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What is Pet Portrait Photography? A Robust Beginner’s Guide With History, Tips, and More

What is Pet Portrait Photography? A Robust Beginner’s Guide With History, Tips, and More

Taking a beautiful snapshot of your pets is easier said than done. When your pet doesn’t quite understand the art of posing and smiling, you have to approach this art form a little differently.

Pet portrait photography combines the technical skill of portrait photography with a candid approach. If you want to capture a memorable photo, you need to be aware of the unpredictable ways animals move and react. Not only do you need an understanding of how each domestic animal ticks, you have to get a little clever. After all, a single distraction could completely wreck your shot. 

Pet portrait photography is one of the most popular niches, similar to human portraits in some ways and completely different in others. I’ll explain the history of this niche, then break down common challenges for beginners. Whether you use a DSLR or smartphones, you’ll walk away with new knowledge on how to capture the essence of a pet!

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. What Is Pet Portrait Photography?
  3. A Brief History Of Pet Portrait Photography
  4. What Makes A Successful Pet Portrait?
  5. What Are Good Focal Lengths For Pet Portrait Photography?
  6. How Do You Take Good Dog Portraits?
  7. How Do You Take Good Cat Portraits?
  8. How Do You Take Good Bird Portraits?
  9. Conclusion: Pet Portrait Photography Has A Style All Its Own

an example of pet portrait photography showing a close up of an orange striped cat with green eyes

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Pet Portrait Photography?

Whenever you take a cute snapshot of your house cat being playful, you’re already sharpening your skills on one of the most popular subniches. Simply put, pet portrait photography captures the personality and history of a beloved pet. While it usually focuses on the face, this term can also include full-body shots. 

Pet portrait photography – just like human portraits – has several practical functions. Its most obvious purpose is to accurately document pets for medical purposes. For example, a veterinarian may use visual documentation to better treat a pet who’s been injured or needs vaccination. They would need clear photos to provide both their staff as well as the owners, so accuracy is the goal here.

On the artistic end of things, pet portrait photography is a wonderful way to promote, celebrate, and appreciate pets. Walk down any grocery store aisle and you’ll see pet portraits on food packaging or on the front of greeting cards. Here artistry takes central stage, so you’ll often see fun expressions or supplemental graphic design.

Pet portrait photography may not have quite the same level of esteem as human photography, but they follow close behind as a respected niche. 

an example of pet portrait photography showing two blue, orange, and green parrots nestled against each other

Source Image: Pixabay

A Brief History of Pet Portrait Photography

Becoming a pet portrait photographer – hobbyist or professional – means understanding the development of this subniche. After all, photography has been another way of capturing the world around us just like any painting or sketch.

In fact, pet portrait photography’s roots lie in classical paintings and sculptures. Go thousands of years back to ancient Egypt to see how societies captured the personality of their beloved cats and dogs. Cats, in particular, were associated with the cat-headed fertility goddess Bastet. Their ability to kill poisonous snakes and protect their families earned them the right to be recreated in paintings, statues, and mummified.

Fast forward to the 1500’s and 1600’s to see how classical art influenced pet portrait photography today. Some of the most famous paintings of all time featured dogs, cats, and birds in elegant oil and watercolor. A notable example is King Charles Spaniel from French painter Manet, a particularly expensive commission for royalty. This painting contains the fundamentals of what we know of pet portrait photography today. Not only does the illustration capture the dog’s soulful eyes, the background provides a rich, dark contrast to the bright fur.

When you consider how fidgety animals can be, effectively capturing them with a fundamentally time-consuming traditional painting is no mean feat. Studying classical pet paintings will give you a deeper appreciation for staples such as pose, lighting, and environmental contrast.

Pet portrait photography is a little easier thanks to how quickly photos capture and develop subjects, but there are still unique challenges to be aware of. 

an example of full body pet portrait photography showing a black, gray, and white saluki standing in green grass outside

Source Image: Pixabay

What Makes a Successful Pet Portrait?

The definition of a successful pet portrait varies from photographer to photographer. To keep things simple, I recommend focusing on a few major points when putting together a pet photo.

Pet portraits tend to look their best when:

Emphasize the Pet’s Personality Through Their Pose or Actions

If you’re aiming for more artistic representations of a pet, it’s vital you showcase their personality. You can get a lot across in a photo, so emphasize the pet’s pose or actions to demonstrate who they are.

Let’s say you’re taking a snapshot of a dog with a mischievous and playful personality. Consider setting up a shot where they’re wrestling with a toy or rolling around in the grass. These actions automatically tell the viewer the dog’s dominant traits while still capturing their unique visual traits.

Another example could be an aloof, quiet dog breed. You could choose a setting where the dog is at their most relaxed, such as their den or laying on their floor. A close-up portrait could be a strong choice for emphasizing their calm expression. 

Choose Well-Lit Environments to Capture Pets Accurately

If you need to capture photos of a pet for documentation purposes, you need well-lit environments. Dim lighting could interfere with their color or mute individual details, defeating the purpose.

Documentation is vital for veterinarian services or even pet rescue. The United States alone sees ten million pets lost every day, so clear documentation for lost and found posters can help people spot them and bring them back home.

Bright, clear lighting makes it easier to capture essential details such as:

  • The color of the fur, feathers, or claws
  • Markings, such as stripes or spots
  • Subtle details such as the length of the nose or shape of the tail

Consider How You Want Your Composition to Tell a Story

A strong composition is the difference between an interesting photo and a sloppy, unfocused one. As you snap photos, take into account your focal point and how the surrounding elements support it. 

Do you want a photo that showcases the pet in their natural habitat? How about a photo that brings to life their unique personality? Every last element in your photo is part of the overall composition and, thus, the overall story.

an example of bokeh photography showcasing an easygoing collie against a green and yellow backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

What are Good Focal Lengths for Pet Portrait Photography?

A simple shift to your focal length can completely transform the mood of your photo. What would’ve been a straightforward portrait can transform into a classical-style portrait or a snapshot out of a dream. 

Prime lens is more stable and beginner friendly, but a zoom lens can help you capture long-range shots. Use your discretion to figure out whether a prime or zoom lens is best for your needs, but below are a few starting points.

50mm For An Accurate Portrayal of a Pet

Some of the same go-to focal lengths for human portraits translate well to pet portraits. The 50mm closely replicates how the human eye perceives the world, so this focal length is fantastic for accurately capturing a pet.

This focal length has very little distortion, so consider using it for family photo albums or documentation for the veterinarian’s office. 

70mm For Dynamic Shots of Running or Jumping Pets

Do you want to take photos of a pet running, jumping, or playing? Shifting to a 70mm lens will be a little better for capturing their movements without too much blurring. 

You’ll also find 70mm photography frequently used for other mundane and unpredictable environments such as street fashion photography and travel photography. 

135mm For Wider Shots That Also Bring in the Environment

While pet portrait photography usually focuses on the face, you can still show some love to the environment. In fact, you may find showing off a park or some trees does well to tell a pet’s personal story.

The 135mm lens ensures everything in the photo is on visually equal footing, so sharpening and blurring is kept to a minimum. 

Now that you’ve got a good starting point with different lenses, it’s time to look at appropriate shutter speeds. 

a candid snapshot of a striped brown and gray cat stretching and yawning on a sunny day

Source Image: Pixabay

What are Good Shutter Speeds for Pet Portraits? 

Your camera’s shutter speed basically puts the power of time in your hands. Depending on how fast or slow your shutter is, you can freeze a subject in place or blur them. 

1/100th For Fast Moving Pets

Pets are incredibly agile and quick to jump, roll, or bounce away. The 1/100th shutter speed is ideal for snagging an image of a fast moving pet without troublesome blur. 

1/250th For More Relaxed Portraits

On the other end of the spectrum, you have relaxed and easygoing pet portraits. These are the kind you may save for a photo album to flip through fondly or use as a reference for a painting.

1/250th is a little slower to match the mood of the scene and can capture slower movements more accurately. 

Burst Mode for Unpredictable or Experimental Sessions

Do you sometimes switch to your smartphone for pet portraits? Burst mode is a fantastic way to capture quick, unpredictable movement with less effort. It’s also useful if you want to get experimental and try a bunch of new angles very quickly.

Burst mode will capture several quick photos in a given timespan. Subtle nuances in movement, pose, and expression will be easier to capture than if you attempted to take every photo manually.

an overhead shot of a Weimaraner puppy sitting down and staring at the camera

Source Image: Pixabay

How Do You Take Good Dog Portraits? 

Dogs come with unique challenges, particularly if they’re not your pet. They’re incredibly sensitive to stimuli and may find even the slightest distraction worthy of chasing after. 

To take a good dog portrait, you need the following:

Being Comfortable Around Dogs in General

Dogs are highly sensitive animals who can immediately tell if you’re not comfortable with them. If you don’t have an assertive personality or just aren’t familiar with dogs, consider spending more time with them.

If you have a friend or a family member with a dog, consider practicing with them first. Since the dog is in a more familiar environment with people they know, they’re more likely to cooperate for photos. 

Understand the Impact Different Settings Have

If you want to start taking pet portraits in different settings, you must know the impact they have. Dogs have much sharper senses than we do, so they’re more easily distracted or startled. 

A quiet, peaceful afternoon in your friend’s backyard is going to be less distracting than taking photos in the middle of a loud park. Choose a quieter setting when starting out so you’ll have fewer frustrating distractions. 

Focus on the Face or the Pose

Our personality shines in everything we say and do. Dogs are no different. Your photo will feel particularly candid and individualistic if you focus on the face or the pose.

A dog’s eyes and ears are some of their most expressive features. 

Take Advantage of Learned Commands

Whether taking photos of your own pet or someone else’s, take advantage of learned commands. Most dogs are eager to please – barring the more independent and aloof breeds – and will be happy to sit for a photo.

Just like us, though, they can get impatient if you occupy their attention too long without a break or treats. Keep a timeframe in mind and be sensitive if the dog becomes agitated or bored. If you’re a hobbyist, consider trying again another time. 

If you’re trying to build your portfolio and won’t get another opportunity to photograph a specific dog, commit to a strict timeframe and make do with what you have.

a candid snapshot of a white and black kitten yawning against a reddish pink backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

How Do You Take Good Cat Portraits? 

While dogs can be more rowdy, cats are usually quieter and easier to handle. That said, pets still have unique personalities and it’s important to respect all of them as individuals. That is the core tenet of pet portrait photography, after all!

Become Comfortable With Cats in General

The same logic that goes for dogs also applies to cats. Cats come in many fascinating and colorful breeds with varied temperaments, so getting comfortable will require exposure.

If you know anyone who has a cat, see if you can set up a time for a photoshoot. Get to know cats by talking to them, petting them, or just letting them get used to you. A comfortable cat will be much easier to shoot than a cat running away and hiding under the couch.

Try a Wide Aperture to Capture Subtle Detail

A wide aperture will create a more shallow depth of field, a useful tool for letting a cat’s natural wispy, fuzzy fur stand out. 

Consider Using Treats as Motivation

Cats are often independent and want to move around at their own pace. If the cat you’re photographing doesn’t want to sit still, consider using treats as motivation.

A cat with a treat may take a few moments to lick their chops, groom themselves, or feel relaxed after their meal. However, this is a double-edged sword. If you want a more candid shot with more varied movements, you’ll still need to let the cat do what it wants.

two green and yellow budgies sitting on a rope and grooming each other

Source Image: Pixabay

How Do You Take Good Bird Portraits?

Birds often have more challenges than cats or dogs because they’re not quite as common a pet. Just like any other domesticated animal, learning about the inner workings will bode well for your pet portrait portfolio. 

Become Comfortable Working With Birds in General

Due to being a more uncommon pet, this tip is even more necessary. Hot off the heels of dogs and cats, birds also require you to have some comfort in their presence. 

Domesticated birds are highly social, often chatting and interacting with others just like they would have in the wild. However, birds are rather spontaneous and don’t usually respond to commands. If you think you’re going to make a bird pose, you’ll be in for a world of disappointment.

Talking to birds in a low and calm voice is a good way to show you’re friendly. Take things slow and consider offering up a treat – a pet bird will soon associate your presence with good things. 

Avoid Using Camera Flash Settings

Not only will a camera flash likely overexpose your subject, you could also startle the pet bird. Birds are highly sensitive to dramatic changes in light and could become stressed out or confused.

Double-check the settings on your smartphone or DSLR and make sure flash is disabled. 

Use Burst Mode or a Higher Shutter Speed

Birds have incredibly fast movements, sometimes too fast for the human eye to capture. Compensate by using burst mode for your smartphone or a higher shutter speed for your DSLR.

Burst mode will allow you to take a slew of photos in a short amount of time, perfect for when the bird suddenly spreads its wings or tilts its head. A higher shutter speed will also compensate for this, particularly in the 1/500th to 1/1000th range. If the bird is idle, you can go a little lower. If the pet bird is flying or flapping, go higher.

a candid pet portrait of a brown puppy curled up in colorful flannel and looking off camera

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Pet Portrait Photography Requires Emotional Intelligence as Well as Skill

Pet portrait photography may have some similarities to human portraits, but it’s in a league all its own. The unique challenges of working with and capturing the nuances of animals is a skill you need to hone for success.

Pet portraits are usually done for design purposes, medical documentation, and showing your love for a pet. Much of pet portrait photography needs you to develop emotional intelligence and higher comfort levels around dogs, cats, and birds. Learning about issues such as sensitivity to light, reducing outside distractions, or adapting to a less social temperament puts you in a better spot to snap a great shot. 

Certain shutter speeds and focal lengths are better for capturing animals, too. Faster shutter speeds are great for capturing whip-fast shots of pet birds or pouncing cats. However, slower shutter speeds are ideal for relaxed, candid photography. 

As long as you focus on the soul of the animal, you’ll end up with a heartwarming result.

Want to learn more about fascinating photography subniches? Check out the following posts: