(Last updated on June 14th, 2022)
Pet photography is super popular. People love to see photos of their pets looking cute, playful, or even sleeping.
In this article, you’ll find a great selection of tips and tricks to help you improve your pet photography. We’ve covered the technical aspects of cameras, lenses, and settings. How you can approach connecting with the animals you take pictures of is also covered.
- The Best Pet Photography Camera Settings
- The Best Lenses for Pet Photography
- The Best Lighting for Pet Photography
- Camera Gear for Pet Photography
- Observe Your Subject and Connect with It
- Be Confident With Your Camera Equipment and Settings
- Manage the Pet Owner’s Expectations
- Create a Comfortable Environment for Your Pet Photography Sessions
- Work With an Assistant
- Be Patient and Go With the Flow
- Post-Processing Your Photos of Pets
- Frequently Asked Questions
Photographing pets is as much about capturing their characters as anything else. For this reason, you must learn to concentrate not only on your camera settings but also on your subject. Consider how you will interact with each pet you photograph to draw out their best and capture the most interesting portraits.
When photographing pets for clients or friends, ask them about their pets. What are they like? Are they calm and relaxed, or predominantly playful? Do they have any peculiar habits or traits that you might be able to capture on camera? Asking this type of question of a client will help you provide more intimate photographs of their pets.
Getting your camera settings right is imperative. Most animals move unpredictably. Some are easily distracted and will have no concern that you want to make a lovely picture of them. You must be set and ready to capture them at the right moment.
The Best Pet Photography Camera Settings
Using a fast shutter speed is important when photographing pets. Any amount of subject movement results in blurring when your shutter speed is too slow. This might not be such an issue for pets such as turtles or snakes, but a fast shutter speed for most pets will ensure you will get more sharp images.
By nature, many animals move quickly. The faster the movement, the faster your shutter speed must be to freeze the motion. Start with the slowest shutter speed of 1/250s. Take a few photos and check them. Zoom into a photo where you have captured some movement and see if it is sharp. If it is not, increase the shutter speed.
Pet portraits with blurred backgrounds can look terrific. Capturing enough of the animal in clear focus is important. You must find the balance to manage depth of field effectively.
Using a wide aperture setting can happen due to selecting a fast shutter speed. If your aperture is too wide, you may not have enough of your subject in focus. The background will appear silky, but so will too much of your subject.
The best way to capture pet photographs with a blurred background is to set up so the background is far away from the subject. Then you can use an aperture setting that results in the pet being sharp and the background blurry.
If you have trouble balancing a fast shutter speed and your aperture setting, then adjust your ISO. Even when there is a lot of light you can set your ISO higher. This will allow you to choose a faster shutter speed and/or aperture setting.
My Top Tips for Pet Photography Settings
- Use a sufficiently fast shutter speed
- Choose your aperture setting carefully
- Focus on their eyes
- Set the exposure so their skin or fur looks natural
- Set your white balance correctly
- Save files in RAW format for the best editing options.
The Best Lenses for Pet Photography
A mid-range zoom lens will give you the most flexibility and practicality when doing pet photography. On a full-frame camera, this would be something like a 24 – 120 mm lens, or the equivalent on a crop sensor camera.
Lenses in this focal length range allow you to be relatively close to the pet, or a bit further back if you need to be.
Start with your lens set to about 50 mm. A standard focal length provides enough separation between you and a medium-sized pet for both you and the animal to be comfortable.
Getting in close and using a wider focal length will mean you see more of the background in the composition. This is fine when the background adds to the overall image. If there are distracting items around the pet, moving back and using a longer focal length can help eliminate them from the background.
Setting up so you remain a long way from the animal and using a longer focal length to photograph them is worth experimenting with. If you have an assistant or the pet owner to help, it will make capturing this type of pet portrait easier. I’ve covered this in more detail later in this article.
You can use fast prime lenses to photograph pets, but be careful with the aperture settings you choose. Don’t be tempted to take every photo of a pet using an aperture setting of f/1.8 or f/1.4. You will most likely be disappointed later when you review your photos and realize most of them don’t include enough depth of field.
The Best Lighting for Pet Photography
Lighting for pet photography can be quite challenging. I often find natural lighting to be great. But when the ambient light is not good, adding light can complicate taking photos of pets.
Natural light will show your animals as they most often appear naturally. Soft, even light is great for pet portraits because the colors and textures are not influenced by strong shadows or highlights.
Photographing in open shade outdoors provides not only even lighting, but plenty of it. When you’re indoors or in deep shade, the amount of light may not be sufficient. The best natural lighting happens on sunny days when you can find a nice shady area to photograph your pets. On cloudy days, an open area will be best.
If you need to photograph pets indoors, including some additional light allows you to use a faster shutter speed and narrower aperture setting. It also helps you avoid having to use a very high ISO that can cause digital noise and lower image quality.
On-camera flash is rarely the best option. The light is harsh and can cause hard-edged, dark, unattractive shadows. If you can only use your flash mounted on your camera, try to soften the light. You can do this by adding a diffuser or bouncing the flash.
One of the best options to add more light to your pet portraits is to use LED lights. These provide continuous light so they are less likely to distract the pet you are photographing. Using more than one light source helps to soften and reduce shadows.
Camera Gear for Pet Photography
Here’s a brief list of camera gear that will be helpful for pet photography:
- A camera you know well
- A zoom lens or prime lens of medium focal length
- Flash or LED lights
- Light modifiers to soften the lighting
- Backdrops and stands
- Pet toys and treats
- A strong portfolio of pet photos
- Business cards
Observe Your Subject and Connect with It
“Never photograph children and animals.” This is a tired old cliché some photographers like to toss about. These subjects are considered too difficult to manage. Don’t be discouraged. While pet photography may not always be the easiest, you will capture incredible photographs of pets once you have a few specific skills.
Unpredictable movement is one key aspect that does make photographing pets challenging. But certainly not impossible. Every good photographer is a patient, observant person. Applying these attributes to pet photography will ensure you are more successful.
By learning to pay close attention to the nature and character of the animal in front of your camera, you will know when to take the best photos. Concentrating on your subject, not only on your camera and lights, you’ll select the best moments to press your shutter button.
Some animals are easier to connect with than others. I don’t expect you’ll have the same interaction with a pet goldfish as you’d have with your dog or cat. When working for a client, always make sure to let the pet see you talking and interacting with their owner. This will give them the message that they can relax. I find this to be particularly important when photographing dogs.
Spend some time observing pets before picking up your camera. Think about what they are doing and look for repetition in their movement. This helps you discern the best time to take your photographs.
Be Confident With Your Camera Equipment and Settings
Being confident that you have the best lens on your camera and that it’s all set up well helps you concentrate more on your subject. If you are paying too much attention to your camera gear, you will not get the best photographs.
Prepare ahead of time. You will know what you are going to be photographing, so you can make suitable choices. These will be different if you are photographing a Great Dane or a goldfish, but in either case, you have some idea about what you need to prepare for.
Work through your options and think about any challenges you might face during your pet photography session. Take time to consider these things and be prepared for them. If you are photographing someone else’s pet, you will certainly look more professional when you work this way. This is a key aspect of being professional when you are starting out. You might not feel like you’re a professional photographer yet, but you will do well to show your clients that you know what you are doing.
Have your camera and other equipment ready before you start to position your subject. Once the pet is in place, you’ll be much better off if you can pay full attention to it and not be fussing with your camera gear.
When possible, take some test photos even before your subject is ready. This will help you determine the best settings to use. These will depend on the location and lighting. You’ll also have a better idea of what focal length to use for the size of the animal you will be photographing.
Having confidence in your gear and settings frees you up to give all your creative attention to the pet. You’ll make better choices about composition and select the best moments to take your photographs.
Manage the Pet Owner’s Expectations
Starting out in pet photography you may not have many example images in your portfolio. People will not be aware of the style of photos you take or what to expect when they bring their animals to be photographed.
Clear communication with the pet owner will help you avoid problems. Ask them questions. Seek to discover what expectations they have and what results they want. This will be different for each pet owner. Some will be more realistic than others.
Initially, you may not have your own studio space so will have to work outdoors. This is important to discuss beforehand. Maybe the pet owner wants a more formal type of pet portrait. But if you don’t have lights and a plain backdrop, you may not be able to provide for your client. Other people will be happier to have their pets photographed outdoors in a more natural setting.
One other important aspect of photographing pets that owners may not be aware of is that it will take some time. Planning a photography session in advance with the pet owner is vital. You can let them know that you want to take time to get to know their pet a little. Then take the photos. This also might take longer than the owner expects.
When you communicate these issues and any others you have, the photography session will run more smoothly. The pet owner will be more comfortable with you and more confident that you know what you are doing.
Even when you’re photographing a pet for a friend, it is still important to discuss this with them.
Create a Comfortable Environment for Your Pet Photography Sessions
By creating a comfortable environment, you will help the pet you are photographing feel more at ease. Whether you photograph pets indoors or outdoors, it is important that the environment is comfortable for them.
Taking a dog to a busy location to be photographed is likely to end badly. An area with as few distractions as possible will be best. This may mean you have to visit people’s homes to photograph their pets. I don’t imagine many cats will feel comfortable outside their own environments.
Going to a pet owner’s home will often provide the most comfortable environment to work in. Alternatively, with animals used to being outdoors, you can photograph them in the places they are taken for exercising. When animals are familiar with the environment, they are more likely to be comfortable.
Have some props and treats on hand. These things can also help a stressed pet feel more relaxed. If you are going to offer someone’s pet a treat, make sure you’ve cleared it with them first. Some pet owners can be mighty fussy about what their darlings eat.
If you’re serious about pet photography as a business, think about creating an appropriate studio environment. One that best suits the types of animals you want to photograph. Make sure you decorate with calming colors and have comfortable places for animals to enjoy.
Have some relaxing music playing. You may be surprised at how effective this is in helping calm a pet. This article about music dogs prefer indicates they are more inclined to like reggae and soft rock.
Work With an Assistant
Never work alone when photographing pets. If you don’t have someone with whom you work regularly, enlist the assistance of the pet owner. Even when you do have an assistant, it’s good to have the pet owner helping. They are going to hold the attention of their pet more easily.
A good assistant will concentrate on what you need them to do. This is vital as you begin to take photographs. Have an assistant play with a squeaky toy or hold something above your head that the pet will look at. This will allow you to capture photos with the animal looking toward your camera. Have the assistant direct the animals’ gaze away from the camera for other photos.
Working in this way with some pet owners will require you to coach them a little. Others will more readily understand why you need their help. Either way, make sure you let them know what you’d like them to do and explain why.
The more often you work with a photography assistant, the more they’ll get to know how you work and what you require from them. Be patient and teach them well, and you’ll become a great team.
Be Patient and Go With the Flow
Photographing pets is never completely the same twice. Even when you photograph your own pet many times, each time will be different.
Being patient with pets will help you to get better results. Don’t be in a rush or easily distracted when things don’t pan out how you planned them to. Keep concentrating on your end goal of capturing some great photographs.
Some pets will sense your stress if things aren’t going your way. This will not help them feel any better. Do your best to keep calm and keep taking photos.
Take a break for a while if you need to. Put your camera down and spend some time giving some loving attention to the animal. Talk to them. Play with them a little. Then pick your camera up again once you have a sense things have settled down.
Trying to take a nice portrait of a dog who wants to play can be very frustrating. So don’t! Go with the flow and photograph the dog as they play. You may be surprised at how quickly the dog loses interest and calms down. Then you can make some more formal-looking pictures of them.
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Post-Processing Your Photos of Pets
Finishing well is important. Post-processing the pet photos you take will make them much more attractive. The key aspects of pet photos to consider when you edit them are:
- Lighting and exposure
- Color temperature
- Highlights and shadows
- Straighten horizons
Pet photos often require some cropping. It’s not always possible to capture a pet perfectly in the frame, especially when it’s moving. Look at your photos and ask if some aspect of the composition can be cropped. Remember, too, that empty space in a pet portrait can make it more interesting.
Adjust the exposure, highlights, and dark areas, so the skin or fur of the pet looks as it does naturally. If you’ve photographed a black dog, make sure it looks black. Color temperature can also affect this and may need to be tweaked. I find that the auto white balance setting on my cameras gets this right most of the time though.
Look at the highlights and shadows in your photos. Is there enough detail in these areas? Sometimes it will matter more than others to have detail. Mostly you’ll want to retain shadow and highlight detail in the animal. If your background is a little too bright or too dark, it may not matter, if it looks good.
Focusing on capturing the right moment sometimes means you’ll lose track of how the horizon looks in your composition. Always check that the horizon is straight. If it’s not, just tweak it a little.
Photographing pets can be a lot of fun. Great pet photography can bring lots of joy and wonderful memories to pet owners.
Be dedicated to your craft and you’ll produce fabulous results. Whether you want to make a business of pet photography or want to keep it as a hobby, practice often. Pet photography is not immediately easy. But the more you practice and become familiar with it, the better results you’ll achieve and the more fun you’ll have.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes! People love to have photographs of their pets, just like they love to have photographs of their family members. Not everyone is satisfied with pet photos they snap with their phone cameras and want a more professional result.
Start by photographing your own pets and the pets of friends. Volunteer your services at a local animal shelter. They will appreciate being able to use your photos to help find homes for the animals. You will not only add to your portfolio, but will feel very satisfied as you give back to your community in this way. Doing these things will help you to gain experience photographing pets and interacting with the people who care for them.
Then start looking for clients. Try connecting with local pet shops, vet clinics, animal shelters as well as doing some online searching.
Take the advice I have shared in this article to heart and act on it. Be confident. Communicate well with pet owners. Have the right equipment. And be flexible when things don’t go to plan.
Also, make a point to manage your business well and market it as best you can.
How much you charge depends on your experience level, the quality of your photographs, and where you live. Someone with more experience and a good reputation can charge significantly more than a beginner. Show people the quality of your work and get a feel for how much you think they’ll be willing to pay. It’ll be best to do some local research to get a good idea of what people in your area are willing to spend on pet photography.
Yes. If you are good at what you do and manage your business affairs well, you will make money as a pet photographer.
Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author. He has been passionate about photography for as long as he can remember.
Kevin began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and worked in editorial photography for many years. After this he interned with a commercial photographer, learning many new skills. From there he freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since.
He ran his own award-winning photography business before moving to Thailand in 2002. Since then Kevin has continued to work in photography and also moved into video production. For the first ten years of his life in Thailand, he focused on producing media content, both photos, and videos, for non-profit organizations. He funded these efforts primarily through the sale of his stock photography and videos. In more recent years Kevin has discovered a great enjoyment in teaching photography.
He also runs in-person workshops, develops online courses, writes, and creates videos about photography.