As any pet owner will attest, it can feel as though it is physically impossible not to break out your camera the moment your furry companion does something even remotely adorable.
Chalk it up to our intrinsically deep bonds with our pets, but there is something so satisfying about capturing those moments, whether you intend to share them with your followers online or preserve them as your own personal keepsakes
Here, we examine 30 brilliant pet portraits and the practical lessons within that both amateur and seasoned photogs can definitely take cues from.
01. Start with a message.
While there’s no wrong reason to snap a cute animal photo (just take a peek at the over 70 million uploads tagged with #catsofinstagram online), sometimes shooting with a clear message in mind generates the most impactful work. French photographer Sophie Gamand’s ongoing photo series of pit bulls framed by flower crowns was inspired by her desire to destigmatize the misunderstood breed. Working with animal shelters across America (where countless, unwanted pit bulls are euthanized every single day), she uses the combination of her unique aesthetic and passion for animal welfare to not only create a stunning body of work, but also to affect real change.
02. Capture real moments.
Who hasn’t gone out of their way to set up photo-op scenarios with their pets? While a little planning (and positive reinforcement by way of treats!) goes a long way, there is something so special about capturing a genuine moment in your pet’s life. Whether it’s catching them slightly out of focus or breaking their pose to react to some distraction around them, these seemingly imperfect captures add a kind of warmth and character to shots that no amount of staging could ever reproduce.
03. Imagine your pet’s point-of-view.
You may never really know what goes on in the head of man’s best friend, but you can sure use your imagination to come up with seriously creative ways to frame photos. Try picturing shots from your pet’s perspective: framing things from a lower eye line or trying to create the illusion of space the way that they might perceive it. You’ll be surprised by how looking at something ordinary from a completely different angle can change a shot’s entire mood.
04. Have a sense of humor.
Nothing brings a smile to an animal lover’s face quicker than a silly, light-hearted portrait of a pet the way that their owner actually sees them. Each pet has its own unique character quirks (take Grumpy Cat’s permanently dour frown or Marnie’s adorably lopsided tongue) that only the person most bonded with them could ever truly capture. Why not make a point to show-off those hilariously offbeat characteristics in your photography?
05. Think outside the bark.
The great thing about shooting pets is that unlike other more restrictive types of photography, there aren’t any hard and fast rules that one needs to follow. Take for example the unusual work of photographer Andrew Pinkham, who lights and heavily Photoshops animals against backdrops that resemble the 18th-century oil paintings of Johannes Vermeer. His experimental, genre-defying style has earned him fans all over the world and serves as a reminder that a photo doesn’t necessarily have to just stay a photo.
06. Use the location to tell a story.
Maximizing a photo’s surroundings and using that setting to tell a larger story is a great technique for creating a memorable picture. Take photographer Robert Bahou’s cinematic shots of animals encountered during his travels. A white street cat is stark against the colorful blue walls of Cuba. While in Jordan, a dog bathed in sunlight sits in the foreground of one of the ancient wonders of the world. Find ways to include your pet in the narrative of its surroundings and watch it add a dynamic layer to your photography.
07. Single out your niche.
The quickest way to stand out in the already saturated world of Instagram pet photography? Finding your niche. For the fashion-loving humans behind @mensweardog (the self-described “most stylish dog in the world”), singling out this sartorial love affair and using it as the filter through which to communicate their vision of their pet is what made them Insta-famous. By adopting the lighting and composition more commonly used in fashion and street photography, Menswear Dog found a way to stay ahead of the pack.
08. Explore together.
It might seem like common sense, but sometimes the best results come from just taking a step outside and documenting whatever spontaneous thing happens next. Whether it’s a leisurely walk through a nearby park or a road trip out of town, not only does the experience bond you with your pet, but it also makes room for adventure and discovery both on and off camera.
09. Keep it honest.
Despite the modern day pressures to create photography that sticks out from the rest, sometimes keeping things simple, honest, and real makes the biggest difference. Even though photographer Ryan McGinley is one of the most sought after stars in both the worlds of art and fashion, his intimate portraits of his dog are some of his best loved. Keeping with the naturalistic style of his work, McGinley’s straightforward shots of his loyal companion showcase an ease and affection that definitely translate on camera.
10. Find the light.
While it’s objectively difficult to take an altogether bad pet photo, the best ones seem to have one thing in common: a brilliant use of available light. It might be difficult to find the ideal lighting situation (especially when your pet is indoors), but try to stick to shooting during early mornings or late afternoons for the most flattering results. The natural warmth and softness that they lend to your subject means half the work is already done.
11. Work within their comfort zones.
Most photographers would do anything to get a shot, but as responsible pet owners know, that shot should never come at the expense of their pet’s comfort. Besides, there is something to be said about capturing a dog or cat in its preferred habitat; cuddling up with its favorite human if it’s a homebody or basking in the affection of strangers if it thrives on company. Make sure to always keep your pet’s personalities and preferences in mind for the most relaxed, natural results.
12. Pick the right co-star.
Your lead is only as good as its co-star—so make sure to cast the right one! In most cases, pet photos really shine when a pet has a companion to play off of—one whose energy matches and complements theirs. This isn’t to say that you always need to bring in another pack member to make a shoot work, but it lends a different energy when a pet is allowed to engage with another animal, particularly one that it is bonded with.
13. Follow those animal instincts.
Try as you might to stage the perfect shoot situation, sometimes you just have to let those animal instincts kick in by allowing your pet do its thing. Hang back and observe what it does when it thinks no one is looking. You might find surprising, photographic moments where and when you least expect them.
14. Always reward them for a shoot well done.
It’s been proven that positive reinforcement (i.e. offering a pet a treat when it accomplishes something rather than punishing it for not getting it right) is the most effective tool in training, so always remember to utilize this technique during photo shoots. Identify what it is that your pet responds to the most zealously, and always make sure to reward them with it for a shoot well done so that they look forward to the next.
15. Have fun with them.
Lastly, a photo shoot should always be seen as a bonding experience between you and your pet. Turn the shoot into an activity that both of you enjoy, and don’t forget to be present in the moment with them. At the end of the day, you may be busy trying to capture an exact moment on camera, but your pet is simply happy to be in your presence and to enjoy your company. Return the favor, and your next shoot will definitely be your most fulfilling.