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Simple Studio Technique: Pet Portraits

Perfect pet portraits

Simple Studio Technique: Pet Portraits 1

A few weeks ago we visited an animal adoption center in Seattle, to shoot some portraits of the dogs (and cats) awaiting owners at The Motley Zoo. When we published our video feature recently, many of you wanted a little more information about how we shot the images, so we’ve put together a slideshow of some of our favorite shots, including some bonus images not used in the video.

Click through to see the photos, and for those of you who were curious, we’ve included more information on the lighting and setup we used on the shoot. Also, they’re pictures of pets, what more do you want?


Simple Studio Technique: Pet Portraits 2

For lights we used three Sony HVL-60M flashes, two of which were attached to softboxes and positioned on stands.

The flash on the camera played the role of TTL trigger, while the other two off-camera flashes fired through the softboxes to provide illumination.


Simple Studio Technique: Pet Portraits 3

The key light, which was placed just slightly above eye-level for the dogs and off to the left, was fired through a Westcott Rapid Box 26″ Octa Softbox.

The second light was an overhead fill bounced off the silver inside of a 60″ umbrella, to save space in the relatively small room in which we were working. This light was placed off to the right of the setup, aimed to cover both the backdrop and the subject, to provide a bit of fill light and illuminate the backdrop. 

Get their attention

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When working with animals it’s very important to bring something to grab their attention.

For dogs, treats are always a great way to have them look wherever you want, as long as they’re well behaved. With Ginger Rogers, the sweet little blind Poodle pictured above, we borrowed a squeaky toy that the shelter calls the ‘Photo Pig’. They call it that because it’s shaped like a pig. And they use it to get the dogs’ attention for photos.

Simple Studio Technique: Pet Portraits 5 Photo Pig.

Shoot from eye-level

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Shooting from a pet’s eye level helps in a few ways. 

First, it’s a better angle for classic ‘head and shoulders’ shots when combined with a longer focal length, presenting the dog as a more ‘human’ subject, giving the image more personality.

Second, it can help with intimidation, or rather avoiding intimidation, especially with smaller breeds. Just watch out, some dogs love to give kisses when you squat down to their level. Keep your front element covered, or have something handy to clean it.

Posing your pet

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Profile shots are a great way to add variety in sets of shots taken at the same time.

Be sure to keep the subject facing the side that the light is on, so their face isn’t lost in shadow and they still get ‘catch lights’ in their eyes.

What about cats?

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Cats are a bit more tricky than dogs. We tried, but our hit-rate wasn’t quite as high as we needed it to be. It’s harder to get a cat’s attention, and they can get aggressive and skittish if they’re not in a co-operative mood.

Toy with them

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Getting cats to sit still can be a nightmare. Sound tends to startle cats, so for this kitten portrait we ditched the Photo Pig in favor of feathers attached to a string on the end of a pole. Dangling it just out of shot kept his chin up for the picture.

Watch your settings

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We were using the Sony a6300 for this shoot, and overall the camera worked well. Off-camera TTL lights made setting up the exposure quite easy. 

When using flash on a mirrorless camera, make sure you’re not in exposure preview mode, otherwise, at typical flash exposure settings you’ll just be looking at a completely dark, underexposed preview image.

Also, be aware that battery-powered flashes can have quite long recycle times, especially when fired through modifiers. The modifiers, while necessary for this soft diffused look, sap light, requiring the flash to be used at a higher power level.

Focus tips

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When stopped down past F8 the a6300’s switches to contrast detection in AF-C mode, slowing down the ability to keep up with skittish pets. To avoid this, we switched the camera to AF-S to get rid of the distracting hunting. Inevitably, this left us with some shots that aren’t entirely sharp in the right place. But with a bit of processing, even the shots that aren’t 100% sharp on the animals’ eyes are still perfectly usable for a web gallery.

Pet Portraits

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If you’re interested in adopting any of the animals you’ve seen here, we’re sure The Motley Zoo would love to hear from you. We hope you enjoyed this quick look behind the scenes of a fun photo shoot. Check out the video, if you haven’t already and share your tips for pet portraits in the comments!

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