The scene: My 13-year-old Maltese is snuggling on my bed with three cats nearly double her size, all within a paw’s reach. Before I have time to grab my iPhone to capture this adorable moment, the quartet breaks up.
Most pet owners can relate, and if you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance your camera roll is brimming with thousands of photos of your furry friend, a few of them winners, but many a big, fat, blurry failure. But that doesn’t have to be the case. We asked pet photographers and animal pros to weigh in with their best tips for capturing your dog or cat. Here’s what they recommend.
Give your dog a workout before the photo shoot
Photographing any moving subject is tricky even for pros, and Callie Jennings, a canine coach who helps humans better understand their dogs’ needs, says your best bet for getting quality photos is providing appropriate exercise for your animal before any attempt.
“A calm mind leads to a calm body,” says Jennings, owner of Nashville training company Dog Vegas. “Give yourself time before the session to allow your dog to explore all the stimuli so they’re able to better focus when you need them to be relaxed – especially if it’s a new place.”
Providing adequate “payments” in exchange for your pet’s attention helps tremendously, too, says Jennings. “Use a treat or reward to lure your dog into the desired position. Reward with high frequency to keep them in that spot,” she says. “And if the dog needs a break, be sure to allow one.”
Cats can be trickier to coach. But Jennings says using catnip blends with silver vine – a plant that produces a euphoric reaction in cats – can help them relax and increase your chances of holding their attention. You can find it sold in canisters, as well as in the form of chew sticks and toys.
“Couple that with a reinforcement like a lickable treat to keep them engaged, and you’ve got a good starting point,” she says. “Choose a time when your cat tends to be more active – waking them from a nap or interrupting window watching will likely not bode well for you.”
Desensitize your pet to the phone or camera
A long lens on a camera or even a bulky smartphone may be an oddity to your pet, so try to familiarize your animal with the device gradually. That way, they’ll be less likely to freak out when you want a shot on demand, Jennings says.
If you’re having your dog sit for a professional shoot, she points out that the sound of the equipment could also be scary. “Since sound is often a trigger for dogs, ask the photographer to hit the shutter button, then reward the dog. Repeat a few times until the dog loses interest in the camera,” she recommends.
Los Angeles photographer Sophie Gamand specializes in photographing shelter animals. She echoes the advice to ease into things. “You can help your dog get more comfortable with the camera by letting them sniff it, rewarding with treats, taking it slow,” she says.
Another tip Gamand suggests if you’re using a real camera is to skip shooting through the viewfinder, instead using its screen and making sure your pet can see your face the whole time as you shoot. “It can be scary for dogs (or cats) when we disappear behind our camera and all that’s left is a big black ‘eye’ (the lens) staring at them,” Gamand says.
Get the light right
If you’re the owner of a black dog or cat, you know how difficult it is to make your pet’s features stand out in a photo. But “catogropher” Nils Jacobi specializes in capturing the finer details of our dark-furred friends.
“If there’s one thing you can never have enough of when taking photos, it’s light,” says Jacobi, whose @FurryFritz TikTok account has more than 4 million followers. “If you have enough light, you can focus on working out the contrast. The easiest way is using a brighter background that makes the silhouette pop out.”
Don’t have your own professional studio rig? Not a problem. You can use a camera flashlight, ring light or a lamp to brighten the scene and illuminate your subject against a blank wall – just avoid direct sunlight; your subject should be in all shade. To light up the subject’s face, position the light in front of it. For a more artsy silhouette of your pet, place the light source directly behind the dog or cat.
Focus on the animal’s personality
Skip trying to elaborately pose your animal, instead opting for a more natural shot. Focus on your pet’s face and let their personality steer the shoot, Gamand advises. To do this, she recommends being gentle and giving the animal clear directions of what you expect from them.
“Dogs respond better to quieter, calmer sets. Once they’re in their spot, use a soft voice and whisper – or say their favorite word. It doesn’t take much to get their interest,” she says. But if something isn’t working, don’t force it. “There’s no point using the same command 20 times if your dog isn’t responding, or pushing treats under their nose if they won’t take them. Let them breathe, let them get comfortable and choose their own pace.”
Gamand adds that it’s particularly important for rescue organizations to learn to take quality photos of their animals, since the images are often the key to showing off a pet’s unique personality to adopters.
“Some dogs I have photographed were adopted … because someone fell in love based on one photograph,” she says.
Skip the props
Dressing up your animal in something they’re not familiar with is only going to result in stress – for your pet and for you. Instead, Gamand says, if you must accessorize, stick to items your animal is already comfortable with, like bandannas, collars or even a bow tie that feels similar to one of those. Skip anything elaborate, especially outfits that restrain their movements.
Pay attention to body language
Jennings says keeping a dog on a tight leash during a shoot can be confusing for the animal. Instead, it’s important to keep a loose leash and use a reward to lure your dog into the desired position.
“Making sure your dog is comfortable is a very critical component to getting a beautiful shot,” Jennings says. “We are looking for soft eyes, open mouth, ears forward, body soft … if your dog is rigid, showing the whites of their eyes, ears pinned back, mouth tightly closed, then take a minute to reset and reassure before continuing.”
With cats, says Jacobi, it’s crucial to allow them time to sniff out the scene before you start photographing them, as “their sense of smell is really important” to helping them get comfortable.
It’s just as vital for the person behind the camera to stay calm, too. Maintain a peaceful demeanor and relaxed body language to signal to your subject that there’s nothing to worry about.
Make use of your iPhone’s capabilities
Learning the ins and outs of your phone’s camera can go a long way toward letting you capture those unexpected, even chaotic moments.
“IPhone’s live photos are my favorites. You can easily turn those into videos, GIFs or boomerangs, using your phone or an app,” Gamand says. “Since they capture a couple seconds – a bit before and after you take the photo – you can also edit them in your phone so that you can choose which image should be the main one. It’s great for not missing the perfect shot.”
Similarly, setting your phone to burst mode lets you capture multiple frames within the same scene, so you can select the most flattering shot of your pet later on. And if you’re lucky enough to have an animal that’s a pro at sitting still, try enabling portrait mode, just as you would while photographing a human friend, for a more professional look.