Never work with children or animals. It’s an old and well-worn showbiz adage, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it applies to photography too, since both species are prone to getting up and peering into the lens while you’re trying to find the right focus.
But we’ve discovered that photographing kids is actually fairly easy, and lots of fun too, and there’s no real reason why you can’t also take great pictures of animals. With just a few good shots of your family and the family pets, you can make a cute photo calendar for a Christmas present, or a nostalgic album that will give pleasure for years to come.
Wait until they’re awake
This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, your pet is unlikely to run away from the camera while it’s sleeping! But – yawn – photographs of sleeping animals can look rather average, especially if they’ve curled up into an amorphous ball of fur. Even if they’re stretched out, they can often come out looking like just another internet meme. You’re more likely to get a good picture if you capture them doing something, eyes open and engaged with the world. The exception here is if they’re sleeping in a particularly endearing position, in a visually interesting, well-lit place, like the flower-bed, or framed by a sunshine-filled window.
Let them get used to the camera
Chances are, the moment you take out your camera, your pet will want to sniff it, rub its scent glands on it… or s/he may become disconcerted, and walk away. Let them deal with the camera however they want to, but keep it out and wait until they’re distracted by something (or someone) else.
Forget anything but great light
Quite apart from the fact that using a flash may startle your pet, if not send him shooting off to hide in the airing cupboard for the rest of the afternoon, it will probably cause red-eye – never a good look. Photographs taken with a flash can often look washed out and stark, too, whereas natural sunshine will bring out all the beautiful colours in your pet’s fur and eyes.
Choose the right background
If your pet is a dark colour, it may be harder to get the perfect shot. Make sure your background is light and bright, and that there is lots of light falling on the animal (outdoors is ideal). The opposite doesn’t necessarily work if your pet is a light colour – putting them against a dark background may result in quite a dull photo. Colourful backgrounds – think sunlit grass, or against a warm red brick wall – will provide contrast without looking stark. Mirrors can work well, providing you can keep yourself out of the shot. For all animals, try and find a background that is not too visually busy, since other items may distract the viewer’s eye from your pet. Using a macro setting can ensure your pet is in focus while everything behind him is a soft haze of colour.
…on their level. A shot of your dog from your head-height may looking boringly familiar to another human, who has often seen dogs from this angle. A dog’s eye view will be much more interesting.
Fill the frame
This is not a rule so much as a guideline – you may well spot a great photo opportunity when your pet is further away, but it does need to be visually arresting in order to look better than average. Imagine your dog silhouetted against the sky on top of the hill – that sort of thing may work. But picture your cat ferreting about in the undergrowth at the end of your garden, and you have a photograph of your garden, with a cat in it – not a portrait of your cat. Instead, frame the photo so that your pet fills most of the picture, and is the main subject in focus.
Employ an assistant
This may occur naturally – a pigeon on the window ledge outside, for example, can be ideal for attraction your cat’s attention while you snap endless action shots of primal hunting behaviour! But pigeons are not always available, so you may find a human assistant is necessary to distract your pet. Obedient dogs can be given commands, while a drowsy cat can perk up and make big photogenic saucer eyes at bubbles or a laser pointer on the wall. Alternatively, the assistant can become part of the picture, gently holding (don’t restrain the pet if she wants to get down – a picture of a struggling cat does not make a nice portrait) or interacting in a way that keeps the pet in one easily photographed place.
Climb on chairs, roll on the ground, give your pet different objects to play with while you take lots of pictures – the more you take, and from different angles and directions, the more likely you are to end up with some great photographs of your pet.