How to Photograph Your Pet Without Breaking the Bank
by Joyce Sammons
(Hodges, SC, USA)
Before PhotoScape and After Corrections
Pictures-of-cats.org has asked me to write an article on pet photography and to share some of my secrets. I feel like I’ve had one hand attached to a camera since I was 10 years old. I have an associate degree in photography and spent 12 years as a studio photographer.
I love photographing animals. I chase down strange dogs just to take a picture. It’s a miracle I haven’t been injured in the process between the weird positions I get in to make the pictures and the even stranger noises I make to get the cute looks.
The first step in animal photography requires 2 things. You already have access to the first (a computer) or you wouldn’t be reading this. The second is a digital camera. I have an Olympus C-2500L I picked up on Ebay for $120. I also have a Kodak EasyShare I received as a birthday gift.
There are advantages to both cameras. The Olympus is GREAT on quality but it’s a finicky camera. It’s not good for spur of the moment shots and it drains batteries almost as fast as I can recharge them. Overall it’s the best camera I’ve ever used. The Kodak is great for my candid shots. It’s the camera that took the photo of my 3 dogs with Furby. I keep it on the couch beside me at all times just in case.
The second necessity is a good back up plan to edit your photos. I found PhotoScape about a year ago and have used it ever since. I would love to have Adobe Lightroom but I’m like most people these days and can’t afford the price tag. I’ve also heard great reviews on GIMP but after downloading it I found I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to use it.
Furby - photo by Joyce Sammons
Photoscape is a free program for personal use and is not only good for pets but for general picture taking. It’s excellent for improving old heirloom photos. It has an auto adjust feature but don’t depend on it to correct your photos.
The bright control is the greatest feature in my opinion. You can play with brightness, darkness, saturation and contrast by sliding a few levers. There is also an excellent feature for red eye reduction (my dog Cody looks like a demon before I correct her eyes) and a bloom feature that will soften the overall photo. The backlight feature in the program is also fun to experiment with. If your pet has hair that covers even a little of the eye area please trim it or the photo editing software will be confused and not correct it. I have an HP printer that has photo editing software built in.
Furby - photo by Joyce Sammons
The only thing I use it for is to correct “green eye.” because the Photoscape doesn't work on this. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t with the HP. If it does work I drag the corrected photo from the HP software to PhotoScape.
One feature I caution using is a “sharpen” tool. Stay away from it as much as possible because it may cause a harsh effect. Every computer I own has PhotoScape installed and I’d like to caution that before installation it does say Unknown Publisher. I’ve had no problem, no virus or any other problem. I’m like everyone else and afraid to install most programs that give this warning. After you’ve edited your photo and happy with the result you’re ready to save it. Give it a title and under what kind of file to save it is select JPEG. A lot of digitals save as other formats and are not always accepted when you upload to different sharing/ordering sites.
I have a chair in my living room that I like to keep picture ready. Curtain and sheets make great backdrops and can be changed out quickly. What looks good for one of my pets may not look good for another. My blue blanket has been my favorite for Furby. Furby also looks great using my fuschia bedroom curtains. I guess I’ll do red for Valentine’s day. Maybe add a few hearts and roses. Furby will just think he’s getting new toys. At one stage in my pet photography I experimented using a card table covered with a blanket and a sheet tacked to the wall. It looked great and came closest to resembling my old studio atmosphere. Unfortunately the animals are like 2 year old kids. They associate the table with the vets table. This technique does work well for older human toddlers who have passed the ‘terrible two’ stage.
For anyone with a black cat or dog I would recommend a backdrop that matches the eye color. Perhaps even a shade lighter than the eye color so the eyes will ‘pop’ with color. The first thought with a dark animal might be to use white but it will be much harder adjusting the final photo because the white will turn into something other than white. The same is true for a white cat and using a black background. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Again I would try and match the background with the eye color. It’s hard to color correct on a white cat without the cat taking on an unnatural glow.
Next I would like to stress the importance of angle between you and your cat. DO NOT stand up and point the camera down to take the pictures. Life is more interesting than that. Get down on their level. Get slightly below them and shoot at an upward angle. Shoot 3 photos as fast as you can. One will be horrible, 1 will be OK and the 3rd will be great. It’s hard to retrain your brain that its OK to do this if you were raised using a film camera. This is digital and you can afford a few out-takes. Take a few candid shots while your cat is eating. They get the sweetest looks when they’re eating. Don’t be afraid to get in close, especially if you’re in a setting where you don’t need a flash.
Most cameras have a setting for extreme close-ups that prevents the flash from engaging because the camera knows it would be an overexposed picture. The closer you are when you shoot the less cropping you’ll have to do later. I love the PhotoScape software because I can crop to a 4x6, upload to a website for sharing/ordering and know how great the pictures are going to be. Make some noise if your cat doesn’t look at you when you want it to. The same noises you made to get your kids attention usually also works with pets. Sometimes I hold keys and frame the picture and look around to the side of the camera to double-check the expression. Perfecting this technique is my new goal because I know I’ll get a better idea of what I’m shooting than thru a hole or on a 2 inch display.
When cropping the photo it is ideal to only show the pet and the background. I’m guilty of this mistake in a lot of my candid shots. Try not to have drink bottles, clutter, or anything else in the picture to distract from your pet. My picture of my three dogs with Furby is a big no no in my own book but I HAD to get that shot. My couch is worn and I keep it covered with a floral blanket. Part of the blanket had moved and exposed the ugly arm of the couch. Also had a drinking glass in the lower part of the frame and some weird light I couldn’t correct so I covered it with writing. That’s another option. Many photo editing programs have features that allow text to be added, cartoon balloon captions and vignettes that will darken all corners of the final photo.
My dog Dreyfuss is blind in one eye and doesn’t photograph well with the bad eye. I love him with all my heart. There are pictures of him on my websites with and without the bad eye being corrected. I’m experimenting with another freebie called Paint.net. Since none of the photo editing software I’ve tried can fix the problem I’m learning to correct it manually. Paint.net has a color pallet where I can match his eye color and literally draw his iris and pupil. It takes a very steady hand for this and I’m getting better at using this technique.
Practice cropping. If your cat is laying down and the photo shows the entire body there are two options. The first is to have equal distance on both sides of the picture from the cat to the border. The second option is to zoom in on the face. Make the nose the center of the photo. With this type of photo you’re going for expression and showing off the eyes.
Many cameras have a red-eye reduction feature where the flash fires once to dilate the pupil then again to take the picture. If you rely on this you’re going to miss a lot of shots. If your cat stays interested in the camera and the noises you make long enough for the flash to go off twice that’s great. Mine see the first flash and they look away or close their eyes.
I hope this helps everyone with their pet photography. I would like to add in closing that it is never ending learning that will help you most. Check out websites that have pet photography. I love PictureSocial and belong to the pet photography group on that site. I have a fellow member who is not afraid to give me an honest opinion on my work. If a picture is bad she will tell me it’s bad. I trust her advice because she has the only traveling pet photography business in Delaware.
My last advice is to upload your photos to a permanent sharing site as quickly as possible. CD storage and USB storage are both great but not foolproof. I even email photos to myself and store them under my AOL account.
Happy New Year and happy shooting!