With COVID-19, pets are the new coworkers, but even before, they were our best friends. Cherish the moment and snap a photo of your pet for yourself, your Facebook profile, or for our online PetFest photo competition. For that perfect shot, we asked Sarah Ernhart, owner of Sarah Beth Photography, for some tips and tricks.
Ernhart has been a pet photographer for more than 14 years, immortalizing dogs, cats, horses, turtles, and more in her studio or on location. Although Ernhart definitely has photo editing magic (say goodbye to extra people or stray leashes), she knows that capturing a photo you love is about connecting with your pet, having fun, and making sure you have plenty of treats. Her advice may mention dogs and cats a lot, but it works with most animals.
How can I find the best light?
“Generally, the best place to photograph your pet inside your home is going to be near a window or patio door. Look for areas that are bright, where you can see the reflection of the window in their eyes. Is your black dog just a black blob in the picture? Get him closer to the window or increase the exposure in your camera. Is your white dog too bright? Move her farther away from the window or bring your exposure down in the camera.
“I prefer to shoot in soft light, meaning a very ‘even’ area of light that’s all the same brightness. Look for a time when the sun is behind a cloud, or choose a room of your house where the sun isn’t coming in directly. If you can see the specific shape of a hot sun ray coming in, it’ll be more of a challenge [for beginning photographers]. If your pet is looking adorable sleeping in a sun ray, absolutely take their picture! Then take another one somewhere without that bright sun and notice the differences.
“Once you establish where the light looks best, check the area around you for any clutter or distractions. The background can be just as important as the subject in making a good composition, so don’t be afraid to move things around and make it more interesting.
“For the best soft-light images [outdoors], I shoot in the early morning or early evening when the sun is low in the sky. Try to avoid dappled, spotty sun/shade from trees, and either have your pet all the way in the sun or all the way in the shade. And just like when you’re indoors, make sure you can see reflections in your pet’s eyes.”
What if my pet isn’t exactly obedient?
“If they love treats or toys, hold one of those items right above the camera to get them looking into the lens. If your dog doesn’t know how to ‘stay’ and might lunge at you if you try this, you could hook up their leash to something to hold them in place.
“If they’re calm and relaxing at home, you could get their attention with a noise like a whistle or click, or say a word they know like ‘outside’ or even just their name. Make it quiet and subtle, so they’ll hopefully just raise their head or perk their ears—not jump up and rush toward you.
“Cats, on the other hand, can be much trickier than dogs. They tend to do what they want, when they want—which of course is part of their charm! If your cat likes to play, try to get their attention with a favorite toy or crinkling something above the camera. Treats can work with cats too, and catnip can be a great way to get some interesting pictures. Most cats really like chin scratches, so don’t be afraid to have your hand in the shot to get those happy faces.”
Do you have any tips for photos when my pet’s playing?
“For running or playing images, I try to keep my shutter speed at least 1/1000th of a second. If you’re using your phone, try holding down the shutter button and take a burst of images so you can choose the best one later.”
There are some photos where you captured the perfect moment, whether it’s a dog sticking its tongue out or bird ruffling its wings. Is that all about being patient?
“Those amazing moments are a combination of patience, experience, and a little bit of luck. … I’ve been working with animals for over 13 years, and while each one is unique, there are some things that are nearly universal. For example, a dog will probably lick his lips if you give him a taste of a treat, so I have techniques to do that with one hand while being ready in the right place with the right camera settings in my other hand.
“Some of my favorite photos are incredibly lucky shots that I couldn’t recreate if I tried: perfectly placed heads/tails/limbs in a jumping shot; split-second moments, and personality-filled expressions. The beauty of digital photography is we have the ability to take a lot of images and experiment until we get something print-worthy, so don’t be discouraged by a few misfires.”
Are there any final tips or tricks?
“My best advice is to get low. Too many people take pictures from the same place: standing up looking down at their pets. That’s fine for a few, but if you want more variety or personality, you need to get down on their level. Sit, kneel, even lay on the floor to get directly across from their eyes.
“I’ve had clients who say their pets are afraid of the camera, or they’ll look away whenever they try to take a picture. If you’re having that issue, work on getting them comfortable with the camera. Set it on the floor and put treats around it. Let them sniff it and give them treats. Click the shutter and give them a treat. Basically help them re-associate the camera with a super fun time and lots of treats! Only take their photograph if they’re comfortable and relaxed; if they’re stressed it will absolutely show in the images.
“And lastly: Please, please, please print your pictures! Your pet is a huge part of your life, and I believe they deserve some wall-space in your home.”
Oh, and if you have another human with you in quarantine…
“You can take a thousand pictures of just your pet, but I really encourage you to have someone photograph you together. Whether you work with a professional or ask a friend to do it, getting the perspective of someone stepping back and capturing real moments between you and your best friend is something you’ll never regret.”
This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.