Late in 2020, the award-winning pet photographer and animal rescue advocate Greg Murray received a once-in-a-lifetime assignment. Suzy, the pit bull mix, had recently been found as a stray in Cleveland and brought into the city shelter, where she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Instead of giving up on Suzy, local volunteers stepped up to give her a hospice foster home where she could happily live out the rest of her days. Suzy’s foster home also gave her a bucket list, and as part of that list, she has experienced a boat ride, gone camping, and enjoyed a professional photoshoot with Greg.
For photographers like Greg, these are the moments that make all their hard work worthwhile. Amid a difficult year of stay-at-home orders, more people than ever adopted and fostered pets in need, and photographers of almost every speciality discovered the simple joy of working with animals close to home.
If you’re thinking about branching out into pet portraiture or would just like to capture endearing photos of your own family pet, check out these top tips from successful pet photographers, including Greg, for capturing images with energy and personality and making the experience enjoyable.
“My first tip is to have patience,” Greg advises. “If you aren’t patient, you will not be successful at photographing pets or any type of animal. Animals, especially dogs and cats, can be so unpredictable. I never get stressed, frustrated, or angry when the animal isn’t doing what I want. When I’m relaxed and have fun, the pets usually do the same.”
Chase the light
“The time of day is so important for pet photography,” the French photographer Audrey Bellot explains. “Avoid photographing at midday in full sunlight, as it does not generally bring good results due to strong shadows. Instead, take advantage of the softer light in the morning or evening, and vary your angles to obtain different lighting effects.”
Put the pets (and their comfort) first
“If you feel that the dog is uncomfortable—with, say, an accessory or pose—stop, review your approach, and opt for something simpler,” Audrey urges. “Don’t feel overwhelmed if the dog is not listening that day. Don’t forget to take breaks between photos and follow the dogs’ lead; they will always show you something beautiful, even if it’s something different than what you originally planned.”
This tip is especially important when you’re donating your time to rescues or shelters by photographing animals who are available for adoption. Depending on the situation, shelter animals might be fearful or stressed, and they might not get many chances to socialise. It’s your job as the photographer to help them feel safe and relaxed.
“With shelter dogs, I don’t use flash or photograph them inside the shelter,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Alícia Rius says. “If you can, take them outside for a walk where there’s natural light and take a few shots there. You will see how much of a difference these two things can make for the pet!”
Learn to read body language
“I often see photos where the human looks great, but the dog has her tail between her legs, or the cat is hissing,” Alícia explains. “The photo might be technically correct, but the animal was afraid or tense. You can’t force an animal to do something he doesn’t want to do. You have to respect their limitations and honor their capabilities. It’s crucial to understand when the animal is not feeling comfortable so you can give him space and create an environment where he feels safe. That way, you can capture his true, happy nature.”
“The most important thing when photographing pets is to know everything you can about the pet, their story, and the relationship between the pet and their owner,” Alícia tells us. “What’s the pet personality like? What’s the one thing the owner loves most about her? What are their favourite things to do together? The more you know, the more personal the photoshoot will be. You’ll have more ideas about what to photograph, and you’ll capture what’s true and special about the pet.”
“You have to go to the animal’s level,” Alícia advises. “If you see me in photoshoots, I spend most of the time on my knees or laying on my belly. The one thing I can’t live without is my set of knee pads (I’m famous for them!). It’s imperative to shoot on the dog or cat’s level, so expect to spend a lot of time on your knees.”
Personalise your sessions
Your sessions might look vastly different depending on the individual animal and his or her needs, so tailor the experience to the pet. “Motivation is key in pet photography, but individuals are often motivated by different things,” the German photographer Elke Vogelsang explains. “A herding dog might find playing fetch totally useless, while a terrier needs action to relax and get over any initial shyness. Take some time to find out what motivates your individual model.
“Use noises, praise, treats, or toys to reward them. Don’t bore the animal by fiddling with your equipment. Know how to use your camera and concentrate on your model instead. Make sure you are interesting enough to get the dog’s attention, and they’ll reward you with a nice head tilt or direct eye contact with your camera.”
Know what to bring
Speaking of treats and toys, they’re just as important as your gear. Greg likes to bring peanut butter to get cute facial expressions; his books include Peanut Butter Dogs and Peanut Butter Puppies. Alícia likes squeakers and toys that make noises to capture a dog’s attention. Audrey also brings animal-friendly wipes in case the pet needs his fur cleaned before the session, especially around the eyes and mouth.
Keep it fun
“People often pay more attention to the location and their camera they do to the dog, and that’s a mistake,” Elke tells us. “Always make sure your pet enjoys the session. Keep it short and fun. Reward them frequently and see it as bonding time between the two of you.”
“My super patient Scout learned to love being photographed and trusts me with even the silliest ideas. Here, I asked her to sit in front of a hedge, and I told her to back up, which she did until she nearly vanished in the hedge. With the right focal length (35mm on a 1.5 crop camera), the composition looks like it’s a wide hedge, while it’s actually just a tall but narrow green.”
Don’t forget to have fun yourself, either. “If you want to stand out from the crowd, you have to be different,” Elke adds. “Experiment and play. For example, I sometimes love to use a wide-angle lens for quirky shots, as the barrel distortion effect leads to the dog looking a bit comical. If you want to have a more natural portrayal of the dog, choose a focal length of at least 50mm, or use a tele lens for an elegant mood.”
Every photographer we interviewed volunteers his or her time to helping animals, and this is perhaps the most important tip of all. Alícia got her start decades ago photographing shelter dogs and continues to promote adoptable animals. Elke has done several charity projects, including travelling to Morocco to photograph stray dogs.
Greg offers free photo sessions to a local rescue organisation and highlights overlooked shelter long-timers. His publisher will also be donating $1 per order of his new book, Peanut Butter Puppies, to three rescue organisations who had dogs represented in the book.
As for Audrey, she worked with dogs in a large shelter in Romania. “I photographed hundreds of dogs—young, old, frightened, playful,” she remembers. “I think the most beautiful moments of the trip were seeing the dogs in my pictures leaving with their new families. That’s when all our work comes together and makes sense.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.