I'm a Nationally Accredited Pet Photographer, and yet some of my favourite photos of my own pets were taken with a humble iPhone.
Most times, I don't happen to have my "big girl camera" handy and lights all set up when my pets decide it's time to do something adorable. My phone is always within arm's reach, and I'll bet yours is, too. Here are some tips for taking better pet photos with your phone.
You're going to need lots of light, there's really no way around it. Well lit photos have better detail, and a happier mood. Most importantly, the more light you have, the faster your shutter speed will be, and the better your chance of getting a sharp, clear photo of your pet, rather than a blurred blob.
Take advantage of window light
In this photo, Stompin' Tom is sitting next to the screen door, providing a large, soft light source.
Pets don't tend to hold a pose and stay still the way people do when posing for a portrait, so freezing Fido in the moment can be tricky. Don't worry, you won't need any special equipment or flashes, just some resourcefulness and creativity.
When photographing pets indoors,
- Turn on overhead lights and any nearby lamps. The more, the better.
- Light streaming through a window is often the most flattering light there is. When photographers use expensive lights in large softbox modifiers, that is the effect we're trying to recreate. Chances are, your home has windows that can create that effect for free, so take advantage of it!
- Use white walls, or even bed sheets to reflect the ambient light.
- Avoid using your cellphone's built in flash at all costs.
This iPhone 6s photo was taken indoors, at night, with the overhead light and a couple of lamps on. It was brightened a little bit in post processing, using the Snapseed app. Most times, you will get more pleasing results by brightening the photo later than by using the on camera flash.
...But Not Too Much Light
Outdoors, you may have the opposite problem. Harsh, bright sunlight will allow you to have a very fast shutter speed and will be great for action shots, like your dog running on the beach. For still portraits, it will often create harsh, unflattering shadows and blown out, overly bright patches of fur. Try to look for areas of open shade, like a gazebo, a covered porch, under a dense tree, or on the shade side of a building or fence. Now you will have a nice, even light and the added bonus that your dog won't be squinting.
Catch lights are the bright highlights you see in the eyes of animals and humans. They are a reflection of the light source and they help tell our brains that this is a round object (eyeball), even in a flat, 2 dimensional photo. They also keep our pets from appearing to have soulless black pits in place of eyes, which is always nice. It's hard to be reminded of your deep connection with your animal companion while being simultaneously creeped out by their demon eyes.
Try to keep this in mind when photographing your pets, if you can't see catch lights when looking at them, they won't magically appear in the photo. Try to add a light source in front of your pet.
Tap To Set Focus And Exposure
I am frequently amazed by how many people don't realize this. If you tap a spot on your screen (in this case, probably your pet's face), that is where the camera will focus and meter for proper exposure. Most of the time, your camera is pretty good at guessing, but you want better photos ALL the time, so help it out and let it know what part of the scene is most important to you. For portraits, whether they are of pets or people, focus should almost always be on the eyes.
It's all in the eyes...
Your focus point should always be on the pet's eye for a great portrait, and make sure you've got those catch lights!
And I mean you, not your pet. Even in sufficient light, with a well behaved or sleeping pet, many people still end up with blurry photos because they were not holding the camera steady. Always hold your camera phone with both hands and keep your elbows tucked in against your sides, for extra stability.
You can introduce unwanted movement just by tapping the screen to release the shutter. Did you know that on most smart phones, you can use the volume buttons on the side as a shutter button? That will allow you to hold the phone much steadier, with both hands.
Most modern cellphone cameras have a burst mode feature. You can press and hold the shutter button for a rapid fire burst of photos that can enable you to capture awesome action shots, or just help you to get one sharp photo of a fidgety pet.
Capture Details And Behaviours
It's not ALL about capturing sharp, well lit photos. You want to commemorate those adorable details and behaviours, like the way Stompy's whiskers curl and Delgado sleeps on the highest pile of cushions he can find, and Phil drinks out of my water glass. Record those little things you just love about your pets (even if they are super frustrating, sometimes), and your photos will have way more meaning.
You'll get better photos of your furry family members if they think having a camera pointed at them is loads of fun. Use lots of treats, praise, and rewards to make sure your pet has a good time and stop before they get bored or frustrated and try to leave. Once your pet has made it clear they've had enough, don't press the matter or you'll soon have a pet that runs away every time you whip out your cellphone and hold it camera style.
Most dogs will respond really well to different sounds, but there are a few pitfalls to be aware of. First, don't call the pet's name, unless you want them to come running towards you, because that's what they are going to do. It's probably what you've trained them to do. "Hey Fido" doesn't mean "keep sitting pretty and look at the camera", it means "stop what you're doing and come here".
Whistles, noise makers, squeaky toys, any funny noises you can make, these all work really well...but only once or twice, so use them sparingly, and only when you are 100% ready to take the photo.
Cats don't care about sounds so much, they are more visually stimulated. Try dangling a feather or toy just above your lens to get their attention.
An Ounce Of Grooming Is Worth A Pound Of Editing
Lean over, wipe those goopy eyes, and fix those stray hairs before you snap the photo. What may go overlooked in "real life" can be glaringly obvious in today's high resolution photos.
But, If You Missed Something, Try Snapseed
I have well over a hundred camera and photo editing apps on my iPhone, but these days, I rarely use any of them, besides Snapseed. If you have a cluttered, distracting background, add some lens blur and a dark vignette in Snapseed. Missed an eye booger or want to remove a leash? There's a healing brush tool. Want to adjust a specific area of the photo? No problem, you can do selective adjustments. Not into editing and just want some one-click filters, yup, there are lots of those, too.
You may have noticed an HDR Setting on your cellphone camera. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it takes three photos, in rapid succession. One normal exposure, one overexposed, and one underexposed. Those photos get blended together into one photo that will have properly exposed details in both the highlights and the shadows. If you tend to keep the HDR feature turned on all the time, you will want to turn it off for most pet photos, because they are unlikely to stay completely still for all three shots and the result will be a blurry photo.
As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, a scene is impossible to capture properly with just one shot, and you will need to use HDR. Just be aware, that your pets will have to stay still and it may take a few tries to get a clear enough photo.
Use HDR Mode For Sunsets
A sunset scene like this one is impossible to capture with only one shot, using your phone. You will either have properly exposed dogs, and a bright white sunset, or a beautifully coloured sunset and black silhouettes of the dogs. If your dog won't stay still for an HDR, consider getting down very low and intentionally silhouetting them against the colourful sky.
Try Out Some Painterly Effects
For something a little different, try adding some painterly effects to your pet photos. There are some pretty fantastic free apps these days, that are just chock full of cool looking filters. One to get you started is the Prisma app. I particularly like Prisma because you can control the amount of the effect with a slider - I often like it best when used between 50-75% opacity. The photo in the title card for the article was taken with an iPhone 4S, and a cheap magnetic fisheye lens that I picked up on eBay for a couple of bucks. I added a painterly filter, and it turned out to be one of the first prints that I ever sold - an iPhone photo of my own dog, purchased by a complete stranger.
Today's cellphone cameras have come a long way, and are completely capable of taking great, even print worthy photos. Let's start replacing all those blurry, noisy, underexposed, glowing red eyed pet photos on Instagram, one sharp, well lit, bright eyed portrait at a time!