Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lessons Learned in Pet Photography

Each time I perform another pet photography session, I make a lot of mistakes and learn so much from them. That's why I'm giving away these first few photo shoots for free. I don't feel comfortable charging people until I know I have my stuff together.

The funny thing about photography is that people perceive it as being such an easy job. All you do is point the camera and press the button, right? Wrong. Obtaining professional level images is a complicated process. There are so many factors that can make or break your end product, so you have to be incredibly observant and quick to act. With DSLR cameras, your reaction time is slowed by the need to constantly be adjusting your settings. In an outdoor shoot, if you so much as move three-feet, you have to double-check your light meter and adjust your camera settings.

Each time I complete a session, whether it be in the studio or elsewhere, I pull out my trusty suede journal and list everything I learned. I know many of you are interested in creating better photographs for your blogs, so I thought you might be interested in my latest list.

1. The camera's light meter lies. Take three test shots, and then review them. I waited too long into the shoot to check what was appearing on the monitor and found that I lost several great shots to an overexposure problem. White dog against a light background. One must slightly underexpose in this case.

2. Ask customer to bathe and groom pets before a photo shoot. (Women are more likely than men to cooperate with this request. Since I was doing the shoot for a man, I arrived to find a white horse with a yellow and brown tail.)

3. Ask customer to bring a pitchfork and clean up manure in location of shoot. It saves on a lot of post-processing later. (Again, women tend to be more cooperative than men with this request.)

4. Before shooting, make sure everyone's face is in the light. Which brings me to...

5. When faces face the sun, there is a lot of blinking and squinting from both humans and animals. Fire off as many shots as possible and maybe one in ten will have everyone's eyes open at the same time.

6. Bring a wide variety of attention-getters for horses. Some horses just don't seem to be interested in anything and getting those ears forward can be a challenge. (In my case I had a party horn with sparkly tassels on the end. Blowing it and shaking it around just put these horses to sleep. They were trail horses in their twenties that probably wouldn't bat an eye at a deer jumping in front of them.)

7. The photographer should never have dog or horse treats in her pocket, because all she will get is close-ups of eyeballs and muzzles. Have an assistant or the pet owner handle the treats.

8. If there is a lot of junk in the background and you can't move to a better space, get on the ground and shoot up toward the clean horizon.

9. Don't schedule a photo shoot around feeding time. Hungry horses get grumpy and will only hang out by their feeding bins. (I scheduled this shoot just before sunset for the most dramatic light, but unfortunately that was feeding time for the horses.)

10. Keep an eye out for unwanted shadows on the ground or the wall behind the subject. Don't be afraid to ask people to move. (I already felt guilty about taking up this friend's time for my own benefit, so I figured I could just Photoshop out his shadow, but it really would have been simpler to just ask him to stand back.)

11. Trees can make nice backdrops as long as they aren't sprouting out of the top of someone's head.

12. Carry on a conversation with the humans in the portrait in order to get a wider variety of expressions. Talk about funny stuff, sad stuff, philosophical stuff and watch their faces change.

13. Wind does make for some wild hair if the customer doesn't mind the natural, wind-blown look.

14. Ask about the herd dynamic before entering a paddock or pasture where multiple horses are housed.

15. Steer clear of horse butts. Just because your horses don't kick, doesn't mean other horses don't kick. (No, I didn't get kicked, but I did worry about it since it's so easy to crouch down to take a picture of one horse, and then have another horse sneak up from behind you. The only problem I had was with one horse rooting through my pocket while trying to shoot another horse.)

I guess what was the most interesting about this photo shoot was how these horses had completely different personalities from my own horses. My horses, for the most part, are very physically affectionate. They love to be hugged and will hug you back. Gabbrielle is a heavy kisser. She plants muzzle kisses all over my face each morning when I enter her stall. This customer's horses did not like being touched at all. I wanted to get a shot of him standing with his arm around the horse's neck, but the horses would pin their ears back and move away as soon as he stepped in close. It kind of made me wonder how anyone could actually mount these horses to ride.

I got a lot of shots of him wrestling the horses, and we ended up having him sneak treats out of his pocket, feed the horse, and quickly slip his arm over its neck in order for me to get the chummy shot. It was well worth the effort, though.


Katharine Swan said...

Great tips! I totally agree with you on checking how the light is turning out. I've found that some cameras' displays flat-out lie. What looks like great lighting on the camera's little display may turn out to be over or under exposed when you pull it up on your computer screen.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Terrific info! You're learning a wealth of knowledge! Maybe you'll consider writing a photography how-to book someday, after you become famous :)


Sydney_bitless said...

1. Why I love light room and shooting in RAW, for those mistakes you don't realize you make that can be fixed with that. I almost always adjust exposure in lightroom, even if it was correct theres always some shadows even the best light can miss out on.

Crystal said...

Wow thats a lot of info, i have discovered (while watching professionals, lol) a mirror or a corn broom makes horses look cheerful or at least a little interested.

Laura said...

great info - there is so much to remember in photography! I have access to a nice dlsr at work and keep wanting to use it for pet photos, but I only know how to use it on "auto" so I don't get alot out of it...

Leah Fry said...

GREAT info. I heartily concur on the advice to bring things to keep the horses' attention. I learned that when Heather and I tried to get some shots of her horses for the sale page of her website. We used a dressage whip, but I have seen people use those feathery cat toys as well.

Would have liked to see some of the pix.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I do not plan to show customer pics on this website, because this is my personal website, which I like to keep separate from my professional website. I want my customers to know that their pictures will remain confidential unless they specifically ask me to post them on my professional website. Otherwise, they can view their proofs in person or on a secure site that requires a password. But I will post my own experimental stuff here.

Oh, also I did use the trial of Lightroom, but ended up going with Capture One. Both of these software programs for post-processing cost a couple of hundred dollars. I can correct a lot things in both Capture One and Photoshop, but I'm giving myself the challenge of just getting it right the first time with my camera.

Maia said...

Shoot raw and underexpose, because no you can't trust the camera light meeter and no you don't have time to constantly check your exposure. You can always alter it in Photoshop.

For dogs, sit down and get on their eye level. Do that for children.

Meet with your clients ahead of time and scout the surroundings in order to find the best locations.

The quality of light makes the picture. That you can't fix. Decide for your location what time of day that is and schedule your shoots, then.

Most people, when having their picture taken squinch up the their eyes and tighten their mounths into a tight line. Remind them to open their eyes and relax their mouthes.

Relax. If your not relaxed they won't be. If you make it fun, you'll get better pictures.

achieve1dream said...

Great tips!! Did you share your professional website? I would love to see some of your work. :)

Stephanie said...

Great info!! Thanks for sharing all the things us amateurs don't think about.

Maia said...

Well, here's the most important thing I wanted to tell you. You do not ever, and I mean ever ask your clients to shovel up poop. Period, the end. They are not paying you to do anything that resembles work on their part. They are paying you to make themselves and their animals look amazing. You are there to jolly them along and do your job. Poop is handled in Photoshop.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

That poop has caused me more trouble than I expected. On my computer screen, all I saw were rocks on the ground in the pictures I chose. I made my adjustments, and then ordered the 8x10s. Once the 8x10s arrived, I discovered that those rocks were actually piles of manure. So, I should have zoomed in on each part of the picture before ordering prints. Now I have to Photoshop out the poop and reorder the prints. More money down the drain.