Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tips for Photographing Pets at Events

Today, my daughter and I are off and running - we're going to Pet Fest, a local event for pet lovers which focuses solely on our furry friends and helps animal rescues in the process.  Of course we'll be photographing the pets. :)

As you can tell by my animal galleries, I don't do "traditional pet portraits".   I take candid shots, and love action shots.  I prefer outdoor photographs, and prefer photographing pets in their natural environments.  We've done our share of dog show photos at the fairgrounds, although taking pictures in these environments is not exceptionally thrilling for me.

I often find the backgrounds distracting...however, there's a fix for that, if you're also an artist specializing in digital painting.  The background on the original photo of a show champion German Shepherd (below) was very distracting, so I painted an artistic rendition based on my original photo:

One it dawned on me I could turn photos with cruddy backgrounds into fine art paintings, I became more accepting of attending these events.  I now know some photos will turn out publishable, straight from the camera, and others will require a totally artistic approach to make them presentable.

If, however, you are not a traditional or digital artist in addition to being a photographer, you need your photographs to turn out the very best.  I have some tips for you. These are things I've learned through years of trial and error, and I hope you'll find them helpful when photographing your pet and animal related events.

I've learned when going to these events, our telephoto lens works best.  I feel somewhat like a pet P.I., but it works!  When using a short lens -- where you have to be up very close to the animal -- it's hard to get a good shot.  Pets are curious, and they often try to poke their noses right up to the lens to explore what you're doing.  Or they want to be petted or to cuddle.  By using the long lens, I can stand yards away, and photograph a pet as if I'm right next to her.  The animal rarely notices I'm there, and as a result, I get a more natural shot.  Plus the owner rarely notices me, and this stops the temptation they inevitably have to "pose" the animal.

I've also learned a few other things when photographing animals:

First of all, one must get down on the animal's level in order to get the best shot.  This requires being on the ground.  On your knees, on your butt, or simply squatting.  So an event like this is not one where I want to be wearing heels and a dress.  Comfortable clothes -- which move with you when getting on ground level -- are a must.  Flat, comfortable shoes are a must, too, which is why most people who see me in real life always see me wearing white tennis shoes.  I do have other types of shoes, but for these events, I need comfort and often need to be quick on my feet in order to capture the perfect shot.

Another thing I've learned when photographing pets at these events is there are a ton of distractions.  When you want that perfect face shot, and you want to get the pet to look at you, you're going to be competing with lots and lots of other sounds which capture their attention.  Hence, my always carrying my trusty squeaker in my pocket.  Or having Allyson hold the squeaker.  I don't bring a toy -- just that plastic "refill" squeaker which goes into a toy as a replacement when the original squeaker goes bad.  By doing this, you can dish out the familiar sound animals will often look toward, and often cock their head for, giving a very cute photo. Here's a perfect example of what the squeaker in the pocket will do for you:

For me, the most important feature of a pet picture is the eyes.  Using the squeaker, and standing behind my daughter who was photographing, I was able to get this Harlequin Great Dane to look right at the camera, and do a great head tilt, which makes for a fun, expressive photograph.

Another thing I remember when photographing pets is to focus on the fur.  Which means, get the human out of the photo.  It's hard to do at these events where pets are being held or leashed, as they're going to be in contact with their human.  I don't want the human in the photo though.  This isn't family snapshot's focus-on-the-pet time.  So I try to minimize the person with the pet as much as possible, and I will often try to use the clothing the human is wearing to provide a background for the pet himself.  Such as this photo, taken at the Jackson, Tennessee AKC dog show:

At first the woman was holding the dog's head up with her hands under his chin doing what I call "show dog modeling".  It's to be expected...we're at a dog show and this is what these people do.  I take those photos and tell them thank you...BUT...then after the human goes back to what he or she was doing, I take more photos -- with the human minimized as much as possible.  In this case, the groomer's animal print shirt provided a neat background for this dog -- yet the focus is solely on the dog and not what's in the background.

The last tip I have for photographing pets at events is regarding lighting.  And this is probably by far, the most important thing to think about to get that outstanding photo.  I start thinking about lighting before I ever get to the event.  The biggest thing to remember, is to keep the sun or light behind you, and not in front of you.  This is difficult when photographing an outdoor event at noon on a sunny day - the sun rays are coming straight down at this time of day.  The key is to watch for the animal to be in the shade, or have someone stand where they can slightly shadow the pet.  The great thing is, because these are live animals -- most owners or handlers will be looking to keep their pet out of direct sun if at all possible.  If they are in direct sun when you first see them -- such as in the case of walking a dog -- keep an eye on them.  At some point, they will want to return to shade.  That is when you take the photo.

Bright sun or bright lights directly on the pet change their look completely.  Those two things can change eye color and fur color dramatically -- often too dramatically.  So try to avoid direct sun or lights.

I do not use a flash.  At all.  Ever.  I have before, but I just don't like the look it gives.  Studio photographers have umbrellas and special lighting set up where they can use a flash and it doesn't look like they did.  Even though I have that same equipment thanks to a very kind donor, I don't use it, and for what I use, a flash messes everything up.

Not using a flash creates a big challenge when photographing indoors at the fairgrounds where our dog shows and events are held.  However, I've been there enough to have found my sweet spot.  This is the spot where the light comes in the doors at just the right angle, creating a perfect look for my photos. At the last dog show we attended, I spent 75% of my time standing (and squatting, and sitting) in this spot. Numerous dogs came by this spot, since it's right by the exit/entrance doorway.  And when they came by, that's when I photographed them inside.  Here's an example of one of my shots created while in my sweet spot:

No flash, no sun, and no direct light on the dog. Just a gleam in the eye of this Boston Terrier. His handler was off to the left, outside of the shot, and there was a leash attached -- but I cloned it out of the photograph.  Even though the light was coming through the glass doors and directly hitting the animal, by standing off to an angle from the animal, I was able to capture a great photo without his fur colors becoming washed out.  Basically, I used the light to help bring out the animal's features rather than wash them out.  The dog didn't have to move at all - I moved around him from front to side shooting a series of photos, and once I hit that right angle, the light became a helper instead of a hindrance.

To recap, the things I think about when photographing pets at events:

1)  Become a pet P.I. -- Use the telephoto lens
2)  Wear comfortable clothing to accommodate bending and squatting, and comfortable shoes.
3)  Get on the pet's level if possible.  Eye to eye.
4)  Carry the small squeaker in my pocket (or have a helper hold it)
5)  Get the human out of the photo as much as possible and use their clothing as a background if it works
6)  Think about the lighting.  Is it behind me?  Is it bearing down directly on the animal?  If so, wait for the shot or move to an angle from the animal rather than directly in front of the face.
7)  Have a fresh -- or extra - battery.  I didn't cover this above...but I can assure you, it's very, very important (or you'll be leaving your event to get another battery!).  

I hope you've enjoyed these tips and will find them helpful in your own animal event photography scenarios.


P.S.  To see more of my pet photography, as well as bird and wildlife photography, visit my animal photo galleries.


Jai Johnson • JaiArt.Com said...

A couple more tips for you:

• If you have long hair, always bring a ponytail holder or hair clip. When that wind starts blowing at an outdoor event, you'll be grateful!

• Limit your jewelry. Necklaces and big or long earrings can (and will) hand up in your camera strap if you wear it around your neck. You'll probably be petting and loving on some animals...rings with prongs can scratch them, and some animals love to bite on shiny things!

Jai Johnson • JaiArt.Com said...

Ooops, in the previous post, I meant jewelry can and will HANG UP in your camera strap. (wishing they had an edit button for comments!)