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Get Great Photos of Your Furry Friends

Follow these simple tips to put your pets at ease and get terrific photos of your dogs, cats, and other four-legged family members--and your fish as well.

Photographing Your Pets

People love taking pictures of their pets. Dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, fish--we photograph them all. No surprise there: After all, pets are members of the family. But if your pet portraits are little more than blurry streaks of fur with a pair of demonic eyeballs, you might need some help. Here are some tips and tricks for taking the photos that your pets deserve.

Catch Them Behaving Naturally

This might seem like common sense, but it's important to photograph Fluffy in a way that makes her comfortable. If she's a bouncy puppy, don't keep ordering her to sit while you frame the shot. Sure, you can spend a lot of time staging the scene and coaxing the dog to sit just so, but you'll often get better photos with a fraction of the effort just by waiting for your pets to express their unique personality. My pooch, for example, loves to stand on top of her igloo dog house, sort of like a real-life Snoopy. Why stage something when I can just keep a camera near the window and snap something like this?

Get an Unusual Perspective

A good general rule of photography is to shoot from the same perspective as your subject. Animals live much lower to the ground than we do--so to get the essence of your pet's personality, you might want to lie down on the floor. You can also get great results from unusual perspectives: For example, you could try getting directly overhead and pointing the camera straight down, as I did to capture this shot, my all-time favorite photo of my now-passed-on husky, Tumanna.

Pull Out the Props

When I'm lying on the floor with camera in hand, my dogs want nothing more than to saunter over and lick my face or, better yet, my camera lens. If you have a similar problem, there's an easy way to distract your pet: A prop--such as your dog's favorite toy--is all you need to overcome the novelty of the camera. Put some of your pet's favorite toys in the room to help draw attention away from your photographic ambitions.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed

Animals operate on an internal clock that we humans cannot begin to understand. They twitch, dart, snap their heads, and jump for unknowable reasons at the most unexpected moments. You'll want to shoot at the fastest shutter speed possible. Try setting your camera to shutter priority and dialing in the highest speed your camera can muster; or, if your camera doesn't have a shutter priority control, try its sports or action setting. If you're indoors, increase the ISO to net a better shutter speed, so that you can get a sharp photo no matter what your pet is thinking.

Avoid the Flash

When it comes to photographing pets, the camera flash is not your friend. Turn off the flash and use natural light whenever possible, even if that means increasing the camera's ISO setting, which controls its sensitivity to light. Why? Two reasons, really. First, bright flashes of light tend to scare animals, and the last thing you want to do is freak out Fluffy. Second, a camera flash tends to cause the red-eye effect in animals, just as it does with humans. The red-eye reduction feature built into cameras is designed for people and isn't as effective on dogs and cats.

Diffuse the Flash

Your camera's flash isn't all bad. In fact, if you can bounce or diffuse the flash, you can get great pet portraits. If you use an external flash, you can add a plastic diffuser to the front of the flash head or angle the flash to bounce it off the ceiling or a white wall. If your flash is built into the camera, you might want to try a gadget like the LightScoop or FlashBender, which reflect and diffuse the light (read my photography gift guide for details). Any of these techniques lowers the possibility of red-eye and reduces contrast for softer, more natural-looking portraits.

Remove Animal Red-Eye

What if you get red-eye in your pet portrait? The effect is much more extreme in animal photos than people shots. In my experience, the best tool to undo the red effect is available in Corel PaintShop Pro--it's the only program I've found that does a serviceable job of removing animal red-eye.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Mammals aren't the only pets that need a photo op. If you have an aquarium, you can get great photos of your fish by following a few simple steps. Set your camera on a tripod, increase the ISO, and turn off the flash, since the flash might reflect off the glass and ruin your photo. You'll generally want to take the picture at night and turn off all the lights in the room to further reduce reflections. Finally, set the camera to manual focus mode and lock the focus on the middle of the tank. With the head of the tripod loose, pan the camera to follow fish around the tank. When the moment is right, snap the shutter.

Keep the Camera Around

Your camera will be a distracting novelty the first few times your pets (especially dogs) see you with it. But if you leave your camera around when they're playing or lounging about, they'll get used to it--and that means you can take their photo while they're acting calm and natural. The more you keep the camera around, the more likely it'll be handy when they're doing something adorable.