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How to Take Stunning Pet Portraits at Home

Take simple pet portraits at home while you’re self-isolating. All you need is a pet, a window, and some pet treats to grab their attention, then set your camera to aperture priority mode and work on your composition.

Look for the Light

My cat, Aurora, is sitting in front of the lamp here so I've deliberately underexposed the shot to capture a silhouette of her round, chubby face
The most important step to making a good pet portrait is the lighting. Photographing your pet with a bright lamp in the background may be a nice idea, but think about how this will affect your subject. Either you underexpose to reduce your pet to a silhouette, or overexpose to capture detail in the subject but lose background interest.

Position Your Pet Next to the Window

The north-facing window, camera-left, is cascading soft light across Aurora, giving texture and dimensionality to her soft fur.
Instead, it might be beneficial to encourage your little friend to sit next to a window. North-facing windows are ideal in the northern hemisphere because they produce soft, wrapping light all day long. Of course, other windows will work if it’s cloudy out. Position yourself and your pet so that the light pours from one side of the frame and across your subject’s face/body. This way the light and shadow produce dimensionality to the subject. 

Bonus tip: Having a hard time getting your pet to stay in one place? It might be a good idea to grab some treats and pop them down where you need your pet to be. Or use a toy if you want their eye contact.

Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode

Shooting in aperture priority mode means you can focus on choosing the depth of field while the camera adjusts shutter speed as light levels change.
The easiest way to shoot pet portraits at home is to let the camera do some of the work for you. For example, in aperture priority mode you can decide how much depth of field you want by dialing in the aperture, and the camera will decide on the shutter speed appropriate to record good exposure. For my main image I shot at f/1.4.

It’ll be relatively dark inside, so depending on your light levels you might want to switch on Auto-ISO or ramp it up to ISO 800 or more. That’ll ensure the shutter speed doesn’t drag, causing camera blur. Auto-ISO also has the added benefit of automatically adjusting exposure so you can concentrate on composition and focusing, while the camera produces a good exposure. If you want to under or overexpose a shot in aperture priority mode then use exposure compensation on your camera.

Auto-ISO adds another layer of automatic exposure to the shot, so you can concentrate on composition and focus. This is especially helpful when pets move between bright and dark spots or light levels change.

Focus on the Eyes

Lastly, it’s important to get the focus right. Focus on the eyes with your autofocus, or use face detection if your camera has this feature. You may want to use manual focus, but if your pet’s particularly fidgety this might be more difficult. Either way, you want to get good focus on the eyes — or if they’re side-on to the camera, focus on the closest eye.

Summary

  1. Shoot in aperture priority mode (Av mode on Canon)
  2. Position your pet next to the window for beautiful side light
  3. Use Auto-ISO or a high ISO to overcome camera shake blur
  4. Focus on the eyes, or the nearest eye to you
  5. Under or overexpose your shots intentionally with exposure compensation

We’d love to see your pet portraits so share your favorite images in the comments below with your best tip on how you got the shot. Or perhaps if you've tried the techniques above yourself, why not show us your results below to get some feedback?
 

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56 Comments

Chris Sampson's picture

There are times when you're near a special cat.
This is a Hemingway cat, from Key West.
It was so kind to let me take its photo.

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

Beautiful baby!! Love color bleeding of the teal. Its really pretty.

Chris Sampson's picture

I try to keep color grading to a minimum. Thank you Teresa.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Hi Hemingway! :D nice shot Chris

Chris Sampson's picture

Thank you Jason!

Julie Blichmann's picture

We're supposed to see them in June...but who knows now...😔

Chris Sampson's picture

I hope you do! We live just north of the Keys so its not hard to go visit for the weekend.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Good one!

ARNAUD HUYGENS's picture

1st step, steal the neighbor's pet (jk)

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

Now we are talking! Im a crazy cat lady at heart. Iv got 4 and they are the best little subjects ever. Beautiful and the perfect practice. These are 2 of my cats, Spud and Tessla.

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

She was moving non stop but, I was trying to play with the shadows the screendoor made on her and her eyes. Not sure if it shows up here though.

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

Thank you:) never know what details are lost when uploading.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Awesome! I can definitely see the little grid from the screen door across her face and eyes. Funnily enough, she looks very similar to my cat Aurora, above. Any idea what breed yours is? The closest I can find on google is a Brazilian street cat.

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

I have been trying to figure out what breed she is as well! My boyfriend thinks she might be a mix. She has a small hint of blue to her. Shes a crazy little lady haha

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

By the way, loving the names! Spud and Tessla. One is my favourite food, the other is my favourite scientist. Ah, Professor Spud.

Adriano Brigante's picture

I shoot a lot of portraits of my pets at home. Here are some of my favorites, all shot on film with various cameras (Olympus OM-1, Zorki-4, Konica Autoreflex T3), with various film stocks (Ilford Delta 100, Ilford FP4+ 125, Ilford HP5+ 400), all in manual mode and manual focus. I think the best tip I can give is to be very patient and have a camera ready to shoot the cool moments when they happen.

Adriano Brigante's picture

She's fine. She has a big bodyguard! :)

Alex Cooke's picture

Do you have a Puggle too!?

Adriano Brigante's picture

It's a Jug (Jack Russell x Pug).

Alex Cooke's picture

Adorable!!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Really lovely photos, Adriano. Especially love the ciaroscuro in the cat shots.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Thank you very much, Jason!

Ben Karlstrom's picture

Bear doesn't like guitars... or amps.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Funny, I've never not seen a cat run after a skylark! ;)

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

These are snapshots of my 3 dogs :) there are better photos, but I'm too lazy to go find them

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Oh my, I just want to fuss them all. Good dogs!

Deleted Account's picture

A twig for attention a vague idea and some luck.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

What excellent mimicry :)

Deleted Account's picture

Thank you Jason. Hope all is well with you in these times, take care.

Stephen Dietrich's picture

Just took a few snaps on the patio with my model. She's so easy to work with!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

She's smouldering #zoolander

Joshua Scott's picture

#BlueSteel

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

My sister's dog. The little things that makes her happy.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Very cute dog. Hell of a stick, too! It's more like a branch! Amazing. Love the depth of field in this.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Good tips, thanks! I also like doing photoworks color correction to make the shadows not so sharp. But now I have to ask he most important question: how do I make my cat sit quietly for some time? Seems like this mission is impossible, haha! When I'm trying to make a picture, I got something like this:

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

What a sweet kitty! I don't know about your cat, but mine sits nice and still after a big meal - a bit like lions do.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

I wish mine would do so! Instead he is about to sleep or lay like that waiting for me to pet him.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Awww. What you should do then is make sure he flops down next to the window, get a nice side light on him and go wide with your aperture or long with your lens. I'd probably shoot him on a telephoto, about 80mm or 100mm at f/2.8 (or as wide as your lens goes) and you'll get some lovely intimate portraits.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Yeah, sounds good, thanks! I'll try it.

steven christie's picture

Lexxi - Taken with a Fuji X-Pro1 and vintage manual Helios 44/M 50mm f2 lens.

Alexander Lobozzo's picture

Actually took this sitting in the car one day.... i was so excited to have a new lens that i couldn't even wait long enough to get out of the car before trying it out!

Emir Horozovic's picture

My dog George says hi to everyone. He's always willing to sit next to the window and pose. :)

Diane Bowen's picture

Diane Bowen- My cat Harry playfully having a roll on the carpet.

Alexander Lobozzo's picture

love it!

Dave Carhart's picture

Baxter waking up from a nap

Julie Blichmann's picture

My Blue Heeler, Astra (1 of 3 dogs) and Baby Kiki (1 of 4 cats)!

George McKeon's picture

This is my morkie Hashi (Japanese for chopsticks).

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

This thread got me all hyped to try another photo! Iv been playing around with cheap lighting I have around the house. This is the result of a moon lamp and light plastic hair clips. Have yet to edit them. No idea what id do.

Randy Lovelace's picture

Our newest family member, Zoey

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