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How to: Take Better Pet Pictures
by David Rasnake -  10/7/2008

I've noticed several threads in the DCR forums over the last year from shooters seeking advice on photographing pets. It's really not surprising: for many of us, pets are an important part of the family. Incidentally, with a little careful planning, they can also make great subjects for portraits, action photos, or general snaps to put in the family photo album.

In this installment of DCR Workshop, we take on photographing animals generally ? with a particular emphasis on taking great pet pics for photographers of all skill levels. If you've been looking for tips on how to add interest and flair to shots of non-human subjects, keep reading.

Animal photography basics
As in all kinds of photography with moving subjects, anticipation is the key to taking great pictures of animals. And effective anticipation begins with a little observation. Unlike photographing animals in the wild, where your window of opportunity to get any shot at all may be fleeting, photographing animals in a semi-controlled environment ? be it your dogs and cats, or even animals at the zoo ? affords you some time to study your subject in any potential shooting situation and look for the best picture taking opportunities.

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Of course, there's something to be said for being ready to capture a moment when it happens, too.

For action shots of active pets, this often means working in a continuous AF mode if your camera is so equipped. Likewise, capturing those elusive moments usually requires a fast shutter speed: for outdoor photos of animals in motion, I like to start around 1/250 light permitting. If your point-and-shoot doesn't let you set a shutter speed (via a manual or shutter priority mode) and doesn't include a scene setting specifically for pets, a sports mode often serves as an effective substitute.

In either case, when taking high-speed action shots, having some telephoto reach can be a huge help. It's much more difficult to track a quick-moving subject up close, and having the ability to fill up the frame with your subject from some distance is an added plus. Having a telephoto range equivalent to at least 200mm (in familiar 35mm terms) can also make it easier to grab greatcandids without having to get to close: just as in photographing people, the best animal shots usually happen when the photographer isn't intruding on scene.

As a final general consideration, too many casual photographers never utilize the continuous drive function on their cameras for taking photos of animal subjects. Unlike film, digital captures are basically free, and it's hard to know precisely when your subject will be at its best. Instead, when photographing your pets or taking snaps at the zoo, grab a series of back-to-back shots instead. Shooting fifty continuous frames to get a single great pet portrait or action shot may seem excessive, but having a capture of the perfect moment usually makes the trouble of sorting through your photos after the fact to pick the keepers worth it.

Consider staging, lighting, and focus
Just as in portraiture with human subjects, staging can also play an important role in photographing your pets. Plan outdoor shoots early or late in the day, when light is optimal.

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Consider the relationship of light sources to your subject; often, a bit of fill flash (more on this in depth momentarily) is crucial to balance in outdoor shots, so attend to that as needed as well (keeping in mind "pet eye" concerns discussed below, that is). Alternatively, though, strong light sources ? as in the midday light from the window over my left shoulder in the following shot ? can help add drama to an otherwise mundane snap.

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Many dog and cat pictures are, in essence, portraits, and thinking of them that way from a compositional standpoint can help improve your photo taking. As with photographing people, shooting up close with shallow depth of field can yield a great look for pet shots, but be careful of where your focal point is if you're working at wide apertures. A rule of thumb for portraits of all types is that the area of sharpest focus should always emphasize the eyes.

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Of course, there's nothing that says you can't mix things up and go for a different look. The more important point is to be conscious of your focal point or points: having this awareness is part of the reason I avoid automatically selected multi-area AF modes (including, ironically, face detection systems). In pet shots as in portraits generally, the best shots will come from taking a proactive approach.

"Kick" it up a notch with fill flash
Appropriate flash use is one key to taking good outdoor portraits, especially. Using fill flash in outdoor scenes also tends to be poorly understood by many casual photographers, who logically but incorrectly assume that if you have sufficient natural light, there's no need to add flash into the mix as well. In truth, fill flash plays two important roles in portraiture of all kinds, making it an important consideration when taking pet snaps.

First, fill flash works to even out harsh, high-contrast outdoor lighting. Strong shadows cast by strong outdoor light sources can be hard to work with, as can stronglybacklit scenes in which your subject comes out much too dark. Second, fill flash helps to assure that the eyes of your subject ? as noted above, the key focal area in most pet portraits ? show a little sparkle.

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As seen above, it doesn't take much: often, shooting with the sun over your shoulder provides enough of a glint to give your subject some life. If you find that your animal subjects are looking a little glassy-eyed, though, having a flash unit (and, depending on whether you're taking shots of pets or photographing wild or zoo animals, possibly even a flash extender) handy to provide a little kick lighting can be crucial.

Avoiding "pet eye"
Finally, just as in photographing humans, flash can also be tricky in that it causes reflections ? often green, yellow, or white ? in animals' eyes if you're shooting close, especially. Unfortunately, camera red-eye reduction systems usually have limited success in keeping so called "pet eye" under control, and in-camera processing after the shot almost never works to remove it.

There are several strategies for keeping the issue under control, and depending on the specifics of your shooting situation one or more may be of use to you. First, if you're working with a DSLR or another camera with a hot-shoe mounted flash, swivel the head (if your flash unit is so designed) to avoid direct into-the-eyes flash firing. A flash diffuser ? typically in the form of a "soft box" ? can also help somewhat; some types of diffusers are also compatible with pop-up flash units and may be of assistance, though in my experience the amount of diffusion you get from these types of flash modifiers is often pretty limited.

If you're just trying to get kick light or moderate fill, stepping back and zooming in often helps to lessen reflectivity. Likewise, if your shot composition allows it, changing your angle slightly so that your flash beam hits the subject's eyes obliquely rather than head-on is typically one of the more effective methods for controlling reflectivity in human and animal eyes alike.

If all else fails there's always post-shot correction. While most red-eye tools don't work for most forms of pet eye, there are exceptions. It will require some experimentation to know for sure which tools work and which don't, and it should also be noted that some photo kiosks now include pet-eye reduction functions. While there are plug-ins out there for common image editing software packages that claim to eliminate pet eye, spending on such a specialized tool seems a bit like overkill to me: better to learn how to do basic manual pet eye/red eye correction using either brushwork or levels/curves adjustments in your preferred image editor. Anything with a decent level of editing control (Photoshop Elements, GIMP, etc.) will work for this purpose.