A dog and cat tale-professional pet photography

February 1st, 2011 by

©Christina Gandolfo

It’s been several years since I posted items on this blog. I’ve decided to go back and refresh and rewrite in light of the changes in the stock photo industry since I last posted. Plus I get to replace all the images that disappeared a year ago.

I had asked LA based photographer, Christina Gandolfo, to post tips on taking photos of cats and dogs. One of the largest ‘spends’ in the U.S. ad market worth millions is for pet related marketing, packaging and advertising. Photographers have specialized in this market as well as some making a pretty penny from pet portraits for the retail market.

Christina writes:

One comment I hear a lot when people see my photos of cats and dogs, “No way. My cat (or dog) would never pose like that!” While it’s true that my own cats have grown accustomed to a camera being pointed their direction and the chug-chik sound of a shutter firing, many of the techniques I use to get good animal photos can be used by anyone — from point-n-shoot hobbyist to gear-flush photo addicts.


©Christina Gandolfo

Follow these tips and you’ll have greeting-card worthy images of your favorite fur-models in no time.

1. Practice patience, grasshopper. To get truly unique pet photos it’s not enough to just have your camera always nearby. Nine times out of 10 whatever weird, quirky or cute thing your pet is doing will have vanished by the time you even find your camera’s ON button, and you’ll be left with a blank-faced pet who acts like nothing special ever happened.

Much like a cat stalks its prey you need to stealthily lie in wait for the good moments. Thankfully, since animals  are compelling creatures by nature this isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Spend as little as 10 minutes with your full attention (and camera) trained on your pet and I can almost guarantee it will do something photo-worthy. Whether it’s a freakishly psychotic yawn, a sickingly adorable stretch, or a carefully timed attack on a housefly you want to be ready when it happens.

2. Go low. The most interesting pet photos are often those that are taken from a pet’s perspective. Getting face-to-face with your cat or dog is not only more likely to result in an eye-catching image, but it brings you into your pet’s world and allows you to see the environment from their vantage point. It also creates a more intimate connection between you, your pet and your camera. Lie around often enough with a camera and soon your pet will not only grow used to it, but will likely reward the attention with some gratuitous posing.

3. Zoom, zoom. If you’re dealing with an animal who needs his space or if you want to get shots that are very candid in nature, it helps to bring out the big guns. I use my 70-200mm zoom lens often when photographing pets, and recommend that same focal range or a long telephoto lens (85mm +) for anyone who’s serious about photographing animals.



©Christina Gandolfo


©Christina Gandolfo

A zoom lens or long telephoto is perfect for trips to the dog park when you want to capture your pup in full sprint or interacting with her favorite pals at the park. Shooting at a long focal length will also help to blur out the background so that the focus remains on your pet. Which brings us to our next tip…

4. Be shallow. Again, pet photos most often work best when the focus remains on Princess and not the pile of laundry in the background. The easiest way to do this is to put your camera into aperture priority mode (both SLRs and many P&Ss have this option), and open your lens as wide as it will go. Ideally you want an aperture of f/2.8 or lower but if your camera only opens as wide as f/4 then set it to that.

The effect you’re going for is a nice, sharp subject and a buttery soft background. Of course, if you’re shooting head-on, it IS possible to be use too shallow of focus. If, for instance, you’re shooting your dachshund at f/1.4 and focusing on his eyes, the eyes will be nice and crisp but the nose and snout will be noticeably blurred. Sometimes this is OK, and sometimes you may wish you’d been stopped down to 2.8, 4.o, or above to get more detail in the nose. Your best bet is to experiment with different apertures and see what you like best for your particular pet, and in different situations.

Just remember, if you’re shooting with a shallow depth, the closer you are to your subject the more narrow the area of focus will be. Back up a little or use a longer focal length, and more area of your photo will be in focus.

Bonus newbie tip: If you’re you’re shooting in bright daylight conditions and want to shoot at a wide aperture you’ll probably need to be at ISO 100 (or lower). If you’re in darker conditions (indoors) you will likely need to crank your ISO up to 400 or higher, if your camera can handle it. With my Canon 5D Mark II, I often shoot natural light pet photos indoors at ISO 1600 or above. And like any portrait, remember you’ll get very nice light if your subject is near a window with diffused light (i.e., well-lit, but not in a direct beam of light).


©Christina Gandolfo

5. Make some noise. While sudden noises tend to startle pets (leave your cymbals in the closet) subtle noises can grab your pet’s attention, and often elicit a quizzical look or expression. I’ve found dogs respond well to a slight whimper, high-pitched kitten-mew, or a squeak. Cats tend to like crinkly/crackly noises. We often scratch our studio’s nylon lighting umbrellas to catch their attention. If you have a baby toy that crinkles, try that, or try crumpling paper or running your fingers across paper. Cats sometimes respond to a mew, too. Your pet may have a unique noise it responds to– if so, find what it is and use it!

6. Resort to bribery. When all else fails– do the obvious and resort to treats. Just realize that once you bring out the Milkbones, all other bets are off. If you’re shooting dogs — particularly those that will listen to direction — it often works to administer the treats yourself; doing so keeps the connection between you and your pooch. For a more posed (and often ‘human-like’) portrait, put the dog in a sit/stay position, take a few steps back, aim your camera, offer a slight whimper, and fire! Then offer the reward.

If you’re photographing cats, ideally you’ll want another person to dole out treats while you stand ready with the camera. Since most cats don’t inhale treats the same way dogs do you can offer a treat upfront, and the photo ops will come afterward, while they lick their chops, clean themselves or maybe even extend a paw for more.

Of course this technique works best with a SLR that allows you to fire quickly and capture those moments that merely flash before the eye.

You may think “my cat would never do that,” but I assure you, you can can get them to do a lot of crazy things for at least 1/250 of a second.