Photographing an animal for a pet portrait

What's the most important bit to get right in a portrait? For me, it's choosing the right source image. The better the image, the better the portrait. It's as simple as that. Getting the right image isn't all that easy though, so in this blog post, I will cover some of the main pitfalls and try to provide some tips that will hopefully be useful if you're looking to commission a portrait.


I generally ask for a number of pictures; the main one, on which I will base the portrait and a few others that I can refer to for additional detail. The main image needs to be a high-resolution digital image with a suitable composition and good lighting.


Generally speaking, scanning or taking a photograph of an existing photograph will not provide enough detail.


Obviously, the composition is very important when you're immortalising your beloved subject and plan to look at it for years to come. Over the years I've learnt that some animals seem to love having a lens pointed at them, while others will instantly misbehave or refuse to look in the direction of a camera. Getting a good photo of a wilful pet can be tricky so before becoming exhausted and frustrated, it's good to understand what makes a good composition. Having spent significant time getting your dog to look awake and interested you don't want to have it rejected for quality purposes.


If you're not lucky enough to already have a photo that fits all the criteria, here are some of my tips that may help you get that perfect snap...


Composition

When taking photos, you have a choice - either start with an idea of the type of portrait you'd like or get snap happy and see what comes out of your shoot. I've drawn action shots, headshots and full-body portraits but all the best source photos have something in common. The best compositions come from photos where the camera is about level with your pet's head. Getting that perfect shot may mean spending a little time crawling around on the floor but it'll be worth it.


Getting your pet to pose

Having problems with your dog or cat looking away from the camera or ears flopping down when you want an alert face? I feel your pain. Here are a few silly face pictures from my own camera-averse boy, Paddington.


Taking photos can be a two-man job, so enlist help if you think your beloved pet will make this a difficult task.


I've found holding a favourite treat or toy behind the camera, can work well with getting your pet's attention and gaze... as long as he or she respects the 'stay' command. Or if you want a side profile portrait, hold it out to the side. You get the idea. I struggled with my own dogs and tried all sorts of noises and actions to get pictures at a photoshoot and came out with one or two good ones from hundreds taken. Here's one where I used the 'treat' trick; Paddington is unrecognisable from his silly-faced photos.




Patience is needed but it's worth persevering. The bottom line is that the expression on your pet's face will be the expression I'll draw, so if your photos are of a disinterested animal, you will get the same in your portrait. If I were to try to alter the expression, you may end up with a picture of a dog that looks like your dog, but you may not get a portrait of your dog.

Ultimately, it's for you to decide whether you'd like to immortalise a goofy, intelligent, sleepy or alert expression; this may depend entirely on your pet's personality but you need tobe happy with your chosen photo.


Photo resolution

When I use a digital image, I use print outs of the main photo, at the size I'm drawing the portrait. My work is highly detailed and I can only include information that's present in the photo. This means I need images that still have that detail when the photo is zoomed in to the portrait size. If the photo looks pixelated or too blurry, the resolution is too low. I find that a decent camera phone can provide the goods if the photos are taken fairly close up. Otherwise, an optical zoom on a digital camera works well if you need a little more distance.


Lighting

Ideally, take your photos outdoors in natural light but not direct sunlight. This will give me the best assessment of the tones and contrasts. Pictures with harsh shadows or unnatural light may result in a misinterpretation of the elements that make up the picture. Here are some examples where the lighting is interfering with the detail.


All about the eyes

The interpretation of your pet's eyes can make or break a portrait. Some reflection is good and helps your picture to look alive, but too much will mean I won't be able to pick out the important details such as the iris detail and pupils.


Objects

Sometimes people like to clothe their pets or use props in photos. We probably all have those snaps and they may even be our favourites...


I've no problem drawing any clothes if they're in the photo but I can't 'draw out' the clothing or props in my drawing. I often receive pictures with collars, bandanas and harnesses and sometimes I can remove collars if requested but larger items will need to be included. If you want your pet in only his own fur coat, he should wear just that for your photoshoot.


Reference photos

It can be really helpful to also provide a few extra snaps. It sometimes helps to cross-reference detail; for example, to check whether the mark on your dog's eye is an important feature or a lump of goo. A closer shot of the eyes taken with minimal reflection can also be quite helpful.


With all those things covered, you should be good to go. If you're not sure if a photo is suitable, I'm always willing to have a look and let you know whether I have enough to work from.


Thanks for reading!


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