Candid Animal Photography

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Animals make some of the greatest subjects a photographer could ask for.  Always available, easily bribable and, if trained well, animals sit better than most children and adults.  Whether you are photographing Mr. Bunny Froo Froo for his latest portrait or just because it is a nice day outside, following a few simple steps will get you a shot that will show off all the best features of your furry child.

Character

All genres of photography should tell a story.  This is especially true when it comes to animals.  Because they can't speak for themselves or tell you all about their childhoods, how awesome their owners are or that their favorite toy is a fluffy, floppy teddy bear, a photograph can speak for them.  We have all seen those animal food commercials that depict some happy-go-lucky cat prancing through an animated forest of butterflies and flying fish.  We want that cat food and our cats want that cat food.  Why?  Because the cat in the commercial has character.  She is probably a happy, well-loved cat and the commercial shows it.  Repeat that technique by closing in on what makes your pet unique.  

If you have a lazy animal, capture just that.  Find the best time of day that they are at their laziest and snap a picture.  As with children, animals are at a lower level so don't be afraid to get on the floor to capture a better perspective.  If you have an animal that is kooky and off-the-wall insane, amplify that.  It is especially important with candid photography to have the camera set to the correct settings and levels so as to not get in the way of the actual picture taking. 

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Lighting

When possible, natural light is always best.  If you have solely indoor pets, open some windows to achieve as much natural light as possible.  If photographing outside, direct sunlight will create a lot of shadows and hot spots.  If you have a furry child, their coats will look super great in the sun, especially after a bath.  But if the weather man has called for rain, hop inside and turn on a low lamp.  There is no reason to turn on every light in the house just to get a good shot.  Adjust your cameras levels (ISO and f/stop in particular) to capture the best color saturation and hue.  You can still capture good color and gradation as long as the camera is set to do so.

Composition

As one of the most essential yet rarely perfected techniques of photography, composing a shot is so very difficult when it comes to candid pet photography.  They move, they run, they poop and not always on command.  Animals are spontaneous.  Compose the picture as best you can.  If you are pulling in on a tight shot, avoid background noise.  Use this rule of thumb: if it doesn't add to it, take it out.  Perspective also plays into this.  If you have a hamster who appreciates life upside down on her back, kneel over her and capture her tiny little legs flailing in the air.  Birdseye view shots are best composed centrally; keep the left and right of the subject clear so your focus is solely on Mr. Jingles.  If your horse likes looking out over the field, compose the shot heavily to one side.  Get the head of the animal in one third of the frame and fill the other two thirds with what the animal is observing.  Don't forget the focus is on the animal. 

Include People

Humans own pets.  But in the pet world, they own us.  Capture some sweet moments between owner and pet.  Having both in one frame can really humanize the animal and animalize the human.  For instance, in this picture, you might never guess that the man holding the tiniest Rottweiler in the world while making a kissy face is in fact a hardened, three-time deployed solider.  Capturing his soft side with Little Larry was easy.  At the same time, the Giant Man is a good size comparison for how small Little Larry really was as a puppy (you would never know it know; he's a 120 pound horse).  Any time you can get an indication of how small or big a pet is, the better.  If you are able to do that with the owner the better the story will be.  And everyone loves to see how closely owner and pet resemble one another.  They make calendars and coffee table books every year solely dedicated to pets and owners who look alike.  Steal the idea and take your own pictures.    

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Highlight Certain Features

Just as children grow, so do animals.  They start out small and get bigger.  Start them out young and take pictures often.  Once they warm up to the camera, you'll be able to capture more than a blurry nose in the frame.  While they are young, take the time to document how sweet and precious they can be while they are asleep.  It is a good time to do a "body study" of sorts.  Focus in on one feature, such as a nose, ear, paw, tail, etc., and blur out the background.  This can be achieved with changes in f/stops, focus points or a macro setting.  To really highlight how sweet pets can be, convert the image to black and white.  There is something about black and white photography that elevates a picture to undeniable "Awwwwwwwwww!" status instantly.     

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Camera Settings

If you didn't know this already then we'll tell you know: animals move.  So use a fast shutter speed when taking pictures.  If you are lucky and get an animal to sit still, it won't last long.  Tripods need not apply.  If using a point-and-shoot, click on over to Motion, Sport or maybe even an Animal Portrait setting if available.  If you have a dSLR or SLR, amp up the shutter speed to get a crisp still-shot.  If you want some blur for a genuine action shot, tone it down a smidge.  In terms of flash, take a few test shots and see what works best.  While indoors, open the shutters and let the light shine in.  With the addition of one filler lamp with a lamp shade you might be able to escape the flash all together.  If flash is totally necessary, add a diffuser to soften the light.  But a little overexposure in pet photography is not a bad thing.  It will pull out some more color in their coat.  If you find it floods the picture, alter the contrast in post-production or just drop the flash altogether to avoid it entirely. 

Pet photography requires patience and a sense of humor, both of which most pet owners already have.  Take the time to capture multiple shots; surely the majority of them will be blurry or out of focus thanks to the ever moving family pet.  Seek out the character of the animal, highlight their uniqueness and show off why it is you love them so much.



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Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby. 

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