Pet photography is both challenging and extremely rewarding. You may really enjoy taking pictures of your own pets but if you apply some of the general rules that apply to all pet photography with studio lighting, you can really help you up your game.
The key to all pet photography is to get what appears to be an emotional connection with the animal being photographed. If you don’t do that, all the photographs will look more like snapshots and less like portraits.
You do not need to be huge space but you do need some room to work. Ideally, a studio setup includes:
- A backdrop
- Elevated furniture or a platform
- Remote triggers
You will need enough space to get in front of the dog or cat such that the backdrop fills the background. You also need to consider that animals move and will not stay still in a very small confined area. Ideally, you need at least about 10 feet wide by about 25 feet depth. You will also need some space between your subject and the backdrop.
This arrangement will accommodate most pets except larger dogs. Large dogs need a lot more space. The larger they are, the more space you need. You also need to think about what they will be stepping on and if their paws are clean. Seamless paper is a great backdrop but is it not a great material for animals to step on as they leave footprints.
Be Prepared for Accidents
With any pet photography, you have to anticipate accidents. Appropriate cleaning supplies are a must. Be prepared for both #1 (urine) and #2 (feces) accidents. Dogs are much worse than cats. Older dogs tend to have fewer accidents than younger dogs, while puppies frequently have accidents.
If you are dealing with multiple animals (at different times), you need to also consider cross-contamination control measures. Good antiseptic cleaners with some bleach will work well. You will need cleaners with enzymes to break down pet urine for the occasional territory markers. Harder surfaces are easier to clean than soft surfaces.
Backdrops are useful and you can get creative with what you use. Seamless paper is a great option but you will go through it relatively fast and animals that walk on seamless paper will often scare themselves with the noise from the paper moving.
You also need to consider what the animals will stand or sit on. Melamine surfaces are great for flooring options but some animals don’t like being on melamine and the seams may need to be edited out in post-production if they are too visible.
Equip your space with lots of animal-specific toys and treats available and ready to reach. Cats and dogs are not interested in the same types of toys or treats. Always ask if an animal has allergies before giving them any treats or better yet, ask the owner to bring some treats that their pet likes.
Most modern digital camera equipment will work for pet photography but you need to think about a few things.
Ideally, your camera needs to focus fast, preferably with a reliable continuous autofocus ability. If you are using strobes, you will be focusing under lower lighting conditions than the eventual shot. Slow focusing or inability to shoot quickly will mean you miss the shot or have lots of images out of focus.
You have limited time, so you need to be cognizant of your animal. In general, you will need a wider lens (you should probably start with a fast zoom lens), particularly if you are using a smaller space but wider lenses can mean your image is wider than your backdrop. Long lenses will compress features but unless you have an assistant to help wrangle the animal, you will likely need to be close enough to reach the animal to do it yourself.
Lighting is key and unless you are looking at using continuous (LED) lighting, you will also need a reliable way to trigger your lights. In your space, you should be able to control your lighting to get the desired effect. If you are using strobes or speedlights, you need a way to trigger the flashes.
Radio controls (most expensive option) are significantly easier to use than either optical slaves (speedlights) or cables (tripping hazard). Make sure you are familiar with your equipment before the animal to be photographed shows up.
Basic Rules for All Pet Photography
There are a few basic rules for pet photography that apply to all types not just in the studio, but become more important when you have pets in your space. You generally have more control over your environment in the studio. Because you are in your own space, you can plan to address each item for the animal before they arrive and adapt your environment for the particular requirements of each animal.
Relax, pets feel your energy. If you are nervous or talk too much, they will feel it and become nervous as well. If you are calm, they will be calmer (NOTE: I did not say they would be calm).
Never assume a dog or cat will be calm, but you don’t want to make it more difficult for you for the pet. They can often be scared or anxious about new surroundings or that machine you keep putting up to your face between you and the animal.
Whatever you do, don’t yell or strike at the animals. They don’t speak languages you easily understand. Make sure you understand the warning signs from animals when they are nervous. With dogs, yawning is often a sign of anxiety and can be a warning just as it is with low growling. With cats, ears back is usually a sign of a cat feeling quite threatened.
Get to Their Level
It is really important for all pets, no matter what size and shape, that you get down to their level. You can take a few different approaches to this but in the end, you need to find a way to be at the eye level (not below) of the pet you are photographing.
Many beginning photographers take pictures of their pets from a standing position and after looking at their results, they can’t figure out why they are unsatisfied with their images. Getting to eye level is a relatively universal requirement for all animal photographs, not just for pets.
Getting to their level can either mean you go down to their eye height or they get up higher, closer to your height. The best thing to do is to get down and dirty at their level, particularly with larger animals.
But with smaller animals, you can also bring them up to a higher level with ottomans, tables, and chairs. With higher surfaces, you then need to worry about wrangling the animal so they don’t fall or jump off the table or chair. Puppies and kittens will often fall off tables.
Get Their Attention and Their Eyes
In order to connect with an animal, you need to be able to see their eyes and in particular the catchlights in their eyes. No eye contact means no connection, but you don’t only need the animal staring at you.
Animal eyes are shaped differently than human eyes so the catchlights will have a slightly different appearance than those in people’s eyes. There are two schools of thought regarding pet eye catchlights (i.e. one versus two catchlights). In human portraiture, typically it is taboo to have two catchlights in the eyes, but some pet photography works well with two catchlights because of the different eyeball shape.
Some pets may watch you when you photograph them but most don’t. Eye contact can be aggressive to them. In addition, as soon as you put the machine (camera) up to your face, you will no longer be visible to them. As soon as your face disappears, usually so does the animal’s attention. Getting an animal’s attention is usually a function of the type of animal.
For cats, laser pointers, toys, and strings can help focus their attention, treats less so. Some cats also will be focused on treats but this usually shouldn’t be your first choice. For dogs, squeakers, toys, and treats are always a good approach, so is making strange noises. But don’t give them the toy unless you want it in every shot. Again use treats as the last resort but they work well with many, but not all, dogs.
Different animals are motivated by different attention-getting devices. Treats will get them to move and often makes for interesting action shots, although I find treats work better for dogs than for cats. Remember to check for allergies before giving treats. Always use very small sized treats otherwise the animal will fill up on your treats and you will lose their attention.
Editor’s note: An even better idea is to get the owner to bring some treats that their pet likes, and which they approve of giving to their animal.
All pets have a limited attention span, typically 15 minutes is the maximum time you’ll get from start to finish. It is best to move quickly and try to get your best photographs early in the shoot because as time passes, the attention-getting-object, toy, or treat will wear thin and they will become disinterested.
Planning is the best way to set up and get the shot the way you want. So plan your shoots and think about how to best highlight the animal. Props sometimes work, like baskets for cats (above) or feather boas for dogs (below).
Keep the Speed Up
You need to set your shutter speed to something relatively quick. If you are using strobes or speedlights, you will need to use the best speed that works with your equipment.
With speedlights, you won’t be able to shoot in bursts because of the recharge or recycle time. Even with strobes, you need to ensure your strobes can take multiple shots in quick succession. Typically for studio work and strobes, a shutter speed of 1/160th or slightly faster is the limit of your camera (flash sync speeds vary, check your camera user manual).
Even if you are using continuous lighting you will need to get your shutter speed up just to freeze the image because animals can move quickly.
Use Continuous Tracking Focus
Pets move quickly, so focusing is tough, really tough. Single shot focusing regardless of how quick your camera focuses will likely mean that most of your shots will miss. Often after getting a focus lock, pets will move away from your focused location by the time you take the image.
Many modern cameras are now capable of tracking objects and focusing on moving targets. Continuous tracking allows for adjustments as the pets move. If your camera has continuous tracking focus you need to use it. Otherwise, most of your images will be out of focus.
Shoot in Short Quick Bursts
Spray and pray is generally a terrible way to take photographs. It usually implies a photographer didn’t take the time to set up a shot, but in the case of pet photography, it is usually the opposite.
As you are watching for the decisive moment, you take a short burst of images (provided your lighting can keep up) because you will likely have several images in a sequence that are good. However, with pet photography, judicious use of rapid-fire bursts can lead to stunning images. The secret is to anticipate the moment and get a good focus lock. I personally use back button focus specifically to hold the continuous focus independent from the image taking.
Tips and Tails
With pets, if you are taking an image of the entire body, you need to include the tips and tails of that animal. You want the entire animal within the frame. You can intentionally crop for a close up of their face, but you lose something if you are missing the tips of their ears or the end of their tail.
Missing body parts make for incomplete looking images. The best way to approach the images is to remember the catchphrase, “Tips and Tails”. Always try to get the tips of their ears and the end of their tail within the frame. In addition, the same basic rules for human portraiture also apply to pets, specifically for tighter shots where you should never crop an image on the subject’s joints.
Also, unlike humans, most pets have longer noses, so it is generally better if you get their entire face in focus. Wider apertures will end up with the nose out of focus which is much more noticeable with pet photography as opposed to human portraits.
Lighting in a studio means controlled lighting. Before you start using strobes, you will need to find out if the animal is sensitive to flashes. While strobes are the brightest lights available, that brightness can be a problem if the animals are sensitive and hate them or get easily startled.
The easiest way to see if they react negatively to the strobes is to manually fire the strobe while setting up before the animal is in place. It will be really obvious if the animal reacts to it. You’ll need a backup plan if they are scared of the flash.
Shooting in the studio allows you to control the light but you need to assess the best kind of lighting for your needs. There are generally three options, speedlights (the portable ones that go on the hot shoe on your camera), strobes (dedicate studio flashes that usually plug into an outlet), or continuous lights.
Strobes provide the most powerful lighting for the lowest cost but some animals are really sensitive to the flashes from strobes or speedlights. Continuous lighting has been really advancing lately but in order to be able to use them for pets, you need a fair bit of light to keep the shutter speed up. Continuous lights that are really bright are very expensive.
Lighting a pet in the studio is different than lighting people. Often you can light a person and get a decent image with only one light. You can create drama with shadows using long and short lighting techniques.
With pets, you are better off lighting them with a key and fill light in reasonably even proportions to one another with a much smaller difference in the intensity of the two lights (light ratio). Pet photography benefits from the super sharpness of being able to see all the details in a pet’s fur. Deep shadows tend to hide those details. Portraiture techniques such as butterfly lighting and Rembrandt lighting just don’t really work for pets.
A great lighting setup uses three medium softboxes: a key light and main light at 45-degrees on either side of the pet, and a hair light coming from above and behind the animal (see lighting diagram above).
Why? This set up works well because you can light the animal relatively evenly. Remember you are lighting an animal that is much shorter than you. Using this setup gives you room to get between the key and the fill light that are quite low to the ground. Generally the key and fill lights are centered about 4-5 feet off the ground.
The hair light provides some separation from the background and is generally not set at a high power. Separation is important, particularly if the animal has a dark coat and you have a dark background. I often use the key light at about 25% more light than the fill light, but the setup works even if the lights are close to the same power.
Using Strobes Usually Means Manual Mode
While there are TTL strobes available, they are quite pricey. Manually triggered strobes are readily available and can often be purchased used for very reasonable costs. In general, for pet photography, you can shoot entirely in manual mode with manually triggered strobes and get great results.
Because pet photography tends to use a simpler lighting setup, by using manually triggered strobes, once your lighting is set up you can simply focus on wrangling the animal and getting the best shots. The rule of flash or strobe photography is that shutter speed controls the background exposure and aperture controls the flash. In manual mode, you can set the power of the strobes and shoot.
When you are shooting with strobes, depending upon how expensive your strobes are, there can be a fair bit of range for color temperature from your lights. You want to ensure the only source of light is your strobes because other lights, including tungsten and fluorescent lights, will create a color cast and your image that is difficult to remove.
It is best to set up and do a gray card test before you start shooting to get your white balance right. You can either use a customized white balance for your camera or if you are shooting in RAW, you can manually adjust the images later in your RAW processing software.
Often letting your camera choose by using Automatic White Balance, with strobes means that the color will vary from image to image. Setting it ahead of time with a custom white balance or a gray card calibration means that you can focus on the image rather than changing white balance in your images. It means less processing work to do later as well.
Background Color Versus Animal Color
When you take pictures of animals it is always good to consider the dominant color of the animal’s coat relative to the background. It is best not to have the same color for both, although it can work out.
What this means is don’t use seamless white paper as a background for a white dog or a black background for a black cat. You need to be able to adapt on the fly and sometimes you can’t avoid it with animals that are mixed in the color of their coat (e.g. a black and white cat).
It is also good to ensure the color of the material that the animal is sitting on during the session works with the color of their coat and that of the background.
The last tip is a simple one but one that isn’t too obvious. When animals are stressed out they tend to shed. Animals get stressed when you photograph them. This means that there will be fur coming off them, sometimes in large amounts.
If you are using furniture to elevate an animal, just expect that their fur will get everywhere. Try to keep the furniture clean before you start and you may even want to touch it up as you go because removing the contrasting hairs from the furniture can be a tedious process in post-processing.
Studio shots of pet look awesome. With a bit of preparation, you can get high-quality images that show great drama and connection with the animal. The approach is the same as with any other animal photography but in the studio, you can control the light and the background much more allowing for better results.
If you have any questions for comments, feel free to drop me a comment below. Happy shooting!