5 Tips for a Successful Pet Session
When talking to people about pet portraiture a common response is, “Oh, my dog would NEVER ‘sit’ for a portrait session!”
Trust me- every pet parent I have ever worked with has had some variation of that same concern. The thing is, people see one image, which may be one of hundreds from a single session, and think you just walked up and took that shot at first try and then called it a day. They don’t realize all the planning and work that went into that single shot, not to mention an entire session.
The #1 tip to paving the way for a successful session is to prepare- yourself AND your client. Here are some things that work for me when planning for a pet photo session.
1) Meet & Greets:
I always meet my subjects before photographing them. This is especially important when photographing pets. They can learn about you and your scent, and you can get a sense of their personalities as well. A wiggly puppy may not be suited for a session with lots of props, but an older, more laid back pet might let you do whatever you want! You can also get other info about the pet, such as whether they are allergic to anything (I bring loads of treats to the session) and whether they know basic commands. You can also find out from the pet parent if there are certain poses they are looking for. After we’ve talked about that, I reiterate that there are no guarantees if there are certain shots they must have. I never force a pet to do something if they are making it clear they are not into it.
2) Pet parent’s involvement:
I work best when the pet parent’s role is more of an observer. As a pet parent, myself, I know standing back and watching can be frustrating; pet parents want their pets to “behave” for the session, so they try to help by directing their pets to do certain things. Too many directors can be very confusing for the pet! To avoid this situation, I speak with the client at the Meet & Greet about what to expect during session time. I let them know how I work and the problems that can arise when their pet is getting directions from different people. I tell them I may ask them to stand behind me and my camera and call their pet, but often, just observing can be best. I tell them I’ll let them know during the session when and how they can help.
3) The pet runs the show:
Pet portraiture is SO similar to photographing young children (keyword: UNPREDICTABLE!). Psychology and bribing play big roles. Sometimes, much of the session may be just following the pet and moving around them to get the angles you want. When you want to try something more structured, rather than telling the pet to do something (or worse yet, physically pose them in a certain way), sometimes it’s better to coax them into doing what you want. For example, if I want a pet to sit in a certain area of the beach and in a particular direction, I lure them with a treat and circle them around so they are sitting just that way. They are thinking, “Yay, I’m getting a treat!” and I’m thinking, “Yay, that’s just what I wanted you to do for this shot!”. It may take several tries to get it, so don’t give up if it doesn’t work on the first try. Which leads me to my next tip…
4) Know when to move on:
Different pets respond to different stimuli in different ways, so if a certain set-up isn’t working or the pet has become desensitized to a toy’s sound, it’s time to move on. Not every pet will let you put sunglasses on them or cooperate by sitting in a produce scale for you, no matter how badly you want that shot. And if they don’t, that’s OK – because you want the images to reflect who they are as individuals. I shoot on-location and not in a studio, so my style is more natural. I usually have a few structured things I want to try based on the pet’s personality and what the client would like, but sometimes those plans can go out the window. It’s best to be prepared for that and work with what the pet is giving you.
5) Have FUN!
I reiterate to pet parents that having fun is a top priority for the session. The outcome of pets that are enjoying themselves is better images! Make sure you allow time for water and treat breaks and unstructured play. Sometimes if something isn’t working, I put the camera down for a minute or two and just play and love on the pet (one of the perks of these types of sessions!). Although pet sessions can be hard work, the main objectives are to have fun and give the pet and your client a great experience. If you can do that, the images will be a reflection of it.