5 Tips for Photographing Wild and Domestic Animals

For many of us, our furry friends are as much a part of the family as anyone else, and quality photographs of pets are always in high demand. In addition to being coveted possessions for pet owners, photographs of pets and even wild animals present some interesting challenges for the photographer. Getting the most out of a photo shoot with a family dog or photographing some of the local fauna can often call on more or less the same skill set.

Since almost everyone will want to photograph some sort of animal during their career behind the camera, we thought it would be helpful to assemble this list of useful tips for taking photographs of animals.

1. Think About the Setting

Although these tips are about photographing animals themselves, it is important to note that in (almost) every photograph of animals, a vast portion of the photo is actually the surrounding environment. It is important to keep in mind the details of the setting when snapping a photograph:

  • Is the background too distracting?
  • Does it take focus away from the animal which is supposed to be the main subject?

Of course wild life photographers often have very little choice of where they get their shots, but if you are photographing domestic pets, choosing the proper location can be a huge part of the task.

Ideally, you will want to choose an area with which the animal is already familiar, to get the best chance of having them being cooperative if you expect them to pose, or being able to get relaxed and natural shots of them at rest or play.

If the main goal is taking quality photos of the animal, simpler locations with few visual distractions might be best.

2. Be Level with the Animal

This is perhaps the cardinal rule of animal photography: try to level your camera on the same plane as the animal.

Unless you are intentionally trying to create a specific effect, shots from above angled downwards or below angled upwards can result in photographs which seem very distant from the subject and often have something very much of an outsiders perspective.

In contrast, being on the animal’s level invites the viewer into an intimate view of the subject.

3. Animals Are Always in Motion

Beginner photographers often struggle to get good photos of animals because they are in constant motion. Except for the best trained pets, most animals move constantly and have zero regard for the wishes of the camera man.

Ultimately, photographing objects in motion is part of the art of photography which takes experience to master, but modern cameras and a few simple tricks can go a long way towards getting you started. Here are the basics:

Select Your Camera Mode:

Your camera (probably) has a few ways of tackling moving objects effectively. One of the keys is a fast shutter speed: something like 1/250 or even 1/500. Continuous Auto-Focus mode can sometimes be enough to do the trick, but if your auto-focus is not up to par, Shutter Priority mode with a shutter speed of at least 1/250 will allow you to pan with the animal while it moves and take good shots. If available, you can enable Continuous Drive mode which will take photos as long as the shutter button is depressed. This mode can enable you to get great shots of animals in all their glorious motion.

Know How to Pan:

If an animal is moving to the left or right of you, the best way to get a focused shot is often to pan with the animal. This means letting your camera achieve semi-focus by half-pressing the shutter button, then slowly pivoting at the waist in the direction of the animals motion while taking the photo. Keep panning even after you’ve taken the photo and depressed the shutter button completely, as this “follow-through” can lead to better images. (Bonus tip: if you want to create a sense of motion in the photograph, leave some trailing space in front of the animal to imply it is going somewhere.)

There is always more to learn about taking photos of objects in motion, but hopefully this will get you started!

4. Go For the Closeup

When most people think of animal photography, it probably conjures images of the amazing close-up portraits and action shots. While there is no doubt that animals can be a part of gorgeous, massive compositions, often the best photos of our pets and of wild life are the close-up images which call attention to their striking natural beauties.

Try to get close physically (if you’re with domestic pets, give the wildlife their space!) as well as with the photograph itself to really showcase your subject. For gorgeous close up shots with a nice blurred background effect, try setting your camera to Aperture Priority Mode and use the widest aperture possible for your lens.

5. Experiment Relentlessly

Just from the very brief introduction to these concepts I’ve outlined above, you can probably already tell that there are a lot of different details and things you can play with when it comes to taking photos of animals. The key to getting those truly beautiful shots is experimentation! Tinker with every parameter, every angle, experiment with the framing of the shots and let your eyes decide what works best.

Don’t be afraid to take a lot of photographs! Since animals can be unpredictable and are always on the move, being extremely liberal with the shutter button is often the best way to capture the best action shots as well as the candid moments which make for the most memorable and treasured photographs. Plus, every photo is a learning experience!

In Conclusion

Whether you’re stepping into the backyard to take a few pictures of your dog Buster, or you’re heading off for a wilderness trip to take some stunning wildlife photos, animal photography is an engaging and rewarding hobby. As a subject of photography, animals are unique for a wide variety of reasons and always offer something for both photographers and viewers alike.

Hopefully these tips have given you a helpful starting point to taking your own great photographs of animals!