Welcome to the first of our brand new ‘How To:’ range of photography skills posts. Over the next few weeks we will be bringing you a range of photography skills posts on areas from food, landscapes and even headshots. First of all we will be looking at pet photography and how to ensure you get the best portraits of your four legged family members!
Phone Camera or DSLR?
Obviously, if you have access to a DSLR camera then you’re off to a great start, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get some fantastic photos from your phone camera. The advances made in the newest Apple and Samsung phones allow you to have much greater control over your camera functions, much like with the more professional cameras.
If you’re using a DSLR for pet photography, we would recommend having a mixture of lenses where possible, including wide-angle (i.e. 17-40mm) and telephoto (i.e. 70-200mm) lenses so you are prepared for any need. Prime lenses can also be fantastic due to their sharpness and capabilities in lower light, but given their fixed focal length and the fact animals tend not to stay still for too long, you could find yourself having to move a lot more than you would if you were primarily using zoom lenses.
General Camera Information:
If you already own a DSLR then it’s likely you may already have some experience with and an understanding of fundamental camera settings like ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
For those that are new to these terms, the quick guide below will give you an overview to help the rest of the post make sense:
Shutter speed is how quickly the camera takes the picture. The quicker the shutter speed is, the less light is let into the camera which makes the image darker but the reduces the chance of motion blur. Motion blue occurs when the subject moves as the image is taken and their features appear soft and blurry.
Aperture is the method of controlling depth of field. The more shallow the depth of field, the more blurry the background becomes. A wider depth of field will have more of the whole scene in focus. So for landscapes you want the whole scene in focus, but for portraits you may prefer a shallow depth of field to separate your subject from the background.
ISO is a method of introducing more light into darker scenes, though this does come with a trade off. The higher your ISO value, the more grain or “noise” is introduced into the photograph. This degrades the quality of the image and potentially what you’re able to do with it down the line. Therefore the lower you are able to keep your ISO the better. If however you require a fast shutter speed (darker image) and a wide depth of field (also letting in less light), then a higher ISO may be your only option to brighten the image up.
White Balance is how we ensure that the colours in the photograph match the colours that are being represented in real life. Perhaps the photograph you’ve taken inside made everything look yellow, or you’ve used your camera’s flash and things have looked quite cold or even blue. In these examples the white balance has been off, resulting in pictures which don’t truly represent the subject being photographed. Being able to manipulate the white balance means you can ensure the white in your photographs is actually white and doesn’t contain a colour cast.
Focal points are simply little dots in the viewfinder of the camera or on your phone screen that can be selected as the specific area in which you wish the camera’s lens to direct its focus. For instance, you may select a point that is on your subject’s eyes so they’re sharp, rather than the background behind them.
Using a Phone Camera
As illustrated in the image below, if you enable the ‘pro’ settings on your phone you are able to gain a range of tools which act in a similar way to the professional packages available to DSLR users. Shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focal points and even aperture can be changed to suit the requirements of the scene. It’s also possible to overlay the screen with a 3×3 grid to help you follow the ‘rule of thirds’. This enables you to create a visually pleasing image whereby the subjects fall along the grid lines and intersections.
Using a DSLR
Pet Photography Specific settings:
Without going into too much detail (as each situation will differ slightly depending on the available light and the setting) a simple guide would be as follows;
A high shutter speed – over 1/400 would be ideal as long as it’s a bright enough day. This will freeze the small movements your animal might make and keep details sharp.
A low ISO is preferable to keep images smooth and grain free, as long as it doesn’t make your image too dark.
As for aperture, I would go as low as my lens allows to create a shallow depth of field. I also spend most of my time behind the camera so I’m confident about how accurate my focus my is. When starting to photograph a new subject it’s often wise to come up just a step or two so that you’re confident that the subject is sharp and in focus.
If you still want to make sure the background is blurred out, bring your subject further away from any background and the compression in your lens will make it more blurred.
Get Down to Their Level
Pet photography is still a portrait, and portraits are all about eyes. If you take the photos from your eye line whilst standing tall, then your pet will look smaller and it will be harder to see their eyes clearly. It’s a known that dogs struggle to look up (without moving their head) so the closer you come to their level the better. In my experience, it also creates a more fun and calm exchange between you and the subject as they can also associate height with power and status. Coming down to their level indicates that you’re equals and you want to have fun!
To really make those eyes pop if you have the ability to select focal points, use a single focus point and make sure it’s centred over one of the pets eyes.
Use treats and toys
An obvious statement but this is a must for all pet photographers! Dogs in particular are highly reward-motivated. Whether that’s their favourite chew toy, ball or treat that they can’t get enough of. Have a combination of them all to hand and whenever your furry friend waits patiently for you make sure you reward them in turn. Pretty soon they’ll be posing all on their own just in case you’ve got some spare treats hidden in your pocket!
Photograph in Play
Pets are notorious for not wanting to stay still for long so work with that rather than against it. Occasionally you’ll find dogs and animals that are very well behaved and will pose for your pet photography all day long. However this is not often the case, and so if your pet is happier playing then photograph them doing that! Pictures of them digging, rolling, playing fetch or giving family members kisses will capture their personality and will become memories you to treasure.
Getting the Best From Your Model
As mentioned above, treats and toys are great rewards for good behaviour, but how do we get that good behaviour in the first place?
Firstly before you even start to shoot, try to get a concept in mind about what you want to photograph. That way you won’t spend too long taking photos you’re not sure about and raising the potential for your pet to get bored or irritable.
Remember that it is you who wants these photos not your pet, try not to give them too many commands or overuse their name. Remember there is no quicker way to confuse an animal than issuing a long string of similar but conflicting commands! Simply put stay as quiet as you can and let them relax. This way your pet photography will capture them at their best.
Keep your movements to a minimum, cats in particular are very easily spooked but even the best behaved dog might react if you suddenly jump up and run to the other side of them. When you move position, your pet will sense a new adventure and want to follow you.
Lastly and possibly the most importantly, stay calm and relaxed. We all know animals can sense fear but they can also sense a huge range of emotions from their humans so if you’re stressing out and getting annoyed that they aren’t doing what you want, they’ll respond in kind and things won’t get better. The more calm you can be the more relaxed your pet will be too.
So once you’ve captured those images, what do you do next?! Whether you’re using phones or cameras editing is key. Automatic settings in phones and cameras are looking for an “average” outcome to every photo. This means they want to create images that aren’t too bright or dark, nor too vibrant or dull and so on. This means a lot of the images taken in automatic modes can end up looking quite ‘flat’ or bland and while the composition could be great, the overall photo is lacking.
This is where your editing comes in. Software exists for you to manipulate those images in almost any way you like and I’d always recommend passing through either an app or software on your desktop for every image you plan to put out there, even if the tweaks are only minimal.
Adobe have their Lightroom software available as both desktop software and a mobile app so you’re covered however you’ve decided to capture your photos.
The great thing about the Lightroom mobile app is that it has most of the functionality you get with the desktop version and yet remains quick and intuitive to use. You even have the ability to edit an image and share it directly to either social media feeds or email accounts from the app which saves a great deal of time and effort!
As you can see from the image below the different editing tools are displayed along the bottom, with each menu opening a range of sliding scales which are easy to manipulate. This process is really straightforward and gives great results in a short space of time.
If you’ve managed to capture your images on a DSLR or equivalent and are now ready to edit using your desktop computer I would again recommend the Adobe Lightroom application. There are others on the market and a range of free-to-use and paid models but I personally prefer the usability of Lightroom to get the job done right. You can see my set up in the image below (ignore the construction outside the window!)
The image is the same one as I used earlier in the Lightroom mobile app. Remember that photos taken on mobile devices can also be edited using the heftier desktop editing software if you prefer. Once again you can see the tools along the side making editing super easy as you can immediately see what happens to the image as you move each slider. I also often use the Wacom tablet you can see near my keyboard. This is a more advanced tool for particularly enthusiastic amateurs or professional photographers.
I will typically use the mouse while I work on images in Lightroom but if I take a particular image into Adobe’s sister application Photoshop then the tablet comes in handy as I can make brushstroke changes very easily and have a much more accurate degree of control.
Don’t forget once you’ve finished editing your photographs to save them at the highest quality available and with appropriate file names. This saves time when you want to find them later if you have a lot of folders. Then you’re ready to upload them to social media or print them off for your wall.
Remember this advice doesn’t only applies to dogs, or even just pets – why not take your camera with you the next time you go to a nature park and see if you can apply these new skills to photographing the local wildlife too?
We hope you’ve found this tutorial helpful and interesting. We would love to see any photos you take after reading this guide so please share photos with us on social media (@contaktphotos -insta, @contaktphotography – FB) and keep following our feeds for more posts in the future!
Please also get in touch via the comments section below or on our contact page here if you have any questions or have a photography subject you’d like us to cover next.