Pets can make for wonderful subjects but it can be a challenge to get that perfect shot. Follow these top tips and simple editing techniques to take your animal photos to the next level...
1 Show character
The best pet photos show off the character of the animal, so don’t get bogged down in camera technique. Instead, choose a set-and-forget camera setting (try manual mode, 1/200 sec, f4, Auto ISO) and be prepared to capture the spontaneous moments and priceless expressions that your pets come up with. Of course, you could help to create such moments by, for example, spraying them with water, throwing food up in the air, making funny noises or doing anything else to provoke a reaction.
2 Treats are good
Your typical pet isn’t in the slightest bit interested in having their photo taken, but most are very interested in treats and snacks. So keep a few in your pocket for times when the animal doesn’t want to pose or sit still. However, be ready with your camera because the moment you pull out the treat the animal will very likely jump up from your carefully prepared composition and trot straight up to you. As such, it can be useful to have a helper with you who can keep the animal in place.
3 Seek out the best light
As with any type of portrait, the lighting is key in pet photos. Soft, natural light is ideal, so avoid direct sunlight and wait for cloud cover, and if shooting indoors position the pet near a window. Sometimes strong directional light can elevate the shot. Feathers and fur look wonderful when lit from behind by a low sun. The edges of the fur will glow as the light filters through it.
4 Find a fun angle
If there’s one thing the internet has a surplus of, it’s photos of pets. One way to make yours stand out from the crowd is to find a dynamic angle for your shot. It needn’t be as extreme as putting your camera down a rabbit hole, but a little thought into your camera angle can go a long way. Perhaps your pet has a favourite blanket you could capture them under, or a tree they like to climb. Including details like this can elevate your photos beyond mere pet portraits and show the character of the animal.
5 Capture action
Capturing pets in action can be a challenge for your camera technique, but it’s a great way to show the animal at their athletic best. You’ll need a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec, or upwards of 1/1000 sec for very fast-moving subjects like jumping animals or birds in flight. Use your camera’s shutter priority mode to set a fast shutter speed. Engage continuous auto-focus to track the movement and set a high drive rate so you can shoot a burst of rapid fire frames when the action happens.
6 Shoot at eye level
Whether shooting animals or people, one way to create a connection with the viewer is to place the camera at eye level. This becomes more important with pets as it often means getting down low to the ground. As well as the connection we can create, it’s also a great way to show the surroundings from the perspective of the animal. If you like you can go even lower than eye level so your camera is looking up at the pet. This can make the animal appear statuesque and strong, plus it’s a viewpoint we don’t often see of our animals in day-to-day life.
7 Shoot a tight close-up
For a bold pet portrait try framing tightly on the face and ensure that the eyes are perfectly sharp. This can be a bit of a challenge with animals, as the autofocus may snap on to the end of their nose rather than their eyes, which can throw the eyes out-of-focus in close-ups. Use single point autofocus and position the point over the closest eye. Many modern mirrorless cameras have eye-detection autofocus, which can give you a great advantage when capturing animal close-ups.
8 Use Lightroom profiles
Lightroom offers a range of one-click profiles that can be very useful for creating a mood in your pet photos. Simply import the image into Lightroom then go to the Profile browser in the Basic Panel and hover over the different options to see how they look. Once chosen, you can adjust the strength of the colour shift with a handy Amount slider.
9 Try black and white
A bold black and white treatment can be a great choice for pet photos. Black and white has a magical ability to draw attention to expression, so it’s fantastic for showcasing faces. The absence of colour also emphasises other things like textures and fur, especially if the animal has attractive patterning. There are many ways to convert to black and white. Lightroom users can try the set of handy B&W profiles for a one-click monochrome effect, or fine-tune the conversion with the B&W Mixer controls.
Learn more about converting any kind of photo to black and white with our dedicated guide and top tips on black and white conversions here.
10 Make local adjustments
Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush is one of the best tools for editing your pet photos, as it lets you paint tonal adjustments to the areas that need it. So if you need to give the pet a lift then you can paint to increase the exposure, saturation and clarity. Making local adjustments like this is often a better way to work than applying universal edits, and it’s a great way to enhance important features like eyes and fur.
Animal photography contains a lot of detail, especially if the animals have fur or feathers, and sharpening your images can bring out these details further. Here's our video tutorial on how to expertly sharpen your shots:
Screenshots by James Paterson
- AuthorJames Paterson
James has been a professional photographer and award-winning journalist for the past 15 years. He is editor of Practical Photoshop magazine and contributes to leading photography publications worldwide.View all articles