Digital SLR Photography

7 Creative Ideas For Great Pet Portraits

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

1. Capture classic behaviour

The one thing you can guarantee with pets are the idiosyncrasies in their behaviour that bring pleasure to their owners on a daily basis. Whether it's the way a cat's curiosity can be guaranteed to see it trespass into boxes, cupboards or bags, or the way you can be sure your dog will sleep in a comical position or stare wide-eyed at you as you eat, there are plenty of ways you can capture cute and insightful images of your pet.

Because you know how your pet will react to certain stimuli or situations, you can set up some shots and wait for your pet to take the bait. Whether it's by having someone hold a ball of wool out of frame so your cat reaches up for it, or being more direct and placing them in an empty box and shooting them peering out, cute shots are relatively easy to achieve. Just remember to work fast and reward them for their cooperation!

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2 Catch ‘em young

As adorable as most pets are, it doesn't come close to matching their cuteness when in their early stages of life. Whether it's a kitten, puppy or baby-bunny, their small bodies, oversized eyes, ears and paws and general 'hugability' makes them the ultimate subjects for pet photographers. Use their scale to your advantage by including them small in the frame to highlight their size and vulnerability in the big bad world, or place them close to an adult animal for a strong and appealing contrast. Also, take full advantage of how much easier they are to manipulate and handle by capturing fun shots such as dressing them up, placing them in props such as flower pots, Doctor Martens boots or any other suitable object that adds to the 'aww' factor. Also be sure to try some frame-filling close-ups of their faces, as their huge eyes, looking straight at the lens, can lead to incredibly powerful portraits.

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3 Isolate your subject

If you want to capture a striking image of your pet in a way you've most likely never tried before, then why not place them in a clean, white environment. While it might look a little alien at first, the setting allows you to focus full attention on your subject. If you're photographing small pets like rabbits, tortoises, lizards or hamsters, a light tent is all you need, while for larger pets, a white background roll is the most practical solution. Whichever you go for, you'll find LED light panels or studioflash is the best option. Keep it simple and use two lights, angled at 45° and placed either side of the subject, to give a clean, even light that reveals the texture of your subject's fur, features or scales. A standard zoom should be suitable for all but the smallest subjects, in which case a macro lens is the best choice.

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4 Get down to their level

We're used to seeing our pets from the same viewpoint: our head height, so a good way to capture an unusual image of your pet is to shoot them from a different perspective. The easiest option here is to get down low
so that you're on their eye-level, or you could even lie on the ground looking upwards at your subject for a really different perspective! A camera with a vari-angle LCD monitor, like the Nikon D5600, is ideal for capturing this kind of image, as you can place the camera close to ground-level and use LiveView to compose the image without getting down and dirty yourself. Get in close and use the wider end of your standard zoom to capture a moderately wide-angle perspective. Another option is to shoot from up high, looking directly down at your subject – standing on a wall, ladder or in a tree with your pet below can give an alternative view too – just be careful!

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5 Wacky wide-angles

While we'll normally work towards capturing the most flattering images possible of our pets, never pass up the opportunity to create something a little more light-hearted whenever possible. Getting in close with a wide-angle lens, or better still an ultra wide-angle like the NIKKOR AF-S 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G DX, allows you to distort your pet's features to produce fun and eye-catching results. For dogs with long snouts, this can be particularly effective, as the nose will look disproportionately large compared to the rest of the face and the body. The technique works well too with pets with flat faces. Try different angles and get in close to make the most of the distortion that is created. We'd suggest setting the lens to manual focus and using it at minimum focus, then selecting a mid-aperture of f/8 to give extensive depth-of-field. Keep the creature central in the frame for the best results, get as close as you can, have lots of treats to hand and have some fun capturing wacky results! Just watch for snout marks on your lens!

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6 Highlight the family bond

Britain is a nation of pet lovers and the bond we have with our family pet is second only to that which we have with our parents, siblings and children (sometimes, it's even closer!). Viewing a cat or dog simply as an animal companion doesn't come close to describing the love and affection many owners share with their pets. Therefore, what better way of highlighting this unique bond than by capturing an evocative image revealing the relationship between human and beautiful beast. A person holding, standing or sitting with their pet is the most obvious way of doing this and a very successful one, especially when captured with carefully considered composition and framing. Look for other ideas too, such as pet and owner dozing or playing together, or some inter-species cuddling and affection. Use lighting to add mood – shoot during the magic hour and the warm, golden light can add an extra dollop of atmosphere and emotion. Needless to say, young people or animals guarantee additional cuteness.

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7 Watch the birdie!

The colourful plumage and svelt outlines of birds such as parrots, budgies and canaries means they are incredibly photogenic. If they're tame enough to be allowed outside of their enclosure, then capturing great images of them sat on the floor, on a table or even a person's head is relatively easy. However, what if they're always caged? Well, it's far more tricky to get decent results, as the bars will mess with the AF and will look awful in the shots, but it's not impossible to get good results. The key is to use manual focus to ensure the bird is sharp in the frame, then use as wide an aperture as possible to minimise depth-of-field and blur the bars. Shoot when the bird is central in the cage as the further from the bars it is, the easier it is to blur them. Place the cage near a window to increase light levels and consider placing coloured card or material behind the cage for a colourful backdrop.

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