Top tips for adorable pet photography

When expertly done, photography can truly encapsulate your pet's personality – whether that's playful, inquisitive, aloof or loving. Here, pro photographer Cat Race visits an animal shelter to capture engaging images and has suggestions for pet owners to try out at home.
A Dachshund stands behind a ball pit, which is blurred in the foreground. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L IS II USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

Photography duo Cat and Michael, who run CatsDog Photography, work together to produce memorable images of dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals. Cat is behind the lens, while Michael acts as an animal whisperer, and they work together to plan shoots and compositions.

Photography can have an impact on the outcome of pet adoptions, especially for animals who are less photogenic, or who don't photograph well. For this shoot, Cat and Michael headed to the RSPCA rehoming centre in Preston, England, to shoot appealing portraits in a bid to help some animals find their new homes.

While on shoot, we asked Cat to share her tips on how to truly capture the essence of a pet, from using the right kit and camera settings, to getting fidgety animals to pose.

1. Take your time

Pet photographer Cat Race sits on the floor feeding treats to a Dachshund dog.

It is important to get to know the animal and let them get used to your presence before you start photographing. This is especially true for shy animals such as Eva the Dachshund (pictured). "Before you start shooting, try getting your subject to do a little trick such as asking it to sit, then give it a treat when it does," suggests pet photographer Cat Race. "Your pet will get the idea that when they do as you ask, they'll get paid, and will associate the shoot with fun."

A Dachshund looks directly at the camera. The dog is in sharp focus while the background is blurred. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens by Cat Race.

The Canon EOS R6's electronic shutter feature allows you to shoot silently, which is incredibly helpful when photographing apprehensive animals such as Eva. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 110mm, 1/500 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1600. © CatsDog Photography

Photographing any animal can be unpredictable as it is often on their terms, but that's especially the case when working with rescue animals. Cat believes it's important for the animal to become accustomed to your presence. This bonding time also gives you a chance to figure out how you're going to shoot.

To get started, you could photograph them while they sleep. This will give you the opportunity to try out different angles and get the settings right without having to worry about keeping their attention. If your camera has a silent shutter or silent mode, it's a good idea to activate it.

Once you are ready, try playing with your pet or tempting them with treats to keep them interested while you shoot some snaps. But make sure that you have spent enough time adjusting your camera settings. "You see people using noises, or a squeaker, before they've even got the lighting or the composition right. The pet is not going to fall for that too many times," says Michael.

But patience is key here. An animal might appear overexcited because they're feeling anxious. There is a potential risk of stressing out the animal if you keep commanding them to sit or stay for hours on end, making the animal want to leave the space. "By the end, the dog gets fed up," says Cat. "We learned from our experience that it’s not a good route. Even if you have to lose that shot and move on to something else, do that, and then they'll look more comfortable. Capturing their personality is done by making them comfortable."

It's also important to be aware of the differences between dogs, cats and other types of pets. Each animal is unique, so you will have to adapt your shooting style to them. "Generally, a dog shoot will go smoother if a dog thinks it's making the decisions, but that's even more extreme with cats," says Michael. "Put a box down and a cat will get into it, but if you put the cat into a box, it'll get straight back out.

"When it comes to rabbits, they're not going to listen to you at all, so you need to work around that. For example, you could photograph them being held over a person's shoulder. For us photographing in a rescue centre, it also shows a nice sense of connection for somebody that might be looking to adopt."

2. Best kit for pet photography

A tabby cat sits in a fluffy pet bed and looks directly at the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

When photographing cats, you need to stay alert at all times, due to their unpredictable nature. Let them wander into frame and be prepared to shoot when they're ready. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO125. © CatsDog Photography

Pet photographer Cat Race attaches an EF lens to her Canon EOS R6 camera via a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R.

Thanks to the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, Kat could seamlessly use her favourite set of EF lenses with the EOS R6 that she used for this shoot. Although she tends to "mix things up" when it comes to her kitbag, she almost always carries the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM).

Cat and Michael believe that having lots of options is key. Cat always carries the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lenses in her kitbag to ensure she can capture a variety of shots. But she also emphasises the importance of using different lenses. "I've got so many lenses that I don't always take the same ones with me on any given shoot," she says. "If you always use one lens – say, a 135mm – then you're only going to get one particular look."

For this visit to the animal shelter, Cat used the Canon EOS R6. Having previously used an EOS 5D Mark III, she already had plenty of EF lenses which she used on the EOS R6 via the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. "I didn't notice using the adapter at all, which shows how seamlessly it works," she says. "I also really liked the EOS R6's touchscreen because it's so intuitive and allows you to change settings quickly, which is helpful in the moment when photographing animals, such as being able to quickly tap the screen to focus."

An articulating screen also comes in handy when photographing from awkward angles, and the EOS R6's vari-angle touchscreen can rotate through 270° to allow you to shoot creatively. Additionally, its impressive autofocus can pick out an animal's eyes and follow them around the frame.

3. Best camera settings for pet photography

A fluffy ginger cat lies in a corner and looks at the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

If your cat won't pose, try photographing them when they're relaxing in their natural habitat and in a well-lit area. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/3.2 and ISO100. © CatsDog Photography

A black and white cat with a large black spot under its nose looks up at the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

Hold up treats near your camera to grab your dog's attention. This works on cats as well, and will aid you in capturing close-up shots of them. "You want people to look at the photo and really connect with the animal," says Cat. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/3.2 and ISO100. © CatsDog Photography

The settings you should use for pet photography depend on the look you're trying to achieve. "I think we're far more varied than a lot of pet photographers," Michael explains. "Many like to go for the long lens and wide aperture look, which creates a dreamy style. That's great, but we also like to bring in as much detail as possible."

Cat agrees: "For me, what makes a photograph special is when you get a real sense of space and the animal's environment," she says.

If you're looking to produce action shots of an animal moving and are confident working in Manual (M) mode, try settings of at least 1/1000 sec shutter speed, a middle aperture, such as f/5.6 or f/8, and an ISO of around 400-800 depending on the lighting conditions. However, for animal portraits, a typical shutter speed of 1/200 sec is more appropriate, usually with a wider aperture of f/2.8 or f/1.8, and a lower ISO if the lighting allows it.

If you're just starting out or still getting to know your camera, Shutter priority (Tv) mode, where you choose the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture, is ideal for action images, while Aperture priority (Av) mode, where you decide the aperture and the camera selects the shutter speed, works well for more static portraits.

Ultimately, it pays to experiment with different combinations of settings to get the look you want. It can help to use something, such as a toy, as a stand-in if you don't have a patient pet to practice on.

It's also important to work with the background you've got, and if you can't get to a particularly pretty location, using long lenses to throw the background out of focus can work well.

4. Capturing natural pet poses

A German Shepherd peeks through a play tunnel and looks directly at the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

Using props can be useful if you can't take the animals to a more picturesque location. A canvas tunnel, for example, can add more creativity to your shot, especially if, like Zeus, your subject has a playful and inquisitive personality. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm, 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1250. © CatsDog Photography

Pet photographer Cat Race points her camera through a play tunnel to capture a photo of a German Shepherd.

If you're accompanied by a person acting as the whisperer, make sure you give them clear instructions to get the shot you desire. The whisperer can use treats and toys to set the animal up for the shot. "Capturing a pet's personality is something I always aim to do with my work," says Cat. "We do that by making sure they're relaxed."

At the rescue centre, Cat and Michael chose not to photograph the animals in their enclosures. "You want to avoid photographing them 'behind bars'," says Michael. "Picking up one particular animal's story, you can get people to engage with this rescue, and potentially find interest in all of the animals in the shelter."

Choosing an angle that highlights endearing character traits is also a good idea. This is especially true for rescue animals as it could assist in helping them find a forever home. "Sit them at a slight angle and have them look over their shoulder if you can," continues Michael.

The pose you want to capture the pet in will depend entirely on its size. "If you're working with a small dog, for example, you might try and raise them up on something," she says. "If it's a really active dog that can't sit still, you might get a couple of action shots, but I normally photograph dogs like this on a lead." It is advisable to photograph dogs off their leads only if they can obey commands and sit still. 

Getting up close can also create striking images. Cat encourages shooting from low on the floor so you're at eye level in order not to intimidate your pet. If you can, try to get their eyes in focus, as this will add emotion to your images. The Eye AF on the Canon EOS R6 is great for this.

Alternatively, if you're aiming for a dynamic shot, shoot from a high angle above the animal. This is not always recommended for rescue animals who might be somewhat nervous to be photographed from above, but it is ideal for your own pets, if they are confident by nature.

"Once you've built up a bit of rapport, if you hold a treat close to your lens, or have someone move a ball around, you can lean over them and photograph them looking up at you. It can create a really engaging image," says Cat.

If you don't have a helper or an angle is particularly tricky, try shooting remotely, but never force the shot if you sense your subject is getting restless or agitated. "If they're getting overly excited or stressed, don't keep going," elaborates Cat. "Even if you have to lose that shot, and just move on to something else, do that. An animal needs to feel relaxed in order to bring their personality out."

5. Photographing black animals

A cat with predominantly black fur looks directly at the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

Statistically, it takes longer for black cats to be adopted than cats of other colours, often due to the way they are photographed. But with the right light you can create an endearing and personable image. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 47mm, 1/320 sec, f/7.1 and ISO320. © CatsDog Photography

A German Shepherd sits in a ball pit and looks up at the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens by photographer Cat Race.

More confident animals, like Zeus the German Shepherd, can be photographed from above to create a dynamic shot. Hold a treat or toy near your lens to get that great eye contact. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © CatsDog Photography

Animals with dark fur can trick your camera into underexposing the image, and research has even shown that black animals, especially cats, are less likely to be adopted because of – among other reasons – how they look in photographs. It is much easier to photograph animals of lighter colours. Michael notes that even if the lighting isn't right on an animal of any other colour, they will still photograph well, as opposed to animals with dark fur. But don't despair. "If you've got the light right on any subject, it will look great," he encourages.

Cat adds: "Be extra aware of where your light source is. If it's a bright light source, face the animal towards it so that you have less contrast."

Additionally, it's important to consider your background. "They're more likely to blend in if the background is too dark," says Michael. "Using a reflector to lift the light under their chin can be a great way to create definition too." If you don't own a reflector, don't worry. You can easily recreate this at home by making your own with some cardboard and kitchen foil – and other accessories too.

Cat's advice on photographing your pets and rescue animals can help capture their personality. "You really want people to look at the animal and connect with them, whether that's because they want a portrait that reminds them of their pet for years to come, or they're looking at an animal and thinking, 'That dog belongs in our family to make our house complete'," she says.

Cat and Michael's time at the shelter with the animals has helped them find their perfect families. Eva the Dachshund has now been adopted while Zeus the German Shepherd is waiting to meet his prospective owners. Before coming to the shelter, Zeus was part of a multi-animal household where there were signs of cruelty. He has been at different kennels, which isn't ideal for German Shepherds, but hopefully, he will find a home where he can go on walks and receive lots of enrichment. 

The next time you want to capture your pet's wonderful antics, experiment with these tips. Or why not give back to your community by volunteering at your local shelter and photographing the animals to boost their chances of being adopted? Share your shots with #LiveForTheStory, tagging @canonemea. 

Written by Astrid Pitman

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