With a smartphone in every pocket, photo evidence that you have the cutest pet on the planet is just a click away. But there are photographers and there are photographers. We caught up with the professionals to show you how to smash your snapshot game.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Elke Vogelsang (@wieselblitz) on Apr 24, 2020 at 7:45am PDT
A post shared by Elke Vogelsang (@wieselblitz) on Apr 24, 2020 at 7:45am PDT
“Each and every one of my models has its own personality,” says Elke Vogelsang, who has photographed more than 100 breeds of dogs, worked for Pedigree and Fujifilm, and had her editorial photos in publications such as National Geographic and The Sunday Times Magazine. “With every individual you meet, you’ll learn a new trick. The energetic terrier might need action to really enjoy the session, while the sensitive sighthound might prefer a very calm environment and some super treats.” Bringing out the dog’s true personality will yield the most honest pet picture. Vogelsang advises using a long focal length for an elegant portrait, and a wide-angle lens for a comical, distorted portrait with a large nose and big eyes.
Emmy award-winning TV personality and photographer Mark Steines (Entertainment Tonight, Nat Geo’s WILD and more) also knows a thing or two about capturing personality. His best-selling picture book, Norbert’s Little Lessons For a Big Life features his family’s 3lb. registered therapy dog, philanthropist and social media influencer, Norbert, who has over 2 million followers across all platforms. Steines captures Norbert’s quirky personality and stuck-out tongue in all his photos.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by NORBERT (@norbertthedog) on Aug 4, 2019 at 1:51pm PDT
A post shared by NORBERT (@norbertthedog) on Aug 4, 2019 at 1:51pm PDT
Intricate shots require planning. Want a carefully staged setting? Want a snap of Scruffy all dressed up sitting next to a giant stuffed bear? Introduce props and new settings slowly. “You don’t want to intimidate the dog by plunking down a prop they’re not used to,” notes Steines. “Props need to be worked into the session in stages. “People don’t realize how much work needs to be done off camera before you even start shooting,” says Steines. That means ample time to sniff anything new, and trying on outfits or accessories (think hats and sunglasses) beforehand to make sure the dog will actually wear them without agitation. Also, take note of any sensitivities, be they textural or audible. “Norbert gets a bit freaked out by Velcro and snaps, so we work around that.”
And if you’re setting up a posed shot, take your time to get it right, before the pet steps in. That will keep the shot quick and minimize distraction or fatigue. Test shots are key. They might reveal you need to separate the pet from the background a bit, or wait till the light changes before you start shooting.
“Norbert actually has two life-size plush toys, so it’s easy to use those as stunt doubles,” says Steines about Norbert’s replica toys. “But you can plan with anything that is the same size as your pet.”
And if a situation doesn’t work, sometimes you just have to be flexible and rethink things. When photographing a nervous cat at her studio, pet photographer Ruth O’Leary of Ruthless Photos decided to bring her studio to the cat’s home instead. “Talk about a different cat, he could not have been more of a ham,” she said. “He even let us put clothes on him without scratching our eyes out!”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Professional Pet Photographer (@ruthlessphotos) on Mar 12, 2019 at 9:32pm PDT
A post shared by Professional Pet Photographer (@ruthlessphotos) on Mar 12, 2019 at 9:32pm PDT
They don’t call them puppy dog eyes for nothing! Focus on the eyes of your pet and you will get to his/her true essence. “Eyes are the windows of the soul,” stresses O’Leary. “Unless you’re specifically choosing to be artsy by focusing elsewhere, your pet pictures will look best if the eyes are sharp.” This means capturing the catchlight, which is a light source that causes a highlight on the eye. One tip to engage the eyes is to get close and personal. “Go down to eye level with the dog, or even a bit below,” adds O’Leary. “This, in combination with direct eye contact will lead to emotional, personal pictures.”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Professional Pet Photographer (@ruthlessphotos) on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:22pm PST
A post shared by Professional Pet Photographer (@ruthlessphotos) on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:22pm PST
The perked ear, doggie head tilt is so desirable, O’Leary is using the pose to launch her third dog rescue fundraiser coffee table book, “HUH?” (said in the voice of the Scooby Doo cartoon) featuring 100 dogs and puppies doing their best “what did you just say?” tilts.
Award-winning lifestyle, portrait and commercial animal photographer, author and rescue animal advocate Greg Murray also goes for the head tilt. “The best way to get one is to find out the dog’s favorite words,” he says. His dog Leo tilts to the words’ surprise’ and ‘grandma, grandpa,’ but every dog has its own word trigger. Prior to professional shoots, he has clients fill out questionnaires so he knows their favorite words, as well as favorite toys and treats.
It’s all about doing whatever it takes. “I’m never afraid of making a fool of myself in order to get a surprised or interested look from a dog,” says Vogelsang. “I do animal noises, whisper, squeak, whatever surprising sound I may come up with. I always start at low volume to not scare the dog. If the dog is too cool for this, I also have a variety of different sound-makers, which might cause a cute head tilt even from the most relaxed senior dog. And you don’t need to carry an arsenal of instruments to your photo session, either. There are noise apps on the phone to simulate kazoos, hunting whistles, flutes, etc. BarkCam, for example, features 15 different sounds including jingling keys, a doorbell and a cat’s meow to attract attention.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Wieselcats (@wieselcats) on May 25, 2016 at 10:10am PDT
A post shared by Wieselcats (@wieselcats) on May 25, 2016 at 10:10am PDT
Be strategic with what else is in the photo. “The background is very important, too, so make sure every element in your picture adds to your story,” advises Vogelsang. To avoid visual competition, however, less is usually more. Pick backgrounds and colors that highlight something unique in your pet, be it an eye color or fur texture. The regular portrait mode on iPhone works great to create the background blur that you see in a lot of professional photos, so even if you’re not in a studio with a professional camera, you can soften an outdoor background. And when it comes to composition or cropping, most photographers opt for centered, but doing otherwise can tell a story. Vogelsang suggests leaving more space in the direction of the gaze or movement to imply direction or an interest off camera.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Professional Pet Photographer (@ruthlessphotos) on Feb 20, 2019 at 9:22pm PST
A post shared by Professional Pet Photographer (@ruthlessphotos) on Feb 20, 2019 at 9:22pm PST
Some animals are just really active, and the best way to capture that is to grab them in action. “Freeze action by using the right camera settings,” says Vogelsang, who says to shoot fast pets with at least 1/1250s shutter speed for sharpness. For those without a professional camera, burst mode on a smartphone will offer lots of options from a moment of movement.
Pets won’t hold a pose indefinitely, if at all, so best to “grab it” however you can. If neither sounds nor toys nor treats interest your animal model, Vogelsang employs other tricks. “I pretend to throw a ball or play tug of war to release some energy, then stop the play abruptly to get my shot,” she says. “And my camera is relatively light-weight and handy, to make sure I can work with it in one hand and the treat or toy in the other.”
Action sessions also have another effect: a tuckered animal. “Many dogs start smiling toward the end of sessions when they’re a bit more tired,” notes Murray. “I may also run around in the studio with them to get the tongue out.”
Speaking of tired, it’s okay to celebrate that Dog Day Afternoon. For that perfect lazy day pet picture, grab them when they’re just waking up from a nap, all sleepy and cuddly, using your smartphone’s pet portrait mode if it has one. “This is the perfect ‘We made it to the weekend’ social media photo,” says Steines. “But if you’re getting them just waking up, make sure to be peaceful around them. You can’t just barge in and take their picture!”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Greg Murray (@thegregmurray) on May 5, 2020 at 4:43pm PDT
A post shared by Greg Murray (@thegregmurray) on May 5, 2020 at 4:43pm PDT
Not all pets are at ease having a camera in their face for their close up, so photographers must get creative. “In some cases, I’ll let the dog sniff my camera and take a treat off of it,” says Murray. “I’ve even put peanut butter on the lens hood if the dog seems uncomfortable with the camera being close.” (Peanut butter is Murray’s secret weapon and the magic behind his coffee table book Peanut Butter Dogs.)
A remote shutter switch is another good option to let you stand away from the camera to increase the animal’s comfort level. Whether plugged into the camera/phone or wireless, Steines suggests getting one with a silent shutter click if possible.
“If Norbert hears that shutter click, he thinks he’s done working and walks away!”
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