This article was born of our experience with indoor rescued cat photography for the Humane Society of Dallas County. Over the past few years, their cats have made sure we learned how to properly photograph them. We also learned that a high quality camera isn't necessary or sufficient to take good pictures. I'm posting this (heavily cat-biased) illustrated guide to help other non-professional pet photographers avoid some pitfalls and show off their subjects in the best light possible.
As the wise say, "Always two there are, a photographer and an assistant." Use at least two people, for the photographer's sanity's sake. However, I don't recommend a team of more than three, because it can get stressful for the pets as well as the people.
The photographer's only responsibility is to follow the pets around with the camera and snap great pictures (easy, right?). The assistant must convince the pets to pose, retrieve them when they scamper off, and expect to be scratched, bitten, licked and drooled upon. In other words, both of them must really like animals.
A lot of pets are never happy to pose for pictures, but at least you can get them to cooperate by noticing and tending to their comfort needs. Some pets feel better chasing toys, while others feel better hiding under a blanket. Some pets like verbal encouragement and a comforting touch, while others need silence and personal space. Some pets want to climb on you and fix your hair. Accommodate them, it helps them and your pictures. Reward them with treats, food or toys afterwards.
Brush and groom pets with dirty, matted fur or gooey eyes and noses.
Some pets refuse to let you groom them, in which case you'll have to take the goo out of the photo afterwards - if at all possible.
It's very important to wash your hands before and after handling each pet. It reduces the spread of diseases to other pets and to you. When handling very young pets, such as weeks-old kittens, it's vital to have clean hands and arms - they are very sensitive to illnesses.
Do your best to take the photos in a quiet setting that looks good as a background and is well lit, preferably from a single light source.
Some good backgrounds are: clean walls and floors, light-colored blankets and mildly reflective surfaces, but of course you'll have to work with what you have around. Make sure the pet's pattern and color don't clash with the background or blend too much with it. We prefer a light teal blanket hung over a chair as a background, as it compliments most cats - not the white ones, they are better off photographed against something darker.
Unless you really know what you're doing, don't mix different light sources. Here's what can happen.
Try not to photograph pets right before or after their mealtime. (Don't photograph them during either, it's only polite.) Proof:
Photographer: Use a digital camera. You're going to be deleting a lot of pictures. Also, if you are photographing indoors, use a tripod, not a flash. Even a small tripod helps stabilize your camera to avoid blurry pictures if the lighting is too dim. If you don't have a tripod, you can always place your camera against something in the environment, like a table edge. If you have to use a flash, buy one you can aim away from the pet's face. Red or white-eyed animals that look like they're nearing critical mass are not a pretty sight. The flash also bothers their eyes, so they'll deal with it by closing them (or just one of them - the horror!) in anticipation of your camera's click.
Assistant: You need to keep some or all of the following items close: moist paper towels or wipes for cleaning the pets and yourself, thin gloves to protect yourself from contagious skin problems, toys, brushes and treats for the pets, a noisemaker or a keyring (some pets are very interested in clinking keys), and sanitizer or soap and water to clean your hands between handling pets.
Photographer: Take many pictures. Pets move around, blink, take sudden jumps to the side, and decide to groom their butts just as the shutter has been triggered. If you want to catch a good pose clearly, you might need to take 10 pictures of it. At the end you'll be able to find a few very good photos in the photoshoot, and you can always delete the others.
Try catching pets in unusual / funny poses too, like yawning, stretching, clawing or chewing on things. For pets who are too shy (or lazy) to change their pose, vary the view and the angle of the camera to snap different-looking photos. Some pets look more interesting from certain angles, so move around!
Assistant: You need to put the shy pets at ease, retrieve the agitated pets from all over the room and convince all of them to look in the general direction of the camera. I don't envy your life.
Position the attention-grabbing object in the direction you want them to look, outside the camera's field of view. Confident pets are easily interested by noisemakers, key rings or fluffy-looking toys at the end of fishing rods. Less confident ones cringe at those, but could still be interested by subtle scratching sounds or slight finger movements.
Go through the photoshoot set, deleting the blurry and unappealing photos on sight. Then delete every photo that is similar to another one, but slightly worse. You should end up with a slimmed-down collection of the best photos you took. Pick the best of the best to publish.
And since you've come so far, why not take the extra step? Unless you're one of those perfect people who consider things like white balance and composition while chasing squirmy animals, you'll need to postprocess photos, even a little, before you publish them. At the minimum, I recommend: cropping, white balance, brightness and contrast adjustments, and impurity removal. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.
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