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Shooting Active Pets
by Jim McGee

Nikon N70, Sigma 28-80 f3.5-5.6 AF, on Kodak Royal Gold 100

Keep your eye on puppies
and kittens, their curiosity
takes them into all kinds
of places.

If the racks of prints in your local mini lab hold any clue about the interests of photographers it's that people like to take pictures of kids and pets.  The problem, as one lab tech recently told me, is that "so many of them really suck!". 

So how can you get pictures of your precious pets that don't suck?  Really it's the simple things that make a big difference.  

So while Moose Peterson was out shooting those big cuddly Grizzly bears last month I was braving some really fierce creatures to shoot this article.

Get Close
 Unless you're going for an environmental shot, say a Black Lab poised to dive after geese on a lake, your best bet is to get in close.  If the subject is worth shooting it's worth filling the frame with that subject.  In too many pet photos the animal is only a small part of an image with a lot of extraneous background.  

Nikon N70, 28-105 f3.5-4.5D AF, on Fuji Astia 100 How close should you get?.  Fill the frame.  When you put the picture on your wall folks will want to see your beautiful dog - not your new couch.  Ignore this tip at your peril, otherwise, years from now, people will look at the photo and laugh at your furniture.  Don't believe me? Look at any indoor photo from the 70's!

Leave the Camera in the Bag
At least for the first few minutes.  Before you start shooting take a good look at the area.  If life was perfect and you could get your pet to pose for a picture, where would you have them stand?  What would you want in the picture and what would you want to eliminate.  Better to figure this out now rather then have the "perfect shot" except for that horrible background (there's that couch again).

What Lens and film?
There's no perfect lens for shooting animals, it all depends on where you're shooting.  Inside, outside, near or far.  Film is a different story.  Put the Velvia and the Kodak Extra Color back on the shelf unless you want rover to look like he's wearing a clown coat.  Pick a neutral film to give you natural looking colors.  The shots here were done with Fuji Astia 100 and Kodak Royal Gold 100 but any neutral balance film will do.  If you're not comfortable shooting action you might want to go for a faster film, around ISO 400 to make it easier to freeze your subject.

A minute ago I mentioned that there was no magic lens for shooting your pets, but there is a magic aperture.  You want to shoot wide open (smallest numbered f-stop) so that you can blur the background.  This out of focus background will make your subject "pop" out from the background, making them appear sharp and dominant in the final image.  The good news is that you don't need super fast pro lenses to do this.  All these images were shot with relatively inexpensive lenses (you can see the details on the equipment and film used by placing the mouse over the image).

By the way, don't spare the film.  A lot of getting great action pictures is timing.  Some of the shots I thought I nailed didn't come out because of blur, background, light, etc.  Shoot a couple of rolls and you'll know you've got some keepers.

Nikon N70, 28-105 f3.5-4.5D AF, on Fuji Astia 100

Don't spare the film, I clicked off four shots of
this retriever in quick succession.  The first three
were discards as she had an intense expression
that I didn't like, but in the final frame she opened 
up and gave me a big smile

Getting the Images
One reason that mini lab techs see so much blurry fur is that the photographer is trying to entertain an excited, bouncing, dog at the same time they're trying to shoot.  Having someone else there to entertain the dog while you shoot is a must.  This goes for cats and birds as well.  Those of you with pet iguanas are lucky as they don't require much amusement.

Get down to their level.  Shots looking down at pets tend to be boring.  Shoot the world from their level and they take on greater importance in the image.  Get down lower and take some shots where they tower over you and you may be pleasantly surprised by the results.  Just be quick with your camera.  Dogs in particular explore new things by tasting them.  More then once I've had my lens licked!

Nikon N70, 28-105 f3.5-4.5D AF, on Fuji Astia 100

Timing only comes with practice

For the snow shots here I staked out a spot in the yard and had someone throw a ball and a Frisbee to a predetermined spot.  I prefocused on that spot to minimize the focus time to catch the dogs at the top of their leap.  Whether you need to do this depends on the camera and lens combination you're using.  I picked up the habit years ago shooting with manual lenses.  It's an equally good idea if your camera is a little slow to focus.  However if you've got one of the newer cameras that focus quickly and track a moving subject you may do better panning with the subject and let the camera take care of the details.

An important rule of thumb is don't take your eye away from the viewfinder when you're shooting.  If you wait to see the shot with a moving subject you've already missed it.

Unless you've done a lot of action photography with your camera it will take a few shots to get your timing down.  On most cameras there is a short delay from the time you press the shutter to the time the camera fires.  To catch the animal at the top of it's leap you'll have to time it so that you're leading them when you press the shutter so that it's always open at the top of the leap.  This sounds harder then it really is.  With a little patience and practice you can get it almost every time.  It's also a good idea to use "continuous"  mode if your camera has it so that it fires as long as the shutter is depressed.  This helps with timing if you're not sure.

Nikon N70, 28-105 f3.5-4.5D AF, on Fuji Astia 100 As with most types of photography the best time to shoot is morning and early evening when the sun is low on the horizon and the light is soft and warm.  I took some shots in open shade as I was a little worried about glare off the snow (even with a polarizer).  I shouldn't have worried.  The shots in the open have the best color and are far more vibrant then those in the shade.  A polarizer is highly recommended as it will reduce the reflections off their coats and deepen their colors.

Once you've run them into the ground and they're tired it's time for some posed shots.  You'll have to hurry though as their motors recharge pretty fast.  Position them so that the sun is at their back and to one side.  This "hair light" or "rim light" will highlight the details of their fur enhancing the apparent sharpness of the image.

Keep that Camera Loaded and at Your Eye 
The reason that puppies and kittens amuse us so much is that they're so mischievous and energetic.  It's almost a guarantee that when you put your camera down they'll present the perfect moment.  I was loading film when my buddy picked up the puppy in the series below.  It was the wrong background but it was a cute shot, and I just kept on firing as he was introduced to those puppy teeth!

Nikon N70, Sigma 28-80 f3.5-5.6 AF, on Kodak Royal Gold 100

Keep in mind that some animals are camera shy.  They don't understand that big black thing making the clicking noises so they try and get away from it.  If this happens don't try and force it.  All that will happen is that both of you will get frustrated.  

Instead fit your long lens, back up and lay in the grass for a while.  If you're not crowding the animal they'll eventually settle down and ignore you.  That's when you can get your pictures.  

If you really need that close-up with a shy animal there is one last trick you can try.  I've gotten more then one dog portrait with a biscuit hanging under my lens!

Special thanks to Andy & Pat DiPietro for providing several large goofy dogs for this article.

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