Pet photography is a relatively new kind of session offered in the photography world, with people now seeing pets as family, so I thought I might lend some of my tips for photographing these sessions. After leaving the road, I wanted to practice with a subject that would absolutely not take any direction without hard work, and just having gotten a new Border Collie mix puppy, she was exactly the subject I was looking for. I shortly began photographing for a rescue group, All Texas Dachshund Rescue, and gained more event experience photographing all kinds of random dogs that were overstimulated and looking for the next thing to sniff, instead of posing for photos.
Preparing for the session: Animals are very keyed into what is going on around them, and this can be a challenge when choosing gear. I prefer zoom lenses, to allow them to move during the session, and if need be, stand far away if the animal is exhibiting nervousness about the camera. Never use flash, as that can chase a dog or cat away, and that will end your session quickly. The last thing you want to do is put yourself in the bad graces of a big dog that doesn’t think you’re his friend anymore. Use a quiet camera, or at least turn off all the beeping functions in your menu settings. Bring a lens cloth, because you want to introduce your camera to the animal, and that can get a little wet when they sniff your lens. Let them. Having a lens stick out of your face can seem like aggression.
Getting the pet acclimated to the session: Have treats, definitely, but be aware that animals can have allergies. If there aren’t treats the animal is used to, either bring some meat bits, or get some premium kibble for the session. Avoid chicken and anything with grains. Dogs love hot dogs, but they can love them too much. My dog won’t do anything but drool at the hot dog when I try and use it for treats. Also, they can be loaded with preservatives, and some human clients won’t appreciate it, especially if they are the type to want to book a session for their pets. I use Orijen 6 Fish kibble, as it’s not likely to interact with allergies. You don’t have to train the dog to sit (even though I have), you just want them hanging out in your area and looking at you like you’re their best friend. After you have a good rapport with the pet, begin introducing them to the camera, especially with dogs, and fire the trigger while she’s sniffing the camera. Use a soft voice and give him a “good dog” if he doesn’t react to the shutter. Put the camera in front of your face, then let the dog sniff the camera again. Repeat, fire the trigger, and give another, “Good Dog!” Treat liberally. Spend 10 minutes or so getting to know the animal before beginning the session.
Location: In dealing with pets, you can photograph them in a studio setting, but my suggestion is that you do it on their home turf. You’ll get a much more relaxed dog in the end, and lose less time at the beginning of the session, as she won’t need to investigate her new surroundings. They might even show you their toys, which can add interest to photos. Cats? Forget about it. They don’t like new, and unless they are trained to perform in new locations for photographers, go to them.
Posing: My method of posing varies. For posed shots, getting them to sit for even a minute requires treats. If the owner is present, have them stand over your shoulder while you kneel, and give commands and treats. That keeps the pup looking towards you, but performing. When you need them to look at you, the noise I use is to say (are you ready for this?), “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!” Just roll your tongue, and make the most ridiculous noise you can. Another way you can get some of them to look at you intensely, is to take the squeak out of a squeaky toy, and hold it in your trigger hand. Squeak and shoot. They’ll get pretty curious pretty quickly, so this has a short duration. Use it sparingly throughout the session. You can bring a clicker to your session, too. Otherwise, if you can get them to hang out in a central place, just let them do what they want to do. If you are in a park, or at an event, just bring a wide zoom and a telephoto zoom and let them go nuts. Just try to get their attention, bring fast glass, and you are good to go!
The most helpful suggestion I can really make about pets is watch them like a hawk, get to know them, and practice that sublime timing. Keep your eye in the viewfinder, follow that dog like crazy with the camera, and press the shutter. Watch for patterns and watch their body language. They’ll tell you what’s about to happen next. It might be in a fraction of a second, but they’ll let you know. The adrenaline you’ll get from being that keyed into what they might do is far more fun than editing 12 of the same shots to pick one tiny change in movement. The exception might be shooting events where you are getting paid by a dog club, who may want many shots. Then that might be something you want to think about, but I prefer to hover over my shutter for the thrill. Cats? Forget about it. Just photograph in great light, and follow him around for a bit. Be prepared for a lot of shots on the couch, though!
Pet sessions are one of my favorite type of sessions to photograph. They are fun, fast paced, and your subject will always do something different, without you having to even come up with it. I hope this helps you to enjoy it as much as I do!