Capturing The Perfect Shot -> Pet Portraits

With diffuse light I can really bring out the details in Polly’s coat

Polly is a black mutt and from a photography point of view it I couldn’t have picked a harder subject. If you’ve ever tried to photograph a black dog you know exactly what I mean. In half the shots doggie comes out as an unidentifiable black blob, while in the other half the background gets so “blown out” so that all you can see is an alien white mass (with black blob in front).But thankfully I’ve got a trick or two. This past week in the forest we’ve had the absolute perfect conditions (soft, filtered light and a neutral background) so I snapped up a bunch of Polly shots and decided to share some of my tips on the blog with another addition to my photography series. So, here ya go:

This was taken on a cloudy day with a fast shutter speed

1/ Target Soft, Diffuse Light – I’ve always gotten my best pet shots in a soft, diffuse light.  Bright, direct light tends to bounce hard off shiny pet coats and “blow out” the picture. It’s just far too harsh and the effect is even worse on dark-colored pets. A much better option is to find somewhere the light is filtered (e.g. through a window or under a forest canopy), or use very late evening or early morning light. Cloudy days are another great time to shoot. This kind of light will even out the coat and allow you bring out the details in your picture.

2/ Go Fast – Pets, like kids tend to move around a lot and sometimes it can be hard to capture the moment without blur. You best bet with pets is to go fast. So, set your camera to a fast shutter speed (around 1/200th is pretty good, or even faster if doggie is very active) and snap away. If the pictures look too dark I’ll usually up the ISO (to 400 or so), but I’ll always try to keep the shutter speed fast. On my Nikon SLR camera I use a simple fast lens (50mm f/1.8) for all my pet shots. On my point and shoot I’ll fix the shutter speed and let it chose the rest of the settings. Some point and shoots have a “pet” setting which does the same thing.

Getting those eyes is key. I used soft window light and a toy bribe for this shot.

3/ Get Those Eyes – One of the secrets to any kind of animal photography is to get the eyes in focus. The eyes are the window to the soul, and for pets in photos that certainly rings true. Even if the rest is out of focus, if the eyes are sharp the picture is really appealing. So, try to focus there and worry less about the rest.

4/ Choose a Simple Background – When you’re doing any kind of portrait work you want the focus of the shot to be on the subject. A busy background is always distracting, so try to choose a neutral or very clean background. For up-close work an even neutral-colored background works great (leaves, ground, wall etc.). For wider shots you can include some clean background (e.g. ocean, forest), but make sure the pet remains the main focus.

Get down into your pets’ world

5/ Get Low and Close – Most of my best pet shots come from playing with perspective. So, I usually try to get down low and close to the pets’ level, or shoot from above or the side or below. Getting down low and close will get you more into your pets’ world and that’ll show in the shot.

Snap away and you might capture something fun

6/ Cheat, Play & Bribe – I almost always bring treats or toys when I’m shooting pets. With Polly I’ve trained her to look at the camera, and get a treat for it, which helps to get that connection with the shot. You can dangle the treat right next to the lens as you’re shooting or get great “action” shots while your pet plays around with a toy. With the cats I’ll usually dangle a toy or treat. Interacting with people can create wonderful moments too, so bring in your other half to capture some family moments.

7/ Snap Away – In the digital age it’s so easy to snap away and I definitely encourage that with pets. Don’t be discouraged if your first shot isn’t any good. Just snap away and see what you get. Sometimes catching unusual moments (such as kitty yawning, or doggie laughing) can create really interesting shots and it only takes that one moment to get the perfect shot!

That’s about it folks. Got any tips of your own?

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  1. says

    Wow, Nina, that was great! Since I just got a new Nikon DSLR myself it’s time to start practicing. Maybe in a few years I’ll have some tips as well, but for now I couldn’t begin to come up with any more.

    • libertatemamo says

      Oh excellent! Nikon’s are great SLR’s. They give such lovely deep colors (my bias I’m sure,
      but I really love my camera). Looking forward to seeing some pics from you.

  2. says

    Great tips, thank you. I don’t have any problems with Jack, my Yellow Lab, but Lizzie was tough because, as you said, a black dog is difficult to photograph. He’s a good subject because of his antics, and I had more fun snapping him on my trip. I have a Nikon SLR, too. He had his staples out, yesterday! Another step forward, but we’re still waiting to see if the surgery was a success. The pictures of his as a puppy are so precious and priceless to me.

    I’m in the middle of scanning 35mm photos from the past and from our trips out west, and many of them of Lizzie are good. The good ones are in the conditions you mention, which proves your point, yet accidental by this photographer. She had the sweetest face and softest brown eyes. Thanks, again, for your tips!

    Polly is a good subject. Her coloring is so pretty, and she’s got such lively and expressive eyes.

    • libertatemamo says

      Oh how lovely! I hope you share some of Lizzie’s pics on your blog. Would love to see them.
      And…we’re keeping our fingers and paws crossed for Jack. Gotta get that dog back on the road.

  3. Jerry B. says

    Love your stories and information, I’m a relatively recent subscriber to your blog and really enjoy it. Your photo tips are right on- we’re getting ready to head out for a month with our dog and cat, towards Yellowstone and other NW states so you can be sure there will be lots of the usual pet shots along the way. I see you’re in Chama today (according to the site), the Rio Chama campground is really nice-we were there late last year to take the train over to Antonito, Wy but I think I’d do just the 1/2 day ride instead next time. Jerry near San Fran.

    • libertatemamo says

      So happy you’re enjoying the blog! Do you have one of your own? I always like to follow along w/ others.
      We drove past Rio Charma Campground today and it IS very nice. Lovely little area.
      We’re on over by Heron Lake at the moment.

  4. says

    Nina, those are wonderful shots! You should take photos for an animal shelter; no one could resist those faces once you had clicked them.


    • libertatemamo says

      Thanks Roxanne! I’ve done a bunch of rescue work in my time (very devoted to pet rescue), but
      I’ve never managed to weave my way into the photography side. All the places I worked always
      had a photographer assigned…oh well! I guess the picking-up-poop job is
      not as “in demand” as the photographer job. Hehe…

  5. says

    Once upon a time, back when we old codgers used something called “film”, (you may have to look that up) I was asked if I’d “take a few shots” at a wedding which, by the way, is a round about way of saying there’s not going to be a wedding photographer, and please come prepared?
    As it so happened, the groom was from Trinidad.
    Not sure if you’ve seen that many folks from Trinidad, but with colour film, there’s a tendency for the results to drift over into the purple end of things.
    Not good.
    So, I used black and white for about half of the shots.
    Stunning results. The bride is in white to start with, and unless you’re doing the ‘outdoors in the garden’ kind of thing under natural light, you’re really at a disadvantage using colour film. (pardon my Canadian spelling, but that’s the way she goes…we like our extra letters.)
    I simply loaded b&w film into one camera body, and colour into another, which made it even more of a pseudo “techie” thing, and therefore all the more fun.
    So…try a black and white setting for the dark pooch. Who knows?
    Not nearly as elaborate as switching camera bodies, but with the same effect I’m sure.

    • libertatemamo says

      You know I do like black and white, but for whatever reason I prefer it on people rather than animals.
      I’ve done alot of people portrait work (back in my time), especially with babies and they turn
      out fabulous, but I find I loose something w/ pet shots…maybe it’s the eyes? Then again,
      I am rather addicted to color. I’ve got a few B&W’s of the cats and one or two of Polly.
      I’m always in awe of those who take great B&Ws!

  6. Sheila says

    Howard and I are enjoying your emails and web-site! Your photos, along with your words, are great inspiration.

    Give Polly a great big hug for us. Our two girls (Skye the Kees and Cloud the Sibe) are doing well.

    Remember us from McKinney Falls State Park, Austin, TX!

    • libertatemamo says

      OF COURSE we remember you…and your two very lovely doggies!
      So happy you’re following along on the blog.

  7. says

    Thanks for the tips, Nina. I’ve always had trouble catching a good shot of Sissy. I was tilting in the wrong direction trying to get more lighting to show her features. :)

  8. says

    Hi Nina ~
    I know this is an older post, but it was so helpful. We have a black brindle Plott Hound and the neighbor brings her black Lab mix down to play. I have had a devil of a time getting good pictures of both. I will put your advice to good use.

    Thanks ~ Dorothy

    • libertatemamo says

      Hey I love it when my old posts are resurrected and helpful! So happy my tips were useful. Polly has taught me well!

  9. Lewis says

    Hi Nina,

    I’ve been going through your website’s photo section and I’m wondering if you upgraded to the Nikon D7100? My old Nikon Coolpix has gone bad and I’m looking for a replacement.

    Went to to read reviews on the D7100 and I can’t get past the negative 20 or so one star reviews. Seems some people have been getting oil on the light sensors. Just wondering if you’ve done any recent research on a new camera and what direction you’re thinking of going. Love your photos.

    • libertatemamo says

      No I haven’t upgraded. I’m still stuck with my good old D7000. For pocket camera I use a Canon S100 (also an older version). So, honestly I haven’t looked at camera reviews much recently. If I were to buy a “big” camera today I’d probably go with one of the full-frame versions (D700? D800?), but I haven’t looked at detailed specs in years so couldn’t give you much more. My best advice is to get onto one of the good camera review sites and look around. For example these:


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