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Animal Photography tips for Beginners

From dogs and cats to a day at the zoo, animal photography is a great subject to point your camera at.

Maybe you’ve thought about giving wildlife photography a go, but want to start with a subject that’s a little closer to home. If you’ve got an animal at home, pet photography is a great way to get started with animal photography. Alternatively, taking a trip to a zoo or safari park can yield some wonderful subjects. There are some things to think about when tackling this diverse subject – we’ve laid out some tips for anyone who wants to give it a go.

Animal photography: before you start

Just because the animals you’ll be photographing don’t live in the wild, it doesn’t mean you can take it easy on the research front.

Sure, if you’re photographing your own pet, opportunities are likely to present themselves at various points – but if you’re setting out with the intention of taking a set of special animal portraits, there are a few considerations you should take.

If it’s a family pet, think about times when they are behaving in the way that you want to capture. Do you want to photograph them chasing after a ball, or when they’re a little more subdued? If it’s someone else’s pet, ask them to think about a good time to do the shoot to capture that behaviour.

Similarly, for zoo photography, there will be times when the animals are more awake and available. Give the zoo a quick call before your trip if there’s a particular species you want to photographm to get more information about their behaviour and schedule. You may also want to ask about the type of enclosure that the animals are kept in, or take a look online to see if you can get an idea beforehand – some are better than others for taking pictures through.

It can be a good idea to arrive at a zoo or safari park as close to opening or closing time as possible. That way there will be fewer people about, and, the animals aren’t likely to be hiding from the strong midday sun – especially if it’s a particularly hot day. You can also check when certain feeding times are taking place, as that can make for some interesting pictures.

If you’re photographing a pet, be prepared with treats and toys that will get their attention, and, hopefully, will get them to sit still and pose for you. Holding a favourite toy or treat above your camera should get them to look in your direction for as long as you need!

Lastly – as always – you should consider the weather. An overcast day is great for animal portraits as you won’t be plagued by harsh shadows, and it usually helps your subject to stay cool. Rain is unlikely to yield good results, aside from some certain species. If you’re photographing indoors, during the daytime and in a room with good natural light is likely to be the best option.

Best camera kit for animal photography

There are a few different avenues you might want to explore when it comes to your animal photography. It is generally advised that a full-frame camera produces the best results, but, a camera with a smaller sensor benefits in this case from a crop factor which can get you closer to the subject. That’s particularly useful for wildlife photography, but it can also pay dividends for captive animal photography when you can’t get particularly close.

If you can shoot at a fast frame rate, that can also be beneficial – particularly if the animal you’re attempting to photograph is a lively one. Panasonic cameras, such as the GX80, have an innovative 4K Photo mode which allows you to shoot at 30fps and extract a still which best captures the animal in motion. Olympus has a similar function on its on OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera. Alternatively, cameras like the Nikon D500 offer a fast shooting rate of 10fps and are perfectly suited to this kind of work.

Another good option for animal photography is a superzoom or bridge camera. For example, the Panasonic FZ2000 has a 20x zoom, which offers an equivalent of 480mm, and also features the same kind of 4K Photo modes as in the company’s range of compact system cameras.

If you are going down the interchangeable lens camera route, you’ll be thinking about which optics to pair with the camera. There are a few different options which are worth packing in your kit bag. A telephoto zoom lens allows you to get close to the action, which is especially useful in zoos and anywhere you can’t get too close – or even with a shy dog or cat. A macro lens is useful for close-up photography of animals like butterflies, insects and other small creatures you might find in the zoo.

A wide-angle lens, with an equivalent focal length of between 24-35mm is great for showing an animal in its environment, or to give a more documentary style appearance to your shot. Often associated with portraiture, a prime lens of a length such as 50mm or 85mm can also be great for frame-filling animal portraits, allowing you to blur the background for a beautiful effect.

Other items which may come in handy include a tripod (but check with any zoo or wildlife park that you’re allowed to use one), a polarising filter, and a remote release.

Best settings for animal photography

As always, it pays to experiment with different settings, but the following acts as a good guide for getting started. When you feel a bit more confident, tweak settings to suit your preferences and the situation.

Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement of animals – dogs in particular can make sudden movements, but most animals don’t stay stationary for too long. Use a wide aperture to throw backgrounds out of focus, which is ideal for animal portraits, and great if you’re shooting indoors. Something like f/2.8 is a good starting point, but you can go wider if the situation merits.

If you’re going to use a wide aperture, you need to make sure your focusing is spot on. Using continuous focus can help with animals, even if they only move slightly. If you’re shooting in bright light, a low ISO of 100-200 is ideal for getting the best detail, but don’t be afraid to push the ISO higher if the light is low, or you’re shooting indoors. Some image noise in your picture is better than a blurred shot, while most modern cameras can cope very well with higher ISO speeds.

Shooting in raw format means you can change certain settings in photo editing software, such as Photoshop. Adjust the white balance to match the scenario, such as overcast, but if the camera misses slightly, this is one such parameter which can be altered after the shot.

If your camera offers it, think about activating either silent or quiet shooting. The sound of a shutter release can be surprisingly startling for some animals, especially if you’re photographing in a quiet location.

Best composition for animal photography

There are many different ideas and rules when it comes to animal photography, especially when it comes to taking good zoo pictures.

Probably the biggest challenge you’ll face for this type of photography is shooting through cages or glass. For the former, using a wide aperture and getting as close to the cage as possible can throw wires so much out of focus that you can no longer see them. For glass, place your lens up against the glass – a lens cloth to quickly wipe any dirty fingerprints from the glass can make a world of difference.

For many animals, it can make a portrait to show some context. For dogs and cats, that might be a favourite hangout in the home, while for zoo animals you might want to be a bit more restrictive about showing enclosures – a tree or something similar may look good though. Pay special attention to anything which appears in the background that could distract from the main subject.

An alternative to try is frame-filling portraits and even abstracts. Treat animal portraits just like you would a human portrait – eye contact is crucial, so make sure you focus on the eyes. An abstract can fill the frame with one element of your chosen animal – perhaps a paw, an eye, or even just a pattern from their body. You could even try collating together a series of images for a fun collage or montage piece.

For pet portraits, you should make special effort to get down to their level for the most natural look. Be prepared to get down on the floor, or, alternatively your could use a camera with a tilting or articulating screen to compose from a strange angle. Standing above a cat or a dog to take your shot can result in them looking small and meek, while something taken on their own level lets them really shine. The same is true for zoo animals – but you might not find the setup so easy to achieve as for domestic pets.

Is animal photography one of your favourite genres? Show off your best shots of your pooches, moggies and zoo animals via our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages.