Photographing your Pets

How to Take Great Photos of Your Pets

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Like most pet owners, I take a lot of photos of my pets.  I mean a LOT. And I have to be honest, most of them are horrible.  They are blurry, dark, grainy, and not very artistic.  I get it, I really do.  Pets move around, a lot, and it can be difficult to get a good photo.  And most of the time we just want to capture that cute moment, and so don’t really have time to think about lighting and composition.  But once our pets are gone, all we are left with are those pictures.  If you can manage to capture a few gems, then your pet’s memories will be able to live on. And those gems will translate to beautiful portraits that will capture your pet’s likeness in detail.

Understand what makes a good photo and why by reading the article below.  You do not have to be a professional photographer to take good pictures. Just follow some basic steps in your light source, composition, and basic camera settings. Not only will taking better photos translate into better memories of your loved ones, but they will result in better portraits should you decide to have one painted of your pet. These techniques can also be applied to photographing kids, family members, or anything else.


Your Equipment

A Good Camera is Ideal, But A Cell Phone Will Work

The best tool to capture great photos is a decent camera.  You do not have to spend thousands of dollars to get professional equipment; you can take decent photos with a “point and shoot” digital camera for less than $200.  These cameras are designed to do all the work for you to create really good photos, without having to have a lot of deep knowledge about aperture settings and all that.  Good examples of point and shoot cameras include Canon PowerShot, Nikon CoolPix, and Panasonic Lumix.

However, most of you take photos with your cell phones, so this is what I will focus on here.  Most cell phones have cameras that are just as good as the low end point and shoot cameras, and are more convenient since most people carry their cell phones with them everywhere.  But knowing how to use it is the key to getting good photos.  It is a little more complicated than just pushing a button.

So what can you do as a busy pet owner with a cell phone camera?  A lot, actually.  There are a few tips I can give you to capture better photos of your pets (or kids, or anything, really).


Camera Settings: Megapixels and Resolution

The settings of your phone camera is something that often gets neglected, and has a huge influence on how well the pictures turn out.  Adjust your camera’s settings for the highest resolution and maximum quality.  This will result in an image of the best quality that your camera can shoot, the downside being that the photo will take up more space on your phone.  But the trade-off is worth it to get good photos of your pets.

The higher the resolution (or the larger the megapixel value), the larger the picture is in its physical size on your screen, which means more detail is captured.  Megapixels is the total number of pixels displayed in a photo, which is the length times the width in pixels.  One megapixel is one million pixels.  For example, a camera that has 2 megapixel setting takes a picture that is 1920 x 1080 pixels in size.  An 8 megapixel setting takes a photo that measures 3840 x 2160 pixels, which is four times larger.  The more pixels your image has, the more information is captured in the image, which means more detail.

In theory this makes sense, but let me show you an example of what this really means. A photo taken with a really low resolution may look fine on the small screen of your cell phone, but once it is enlarged, you can see the problem.

Low Resolution vs High Resolution

Low Resolution vs High Resolution

Low Resolution vs High Resolution

Let’s use photos I took of my own cat Frodo as the example above. The one on the left was taken at the lowest setting, and the one on the right was taken at the highest setting.  Both look OK when you see them as tiny pictures on your cell phone screen, but once you enlarge, them, you see the huge difference, and why this is an issue when you want to get a print done or a portrait painted.

Closeup of Low Resolution vs High Resolution

frodo lowres closeup

Low Resolution

High Resolution Photo

High Resolution

Now, let’s see them when I zoom in closeup.  The first picture, the low resolution picture, is extremely grainy and with very few details.  You cannot really make out much of his face, and his markings are very blurry.  It is even hard to see where the distinction between his fur outline and the stone background behind him. You can’t even really tell his eye color in the first one either. The high resolution picture, although not perfect, is much better.  You can really make out details and they are sharp and in focus.

High resolution photos of your pets are ideal for using as a reference for pet portrait paintings for this reason.  If I had to use only the first one, I could only guess at the markings and details, and the result may be a portrait of a pet that does not really resemble yours, and does not capture their personality or essence.


Lighting and Light Source

Artificial Light vs Natural Light

The light source for photos is very important to have your pictures turn out well.  Take photos in a single natural light source (sunlight) and lit slightly from the front and side. This will result in pictures that show much more detail and structure of their facial features than ones lit from the front only. Natural light will also present their fur colors as they truly are, whereas indoor lighting will usually give the fur a yellowish tint.

Artificial Light vs Natural Light

Artificial Light vs Natural Light

The photo of Frodo on the left was captured indoors.  The light source was recessed light in the ceiling, multiple light bulbs from all different directions.  This results in a flat photo with very little definition. It also makes his fur look slightly yellow.  The photo on the right was captured in sunlight, with the light source coming from the left and top.  This results in more defined shadows and highlights, which brings out the details in his fur and makes a more interesting photo.

Do Not Use Flash

Flash vs No Flash

Flash vs No Flash

Also, never use flash, as this drowns out your pet’s features and also leaves a harsh glare in their eyes. The example above shows my cat Sookie laying on my lap, and two photos taken seconds apart, one using flash, and one not.  Using a flash can completely remove all details as well as alter the fur color.

Light from Behind = Too Dark!

Bad Lighting

Bad Lighting

Avoid the subject being lit from behind, or photographing in a dark room, which will usually result in a photo that is way too dark to make out any features.  I cannot make out any of the features at all in the dog on the left.


Composition

Get Down On Your Pet’s Level

get down on their level

Get down on their level!

The best photo should be taken at an angle down at the pet’s level, not from above, to avoid foreshortening. Foreshortening means that the head will be much larger than the body and legs, and it does not make a good portrait.  Get down to the pet’s level, just like the photo that is in the title of this article was taken.  This will result in better proportions and a more natural pose for the animal.

Avoid Foreshortening

Get down on your dog’s level when taking pictures.

The first photo is caused by the photographer standing over the dog to take the picture.  This causes the foreshortening, and makes the dog out of proportion.  In the second photo, the photographer is down on eye level with the dog, which creates a more balanced photo.

Cropping and Positioning

The pet should fill about 1/3 to 1/2 of the screen.  Any more than this, and key features, such as ears, may be cut off.  Any further away, and it will be hard to make out details.  Getting too close to your pet also causes foreshortening, where the nose and muzzle appear much larger than they really are.  While this may make for a cute snapshot, it will not make a good portrait.

Composition

Composition

The Golden Retriever in the first photo is way too close!  Key features such as the ears and much of the body is cut off.  The nose is way to close to the camera, making it appear larger than it really is.  The composition in the second photo is much better, and the proportions are more natural.

Stay In Focus – No Blurry Pictures

Focus on your subject, and not their surroundings.  This can easily be corrected by using your auto-focus feature in your camera, and centering it on your pet’s face.  When using the camera on your phone, a circle or a square will appear in the center of your screen.  Make sure your pet’s face is in the middle of this circle or square, and tap on it to bring that to focus before snapping the photo.

Blurry

Blurry

Again, the blurry pictures are very hard to see on our small phone screens, but become much more obvious once you see it on a computer monitor or tablet screen.


Keep Practicing, and Take Lots of Pictures!

And the most important bit of advice is just this: keep photographing!  Even professional photographers take thousands of photos to find that one gem.  For every beautiful photo you see in a magazine or book, that photographer took hundreds, or even thousands, of photos at that shoot, and only a handful came out well enough to sell.  The more photos you take, the better you will become, and also increase your change of taking one that stands out from the rest!


All photographs of dogs, and the image of the hand holding the cell phone are from Pixabay.  All photographs of cats are Copyright to Rebecca Wang, all rights reserved.

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