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How to Take Great Pet Pictures

This five part series, brought to you by GOOD in partnership with Purina ONE®, explores how we can all share the benefits of having pets in our lives.


Introducing the third story in The GOOD Guide to Making the World Better for Pets (Even If You Don't Own One). This five part series, brought to you by GOOD in partnership with Purina ONE®, explores how we can all share the benefits of having pets in our lives. Check out more stories at GOOD Pets.


Sit, stay … smile? Whether you’re on Facebook, Instagram or just swapping pictures the old fashioned way with friends, it’s a no brainer that everyone (pet-owners or not!) loves posting, sharing, and looking at pictures of dogs and cats. But even though we all love a memorable pet photo, sometimes capturing the perfect moment can be tricky, no matter how adorable the pet. Even the coolest photo filter can’t save an anxious—or rambunctious—dog or cat from looking like a blurry ball of fur. But when you do snap that perfect picture that lets a dog or cat’s natural personality shine through, it’s a reminder that a simple picture can do so much. A great picture can instantly create a sense of joy or laughter, evoke a deep feeling of empathy or kinship, spark inspiration, or even spur you to action.

In fact, Nanette Martin, a seasoned documentary and editorial photographer and co-founder of the nonprofit Shelter-Me Photography, counts animals as her toughest subject. “Learning to capture great pictures of animals has been the greatest challenge of my 16-year career,” she says. For Martin, who first started photographing homeless pets during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, capturing the personality of the shelter animals she meets all over the country is especially important. “I need to trigger connections with viewers because those connections lead to inquiries, and those inquiries lead to adoptions.”

Her work with shelter pets has given her insight on how to capture pet personalities at their best. The first step is to make your pet feel comfortable while wielding a potentially scary-looking piece of equipment. “I always, always, always take pictures from the pet’s eye level instead of looking down on them,” Martin says. “Get down and shoot straight across like you would a child.” Also, avoid flashes and strobes that might startle your animal. Martin prefers natural sunlight or a constant daylight fluorescent.

Next, you want to grab the pet’s attention so that he is looking right into your camera lens. “The eyes are where the emotional connection is made,” Martin explains. “But in some cases, you might not get the animal to look at you for more than 1/200th of a second.” The solution? Make sounds. “Most dogs will respond to unusual noises with a head tilt, perky ears, and direct eye contact,” Martin says. If that doesn’t work, get someone to squat directly behind you and squeeze a squeaky toy. Just make sure the noise is coming from directly behind the lens so you don’t catch him looking up, down, or off to one side.

Martin admits that dogs, with their innate desire to please, are much easier to photograph than our feline friends. “Cats are the most difficult. His or Her Highness simply cannot be bothered and does not respond to noises, gestures, or begging.” Martin suggests closing off as many escape routes as you can, getting in close, and using a wide-angle lens to follow them around. “Your most powerful weapon when photographing cats is patience.”

The difference between the behavior of dogs and cats also shows in the photo orientation. Because cats typically pace back and forth, Martin shoots them using a horizontal, or landscape, orientation. Dogs she prefers in a vertical, or portrait orientation to better fill the frame. And don’t forget the background. “Keep it clean and simple and use a camera with an F-stop to help push it out of focus,” she says. (Martin uses a Nikon D3S.)

But perhaps most important, don’t give up! “Some dogs I’ve photographed only take a matter of seconds, but I’ve spent as long as 20 minutes waiting for a good shot. The best images I’ve taken have great lighting, perfect eye contact, and some sign that—for that moment—the dog or cat forgot they were in a shelter. You can see their true spirit."

With these simple but effective tips, you’ll be able to get cute photos for your Facebook page, or even better, offer your skills to your local shelter and like Martin, help shelter pets shine for their closeups.

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