A Beginner’s Guide to Studio Pet Photography
With their big, innocent eyes, squishy paws, and unbearable charm and cuteness, there’s no doubt that pets make the most adorable subjects. But let’s face it—photographing a hyper kitten or a playful dog that has no interest in staying still or posing adorably for you isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. In fact, it can be downright challenging.
If you’re just getting started in pet photography, then you’ll know that clients typically like having their pets photographed in an outdoor setting for a more relaxed, carefree feel in a more natural environment. However, every once in a while, you’re going to get a request for a more formal photo shoot in the studio… which is going to be a lot harder.
Pets aren’t always the most cooperative subjects, so you need to be prepared before you start offering studio shoots to clients.
Here are some basic tips and guidelines to help you nail your first studio shoot (and all the other succeeding shoots) with a furry subject:
Gear and Equipment
● Camera: Any professional DSLR camera will work, so use what you have. If you don’t own a camera yet, check out this camera buying guide for beginners to help you pick the perfect starter DSLR for you.
● Lens: A 50mm prime lens is perfect for studio pet photography because it is lightweight and compact, relatively inexpensive, produces tack sharp images, and lets you use faster shutter speeds in low-light situations. But of course, every dog or cat is different, and your choice of lens may depend on your subject’s personality or attitude. For instance, if the animal seems shy, wary, or fearful, then a long lens like a 135mm or a 70-200mm zoom lens is preferable since it allows you to shoot from a distance.
● Tripod: If you don’t have an assistant to help you, having a tripod may be necessary (along with a trigger), so you can keep the camera steady while you distract your subject with toys or treats.
● Lighting Kit: Studio lighting largely determines how your shots will turn out, so it’s important to invest in a simple but effective studio lighting setup. Monolight softbox kits are great for portraiture, so you may want to start with those for your pet shoots.
● Backdrops and Backdrop Stand: Your subject should be the focus of your photos, so choose backdrops that aren’t too distracting, such as neutral, solid-colored backdrops. Fabric is okay, but seamless paper backgrounds are a better option, as they are inexpensive and can easily be disposed of (in case of any potty-related accidents) after each session. However, if you regularly do studio shoots, using paper can be both wasteful and expensive. If you want something that’s durable and reusable, a vinyl backdrop might be best. It’s non-reflective, easy to clean, and wrinkle-free.
● Foldable Table: This is optional, but it’s a helpful addition to your studio setup. Placing smaller pets like puppies, small dogs, or cats on top of a table may help make them easier to manage. Dogs, especially, will be more likely to sit still when placed on a higher perch. Also, you’ll have an easier time taking photos because having a table means you won’t have to crouch down or lie on your belly to be at eye-level with the animals.
● Props and Costumes: Every studio photographer keeps a collection of props in the studio, as these items usually help add a lot of interest to a photo. As for costumes, clients will usually bring their own pets’ outfits if they want to take photos of them in clothes. However, it is still a good idea to have some cute animal costumes (in various sizes) on hand just in case.
● Toys and Treats: Unless you’re working with a particularly well-behaved pet, you’re going to need some incentives to ensure maximum cooperation from your four-legged subject. Keep a collection of toys and treats for different pets in your studio, as using these can help make your subjects feel more at ease or make them more willing to sit still and pose for you during shoots.
● Cleaning Materials: Accidents are bound to happen, so make sure to keep some cleaning materials and other miscellaneous items handy for quick cleanup during shoots. Stock up on wet wipes, disinfectant spray, a poop scoop, some puppy potty training pads, a litter box, and other cleaning essentials.
Studio Lighting Setup
The key to taking great studio photos lies in your lighting setup. When you don’t have the right lighting setup for what you are trying to achieve, it won’t matter if you have a top-of-the-line DSLR, the most impressive photography skills, and a fully cooperative subject—your photos still won’t turn out good.
Here is an informative tutorial to help you understand basic studio lighting techniques:
Other Important Tips
● Take animal training classes. When you photograph animals for a living, knowing how to interact with them properly is essential to achieve positive results. Since majority of your clients will want you to photograph their pet dogs or cats, it is advisable to take some basic dog or cat training classes to help you improve your animal interaction skills. Taking these classes will be tremendously helpful in making your shoots run more smoothly since they will allow you to correctly read and interpret an animal’s body language and reciprocate with the correct response or reaction.
● Introduce yourself to your subject. Before you begin the shoot, take a moment to introduce yourself properly to your subject. Ask the pet’s owner or handler to facilitate the introduction. You want the subject to feel at ease with you, so it is important to take a moment to bond. Once you feel like the animal feels somewhat comfortable (or at the very least, is not openly hostile or aggressive) with you, try to offer him a belly rub, a toy, or a treat to show him that you are a friend.
● Learn basic massage therapy for dogs and cats. Just like with humans, massage therapy is a surefire way to calm dogs (and even cats) when they are feeling stressed or excited. An anxious or overly hyper animal won’t make for a very good subject, so taking the time to learn proper animal massage techniques will be a big help to any serious pet photographer.
● Minimize distractions. During the shoot, try to keep the distractions to a minimum. Don’t allow too many people in the room (perhaps just one pet parent and maybe your assistant) and keep the environment calm, soothing, and free of distractions that might stress or excite your subject.
● Be patient. Working with animals can be difficult, and getting them to do what you need them to do can be a long and frustrating process. So, to be an effective pet photographer, you need some serious patience. Have fun with it. Keep yourself relaxed. Animals can sometimes pick up on how humans around them are feeling, so getting annoyed or frustrated will only make your session more difficult. If you are giving off negative vibes, animals will most likely feel it and respond to it.
Capturing the unique and vibrant personality of each animal is definitely going to be a challenge—especially when you’re shooting in a studio. But of course, it’s going to be a fun challenge! Just make sure to prepare yourself with the right tools, skills, and knowledge, and you’re certain to get purr-fect pet photos each and every time!
Author Bio: Liz Pekler
I am a travel photographer with more than 10 years of experience in the field. Being a freelance blogger enables me to help photography beginners and enthusiasts to tell wonderful stories of their travels as seen through their lenses. It also allows me to share my thoughts about another advocacy of mine: social equality and change.