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How To Take The Perfect Pet Portrait

How To Take The Perfect Pet Portrait
Header image by Rachel Oates.

 

Whether your pet is an up-and-coming Instagram star, or your simply want to document the wonderful memories you make with them, taking the perfect picture can be challenging! Dogs and cats alike have a mind of their own, and for many of them, sitting still for hours on end waiting for you to get the perfect shot isn't realistic or enjoyable. But with a little know-how and some practise, we think everyone can take fantastic pet portraits worthy of sharing on your social media and beyond! We spoke to 2 of Hiro + Wolf's good friends to get their top tips based on their expert knowledge. Ben Broomfield is a London based professional photographer who has captured events such as the London Fashion Week, Reading Festival as well as being the talented photographer behind the Hiro + Wolf photoshoots. He has been a photographer for over 18 years, and has worked with major organisations such as Apple, Burberry, Gant, Transport for London and the Department for Health.  Aurelie is the owner of Marcel le Corgi and is the human behind the camera for Marcel's Instagram pics. Aurelie has been a family, occasions and travel photographer for over 12 years, and has been capturing Marcel on camera since 2013 and sharing the images to Instagram where they have over 140,000 followers!   

 

How much planning goes into setting up for a shoot? 

Ben: I work well with a creative director who says "I want this" and I work out the technicalities of how to make that happen. So knowing what kit I need and making sure everything is packed and charged. Though sometimes you think of a great idea on the shoot, so the ability to think fast and adapt is very helpful.

 

Aurelie:  It really depends on the purpose of the session. For brand photos involving pets, it's usually more because I need to recruit models (when not Marcel), make sure to understand exactly what needs to be captured, scout for backdrops, watch out for the weather forecast (since shooting almost exclusively outdoors), list all the shots I want to capture and then finally, on the day, allow some times for the pups to get used to me, the camera, wearing props if there are any and then get my shots without stressing them out or pushing them. When Marcel is involved it tends to be less time because I know him, and his limits, and he is trained (thanks to treats) to be a ham for the cam. I also tend to work on a more spontaneous basis when he is involved, even for brand partnerships for his social media. Factors that may add up some time include wanting a specific theme, to take photos at a specific venue (and make sure it happens when it is not too busy), and again the weather. When private clients are involved, it's also quite the work because I want to make sure to capture them being them (humans and hounds, or cats) so I'll discuss what they like, dislike, are comfortable with, what they want to wear, what are the optimal times for the photo session (especially if it involves little ones, humans or four legged) Generally speaking one key element to take into account when it comes to setting up the shoot is how used the models (two and four legged) are to being photographed - although I do not often capture studio photography, there are things that cannot be taught on the day unless you are a natural: this includes basic training (such as a firm sit and stay), being comfortable with a camera... this takes hours on its own and so to help I usually send tips to the owners.

 

Aurelie and Marcel 

 

How important is the type of camera you use? 

 

Ben: The best camera is the one you have on you. He says, having just bought another lens...

Aurelie: Not THAT important unless you capture images for a brand (or special event such as a wedding) and need a super high resolution image and/or will be editing a lot, in which case I highly recommend a DSLR camera (and knowing how to use it, at least the basics) ideally full frame. Generally speaking for social media a fairly recent smartphone works great and there are apps that can be used on it and are free (such as Snapseed or VSCO or Lightroom). Those often allow for less room for editing but also more mobility / freedom when it comes to capturing a pet, and they tend to be less scary for them as smaller. They are also easier to grab to capture those unexpected moments which are often the  most memorable. With that said you can have the most expensive piece of equipment, if you do not know how to use it or what to focus on, it's pretty useless. It's all about the eye of the photographer rather than just the camera.  

 

Ben shooting with Roland Mouret.

 

How long do you usually shoot for?

Aurelie: When it involves companion animals, just like for children, in short bursts - 30min to 1h max, because they tire quickly and a photo session needs to be enjoyable, not a chore, for all. Sometimes more if the pet is up for it it can last a bit longer, some of my family sessions are a total of 2hrs but that's with loads of breaks (for humans and animals, and photographer) and often a change of scenery half way through. Should the animal feel tired or not up for it, then I will not hesitate to cut the session short and potentially postpone, their wellbeing is first, always.

 

What is the biggest challenge when working with dogs? 

 

Ben: Getting them to sit still? It helps that Hiro & Wolf are great in that aspect. Also a shoutout to Millie the supermodel greyhound who is always a star.

 

Aurelie: Getting them to do what you want them to do, even the most well trained ones have their days, like us! There is a reason why they say "do not work with children or animal". Another related challenge is not pushing them, it's super important to learn to read signs of stress that mean it is time to take a break or stop, yet so easy to push them too far for those unaware of this because they are often so eager to please. I tend to take a relaxed approach with all my clients, and Marcel too, if what we want isn't working, then it wasn't meant to happen or we'll try another time. And often it's the shots that were not planned that are the best. It's primordial to "let dogs be dogs" (and  their humans too) and be patient and keen an open mind (and manage the humans' expectations and reassure them that most dogs are like this).


How do you get dogs to behave themselves when photographing them?

Ben: I let the owners give them a steady supply of treats, often held just above my camera until I've got the shot.

 

Aurelie: I don't generally count on that happening so don't really try and take a relaxed approached, even the most well trained like Marcel have their moments and that's ok and to be expected. Often the photos when they misbehave or are being them are the best. To get their attention though in most cases I recommend using treats or a toy, whichever is their favourite motivation, that and making noises they are not used to (but not to the point to scare and startle them). There are even apps for those noises. Ah, and be fast, you've got to be fast and ready when capturing dogs!

 

Do you have a favourite location/backdrop? 

Ben: Not really. Part of my love of being a photographer is seeing and experiencing new places. I'm a sucker for interiors of old buildings though. I was in the Livery Hall at the Company of Goldsmiths and it blew my mind. Anywhere with great light is always a bonus.

 

Aurelie: The one where the animal is most at ease with, and in natural light, on an overcast days is better so there are no harsh shadows. I'm very keen on letting dogs be dogs so capturing them in their environment, especially outdoors. My favourite backdrop with Marcel will be a landmark or nature when we travel, it is "our thing" and what we enjoy doing together.

 

Ben's portrait of Sir Christopher Lee.

 

What is your favourite photo you’ve taken? 

 

Ben: Tough. I'm always critical of my photos, however photographing Christopher Lee backstage after his metal concert, and him saying in his deep booming voice "you know, I've been photographed by Robert Capa and Annie Leibovitz, and [looking at my photo] that's very good" was a highlight. He was an absolute gentleman, and that photo brings back great memories for me.

Aurelie: Too many to just narrow it down to one! That of Marcel on the Brooklyn Bridge on the last day of our US road trip in the first days of 2020 is definitely one of the faves, it was the trip of a lifetime and brings back fond memories, and to me capturing the memories and moments is what matters the most, for our own private photos but also clients as one day those photos will be all that is left (or help you hang on in the case of our last big trip before the pandemic happened).

 

Aurelie's favourite shot of Marcel on the Brooklyn Bridge  

 

What is a common mistake people make when photographing their pet?

Ben: Not editing the photo. All phones have easy and effective editing abilities now, a little brightness, contrast and colour tweaks go miles. Oh and not checking if the background is clean! A distracting background will stop people from looking at your pet, and well, no-one wants that.

 

Aurelie: I think the angle they take, not going down to their level, and not having them to look at the camera as this means not being able to relate or "connect" with them in photos. Also expecting them to behave without some leg work and forgetting that they are animals (with feelings) not statues or muppets, and getting stressed trying to achieve something instead of just taking a more relaxed approach!

Ben photographing Hiro.

What 3 tips would you give anyone photographing their pet for the first time?

Ben: 1) Fill the frame with your pet, give them love!
2) ...or don't. Go back, and give them space, show the context and environment of where they are if it's interesting.
3) Think about what the photo is for. Are you telling a story (say what they are up to), or say just a classic portrait of them. Focus on that when you are taking the picture.

 

Aurelie: 1) learn about signs of stress in animals, get them used to the camera beforehand and encourage them to look towards the camera (rewarding them with treats and praise and/or playing with their fave toy)
2) go down to their level if you can (for me it involves a lot of being knees in the ground!)
3) give them time, be patient, don't push them, let them "be them" and always remember that there'll be another occasion if the photo you want isn't happening.

 

A huge thank you to Ben and Aurelie for sharing their tricks of the trade with us! If you take any pet paw-traits inspired by the tips your heard here, please do tag us (@hiroandwolf) on Instagram. You can follow Ben on Instagram here, or check out his website here. You can follow Marcel here, follow Aurelie here, and check out Marcel's blog here.  You can also read Aurelie's blog post on taking a pet portrait here
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