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Try something new
After you’ve taken all the obvious shots of your pet, you might think there’s nothing interesting left to do. You have lots of close-ups, lots of pictures of him sleeping cute, lots of pictures of him with his favorite toy. What else is there? Well, maybe take a close-up of his nose, or his feet. See if you can take an interesting photo of just his fur, maybe with the sun hitting it just so. Try sitting him above you, say on the deck or on a bed, and take a picture of him from below, while he looks down at you. Keep looking for new ways to see your little guy.
Pay attention to light
Photographers obsess about light because it really is true that it can make or break your shot. My favorite light is the warm, low-angle light you get at sunset/sunrise or during the short days of winter. The low angle creates golden highlights that glint off animals’ fur, and makes soft shadows that provide depth and texture. Mid-day light washes all that out and make the subject seem flat and uninteresting.
Don’t use the flash
If you’re paying attention to light and looking for that beautiful soft light that makes things glow, then you won’t want to ruin it by using the harsh blue-white light of your camera’s flash. The flash creates distinct shadows behind the subject, flattens the depth and eliminates texture, and results in photos with a harsh, stark feel. Plus, the flash will startle or annoy your pet and will probably make her move—you won’t get a chance at a second shot. Use the available natural lighting.
Use manual controls
This may be my old-school Luddite self talking here, but if at all possible, take some time to learn how to set your camera controls yourself. In certain challenging situations, you will likely get better results, faster, if you set them yourself rather than let your camera choose what it thinks you’re trying to do. If you’re outside on a sunny day, and your black lab is looking at you from a small patch of shade, automatic settings will probably not give you the result you want. Likewise, your white cat snoozing in the sun on your dark blue bedspread might be better captured with manual settings. There are really only a few things to learn: shutter speed (how much time you give the camera to capture the image), aperture (how much light you let into the camera), and “film” speed or ISO (which sets the light sensitivity). Spend some time with a good photography book or website, and spend some time practicing what you’ve read. You will gain a new set of tools that will let you get the shot you want—rather than the shot the camera wants.
One of the most common mistakes people make when taking photos of their pets is that they take the shot from a standing position, looking down at the animal. This all too often results in a picture that shows a lot of the floor, and not much of the animal himself. Get down low so you can take the shot at your pet’s eye-level. This will mean getting on your hands and knees at the very least, and likely as not, lying on the floor. Plan for this—don’t wear your fancy clothes, and expect to get dirty. This will also let you get that much closer to your animal, and he will be that much larger in the shot. Plus, he’ll think having you on the floor with him is a fun game, and you might get some new opportunities for shots you hadn’t anticipated.
Another common mistake is not getting close enough. Too often, far too much background is in the picture, distracting attention from the star of the show—your pet! Remember that you’re not taking a photo of your bedspread or your couch—you’re taking a photo of the wonderful animal that happens to be lying on that bedspread or couch. Get yourself as close to your pet as you can without disturbing her, then zoom in the rest of the way. Make your cute little girl fill the viewfinder and eliminate all the extraneous background detail.
Unless I’m shooting landscapes, I almost always try the photo in a vertical orientation first. If your dog or cat is sitting down, his shape is a tall triangle. A head-and-shoulders shot of your pet is a tall rectangle. Because most animals are smaller than the people they are interacting with, a vertical shot will enable more of the story to be seen, such as a person bending down to pet a dog. Unless the animal is lying down (in which case a horizontal oriental works well), shooting vertically will eliminate more extraneous background material, and let you zoom in closer to make your pet the focus of attention.
Anticipate your pet’s actions
You know your pet best. You know when she will want to take a nap, how she will react to your child coming home from school, or what she will do when she sees her favorite toy. Take advantage of that knowledge and be ready with the camera when those things happen. Think in advance about the best place to position yourself at that moment so you can be there to get the best shot possible.
Create photo ops
By this, I don’t mean staging your shot with props or manufacturing a situation that wouldn’t normally happen. I’m not talking about cutesy calendar pictures of, say, a kitten with a red and green bow around his neck posed next to a Christmas tree. But if you know that your kitty likes to play with stick-on bows, then give him one and click away as he has fun with his new toy.
As much as I love a good close-up, too much of a good thing is, well, too much. If you’re putting together a collection of your favorite photos of your pet, be sure to include some that show her interacting with her environment too. Maybe show her exploring her favorite part of the yard, or standing at the door waiting to go outside, or sleeping in the flower garden.
Want to improve your pet photography skills? Try these tips, used throughout You Had Me at Meow
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