The key to taking good photos of your pets is to approach them in much the same way you do people in regards to lighting and composition. Much like children, however, it may be hard to get them to actually pose for you. I took a few shots of Spanky and Darla while they were having a quieter day. The lighting in each of the shots is slightly different, but each photo is done without flash and using only window light. Try to not use flash when taking photos of pets to avoid washing out their fur. In the main photo, Spanky was positioned very close to the window and looking out of it. You can actually see the window reflected in his eyes. I was close to him, and at 70mm, the F/2.8 aperture really helped to drop out the background and keep the main focus on his eye closest to the camera.
In picture B, Spanky moved to another table in my work area to lounge. Here, that same window is behind him, creating a nice bright background, and he is lit by the light from that same window that is bouncing off the white wall he is now facing. When taking portraits of people or pets, reflected or bounced light provides a beautiful even lighting that can be very flattering. See a post about reflected light off of a house in the backyard here. You can see the door reflected in his eyes, where a skylight in the hallway has provided extra light and makes a great catch light in his eyes. As with people and birds, it is important to get a catch light in your cat or dog’s eyes to really bring their portrait to life.
In photo C, Spanky was bored of posing, and moved to a location further away from the window and while the light here was not as bright as close to the window, it was spread out over the room for some nice even lighting (see how even the background is lit up). So here, I boosted my ISO a little higher to be able to capture more light. The very shallow depth of field throws his paws out of focus, but helps to show off his comfy sleeping position.
Lastly, in photo D, Darla is photographed in a diffused side-lit manner. The window partially covered by drapes is still allowing a lot of light to come into the room, and the slight side lighting gives the shot a little more definition and drama as opposed to the flattering and softer front or reflected lighting in Spanky’s portraits. Darla was much more curious about the camera and moved in closer to me for a look. The wide open aperture gave me sharp focus on her eyes and everything else drops out of focus.
On a beautiful fall day, I posed my subject next to a tree facing the back of the house, which acted as a reflector. The sun bounced off the house and lit the girl’s face and gave her a really nice highlight in each eye. Reflectors can be any white or near white surface, such as a painted brick wall, a sign on a door, or more. Position your subject in the path of the light as it bounces naturally off the “reflector.” If you are in a place where there is no structure that can act as a reflector, then break out a white piece of foam core or oat tag to bounce light back into your subject’s face and eyes. If you love this technique for posed portraits, then you might consider buying a reflector from your local camera store. So look around to see not only where the light is coming from, but what it is bouncing off.
You know that sparkle we strive to get in every subject’s eyes? The sparkle that brings a portrait to life? Well, that same feature needs to be in your pet photos, too. I remember a photo contest judging once where the guest judge, a wildlife photographer, eliminated a contestant’s bird entry since the bird looked dead! It had no pin-point highlight in its eyes and she felt it looked like a taxidermy prop. So when shooting your pets, avoid that same horrible criticism. Walk around them to find the right light, or if you have a well-trained pet, make it sit near a window just like I ask my model to do when I want a casual portrait.
Now with Cinder here (a new addition to the home of close friends), how can you miss? Those eyes! But I still looked to see how the light hit his baby blues. The sun was behind me and we were under the shade of a tree. This is called open shade and gives the image a nice even tone, not contrasty on the bright sunny day. And it also leads to great highlights in the eyes.
Open shade can be found in many places: just inside a doorway, just inside the garage overhang, under the light of the first tree in a forest or tree-lined road, under a beach umbrella, just inside a beach cabana, and many more places just like that. Just be sure to not move your subject too far inside, but keep them just inside where the light is no longer harsh. Use a wide open aperture to blur distracting backgrounds. (ISO 400; 200mm; 1/1250 sec; F/6.3)
The lighting on an overcast day, even at midday, is ideal for natural and easy candid portraits. My daughter played in the snow, got her cheeks all rosy, and then stopped for a minute for me to grab a couple of shots. I stood back and zoomed in to 120mm to blur out the background and I had no worries about the “raccoon eyes” you might get midday on sunny days since the snow acted as a natural reflector and bounced light back into her beautiful face.