Photographing your pet can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Done well, it will allow you to immortalize Fluffy or Spot - that significant member of your family - the pet that shared you food, chewed your shoes, and brought you the newspaper. In fact, the act of seriously photographing your pet will bring you both closer because the process opens you to noticing the small, wonderful things that you might have missed before - the way he wags his tail, etc. This is a grand adventure.
As with anything, it's best to proceed with a goal in mind so you know where to start. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to capture your pet's playful side? Are you trying to setup a funny photo using a prop such as a birthday hat? Is this an interactive portrait between your pet and your child? Sit down and put on paper this goal, because it will help you in preparing properly. Nothing is worse than spending an hour going to your favorite scene with equipment in hand and realizing your forgot a favorite toy - do your self a favor, do not skip this step.
Now that you have decided on your goal, it's now time to decide the proper setting. Indoors vs. outdoors. Near the fireplace with an open fire in the background, or in a studio. At the beach or in the woods. As you think about the proper setting, think about how your pet will respond to that setting. If you decide the public park is the perfect place, you must think about your pet's resistance to distractions. Is he/she able to resist running after another animal or person? The more you know your pet and look through his/her eyes, the better off you will be.
Now you are at the critical preparation stage. You've set your goal, you've decided on the appropriate setting - let's try to anticipate all that can (and will) go wrong. I use the word 'wrong' loosely - try not be too rigid and to have fun - we will talk more about that in a minute. Write out on paper every possible thing you can think of. Here are some suggestions:
- Exercise your pet - just enough so they are still alert, but not hyper
- Lighting - outdoor is best, but flash will work too - should be natural lighting
- Grooming - only if it doesn't adversely affect your pet's mood - then do it days beforehand
- Props/Toys - favorite of the pet
- Food - favorite of the pet
- Be prepared for sudden movement - shutter speed about 1/125th and use iso 400 or 800 film (if indoors)
- Watch the scene clutter
- Have pet at least 6 feet away from background to reduce shadows
- Bring an assistant to help manage your pet
- Zoom Lens
- Camera, Film, Tripod, Equipment, etc.
Are you getting the idea? The first time you make out your list, the process will be a little tedious, but the beauty is that once the list is made, all you need to do is modify it slightly for the next sessions.
Whew, you've made to shooting location - congratulations. Hopefully, you've brought everything you are going to need, right? Right! Now, it's time for setup. Be organized; get everything laid out in a logical fashion. The last thing you want to be doing is fiddling around with equipment when you need to be shooting pictures - an animal has a zero attention span and you have got to be ready to snap that picture when the moment is there. How is you animal's demeanor? Is he/she super wound up? If yes, then perhaps some light exercise would be in order - nothing too heavy, but just enough to help him/her calm down. How are you? Are you stressed? Relax, and go with the flow - animals are super sensitive to your mood. Give your pet some last minute grooming - just touch-ups. If you are outdoors, how is the wind? Is it too strong? Is the sun too bright? Remember, overcast is much better for exposure. Make sure that your pet is far enough away from your background so as to not cast any shadows.
The Photographer's Mindset
Your mindset should be one of peace and serenity. I can't overstate that enough. Also, you need to climb into the mind of your pet as best you can. What are they thinking and feeling? Align your expectations properly. If you have never done this before, don't expect perfection the first time out - that will just raise your anxiety level and will stress out your pet.
One of the most important things to remember is to get down on your pet's level, physically, as much as possible. A shot from above doesn't portray intimacy. In addition, when you are at your pet's level, it's easier for you to empathize with it. If you've never crawled around on the ground before, you might feel a bit foolish, but trust me, it makes all the difference in the world. Make sure that you and your handler work with each other - you have got to be in charge, but also try to be flexible - you have a lot of variables that you are managing.