How to take great portraits of your pets

Chip the Papillon. 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/4, 1/400, ISO 200.

1. Snap pets when they are sleepy and happy

Animals generally have somewhat predictable patterns of alertness and sleepiness. Like at 6am, they are usually wide awake. “Yap yap yap! Good Morning! I’m up, why aren’t you? ” Obviously, you don’t want to photograph a pet when they are rocketing around your living room or fast asleep. Try to find a time where they are fed, happy, and partially sleepy. That way they will be patient enough to sit and pose for you. Keep a few little treats in your pockets to keep that “happy-time” glimmer in their eyes or just to give you some extra snapping time.

2. Photograph pets at their eye level

Photos taken of animals from above are less personal and look very observational. If you want to show the personality of your fantastic pet, then you’ll have to shoot them at their eye-level. This often means crouching or lying down in some uncomfortable position in something wet, itchy, or hard, but it’s worth it. If you have smaller pets, you can prop them up on a pillow on a chair to make it a bit easier on your knees.

3. Find a simple, contrasting background

Use a simple background that contrasts with the colour of your pet’s fur, feathers, scales, tentacles (?) A grey cat against a grey wall will not stand out enough. Opt for a lighter colour to make your pet pop from the background.

4. Shoot in soft, even light

Indoors: Shoot in front of a big open window. Use a sheer curtain to diffuse the harsh light if it’s really sunny, or shoot a bit later in the day (about 1 hour before sunset). If you are getting a lot of shadow, use a bounce or a whiteboard to reflect light. Make sure you don’t blind your pet in the process. Meow!

Outdoors: Shoot in the shade or on a cloudy day. Make sure the light on your pet is consistent and not dappled. Harsh bits of sun mixed with shade never looks good and you can never really correct it in post. Avoid dappling! It can ruin the best of pictures.

5. Focus on the eyes

Whatever you do compositionally, make sure your focus on the eyes is tack sharp. It’s also nice if you can get the nose in focus as well. If you have sufficient light to increase your aperture, set it around f/5.6. If not, you can try using a tripod (depending on how patient your pet is), or try shooting your pet in profile.

If you have any other tips or tricks for photographing pets or any photos you’d like to share add them to the comments.

Good luck and remember to fill your pockets with tasty treats!

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  • Reply
    December 12, 2008 at 7:07 PM

    Does this work for children, too? Heehee.. I think I’m going to try it anyway ;-)

    Thanks for the awesome suggestions!

  • Reply
    December 12, 2008 at 7:33 PM

    Great jorb!

    Now I know why my good animal pictures are good and the bad ones are bad. Height is usually an issue for me.

  • Reply
    Jeremy Latham
    December 12, 2008 at 8:17 PM

    Great job Lisa. Erin seems to have it covered here too:

    Erin’s new dog Frank

  • Reply
    December 12, 2008 at 11:28 PM

    Nice tips! Can you teach us how to safely clean our image sensor? I am way too afraid…

  • Reply
    December 13, 2008 at 3:46 PM

    love the portrait! now i just wish i had a pet to take pictures of day after day… hmph.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2008 at 3:43 AM

    Here’s a pic of my lazy dog:

    And you’re right – take photos of your pets when they are sleepy… so much easier!

  • Reply
    December 15, 2008 at 4:38 PM

    Thanks for the post – I’m a new pet owner & only starting to get the hang of it.

    All my tagged puppy pix are .

    I pretty much started with this (puppy’s 1st portrait!), then this (a whole series of her when I’m on my laptop but none particularly great), then did this just last week

    I’m getting there …!

  • Reply
    Ray Medina
    December 15, 2008 at 6:16 PM

    These are tips work great for kids too… I never thought of photographing pets, especially in the same way…

    Thanks Lisa.

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    December 15, 2008 at 7:06 PM

    @Lis311: Definitely! Especially the treats. Those work with adults too :P

    @Jeremy Latham: She sure does! Gorgeous shots Erin!

    @Nate: Me too :S I’ll go first and let you know how it goes.

    @Mel: just borrow one from your neighbours!

    @Pallian: totally!

    @Pasquale: This plug-in is sixx.

    @kaye: Thanks for sharing! Keep trying new angles and different locations and you’ll get your magical shot!

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    December 15, 2008 at 7:07 PM

    @Ray Medina: you’re welcome!

  • Reply
    Roland Hulme
    December 16, 2008 at 2:07 PM

    Wonderful advice! Now just to get a pet…

    I will try these techniques on my wee boy, though!

  • Reply
    December 18, 2008 at 7:42 AM

    I love your blog. Fantastic. It has inspired me to try some new things on my blog. Thanks.

  • Reply
    December 24, 2008 at 3:21 AM

    To me, the photo up top tells me “don’t mess with me, I am the f-ing Batdog”.

  • Reply
    December 24, 2008 at 10:54 PM

    Your a great Photographer.
    I love taking pix of my Yorkie,and cats.

  • Reply
    Digital Photography Tips
    January 18, 2009 at 11:26 PM

    LOL cute picture

  • Reply
    January 5, 2010 at 11:39 AM

    Great advice. I just found your post, but I had previously written an article on photographing pets that mostly agrees with you:

    One additional tip which may sound stupidly obvious but a lot of people miss when photographing pets is to make sure to fill the frame with the face of the pet. There’s nothing worse than a tiny dog lost in a giant photo. The closer your can get to the pet, the better the photo will be.

  • Reply
    Mike Page
    March 21, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    I know this is an older article, but I made an interesting discovery while photographing my cats. If you are shooting in lower light with an increased aperture, f/5+, the “walking stick” style mono-pod works wonders. It’s not as stable as a tripod, but it increases stability a lot, and it’s quick enough to keep up with a pet that’s starting to get restless.

  • Reply
    Georg Panzer
    April 28, 2010 at 1:35 AM

    When I shoot my dog on Aperture priority, I often find that the camera uses shutter speed that does not fit well with the dogs fast movements. The shutter speed should not go below 1/200 even when the dog is sitting still, due to i.a. unpredictable head movements.

    Manual Mode with f/5.6 and 1/250 with auto ISO, could be a good camera setting.

    Also, it is my impression that the dark and furry pet fools both the spot and matrix metering. I always adjust the exposure with at least one stop when I shoot my dog.

  • Reply
    Chad Beisner
    January 8, 2011 at 1:52 PM

    I took this one of my dog today

  • Reply
    January 8, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    Snap! Yesterday’s #mostly365 was just that, these are great tips thanks Lisa.

  • Reply
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    […] Pets are often easier to shoot than most people. Plus, they whine less and can be bribed with snacks. Here are some tips to get great pet photos. […]

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