I confess that I have hundreds of photos and videos of my cats (I cannot be the only one!), but only a few of them are portrait-worthy. While I did work with my amazing DSLR to take some wonderful photos of Tia before she left us, honestly, it wasn’t until after she was gone that I realized I didn’t have enough good quality photos for my purposes. Lots of my existing images were ill-composed, cluttered, or out of focus. While I’m still able to treasure them because they display her personality in all it’s glory, I wish I’d gone to the trouble to take more beautiful portraits of her.
I don't want you to be caught in the same bind after the loss of your pet, so I've put together some tips I've learned since her passing that have helped me take great photos of Spartacus.
You may find it too painful to look at pictures of your beloved furry friends immediately following their deaths. That’s completely understandable. Just don’t let that stop you from taking good quality portraits while Fluffy or Beatrice is still in your life. Remember that even if it’s emotionally difficult to see images of your pet shortly after his or her death, some day you may change your mind. Don’t rob yourself of the chance to capture the unique personality of your friend before it’s too late.
How You'll Use Your Pet Portraits
If nothing else, if you’re like me, you’ll likely want a pet portrait that you can put into a lovely frame and position somewhere in your home. But here are a few other ways you may wish to use a photo of your dog, cat, hamster, rabbit, or horse:
Comfort or Transition Object
Within minutes of Tia passing away, I attached a necklace that contained her fur around my neck. I had had it prepared in the months before her death, knowing that I would want a transition object with me at all times as a way of remembering her and having her close. But there are many ways to create transition/comfort objects - including many that contain pet photos. Consider creating a keychain, a locket, or a mini photo album that you can take with you wherever you go.
Memorial Box or Pet Urn
I personally wanted an urn for Tia that would be a vivid reminder of her as an individual and so I chose to have a custom urn created by a local potter. Her portrait is the central feature. We also purchased a memorial box into which we’ve place items of significance, with photos of her on it as well.
A Pet Photobook
I've created a memorial photobook for each of my cats. They tell their stories with lots of individual stories and collections of ideas that express the uniqueness and personalities of Tia and Spartacus. Having great portraits made it easy to create the photobook covers and many other pages in the books.
Computer Screensavers, Memorial Videos, Smartphone Art
There are many ways you can use your pet photography on your digital devices to remember your pet. I’ll cover those ideas in other posts on creating memorial videos, screensavers, smartphone art, and more with both pet videos and portraits, but suffice it to say a great photo will come in handy here as well.
A Tattoo (Permanent or Temporary)
If you’re someone who likes to memorialize important events in your life, tatoos may be your art form of choice. Having a clear portrait of your pet to use in the creation of your personal body art is a great place to start.
Pro Pet Photograph Tips to Capture a Perfect Portrait
Though you can definitely hire a professional photographer to get a stunning photograph of your rabbit or pet fish or rat, you certainly don’t have to. Follow these tips for planning and taking lovely portraits of your own using anything from your smartphone camera to a pro DSLR:
Turn Off the Flash
In my opinion, flash (in the hands of an amateur like me) ruins things. So just turn it off and take your pet portraits at a time of day where the natural lighting is adequate. Plus, going with natural light means you don’t have to contend with those scary, shiny cat eyes the flash can cause. With just the right sunshine, you will get a soft, flattering appearance, true colours, and avoid less-than-lovely shadowing. Just make sure the sun is behind you if it is particularly bright.
Get Down to Pet Level
You’re likely physically larger than your animal companion. Don’t let that be the perspective of your portrait. Rather than shooting from above or from across the room, try to sneak in closer and lower so you can take your dog or cat photos, ahem, head on. You’ll not only see the world through his or her eyes, but also capture detail you may have missed from your level.
Make Your Pet the Focus
You’ll want to remove clutter from the portrait – distractions such as a pile of dirty clothes, unclean surfaces like grimy floors, and other features that will pull attention away from the main feature. Then frame the shot so that Buster or Camilla is the central idea.
Create Real-Time Distractions
In many cases, the trick to a perfect portrait will be deflecting your pet’s attention to something of interest such as a favourite noisy toy, your own vocalizations, or a bag of treats. Hold the object close to the camera if you want to capture a shot with their eyes looking directly at the lens. Just be careful not to get them too excited – you don’t want to add movement to the shot!
Whether you’re working with a fancy DSLR or your smartphone camera, pay attention to focus. This can be a challenge if your fur child moves around a lot, but be patient so that you get a nice, crisp portrait. You may have to wait for just the right time to take your portrait – immediately after a meal or while he or she bathes. Another way to ensure focus is to use a tripod or rest your elbow on a steady surface.
Exercise Patience and Perseverance
It may take you several days or even weeks to have the stars align just right for you to capture the best possible photo of your pet. This will require you to have both patience – sometimes waiting 10 or 15 minutes for the conditions to be just so – as well as perseverance as you try on several occasions to get it right. Trust me, the effort will be worth it.
A Few Final Animal Companion Photo Tips
Here are a few additional tricks for getting great pet portraits:
- Disable shutter noise if you’re trying to capture a quiet moment
- Contrast the background of your shot with your pet’s colouring
- Take a portrait that reflects your pet’s personality
- Follow where your pet leads
- Get help from a friend
I hope this helps you capture the portrait memories that you’ll be able to cherish for many years. I encourage you to have multiple sessions of taking your pet portraits to ensure you've got several from which to choose. Then share your best work here. Happy snapping.
Images: Rachel Omnes, Andrew Branch, Maryruth (sorry to be the annoying pet parent but the two cats featured in this post are my own - Tia (orange) and Spartacus (tuxedo black/white). Aren't they beautiful?
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