Taking Pet Portraits: A Guide

Capturing cats and dignifying dogs

By leadbelly in Articles and Tips on Jun 20, 2014
Taking Pet Portraits: A Guide

Photographers love pets. Many have their own and whenever one acquires a new camera body or lens, more often than not they "test" it on their pets. How many times have we seen the obligatory "sleeping cat" or "playful puppy" shot in forums, social media pages, blogs, and even review sites (both respected and sham)? 

Too many to count.

Let's get one thing straight though, there's nothing wrong with photographing pets. In fact, I do it for a living. However, instead of settling for mediocre snapshots, why not give Boots and Bowser an air of dignity by giving them the professional treatment?

Mongrel in a Decorated Backdrop"Mongrel Dog"

The image above is of a mongrel dog that was rescued off the street. I was commisioned to take his photo, and was asked to make him look dignified. I would've gone with a plain backdrop, but the client (a pet rescue non-profit) insisted on using this one with props strewn about. 

How to Photograph Cats and Dogs: Equipment & Technique

Shooting your pet cat or dog while sleeping is one thing, having them pose and look straight into the camera for professional-quality portraits is another. So how do I do it? While I'm not a particularly good teacher, let me try by breaking down my equipment, how I use them, and my workflow.

Please note, I won't be getting into too much detail about camera and light settings. If you know how to shoot studio portraits of humans, the same technique applies. This article will solely discuss my approach when shooting pet portraits. 

Pentax K20DCamera: Pentax K20D

While the focus speed of my trusty K20D DSLR isn't the fastest, I set my aperture at F8 and above to minimize out-of-focus shots. I also pre-focus and then switch to manual.  You can really use any DSLR for pet photography, as your lighting and studio setup plays a much more important role than the camera itself.

Lens: 18-250mm

Pentax 18-250mm

The Pentax 18-250mm is not the fastest of lenses (nor the sharpest), but at F8 and above, its performance is more than adequate. I once used a DA* 16-50mm, but after having it bitten by an overly aggressive Shar Pei, I decided to stick with a long-reaching lens with the option to go wide if needed.

Light: Paul Buff White Lightning 1800ws

MonolightYou can make do with a regular external flash with a diffuser, but I use my White Lightning monolight to impress clients. Unfortunately, some clients only respond to bigger equipment – "You're not pro without the big stuff!" It's the same reason why I use a battery grip.

And yes, I only use a single light source for practical purposes (faster set-up times, and easier to transport).

Kittens in bucket
"Three Kittens in a Bucket"

I love this kitten photo. There were originally four kittens here, but the fourth jumped to catch the feather toy I was waving around. The other three were looking straight at the camera, so I tripped the shutter anyway. 

I position my light source about 2 to 3 feet above the camera lens. This is usually my set-up when I expect to photograph hundreds of pets for fundraisers. But if you're feeling creative, feel free to reposition your light any way you want.

A Foldable Table

This is one of two of my secret weapons. I use a foldable table about 4 feet high, 4 feet long and 3 feet wide. Putting a dog or cat on a table will make them much more easy to manage. They instinctively won't jump right away, and if they do plan to jump, they take their sweet time gauging height and how much the fall would hurt them – enough time for you to intervene. 

In fact, all the sample photos posted in this article were shot using a table.

When photographing large dog breeds, you'll have no choice but to set them on the floor though. Be sure to have someone assist you, having him or her stand just off the frame beside the dog. In such cases, patience is a must. 

Something to Cover the Table

You can use a white or black sheet, and sometimes fake grass.  This is optional, but it will make your shots nicer. Covering the table with the same colored cloth as your backdrop will make for a cleaner picture. Be careful when using fake grass though, it can either look cool or kitschy. 

Persian kitty on black
"Cat-show Ready Kitten
"

This portrait was commissioned by a private client. She sells high-end Persian kitties and wanted the kittens to look cat-show ready. Light was positioned a little off-center, but still above my head. A black cloth was used here to cover the table.

Trust your good taste.

Softbox and Light Stands/Tripod

The softbox is to diffuse the light (obviously), while the light stands are for holding up the backdrop and to set my strobe at an appropriate height. 

When working alone, I use a tripod and a 15-foot long cable trigger remote. The tripod holds the camera steady while I use toys to distract the pet. I dangle the toys just over the lens or in front of it, then, once the animal looks at it, I immediately pull the toy away and trip the trigger. The camera is pre-focused at a spot in the middle of the table, set in manual mode. Since the lens is set at f8, even if the pet moves a bit, it will still be in focus. This is another reason why having a table is a pet photographer's best friend. 

When I shoot fundraisers alone, I equip one of my light stands with a removable arm with a ball head. This one light stand holds my camera and light source. Whenever I need to move my camera, the light moves along with it. Very helpful.

If you have someone to assist you, the tripod and trigger is optional. You can have your assistant distract the animal while you wait for the shot. Again, if you're using an older camera with limited focusing speed, you should pre-focus and use manual mode. 

Backdrops 

I usually use plain black or white, but like one of the samples above, I sometimes use decorated backdrops.  Personally, I stick with plain black or white, though I make it a point to offer other options to clients. 

Sphinx on Black"Sphinx Cat"

Here's a tight shot of a Sphinx cat. It's owned by the same client who sells high-end Persians. Her personal pet, I found the Sphinx too graceful not to photograph. I gave a printed copy of this to the client as a gift. 

Pet Toys

This is to catch the animal's attention. For dogs, I use a squeaky toy; while for cats, I use those stringed feather on a long stick things. Treats will work too. 

If all else fails, I make a mewing sound (for dogs) and bark (for cats). It's quite effective but use this trick sparingly – cats and dogs kinda pick up pretty fast that the sound you're making is fake. Then they start ignoring you.

Jasmine Spray

The second – and in my opinion, the most important – secret weapon is jasmine spray. I used to raid my wife's cabinet for her jasmine sprays. This tip was passed on to me by a pet hotel owner who has to deal with – and calm down – hundreds of cats and dogs a day. 

When cats and dogs start to get rowdy, spray a few spritzes around the air near the animal. Wait a few minutes and they'll calm down to a very manageable degree. 

Yorkie Family
"A Mother Yorkie with Her Three Pups"

At the start of the shoot where I got the photo above, all the pups were too rowdy to pose. Belonging to the nice old lady who owned the pet hotel, we were both having a hard time managing the dogs. She then taught me the jasmine spray trick and proceeded to spritz the air around her furkids. After a short while, all of them became willing posers. Since I didn't need to distract them anymore, I added the toy balls in as props instead. Note the same bucket used for the kitten shot above.

If you can't find a table to minimize movement, if you don't have pet toys or treats to catch the animal's attention, be sure you have jasmine spray. It's that effective. 

Lastly, Be Kind

Pets can sense fear and aggression in humans. That said, kindness is the best approach when shooting pets. If you are shooting your own, this won't be a problem. But if you are shooting for a client, it's best to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with the pet before shooting. If you try to rush things, expect to have a very difficult time. 

Besides, if you can't be kind to pets, you don't have any business photographing them. 

Good luck and if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below.

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