Get Your Pet Photo Ready with These Expert Tips
You look up from a book you’re reading to witness your large dog and small cat snuggling on the nearby dog bed—a picture-perfect moment.
Slowly, you edge toward your camera, and just as you turn around to start to snap the photo, you realize your dog is now standing right behind you wondering what you’re up to and your cat is nowhere in sight.
It’s a frustration many pet owners share: the desire to capture their adorable pets on camera but almost always falling short. Your dog won’t sit still, your cat refuses to look at the camera or any number of other things go wrong…and the moment is lost. But there are photographers out there who devote their careers to taking pictures of pets. How do they do it?
Orange County, California pet photographer Helen Thompson is one such expert, and here she shares her secrets to photographic success for your next dog or cat shoot.
The Honest Kitchen: How did pet photography become your specialty?
Helen Thompson: I started out as a newborn and child photographer six years ago, but when my husband and I adopted our first greyhound girl in 2013 I fell in love with photographing her. Gradually my photography assignments became all about pets and when connecting with the local dog community, I started to serve more and more pet-loving clients. After the sudden loss of our second greyhound girl, I truly realized the value of those beautiful memories and my purpose of capturing furry family members became even stronger.
THK: What are some do’s and don’ts of taking photos of dogs and cats?
Helen Thompson: Do respect the animal, they are living creatures with a soul, don’t try to force them to do things they don’t want to do or might not be capable of doing.
Do focus on positive reinforcement, don’t ever make the dog feel bad or even worse punish the dog if he/she doesn’t do what you want him/her to do.
Do take your time and be patient; don’t rush or stress. Most animals pick up on stress in a heartbeat and it will affect their behavior and expressions.
THK: What are some tips for pet owners who want to take a frame-able or at least decent photo of their dogs and/or cats?
Helen Thompson: Get down to their level. By photographing your dog or cat at their eye level, you’ll create a much better connection in the pictures. Yes, I do crawl on the ground a lot during photo sessions.
Vary the ways you try to get your pet’s attention. Change sounds, toys, and visuals frequently to keep it interesting.
If your dog is distracted by something else going on by the tree over there or by some noise outside, don’t try to get your furry friend’s attention. Instead, figure out what you can do about the distraction—e.g. move to another spot. This will save you some patience and you’ll have more tricks left in the bag when your dog is ready to listen to you.
Elevate your pet by using a chair or a large rock, for example, and they are more likely to stay in one spot—baskets are great for cats—but remember: safety first. Make sure your pet can’t hurt himself/herself if he/she jumps down.
If your dog is obsessed with balls or treats, don’t use them. In this case the ball and treat are no longer rewards, but instead creates tension. You want to avoid that frantic look and drooling mouth—unless that drooling mouth is what you aim to capture, of course.
Teach your dog to associate your camera with good things. Depending on your dog and type of camera, your furry friend might not like being photographed at all. This can be due to the sound, size, and/or position of your camera. You might have to start out by giving your dog a treat as a reward for even being around your camera. First put it on the floor and give a treat when your dog goes near it (practice this a few times). Then put a treat right next to/on the camera and let your dog take it (practice a few times). Continue with having your dog near you and give him/her a treat when you click the shutter. This practice is not needed for every dog, but might be helpful if your dog doesn’t like to be photographed.
THK: Do you suggest any other photo prep?
Helen Thompson: If needed, make sure your pet is groomed. However, I generally recommend avoiding grooming the day of the photo session, as many dogs get tired after having been at the groomer.
THK: What are some tips for pet owners to get their dog and/or cat ready for a pro photographer like yourself?
Helen Thompson: I always meet my clients for a consultation prior to the photo session, to get to know them and their pet(s) and provide some helpful information on how to prepare and what to expect on the big day. Most likely different pet photographers have different preferences, but a couple of things I personally recommend most of the time are: Only feed your dog a small meal if any at all the day of the session to keep him/her motivated to work for treats, and make sure to give your dog a good walk prior to the session to get rid of any built-up energy. With cats, my number one tip is to block off possible hiding places. If possible, it’s helpful to use only a confined area of your home for the session.
THK: What are some techniques you use to relax pets, keep their attention, and keep them from not moving around during shoots?
Helen Thompson: I make sure to start off slow. Usually the pet has met me once already during the consultation, but I still make sure they are completely comfortable around me before we start. In the consultation I’ve learned what the pet tends to respond well to—e.g. sounds, visuals, treats, etc.—so that’s what I base my tricks on. For sounds I make up unique ones that the dog has probably never heard before. One of my dear friends helped me out at a pet photo event once and at first she didn’t realize the sounds came from my mouth. I also have a special squeaker, which turned out to work great with most dogs. Outdoors, dogs are on leashes, which helps avoid too much running around. The leashes are removed in retouching and not visible in the final portraits. Indoors, I find out where the pet is comfortable and try to work in those areas of the home.
THK: Are most of the pets you see anxious in front of the camera?
Helen Thompson: Not during my private photo sessions, except for some dogs that don’t like the studio strobes when we do studio-style sessions. It all comes back to preparations and working with the pet’s individual traits and personality. During photo events I’ve seen dogs be nervous though. I’ve done a number of events at public locations and sometimes it can be challenging with all different types of distractions and scents around us and with very limited time to build rapport and ease into the photo session. In those cases, positive reinforcement and treats are even more important.
THK: How do dogs and cats differ in front of a camera?
Helen Thompson: Cats and dogs are very different in front of the camera. I’ve found that you can work more easily with dogs even if they are not trained, while cats decide how they want to work with you. On the other hand, at least the cats I’ve photographed so far, have been looking at the camera much longer than most dogs do, which gives me as the pet photographer the opportunity to try different compositions more easily.