Did you get a new camera for Christmas? Do you want to learn how to use it, but the cold winter weather is putting you off from going outside with it? Photographing your pet is a great way of practising your photography and learning how to use your camera. And who doesn't like cute animal pictures? For us animal lovers, our pets are another member of our family, so make sure you take photos of them! Here are my top ten tips for improving your pet photography (this post assumes you can set your camera manually):
1. Use a fast shutter speed - Our pets are not necessarily the most willing subjects in our photography. They don't take instruction and are easily distracted. They move without warning, so a fast shutter speed is required, in order to freeze any movement and avoid blur. I would advise something around 1/125 for photographing an animal that is sat down/in the house, but faster for, for example, a dog running outdoors. Unless you want to capture some motion blur, of course.
2. Use a wide aperture - Since you will be using a fast shutter speed, you will need to ensure enough light is hitting the sensor. Using a wide aperture will allow more light into the camera and will also enable you to use selective focus and achieve a nice bokeh (background blur), drawing attention to your subject. I'd recommend an aperture of around 2.8, although your lens may not have a maximum aperture this large. If not, use the largest aperture available (remember, larger aperture means smaller number!).
3. Use a high ISO - Depending on your shutter speed and aperture, and the available light, you may need to bump up your ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor). Photographers usually try and avoid this wherever possible, as it can reduce the quality of the image. However, modern digital cameras are quite capable of shooting at higher ISO levels without too much loss of quality and post processing software can be very effective at reducing digital noise. As such, don't be scared to increase this setting. I'd advise that you practice shooting with your camera at higher ISO settings, so that you can analyse the results and decide how far you are happy to push it.
4. Use continuous focus/Al Servo/Al Focus - As you pet is unlikely to sit still and pose, you may wish to use an autofocus mode which tracks your subject if it moves. Personally, I use an SLR camera with back button focus, in al servo mode. This way, I can press the focus button to lock in, but if my subject moves, I can hold the button to track. Play with the different modes on your camera and decide what works best for you. For best results, focus on the eyes (or the eye closest to you). This is especially important when using a wide aperture, as your focus will be shallow. It doesn't really matter if the ears are in focus, but if your pet's eyes are not in focus, your image will not really work.
5. Use window light - If you are shooting indoors, the light may not be brilliant. Although you can adapt your settings to the available light, it helps to think about the light in the room and which direction it is coming from, and how it is falling on your pet. If possible, place your pet next to the window, so that the natural light falls on them. Play around with positions... if there is strong sunlight coming in, you may get more pleasing results if you place your pet so that the light is coming in to their side, rather than directly to the front of them. If it is overcast, the light will be diffused, so it may work better to place them directly looking toward the window.
6. Turn off flash - On camera flash is very harsh, directional light and is generally not flattering. Additionally, it may startle your pet and will likely cause 'red eye' in your images. As such, I advise that you turn it off completely and work with the natural light available to you.
7. Get down to their level - Unless you have a great dane and are fairly short yourself, the chances are you will tower over your pet. Photographs of pets usually work best when you are on their level. So get comfortable on the floor - sit or lay down in front of your pet so that you are at eye level with them. Your images will instantly look better! Alternatively, if you are photographing a horse and you are short (like me), you may wish to consider using a step ladder (one of those small, two step ladders works well) to bring you up to their eye level.
8. Use treats - Photos of your pets are often most effective when you (or your lens) have eye contact with them. This, however, is not easy to achieve! A pretty fail safe method to get your pet to look at your camera is to use treats. Thinks about where you hold the treat, the closer to your lens the better, although you need to ensure that your enthusiastic pet doesn't end up licking your camera to get to the treat! Don't give them the treat until you have the shot that they want, otherwise they may not be so compliant once they have got what they want. If you don't want to use edible treats, a favourite toy held above your lens can work well too.
9. Think about the background - In photography, the background is as important as your subject. A busy background will distract from your subject, whereas a clean background will instantly make your image look more professional and focus the viewers eyes on your pet. Ideally, your background will be out of focus, but a plain background is still important. Try to photograph your pet against a plain wall, or you could even lay out a throw or sheet to create a backdrop. Try to position your pet at least a foot or two from the background though, as this will make an out of focus background easier to achieve.
10. Use props - Finally, to make your images more interesting, try photographing your pet with their favourite toy, or even wearing a hat/outfit (if you have an obliging pet!). There is no way in this world my cat would wear an outfit; he'd scratch my eyes out if I tried to dress him up! However, I know other pets are more tolerant than my cat. I wouldn't advise doing anything that makes your pet uncomfortable, but you know your own pet.
Have I missed anything? Let me know if you have other tips that you have found useful when working with animals. I'd also love to see some of your pet pictures!