Photographing the Human-Animal Bond :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing the Human-Animal Bond

by David Peterson 1 comment

If you share your home with a dog, cat or other furry creature, then you know that being a pet owner is about more than just caring for a non-human animal. We love our pets, and they love us. Animals are a part of our families.

So when you take pictures of your dog or cat, how often do you try to capture some of the love between your furry friend and your other family members? It's one thing to take a beautiful portrait of your cat sitting next to the window or an action shot of your dog chasing a ball in the backyard, but what do these photos really say about your pet’s place in your family? Read on to find out more about capturing those people-pet moments.

Some basic tips

No discussion of photographing animals would be complete without some basic tips, so let’s start there. Photographing animals is a lot like photographing kids—in order to really get your viewer to relate to your subject, you need to try and photograph him at eye level. That means getting down on your hands and knees to puppy perspective, but it also means you may have to ask the human element of your photographs to also get down on his hands and knees. It's hard to adequately capture the bond between man and animal when man is looking down on animal. So if your subject is planning to pet her dog, ask if she'll kneel down to do the job rather than just reaching down.

Use the same basic rules of composition for photographing animals as you would for photographing people. If your image is a portrait—that is, it is a close-up of heads, shoulders and faces, then make sure you’re choosing an aperture on the larger side so that you can blur out any distractions that might happen to be in the background. Ideally, you want to be able to separate your subject from the what’s behind her, and the easiest way to do this is with a shallow depth of field. I like to default to f/5.6 for portraits, but use your depth of field preview button to make sure that your background looks the way you want it to. If it still looks too busy, you can opt to increase your aperture or you can simply try shooting from a different perspective so you can angle out the stuff in the background that is distracting from the subject of the photo.

And pay attention to the light—just because your subject is an animal doesn’t mean he’s going to look any better than a person does when shot with a flash or when placed in direct sunlight. Bright light can blow out details, which can be a particular problem for an animal with white fur or patches of white fur. And you could have the opposite problem, too—in bright light the shadows will render black, which could kill detail on an animal with all black fur or black spots. So if you can, opt for photographing your pet during the golden hour (that hour just after sunrise or just before sunset) when the light is soft and even. You can also shoot in open shade or on an overcast day, which are both good lighting situations for capturing detail.

Capturing love

The human animal bond is a strong one. I know I don't have to tell you that, because you feel it yourself every day, whenever you interact with your pet. But one thing you probably prefer not to think about is the transitory place that animals have in our families—they don’t live as long as we do, so they come into and out of our lives much more quickly than our human family members do. So the time to photograph that bond between your family and your pet is now—you owe it to yourself and to your pet to not only capture beautiful and fun pictures of him just being himself, but to also capture pictures that will really show your viewer the bond that you have with your furry family member.

Love is an abstract concept, so that makes it inherently difficult to photograph well. But if your goal is to capture the bond between human and animal, that is exactly what you have to do. So the first thing you need to do is think about how you can capture emotion. How does your dog feel, for example, when he greets you when you come home from work? How does it make you feel to be greeted with such unconditional affection? Any time a human and animal show emotion when they interact is a great opportunity for a photo.

Let’s say that you know your husband always gets a warm welcome from his dog when he walks in the door, and you know he typically gets home around six. What does your dog do as the time approaches? If he gazes longingly out the window, waiting for your husband’s car to roll into the driveway, you can start by getting a shot of his face as he’s looking through the glass. Then be patient—when the car appears and your dog goes bonkers, make sure you photograph that, too. And of course the big moment—when your husband opens up the door and the dog greets him with leaps, tail wags and face-licks, make sure you’re there to capture it.

These kinds of moments between human and animal happen all the time, every day, so all you have to do is be ready for them. And you don’t need to do much more than put your camera in burst mode and shoot in order to ensure that some of that emotion will end up on camera. But just in case you don’t think that’s enough, don’t be afraid to use symbols to convey love, too. For example, no one can question the meaning of a heart. If you can incorporate that symbol into your photograph you are going to do a great job communicating to your viewer the love between human and pets. Try shooting your pet through a heart-shaped natural frame (someone’s fingers can do that really well). Or hang a heart from her collar. Be creative and don’t be afraid you’ll overdo it—most people expect a certain amount of overzealous enthusiasm when it comes to pet portraits, and no one is likely to think you’ve gone too far.

Kids and pets

Children and animals have a very special bond and if you share your home with both a child and a pet you have almost certainly got ample opportunity to take some beautiful photos of the human animal bond. This doesn't mean, of course, you grab your child and just have him throw his arms around his favorite pooch—that's an adorable picture, of course, but the problem with nearly every posed picture is that, well, posed pictures look posed. Instead, the key to capturing that beautiful bond between child and dog, child and cat or child and hamster is to wait for the perfect moment. You can encourage your child to go outside and throw the ball for his best friend, but don't focus just on your dog chasing the ball. Instead, look for moments of interaction. What transpires between dog and child when the dog brings that slobbery ball back and deposits it at the feet of his best friend? There will almost certainly be a moment of connection between the two. The dog may drop the ball and then look longingly into the eyes of the child, hoping the ball will be thrown again. Or, there maybe a moment of tug-of-war between child and dog. There will almost certainly be laughter and tail-wagging. Your job is to look for that moment of connection and then be ready for it when it happens.

Eye contact between human and animal is a great place to start, but it is by no means the only place you can find evidence of the human animal bond. For example, no one can fail to be moved by the sight of a cat curled up next to a sleeping child, or by a child and a cat looking out the window together. And think about what we do for our pets, too—humans make some remarkable sacrifices for their animals. Have you ever walked your dog in the pouring rain? A family member with this kind of devotion to their furry friend deserves some recognition, so the next time it's rainy and your spouse heads out into the deluge with Fido in tow, grab your camera's rain sleeve and follow them outside. Get a few pictures of man and dog together in the downpour, and you'll have an image that says a lot about man's devotion to beast.


This really isn’t a difficult task once you know what you’re looking for. Essentially, what you want is to find that connection between man and animal—a smile on the face of a human and/or a lolling tongue coming out of the face of a dog. If you’ve lived with your pet for long enough, you know what his moods and emotions are and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t already be in tune with them. When you spot that moment, that sweet connection between a child and a cat or a woman and a dog, just make sure your camera is ready.

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  1. Roy Paterson says:

    Awesome photographs in all categories - can only rub off on me, many thanks.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.