Photographing Your Pet or Horse Tips

I often work from other people's photographs of their pets to paint custom pet and horse portraits.  I thought I'd share a few simple tips on how to get good photos of your dog, cat or horse from a pet portrait artist's perspective.




1. Photograph in natural light and no flash.  Pay attention to the direction of the light and make sure if it is strong direct light, the face and eyes are not in shadows.  This is especially important if your pet is dark colored.  If you have a dark or black animal or are unsure as to whether the lighting is good or not, soft, indirect, natural light is best... and always NO flash!  It washes the colors out.  My preference would be for dogs and cats to be photographed in soft, indirect, natural light with the face/shoulders filling up most of the frame.

2. Thankfully, with digital cameras, you can take lots of photos!  Photograph away!!  You can go back thru and eliminate the ones that aren't good but it is always better to have too many than not enough to work from in my opinion.

3.  If you are photographing a smaller animal (dog, cat) get on eye level if possible - at least for some of the shots.   You can experiment with different angles and perspectives but a clear, eye level, full face photo is a reliable reference for a portrait.

4.  Make the photo file size large.   Photos posted on facebook etc. become compressed (smaller) so when I zoom in to see details, they become pixelated on small sized photo files.  Large files enable me to zoom right in and the image stays clear.  This makes my artist heart and aging eyes happy!

5. Pair up with another person so one can get the attention of the subject and the photographer can get the shot!  Get out the squeaky toys, tennis balls or treats.

6. Some things can be adjusted in the artwork.  The ear position can be adjusted on a horse painting fairly easily but tack can sometimes be more of a problem-  a ratty, crooked halter with strong shadows can distort the face and structures underneath.  I can paint or draw from a photo with tack to one without but it is always easier to not have to recreate what is missing by having a good reference.

7. Look for natural relaxed expressions on the subject.  A snorty horse with some fire is fun to paint but a scared looking cowering dog is not.  Expression and eyes are what make a portrait so give me some of what you love to see to work with!

8.  Interior barn photos are a no go.   Usually, they are not easy to work from because the light is dim.  The exception would be of a horse with his head out a dutch door into natural light or something similar.   Grazing photos when you want a head/shoulder view are hard to work from.

9.  This is a confession.... maybe some of you can share in the comments your tips.... I included cats in these tips because I do lots of cat portraits but I have rarely gotten good cat photos.  I don't have a cat now because my dogs are not good with cats but when I did have kitties I would try to get good photos so I could use them as references for artwork and my cats NEVER cooperated!  I am no cat whisperer. :)  I think with cat photos the trick is to be ready when they are unaware-- you know those awesome poses when they look like statues as they stare off into space or stare down a bird out the window... and take lots and lots of photos.  One is bound to be suitable.

10.  Give yourself lots of time...don't be in a hurry.  Pay attention to lighting especially with horses in the pasture....I get beautiful photos of my horses in the pasture in the morning.  The horses are backlit and often almost every shot is a good one.  I keep their halters off and position myself so the lighting looks good.  Shadows are fun with horses too.... I'll share some examples.




Backlit horse photo.  I would enjoy painting from this reference.  I'd crop out the fence to keep the focus on the eye.  I took this as I walked to the barn to feed my horses one morning last week. 



Soft, indirect light on the above black and white horse kept her features clear.  I know I said above I take the halters off of my horses... this was just her 2nd or 3rd day her and first time turned out so wasn't sure if she'd be hard to catch.  She was fine though.  :) 
The messy mane, mud, winter coat are fine because she is clear and crisp still in her features and eyes.  In the final painting I can clean up her bridle path... take off the grungy halter etc. 



I took this photo from a distance so even though it looks reasonably clear look at this next photo to see what happens when I zoom in to get better details.....


and compare that to this one....



This next one is fun from a different perspective..... but the one above would make an awesome portrait!  Those eyes!!!  Agree?



Sometimes camera angle can give a funky look to the animal's body proportions... this mare is distorted from the camera angle but I was able to make a nice portrait because her face was clear.


I made some adjustments in proportions in the stall sign above.  


Final Tip: 
Do not despair if your pet or horse still is uncooperative or unavailable to take new photos.  Give me what you have and I will work with them and do my best to create some awesome artwork for you to enjoy for many, many years


Thank you for stopping by, commenting (remember those cat photos tips!!) and as always sharing. 

Sue Steiner


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