If you're like most pet-owning photographers, you have close to a billion photographs of your favorite dog or cat. Well maybe not a billion exactly, but let's face it, your pet might actually be the most photographed pet in all the world. You've got pictures of him sleeping, you’ve got pictures of him sitting, you've got pictures of him standing around and you’ve got pictures of him just being generally adorable. But unless you've really spent some time thinking creatively about all the different ways you might be able to photograph him, the chances are you don't have many images that have that real “wow” factor, or the ability to really impress someone who doesn’t already know your pet well. In this article, I'm going to let you in on some secrets for fun and unusual pet portraits that aren't like anything you have in your current photo album. Read on to find out more.
Add some space
Now if you've read any of my other tips about pet photography, you've probably internalized the idea that you ought to try and fill the frame with your subject. And while this is still true, there are also lots of occasions when it's a good idea to hang back and let your subject’s environment help tell the story. Let's say that your dog is chasing a Frisbee. Instead of simply zooming in and trying to capture that action in a frame-filling way, consider lying on your back in the grass and capturing a zoomed-out shot of your dog framed against the blue sky. That image is going to tell a much more compelling story about how high your dog is willing to jump for that Frisbee, whereas a photo of him framed against the backyard fence won't say a whole lot except that your dog happens to be chasing a Frisbee in the backyard.
You can apply this technique to a lot of different situations—let’s say your dog is looking forward to his walk, and he’s sitting at the door patiently waiting for someone to open it. If you zoom in you might get a cute shot of his eager face, but zooming out is really going to provide some context. Framed against the door, your viewer will know exactly why your dog looks so eager, and that’s going to tell a better story.
Use a fisheye lens
Now let’s take the opposite approach. Instead of zooming out and including some of the environment, try zooming in—way in. You can use a fisheye lens to get as close as possible to your subject, and the result will be a fun, character-filled image like no other photo you have of your beloved pet. We've all seen images like these—they have the effect of exaggerating the size of the animal’s nose and minimizing more distant features such as the ears. This technique works especially well if your subject is a particularly jovial or fun-loving animal (grumpy cats, maybe not so much). Just remember that with a fisheye lens, you have to get very close to your subject in order to capture an interesting portrait of him, so an image like this one may take some time and patience to do well—especially if your pet is curious and decides to try nose-smearing your lens.
Capturing a bond
We like to take photos of animals on their own doing adorable things, but we often neglect to take photos that do a good job of capturing the bond that we feel with our animals. If you have children and pets, make sure you're seizing every opportunity to capture photos of them together. A child hugging or snuggling with her pet is always great for a photo, but you can even set something up by encouraging child and dog to engage in a game of fetch or a learn-to-sit session. And remember to capture the quiet moments as well—a photograph of a child looking into the eyes of his cat can make for a very powerful photo about the love between humans and their animals.
Photograph him the way you see him
Now, on the surface this seems to go against most of what you’ve heard about photographing animals—as with children, we are often advised to get down on the same level as our pets and shoot them from a pet’s-eye-view. This perspective helps your subject and your viewer to connect on a more personal level. But there are occasions when you’ll also want to capture your pet the way you see him, which is from the height of an adult human being. The next time your dog is looking endearingly up at you, waiting for a treat or a word of praise, snap a picture of him from that perspective. Because that's the way you’ll remember seeing him, that photo is going to continue to be meaningful to you in the years to come. And if your cat regularly does something like jump up on your bed first thing in the morning in the hope of an early breakfast, keep your camera on your nightstand and see if you can get some photos of her from that perspective.
Shoot the details
Animals have some really wonderful qualities that we don’t often pay much attention to at close range—wet noses, interesting patterns and colors in their fur, claws and paw pads, the shapes of their ears—these are all characteristics that deserve center stage in at least a few of your pet photos. If you have some trouble getting your pet to sit still for detail shots, you really only have to wait until nap time—most pets sleep a lot, and that’s the perfect time to sneak up on them and grab a few close-ups.
Find amazing light
If I had to guess, I’d say most pet photos are shot in one of two places—indoors or in the back yard. Those are your pet’s natural habitats, and the times when you think to take photos are typically going to be the times when you are at home together, just relaxing. So it may be that you’re just not paying a whole lot of attention to the light—you’re just shooting when the mood strikes you. But I know I don’t really have to tell you that that’s the wrong approach—like humans, animals deserve to have their photos taken in beautiful light.
In your home, you can find this light near a window. If you have a cat who loves to look out the window, wait until she’s doing just that before shooting a photo of her. And take advantage of that golden hour light—veiling glare isn’t just for weddings. Capture some images of your dog playing in the grass just before sunset, and see if you can also capture lens flare and/or that low-contrast, vintage quality that backlit images have at this time of the day.
Costumes (no really)
I know, you used to make fun of Aunt Mable and her overdressed Chihuahua, but today photos of costumed pets are all the rage. Try putting a cape on your puppy and see where that leads you. I can almost guarantee that after an hour or so of photographing Super Dog you’ll have some unbeatably funny and adorable shots to add to your scrapbook. The thing about costumes is that they inspire you to try other ideas that fit the theme—see if you can get your Super Dog to chase that Frisbee again, only this time cut the Frisbee out of the scene altogether. See where I’m going with that? Have him leap tall buildings (or dog houses) in a single bound. If you’re feeling really creative, try Photoshopping in some laser vision.
Jon Snow by Flickr user blinkbox Movies
You could go a lot further than just Super Dog, of course—think astronaut, Supreme Court justice, early 20th century pilot, Jon Snow from Game of Thrones—the possibilities are pretty endless. Just keep in mind that not all pets are going to be down with this idea. It’s probably not a great plan for most cats, and some dogs may find the process of being dressed up and photographed to be stressful. So always follow your pet’s cues and stop before you get to the point where he’s really not feeling very happy about what’s going on.
Let’s say you don’t really want to subject your pet to armor and fur robes, you can still change his environment enough to create a theme—while he sleeps, try surrounding him with armed Lego figures and throw a couple of ropes over him for a scene out of a Japanese monster movie. Or if that sounds a bit too elaborate for you, try just breaking out a bottle of bubbles. Some dogs will go nuts trying to chase and catch bubbles, and that can make for some great action shots (note: use a shutter speed of at least 1/500 to guarantee a sharp photo). But even if your dog doesn’t seem interested in those bubbles, they can still make for wonderful accents for your photograph.
As with people portraits, unusual and creative will always win over basic and conformist. Sure, a beautiful head shot of your dog is going to give your viewer (and you, in years to come) a classic look at your dog looking his best, but like those posed portraits of toddlers and teenagers, head shots don’t have much of a story to tell. Instead, go for capturing personality—or making your pet a character in your own fictional story. These are the photos that are guaranteed to always make you smile and think fondly about your beloved pet.
- Add some space
- Use a fisheye lens
- Capture a bond
- Photograph him the way you see him
- Shoot the details
- Find amazing light
- Consider costumes
- Use props
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