I will start this article off by saying that I am not a pet photographer. I am a portrait photographer that typically captures humans for magazines and ads. However, a couple years ago I started a pit bull charity (Not A Bully) and it unexpectedly led me to some jobs photographing rescue animals. If you're reading this, you already know that capturing animal portraits is a unique challenge in itself. I've done some of the difficult leg work for you and put together a list of tips to hopefully make your next in-studio pet portrait session much easier.
Photographer: Douglas Sonders (additional credit: 2 of the cover animals were captured by Carli Davidson)
Cover Design and Magazine Creative Director: Michael Goesele
Magazine Photo Editor: Diane Rice
Typography Design: Andy Smith
Retoucher: Taisya Kuzmenko
Recently I did a cover shoot for Washingtonian Magazine comprised of various animals from the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) in order to promote bed adoption in the region. We had to setup a makeshift studio in the actual WARL offices and they would bring in each animal one at a time. I set up a blue paper backdrop (as suggested by my awesome photo editor Diane Rice) and my four Profoto D1 lights (two rear strip lights for edge, an overhead beauty dish for key, and an eye-level strobe with 7" reflector and 20 degree grid for fill and eye light), then we got to work. You can see the behind-the-scenes photos below (thank you to Rich Kessler and Vithaya Phongsavan for photographing behind the scenes and helping):
Obviously this shoot was not with its own challenges. WARL is an awesome animal shelter, but you have to imagine that a lot of these dogs are pretty wound up already because they are in a shelter, and then you try and get them to pose for a quick photo so you can move on to the next animal. Not easy indeed, but it was a lot of fun and for a good cause. Below is my list of suggestions to make your life easier next time you take some dog and cat portraits in studio:
- Bring a helper: Trust me, whether you are shooting in a studio or on-location, you will always benefit by having a helper come and get the dog in position and keep its attention. I typically suggest the dog's owner or foster parent, and if that isn't possible just bring along a person that is naturally comfortable with animals and has a good calm energy. Animals feed off the energy of those around them.
- Toys and treats: This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Want to get a dog's attention? Use their favorite treats or toy to lead their eyes to where you need. It wont always help when a dog is completely freaked out, but it should be pretty effective at least half of the time. I found that toys that squeak help the best to get their attention.
- Limit distractions: Close the door if you can and limit the amount of people and other animals in the room. Nervous dogs are easily distracted. Keep the room quiet, calm, and still except for what is going on in front and around the camera.
- Use a table or platform: It is awfully difficult to try and photograph animals, hold a camera, and get into position when you have to lay on your stomach. Since my Phase One is about 10-15 pounds with my favorite leaf shutter lens (the 75-150 LS), that is pretty much impossible. The best solution is to use a large table and drape it with a blanket the same color as your background or just roll the backdrop over it. Your back will thank me. One drawback is that you may make the animal nervous because it feels like it is at the vet on that table, so you need to really take time to calm it. The next tips may help with that.
- Massage therapy: Cesar Millan actually taught me this. We did a TV segment together in-studio a while back for my own dog charity, and when he saw I was struggling to calm my anxious furry friends (you can tell they are anxious when they start to pant heavily) he made a great suggestion. Don't scratch or pat the dog to calm it down, that will only continue to get them more wound up or excited. Instead, give them a deep tissue massage. Kneed their skin gently down their back and on most occasions the dogs will immediately chill out. You can see this in the video segment here.
- Take a moment to bond with your subject: Just like a human subject, you should take time to introduce yourself. Give them a nice rub and maybe a treat. Take the opportunity to let them know you are not a bad person, trying to give them medicine, or performing an examination.
- Patience, patience, patience: Even if you are in a rush, these things take time. Take breaks and make sure to relax. As I mentioned before, animals feed off of your energy. You want to be chill on set and have fun. If you are having fun, better chance that your subject may as well. Some of the shots you see on that cover were of very hyper dogs. We didn't think we would get their portraits at all, but we were patient and calm and with the right timing we got some really fun captures up there.
Shout out to Washingtonian Magazine for going out of their way to help local animals, and to my photo editor Diane Rice and creative director Michael Golese for being so supportive and creative. They are an awesome team and they took a gamble with me and this shoot. I'm very happy it came out so beautifully and hope we get some dogs adopted!
Want to help animals with your photography too? Reach out to your local shelter and offer to take photos of animals up for adoption. They don't have to be fancy. Sometimes even a snapshot will suffice. Dogs and cats with photos that can go online have an infinitely greater chance of being adopted than those without. It's easy and rewarding!
Have more tips to share? Comment below!