure that you know the locations available to any pet in advance and observe them for their potential photographic opportunities. In each area, look at the quality and direction of the lighting, as well as backgrounds, textures, lines, colours, shadows, highlights and any distractive elements within a scene, and think what picture you may wish to achieve if you had a magic wand in that area. This will ensure that your ideas at least have a chance to come to fruition.
6. To speed or not to speed
If the opportunity allows, play with the shutter speed on your camera. If you are shooting in manual mode you will need to make the necessary adjustment on either your aperture or ISO to gain the correct exposure – but why have an action picture of a pet completely sharp? Sometimes finding the speed at which, say, the head of the pet is sharp yet movement is exhibited in the legs, can give the image an extra wow factor. You could even slow the shutter speed further and try a panning technique to give your images more drama. This technique can be especially useful for creating dramatic pet action portraits, and it will also have the useful effect of blurring a cluttered or undesirable background. The shutter speeds required for both freezing a moving pet and panning is also relative to the speed of the pet itself, so experiment with your camera to see the different effects at each speed.
7. The face of it
On any pet photography session I always ensure that I have at least one great face photograph that illustrates the pet’s personality and character. It’s one of the key communicative parts of any pet and many pet owners will be able to tell you what mood the pet is in by observing their face, particularly with dogs and cats. Unless the breed grooming says otherwise, I love to really showcase the eyes of the pet – so a clean, nicely groomed pet with eyes free of gunk and a coat free of knots and tangles is going to give you a head start in capturing this much-loved face to remember!
8. Stay safe
Any pet photography session should be fun and rewarding, but the safety and welfare of yourself, the pets and the handlers or owners should never be compromised. There are many situations that fall into this category. For example, if treats are to be used at the end of a session, ensure that they are not your treats but the owner’s treats (the pet could be on a special diet); don’t plan a 6-mile trek if the 15-year-old dog’s limit is a few hundred yards; and ensure the environment is safe and that any actions you propose will never compromise the welfare of the animal.
About the Author
Since the release of his book ‘Pet Photography Now’ in 2008, Paul’s pet photography has gone from strength to strength, within the UK and internationally. He has achieved three Fellowship distinctions from the MPA, BIPP and RPS and has won five Scottish MPA Animal & Pets titles, in addition to two UK Pet Photographer of the Year Awards from both the MPA and SWPP. In 2013, Paul was awarded the prestigious Bill Wisden Fellowship of the Year Award from the Royal Photographic Society.