Animals are naturally beautiful and uniquely interesting.
They seem like natural subjects for photography. Their faces, while unable to smile the way humans can, are full of personality and emotion. You will always be able to tell when your cat or dog is happy, content, excited, hungry, tired, playful and a whole host of other emotions, all of which you want to remember and share throughout their lives.
You are seeing these different moments as an animal lover; as a pet owner or as an admirer of the overwhelming natural beauty of these magnificent creatures. When you take a picture of him or her you may often find that your pictures are disappointing.
What you saw and loved will not always be captured in the photograph. The pictures may look flat and lifeless, blurred or overly grainy, important features can easily be missed from the frame. You may know the animal so well that it is difficult to convey to others why the picture is important.
We all have stacks of unused and unloved pictures of important moments that are simply not of much interest because the photographs themselves are not of a high enough quality. This guide hopes to explain why this might happen and what you can do to make your pictures much better representations of what you feel when you see your animals at their best – or worst!
What kind of photography?
This guide is intended to offer insight into taking semi-professional and professional animal photographs. The equipment and methods I describe and recommend will be of a more advanced nature than an absolute beginner will be comfortable with but I do hope to cover a lot of the essential basics you should know along the way. Your knowledge of your camera should be fairly good - read the manual and take a lot of photographs! Get comfortable with the dependencies of ISO, Shutter speed and Aperture; I will explain how I use them in the context of animal photography but the more experience you have with these settings the better.
The final leap into professional or semi-professional photography will enable you to capture incredible moments of your pets for profit. Sell your talents to others who may not have the time or inclination to step into the world of photography but whose family members (because that is what our pets are!) are worth the time and money to have their pictures displayed in the family home along with everyone else!
Find commisions as a commercial photographer for businesses in the animal community. Dog walkers, vets, groomers, pet shops, charities and many more all need great images of pets to help them to show their commitment to the business of living in a society where our animals are valued as family members.
The range of professional cameras, lenses and the very important software used to 'develop' your images are all within your range if you want to be a part of this community. In this guide I will show you how I use all of these things to great effect. Click on any of the photographs down the sides of this guide to see them full screen. (You will only see them on Desktop. Mobile users can see them here.) They don't always follow all of the rules I mention in this guide but then photography should never be too restrained by rules. The main thing is to have fun!
Smartphones and Tablets
This guide will focus on professional photography using Canon equipment. Other manufacturers provide incredible cameras. Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus to name just a few. They are all incredibly capable systems and most of the tips in this guide will apply to any DSLR I am aware of.
Do you need a top of the range DSLR with huge expensive lenses to get great pictures of your pets? Of course not! Today's smartphones and compact cameras are amazing devices. There is little point in spending hundreds (or thousands!) on cameras and lenses if the only thing you want to do is capture your own memories to treasure. You probably already have everything you need hanging around somewhere!
The phone in your pocket is a very capable camera with very sensitive sensors, high quality lenses and the ability to capture high resolution images suitable for large vibrant prints of your pictures. It is a great place to start and something I often use when out and about. I love to take pictures of sleeping cats and lazy dogs on hot summer walks around the town and country. When I don't want to lug around my professional camera it is a more than acceptable way to get some great pictures which then lead to useful ideas I can use when I do have my 5D.
A shot which works on a phone will work on a DSLR with all of the extra benefits professional cameras offer. Plan your shots out with your smartphone camera and see some great ideas presenting themselves to you.
I regularly use an app called Cadrage Director's Viewfinder when initially researching where I will take my shots as it simulates the focal lengths of almost all lenses on almost all camera bodies allowing me to plan my shots and equipment in advance without having to carry around a large DSLR and a selection of heavy lenses.
A more dedicated solution with the benefits of a small size and easy use is a compact camera. Small cameras with lenses capable of optical zoom and sensor stabilisers to reduce camera shake in low light situations, available from any high street. They offer better lenses than smartphones and a faster way to capture great images. Fairy simple settings to cover a wide range of situations from bright sunlight, low light/night-time shots, action and portrait photography make the compact camera a great way to build a great collection of images for both reference and simple enjoyment..
The DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) is the next step up for photography. A huge range to suit almost any budget is available and the jump in potential quality can be astounding. The cheapest DSLR with kit lenses (the lenses they come with are often called 'kit lenses' and are usually of a higher quality than they are given credit for) will be able to provide professional quality images with little effort beyond understanding a few settings and some good technique. Interchangeable lenses mean you can start to see scenes in more creative ways and choose the right lens to capture the mood you need. As the price increases into full frame sensor cameras with fast lenses (more about these later) the range of photography options and moments you can confidently capture increases – High speed action shots, long distance photography, stylised framing with ultra wide lenses, High dynamic range imagery and many more types of photography you would associate with the glossy images in magazines or on billboards become available to you.
To start with I will give you a list of my most used equipment. This is what I consider a good set of equipment as a professional photographer allowing me to deal with almost any situation I regularly encounter.
Canon 5D mark III body
A full-frame 22.3 MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 6fps continuous shooting (superceded by the Mark IV but I don't have one yet!)
A great camera with a huge selection of lenses and accessories for any kind of photography and certainly allows me to capture any animal photography I have attempted so far!
The autofocus system is excellent with good coverage on the main areas within the viewfinder for animal photography. It has a fairly discreet silent mode usefull for photographing sleeping and resting animals without disturbing them.
The 6fp continuous shooting, while not as impressive as some DSLR's is still pretty nippy and the advantage over the 1DX for example is that this camera is much lighter. A huge consideration when running around after speedy dogs for 2 hours.
Canon 750D body
A 24.2-MP DSLR with APS-C CMOS sensor.
More of an entry level DSLR from Canon but one which I use all the time in order that I don't have to change lenses so often in bad weather conditions.
The crop frame sensor means that I get an effective focal length of 112 - 320mm using a 70-200mm lens so shots across a pond or just at a great distance when working with very fast animals can be very useful.
Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM
As with all of Canon's L series Lenses the 70-200 II is an incredibly robust lens. Weather sealed for animal shoots in (almost!) any conditions and easily the lens I use the most.
The amazing in lens stabilisation with several options for the type of motion means when I am balancing on a rock with one arm hanging over a pond, the lens will do a great job of compensating for the unavoidable camera shake I cause because of my lack of stability.
It is very fast to achieve focus with the option to ignore closer distances (under 1.5m) to speed things up even further.
It suffers very little distortion and the glass used means that the pictures are sharp everytime.
It is a heavy lens weiging in at around 1.5KG and this can get tiring to handle after a while but it is beyond doubt one of the best lenses you can own for any kind of photography. It excels at animal photography.
Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8 II USM
Another great lens but not one I find myself using very often with animal photography.
More suited to landscapes and wider shots as the strange perspective foreshortening at the very wide end of the lens (16mm) is not an effect I personally like.
This lens can be useful in very small rooms or for large groups and if this is a requirement this lens is perfect for producing very high quality shots throughout the focal range.
I find that generally the proximity required to the animal you are photographing is too close and you become the animals focus. The best shots you are likely to get are with the animal sniffing around your camera wondering what you are up to. Just not my style.
Other animal photographers do use it and I have seen some great shots with very long noses stretching back to the eyes of a dog. If I do use it, it is to place an animal or an animal and their owner in a dramatic scene. Particularly if the clouds are interesting.
Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 II USM
One of Canon's best generalist lenses offering a very useful focal range for natural looking shots.
More useful day to day than the 16-35mm but still not one I use very often unless space is particularly limited. If I have freedom of movement around a smallish area I would generally opt for the 50mm f1.2 and reposition myself accordingly.
Again this lens is great for group shots but most of my animal photography is focused on one animal.
Canon EF 50mm f1.2 USM
This is a great lens for animal photography. Even with very small dogs the f1.2 aperture can create incredibly shallow of field and beautiful bokeh. You can really capture the personality in a cat or dogs eyes with this lens.
I often use it at the end of a shoot when a dog is tired from lots of running around. Its mouth will likely be open, tongue panting but the animal is relatively still - sitting or lying down. By this point they will be comfortable enough with me that the camera is no longer a novelty to be investigated. A portrait shot is often more interesting with the animal focusing on something to the side of the camera and a distance of 10-20 meters away.
You are going to get very close to the animal at this focal length and the resulting portraits will be very intimate. When the animal does look into the camera they will be calm enough to look relaxed and natural.
In very low light this lens can be used for action shots too although focus at f1.2 with a moving animal almost filling the frame is a matter of luck!
There are also versions of this lens at f1.4 and the incredibly good value f1.8. Both are excellent choices for animal photography providing enough speed to keep camera settings in a very workable range and provide clean crisp shots.
The camera strap which comes with your camera is of very limited use when shooting animals. Even if it is slung over your shoulder you will find your movement very limited and the camera will often be in a vulnerable position without quick access when on the move.
The best solution I have found is the Black Rapid RS -Sport strap. I attach it directly to the 70-200mm Lens (using the tripod attachment) which offers perfect balance when on the move.
A lightweight tripod which converts easily to a monopod. Not something I use often but I would'nt like to go out without the facility to stabilise the camera. I currently use a Leaptek Professional Portable Magnesium Aluminium Alloy Tripod Monopod Kit with Ball Head
A Variable Neutral density filter for the f1.2 50mm lens often comes in handy to keep the bokeh and shallow depth of field in very high intensity light.
I do have neutral density filters for my other lenses but I very rarely find I need to use them.
2x Sandisk Extreme Pro 64GB (160mb/s) CF cards - the faster your cards are the less time you will lose after a long burst of high speed continuous shots while the camera write the images to the cards
If you are using your smartphone to take your pictures you already have everything you need to edit, store and share your pictures. Mountains of apps (often free) are available for every flavour of phone which make getting involved in the world of photography an easy job. Sharing photographs with friends and family on instagram or one of the many image hosting social media networks is a real joy when you know you have a great moment to share.
If you want a little more control over your images then a Mac or PC is a great investment. Almost any computer will do just fine for all but the most demanding professional jobs. Organise your increasingly huge library of photographs easily. Install some image processing software and change the whole nature of your photographs to suit your mood.
If you find you are taking lots of photographs and you know what you want to do with them (this guide will help you with that!) you can think about better hardware suited to heavy image processing. Powerful computers with large graphics cards, high quality calibrated monitors, graphics tablets for precise image manipulation, fast SSD drives and high speed broadband connections all become essential tools when you want to take your photography to the next level. I will talk about optimal set-ups for efficient photography as we go through this guide.
You are going to need a fairly powerful PC or Mac (The differences are really just down to the operating system you are most comfortable using! ) with a good screen. The choice is enormous but the important specifications of my machine are:
Intel i7-5820K based PC with Windows 10 - A fast, well cooled CPU is invaluable when processing photographs. Many of todays software solutions (photoshop, Lightroom, DxO and many others) are moving towards GPU acceleration for many tasks but a solid CPU base makes life significantly easier.
32GB RAM - The more RAM you have, the more flexible your workflow will be. Working on problematic images can mean switching between many pieces of software. The ability to have many images with multiple layers open in each of these is a real benefit in photography.
1070p Gfx card - You will be working in software which directly acceses the power of the GPU to processes (often thousands) of images quickly. NVidias pascal based GPU's are a solid choice for photography work with the 1070p offering (in my opinion!) the best performance to cost ratio.
30inch Dell u3014 Monitior - A 30 inch monitor with a resolution of 2560x1600 is an enormously useful part of your system. A resolution high enough to work on your photographs at pixel level without losing too much of the surrounding detail and allowing you to orient yourself quickly within your photograph is an important part of a quick workflow which can be lost at lower resolutions. Because you will normally be working with a large graphics tablet (Wacom) and a keyboard between you and the screen, the 30inch monitor provides an optimal size for working at this resolution. Another often used monitor size/resolution combo is 4K but I have found that text and interface sizes can be very small. Operating systems are getting better at interpreting interfaces at these resolutions but some software can still be difficult to change in order that all buttons and text are readable/usable. Whatever monitor you choose It is advisable to seek out the increasingly rare aspect ration of 16:10. Most monitors these days are (for a variety of mostly hardware manufacturing industry cost reduction factors) 16:9 which are much less suitable for photo editing. The extra screen real estate provided by 16:10 is worth getting.
24 Inch HP monitor. - A second monitor used to view photographs directly and to help with the organisation of files is, if not an essential, a great benefit to fast workflow. Again this monitor is 16:10 aspect ratio but with a resolution of 1920x1200. Both of my monitors are calibrated using either x-rite i1 display pro or Spyder5Elite calibration tools to ensure the best colour reproduction I can get.
Wacom Tablet and Pen. - I consider this the greatest benefit to speedy and accurate manipulation of photographs. I have the entirety of the tablet mapped to just the 30 inch monitor (using the correct aspect ratio of course!) giving me very precise control of my main editing windows. Access to the second monitor is only available using the mouse.
USB 3 Card reader. Transferring images from your cards to your drives can be a time consuming process using the often USB2 based interfaces provided on most machines at the moment. An external USB3 Card reader improves this significantly.
27TB Raid 0 storage - I keep an archive of every Raw photograph I ave ever taken. This quickly amounts to a huge library of photographs which needs to be stored. I I have three 9TB raid 0 drives. Two of them are dedicated to storing just raw images - Their contents are identical for safety. The third drive contains archives of projects from the various software I use.
950 pro SSD drive - This is my boot drive, the location of the installed software I use and the place I keep all work in progress including projects, Raw Files and working Jpegs and Tiffs. This is a fast drive which makes working fairly painless.
You can certainly get equivalent photographs with less expensive equipment but this set means I have more options in tricky situations which is often a lifesaver!
Most of the photographs you will see in this guide were taken with this equipment. Throughout this guide I will offer as many tips as I can remember that I rely on regularly.
This is in no way the definitive way to photograph animals. There are many better photographers out there than me but I have found a way to make it work which both myself and my clients enjoy! There are certainly other ways to do many of the things I describe and you should pick and choose any which might work for you.
If you look at the work of many photographers you will, through an understanding of their way of seeing the world, become a better photographer yourself. I regularly visit many photographers websites and galleries and I like to think I learn something new with every visit!
It has always been my opinion that the best animal photography is in wide open spaces with natural light where your pets feel most comfortable and look most natural.
A photograph of your dog playing in the park, your rabbit wandering out of its hutch or your cat sleeping in a window box is often the best way to capture them with great light.
If the shots need to be indoors or the weather is just not suitable outside then it is always good to throw some artificial light onto the things you want to capture. The camera is not nearly as good at interpreting the light in a room as your eyes are. Just turning on the house lights may be enough or using the light on your smartphone (you should very rarely use the flash on your camera – more about this later.)
If you want to create better portraits you may want to invest in some photographic lights. They needn't cost the earth and with a little knowledge about placement and how the light effects your camera settings your images will be even better. More stylised shots can be achieved with large soft boxes and a bewildering selection of studio lights and reflectors. High-key and low-key backgrounds will allow you to isolate your pets in a scene and show them at their very best.
I will in another guide describe indoor and studio photography in more depth. I won't offer any description of artificial lighting here but it is an important area as a professional animal photographer so I will certainly cover it in a future guide.
Photoshop or the incredible GIMP (open source software so no payment required!) are a great place to start. With a million easy to follow tutorials available on YouTube, this type of software is used almost universally in both the casual and professional photography world.
Moving up to more dedicated workflows, you may consider some of the professional offerings like Lightroom, DxO optics pro, Capture One Pro, or Darktable (open source!) allowing you to create astounding imagery worthy of any gallery!
In this guide I will describe my basic use of Lightroom and DxO Optics pro. A future guide will go into much more detail.
No matter which camera you have there are settings you can change which, with a little experience will help you take the best quality photographs depending on the scene and light available to you.
The main settings on most cameras are:
When looking at the chart below all of the ideal values for the perfect photograph live on the left hand side. the further toward the right any of these get - the less desirable our final result will be.
These settings are normally manipulated in one of three ways (beyond the automatic modes)
Tv (Shutter speed Priority)
If you have a very specific shutter speed in mind and you want the camera to calculate the best settings for Aperture and ISO based on the light it sees - Tv is the best mode to use. If I have a dog running around me in circles, the light and contents of the background are going to change rapidly but I know that the slowest shutter speed I can tolerate is 1/2000, then I can use Tv mode fairly confidently.
Av (Aperture Priority mode)
If I want to ensure that the aperture is always wide open or set to a level I know works with my background and I don't need to worry about shutter speed then I can use this setting. On the 5D Mark III I have the option (in the menus) to restrict the shutter speed to a minimum value. I mostly set this value to 250 and any extra speed the camera can give me when it works out the exposure is a bonus.
This is the setting which allows full manual control of all three settings. Using Manual mode means that you must be able to very quickly read a scene and know which settings to choose. Most of your time should be spent in Manual mode.
Setting the ISO manually in this mode requires a fairly static shot with a predictable background. Not something you will normally have the benefit of as an animal photographer.
As a result I often use what I consider one of the most useful but often neglected options available with the 5d mark III. In the menus you can set the camera to restrict the automatic ISO range to 100-1600 (or a similar range depending on the available light) and allow the camera to calculate the ISO by setting it to auto. Based on my manually set aperture and shutter speed settings the ISO will adapt without heading into a range which will cause problems with noise in post production. This means you have a little leeway when the light changes slightly. Perhaps a cloud blows across the sun or your dog runs in front of a dark tree. The creative quality of the image will be the same but the ISO will adapt to provide the perfect exposure.
Shutter speed is the amount of time the sensor in the camera is exposed to the light in the scene. Mostly measured in fractions of a second (there are certainly other options for long exposure photography but that is not something I have yet found many uses for as an animal photographer.)
A slower shutter speed (a smaller number in your camera settings) means the shutter is open for longer and any movement in the scene or movement of the camera results in motion blur. While this can certainly be used to great effect with moving animals, It is generally a good idea to keep this setting at the fastest reasonable setting. I say reasonable because trade-offs must be made with the other settings in order to keep this high.
Shutter speed is the first setting I consider when evaluating a shot. If there is very fast motion in the scene then I have to decide how much (if any) motion blur I want to see.
Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens through which the light travels. Visually, this setting affects how much of the image in front of and behind the subject is in focus. Measured in f/stops, the higher the number – the more of the scene is in focus. A Lower Aperture setting is made available by more expensive lenses (although the incredibly cheap 50mm 1.8 lens available from both Canon and Nikon is an excellent choice for animal photography where capturing action is the desired result.) and lets more light through the lens resulting in narrow depth of field. Wider apertures are harder to work with when maintaining the focus of the subject, particularly when they are moving quickly but a wide aperture allows you as the photographer to guide the viewers eyes to the most important parts of your photograph. A wider aperture also allows you to set faster shutter speeds to get those amazing action shots. Try to set the Aperture to the widest setting (lowest number) you are comfortable with in terms of keeping your subject on focus. The more you practice and understand your camera's other settings, the better at this you will get.
Aperture is the second setting I consider before taking a shot. If I am photographing only one animal (at any speed) I try to keep the aperture as wide open as possible in order to focus on its eyes. With more than one animal in the shot I will start to close the aperture in order that the eyes of all animals will be in focus. If I want to see the background (very rare in my photography) I will consider closing the aperture further.
ISO is the sensitivity of the camera's sensor. Generally speaking the lower the ISO, the less grainy the image will be. As part of the trade off when setting shutter speed and aperture, a high ISO will allow you more desirable settings but will reduce image quality. On a bright sunny day a low ISO will be very achievable while still allowing a fast shutter speed and a narrower aperture (although this is rarely what you want.) There are some good solutions to high ISO noise both in camera and in software you can use to allow you more freedom.
ISO in my animal photography is purely a technical concern. I see no creative benefit to increasing the ISO. It is simply something that I must do in order to get a good exposure based on the shutter speed and aperture. You may decide that a grainy image for the cover of an album is appropriate - in which case use ISO as creatively as you need!
Be aware that ISO 50 can be useful to keep the aperture wide open when shooting with very bright light in your scene but can actually introduce more noise than 100 ISO and result in clipped highlights and/or reduced overall dynamic range in Raw images. I consider ISO 100 to be the ideal setting and if you have the time to use a variable neutral density filter instead of reducing the ISO to 50 - you should do so.
There is a lot of debate about the differences between ISO 100 or ISO 200 as the ideal setting and both camps have valid arguments. There is a slight reduction in dynamic range at ISO 100 but the overall results mean a cleaner (less noisy) image. At ISO 200 there is a slight but detectable increase in noise (this can be important if the final destination of your photograph is a 30 foot billboard) but a better dynamic range when shooting with direct sources of light within your frame. I generally prefer to shoot at 100 ISO if conditions allow as I am more likely to maintain a wider aperture no matter how bright things get. You will have at some point have a particularly bright shoot and get the chance to experiment with both settings. If your post production game is strong you will be able to use either comfortably but a reduction in dynamic range is never desirable when shooting animals so consider ISO 200 as a minimum if you are struggling with very bright sunlight or reflections on water.
In general, when photographing animals, you are looking for the cleanest possible image using the fastest shutter speed and the widest aperture.
I attempt to take most of my action shots with an aperture of f/2.8, a shutter speed in excess of 1/2000 and an ISO less than 640. With this as a starting recommendation I would normally have to start making compromises as the light is rarely as good as I would like!
When looking at the shot I will firstly decide just how much action is happening in the shot.
Is the dog running at high speed across a field or sitting looking at the camera? If there is a lot of action I will decide not to change the shutter speed - I may even try to increase it.
If the dog is sitting still I know I can comfortably reduce my shutter speed. I never like to go below 1/250 as a dog's tongue licking around its mouth, a bark or a good chin scratch from a cat can happen quickly and I don't want to miss those shots because the most fun part of the action was a little blurred.
If I can't reduce the shutter speed I will start to play with the ISO. Increasing the ISO can result in a lot of work in post production and sometimes the results are not acceptable at all.
Once the ISO moves over 2000 I know that I am struggling to set the camera correctly so I will revisit shutter speed and try to nudge it down until I get an acceptable exposure. That said if more than 70% of my image is bright and the areas of shadow are relatively unimportant to the scene I can get away with ISO values up to 5000. Shadows do not tolerate high ISO values as well as midtones and highlights and if I know I need to push my ISO as the light is not great I will often try to reframe my scene to avoid areas of high contrast.
Since I tend to shoot at f2.8 on most of my lenses I will not be able to open the aperture any further but If I am really struggling with the light I will change to a 50mm lens which will allow me to open the aperture up to f1.8, f1,4 or even f1.2 (although action photography at a reasonable distance using an aperture of f1.2 is a matter of pure luck!). With a wider aperture, the photography can certainly become more difficult but the resulting shots are incredible.
Other settings to think about
You should be fairly comfortable with most of the settings in your camera's menus. These often offer little benefit beyond personal preference. Resolution should always be set to the highest available option your camera offers.
I have witness several debates on the necessity of shooting Raw vs jpg and while I simply do not agree that shooting jpg is acceptable - Some very accomplished photographers do take this route.
The exponents of jpg over Raw seem to see it as a competition where the perfect exposure should always be possible if you have read the scene and the light correctly. This is nonsense! Your clients do not care how you have provided their shot and you get no extra points (or more importantly, payment) for shooting jpg correctly. You can however easily have a shot with unusable blown out highlights or crushed lowlights when shooting jpg. Contrast and colour can all be controller with much finer detail in a Raw image. Your ability to manipulate colour temperature after the fact is significantly reduced.
The cost of an extra memory card is negligable. The cost of a badly rendered image can be your entire business!
You should always be shooting Raw. When manipulating the image later using a Raw file versus a jpeg can be the difference between a perfect shot and a useless one.
If your camera has the ability to limit the ISO range used when allowing the camera to set the ISO automatically (useful in manual mode under variable lighting conditions then set this to a range you know you can work with later. I often set the ISO range from 100 – 1600 in order to use this facility.
I always turn off any electronic beeps or other sounds the camera makes when it achieves automatic focus. They are annoying and can wake sleeping or resting animals spoiling potential shots.
If you are photographing sleeping, resting or particularly nervous animals, changing the shutter release mode to one of it's silent (almost silent!) options is always a good idea. Remember to change back to High Speed continuous for most other situations.
Choosing a Lens
For fairly static portrait shots the choice of lens is a creative one based on what you want to see. A tall dog with a long nose may suit a very wide lens to add a slightly comical slant to the shot while he or she sniffs around our lens. A standard choice would be a 50mm. great for any size of animal offering a flattering depth of field at wider apertures which looks realistic in perspective and proportion.
Other than those shots your choice of lens should be largely dictated by the size of the area you are photographing in. Always try to select the longest lens you can (the higher the number in mm, the longer the lens). And try to position yourself as far away from your animal as that lens will sensibly allow to get your shot. A great standard lens for animal photography is a 70-200mm lens. The closer I can get to the 200mm end of that lenses range, the happier I am. Bare in mind that this is a heavy lens on a full frame camera so keeping up with an hour or two running around after a dog can be tiring.
Beyond getting your main action shots and portraits for your client, You need to think about the story your final gallery will tell. A gallery full of action shots at 200mm with the animal filling the frame at 20mph may be a great testimony to your ability as an action photographer but the full story of the day will not be told. Once you know you have these key shots in the bag, start to vary your lenses and framing to tell an interesting story.
Use wide lenses for close ups, use telephoto lenses for panoramas. This may require a bit of hike away from your animal but if you can get as far away as you can with the longest lens you have and take in the whole scene you will get shots that are unusual and beautiful. Think about the space you are in and the possibilities with every focal length. Variety of framing in your final gallery should be a consideration even at this early stage.
Getting ready to take the shot
Once your Lens is selected, Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO are set and seem appropriate for the type of action happening in front of you, it is time to get into position to take the shot.
The best time of day to get outdoor shots is generally considered to be early in the morning just after the sun rises and at the end of the day just before it sets. These times are both often referred to as the golden hour and it is worth checking out the times of sunrise/sunset on days you are shooting as the quality of light all year round is amazing at these times. If, however, you have an animal that is more active at certain times of day then that is the time of day you should shoot. With a good post production technique you will be able to work with most types of daylight with a little practice. The character and demeanour of your pet is more important to a good photograph then the setting. Your photographs are for your clients benefit and enjoyment - not your own personal art collection! Try to find a balance between the two and you will become very hire-able.
A good starting rule is that keeping the sun slightly behind and to the left or right of your pet will give an excellent separation of your animal from the background.
Having the sun directly behind the animal will give a beautiful fringe to their fur but making sure your exposure is correct can be a little trickier and is much more important.
Having the sun directly behind you is rarely a good idea. The animal may seem very well lit to you allowing you more freedom with your camera settings but the shadows and highlights in the eyes will be very flat and unappealing. The background will also be brightly lit so separation is more difficult to achieve. You will need to rely on very dark backgrounds if the sun is behind you.
I would never use a flash when photographing animals. Many animals can be easily unsettled by a camera's flash and they will be taken out of the moment they are indulging themselves in – catching a ball, chasing a stick running to their owner etc, and this will show in the pictures. An on camera flash will also created a very flat, washed out light which removes interest from your photographs. The reflections in an animals eyes from a flash are generally unappealing and remove the candid intimacy an animal photograph should have.
Your pictures should offer an insight into your animals behaviour and character in a very natural environment and a flash will spoil this aesthetic. Another reason to avoid flash photography is the available shutter speed and the amount of photographs you can take in a burst when an animal flies past you at full gallop. Waiting for a flash to recycle will almost always, be the time when a butterfly lands on your dogs nose and takes off!
Evaluative metering in Canon cameras will do a great job of determining the correct exposure of your scene but be prepared to adjust the exposure either manually or using exposure compensation (in Av and Tv Modes).
The first thing to consider is the colour of your dog in contrast to the background/foreground. Grey, light brown and ginger dogs are the easiest to deal with as your cameras automatic selection of exposure will usually be adequate. If your dog is very black or very white you may want to take control of this exposure metering yourself.
As well as selecting the focus of your dog you may need to select an area of the scene you want to meter to ensure the exposure range has a good distribution between important light and dark areas.
Even if you have an owner/handler with you you will not always be able to ensure the animal, background or light is in the ideal position for your shot so get used to changing your camera settings quickly depending on what you see.
A Black dog can cause the whole scene to be evaluated slightly low therefore overexposing the background too much and you should either dial down a few stops of exposure compensation (in Av or Tv Mode) or allow the meter to drop back a notch or two in your viewfinder (in Manual Mode).
A White dog causes the opposite effect. Meaning the animal will be well exposed but the background can suffer by being evaluated as being too dark. Adding light through exposure compensation (Av or Tv mode) or being aware that a reports of a slight over exposure in the viewfinders meter (manual mode) is going to give you a good range to work with later.
Reading the background
The background should not be too busy. Photographing beside incredible gardens with ornate flower arrangements and every colour under the sun may look good while you are there but the point of your photograph is generally that the animal is the important thing. Unless you are using a narrow aperture (wide depth of field) and the actual setting is the important visual, your background should be full of large shapes or be very distant (10-100 meters away.)
If you want to highlight other things in the scene to add interest, try to position yourself so that the scene is interesting while imagining the animal in it! Large tree trunks, benches and boulders are all good objects.
Photographing dogs on the crests of small hills adds wonderful seperation from their background while still giving a great idea of the environment of the shot. An animal in a valley, at the bottom of a steep hill or very close to a building makes for a very flat shot and generally should be avoided. Look for a distance of 5-10 meters from the animal to anything at all in its background.
Add incidental depth wherever you can.
Look for other elements of the scene to give an even greater impression of depth. Pollen floating in the air, mist, rain, snow falling, flies buzzing around, dry dirt or leaves on the ground which are likely to be kicked up if the animal runs through it. A fence stretching from you to the animal and beyond. These are all great things to add depth and motion to your shot. These are things that you are aware of as you walk around but never really get to see frozen in time. A photograph with a high shutter speed capturing any of these elements around your sprinting dog will look great. be aware that any of these things could try to steal focus from the animal. Check your focus constantly!
Although many professional animal photographers have enormous success positioning themselves above their animals and shooting down, I find that the very best shots are taken from at or ideally below the animals eye level. This does not mean crouching down. This almost always means lying down so get ready to spend a lot of time rolling around on the ground! Make sure your elbows and knees are well protected and wear clothing you don't mind sliding around in a puddle with!
While you are lying down very small changes in the position of the camera will make huge differences in the quality of the final image.
The first thing to consider is the horizon. A great shot will often have the horizon occupying no more than the bottom 1/3 of the image. Ideally the horizon should not cut through more than height of the top of your animals legs. I reject almost every shot if the horizon is above the animals head (or its back if it is lying down.)
When considering the horizon it is best to imagine it extending way past the scene. Where the ground meets a building a few meters behind your pet is not the horizon. The horizon happens miles away so bear that in mind when framing your shot.
The ground is rarely important in a photograph. I you feel the ground is an important part of the story you want the image to tell – find a distinguishing feature of it and try to position your pet beside it. A clump of flowers or a pile of rubble, some street markings or a curb. If the positioning of the camera to encompass one of these features requires compromises in the height required for your camera, then the ground is not important enough in the image. Either rethink the shot or ignore the ground and position yourself lower.
Very few people care what the river your dog is jumping into looks like they just want to see the animal in action.
Vertical Lines are very important.
Any other lines in the scene – fence posts, road signs, edges of buildings – anything which tells you the correct orientation of the scene, should be kept perfectly straight or as close as you can while moving your camera around trying to frame your subject.
Look around you. The lines of the walls around you are straight. No matter what angle you tilt your head at, the lines of the room are something you understand as going straight up and down. This interpretation is largely lost in a 2D image. Any angle of those lines introduced as a result of a camera angled (or more precisely rolled on its view axis!) incorrectly are difficult for the viewer to interpret as being up and down. This is more distracting to the viewer than you might initially imagine. In film making (moving image) this is called shooting at a dutch angle and is often used in horror films or scenes where uncertainty and discomfort are the directors aim. They are used to unsettle the viewer. That is generally not what we want as an animal stills photographer.
Very rarely in film making will a director of photography employ a technique where the vertical lines in a scene converge as a result of a camera being angled up or down in relation to the horizon. You may not initially realise it but you are more likely to identify a film or documentary as amateurish if you see convergence of lines in a scene! There are of course exceptions to this rule but until you know exactly why you might want to allow your lines to deviate from the vertical - you should avoid it.
Converging lines in any direction are likely to spoil your image a little at best and make them unsaleable to advertising agencies and design clients at worst. Your camera should be level with the ground or as close as you can get at all times. Vary the height of your camera to get the shot – not the angle. There will almost always be some cropping and realignment required in post production but keeping this to an absolute minimum will mean you end up with higher resolution images with less odd things happening to the perspective. These problems may not seem important to the client who just wants a nice shot of their dog but when presenting your work to companies these things are key.
The next thing to consider is the framing of your animal within the scene you have decide to photograph. The background is now a secondary consideration and the more of your animal you can frame in the camera the better the shot will be. The closer your pet is to the lens the more detail and character you can show. This will also increase the amount of Bokeh (the roughly circular blurring effect which happens when areas lose focus due to a wide aperture) around your scene which can look spectacular. The closer your area of focus is, the narrower the depth of field. This means you will have to work much harder to maintain good focus but the efforts will be worth it!
Use composition rules
Make good use of the "Rule of thirds." keeping things exactly central in a photograph can be boring. But do remember there are always exceptions and rules are there to be explored and broken!
Another useful rule to follow is the rule of one point perspective. Simply put this means that everything in the scene which indicates direction should run parallel to the camera. Position yourself lying down in the absolute middle of a straight pathway (make sure not to get trampled on on run over by a cyclist - I have had a few close calls!) Keep the lampposts and trees pointing directly up in the frame. all other lines should run away from the camera to one point somewhere on the vertical centre of the frame. look for good symmetry in the scene in front of you. Then any animal you put directly in your path will be isolated beautifully, forcing the concentration of the viewer to look at your subjects with absolutely no other distractions.
Focus on the eyes
The single most important aspect of a great animal picture is the area of focus. 95% of the time you want this focus to be on the eyes. Only the eyes. Not the ears or the nose as often happens (This can look great but rarely does unless you have considered it and done it on purpose). But the eyes. To more reliably achieve this, set the camera to use only one focus point at a time, not groupings of focus points. This can be tricky with moving animals but the results are generally more repeatable with practice. It is best not to rely on the centre focus point on your camera. Focusing then re-framing can result in changes of the plane of focus very easily at shorter focal lengths and wider apertures. Get used to changing which focus point the camera is going to use. Changing this quickly will make all the difference to accurately focusing on a dogs eyes no matter where they are in your frame.
If you are hoping to get good action shots it is worth framing your scene and taking a few nice portrait shots in this position with your pet standing or sitting in place. While doing this you can refine your settings and position to get a great setup which you can then direct the animal through for a great action shot.
Action shots where the animal is running from the left to right or vice versa are the easiest action shots to get and if everything else is well considered in your framing the shots will look great. With this kind of action shot the point of focus will not change so much giving you a much better chance of getting the correct thing in focus.
Once you have a few nice portraits, make sure your camera is set to "high speed continuous". Remove the animal from your frame but keep the camera pointed at them with AI Servo mode selected using all 61 focus points to track the animal. Get someone to throw a ball into the place the animal was previously sitting and get ready for the dog (or cat!) to run through your scene. Follow them with the camera allowing the tracking to do it's job and just before they get to the point where you had previously set everything up, press the shutter release button and keep it pressed until the action is over. You will be a able to take as many images as your camera will allow as quickly as it can. One of them just might be in focus!
Jumping in Position.
The next easiest shot to get is the animal jumping in position to get something above them. A stick held out just above the cameras view or a ball tossed with a high arc to land almost at their feet making them jump directly up. The focus can be set while they are standing or sitting as they should ideally not move any further or nearer to the camera during the action. This may take a bit of practice on the part of the person throwing or holding a stick in the correct position but it soon becomes obvious what the problems are and the shot should be fairly easy to get.
Running towards the camera
To get an animal running directly towards the camera is the most difficult and often the most impressive of shots to get. A good method for this kind of shot is to throw a ball or position someone with a treat and get the dog to run from a set position to get it. Once you have seen the path the dog takes you can find a position along that track with a good framing and position of light.
Now that you have found your position, get the owner of the dog to bring them into that position and set the ISO, Aperture, shutter speed and focus. Then switch your lens to manual focus. You want to hope that the animal will run through that exact position at speed and the shutter will release at just the right time.
Have the ball thrown/treat offered and wait for them to speed through the scene. At this point it is good to keep both of your eyes open. One eye looking though the viewfinder and assessing the scene, the other eye aware of the position of the dog outside of the frame so that you can start holding the shutter down when it is just about to enter your area of focus. Firing off a burst of high speed continuous shots will give you a good chance of getting that one perfect shot with the dog snapping at a ball or with all legs in the air flying over the ground with both eyes perfectly in focus. You may have to do this a few times!!
Another method when the path of the dog's path is less reliable is to use the tracking features of your camera. The canon 5d mark iii has a good enough tracking system to allow you to get these shots. It is often easier to get good shots of dogs with longer noses with this method as the focus can be kept (with a lot of practice!) on the end of the dogs nose while it is running directly at you. By the time the shutter button is pressed the dog will have run forward a few inches and the focus should be exactly on the dogs eyes. Just where you want it to be. Don't forget to roll out of the way before the dog hits you! A common mistake using this method is to lose confidence in the camera's ability to track and the speed of your reactions when the dog is very close to you – taking the shot too soon losing the desirable qualities of a narrow depth of field.. The more confident you are in allowing the dog to fill the frame at these high speeds the better your shots will be. The tracking systems are better than most people realise and even though it may take your several (10 or more!) attempts to get it, the shot you capture will be a photograph be proud of and will show your dog in one of its most interesting states in detail which you cannot see any other way. Do bear in mind that in general dogs with shorter noses are generally slower than dogs with long noses so the change in focus from nose to eyes can still work!
Don't be afraid to take many hundreds of photographs during a photoshoot. You will regret not leaning on the shutter button more heavily when you get home to realise that you missed the shot because a previously missed car, person or bird spoiled your shot and you didn't take an alternative. You must balance this out with the knowledge that a camera has a limit to the amount of actuations (movements of the shutter) before it becomes unreliable and the camera will need to be replaced or endure expensive servicing at this point. It is beyond the scope of this guide but your pricing for your services should reflect these costs.
I often take 1000 photographs during a 2 hour shoot. From this perhaps half will be of a quality I deem acceptable. Of these 500 I will select 200 to work with so that I am not showing the same shot over and over again. During your shoot, try to get to know the dog and their owner well. See what they like about each other and try to use that when selecting the best shots. From these I will narrow it down to 30-40 shots which show the absolute best moments and shots of the day. I will generally send these plus 50 more to my client to select the ones they like.
Keep an occasional eye on your cards capacity to take photographs and your battery levels. Make sure you use any available quiet times to change these if required.
You have your card full of shots now you need to process them. If you followed my earlier advice you will have Camera Raw files. These are yours and yours only. There are very few situations in which I would ever allow anyone to have the Camera Raw Files. There are some clients who may ask you for them and this must be negotiated before your job starts. If a client wants the Camera Raw files then they have to pay significantly more money per file. It is normally prohibitively expensive to provide images this way. Never give those away! You will normally provide jpeg's to your clients. Most printing companies insist on jpeg's nowadays and they are the standard way to deliver your digital images. If a design agency is to use your images to create advertisements they may ask you to provide Tiff's as they retain significantly more colour, luminance and detail information than jpegs but again, this is rare.
A copy of photoshop will provide you with the ability to import and convert your camera Raw files but this is very rarely a time efficient way of preparing your images. You may use photoshop at some point in the process but this will be later if any cosmetic fixes requiring detailed masking and painting are required. Your general image processing will be done with a piece of software like Lightroom, Aperture, DxO or some other dedicated batch image processing software. I am assuming you have a basic understanding of Lightroom and how to use it. It is the one I use the most so I will describe my workflow using “Adobe Lightroom” and DxO Optics pro.
Firstly transfer your images to your fastest hard drive. You can let lightroom handle the import of photographs but I like to organise things myself as I have many many thousands of images to deal with on a regular basis.
Once in lightroom, import the images. Lightroom will detect that your drive is of a sufficient speed and will not make duplicates of the files but will instead import them in place.
Now is the time to go through your images one by one and either reject them from your list or select them by giving them 1 star. At this stage you are not applying any corrections to the files. You are simply selecting the ones with acceptable framing, lighting and focus.
Once you have a final selection of images filter the images lightroom show by star rating – 1 star! You will go through them again. This time selecting the best shots from each setup. Don't choose more than one of each setup. It is your good eye which will make the final gallery interesting and of a high quality. Repetition of shots is boring. If you really love two shots that are very similar then of course, choose them both but try to keep your second selection very exclusive. Mark all of these photographs as having 2 stars.
Now I like to rely on another piece of software to further prepare the images for correction. DxO optics pro has the best high ISO noise reduction I have encountered so I like to run all of the 2 star photographs through this before I begin. With DxO installed select all of your photographs in Lightroom and there will be a new option in the File menu to export them all to DxO. Doing this will take less than a minute and the images will all appear in a newly opened instance of DxO. Many people like to use DxO for the complete process and this is certainly a good option but one that I have not yet switched to completely as I like a lot of the organisational abilities of Lightroom. DxO is very capable though so do not hesitate to use it exclusively if you feel it can work for you.
Because I will be performing all of my corrections other than noise reduction in lightroom, I now remove all possible corrections from the images but set up Prime Noise reduction on all of them. They are now ready to transfer back to lightroom which you can do by selecting all of the images and press the “transfer to lightroom button” allowing you move copies of them all with the new noise reduction applied back to lightroom.
This can take a long time (several hours for a few hundred photographs). Once they are all transferred you can close DxO and move back to lightroom where these new copies of all your processed images will displayed.
I would now apply a basic preset - which I create altering some standard settings in order to test the limits of an images dynamic range - to every image.
I create a general preset which I will describe in a future guide specific to post production of images and go through each image changing the look and feel. Straightening horizons, fixing chromatic aberations, barrel distortions, colour temperatures and many other settings which lightroom makes very light work of.
Any photographs with unacceptable focus may be removed at this point unless you decide they are interesting enough to ignore slightly imperfect focus. Be Harsh! Any photographs with any part of the animal missing would be good candidates for removal, a missing paw or the tip of a tail is enough for me to reject a photograph!
As you go through this process mark the photographs with either 3 or 4 stars. 3 stars for a good photograph, 4 stars for a great photograph. Hopefully you will have enough 4 star photographs at the end to send your client. If not you may have to go back through and review the 3 star photographs to choose a few that you feel may be appropriate to show a good gallery to the client.
Once you have a final selection of 4 star photographs go through them again. This time be as harsh as you can and only mark photographs that you decide are excellent with 5 stars. This list of 5 star photographs are the ones you will export as full sized jpegs to give to your client. Congratulations! You are ready for the rather nervous process of showing them to your client. It is often best to have a website dedicated to showing these images so that you can decide the order of the images yourself.
I use smugmug (This website is built with smugmug.) as it has a quick clean efficient way to show clients the photographs then download them when I allow. There are many other image hosting websites that are simple to create galleries with and do a great job!
Many people would at this point choose to put a watermark with their name in order to restrict the usability of any images someone may steal. I would normally not have a watermark on my images. I think they are simply too distracting and spoil the photographs for the client who has already paid for your time.
I set the website to restrict the resolutions at which they can be displayed. If people are going to steal your images there is not a lot you can do to stop them beyond reducing the resolution to something they would be unable to use commercially. It is a slightly controversial area but my reasoning is that people who are going to do this were never going to pay for the images anyway and if they distribute the images in any way it just further exposure for my photographs.
I will at some point soon create a detailed guide to my use of Lightroom and how it can be used creatively to affect the way and animal's fur reacts to various settings. So do come back!
In the meantime have fun! I would love to see any photographs you take.