Sit. Roll Over. Now Smile: Holiday Pet Portraits and Beyond

Every pet owner would love to take a photograph that shows off the truly wonderful characteristics of their furry family member, to capture the moment that best exhibits the playful, lovable, or simply beautiful nature of the beast who means so much to them. Needless to say, getting that shot is not so easy. Animals rarely tilt their heads a bit to the right on your command, and like the most temperamental of supermodels, they may just walk right off the set without so much as a moment’s notice.

I would think that, unless you’re William Wegman or have an animal trained for just such a photographic exercise (they do exist), the best way to get a great shot of your beastie is on their terms. Try to get them to do what they do best, just being themselves. Be ready and catch that moment. This will serve two important purposes. You’ll probably get the shot of them doing what you love about them most and you won’t drive yourself batty in the pursuit of that perfectly posed moment. Of course, there are many gorgeous photos of pets that are organized, posed, and impeccably lit, and we will talk about those shots too, but for starters, let’s address the whens and hows of capturing the unscripted awesomeness of your animal while also touching upon gear ideas that will help to make these photos better and easier.

The first rule to getting a good photo of your pet is to always have your camera handy, charged up, and ready. Seems obvious, but there’s no other way. When people tell me (and they often do), “You know, your camera is on,” I usually respond, “How else am I going to take a picture?” The point is, if your camera is in the closet, out of batteries, or the memory card is full, you’re not going to get the shot of Mittens stretching gracefully in the sun and you’re certainly not going to get her to “do it again, exactly the same way.” Simply being prepared for that spontaneous moment is probably the most important thing you can do to get a nice pet photo. And with the holidays coming up and a family-themed holiday card in the works, start now by breaking the camera out of its case and keeping it handy.

A second rule of thumb would be to photograph what it is that makes your canine, feline, or equine friend unique. Is it their beautiful eyes, the funny way they lift their ears, how high they jump? If this is not so obvious, think about what it is that makes them so special to you. What is it you love most about Fido, Fluffy, or Flicka? Go for that.

In terms of actually planning out a shot without getting too formal, the best thing to do is to go to where your critter is most comfortable, possibly their resting spot, favorite window, or place they play most frequently, even if it’s under a bed. Let them be themselves, play with their toys, get familiar with the camera, even sniff it and nuzzle it. With a wide-angle lens this, in itself, could make for a nice shot of your dog coming close to sniff the lens, but in general the idea is to have a calm time to shoot, in which you can be patient and your pet will be comfortable. Don’t try to get the shot in one take—shoot as many as you need to get the one you want. Indeed, many great portraits were taken while the animal was asleep. Curled in funny positions or with odd expressions, a sleeping pet is a happy one, and this could be a characteristic shot. Don’t forget that the way a cat or dog yawns and stretches is also a nice moment.

However, in the instances when your mascot is awake and in a familiar spot, introduce a favorite toy or treat or even some catnip to get them frisky and to keep them from simply walking over to the food bowl. Another advantage of going to your pet at its favorite spot is that you will usually be down, on or near the ground, at their eye level and able to focus directly on their eyes. As when you're photographing people, focusing on the eyes is of utmost importance to show off character as well as to simply having a technically well-shot image. A favorite image of mine is of my sister’s dog chewing on a shoe. I took the shot with the camera resting on the floor and the dog just happened to give me the most satisfied look of guilty pleasure. Other nice tricks would be to set your animal on a large mirror to work with the reflection or even on top of a glass table and shoot from underneath. Also, and especially with cats, a shot peering out from under a bed or from inside a cardboard box are usually winners.

Another point to remember, of course, is lighting. If your dog likes to sleep in the basement, you may be out of luck, but I would suggest finding a spot that offers sufficient natural sunlight, perhaps a bit diffused on a cloudy day. Light coming in from a window is fine unless it is too strong and creates bright spots with strong shadows. Introducing a flash into the equation is fine and can help to freeze movement for sharpness, but be sure not to fire directly into their little faces, as it will mostly likely overexpose the image or create red-eye (or the equivalent green-eye or gold-eye in animals).

Also, animal fur is notoriously hard to expose for, and flash lighting (or any strong light) may make the sheen of black fur appear gray or white. Bounce the flash upward off a low ceiling for a simple solution, and if using a camera with only a built-in flash, it may be best to avoid it altogether and find natural or a constant light source with which the animal is familiar. With light coming in from a window, you can work with the shadow it creates to emphasize one side of their face, or use a piece of white board or an inexpensive collapsible reflector to bounce the light for a more balanced image. As with everything else, it helps to experiment and be creative. Think about lighting (even with a regular desk lamp) from behind to create a silhouette or to emphasize the animal’s hair or whiskers. One thought, especially around the holidays, is to have your pet sit on or near a string of holiday lights, which will create a dappled effect, make reflections in its eyes and create nice out-of-focus points of light in the background.

If possible, when attempting this type of organized, if not fully posed shot, it is ideal to have someone there to help. On film and high-end photo shoots, there is always at least one animal “wrangler” (or several), whose sole job is to have the animal talent cared for and ready for their take. It is a difficult, often pressured-filled and thankless job, but utterly essential if you want to have critters in your movie. In the case of a more simple shot, it will help immensely to have someone else distract and pose your pet while you manage the camera. It’s hard, but not impossible, to do both at the same time.

One thought, if you are shooting solo, is to support the camera on a tripod and use a remote control to release the shutter. Tripods vary greatly in price, but numerous affordable tripod models with integrated heads are available. The disadvantage of tripods, of course, is they lack quick mobility, so if you have an animal that is prone to wander, a tripod might mean more frustration than benefit. Remote controls also come in a wide range of types and prices and since more and more cameras feature built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, it is increasingly easy to use your smartphone as a remote control for your camera.

Realistically, you can use any type of camera when shooting these casual shots, but I would recommend a camera in which you can control the shutter speed, because a slow shutter speed will be sure to cause blur with even the slightest movement by your subject—or you. Fortunately, almost all cameras today—other than the most inexpensive point-and-shoots—offer some degree of manual control to set shutter speed and aperture. A camera that provides RAW file capture is also a good idea if you need to adjust color and exposure after you have transferred your images to a computer. Again, it’s not necessary, but it does provide you with more options.

A wide-angle zoom lens may be the most obvious choice for a pet portrait, as you will need to be in close, and will want to be able to include head and body. The advantage of a zoom in this setting is that you will be able to quickly change focal lengths if your Rover decides to walk toward you or away. Of course, lens choice is a subjective decision and if you prefer to focus just on his face, a standard or portrait-length lens is fine. Long telephoto lenses can be tricky because you need to put distance between yourself and your furry friend, which would make it more difficult to control their action. However, a great deal can be said for just laying on the grass with a 200mm lens and letting your dog play while you shoot away.

A telephoto lens will compress space and has the advantage of shallow depth of field in which tight focus on a face will create a nicely out-of-focus background. Remember also that, when using wide-angle lenses, they tend to distort the subject, for example, making the snout seem longer than it really is. This may be something you want to experiment with and possibly emphasize for humor. Also, in general, prime (single focal length) lenses tend to be sharper than zoom lenses, so if you really want to have the highest image quality, you might consider a straight 35mm or 50mm lens. Other possibilities include macro lenses if you want to go for close-up details of eyes or whiskers or even a selective-focus lens, which I think is ideal for shooting pets. Selective-focus lenses, such as those made by Lensbaby, can place focus on your subject and nicely blur the rest of the frame. This adds an element of creativity to your shot while also placing emphasis on what you want to show off, namely, your pet’s face.

If speed and playfulness are among your animal’s best qualities, perhaps you want to move outside for a portrait. Lighting outside will almost certainly be taken care of by the sun and this, of course, is something to think on a bit. Do you want to use direct sunlight and shadow for effect or do you prefer the overall diffused light of a cloudy day? Always remember too, that the first hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are considered the "golden" or "magic" hours, because the light is warm and low on the horizon and the shadows are not harsh. It is an ideal time to get that shot of your dog catching a Frisbee, or your cat just soaking up the new day's warmth.

A great advantage of shooting outside is that you’re presented with an infinite number of location possibilities to bring out the best in your furry or feathered friend. Dog runs are great places to shoot, as your dog is usually happy and playful. However, if you love to bring your dog boating, photograph him on the bow of your schooner, or if skiing, in the snow. Don’t forget the ol’ standby of head hanging out of car window. Cats put themselves in all kinds of crazy places; get a shot of her in a tree or, if you’re into classic motivational posters, hanging from a branch—the point being, use locations that are meaningful and the photos will have more impact and longevity.

Regardless of what time of day you shoot, if you want to catch your pet playing or running, you will need to use fast shutter speeds of about 1/125-second or faster to freeze the action. A simple way to get a nice shot is to have your dog sprint back to you while you shoot straight at it from a dog’s-eye view. As mentioned, set the shutter speed high and shoot at the maximum continuous shooting speed and just keep firing until he returns. Repeat fetch if needed.

Or try the opposite approach and emphasize your pet’s speed by having it caught running through a background blur. This can be accomplished having your animal run across the frame and panning with (tracking) it until it is center frame and you are shooting at it perpendicularly. Shutter speed will depend on the lighting, focal length, and the speed of your animal, but set it somewhere between 1/40 and 1/125 so that you can freeze your subject and still blur the background and remember to start panning before you shoot and continue panning after, like a good follow-through of your tennis or golf swing. It will take more than one try but a shot of your dog or horse or even bunny suspended in stride with a blurred background is wonderful to behold.

A nice trick to try outside is to get your dog (or cat if you’re both adventurous) wet and shoot it as it shakes off the water. Because you will want to freeze the action of the water flying and the head rotating, fast shutter speeds and a fill flash is almost essential. Of course, if you have the space and synced lighting, you can try this indoors as well. If the shaking off water attempts don’t succeed, you can also try getting a humorous portrait of a wet animal looking none too pleased at your creative attempts.

Shooting more formally posed photographs is a whole other playground where creativity can be expressed with lighting, backgrounds, and even costumes. This being a holiday-themed article, it’s obvious to suggest dressing up your beagle with reindeer antlers, a festive vest or a bow, but of course this opens the door to endless costuming possibilities that match your pet’s—and more so, your—personality.

With a posed photo, the important technical factors are lighting and background. A lighting setup is often determined by budget, and as we are really speaking to you non-pros, a simple strobe kit with soft boxes is enough to achieve a crisp, shadow-free shot that stops movement, captures facial expressions, and feels three-dimensional. The idea behind a typical lighting setup is to get the flash off your camera and illuminate the subject evenly so that you don’t really sense the strong head-on blast of an on-camera flash, even though the light is clearly performing its function. A decision between a strobe flash kit and a constant light source should take into consideration several factors including the heat generated by constant lighting, and the light burst of a flash. If either of these is a major problem for your pal, then you should purchase accordingly, but in general, I would recommend strobes, which are cooler, safer, more flexible in terms of light output, and most importantly when shooting animals, provide fast shutter-speed syncing that freezes movement.

For a basic arrangement, place your two light sources at 45-degree angles to the front of your subject, with a neutral-colored infinity background and a stool or other platform placed several feet in front of the background. Your camera can be handheld, on a tripod, or on a monopod to balance stability and mobility, and placed another five to fifteen feet away. The strobes will be synced to your camera either wirelessly or via a cable. In these instances, assuming Patches will remain sitting, you should experiment with facial expressions, knowing that a fast shutter speed synced with your lights will clearly capture whatever face your four-legged friend puts on. Head tilts, licking tongues, moving ears, blinks, and yawns all make for fun photos. If you want your pet to stare straight at the camera, try getting their attention with a squeaky toy or other distraction. The key here, as before, is to be patient and experiment as much as your animal will allow. If you decide that you want to step up to the next level in terms of creative lighting, throw another light onto the backdrop or even a direct hair light from above.

Finally, including yourself or a family member in a portrait with your pet is a great idea, especially when creating holiday cards. Most pets are certainly cute in their own right, but it’s the interaction between you and your beloved beast that is most important to you and can really demonstrate the bond you share. If shooting a family member with your animal in a posed setting, the above lighting and background ideas still apply. Again, also consider going to the location most loved by you and your pet or simply getting down on the floor and playing. If you will be shooting yourself with your four-legged friend, needless to say, a tripod and remote are almost obligatory; however, you can always set the 10-second timer on your camera, grab your Santa hat and jump into the frame. No matter how you decide to photograph your pet, the simple rules of thumb are get close, get creative, and have fun.