I’ve been happily wearing through camera shutters with my pet portraits and pet stock photography for two years now, and I haven’t looked back once. Between my love of the animals, the joy I see in the owners as they gaze with pride at their pets’ new, in-print celebrity, and the bottom-line boost it has provided, I’m doing everything I can to optimize my small business and diversify my sales.
My goal is always the same: Have fun with it, love the subjects, and aim to please my client with a great, honest, emotive portrait. If you’re thinking of getting started in pet portraiture, those ideals are good goals—and the incentive is there, with the pet industry and related services still on the rise.
While pet portraiture may seem like an easy, fun thing to do, it is probably best explained as a combination of shooting weddings and kids. Things move quickly and rarely in the direction you expect. It’s a perilous environment for your equipment, too. Lights get knocked over, accidents happen on the backdrop, and props rarely survive more than a few sittings. I won’t tell you what happened to one of my favorite Tenba bags. . .
The pet photographer has to be prepared to shoot anything from a lovebird to a St. Bernard, offering fur and feather that span the full tonal range, and behaviors that range from perfect manners to pure insanity. It’s not for everyone.
Getting into pet photography was an accident for me. The “accident” started when, with no human models to assist me with my portrait lighting practice and experimentation, I persuaded my dog to step onto my set. It was there that I found that getting the right amount of specular highlights in the fur, and an attractive catch light in well-lit, colorful eyes, made a pretty big difference in the portrait’s outcome. I continued to play with the lighting formulas, adjusting to the smaller-than-usual, furry subject, until I found I had some looks I loved—looks different from what I had seen in the local photography market.
Making that difference by separating yourself from the crowd is key. Since I approached pet photography a little unconventionally—going back to review what else was out there in the genre after having a fun time making and refining the portraits—I set my course already knowing what was happening locally. I knew I disliked the forced poses against cheesy blue backdrops. I also knew I didn’t enjoy shooting photos of pets—or people— being told to sit and stay, with the animal’s ears skinned against its head in fright.
Instead, I often shoot for the classic looks I try to create with my children’s portraits. I want Rembrandt lighting and coordinated, accenting color palettes. I want edge lighting to separate the subject from the background. I want character, and I want to draw an emotional response with the prints headed for my client’s walls or magazine and book pages.
Note that some pets do just sit and stay on their own, and when they do, it’s wonderful. It looks natural, and I know the animals aren’t getting stressed out. Their comfort is a high priority with me. This lets me go after the quizzical look, the panting smile, or the somber, discerning gaze. I go after what’s sure to be recognized as a familiar expression to the owner. Pets can’t hide their emotions, and anyone that’s spent any time with animals can read it in the final photographic print.
Wagging the Dog
Looking at the prospect of a business based on pet photography, I knew I’d have the most fun shooting when the pet is having fun, and when the owner is thrilled with the results. This mood spreads to everyone at the shoot. The challenge is encouraging and capturing the natural fun-loving behaviors in a studio setting, or in a home setting with gear everywhere, creating interesting compositions, which, hopefully, appeal to any viewer, not just the pet owner.
Finding a connection, a spark, between the subject and the lens is the goal of most portrait photographers, whether the subject has two legs, four legs, or feathers. It’s all about getting down and dirty to play a little, and evoking a mood from the pets—particularly the dogs. Greeting them as enthusiastically as you greet their owner, and setting a mood or pace is integral to a successful shoot.
More than once while I’ve been packing up, an owner has remarked, “It’s obvious you love what you’re doing,” commenting on the fun and smiles shared with the pet, the questions I’ve asked about them, and the praise I’ve lavished on them throughout the process. Really, this is something every living subject I photograph needs to hear and feel from me. It makes an incredible difference across the board—but I know for certain it comes through with animals, who make no attempt to hide how they’re feeling during the shoot.
So, as a pet photographer, it’s not just important, but absolutely essential to have an understanding of animal behavior and the unique relationship between pets and their humans. Without that, all a photographer can hope for is a technically well-executed snapshot.
Keeping the Big Dog in Mind
Rapport with my client is also important to a pet portrait’s success, so keeping my audience in mind is integral to the shoot coming off without a hitch. I don’t enter a client’s home with any presumptions, having discussed our goal prior to arrival. We’ve already talked about mood, some items to have nearby that might help the pet be more comfortable, and rooms that might be most appropriate for us to shoot in, keeping the light, colors, furniture, and gear clutter in mind. I use only Nikon Speedlights in modifiers now, as they’re light-on-the-go and don’t break when taking a tumble.
During the preshoot consultation or booking, I’ll always ask a client to rate the dog’s obedience for me, on a scale of 1 to 10. If the pup cannot hold a “sit” or “stay,” I’ll describe a general training exercise or two they’ll want to practice at least a few days prior to my arrival, so we can keep Fido still long enough to photograph. This practice grew from the one time I couldn’t get a subject to stop bouncing off the walls!