Pet Photography

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Thoughts on Pet Photography

Pet Photography
Milo – © Copyright 2012 by William Beem
Would you like to know my thoughts on pet photography?  Here you go. Pet photography must be the hardest type of photography in the world. I bet there are combat photographers who will look at this little ball of fur and ask to go back to war instead of dealing with him. Either that, or the folks doing pet photography have much more mild mannered animals at their disposal than I do. Don’t be fooled by his cute appearance. Cuteness is a defense mechanism given to young animals so they can get away with acts of terrorism.

This is Milo, my new puppy. After my dog Humphrey passed, I was disappointed that I never really got any decent photos of him. Now that I’ve experimented a tad with pet photography, I may no longer regret those lost shots. The photography part is easy. It’s the pet that sends cold chills down my spine.

When I mentioned that pet photography was hard, Ken Toney tried to tell me that baby photography was harder. Nonsense.  Babies just cry. I’ve never met a baby that tried to eat my lens hood.

If you want to talk about difficult models, Milo is the poster child. He didn’t have a tantrum. Quite the opposite, he was full of boundless energy and happiness. He was so happy that he leaped through the air into my set. Much like Superman plowing through a building, Milo lunged with legs stretched forward into my white V-Flats. He discovered that sliding on the white tileboard was fun. Keeping in sync with the puppy rules that dictate everything must fit into his mouth, he went after my camera as I composed shots. Basically, he did everything except sit still for a millisecond.

That’s when I got the bright idea of just putting down a food dish to see if he’d stay put. It sort of worked. His first reaction was to pounce in it. Kibble exploded across my set like shrapnel from a grenade. Great. More stuff to clean up before I could take the shot.

Then he finally plopped down to eat. Oddly enough, this position is exactly how Milo eats. He just lies down on his belly and puts at least one paw in the bowl (sometimes two) and goes to town. To get this shot, I needed a low angle and put my camera on the floor. It’s truly a pain in the neck to look through the viewfinder at this kind of low angle. Once I focused on his eye, I set the focus lock and then just started watching for moments to click the shutter.

The set was very simple. I used a pair of white 4×8 foam core boards taped together for background and fill. There was white tile board under him. The only light was my Elinchrom BXRi 500 with a 53″ Midi Octa box on the right side. I’ll try again outside to get a natural setting, but the high key setup was supposed to be quick and simple. To be fair, the set was quick and simple. It’s the dog that brought all the complications.

Milo is actually a very sweet and loving puppy, but he’s also driving me crazy with his energy and endless ability to chew everything in sight. While working on the computer last night, I heard a crash in the living room. He pulled out an electrical cord and dragged a table lamp across my living room and was heading to my office. My power supply for the Macbook Pro no longer works. Earlier yesterday, he grabbed the guitar cable plugged into my Line 6 pedal board and slung it from one side of the living room to another. He does all of this with glee.

That’s my beginning with a nearly 3 month-old puppy that arrived here Sunday evening. He’s still untrained. He doesn’t understand the word “No.” He doesn’t understand any of the words that come out of my mouth. I’ve tried to keep it simple with “Stop”, “Don’t” and a plethora of other four-letter words that have no impact.

He’s not evil or malicious. In fact, he routinely expresses affection. The dog is a licker. It’s just that he’s also a chewer. Sometimes he gets the two confused. Last night, I was on the floor and he decided to come bounding over and lick my face. Then came a moment that passed in an instant, but I remember it clearly in slow motion. There was a sparkle in his eye, then a slight smile. That’s when he reached forward and chomped hard on the base of my nose! I used another four letter word that he didn’t understand.

My Golden Retriever is now seven years old, but he was just as bad. Zach, the Destroyer. He liked to chew on my walls. Once, he chewed through the dining room wall until he reached the cinder blocks.  Not just some small hole, but one big enough for him to fit through. I’m hoping Milo doesn’t learn the same tricks, because I don’t want to replace drywall and paint again. On the other hand, Zach is much more likely to sit still for a portrait. Maybe the trick to pet photography is to get older dogs who just sit there and smile.


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  1. As a photographer who shoots animals (mainly dogs) for 3 animal shelters and has two Golden Retrievers of my own (6 year old bitch & 1year old dog) I find shooting animals easy. The important part is first to let them burn off a bit of energy (especially with puppies) then the hard part is getting their attention.) Puppy treats/biscuits are are a must). Then pick a place where they are comfortable. Trying to place dogs on a “SET” really doesn’t work, as you’ve found out ’cause they are curious and not comfortable. Worry less about the background etc & focus on the animal & work to capture the best expression. I work with a ‘brolly to give soft light with a speedlight. Get down to their level, which means I spend most of my time lying on the floor! I fix the background in post with a blur layer. If you can get someone to ‘hold the dog in position with a small ‘choke lead’ it helps a lot, then you can take it out in Photoshop quite easily with content aware spot brush.
    It’s so important to get PERSONALITY in the shots and you’ve done extremely well here.
    To see some examples of my work goto
    You are an amazing photographer, I’ve followed your work for a long time, just relax your standards a bit for the best shots first then the technical details can come in post.


    1. Thanks, Derek. That all sounds like good advice and I’ll try it as he grows up a bit. Actually, I think I’ll wait until he’s sleeping on his back again and then get the speedlight/brolly out.

      Thanks for sharing your blog. That gives me a chance to steal some ideas!

      1. I’m sorry if I sounded presumptuous in my last post. who am I to offer advice to one of my photographic heros! I love photographing dogs and when I’m at home with my 2 just sitting around, I’ll take my speedlight & bounce it off the ceiling and just wait for those great moments to happen, 9while I watch my favorite TV show . Unfortunately you can’t be a director with animals, they’ll just do what they do when they feel like it.
        As you’re an expert on HDR, I wonder what a HDR treatment would do to animal portraits? Whatcha think? I did some Photoshop Oil Paint on one of my portraits & it came out quite nicely, might try the new Oil Paint in CS6. Also thinking of trying Doc Browns new Painting app for Photoshop, might be interesting.
        BTW feel free to use any of my pics for your own pleasure, I’m flattered )blush). I’ve still got a lot to learn to bring my stuff up to a standard that I’ll be happy with.
        If you ever get near San Francisco in the future, let me know & mabey we can get together & compare notes (& I can steal ideas from you.

        Thanks for the kind comments
        PS there’s a dog gallery on the site as well.

  2. THAT was a hoot and I have a four letter word for you. Love.:) You don’t fool me a second you big ol’ softie you…

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