How to Take Priceless Portraits of Your Animals

Whenever I lecture to an audience on photography as an art form, or do a workshop, I always begin by pointing out there is a significant weakness everyone should recognize.  It is the only art form I know of in the history of the world where people are convinced IF they just purchase the right equipment or camera that they indeed can become an instant, ”artist.”  Then they will not have to be burdened by any formal training from an accredited institution, or study with, or become a student or apprentice to a master artist. Most wannabe artists do not think learning how to draw or paint or sculpt is important. They look with disdain on these-time honored crafts because it takes too much time and it does not allow them INSTANT success. The fast food mentality is well established in the world of art, especially in photography.

In no other profession, can one just make a statement and by self-definition, when asked “what is your profession? exclaim, “I’m an artist!”  You can’t just say, “I’m a brain surgeon! I’m a scientist!, I’m a pilot!, I’m a Nuclear Physicist!, so that distinction, artist, has been obscured and become vague. It could mean almost anything. Most serious artists I know don’t use that dubious and imprecise title because it often is, without any distinction, since everyone uses the title with reckless abandon. However, with few exceptions genuine artists readily accept when, artist colleagues, the media or serious critics refer to them as artists, because people, with education, knowledge, credentials, and discernment have that expertise.

To be precise, most people assume that since technology is so advanced they can claim instant recognition and validation as an artist, simply because they clicked the shutter. That could not be further from the truth. Photography cannot be diminished.  It matters who is behind the camera and it matters who clicked the shutter and at what precise moment in time. That is what distinguishes an artist with a real vision, and a wannabe with expensive equipment.  There is an enormous difference between snapshots and serious works of art. You can take a memorable portrait of your animal if you approach this process with wonder and awe and indeed you may give birth to a work of art.

So, in order for you to take a meaningful portrait of your beloved animal, I believe you must first realize it is a deeply spiritual experience and an exercise in your ability to communicate with your animal in a profound way.  That trust between the subject and photographer is essential for extraordinary images.  To capture a slice of time in your animal’s life, it is important to understand the psychology of the photographic experience, so  every photographic session needs to begin with establishing a strong emotional connection with your subject. It is imperative not to be in a hurry or stressed and to speak in a soft voice, telling the animal about your intentions at eye level. For animals that enjoy being cuddled or touched in some special way or scratched behind the ears, to make them relaxed, this is invaluable.  The photo session should be done in a familiar surrounding where the animal feels at home and comfortable, especially a favorite sofa, chair, rug, bed, in a barn setting or a sun room full of plants, or under their favorite tree or special outdoor spot. The best images are always a collaboration between subject and photographer, so understanding the psychology of the photographic experience is paramount.  Trust between subject and photographer is essential. That is how extraordinary images are born.  When the animal trusts you implicitly, they will collaborate and GIVE you an image. Sometimes the best images can be captured when the animal is a little tired or sleepy.

Once you have established the rapport and the animal is relaxed, turn your flash off. I would recommend to NOT ever use a flash. That is the worst thing you can do, and it annoys and even scares many animals. Secondly, make sure the background is uncluttered and if you can’t find a blank wall or area that has soft or plain colors in the background, find a way to hang on a wall or over some furniture, a large piece of black velvet, at least 2 meters square. You may also want to try dark blue velvet or a deep purple or burgundy. Then you can concentrate on the face of the animal and the image will be stronger and more concentrated on the animal with no distractions whatsoever. Stay out of direct sunlight for portraits, because it has a negative effect on your subject’s eyes, and use a smaller camera if you have a choice, because it is less distracting. Remember you want to capture the spirit of your animal. It is kind of like your soul meeting their soul. You want to have that spirit revealed to you in that image that you will have forever. Try not to have a photo session last more than an hour. When you are done, select one or a few images that speak to you, remembering that each time you click the shutter it is like an artist's sketch. Not every image will be a winner, so select that  unique image. My suggestion is to find a specialty shop that will print your image on canvas and not canvas that is totally smooth, but canvas with a little texture, called "tooth," among artists. Now that you are thinking as an artist, you realize that even if you took the image in color you can have it printed in a classic black and white or a vintage looking sepia tone. That is your choice. You also must determine the size of the image. It will speak to you. Each image has a perfect size that will present itself. You may have to print it in several sizes, put them up on a wall, step back and look at them from a distance and the best one will stand out. If you make it too large it will fall apart. It may actually be the size of a miniature, but that you will learn by becoming more involved in all the visual components in front of you. There is no formula, but one thing is sure, if the size is not what it should be, you will know. Then, decide what color matt, and how to matt the image. The color of the matt is extremely important, as well as whether you should have it double or triple matted with two or three colors. Frame shops who can do the matting can show you all the colors available and advise you by showing you what double or triple matts will look like.  Always use matt glass on a real photograph.  No glass is needed on images printed on canvas. Lastly, choose a splendid frame, and make sure it is one that speaks to your image. Framing shop experts can help you with that also if you need several choices. Each image will determine its' frame. Not all images look good in a Victorian frame, or plain black. Some images look better in silver, than gold, and consider different thicknesses, as well. Go to an art museum and pay special attention to the frames and how there is usually a perfect marriage with the content and the frame as well as the right matting.  All of this guidance can be used when photographing human subjects as well. Use the same psychology with portraits of humans. It is easier to take a portrait of one subject rather than several people at once. Not everyone in front of your camera will take the session seriously and not everyone in a group will trust you enough or be involved enough to "give," you a image. Remember that the most flattering light for a portrait, is outside on a cloudy day. It is like a giant filter in the sky that softens the face of your subject.