There's no doubt that you love your pet, and if you had to say why, I know you could come up with a myriad of different reasons. And I’d bet money that one of those reasons would be "his personality
We love our pets in part because their fun and funny personalities make us smile, and because in a world of furry faces each animal is his own unique individual. So although you may have hundreds of portrait-style photographs of your pet, how many do you have that actually do a good job of letting your viewer know what his personality is like? If your answer is “not many,” then you need some strategies. Keep reading for my best tips on how to capture personality in your pet photos.
All animals, from the smallest mouse to the largest blue whale, exhibit personality in some way or another. Usually this can be seen in their behavior—cats like to chase bits of fluff around on the linoleum, for example, dogs will wait by the door for their people to come home, and hamsters will run in wheels. These behaviors are partly programmed by nature (a cat chases that bit of fluff to keep her hunting skills honed) and partly dependent entirely on that animal’s unique personality (a dog doesn’t wait at the door for his person to come home because nature told him to—he does it because he misses his person). Whatever the reason, it’s those behaviors that make the most compelling, most personality-filled photographs.
Now, the easy way to photograph your pet, of course, is to just wait until he’s sleeping. Pets sleep a lot, and those moments are really easy to capture because you don’t have to worry that he’s going to run off in the middle of the session or suddenly point his butt at you. We all know how adorable pets can be when they’re sleeping—but let’s face it, someone who doesn’t know your pet isn’t going to glean much about his personality from a photograph where he’s sound asleep. Unless, of course he looks like this when he sleeps:
And then I think you can probably stop reading.
Of course, most pets don’t look like that when they’re sleeping, they look just like every other dog or cat. And if that’s the case, you need to start thinking about how you might be able to photograph him instead at those moments when his personality is really shining through.
No one knows your pet better than you do, which means that no one is more uniquely qualified to capture personality-filled images of her than you are. You know when your cat is most likely to be interested in chasing around that ball of fluff, for example, and you know exactly which ball of fluff is going to entice her the most. That means you don’t have to wait around for her to start doing something adorable—you can take the lead.
If your dog likes to chase a stick, take him out into the backyard and have a helper throw a stick for him. Remember that pets at play move fast so use a fast shutter speed and put your camera in burst mode. Get down on his level—people find it easier to identify with animals when they view them eye-to-eye—and try to zoom in on his face, too, so you’ll capture a few shots of his expression. Chances are he's going to be really excited as he pounces on that stick and runs with it back to your helper. Make sure you're firing off a lot of pictures so that you have the best possible chance of capturing the one that really epitomizes the moment.
Animals don't really have a sense of humor, but they still do things that are pretty funny. If you have a puppy, for example, who’s a little bit too small to jump up on the couch or scramble up the steps, make sure you get your camera out during those moments when he is trying to scale those impossible heights. And don’t think that you need to wait for him to do something funny on his own—a Chihuahua can look pretty danged funny in a hat, and a cat can look absolutely hilariously annoyed in one.
But sometimes those spontaneous moments of humor are the ones you really want to capture with your camera, and the best way to do that is to be ready for them. You can’t always know when they’re going to happen—sure, you can probably identify a few situations where your dog is going to do something predictably funny (I used to know a dog who would regularly stalk his automatic waterer, waiting for that moment when it released some water so he could pounce on it). But most of those humorous moments are going to happen when you aren’t expecting them, so really the best way to ensure you get them on camera is to be alert.
Now fortunately, pets sleep a lot so I am not advocating hanging out by his side with your camera poised 24-7. But if you know that he likes to play first thing in the morning or that she is inspired to chase that ball of fluff just after dinner time, then have your camera ready at those times and just spend some time observing. Try to anticipate those funny moments and again, put your camera in burst mode so that you can capture unexpected action. Don’t wait for your cat to leap into the air and try to take a photo at just the right moment—you’ll miss it every time. Instead, try to start shooting before the moment happens, and don’t stop until after it’s over. That’s where good instincts, the ability to anticipate and your own understanding of your pet are going to come in handy.
Pets don't really have facial expressions in the same sense that human beings do. For example, cats don't really smile and a hamster can't look at you with an expression of barely-concealed exasperation. But they do have facial expressions in the sense that all animals can experience and express emotion. For example, a dog can express feelings of anger or surprise. I certainly don’t recommend making your dog angry just for the sake of a photograph, but you could get a surprised look out of him if you know him well enough. Try having someone clap loudly from the other side of the room or drop something large on the floor. Now, don't do this if your dog is afraid of loud and sudden noises, because you don't want to do anything that's going to upset him, but if he’s generally good natured and curious you should be able to get a good photo this way.
Dogs grin, too, and they can look eager (zoom in on his face while he’s anticipating that stick toss, for example). And cats are excellent at looking annoyed—let’s say your cat pins her ears at the approach of that certain tail-pulling member of the household (I won’t mention any names)—make sure you’re ready with a camera whenever the two of them are about to interact.
Zooming in on your pet’s face is generally a good strategy, but be aware that sometimes context is important, too. For example, if your dog is giving you that “I really hate baths” look, it's a good idea to zoom out a little bit so your viewer can see not only the expression on your dog’s face but the bubbles and bath water that have provoked that expression. If your child is washing your dog, it might also be a good idea to include your child in the photograph, too.
But as a general rule, if the context doesn’t support the expression on your pet’s face, you don't need to include it. Think carefully about what’s happening in the scene and what’s that compelling your pet to look the way he does, and then decide whether or not you need to include some additional information. If the surroundings are not adding anything to the photo then leave them out—it's generally better to zoom in and capture as much of your pet’s face as possible unless there is a truly compelling reason for including context.
Like I said, no one knows your pet as well as you do, so the next time you decide you would like to take pictures of him, have some patience and spend some time down there on the ground with him, encouraging him to engage in behaviors that really show his personality. Giving your pet a favorite toy to play with is one great way to capture those personality-filled photos, but perhaps most important all of all is your willingness to wait for the perfect moment to happen. Again, make sure you're in burst mode and make sure that you try your best to anticipate the action. Shoot as many frames as possible so you will give yourself the best possible chance at capturing a personality-filled image of the pet you love.
- Capture specific behaviors
- Encourage play
- Use a fast shutter speed
- Look for funny moments
- Look for meaningful facial expressions
- Include context
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