Article updated December 2011.
Photo by Daniel Bell.
A pet, is just like any other subject in terms of photography technique - composition, focusing and exposure being the three main areas to perfect, the fourth, and most problematic, is getting subject participation. If you position your cat / dog then get your camera out their inquisitive nature will drive them to come right up to the camera and sniff the lens. You move away and they'll follow. Sit them in a convenient spot and they'll bounce back. Frustrated? You will be!
You can, of course, spend time training them to obey, but the fact of life is most of us have a pet as a companion and training is the last thing on the agenda. So, what can you do? Here are a few basic tips to get you started:
Tip 1. Give the dog a bone
Give your pet something to take their mind of the camera. The only problem now is they will be chewing or playing around and are highly unlikely to look at you, let alone the camera.
Tip 2. Squeaky toy
Use a squeaky toy to attract their attention. Place it behind the camera so they look in the right direction. The bone they're chewing will be more interesting, but at least they will look up long enough for you to fire the shutter. Act quickly and make sure you get the shot in the first or second take as they'll soon get wise or bored of your attention seeking activity.
Tip 3. Wait until the right moment
Cats and dogs are easy to catch out when they are sleepy. Time for the squeaky toy again. Just as they're nodding off squeak the toy and you'll get a moment of alertness. Which means you can get two shots: one where they're alert and the other relaxed.
Tip 4. Get help
You could ask someone else to entertain the pet while you walk around taking the photos. Try to keep the person out of the frame and the shots will be more natural.
Photo by Daniel Bell.
Take care when photographing an animal with dark or light fur as their coats can fool your camera's meter. A pet with a white coat can end up looking dull as the camera thinks the scene is too bright while a pet with a black coat can end up looking grey due to your camera thinking the scene is darker than it is. If you find this to be a problem just use exposure compensation to use a + or - exposure depending on your circumstances.
As with people photography, focus on the eyes for the attention grabbing shots but don't forget a dog with a long snout will need more depth of field when shooting close up to prevent the tip of the nose being out of focus. Take your shots using a small aperture to avoid this or shoot when their head is turned to one side.
Watch out for bright backgrounds that could affect the meter reading. Try to take the shot with a neutral background that isn't distracting and, like people photography, avoid trees and telegraph poles growing out of heads.
Try using a slow shutter speed with flash and panning with the animal as it moves to create abstract slow sync flash shots that create a sense of action. You can also use flash to freeze the animal as it moves through your frame. For a shot of a dog jumping into the air, for example, follow the dog through its tracks and fire the shutter when its feet are off the ground. Again, it helps if you have a friend with you to help encourage the dog to do tricks while you move around and capture the action.
Humans are not the only ones who suffer from devilish looking eyes when flash is used. Pets eyes appear bright green when flash has reflected. Just as you do with people, you can remove the unwanted colour from the eyes in Photoshop.
Photo by Daniel Bell.
Let's not forget our small friends such as hamsters guinea pigs and mice who are all cage based and eager to burry themselves in straw.
The main problem with these pets are: one, getting close enough and two, avoiding a picture framed with bars. A good option is to photograph the creature in someone's hand, which gets over the cage problem. Then you need a lens that will go close enough so you can fill the frame with the animal.
If you don't trust the hand approach move really close to the cage and use a wider aperture to throw the bars out of focus. Or shoot through the cage with the door open.
Try experimenting with slow speeds on a hamster running on a wheel as you may be able to get the legs blurred and the head sharp, giving a great sense of movement. A shutter speed of around 1/8th sec should be about right for this.
If you have fish in a tank you need to move up close to the glass to avoid reflections and use the natural light to take the photo. In daylight the shots will come out okay but shoot under the light used to illuminate the tank and you'll get a colour cast.
If you have to step back from the tank to photograph the fish from a distance you will get reflections from the glass. In such cases a polarising filter will help prevent reflections. Attach it to the camera and rotate until the reflections are minimised and then take the photo. You may find shooting from an angle to the glass will work best.
Fish in outdoor ponds can benefit from the use of a polariser too. Take them when they are near to the surface - feeding time is ideal, and use the polariser to kill the reflections. Shoot from an angle to allow some depth to the fish.
Even in summer the darkness of the water will make the shutter speed quite slow so shoot when the fish are still and hold the camera very steady to prevent camera shake when working hand-held.